November 15, 2011 – 11 AM In an unpublished canyon near Lake Powell, I took a tumble that resulted in a very slightly broken wrist, a ‘bruised’ back and a severely bruised ego. Here’s the story:
This was the last day of my annual North Wash Birthday Bash trip. My main partner Steve Ramras (known as Ram) had driven in the night before. Good friend Jenny West had arrived about the same time, having finished a Grand Canyon hiking trip that morning. Other actors were John Diener from Salt Lake, down for the birthday bash and Evan Fimbres from St George, friend of a friend and new to canyoneering, though an experienced climber and outdoorsman. We selected as the objective for the day a first descent, that Ram and I had scouted several years previously, and which had not been done because we both suspected it would not amount to much.
All photos this Rave, except this first one, by Steve Ramras aka “Ramsel Adams”…
The trailhead was a ways from North Wash, so we did not hit the trail until 9:30 am. The weather was spectacular and the hour hike to the top of the canyon was delightful. We arrived to find a fast-dropping canyon that started with a clump of small potholes and then a drop with the bottom unseen, but likely in the 150-200’ range. We had brought 2 x 200’ ropes and 2 x 100’ ropes, so we could rappel up to 300’, but past 200’ would involve some trickery – my specialty.
Our current SOP is to try to complete canyons using “ghosting” techniques, leaving nothing behind. The SandTrap makes this reasonable, and the new WaterTrap is a variation that provides more functionality. The top of the canyon had a couple of small potholes of different shapes, sand available a ways off and a small amount of water available right there. Jenny had not seen my version of the WaterTrap in action, and this seemed a good place to utilize it.
We suited up and got ready. I selected a place to put the Trap, a shallow pothole next to a puddle with sufficient water to fill up the trash bag. Jenny worked on digging out the pothole to get it a little deeper while the others, with a little prompting, started getting the rope ready and helped with rigging the watertrap. I knelt next to the pothole and filled the bag half-full, about as full as it is convenient to fill it. I was trying a new release rigging that Stevee B had figured out on our last trip together, so was concentrating on that aspect of the setup. The area around the pothole was small, and we had 4 people there doing stuff, so things were a little crowded and confused.
I designated Ram to go down first. He is usually my anchor buddy, but in this case I wanted him to go down first because we wanted an expert eye to evaluate the canyon ahead and make sure we were not getting into trouble, before getting too many people down there. We tossed the rope bag and it hit with a resounding thud, so we were pretty sure the rap was less than 200’ – an important thing to know, and a good reason to use a rope bag.
With the SandTrap and the WaterTrap, after setting it up and establishing a backup, we watch it carefully as the first person rappels to see how solid it is. For this reason, it helps to have a largish group. Generally the person who sets the anchor up, the “owner”, raps last and makes the decisions about the location and weight that determine how secure the placement is, since they will be the only rapper without a backup. As the owner of this setup, I would rap last, though I invited Jenny and Evan (who are lighter than me) to go last – they declined. Usually I have Ram, or someone else who weighs about what I do, go second to last to “final-test” the setup.
In this case, Ram rapped first and the trap moved forward somewhat (normal) and then somewhat more, requiring a little tension from the backup. [The key point being that this indicates the anchor was not sufficiently secure, and action should have been taken right then to make the anchor 100% secure – and that action was not taken.] John rapped next, and being a bit bigger, we just applied moderate backup tension to the trap and he rapped off. That left the two lightweights and me. At this point we changed position around the deeper pothole in front of us to the actual edge of the drop. The WaterTrap needs to be held in position, so we needed to shift position so, as final rapper, I could hold the trap in position and get on rappel at the same time. Jenny and Evan rapped off with me backing them up by standing on the rap rope, then I hooked up and started the rappel.
The rap started with a 15’ rappel down to a pothole ledge, then a step across the ledge and over an edge down a 75’ steep wall to the canyon floor. I desired to rappel as gently as possible, so I eased over the first edge and moved smoothly to the ledge, maintained tension across the pothole, then sat down and gently eased over the second edge, maintaining a vertical position while rapping as smoothly as possible down the almost-vertical wall. At the very bottom, 8’ to 10’ from the bottom, the wall moved back and became overhanging. At this point I stopped and looked down to see where I would land, and at this moment the anchor pulled and I dropped onto the rock below, a 30 degree slab, landing on my butt with my right hand out to ‘catch’ my hard fall. From my point of view, I landed squarely on my butt.
Immediate Consequences and Evac
I immediately felt serious pain across my lower back and less severe pain in my wrist. I immediately stood up, had Jenny unhook me, got the pack off and found a place to lie down flat on my back to find a position of comfort. I broke my back in a not-paragliding accident in 1998, so I knew what an unstable burst vertebra (L1) felt like, and this felt similar except, a key point, the pain went up to about 5 and stopped, this time, and I was able to find a position of comfort. Last time, no position of comfort could be found, and the pain went up to 10 pretty quick.
Evaluation indicated a mild break or sprain of the right wrist and some concern about the back – a possible vertebra crack or broken process, or maybe just strained muscles. Some mildly painful flexing indicated that at least for the moment whatever was going on there was stable, and maintaining a vertical position was reasonably comfortable, say a 3. My immediate concern was that things could go south at any time, so it was imperative to get a move on and get out of the canyon to helicopterable terrain before that happened. We taped my glove in place to splint my right wrist. Let’s move!
My pack was spread out among worthy carriers, and all but Ram were sent ahead to figure out the next rappel, while Ram assisted me downcanyon. Thankfully, the canyon was what we would consider a ‘dud’ – the next section consisted of 60 feet of mostly easy walking with a 10 foot section of very mild slot that proved not to be a problem. At the end of this, Ram and I found the group had put a sling around a boulder and were setting up another big rappel, this one being about 140 feet and thankfully straightforward. Jenny rapped down first to give me a bottom belay, then I rapped left-handed with no real difficulty to the ground. Jenny and I started walking out the canyon while the others completed the rappel and loaded up the gear.
The canyon floor ended up having few obstacles and we made good time. When the others caught up, we used a pack foam/plastic back panel set with a hipbelt to make a brace and corset which provided a small amount of comfort. The 3 mile hike out was thankfully uneventful, and the pain decreased somewhat.
We drove out, back to Sandthrax, packed up, then Jenny left her car and drove my car and me, with Ram trailing, back to my home in Mt Carmel, arriving about 11 pm. After a ‘good night’s sleep’ and a shower, we went to the hospital in Kanab, where Xrays were taken (small break in the wrist, no breaks visible in the lower spine), the wrist splinted (cast applied 5 days later), scrips written and I went home to recover. Ram and Jenny returned to North Wash to complete their trip, and I am learning to do many tasks left-handed. The wrist is not painful, just annoying, while the back, 2 weeks later still hurts enough that a 5-500 Hydrocodone every 8 hours seems like a good idea.
My thanks to Ram and Jenny for taking good care of me, to John and Evan for helping get me out of there, and to the Goddess Fortuna for once again smiling upon my foolishness and letting me get away with minimal damage.
I could have died, or been crippled. Thankfully, the anchor waited until I was almost down to pull.
The place I chose to put the watertrap and ignoring the lack of security can best be described as a MAXIMUM BRAIN FART.
The WaterTrap has specific placement requirements that are different than the SandTrap, and which I mostly ignored. There were several options for improving it, neither of which happened, including:
A. It needed to be heavier, as it was trying to fail when Ram rapped. Sand is 1.6 to 2 X heavier than water – I was treating it like a sandtrap. More water would have fit in the bag, and water should have been added after Ram rappelled.
B. It needed to be in a different place. The chosen pothole was both too shallow (ie, the angle was too low, it was too flat) and too small (the WaterTrap was too high up). A better pothole was available 5 feet further forward, but it might have required a third rope, a positioning rope, to hold it in place, maybe. We could have moved it after Ram rapped, but we didn’t.
C. Bags of sand could have been added atop the WaterTrap to provide more security.
The real question is perhaps why no one noticed these problems and brought them forth. I can only speak for myself – and here are some effects which led to a lack of perception:
A. I did not have my main man next to me. Ram is very good at seeing what I don’t, and insisting on fixing things.
B. Team Transition – this was our first canyon together as this team, and the personal dynamics were not yet smooth.
C. Concentrating on other things – I was focusing on getting the pull side set up correctly using Stevie’s new rigging method, showing my version of the trap to Jenny, John and Evan, rather than on the security of the thing.
D. Distractions – I was distracted by the morning’s driving mess up, and by a miscommunication about which ropes we were using, and by the uncertainty below us – what would the canyon hold? It was also my last day of the trip and I was already thinking about heading home.
This is a stupid sport. The ONLY way to stay safe is to be smarter than these dumb canyons we do.
Every time, every anchor requires a 100% focus and 100% security evaluation before being used without backup.
Tom is the progenitor of Tom's Utah Canyoneering Guide, Utah's premier canyoneering information resource, and Imlay Canyon Gear, America's #1 maker of canyoneering-specific gear. If he's not canyoneering, he's probably snuggled up with a good book.
Posted on Nov 16th, 2011
Accidents, Canyoneering, Gear, Lake Powell, Tom Jones, Trip Report