Seven hikers from Boulder, Colorado, were caught napping in a flash flood in the Buckskin Gulch late Saturday evening. The floodwaters originated in the headwaters of the Buckskin, far north of the slot canyon itself, from a monsoonal downpour not experienced in the Kanab or Big Water areas.

Leif Steiner, 44, Boulder, stated he had hiked the Buckskin-Paria Canyon route 18 times previous to this trip. He led the group that included his 17-year old son, Reinhold, and 20 year old daughter, Pyrenee. Others in the group included two men and two women in their 20s.

After leaving two cars at Lee’s Ferry and shuttling a ride to the Wire Pass trailhead, the group began their hike late that morning under partly cloudy, but non-threatening skies.  After slogging through several  waist deep pools from previous rains, they set up camp at the Middle Route, just over seven miles from their starting point.

The slot canyon widens at that point and there is a small sand bench on the south wall that three of the group stretched out on to rest. The others pitched three tents in the wash bed itself. Reinhold and Pyrenee crawled into one of them to sleep, when shortly after 8 p.m. what Steiner described as “a harsh wind sound was heard just before a four foot wall of water hit our camp.”

Reinhold was able to unzip the tent and crawl out, but his sister ended up rolled up in the tent that was quickly heading downstream. He grabbed the tent and tore it open, snatching Pyrenee’s arm and pulling her to the bench for help. After that he lost his purchase and was caught in the torrent until he latched onto a floating branch and snagged himself on a rock 60 feet from where he left his sister. He sustained some bruised ribs and scrapes, but was otherwise alright, as was Pyrenee.

Steiner suffered the worst injuries. His feet were torn up on rocks as he tried to help those in the wash. His toes were cut and appeared badly sprained and possibly broken, as well. He couldn’t walk without a great deal of pain. The others suffered more from psychological trauma than physically.           

Kane County Search and Rescue (KCSAR) had been notified of a Spot type beacon alarm late Saturday night. The coordinates were not completely clear, but Classic helicopter, out of Page, did contact the group, who at that time refused the helicopter service, preferring to wait until ground rescue could be initiated the next day.

On Sunday, a KCSAR search team was called out to locate and assist the hikers. Fortunately, a Utah State Department of Public Safety (DPS) helicopter was able to join the KCSAR team near the White House Campground staging area.

The helicopter crew consisted of Rob Wilkinson, who operated the 110 foot hoist, pilot Kent Harrison, and co-pilot Wyatt Weber, an experienced and personable team.

By the time the helicopter crew located the group at the Middle Route, they were willing to be hoisted out of the canyon and taken to the staging area. The first one out was Steiner, who was met by Pat Horning, an EMS responder from Big Water, Utah, and his ambulance mate, who treated his injuries.

Initially, the rest of the group had decided to continue walking out of the canyon, but because of threatening storm clouds, they were persuaded to be air lifted out two at a time. All of them were taken to Page Hospital by the ambulance crew.  One set of car keys was lost in a pack downstream.

The day didn’t end with that rescue effort, however. The Steiner group reported a couple of hikers who passed them earlier that day going upstream, who had offered their group assistance. Because of the threatening storm clouds in the area and the known conditions in the canyon, plus the fact that a car had been left overnight at the Buckskin trailhead, it was thought best to try and locate these individuals to assure their safety.

The DPS helicopter crew offered to fly the canyon upstream from the Middle Route to try to locate the hikers. In the meantime, KCSAR crews staged at the Buckskin and Wire Pass trailheads, joined by BLM law enforcement officer Deak Dollard began hiking down those trails.

To my surprise and the three other Wire Pass searchers, when reaching the Buckskin, was the sight of the DPS crew standing beside their helicopter at the confluence. They reported seeing the two, who were just about to exit the slot canyon at the wide junction, where the fresh mud on the walls was six feet high.

Tricia Andreason, 31, from Springville, Utah, and Alec Offenberger, an Ohio resident, had hiked the entire 15.5 mile length of the Buckskin to the Paria River on Saturday and witnessed the disgorgement of the Buckskin’s muddy debris laden flood waters into the Paria River that evening from a safe vantage point.

They started hiking back the next morning during which time Alec badly pulled his right hamstring extracting his foot from the mud and quicksand in the Buckskin. He was hobbling along and agreed to return with us to the Wire Pass trailhead, thereby saving them an additional three miles of walking to the Buckskin trailhead and their car.  They appreciated the water and trail bars given them

Thankfully, all of these hikers survived what potentially could have been a very tragic outcome. This again underscores the need to be cognizant of the very real potential for flash floods in our southern Utah slot canyons, especially during the monsoonal season. Unseen heavy showers dozens of miles away from Buckskin Gulch could have ended these peoples’ lives.