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Swasey's Leap - Lower Black Box

Death in the
Lower Black Box

San Rafael Swell
Written by Shane Burrows

          Hiking the Lower Black Box is one of the best river hikes in Utah. It can also be lethal and should be taken seriously. The flash flood potential is very high because the river has a massive catch basin. Once you enter the Lower Black Box it is difficult to turn around or escape. You are wet and in the water for a minimum of 4 hours, hypothermia is a serious possibility in cool weather.

          The two stories that follow contain accident and rescue information from the Lower Black Box. Entering the canyon during high water is partially responsible for the deaths noted in both stories.

Black Box Calamity:
          On August 28, 1999, a 38-year-old Colorado resident, Sterling Cooper and Brandon, his 12-year-old son were hiking and mountain biking in the San Rafael Swell. The father and son planned to float 4 miles through the popular Lower Black Box on inner tubes beginning at Swasey's Leap. The San Rafael River was flowing at 264 cubic feet per second (cfs). It is recommended that the river be flowing at less than 30 cfs for canyoneers to safely enter the Lower Black Box.

          As the pair passed under Swasey's Leap, the canyon constricted and the water became swift and treacherous. Just around the bend from Swasey's Leap the pair realized that the canyon was too risky for inner tubes and abandoned the thought of continuing downstream. They discarded their inner tubes and attempted to reverse course, but the water was too deep and swift. To escape the clutches of the gorge the pair decided to scale the 350-foot north wall. This was a dangerous option for a pair in a life threatening position. Safely exiting the Black Box by climbing the canyon wall requires ropes and technical climbing gear, the Coopers had neither.

          The father and son had climbed approximately 200 feet, about two-thirds of the way up the sheer rock face, when the older Cooper lost his footing and fell backwards into the river. After witnessing his father's fall, Brandon bravely continued to climb 150 feet to the top of the Black Box. Brandon quickly began hiking to the camping area located four miles away. Before he reached camp he met two hikers who assisted him and used a cellular phone to summon help.

          At the time of the accident 12-year-old Brandon had the presence of mind to mark the area where his father fell. This was very helpful to the search and rescue personnel responding to the scene.

          The area where the accident occurred is extremely treacherous and flash floods prevented Sheriff's deputies and rescue team members from using the river to locate and extract the victim's body. The rescue crew was forced to rappelled down the face of the cliff to recover the victim's body. Two search and rescue climbers were injured from falling rocks during the five-hour recovery.

Looking into the Lower Black Box Inside the Black Box

Lower Black Box Drowning:
          On July 11, 1999, hikers reported an abandoned inner tube and several items of torn clothing below Swasey's Leap in the Lower Black Box of the San Rafael River. The Emery County Sheriff's Office and the Sheriff's Posse mounted a rescue effort. A body was located at the base of a logjam and rockslide.

          It is known that a California man parked his truck at the Bureau of Land Management barricade at Sulfur Springs. He than bicycled down to the San Rafael River and hiked to Swasey's Leap where he entered the Lower Black Box.

          Speculation is that after passing under Swasey's Leap the victim encountered a logjam. The individual chose to pursue one of three openings through the logjam. Floating on an inner tube the victim was swept through a narrow chute into a second logjam. His leg was purportedly caught around a log, forcing him under the water where he drowned.

          Unfavorable conditions led the man to become trapped in fallen debris. On June 29, 1999, which is the most probable day of the accident, the San Rafael River was flowing at 250 cubic feet per second (cfs). It is recommended that the river be flowing at less than 30 cfs before canyoneers can safely enter the Lower Black Box.

          It took search and rescue personnel four days to locate and retrieve the body after hikers first reported suspicious debris in the Lower Black Box.

Related Links:
Lower Black Box Route Description
Upper Black Box Route Description


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