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A Bad Day in
Good Day Jim
May 23, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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!"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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:
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
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
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.
Good Day Jim - Lake Powell
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