Two California seniors killed in Escalante flash flood

And the tragedy hits close to home

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Well I’m heading to Rocky Mountain National Park early tomorrow for a four-day Backpacker staff adventure and gear test orgy with my Boulder magazine compatriots. Can’t wait. It’ll be a great four days, with good friends and co-workers, in an old stomping ground (I went to Middle School in Estes Park, and RMNP was where I did my first mountain hikes and climbs). I’ll post with photos when I return mid next week. I might bag a 14er or two on the way back to Torrey.

Since I’m busy packing, I hadn’t planned to post today but…..

While I was checking the Salt Lake paper, I saw that a California couple died yesterday, Wednesday, September 10th, after being caught in an Escalante slot canyon flash flood. Then my jaw dropped as I read they were part of an 8-person party guided by Capitol Reef Backcountry Outfitters. The CRBO office is less than a quarter mile from my front door. I know the two guides, Cody Clapp and Elizabeth Kleiman. The two deceased hikers, Kathy and Gordon Chapple (both 60) of Walnut Creek, California are parents to Chris Chapple, a sheriff’s deputy who lives just around the block from Jennifer and I.

I don’t know Clapp, Kleiman or Chapple well, although we’re on genial terms. It’s just a cultural thing. They’re cowboy. I’m tree-hugger. No big deal. Cody, a big, garrulous guy who wears an even bigger hat, usually runs horseback rides and ATV tours. But he’s also a former Special Ops soldier who knows technical ropework, and in the last several years he’s responded to the demand for canyoneering trips by offering more. I’m sure I’ll learn more in the following weeks, but right now, in this tiny town of 200 souls, it’s the wrong time to go prying.

Knowing these folks as neighbors – and the lack of details – makes it hard to comment, but I can easily comment on Egypt 3, having been through it several times. It’s a very, very narrow slot canyon surrounded by naked slickrock. Slot canyons with a layout like this flood fast and high in conditions that would barely create a trickle through your average narrows. Rappels and pool jumps make it impossible to reverse course, so once you enter, you’re committed to finish. There are few ledges very high above the streambed, and the squeezy nature of the slot means that parties, especially large ones, simply cannot move fast.

A tight canyon with few high water refuges. Very flood-prone surroundings. Slow going. A large party. Not a good recipe except in the bluest weather, and we’ve been in a thunderstorm cycle for the last three or four days, albeit not a strong one. The entire party was caught by the resulting flood. Tragic as it was, this could easily have been an 8-person fatality given slightly different circumstances.

I’ve posted several flash flood analyses on this blog, and the lessons here aren’t really any different. Rather than rehash the tips and safety scoldings, I’ll simply refer you to my last flash flood blog from August 20th (it’s 6th down on the linked page). The second half of that post contains detailed recommendations and observations about desert flash flood hazard.

One of the hardest things about following so many accident reports and survival tales is the sadness of watching an endless string of new people – most of them fine, smart individuals, and maybe even friends or neighbors – get caught by the same short list of mistakes. My condolences go out to all involved.

Hike safe. See ya’ll next week. — Steve Howe