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Parker Canyon, AZ - Deadly Lucky.

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by Clint Poole, Oct 7, 2018.

  1. Clint Poole

    Clint Poole Explorer Junky

    Haven't posted on here for a long time, but i figured this was share worthy. no matter how on point you and your crew can be, sometimes it doesn't matter. this long(ish) post tells the same story from two different sides, and i think the perspective really highlights how important it is to evaluate an injured party quickly, efficiently, and safely - even if you can't get to them. Sometimes the best choice isn't an easy one to make. Here is Wednesday as seen by Chuck. Mine follows.

    Water was big and conditions were good but Mother Nature made it clear she was not messing around on Wednesday October 3rd. From the moment we could get a good look at the creek of South Fork it was clear this was a day of big water and high stakes. Water this big would leave little room for error but would reward the bold and wary with awesome photos and incredible memories.

    All were excited and chattering about the conditions. Low hanging clouds and almost no wind left hoodoos and peaks in misty gray shadow while sediment laden water bubbled and hissed in protest as the creek swelled wall to wall, breaking free of normal channels as it moved with a sense of urgency towards the distant roar of foaming waterfalls. All of the canyon was wet with rain and seemed to be peacocking for the camera. Brilliant reds, deep grays, vibrant yellow streaks and the shade of green that is nature’s gold that could never be truly captured on film or SD card.

    We were a tribe of 4. That’s how I like to think of small parties of people out experiencing nature. Webster defines a tribe as a social group comprising numerous clans, families, ...or adopted strangers. Our tribe had 4 people of various skill levels and backgrounds. All competent. All equals. All trusted. All adopted by one another.
    We had been driving in a steady but light rain since Globe so we geared up at the truck. Sharp metallic sounds of jingling carabiners and the smell of neoprene wetsuits soon gave way to the aroma of wet earth as we exited the back of the truck to begin our hike. My watch read 9:15 but I snapped a photo anyway so I could check the time stamp on the photo later in the event that I forget.

    Spirits were high and we were meeting each obstacle with a wary eye and an abundance of caution as we began our descent into the technical section of Parker Creek canyon.

    (checking conditions on releasable)
    Entry Check.

    It was past the first rappel and just beyond the first slide where Mother Nature decided to remind us of life’s frailty, and where my portion of the story begins.
    We stood staring at the water as it flowed with menacing enthusiasm down a channel that, on lighter days, would have been a fun slide into a pool that was deep enough to require a few swimming strokes to get to where feet could find soft earth at the bottom of the creek. This was no light flow day. This slide is fed by a large pool that quickly constricts as it transitions from a rocky bottom to a quartzite slab. The hard rock slab angles down and begins to tighten as it curves sharply to the left. The water then slams into a wall on canyon left where it etches its history in the rock by cutting down a deeper and much steeper channel, then dropping into a foamy pool below with hydraulic features that threaten to pin you to wall or floor, depending on how you enter the flow.
    Clint decided to go first to evaluate the hydraulic features and determine the safest path through the flow. This made sense since he has a long background in whitewater boating and is competent at reading water features and hydraulics. The initial plan was to for me (the most “robust” person in the group) to provide a body belay to Clint, then modify the rope length and possibly the line which Paige and Samantha would follow. I would then gather up the rope and shuffle along the slab just above the waterline and drop into the flow where it was safest. Just in case the flow was too big, we identified a couple of anchor options for me to use if the risk was determined to be too high to attempt to descend this obstacle sans rope. One was a large boulder in the watercourse with a very nice line down the chute and the other was a preferred anchor of mine which is a nice crack system along the wall on canyon right about 5’ up, perfect for a large knot chock.

    Initially everything went to plan. Clint went down and signalled for 4’ of additional rope to be lowered to set an ideal length for the next two to rappel. Memory fails me as to who went next, but once the three were down I began to stuff the rope in the rope bag. Just as I got it stowed I was able to communicate with Clint. The water was too big and the risk too high to scramble out and drop into the chute as we previously intended. There was a serious risk of injury due to the force of the water pushing a vector that would end with an abrupt stop on the left wall that would be broken with knees - or break knees.

    (slide hydraulic)

    Time for Plan B. The webbing had gone down the chute with Sam so she scrambled to a point where it could be tossed and sent it with a perfect arc into my waiting hand. I thought of King Arthur catching Excalibur in an old movie I had once seen. The 12 year old in me likes to find ridiculous comparisons that amuse me. I looked briefly at the boulder in the watercourse and began to evaluate it. It was more than big enough and plenty solid, however my eyes quickly scanned the crack on the wall and located a nice constriction that begged my webbing to come for a visit and stay a while. Who was I to say no?

    I quickly cut the webbing and began to tie the appropriate sized knot for the constriction. Here is where things get a little foggy… I placed the knot into the crack but I didn’t really like the length of webbing that was left over after the knot. I placed the rope in the Rapide and began to tie a Clove hitch with the idea that it would hold the rope while I cut a new length of webbing to build a better anchor. My head was down, probably to grab a carabiner, when I heard the hissing sound of sand sprayed against the plastic of my helmet. Then nothing…

    My next memory was a sound that was familiar but I couldn’t place, like hearing a few notes from a song from long ago. It was dark, but that sound… Familiar. Somehow it seemed important but I did not know why. The next thing I became aware of was pain in my left thumb. I was aware that my thumb was way above my head and my left arm was stretched out as far as it could be above me. WTF? Then there was light. Fuzzy for a second until my eyes began to focus again, but light, then shapes, then colors. All of this happened within a second, like walking from a dark theater into the lobby full of sounds and colors.

    Next I realized I was horribly uncomfortable. I looked up to see my thumb was tied into the rope and my legs were twisted below me to my left. The current tugged at them like a tired puppy gently tugging on a toy. None of this processed. There was no thought. Just experience. I could not form a coherent thought. I wanted to get my thumb out of the rope and get my legs underneath me but gravity was playing games with me and shifting in all directions and with varying intensity it seemed. The water pulled my feet from underneath me everytime I tried to stand. It made no sense. Why could I not stand? Simple physics was lost to me.

    Only then did I become aware that the noise I struggled to recognize was the sound of the water. But there was something else also. Shouts. I wasn’t interested in seeing where the voices were coming from. They would wait. I was in pain and wanted it to stop. I could stop it by getting my thumb free. I had no awareness of my situation or circumstance and I didn’t care. After freeing my thumb I slid down the wall and rotated a bit to see what was going on around me. I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. I saw Clint who had climbed to the top of a small ledge on a rock below me. I recognized him but did not yet know is name or where I knew him from. I began to move. Not for any real reason, but because somehow, something inside me felt like I needed to.

    After this things began to click pretty quickly. I began to rapidly remember why I was there and that I was beginning to move downstream towards serious danger. Somehow I still held the rope so I gripped it and stopped as I became aware that my mind was not functioning and I needed to stop moving until I could get my wits back. Clint kept shouting. Asshole… You’re not the boss of me. I will do what I want when I want. But, what do I want..? A valid question. I know! I’ll ask Clint!

    I became aware that I had been hit pretty hard by something and I had lost consciousness. My legs were wobbly and my fine motor skills were a no go. I remembered the people waiting for me and again I began to move towards the rushing water. This time because I thought i needed them to see I am ok. I didn’t want anyone to take an unnecessary risk to try to get to me. It never occurred to me to shout back that I was ok (ish).

    Now I realized I am in trouble. Faculties are coming back but a heavy fog is draping over my thoughts. I need to get on rope but didn’t remember setting a carabiner block. I would use both sides of the rope - just in case. I rely on muscle memory to thread the two ends of the rope through my rappel device as I had done thousands of times before, and begin moving with purpose for the first time to the water course where it begins to travel over the slab to the left.

    Clint is still shouting. Asshole… I hold up the ropes to show I am on both strands. I am still not talking. Nor am I able to clearly hear him over the sound of the water and the intense ringing in my ears. Thoughts come slowly and in no particular order. No way I can walk but it is ok since the water is carrying me along. Then onto the slab so I can get out of the water before it commits me to the flow. Gravity sucks… Movement is slow and clumsy. Thank God I am on rope. I see Sam peek over the rock formation on the right side of the water flow. She looks scared. I feel guilty for worrying her. Clint is shouting again. This time I can understand him. As much as anyone understands Clint anyway. Asshole… Sam has one strand of the rope and I toss her the other. I am now very close to the most violent part of the water course where the water drops violently into the chute. Clint signals for me to drop into the top part of the chute where it is dry and wait. I do. Sam pulls both ropes tight and I feel myself begin to go toward her. Everytime I try to lift my legs above the water flow to plant my feet on the wall on the other side the water quickly drags my feet down and my body rotates. I am aware that this is not good and things could get sideways pretty quickly. Strangely, I am aware of this but I am not coherent enough to really care yet. I know I am hurt and I just want to get to the other side where I will be safe. I catch myself mid thought and realize that this is the thought path that will lead to a tragedy. I pause, only for a second, and try to channel some adrenalin for clarity. I begin to repeat an old mantra in my head. “Stop and think. Move with purpose…”

    Soon Sam has me and pulls me over the rock past the threat of a very wet ride. I slide down the back side of the rock formation that borders the rushing water, still on rappel. She clips into the short strand of the rope and leaves me on the long strand. She will now be a body belay for me so I can get to safety. I get to the bottom and Clint is there checking me for injuries and asking stupid questions. “What day is it?” Asshole…

    Thoughts are coming back now and so are memories. I figure out that I was caught in a rockslide from the top of the canyon. I am covered in mud and dirt. Clint clears debris from my left ear. My helmet has a scar and my drysuit is no longer as dry as it once was due to a leak from somewhere yet unknown. Clint mentions I might have pissed myself when I went unconscious. Asshole… I decide to check anyway - just to be sure and to my relief it is only creek water. My shoulder hurt from my arm being stretched. Also a bit bruised from something hitting me I guess. My head and jaw hurt, most likely from the impact. But other than a serious case of the shakes after coming down from all of the adrenalin flowing through me, I was in pretty good shape.

    Triage reveals no obvious head injury. Most likely something hit the back of my helmet with a high degree of force and slammed the top part of my helmet into the wall where the sudden movement overloaded my brain and it decided to reboot. Fortunately I have developed the habit of tying a clove hitch in a particular way. Once I form the loops, I put my thumb into them and pinch the tails between my thumb and hand so the loops don’t close while I feed a carabiner through them. When I went out, the clove hitch cinched up on my thumb and kept me from falling into the water and being swept downstream.

    I hate accident reports. Every self appointed armchair expert chimes in with criticism and advice on the “proper” way things should have been done. In hindsight, we followed best practices. It was a very typical last man at risk scenario. No one could have foreseen a rockslide. There were no recent fires or burn scars. At no time was rock fall heard in the canyon (with one obvious exception. And technically I never heard it…) Yes, it was raining, but this was not the first time I had chased a storm to get good flow through a canyon. Definitely not the first time for Clint either. It won’t be my last. The most serious risk from the accident was me being completely out of my mind and moving around in a high risk situation. No one could have stopped me had I slid into the flow. But, I was not in my right mind…

    Sometimes things just happen. It is the hidden cost of doing business. I don’t go into the wilderness in an inflatable bubble looking to be protected from everything around me. I go to reconnect with something deeper in my soul that calls to me. Had I used the rock in the watercourse that we had considered it would have been much worse. But it wasn’t. I could have died. But I didn’t. Clint or anyone else could have been injured or died. But they didn’t. This time we were lucky. No one did anything wrong and I am proud of and honored by the tribe I traveled with. We can’t control everything all of the time. We assume a certain risk to do the things we love in the outdoors. Sometimes we do everything right and things still go wrong. Mike Tyson has a favorite quote of mine. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” We got punched in the mouth, then we figured it out.

    Clint, Paige, Sam, thank you for looking out for me and for letting me be ok after all was said and done. Awesome friends have your back. incredible friends have your back and let you move past things without constantly hovering. You are by far, beyond incredible friends. You honor me… Long live the tribe.

    “Life is not a spectator sport…” - Jackie Robinson

    “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” - Yves Chouinard

    Above was Chuck’s account from what happened. Here’s mine.

    It was a very rainy start to the week in Arizona. A constant eye on the radar had me evaluating watersheds of all kinds; is it boatable? How’s the water in that canyon? I wonder if it’ll keep raining through Wednesday.

    It did.

    Wednesday morning was like any other water chasing morning – get up, look at the radar, get some breakfast, make the calls you needed to make, get the crew together, and head out. We decided on Parker Creek, as the south fork gauge was on a slow taper from 3 to 4 cfs, and with the current rainfall, we would definitely have a matching number from the north fork (un-measured via gauge). The entire drive was rainy, and for me this meant great canyon conditions; we wanted Parker to go big.

    Pulling off onto the 4wd road that parallels Parker, we were met with a view of an angry brown creek as we crossed the bridge. Brimming rivulets of rainwater danced across the road, and I felt my truck slide sideways in the clay- time to back up and park near the bridge. We geared up in the truck, as it would be a wet day for the rest of our adventure anyways, and temps were in the mid to high 60s. We hiked down to the standard approach gully, which was contributing about ½ cfs all on its own. Upon reaching the north/south confluence, it was apparent that around 4 cfs was coming from the south and about 6 cfs was coming from the north - 10 cfs… sounds fun.

    We worked our way to the first little downclimb, which had a steep little hydraulic that could be bypassed by sliding off the side of the shelf past the boil line. R1 was an easy rappel into the pool below, although a slight swing to rappellers right would result in you being stripped from the rope by the water and pinned to the bottom of the creek. The first slide was undoable due to a massive curler of a hydraulic, which would also result in a pin. We bypassed RDC to the hesitation in the curl- a small flat stance that had a surging wave over it. This was the safest spot to drop in and provided the most control. A small recirculating hydraulic was at the bottom, and provided a challenge to anyone who didn’t execute the landing perfectly.

    The next section- the 20’ slide, had more velocity than good footing would allow for, so I got on the sharp end while Chuck belayed. A massive stream of water filled with sediment and small rocks blasted over you at the LDC wall, but there was enough of a window to slip under it and use the conventional slide route on RDC. Looked easy, and the hydraulic at the bottom looked intense, but flushy. I popped off the end of the rope and was instantly smashed against the wall and curled a couple of times amidst river rocks and sand before popping out into the calm. The aeration at the bottom of the slide had removed any of the traditional cushion provided by calmer conditions, shooting me straight into the bottom of the creek bed. I signaled to have 4 more feet of rope let out, right to where the water would peel you away anyways. Sam and Paige fared better, but both still got toilet-bowled into the wall. I Told Chuck he would have to build an anchor using a boulder we had discussed up top, for a full slide would have certainly ended in injury worse than the goose egg on my knee.

    Sam, Paige and I were in awe of the beautiful cascades and intermittent sunlight glimmering off of the walls between passing clouds. We took pictures and laughed as we discussed the amazing conditions we were in. I Looked upstream to Chuck, waiting for the rope to come sailing over the fin of bedrock as I knew it soon would. We were having an absolute blast.

    “OH SHIT”

    Sam and I scrambled as soon as she yelled- we ran in circles trying to evaluate what was happening.


    I stood there, stunned that a 150 lb. stump lay in the water where I had just jumped from.

    (where i stood prior to jumping to safety)

    Pieces of exploded tree lay all around us, beginning their float downstream. The landing was so intense that I had sediment on my face from when the stump landed. An entire dead tree had fallen from the rim. We gathered our thoughts and made sure the three of us were unharmed. Sam called for Chuck. I whistled. Again. Minutes went by.

    No whistle response. No vocal response.

    Sam climbed the side of the canyon to a shelf, hoping for a view, calling all the while. “I saw two pieces of that log in the air” she stated, concerned. I climbed up to the same shelf and we saw the rope just flapping in the water from around the corner. I worked the edge to get around the shelf a little further. The bag had drifted around the corner and fell into the hydraulic, where Sam and Paige went to manage it. “I see him. He’s up.” I said to Sam and Paige below, but something wasn’t right.

    It took him several tries to get on rope, but I watched intently to make sure he was on. At that point I made him come down rope as far as I thought he needed to for us to make a move to assist. “stay there!” I shouted, and once I could see he was able to, I headed down from the ledge.

    Sam and Paige worked their way up the fin of rock in the center, where I instructed them to get the short rope side from Chuck. He was able to throw the end to them, and I told them to haul him up the side- I remained below to pull on the long strand of rope. We got him on the fin, where he needed to stay on the long strand of rope. Sam counterbalanced on the short side with a rope grab as I belayed Chuck to the bottom of the fin.We got under a shelf and I assessed Chuck’s state. Once his spine was cleared and we checked him over, we asked him what happened.

    He woke up from blackout dangling by his thumb in the flow. He began to tie a clove hitch for a block, sticking his thumb through the center when something nailed him. Had he decided to use the rock we discussed, he would have been hit by a large log and buried by additional debris. He decided on an anchor ten feet away. He couldn’t understand what was going on until he was on the fin.

    It took 20 minutes for Chuck to begin responding normally again, and even then we kept him in the middle of the group. We ultimately finished out the canyon in huge conditions and in good spirits, but this was way too close to being a rescue, or even a recovery.

    (R5 at 10-11 CFS - south fork gauge at 4 CFS)

    In my reflection on this trip, I am grateful we all made it through that sudden tempestuous event. We, as a community of recreational rope access enthusiasts, talk about how we never get to practice our skills as much as we would like. I DO practice regularly, as does Chuck, and it just goes to show you that sometimes, earth throws you curve balls. I’ve never been more grateful to the instructors and mentors in my life that gave me the tools to keep my friends and I safe (as safe as possible, anyways).

    You better stay sharp.

    Get training.

    Be safe.

    Know how to save the people you love to love the outdoors with.

    Wednesday was still a good day.
    Ram, danf, Jenny and 8 others like this.
  2. Mike Zampino

    Mike Zampino Canyon season never ends.

    Phoenix, AZ
    I guess I will start with the armchair quarterbacking. All of this could have easily been avoided. If you would have invited me we would have been a group of 5 instead of 4, hence slower, allowing the tree to fall before we got there. Problem Solved!
  3. Jay Wisocki

    Jay Wisocki Owner at Wilderness First Recovery LLC

    Prescott Arizona
    Wow man that's crazy, We actually hit Parker in high flow as well, It was crazy fun and amazing. Looks like the flow you ran into was even higher. Great canyon when flowing.

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