Dangerous Slot

Choprock Claims Two

Written By: Shane Burrows

          The following story was compiled from various interviews, television news conferences, Associated Press news releases, local news releases, personal experience and other sources. What that really means is a bunch of the information below was stolen from a collection of other sources.

The Story:
          Brigham Young University (BYU) students John Anderson, 25, and Brad Underwood, 24, took a canyoneering trip to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, near the boundary with Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Their plan was to descend the difficult and dangerous South Fork of Choprock Canyon followed one day latter by a descent of the less aggressive Neon Canyon. Choprock is a technical route requiring advanced skills that Underwood had been contemplating for more than a year. Neon Canyon is a route that Underwood had completed before and would be a repeat for him.

          The winter of 2004/2005 had been an extremely wet year in Southern Utah. The canyons were filled to capacity with chilling ice water and debris from the violent winter storms that had blasted the area the previous three months. To navigate the canyon, the men would be required to execute a series of rappels, swim through pools of debris-choked water and demonstrate knowledge of numerous rock climbing skills. Once entering the canyon and pulling their ropes at the first rappel there would be no turning back, the pair would be completely committed to the canyon.

          The BYU students drove to the Egypt Trailhead, off the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, on Wednesday, April 13, 2005. Their strategy was to be out of the canyon two days later. When they did not return by Saturday afternoon family members notified the Sheriff's office.

          On Sunday, 32 searchers hit the ground and began looking in Neon and Choprock canyons. Three helicopters were called in to help search because of the remoteness of the area.

          A helicopter spotted seven canyoneers from Bozeman Montana and communicated with them from the rim of Choprock Canyon on Sunday afternoon. The seven reported that they had been following the fresh tracks of a group of two canyoneers but had not encountered them. The seven were besieged with their own problems as they attempted to navigate the tricky and intricate Choprock Canyon.

          The Montana group started their trek Saturday. By the end of the day Sunday the group was shivering and suffering from mild hypothermia, but they had plenty of food and water. The group found shelter, started a fire and spent an extra night in the canyon. The Montana group reached the mouth of Choprock Canyon on Monday. There they where met by the Garfield County Sheriff and told him what they had experienced.

          The Montana group told a chilling story of swimming through a pool 10 to 15 feet deep in Choprock Canyon. The group of seven canyoneers found an abandoned rope lying across a logjammed pool of water. Thinking they could use the rope to get past the logjam in their path, they pulled it, only to see a gym shoe and a leg tangled up in it. They dropped the rope in alarm. The group took a moment to gather their wits and went back and again pulled up the rope, but this time there was nothing tangled in it.

          After hearing this gloomy tale the Search and Rescue (SAR) team had a pretty good idea where to look for the missing canyoneers they had been searching for since Sunday. The SAR team dutifully notified the families of the current situation. But until the details could be confirmed it was reported in the news that the group from Montana had spotted fresh footprints in Choprock so that is where the search was being focused.

Choprock area map          On Tuesday morning four rangers with the National Park Service rappelled about 260 feet into the canyon and found the bodies of the two men about 2:30 p.m. in the pool of water. The victims were wearing shorty-style, summer-weight wetsuits (3mm neoprene). This style of wetsuit is usually used for canyons with only a small amount of water exposure during the hot summer months. The victims were found with a complete array of technical canyoneering gear, including ropes.

          The pair was found in a deep section of slot canyon less than 2-feet wide in a pool of water. The pool was 40-yards long and 10-feet deep. An almost impossible climb out on the upstream end and a rickety logjam on the downstream end guarded against escape from the pool.

          Speculation is that the pair had entered the pool and then tried to throw their rope on top of the logjam hoping it would catch on something so they could pull themselves out. Exit from the pool would have been difficult but should have been within the abilities of the pair. Guess work leads many to believe that the pair arrived at the obstacle already fatigued and befuddled by hypothermia. The water in the slot was reported to be in the low 40-degree range, air temperature was hovering around 40 degrees. The pair was only wearing summer weight wetsuits that were not designed to handle long exposure in such chilling water. If the pair had of been able to escape the logjammed pool they still would have been challenged with over two hours of extremely difficult canyon to descend.

          Canyoneers duplicating the route three days later, but wearing full wetsuits (6mm neoprene) reported that exiting the pool was difficult but could be accomplished by experienced canyoneers.

          After locating the bodies the SAR team hoisted them 260 feet to the rim. The extraction was made particularly difficult because the canyon is quite narrow at the recovery point. The bodies were then flown out by helicopter. After being identified by relatives, the bodies were sent to the state Medical Examiner's Office in Salt Lake City to determine the cause of death. It is suspected they died from hypothermia or drowning.

          The group of seven Montana canyoneers ended their adventure on Tuesday, when they arrived at the Egypt Trailhead.


Comments on the death of my son, John:
          John and his friend Brad Underwood had participated in several rock climbing events and decided to try the excitement of exploring a slot canyon in Escalante. They knew that they needed some protection from the cold water. So they bought some wetsuits (mid thigh) and headed for Garfield County to explore the Choprock and Neon canyons. The plan was to do Choprock on Thursday, then explore Neon on Friday and make it back in time to take some finals on Saturday.

          Although you can go on the internet and get a fair amount of information and some beautiful pictures of Neon Canyon, you will not find very good information about Choprock canyon. Some have commented that it is a real benefit, because then it is not used as much and only those "in the know" will go into that canyon.

          Choprock south fork turns out to normally be a much more technically challenging canyon than most. Combine that with the fact of a large amount of water runoff this year and you have a very difficult challenge even for the best prepared. The water content of the canyon creates additional "traps" or pools with log jams that have to be climbed over. All this makes it more difficult and a very cold passage through the canyon.

          There was another group of 7 people that came through the canyon after John and Brad. Because Search and Rescue was looking for John and Brad, they gave this second group the information that saved their lives. Otherwise they would not have made it out of the canyon. The helicopter called down to the group of 7 and asked them if they knew about John and Brad. They said that there was another group ahead of them. The group then asked how close they were to the final rappel. They were told that they were a long ways and that they should not try to get through the canyon that day. It turns out that they were in the last place where they could have tried to camp for the night. They were not prepared to camp for the night. They had to try and sleep in their wet suits. They were able to get a fire going after a couple hours and put up some logs to give a little protection against the wind. They said that they were very cold and only about one member said that they were able to sleep.

          The group commented that they could see the wet handprints of the John and Brad on the canyon walls and could see that they executed some maneuvers, which they tried. But they said John and Brand must have had excellent upper body strength because they couldn't do the same maneuvers.

          After a couple hours (the next day) the group of 7 came to a pool of water with a climbing rope. They polled on the rope and up came a couple legs. That scared them and they backed off. But they knew that they had to continue through the canyon. They then pulled on the rope and it came up without anything.

          This second group had two 18 year old boys that were able to monkey crawl up the walls to get on top of the logs and then help pull up the rest of the group. These seven also would not have made it out without these two because the leaders were hurt and couldn't do as much. This group was from Montana and had been to these canyons several times before. But they had never done the south Choprock. The information they had said that it was just a day hike.

          Because of the information from this second group, the Search and Rescue could focus their search in the correct area. It was very difficult to get the bodies out of the water. There was not even enough room to put on scuba equipment and get in the water. They had to rig up a method to pull them up about 300 feet to the top of the canyon walls.

          So in summary, I think that these two young men were excited for a new adventure. They were physically prepared, but didn't have the correct clothing for that much water and they should have planned for a two-day hike. As they got cold, they didn't realize how serious their condition was. Hypothermia sets in and your thinking and actions become confused and slow. They also probably didn't think they had any options but to just press forward. Which was essentially true after they had left the area where the second group had camped.

          John lived life to the fullest. He had an infectious laugh and was excited about life. He didn't shy away from doing something because it might be dangerous. We need to also be sure that fear doesn't limit our enjoyment of life.

Best Regards,
Russell Anderson


Comments from Brad Underwood's wife:
          Thank you for your accurate article on my beloved husband, Brad Underwood and dear friend, John Anderson. First of all, I must say that I would not want Brad and John to be remembered by how they died, rather, how they lived.

          Brad and I married in August of 2004. John was the bestman at our wedding. Although our life together on this earth was not long, Brad exemplified every positive characteristic. He is strong, yet sensitive. Talented, but unassuming, brilliant, but humble. Brad earned the respect of thousands of people, literally. No small task. His influence is far-reaching and up-lifting. What I write here cannot do him justice.

          John Anderson, a dear friend, is much the same way. His infectious laughter and outstanding character endeared him to many. There was no way around it, once you met John, and heard his trademark-laugh, you're instant friends. John, also, had a bright career ahead of him. Both of these men are truly amazing individuals.

          Brad and John would often go on these canyoneering adventures together. Both always came back with their fair-share of scrapes and bruises, and oh yes, a big grin of victory. Each trip was carefully planned and thought-out. Hours of research went in to planning each and every excursion. Let it be known that they were excellent and highly-skilled outdoorsmen. I cannot stress that enough.

          EXACTLY what happened, is not exactly known for sure. Our hearts are broken because of this loss. Yet, we are required to press on, keeping John and Brad forever in our hearts.

My Kindest Regards,
Roxanne Underwood


Related Links:
South Fork of Choprock - Route Description
South Fork of Choprock - Route Description (Members Only)

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