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Seven of Twelve Canyoneers Die in New Zealand Outdoor Centre Flash Flood

Stories emerge. Investigations begin. And the answers will undoubtedly mimic lessons already learned.

New Zealand is currently in mourning for seven canyoneers from Elim Christian College (high school) who were killed when a flash flood swept their 12-person group down the steep, bouldery Mangatepopo River last Tuesday afternoon (April 15th). Six of the dead were students, all 14-16 years of age. Also dead is their college teacher, 29-year-old Tony McClean. They were being guided by the Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC), located less than a kilometer from the gorge. Four students and the OPC guide survived.

The accident has jarred this close-knit island nation of 4.5 million people. Newpaper message boards are stuffed. Kiwi opinions generally fall into four categories: devout Christians who say it’s God’s will; people offering only condolences and cautioning against judgement; challenge fans who worry that socialist nannyism will eliminate adventure from our lives; and yet others – many of them area locals, outfitters, and private adventurers – who express surprise that the group was in any canyon at all when a major, drought-breaking rainstorm had been forecast for days.

The Mangatepopo is a short, 15km-long alpine river that begins in high tundra bowls on Mt. Tongariro and plunges steeply to enter a narrow, boulder choked slot canyon. This eventually opens up just above a hydroelectric diversion dam. It’s a technically straightforward canyon. Only one rappel is needed (over the dam), but most of the gorge above requires boulder-hopping, pool jumping, and swimming while pulling oneself along the cliff walls via cables and handholds. All students were clad in wetsuits, helmets and lifejackets.

Details of the incident are still emerging, but the basic timeline as reported by New Zealand and Australian media run thus:

–The weather service Metservice faxed a daily subscription weather report to the OPC at 6:15 am, mentioning intermittent showers and incoming weather, but not ‘thunderstorms.’ The storm front had been forecast for days. New Zealanders also have access to excellent satellite and weather radar imagery.

–The OPC guides meet at 8am. At 8:29am, Metservice issued an updated bulletin warning of  thunderstorms, rising rivers and flooding. Apparently the guides did not get it.

–The Mangatepopo group didn’t leave until after lunch, presumably noon or 1 p.m. at the earliest.

–It only took an hour for the group to walk a road to the river, go upstream around the dam, and get well into the slot canyon. It was an up and back trip, unsual for canyoneering adventures.

–The water came up fast, rising from 0.5 cubic meters per second at 3 p.m., to 18 cmps by 3:30. This was roughly 30 times its normal flow volume (perhaps triple the water height, with much more current speed). By 6 p.m., it was back to normal.

–The flood didn’t descend as a raging wall. The group had time to clamber onto a ledge (also described as a crevasse). Unsure whether the water would continue to rise, eventually they decided to swim for the far bank, down around a blind corner. This involved crossing to the outer bank of a river elbow, and catching a throw bag.

–Five people managed the swim, which would have been Class V-plus whitewater at that flow. The first three swimmers were not swept over the dam, and they survived. Two other survivors were swept over the dam but made it, although both were badly pummeled. One was carried more than a kilometer and had his helmet shattered off his head. The other seven were all swept over the dam and killed. McClean was the last to leave the ledge. He tied himself to a disabled cerebral palsy student  and went for it. (Very brave, but not recommendable.) Their wrapped bodies were found 3 km below the accident scene.

–The OPC is a well-respected outdoor centre with a generally good safety record. They’ve run thousands of students through the Mangatepopo Gorge.Their last fatality was 32 years ago. In 1976, a student drowned in Mangatepopo after being caught under a log in low water. In 1987, another student died glissading on snow.

–The OPC guide, Jodie Sullivan (age mid-20’s) had a bachelor’s degree in phys ed, and was an avid outdoor adventurer. She had been working at the center three months. All survivors say she performed admirably, even tying herself to a terrified student (again, not recommendable) and swimming first across the river. However, since the rainstorm was drought-breaking, Sullivan had never seen the Mangatepopo in high water.

–The call as to whether or not the trip should go is normally made by the OPC’s Field Director. Pre-disaster OPC press releases indicate his name is Kerry Palmer, who has 10 years experience at the center. Interestingly, his name has been entirely absent from press reports.

–Both the OPC and New Zealand authorities are investigating the incident. Formal judgements are months away. There have been no additional quotes or stories from survivors in recent days. Current news reports are concentrating on the funerals, with the usual media focus on heroism, bravery and related subjects like faith, God, and healing.

We Americans and our media tend to point fingers hard and fast after adventure fatalities, but Kiwis apparently follow the opposite philosophy to an almost surreal extreme. The prevailing New Zealand attitude seems to be that adventure requires risk, adventurers shouldn’t be coddled, the OPC is very professional, and no one could have predicted what happened. And I’d like to believe that, but it just doesn’t wash.

We’re not talking about adventure or adventurers here, we’re talking about high school students contracted to a commercial guide service for adventure training. When you combine risky pursuits, young guides, novice clients, and business volume, the standards have to be higher than ‘everyone knew the risk’ simply because everyone doesn’t. And that’s particularly true of canyoneering, which combines fun but risky activities like rappels, pool jumps, and whitewater swimming with sexy scenery and aerobic ease – the perfect combination for marketable adventure.

But canyons are also very committing. IMHO, slick pouroffs, whitewater currents, undercut boulders, logjams, rockfalls, flash floods, and difficulty of retreat make them generally unsuited to volume guiding or team-building exercises. And the New Zealand version of ‘canyoning’ differs greatly from American-style ‘canyoneering.’ Canyoning often involves precision pool leaps from high cliffs, or necky whitewater swims above the brink of waterfalls, risks that American outfitters would never incorporate into their operating plan.

I’m a firm believer that sudden accidents rarely happen suddenly. With a little forethought and a few case histories under your belt, you can often see accident situations setting up hours, days, even weeks in advance. I’m not interested in doing a long distance Bill Frist/Terry Schiavo diagnosis here. Lessons will indeed be learned from the investigations now underway. But I suspect those lessons were already in plentiful supply. And as evidence, I offer the following recent canyoneering incidents, each with a brief outline, news links, and perhaps a few details that never made it into the media. The similarities are obvious. The gist? Hike safe mate. –Steve Howe

–March 2000, South Africa, Storms River:  13 canyoneers in mini-rafts die when a flash flood overtakes 4 guides and 20 clients traveling through the popular Storms River Canyon. Survivors cling to ledges and boulders for 36 hours until helicopters reach them.

–July 1993, USA, Kolob Canyon, Zion: Five teen Boy Scouts and three adults are ‘trapped’ after rappelling into the narrows of Kolob Canyon by high water released from an upstream irrigation dam. The water was five times the flow considered safe. Group leaders say NPS rangers failed to warn them, but signed permits say otherwise. Despite the dangerously high water, the group proceeds, hoping for a more open spot downcanyon. One adult is trapped on a rappel, another dies while saving him. The group continues, losing 6 of 8 waterproof backpacks and making only 150 yards in 2 hours. Another adult is swept to his death.  The remaining adult and five boys spend five days and four nights trapped on a semi-flooded ledge until rescuers cable-haul them out. Some of the boys develop bone problems from the long immersion, cold water and tight wet suits. Surviving relatives sue the NPS and irrigation company for a reputed $1.5 million. (ednote: Expert witnesses I know who visited the accident scene report that this group could have exited the canyon in several places, and were safe at the base of their first rappel. They blame the incident on poor group leadership.).

–August 1997, USA, Antelope Canyon, AZ:
Eleven tourists with a photography group are killed when a flash flood originates 40miles above the famous shoulder-wide slot canyon near Lake Powell. They had visited the canyon earlier, and left it due to reports of storms, but reentered the canyon in order to finish up their film. The flash flood arrives seconds later. All but one in the canyon are killed.

–September 1996, USA, White Canyon, UT:
Thirteen members of a Utah County church group are caught by a flash flood in the watery, narrow Black Hole of White Canyon. The novice group (incorrectly described as ‘experienced’ according to my interviews with the county sheriff) enters the canyon despite strong rains the night before. Whenever they became unsure about whether or not to proceed, they stop to pray, then proceed, apparently secure that their prayers were heard. The flash flood had been flowing toward them for nearly 12 hours from an overnight thunderstorm near Natural Bridges National Monument. They could have watched it if they’d merely driven further upcanyon along Highway 95.

–July 1999, Switzerland, Saxeten Gorge:

Large volume commercial outfitter Adventure World, out of Interlaken, has 53 people in popular Saxeten Gorge despite dark, black clouds and obvious thunderstorm activity. The last of the groups enter Saxeten about 4p.m. – late afternoon in thunderstorm-prone mountains. A massive flash flood rolls through and kills 21. At the time, AW had run over 35,000 people through the canyon.

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