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The Subway in high water

Escaping the Subway
April 19, 2011

Written by: Gavin Hawkley
Photo's courtesy: Anthony Dunster

          In the spring of 2011 the snowpack in Utah was at 200% of normal. The month of March was colder than normal and when things warmed up the runoff came down in a hurry. This is an epic tale of canyoneering the famous "Subway" of Zion National Park during this period.

The Story:
          Four friends (Mckell Crandall, Dustin Cammack, Cliff Chandler, Anthony Dunster) and I decided that we were going to head down to Zion and run Das Boot through the Subway. We were pumped to be getting into a new season of canyoneering. We did Keyhole, on Monday, the day before we were planning on the Subway and ran into some other canyoneers. They had recently done the Subway and told us that there was a lot of water and hydraulics that could potentially pull you back into dangerous water if you weren't a strong swimmer. We thought that sounded pretty cool so we were excited to do the Subway the next day. However, when we went to get our permits we were told that a couple of hikers, Evgenia (Jenny) Buzulukova and Jon Wilson, were missing and that they may have tried to do Das Boot or Russell Gulch. We reevaluated and decided we would definitely take a good look at Das Boot before we committed to that route.

          The next day we left early, excited and ready for some adventure. We got a little more than we had bargained for. When we arrived at the Wildcat Trailhead it was crawling with rangers. They told us that some rangers had been down to Das Boot looking for the couple that had gone missing and that the water looked very dangerous. These rangers looked fairly on top of things so we believed them and told them we would just do the regular Subway route. They also told us that another canyoneer, David Balkcom, who had headed out the day before at 3 pm, had not yet returned either. We told them we would keep an eye out for any of these people and headed down.

Mckell Crandall, Dustin Cammack, Cliff Chandler, Anthony Dunster and Gavin Hawkley

          When we arrived at the entrance to the Subway there was a lot of water coming down from Russell Gulch. This section of the subway was usually dry with a few pools but now it was flowing with water from edge to edge. It was a river. We got into our 7mm wet suits, climbed into our neoprene booties and strapped on our helmets and harnesses. We were ready for some interesting stuff. As we were about to head down canyon a couple came down the trail that were going to do it too. We had them to take a picture of us together and then we started down canyon. As we began I looked back at the couple and wondered if they could possibly have enough gear to safely get down the route; they only had one backpack that the guy was wearing and it didn't seem full enough to have enough protection from the very cold water. "But this is just the subway we're doing" I thought, "they'll probably get a little cold and realize next time they should bring a little better gear. Some natural consequences might get people to prepare a little better. It's just the Subway, they'll be fine."

Hiking down canyon

          We started down the canyon, which was a very different beast from what I'd seen the previous times I'd done the subway. The water was flowing very rapidly and anywhere the walls came together tightly it created hydraulic effects that would pull you back into the whitewater falls. We used various methods to get past these including handlines after the strongest person was across. We had been going about 1.5-2 hours when we heard a whistle as we approached a particularly narrow section. As I moved closer to the point where it narrowed up and the water became very strong I could see around the corner a man stuck in a nook on the side of the canyon. He yelled to us, "don't come down here, I've been here since yesterday". I started thinking hard then.

Subway at high water. Hiking the Subway

          Hypothermic guy down canyon who could be next to useless or even dangerous to himself or us, gotta get him out of there, got to keep my team safe, have to assume that if he is stuck there then the water could be really bad here and I don't want us getting stuck too. Luckily there was a ledge system above us that was more than large enough to walk on. One guy from my team, Dustin, was able to get up on the ledge and anchor himself down. I had him toss me a rope from above and I was able to stem/chimney/swing over to where David was stuck. He was in bad shape but wasn't spouting nonsense. Mild Hypothermia I decided. He repeated himself and worried about his sling and rope that didn't matter at all but he did what I told him to and seemed to understand he wasn't quite on top of things. I had my other friend Anthony come across too and we made sure he ate some food and drank some water, which he hadn't done in awhile. Meanwhile Cliff and Mckell had been able to get on the ledge up by Dustin. I hooked back on rope and climbed/was pulled up out of the section of canyon onto the ledge system above. We then pulled out David followed by Anthony. After doing a more thorough assessment of David I decided that he was in good enough shape to move down canyon with us. As we moved he became more and more aware and competent as his hypothermic symptoms disappeared. We went down the ledge a little way and found an easy descent back into the main section of the canyon, thus avoiding the spot where David had become stuck.

Hiking down canyon

          I realized things were a little more serious now and went into - get down canyon mode - as opposed to just having a fun time. But David was doing well, we would be okay I thought. Around a few more bends we came across our next surprise. There in the curve of the canyon was a bunch of clothes, some food, and a pair of nice shoes just sitting there. I thought, "Oh crap. I've read about this stuff before. Somebody got stuck here, went crazy hypothermic and is running around in the nude singing chants to the canyon gods and kissing rocks." We started yelling and searched the surrounding slopes for anyone who might be there. I still do not know where those clothes came from or why they were there but I'm grateful that we stopped and yelled because from way down canyon my friend Cliff heard a faint reply.

          We moved down canyon and continued to call out. Replies came and eventually I was able to spot a girl up on a ledge about 100 feet up above the canyon floor. I climbed up as close as I could safely and she said her name was Jen and she had been there since Saturday! It was now Tuesday and I realized that this was not going to be anything close to a normal day in a canyon. She told me they hadn't had food for a day and half but that they did have water. The slope was too dangerous for me to climb up, about 30 feet of exposed climbing, so I grabbed the dry bag out of my pack and told them to get a rope and we would tie the bag to it so they could get some food. I had Dustin stay there to tie it on the rope and then I moved down canyon a bit with Anthony to try and find a safer way up to them. We found a way up a little further down canyon and got up to their ledge. It was a little out of the way and not terribly visible which is why I think other groups that had come down Sunday didn't spot them. They had a fire going and had Iodine drops so they were not in terrible shape. They were tired, exhausted, and Jon seemed kind of shaky but doing remarkably well all things considered. Honestly I had figured they were dead when I heard from search and rescue that they had been missing for 4 days. But now I had a real situation on my hands. There was no way they were going to be able to recover quickly and to the level that David had. They were going to be moving slow, have bad reflexes, probably impaired decision making abilities, and who knew what else. The reason they had stopped was that the next section looked even worse than what we had already done and they didn't think they could do it. I decided that the best option we had was to split my team up and leave two of them with the now three people who needed rescuing and take myself and two of the most competent from my team and head down canyon as quickly as I could and give search and rescue the specific location of the group. It crossed my mind as to what had happened to the first couple we had seen as we entered the canyon and who had seemed so ill prepared for this dangerous canyon. I didn't wonder long though.

One of the many obstacles. More of the same.

          Just as I had finished deciding what we would do this guy popped up from the other side of the ledge and said "is everything okay here?" I looked at him and thought, "What the heck is going on?" The guy looked tough with a full beard and long hair, sinewy muscles and a capable look about him. I'm pretty sure the first thing I said was "did you just climb up that cliff over there?" and he simply replied "yes." We talked a bit and he told me he'd picked up the couple we'd left at the beginning of the canyon. They had been trying to do the canyon in only dry pants with no upper body protection. Awesome. I should note now that this guy does not want to be known or mentioned by name so I will refer to him as simply Canyonman. He is a trained guide and has been doing canyons for about 13 years I think he said. I thought... this is good.

          He had medical training and did another evaluation of Jen and Jon and decided that they were doing okay. I then talked with Canyonman about my plan and he said it would be better to get these people out of the canyon if we could and that he didn't have a lot of confidence in park search and rescue. I decided I would trust him and so we rounded up the group and told them our options. Either divide up and send a team ahead to get help, or go as one big group (11 people now) and get through the rest of the way. We took a vote and it was decided to go together. We reached to the next obstacle and Canyonman set up at the anchor. I then dropped down through a natural arch there and swam as hard as I could through the hydraulic section and tied my end of a rope to a fallen tree in the watercourse. We rigged up a zip-line type of traverse with Canyonman belaying them from the top as they passed over and past the dangerous water section to me. Anthony and Cliff also helped at strategic points to make sure people were always clipped in and always on belay. Everyone made it safely down but it became apparent the person with the most issues then was Jon. He was very unsure of his feet and would fall down constantly in the water. As we moved down canyon we had to keep one person with him always to keep him from falling and hurting himself. We made sure each of the people we were concerned about had someone watching them and next to them the whole time. We had to get past another waterfall and down another rappel but those went without too much incident, just very slowly because we had to make sure that these people were on belay at all times even for minor stuff, otherwise a slip could get them pulled into some dangerous stuff.

Subway at high water. Heading towards the whistle.

          We were past the technical section! But it was about 6:30 pm already and I knew there as no way we were making our way out of this before nightfall. Helicopters had passed over a few times but hadn't seen us and we hadn't run into anyone as we came out and I didn't hold out much hope of seeing anyone helpful. We were on our own. We started moving very slowly; 1-2 mph is where I would put our pace. Jen was tired but moving well. David was fully recovered. The couple, Brooke and another Jon (I'll call him Jon 2), Canyonman had picked up were doing fine. Brooke had her nerves hit a bit; I don't think this was quite the adventure they'd envisioned, but didn't let that stop her from moving on. After about a half hour and as the canyon became easier Brooke and Jon 2 decided that they would go on ahead and try and send back help since it was obvious were moving too slowly to get to the cars anytime soon. Jon was moving very slowly and was very unsure of his feet. We kept moving.

Gavin Hawkley on rope with David Balkcom where he is found. Subway in high water.

          As darkness approached we were still a few hours away from the cars. I worried about sprained ankles and other falls that would come as it became very dark. Helicopters continued to pass over from time to time; but we didn't count on any help. It got dark, we kept our headlamps off for as long as we could and I kicked myself for not remembering mine. Luckily we had about 4 or 5 headlamps that worked and we made due. We had to do a few more river crossings (and it really was a river) so I went first and we set up a handline for the others as they came along as I anchored my side and Cliff on his side. Here Canyonman made a big difference again. I had only done subway a few times and knew more or less where the exit was, but it was dark and I was worried. He knew exactly where it was though. After we crossed the river a few times with more handlines we were able to find the exit trail. We hiked up it with breaks fairly often for Jon who was very tired at this point. We kept on moving and reached the canyon rim.

          Helicopters were now passing over more frequently, they could see our headlamps, but we didn't really care because we were almost to the lower trailhead. But about 5 minutes out this helicopter came screaming over really close to us, shot dust into our eyes, and passed over a little ways. We kind of looked at each other confused, couldn't figure out what that was about and so we just kept on hiking. About two minutes later we hear shouts from behind us and see headlamps shining. At this point Canyonman said "rangers... see ya" and took off up the trail because he didn't want to be known or talked to when the reports were put together. The men coming out of the woods weren't actually rangers but were Air Force Parajumpers and had rappelled out of their Blackhawk helicopter. They came up asking where Jon was and wanted to give medical attention. Apparently Brooke and Jon 2 had gotten out earlier and phoned in that we were still down there. But the message that Jon was having difficulty walking got turned into, "we heard Jon can't walk and you guys were carrying him". We told them this was not the case and that we would just like to walk the rest of the way to the cars. They looked at each other and said, "Okay... why don't you lead the way." So now we had two Air Force guys join the back of our party and we continued hiking to the trailhead. We got to the parking lot, gave some hugs, handshakes and high fives. About 10 minutes after arriving at the parking lot a ranger showed up who asked us if we needed water. We had Gatorade and water in our cars. The ranger asked me for an explanation of what had happened and I gave a brief explanation while he recorded audio of it. He got our names and numbers and that was it. My group went and picked up our car from the Wildcat Trailhead and headed back to Mosquito Cove for a much needed warm sleeping bag.

Evgenia (Jenny) Buzulukova and Jon Wilson on their ledge.

This entire epic was captured on video by Anthony Dunster. He did an amazing job of putting this video together and editing it. Watching the video will place you right in the middle of all the action. The complete high definition (HD) video is just over 20 minutes long.


Local News Report:

Hikers Walk Out Of Zion Canyon On Their Own
By Mark Havnes - The Salt Lake Tribune
April 20, 2011

          Zion National Park • Hikers love the narrow canyons and towering rock walls of the popular hike known as the Subway in Zion National Park. But those same features, complemented by a torrent of icy cold water, are what caused several adventurers to become briefly stranded.

          Park officials began searching Sunday for Evgenia Buzulukova, 25, of Roy, and her friend Jonathan Wilson, 28, of Portland, Ore., after they failed to return from the hike they had planned to complete on Saturday.

          Andrew Fitzgerald, a Zion ranger who coordinated the investigation, said Wednesday that the pair stalled at an area of the hike known as the Keyhole, along with seven other hikers.

          Fitzgerald said Buzulukova and Wilson initially planned to enter the canyon by hiking and rappeling into the Subway from an area known as Russell Gulch. He described the route as “technical” and said it involved at least three rappels of up to 95 feet.

          Fitzgerald said the pair changed course when their original plan appeared too difficult and took the traditional route down Wildcat Canyon. But they lost valuable time as the Left Fork of North Creek, which runs through the Subway, kept rising due to melting snowpack in surrounding mountains.

          The couple built a fire for the night, even though park rules forbid backcountry fires, and hoped to finish their adventure on Sunday.

          Fitzgerald said they had little food but were well equipped, including wetsuits. “They did have plenty of water and iodine pills to purify it,” he said.

          On Sunday, the two reached the Keyhole, a narrow part of the canyon that forces the water higher up the walls and required a rappel in the middle of the stream, which was rushing so fast it blocked their way.

          “They wisely decided that they could not go through safely,” said Fitzgerald. “They figured it would have been suicidal to go on, so they stopped to wait for the water to go down.”

          Fitzgerald said that once hikers begin their descent, which requires a series of rappels, there is no going back.

          While waiting, the two hikers trekked up the side of the canyon about 100 feet, unsuccessfully looking for a way out.

          “There’s no getting out at that spot but down the canyon,” Fitzgerald said.

          Attempts to reach the pair on Wednesday were not immediately successful.

          Buzulukova and Wilson spent another unplanned night in the park and on Monday were joined by about seven other hikers whose progress was also halted by high, swift water.

          Fitzgerald said one of the hikers was an experienced guide and was able to set up a “high wire” rope that the hikers used to cross the fast moving water and continue hiking.

          “It [high wire] allowed them to get through the most treacherous portions,” he said.

          Two of the hikers went out ahead of the others and contacted authorities at about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

          Fitzgerald said a military helicopter from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada had just begun looking for the hikers using infrared technology and spotted them less than a mile from the trailhead.

          Two paramedics were lowered from the helicopter to examine the hikers, but none required medical help and all were able to hike the rest of the way out on their own.

          Park spokesman David Eaker said Wednesday that the search involved 25 park rangers, workers and volunteers. Dog teams were also used.

          Searches are generally uncommon in the park because of limitations on where people can go, according to Eaker. He said rescues are more frequent when people have accidents. He said the couple did the right thing by getting the necessary backcountry permits for the Subway hike, so popular they are distributed through a lottery.

          He said Buzulukova and Wilson also demonstrated good judgment. “They made the right choice when they realized they were in a situation beyond their capabilities,” said Eaker. “It’s always good when they turn out like this.”

Keyhole Falls, the most difficult obstacle at high water.

NPS Morning Report:

Zion National Park (UT)
Nine Hikers Rescued From Backcountry

          On Sunday, April 17th, rangers received several calls regarding overdue parties who were on the Subway Route. All were located by 2 a.m. the following morning. While investigating the reports, though, ranger Ray O'Neil noted that one vehicle was still parked at the Left Fork trailhead with a day permit for April 16th. Backcountry permit checks revealed that a party of two had planned to hike the Subway Route via the Russell Gulch technical entrance and that they had not been reported overdue. Initial investigations revealed they were not due to return to work until Tuesday. The Subway Route and all technical access routes had extremely high water flows over the weekend due to the high country snow melt, and several parties travelling top down were experiencing difficulties. A hasty search was accordingly begun that afternoon. The search continued into Monday, with air support and additional SAR personnel joining in. By Tuesday, a full ICS operation had been established that included 25 NPS ground searchers, air support and two dog teams. During this time, the Subway Route remained open to visitors under the required permit system. Every exiting party was interviewed, but none reported seeing the two missing hikers. A separate report of a single overdue hiker was also received during this time. A request was put into the military for an infrared flight over the Russell Gulch and Subway area on Tuesday evening, and two helicopters were dispatched from Nellis AFB. Before they could arrive, a party exiting the Subway Route received a 911 call, with the caller reporting that a group of nine hikers remained in the canyon due to difficulties in getting through the technical section of the route. The group included all three of the missing hikers. The helicopters were redirected to the Subway Route, where they employed infrared and night vision equipment to locate the group. Two parajumpers descended to them to determine their condition and traveled with them to the trailhead. All missing persons were accounted for, and none required medical attention. They said they'd had serious trouble getting through the water and the narrowest sections of the canyon. The Subway Route has been temporarily closed for safety reasons until further notice. [Submitted by Cindy J. Purcell, Chief Ranger]

Canyoneering down the Subway Hiking the Subway

Related Links:
Subway Route Information

Last rappel in "The Subway".


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