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Good Day Jim - Lake Powell

A Bad Day in
Good Day Jim

May 23, 2014

          The following epic is the story of a flash flood that occurred in a slot canyon that feeds Lake Powell known as "Good Day Jim". Brian Reischl and Lee Katherine Goldstein have both provided their perspectives of the event for your reading pleasure.

Brian Reischl:
          On a Friday morning our group of three, myself, Lee Katherine and Mike, packed up camp and headed towards Trachyte. We had considered descending a canyon called Hard Day Harvey, but instead planned to visit neighboring Good Day Jim canyon. We had good information about the route, which we expected to take 5-7 hours to complete. However, the weather was uncertain - high scattered clouds, some of them dark some not. We drove past the canyon to the nearby Ticaboo Resort and used their WiFi to check the weather. The radar showed some light rain in the area, but not in our drainage and it was decreasing. The forecast showed a low chance of rain. It wasn't encouraging, but not terrible either. We thought it was worth driving to the trailhead in hopes that the weather would clear up.

Looking southwest towards Lake Powell from the drop-in point.

          At the trailhead the weather remained uncertain. But we had nothing else to do, so we decided that we might as well hike to the drop-in point, as we could still change our mind there. As we unloaded, Lee discovered that she had forgotten her helmet in Denver. It was an unfortunate oversight, but nobody though it was serious enough problem to warrant the hour-plus drive to Hanksville for a replacement. We saddled up and hiked to the head of the canyon, still watching the weather.

          We found the drop-in point, then hiked to the top of the ridgeline south of the canyon head to check out the weather. There were still broken clouds, but it appeared that most of it was heading to the east or west of us. We were still a bit apprehensive, but decided that the weather looked good enough to descend the canyon.

          We proceeded down canyon at a normal pace, perhaps a bit slowly for such a small group. Throughout the day the weather was fitful: sunny, then cloudy, then blue skies again. The wind would kick up, a few raindrops would spatter down and immediately stop. We kept an eye out for possible escape routes, and several times discussed bailing out, but nobody seriously called to exit the canyon.

Mike & Lee in Good Day Jim Lee tries to keep her shoes dry. Note the bright sunshine.

          We bypassed a few potholes filled with water and stemmed over others, but eventually we reached an unavoidable pothole filled with water. We all swam across, soaking all of our clothes and gear except for a jacket and fleece shirt that I had stuffed into a drybag.

Brian enters the swimmer - Good Day Jim

          About 15 minutes later, around 2:30 or 3:00 we were nearing the second-to-last drop. I rounded a sharp left corner and immediately saw that the entire western sky was a mass of dark storm clouds. I began to get seriously worried at this point, but our momentum carried me on. I descended a narrow V-slot just above the drop as thunder boomed in the distance. Feeling rushed by the weather I hurriedly glanced at the anchor and decided that it was probably good enough. As I measured out rope to throw down lightning strobed in the clouds and a strong cold wind began blowing. I paused. If you don't have time to inspect the anchor properly, how do you have time to descend the canyon? You shouldn't be getting on rope, you should be getting the hell out of this canyon as fast as possible. I called up to the others, who had not yet entered the narrow V-slot, "I think I saw a chute up there. Do you see it? Do you think we could climb it and get out?"

          Lee called back "Yes, I think we could."

          "I think we should get out of here right now."

          "We were thinking the same thing."

          The clouds were noticeably closer now, the thunder louder. I anxiously shoved the rope back in my pack and squirmed back up out of the slot. Meanwhile Mike and Lee had found another chute 50 yards up canyon, a typical thirty-foot wide crack filled with boulders and scree with a few larger obstacles that looked like they could be surmounted with relative ease. We hustled to it and began ascending the first obstacle, a steep three foot wide crack. It began raining, first a few drops but quickly growing to a full on storm, extinguishing the last spark of hope that the storm might blow over. Mike reached the top of the obstacle first and paused to put on a fleece. I was next up the obstacle, and I immediately started up the steep scree slope above us.

          Fifty yards up chute I reached a flatter area of dirt, looked back to see Lee starting up the slope with Mike not far behind. I returned my attention uphill. The chute divided here - on the right was a steeper rock and dirt slope that looked difficult to climb. On the left a mini-chute, three feet wide with an incredibly convenient three-inch wide ledge slanting up the left side like a ramp. As I moved towards the mini-chute a lone hailstone dropped in front of me. Within seconds all the rain changed to a torrent of centimeter sized hailstones, thunking off my helmet and clattering off the rock walls. I raged at the storm "Really?! Are you fucking serious?!" The storm was not visibly concerned by my anger.

          I hurried up the ledge in the mini-chute, right hand outflung to push against the opposite wall for balance. I passed a pair of chockstones and kept climbing. The dirt floor remained almost level as I ascended the ledge, until it was perhaps 15 feet below me. I passed another chockstone, and then a couple feet further on the mini-chute floor came up to meet me and flattened off into a large platform, just as the ledge walkway ended. Ten feet up the platform was another obstacle; a steep, narrower crack with a six-inch fin of rock in it. Beyond the fin I could see nothing but sky. It felt like this was the last obstacle before the chute would widen out - the last thing between me and the safety of open ground.

          I looked back, expecting to see Mike and Lee following me up the mini-chute, but they weren't there. I called out, but the clatter of hailstones and the screaming wind were so loud I could barely hear myself, much less anyone else. I wanted to climb the fin, to escape before the inevitable flood began, but I couldn't leave my friends behind. I stood in the stinging hail, uncertain.

          I briefly hunched into a tiny cave beneath the fin, trying to escape the hail. But then thought: Are you a frickin' moron? It's been raining. Storms move rocks in the canyon all the time. This whole thing could come down on your head! Get out of here! So I backed out of the cave and stood once again in the chute, back hunched against the hailstorm.

          A minute passed. The temperature had dropped to maybe 50 degrees, and the wind had turned fast and frigid. Where are they?

          Two minutes. Maybe they found an easier way up. Maybe they're waiting for me, wondering where I am?

          Three minutes. Maybe I should just climb up to the top, and try to come back around and drop a rope from the top?

          Four minutes. Maybe they're hurt and need my help?

          I couldn't afford to waste so much time. I stepped into the chute, hurriedly elevatored myself to the ground, and jogged back to the flat area in the main chute. I arrived to see Mike in a small wash kneeling with his head down. At the time I had no clue what he was doing. Later I learned that, worried about the hail assaulting Lee's un-helmeted head, they had gone to ground to take cover.

          I looked uphill to my left and saw a wave of hailstones, water and dirt rolling down the wash towards Mike. The rain and hailstones had combined into a thick, slushy mixture that was only moving at a jogging pace. Mike later dubbed this phenomenon the "hailvalanche."

          I yelled "Mike, you're in a streambed!"

          Mike looked up and saw the wave heading for him. He grabbed Lee, who I had not seen even though she was just in front of him, and flung them both out of the streambed before the wave reached them.

          It had seemed likely that the chute was a drainage in its own right, but now there could be no doubt. There would almost certainly be more water close behind the "hailvalanche". I shouted over the storm's noise, "I don't think we can stay here!"

          Mike replied, surprisingly calmly, "Where do you want to go?"

          "Up the chute to the left, the ledge is easy to climb!"

          "You've been up there already, lead the way."

          I turned headed back into the mini-chute, but the climb was harder now. The hailstones had stuck to the ledge in a layer three or four inches thick, and immediately begun melting from the residual heat in the rock. I climbed as fast as I could, kicking the slush off the ledge as I went. I passed the first pair of chockstones, looked back to see my friends following up the ledge, and continued to the next chockstone. I stopped there.

          The fin that had looked like an easy climb before, what I suspected and hoped to be the last remaining obstacle, was now a waterfall. Mocha brown water flecked with white hailstones shot off the end of it and ran down the platform in a river. There was no chance I could climb the fin now - the pressure of the water would push me off of it before I could get anywhere near the top. I cast about for other options.

          I looked up. The walls of the chute rose perfectly smooth above me for fifty feet, leaning slightly outward in a V shape that precluded any possibility of stemming to the top. The walls were completely drenched, water visibly running down them in a continuous film from rain and hail hitting them.

          I looked down. Another waterfall dropped below me, rushing off the flat platform only a couple feet up-chute from my chockstone. It tumbled down the floor of the mini-chute towards the flat area we had just left. I couldn't see the ground there anymore, it was hidden beneath a cauldron of roiling water and spray now. I was glad I had gone back for my friends - if they had stayed below they would've been washed back down into the main canyon.

          Mike and Lee had reached the pair of chockstones ten feet behind me and had each perched on a stone. Lee later told me that her chockstone was wobbly and insecure, her position more precarious than I could see. We were all cold and wet. Mike and I had helmets, BDU pants and long-sleeve shirts that provided some protection, but Lee had only shorts, a T-shirt, and no helmet. Mike was trying to shield her head with his gloved hands, but she was mostly exposed to the stinging hail and cold wind. Her thin, light build couldn't retain much heat. She was freezing cold and only getting colder.

          I called out, shouting at the top of my lungs to be heard, "Mike, I don't think I can go keep going! I can't climb that!"

          "OK," he replied.

          "I don't know what else to do!"

          "Me neither."

          For a while that was it. We couldn't go forward, up, down or back. We had no tools that could help us, no way to call for help. We just stood on our chockstones, pelted by the hail, shivering in our wet clothes and the freezing wind.

          The flow of water was still increasing. The hailstones began building up on my chockstone, forming a dam that prevented the water from flowing below it. Instead the water began to flow over the stone. The force of the water on my feet could push me off of my perch. I plunged my gloved hand into the drift of hailstones and cleared them out, allowing the water to flow around the side of the chockstone instead of over it. This provided momentary relief, but I worried that the water would erode the wall or loosen the chockstone.

          It turned out that the diverted water didn't matter. A few seconds later the still-increasing flow was lapping at my feet again. I couldn't stay on that chockstone, and I had only one other option. Putting my back onto the right wall, feet on the left, I stemmed vertically up and towards the fin a few feet. I placed my feet onto the last sloped-off bit of the ledge we had walked up. Thankfully, the bit of ledge and the slight outward tilt of the walls made for an uncommonly easy stemming position despite the water still flowing down the walls. I slung my pack off one shoulder and into my lap for warmth, curled up around it, and shivered.

          Look to my right. Waterfall is still there. Is it increasing? Does it sound louder? I don't think so. At least that's good.
Look up. Am I really sure I can't climb this? Yes, it's much too wide. The water's still coming down the walls, too. The ripples are actually kind of pretty.

          Look down. The water is roaring by eighteen inches below me. I can picture its journey from there: tumble 200 feet down the steep slope in the chute, join the main canyon flow and accelerate for 50 yards down canyon, take a hard right into that narrow V-slot, then shoot off the rappel and freefall fifty feet to the lower canyon. No way could I survive that trip. Are my feet still secure on the wall? Am I using the right amount of pressure? Am I shivering so much that I might lose friction? Don't want to tire myself out, I might be here for a while.

          Look left. Lee looks like a half-drowned cat, hunched against the hail with soaked hair in her face, shivering visibly even from this distance. Mike is still shielding her head as best he can, occasionally scooping piles of hailstones out of her collar or pushing them off her pack.

          I call out again, "This wasn't a waterfall before! I really wish you guys hadn't stopped!"

          Mike, still calm, replies "Me too." Lee just shivers more. I put my head down on my pack and sit perfectly still, inches from death, unable to do anything but think.

          This is when people promise that if they just survive this they'll never go in a canyon again. But I probably will. If I survive.

Spring hail storms are usually intense but short. I hope this one is short. Can I see the end of it? Nope, can't see a damn thing. That's probably a bad sign.

          If this storm keeps going, how long can I stay stemmed here? Hours, maybe? What then?

What am I going to do if the water flow increases? I guess I could stem higher, but it would be difficult on the wet walls, especially without this ledge. Best leave that as a last resort.

          If we get out of here, everything is going to be soaked. We were going to camp tonight, but everything will be a mud pit. You know what, if I survive this I'm going to spring for a hotel tonight. (Yes, I actually thought that, it is not dramatic license.)

          At the time I didn't think to take any photos or video. I could have - my waterproof camera was clipped to the outside of my pack. But even had I thought of it at the time, I wouldn't have done it. I didn't want to do anything that would increase my chance of falling by even the tiniest amount.

          From the time I first saw the thunderclouds it had been perhaps ten minutes, perhaps fifteen. Fifteen minutes from romping joyfully down the canyon to clinging on wet rock walls above a flash flood in a hailstorm.

          For maybe five minutes I stemmed there, shivering in the hail, wondering what would happen. It felt much longer. But the hail turned slowly to rain, the rain slackened a bit, the flow of water slowed a little. Soon the water receded below my chockstone, and I could stand again instead of stemming. The worst was behind us now. The intense part of the storm had last maybe 20 or 25 minutes.

          Mike thought Lee was near hypothermia and asked if I had a jacket. Still shivering and moving slowly, careful not to fall off the chockstone or drop anything into the still-flowing water, I dug through my pack and retrieved a jacket from my drybag. Mike and I leaned across the gap to pass the jacket, careful not to slip on the slick surface. I imagine it was exciting for Lee, standing on her wobbly chockstone, to have Mike reach around her for the jacket. I had a dry fleece as well, which I put on over my sodden shirt.

          Soon the waterfall over the fin stopped entirely. I waited another minute then walked over and climbed it. Almost to the top, I put a foot on the fin to brace myself and the top two feet of rock disintegrated like a mirage. I nearly dropped ten feet on my back, but caught myself, cursing rather loudly. The sandstone of the fin had been under flowing water long enough that it wasn't really stone anymore, but merely shaped sand. This would be a recurring theme on the exit hike - apparently solid rocks and ledges would practically vanish when we stepped on them.

          Above the fin the drainage widened and continued climbing. Soon it became shallow and we escaped onto a rock dome, then onto the muddy upper slope. The clay soils were completely soaked, and had turned into five inches of slippery, sticky, sucking mud. We slogged our way up to the cap rock, found an exit, and made it back to our car.

Climbing out of Good Day Jim. Note drifts of hailstones.

          Remarkably, the only injury sustained was two ugly but shallow gashes on Lee's shin from a slip during our climb up the chute. We feared that the dirt roads would be impassably muddy, but they were in fine condition. We made our way out to the paved highway, turned left and drove two miles to the Ticaboo Resort. I got the hotel room and hot shower that I had promised myself if I survived. We all showered off the grit, dried off our gear.

          When I got home I told the story to my wife, a non-canyoneer. Her only comment was "Make better decisions next time," sound advice that I hope I can follow.

Lee Katherine Goldstein:
          One of the first things that canyoneering enthusiasts learn is to keep an eye on the weather. Rule number one - if it looks like rain, stay out of deep narrow canyons. Mike, Brian and I were well aware of that rule when set out on a canyoneering trip on Memorial Day weekend in 2014. We drove from Denver and planned to spend the weekend exploring canyons in the Northwash area near Hanksville, Utah.

          We reviewed the "beta" descriptions for about twenty different canyons during the drive to Utah, looking for canyons that sounded fun and interesting. We wanted canyons with a little stemming, down climbing, rappelling and swimming. Eventually, we selected Good Day Jim and a couple of other canyons in Ticaboo Mesa. Ticaboo was a new area for us, and the canyons sounded both fun and beautiful. We arrived in Hanksville late Thursday and camped for the night outside of town.

          We headed to Ticaboo on Friday morning and stopped at a resort along the way to check the weather forecast. There was no Internet service in this part of Utah, so we were relying on Wi-Fi in towns and gas stations. The weather forecast called for a 25% chance of rain. The skies above us were partly cloudy, but rain did not look imminent. We checked the radar images for the past several hours, and they showed that the clouds were skirting Ticaboo and moving off in a different direction. We decided to head out to the canyon.

          The drive out to the trailhead for Good Day Jim was uneventful. The roads were narrow, rocky and sandy, but they were no problem for our high clearance four wheel drive car. We found the trailhead and started walking down into the wash. The skies were still gray, which made us debate whether to enter the canyon. We decided to wait awhile to see whether the clouds continued to head away from us. After 30 or 40 minutes walking around the rim of the canyon and enjoying the views of Lake Powell off in the distance, we decided that there were enough places to climb out of the first part of the canyon that we felt safe venturing in while the clouds were still nearby. The clouds appeared to be moving away from us; and that reassured us that they would soon clear the area.

          We skipped the first rappel and climbed down into the canyon. We soon hit the first obstacles - some easy stemming and down climbs. We were having fun and soon forgot about the weather. When we did look up, the skies were light blue. No rain clouds were in view.

          The canyon was as beautiful and fun as we had hoped. Soon we came across water filled potholes and narrow sections. I was the first to get wet. Stemming above water, my foot slipped and in I went - splash! None of us stayed dry for long. Just around the corner was an unavoidable long pool of water. Since I was already soaked, I went first to see how deep the water was. I stemmed out as far as I could and then dropped into the pool and immediately sunk down in water over my head. "It's a swimmer" I yelled after I surfaced and started back paddling to the other side.

          We cleared the pool and kept walking down into the canyon. At this point, the canyon walls were high and polished smooth by thousands of years of water rushing through the canyon. It was beautiful. We continued walking until we came across a large deep pothole. The beta indicated that we could walk around the pothole by climbing up on the right, and sure enough, there was a hill made of dirt and crumbled rock on the right side of the canyon. We climbed up the hill and as we got to the top felt light raindrops. We looked up and the sky was grey again. How much further to the exit I asked. Brian got out the beta and reported that we had a 50 foot rappel coming up. After that, we would reach the confluence with another canyon, then one more rappel, and then we would be out. We all agreed we should step up our pace.

          The next section contained a few small potholes, and then a narrow entrance way to the next rappel. Brian went ahead and found the hook up for the rappel. This was the 50 foot rappel, and it would take us on a descent through a narrow V-shaped tunnel. As Brian was checking the anchor, the raindrops began again, but now they were larger and more frequent. Mike looked at me and pointed up over the rock that covered the entrance to the rappel. A dark gray ominous cloud had appeared over the top of the canyon wall.

          Mike and I immediately started looking around for a way to escape the canyon. The walls were still high and smooth, but there was a large fracture in the wall where the canyon bent to the right ahead of us. "Can you climb that?" I asked Mike, who was the strongest climber in the group. If Mike could climb it, he could drop a rope down to me and Brian to help us climb out. "No" Mike said, "not without gear to anchor in the cracks." He turned around and said, "but I can climb that." Behind us was another large fracture in the rock wall where the canyon curved to the left. This one had ledges along the sides, crumbled rocks, and fins sticking out, offering places for hand and foot holds. We called out to Brian and headed up to the crack. As we started ascending, it began to hail. At first, the hail was small, but it soon started falling in larger chunks which hurt as they struck our arms, legs and my head. I had forgotten my helmet in Denver, and had no protection from the ice chunks which were pelting us from all directions as they fell from the sky and bounced off the rocks.

          We climbed a little and were off the canyon floor, but we were still pretty low near the base of the crack. Brian had climbed up ahead of us. Mike and I ducked into a small fissure near the base of the crack where we could use our backpacks to protect ourselves from the hail. Suddenly, we heard Brian yelling to us. All I heard was "stream" and looked up and saw Brian pointing up the crack. Water was beginning to trickle down the crack forming a stream which was heading right for us. "Climb" Mike yelled and we jumped out of the fissure and headed up a ledge on the left side of the crack. The crack went very deep into the rock, and as we headed up, the walls of the crack narrowed and the ledge began to thin out. I slipped on some hail and felt the rock cutting into my leg, but clung to the ledge and continued climbing.

          I saw Brian above us, standing on a rock platform between the wall and one of the fins. Hailstones were beginning to pile up on the platform creating a small dam which was trapping the water which streamed down the walls and poured over the lip behind and above Brian. Brian was trying to push the hail out of the way so that the water level wouldn't continue to rise. It wasn't working. The water was getting higher. Eventually, Brian had to stem up above the platform and wedge himself between the wall and the fin, back on one side, feet on the other, to stay above the fast moving stream of water mixed with hail.

          As Mike and I continued to climb toward Brian, the ledge we were on disappeared. Between us and Brian were two chockstones wedged between the walls of the crack, and then about twenty feet of smooth wall with nothing to stand on. At this point, we were about fifty feet above the canyon floor. Brian had stemmed across the open area, but now there was water pouring down the walls on both sides making stemming between the walls difficult and dangerous.

          I climbed onto the chockstone closest to Brian, and Mike climbed onto the one behind it, both of us bracing our arms against the walls on either side in case the chockstones rolled. I looked up at Brian and saw a large stream of hail and water pouring over the lip behind him, flowing down onto the platform, and then rushing downward. The hail stream created a waterfall between Brian's platform and our chockstones. I stood there dumbstruck, wondering whether a hail infused wall of water was racing toward us from the slickrock above. At one point, Mike asked if I could move forward at all. I stepped forward a little and felt the chockstone roll. I stepped back and stood there paralyzed, fearing that a slight movement would dislodge my stone perch high above the canyon floor.

          Mike and I were both beginning to shiver from the cold. We were already soaked from our swim when the rain and hail began, and the temperature had dropped when the storm moved in. I was dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt. My hand was still bracing the wall, and cold water was running down the wall and down my arm. At some point, Mike scooped out a pile of hail that had built up between my backpack and the back of my neck. We stood there and waited for the rain to stop. I was still pressing against the walls on either side fearing that a wall of water would appear cresting over the lip above Brian and sweep us all down into the canyon. Looking down, I saw a roiling brown river rushing through the canyon. Breathe, I thought. The rain will end soon.

          How long we stood there I cannot say. It might have been five minutes or an hour. It felt like an eternity. Eventually, the rain stopped and the waterfall behind Brian slowed to a trickle. But we were not out yet. The walls and rocks we had to climb to reach the top were soaking wet and covered in slippery hail. Mike and I stemmed the distance between us and Brian and we all began to climb. When we reached the lip of the canyon we began to breathe a little easier. But we were all soaking wet and shivering from the cold, and we were still 2 miles from the car. We began to walk.

          The rain had turned the orange sandy terrain into slippery mud. As we walked the mud clung to us, encasing our shoes in what felt like cement. We trudged onward toward the car, sometimes walking, sometimes climbing, sometimes sliding down slick hills. Finally, we saw the car in the distance. For the first time since the rainstorm began, I felt safe.

          Canyons hold a special allure. The sculpted walls, the glimmering potholes, the stripes that form waves of different colors through the narrow sections. For me, canyons are exhilarating breathtakingly beautiful playgrounds. But Mother Nature created the canyons through brute force - pushing water, rocks, trees and debris through the canyon with enough power and persistence to cut through rock. We witnessed Mother Nature, the brutal artist, at work sculpting in Good Day Jim Canyon that day.

Related Links:
Good Day Jim - Lake Powell

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