Saturday, November 22, 2003, two brothers began a popular technical canyoneering route in the San Rafael Swell known as Baptist Draw/Chute Canyon.
Baptist Draw contains several sections of tight narrows where canyoneers must remove their backpacks to squeeze through. The biggest technical challenges are the rappels that must be negotiated. Chute Canyon is one of those canyons with a liberal and varied personality. Because of its large catch basin the colossal flashfloods that roar through Chute Canyon change its personality each year. At times Chute Canyon is completely dry, at other times the canyon will require wading and swimming. When swimming holes develop in the canyon they have a reputation of containing a very nasty soup made up of pinecones, pine needles, cow manure, dead mice and tree branches.
Justin Harris, 31, and his brother Jeremy, 27, planned to canyoneer down Baptist Draw to its junction with Chute Canyon. From there the strategy was to hike down Chute Canyon and exit using the standard Fault Line Canyon exit.
The two brothers squeezed down through Baptist Draw. They completed one 20-foot rappel, slithered down a little further and concluded the Baptist Draw portion of the adventure with an 80-foot rappel into Chute Canyon.
The seasoned outdoorsmen were well prepared for the adventure and knew what to expect. In Chute Canyon, the brothers came across a large chokestone wedged between the walls of the narrow canyon. Although technically it was an easy obstacle to overcome, Justin lost his footing while rappelling 12 feet down the backside of the boulder. The slip was costly, the bone in Justin's leg shattered just below the knee.
After studying the situation the brothers determined their best option was for Jeremy to complete the route solo and retrieve help. After elevating his brother's leg and leaving him with warm clothing, protein bars, half a sandwich and some potato chips, Jeremy began the trek back to camp and his cell phone. The total route usually requires 7 hours to complete. The accident had chewed up several hours of precious winter daylight. Jeremy began hiking for help at about 5:30 p.m., within 20 minutes it was dark.
Jeremy, who has an artificial hip (from a prior medical condition), continued down Chute Canyon. Unfortunately for him this was a year when the canyon was filled with water. He waded through numerous sections of water filled narrows. He was completely drenched from chest to toe and water squeaked out of his shoes with each step. The temperature was about 15 degrees and Jeremy had to keep breaking ice off his pants to keep moving. Along the way, he was forced to make several 6-foot jumps that were extremely painful on his artificial hip. To make matters worse his headlamp was growing dim and it was pitch black in the bottom of the deep canyon.
Even though he had a map, Jeremy lost his sense of direction in the cold, dark night and missed the turnoff for the Fault Line Canyon exit. He continued farther down Chute Canyon, encountering additional water before he realized his mistake. At this point Jeremy found it necessary to stop, rest and make a fire to dry out at least one pair of socks that he promptly slipped back into his wet boots before hiking again. Between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., he found the exit route he had missed earlier in the evening.
By this time Jeremy was hypothermic and going into shock. He could no longer think clearly and was having some mental problems. A mistake now could prove deadly for both brothers.
While Jeremy snaked his way through the dark canyon maze and struggled to find the trailhead, Justin braved the elements, alone and in pain.
As the sun climbed into the sky Sunday morning it provided light to navigated by, but the route was still difficult with miles of cross-country travel required and no trail to follow. At 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jeremy made it back to the trailhead and his vehicle. The hike back to the trailhead that normally requires 5 hours had required 22. He called the Emery County Sheriff's Office, then crawled into his car, turned on the heater and waited for help to arrive.
About 20 Rescuers from the Emery County Sheriff's Office began the hike into the remote canyon late Sunday afternoon. Temperatures in the canyon dipped to zero degrees. Rescuers were not sure if Justin Harris was still alive. It was 1:00 a.m. Monday when they made voice contact with Justin, and 4:00 a.m. when they physically reached him. The Rescuers camped out overnight beside Justin as they wait until sunrise to evaluate the predicament they were in.
Getting Justin out of the canyon was going to be difficult because of its remoteness and rugged terrain. Helicopters could not land in the bottom of the canyon and fly him out. A Life Flight Helicopter from LDS Hospital was eventually called to perform a hoist rescue. Rescue crews finally pulled him out of the canyon Monday afternoon and airlifted him by helicopter to a local hospital. Justin's injury was severe enough that it required amputation of his leg between the knee and ankle.
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