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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Flash Flood

Elias Butler at the spot in the Zion Narrows where he had previously encountered a flash flood in 1997, Zion National Park, UT.
Elias Butler Photography
Elias Butler at the spot in the Zion Narrows where he had previously encountered a flash flood in 1997, Zion National Park, UT.

With the onset of the monsoon, comes the probability of flash floods. And in the countless side canyons and slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau, that presents a dangerous scenario. Earlier this year, flash floods claimed the lives of four people in Buckskin Gulch. Back in 1997, twelve tourists were swept away by flood waters in Antelope Canyon. Only one survived. About a month later, Flagstaff photographer Elias Butler nearly met the same fate in the Zion Canyon Narrows. Writer Scott Thybony recounts the story in his latest Canyon Commentary, Flash Flood.

He entered the Zion Canyon Narrows under a blue sky. Photographer Elias Butler moved quickly, wanting to reach the most spectacular section before a storm hit. He stopped where the Virgin River fills the gorge wall-to-wall and the cliffs reach upward a thousand feet.

“The place,” he later told me, “had a real ominous feel to it, like you’re entering into Hades. The cliffs are looming above, the canyon is shadowy, and there’s this hypnotic water music. Then I started hearing thunder booming in the distance, upstream, with the sounds reverberating off the walls. There was this feeling in my gut that I shouldn’t be there.”

With a growing sense of dread, Elias set up his camera. “All of a sudden,” he said, “there was this real strong wind that came from upstream. The plants on the wall were swishing, and I’m wondering what would cause a wind to come down so suddenly? It was unusual. . . . And just as I realized that, I heard this crash and looked upstream. A wave of water was piling into the opposite wall. For the barest split second I looked at it, and as soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘I’m dead.’”

A flash flood, only 50-feet away, raced toward him. The photographer grabbed his gear and ran. “I don’t think I ever ran faster in my life; I don’t think I could. I was flying. My legs were pumping into the air, over rocks and through water, something normally difficult to run over.”

Closing fast, the muddy surge rushed toward him. He rounded a bend and scrambled up an embankment a moment before the flash flood tore past. “I staggered onto the bank,” he said. “I had run a hundred yards and immediately collapsed onto the sand. I lay on my back, my whole body quivering. I was gasping for breath, looking up at the sky, and muttering, ‘Thank you, thank you.’” The pounding of the river reverberated through the gorge, and with all chance of escape cut off he could only wait for the flood to recede.

Compounding his troubles, a thunderstorm rolled down the canyon bringing a drenching rain. He only wore shorts, a T-shirt, and a rain shell. The rain put out his campfire, leaving him to wait out the night with water streaming down his body. And the river kept flashing.

“It was fearsome," he continued. "When the thunder boomed you could feel it vibrate in the rocks. The lightning would light up the entire canyon for a split second, and I would see a series of waterfalls pouring off the opposite side of the canyon. It was a surreal scene, nightmarish, but beautiful at the same time.”

The hours stretched out until a somber dawn finally arrived. The water level had dropped enough by late afternoon that Elias decided to escape by floating downcanyon. “As I eased into the river I looked upstream and felt this sense of total dread. I was afraid there was going to be another flood coming any moment. I had the hardest time letting go of the shore and drifting out into the current.”

He bobbed through the narrow gorge, looking up at the cliffs above until the canyon widened. He then ran along the bank to make better time. Rounding a bend, he saw four people crossing the river wearing drysuits. One of them spotted him and shouted, “Elias?” It was a search team looking for him.

“Immediately they gave me some warm clothes and hot soup,” he recalled. “We walked out together to the trailhead. My girlfriend was there and couldn’t believe it. She was saying, ‘Oh my God’ over and over. She thought I was dead.”

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.