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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.
At the crux of every survival story is a pivotal decision point. The choices we make when the stakes are high can mean the difference between salvation and struggle, misery and hope, life and death. When it comes to dire situations in the backcountry, the options can be imperfect and the time in which to weigh them is often short. In today’s episode, we witnessed the fast decision-making of three separate survivors, all at the heart of one historic and catastrophic flash flood on the Havasupai reservation of the Grand Canyon. The flood would permanently alter the landscape as well as the lives of those who were caught in its fury. Hear the story from multiple survivors’ perspectives below, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Host: At the crux of every survival story is a pivotal decision point. The choices we make when the stakes are high can mean the difference between salvation and struggle, misery and hope, life and death. When it comes to dire situations in the backcountry, the options can be imperfect and the time in which to weigh them is often short.
In today’s episode, we witness the fast decision-making of three separate survivors, all at the heart of one historic and catastrophic flash flood. On August 16, 2008, heavy rainfall caused floodwater to tear through the Havasupai reservation of the Grand Canyon. More than 450 hikers, campers, and villagers were evacuated.
Miraculously, everyone made it out alive, but the flood would permanently alter the landscape, as well as the lives of those who were caught in its fury.
Trailer: I made a decision to survive. In that survival mode, the idea of dying wasn’t in my head, I knew immediately it was a worst-case scenario. I was in a fight for my life situation. Out on the trails, you’re in their house.
Host: I’m Louisa Albanese, and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable.
Trailer: I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring, and I couldn’t do anything.
Host: Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you.
Trailer: There was no way we would find anybody alive.
Host: Havasu Canyon, a tributary of the Colorado river, is home to picturesque waterfalls, cerulean swimming holes, a large campground, and the village of the Supai, remote community that’s been home to the Havasupai tribe for centuries. The region’s other-worldly waters and red sandstone walls draw up to 40,000 visitors every year.
Nathan Cowlishaw: Havasupai is a sacred place.
Host: This is Nathan, a photographer and guide who’s explored every corner of the Grand Canyon. The summer of 2008 was his first visit to Havasupai.
Nathan Cowlishaw: I tell people you will not find a more beautiful place in the entire American southwest than inside Havasupai, even in the Grand Canyon. And I think people need to go in there with that kind of respect. It’s not just a place to recreate. It’s a the place of intense beauty that commands respect
Adam Higham: Havasupai is unbelievable. My name is Adam Higham. I’m originally from Orange County, California. I was going to school at Brigham Young University during the Havasupai flood. I was bringing a group of my friends that had never been before. So there were eight of us total, seven of my friends, and it was an absolutely incredible experience launching off the cliffs, having a good time.
Mike Deeter: Crystal clear turquoise waters, beautiful canyon, blue skies. Beautiful day.
Host: This is Mike Deeter, who hiked into Havasu Canyon with two friends.
Mike Deeter: Decided to just spend the day, um, relaxing by the falls. Took some pictures, played in the water for a few hours.
Nathan Cowlishaw: I’ve done just about everything there is to do in the Grand Canyon. Havasupai, it was kind of like one of those things I, I haven’t done and it was my first time down there and it turns out to be a situation I’ve never experienced in the canyon because it nearly took my life.
Mike Deeter: Arizona, the southwest, you know, it’s really common to have monsoon storms around August. We’re aware of that. We lived in Arizona. So light showers came in from one of the monsoons. It wasn’t unusual for us, but we knew it probably lasts about an hour. So we moved back to our tents
We noticed that after that storm, the water started getting kind of a turbid brown color now, as opposed to the crystal clear, beautiful water that you’d expect there. And we’d seen the banks of the river were starting to swell a bit. And you know, when you are in canyon country, that definitely raises some red flags.
Adam Higham: We started to get a little bit of rain, which isn’t unheard of.
Host: This is Adam again.
Adam Higham: We were down at Mooney Falls, having a good time. And we were heading back up because the water started to turn a little bit brown, not great to swim in. And so we decided that we’d go back to camp, get some rest, see if it cleared up and kind of decide what to do from there.
Nathan Cowlishaw: It started raining really hard.
Host: Here’s Nathan.
Nathan Cowlishaw: And I think the scariest part of that situation was waterfalls began to develop on each side of the cliffs, right. Coming off the top. And I could see rocks coming off the top and that scared me. So this was our first initial scare. The storm passed. The sun came back out.
We got back up around Mooney falls around 6:00 PM that night. Mooney falls look like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, you know, the chocolate river. And so my buddies were a little spooked and one of the Havasupai Rangers—it was about 6:00 PM—one of the Havasupai rangers started cussing at me. He told me to get out of there. Cause there was a flash flood warning in effect.
Host: Nathan and his group were told to move their camp to higher ground. And so they did. Meanwhile, those at the main campground were getting warnings of their own. Here’s Mike Deeter.
Mike Deeter: One of the representatives from the village who was a Bureau of Indian Affairs representative was moving through camp pretty hurriedly, warning campers that there is flash flooding expected.
So it would be a good idea to move up to the higher ground of the camp. Um, a lot of people in our area basically blew it off. They thought, you know, they’d been there before and had seen that kind of thing. It wasn’t really something to worry about. So we, on the other hand, just packed up, moved up above the campground.
Host: As Mike Deeter’s group was heading to higher ground, Adam Higham was making a move of his own.
Adam Higham: We were getting ready to go to bed and a group of us decided that we were going to go fill up our canteens on the opposite side of the river where they had clean water. And so five of our group went ahead and crossed the river.
And we were filling up our bottles and we decide, hey, as long as we’ve got time, we’ll just go do some night swimming up Havasu Falls cause it’s still clean and it’s still good. So why not? And we start walking up to Havasu Falls, which is maybe a four or five minute walk. And as we’re walking, we start hearing the water a lot louder than we expected.
And we’re trying to figure out what’s going on cause it’s, it’s nighttime, it’s pitch black in the canyon. And you could actually feel the temperature drop considerably. And so we keep walking up to the falls and when we get up there, it is just, you can just hear raging, which is different, completely contrary to what it normally is.
And we can’t see exactly what’s happening. We just know that the water is pouring down. And so we kind of shine our flashlights and we can see that now Havasu Falls is pure mud and that the river has expanded considerably. It’s spread out. And so we start freaking out. So we run real quick down to back where our campground was, and we look across the river and we can no longer see our campground. It is gone. Our tents are gone. All of our gear is washed away and we can see our friends—the three that we had left behind—standing on top of a picnic table far, far off in the dark.
Mike Deeter: It just sounded like a freight train moved through the camp. We heard screams, turned on our headlamps, and we could see people trying to get out of their tents. Water had just rushed through the camp, washing out a lot of the tents down below and cut off most of the campers. Some of the tents had collapsed.
So it looked like someone flailing, trying to get out of their tent, who were probably submerged in water at that point. We went down and tried to assist who we could, but because the storm surge caused such a dramatic rise in the waters and the water was moving so fast, it was just not safe to help a lot of the people out of their tents or try to get them to safety.
Host: Here’s Nathan again.
Nathan Cowlishaw: I was in a deep sleep right next to a flash flood. I had heard the flood in my dream, the snapping of driftwood and someone from Boulder City had awakened me. That was a very sobering moment. Getting out of my tent, popped on my flashlight. And the first thing I saw after I saw the flood water were the floating port-a-potties. So I watched them go by like rafts in the middle of the night. That’s when it kind of dawned on me that we were in a very dangerous situation. I was hoping we could find some way out of there. We were completely cut off on all sides and it literally looked like something bigger than the Colorado River.
There were boulders that were rolling in the wash, being pushed by this flood water. I had never feared for my life like that night. I honestly didn’t think I was going to survive.
Host: What had started as a gradual swelling of the river had quickly escalated into a full-blown flash flood. A possible culprit for the unexpected swells, an earthen dam upstream failed. As dozens of campers were desperately trying to get to higher ground, Adam and a few friends were cut off from the rest of their group on the other side of the flood.
Adam Higham: At this point, the water for them was probably about knee-deep. We stayed down there until about midnight, just trying to yell to them, trying to communicate with them. But they couldn’t get across the river because it was raging and there was no place for them to go. They were stuck between the deep part of the river and the canyon wall on the far side.
And so they put the picnic table up against a tree and they climbed up in the tree to get higher. And probably somewhere around midnight, we were told that we had to evacuate that area, that the water was going to be getting higher. And that there was nothing we were going to be able to do for our friends that night.
We left our friends, not really knowing what was going to happen that night, how much the water was going to rise, what was going to happen. And so we, in our minds, we left them clinging to trees, hoping that come daybreak we were going to be able to find them again. Uh, and so we were evacuated up above Havasu Falls and we actually spent that night laying in the dirt in an Indian cemetery, because that was the only safe space that was available. We were kind of stuck.
Host: A guide helping clients down in the campground was radioing to people up in the village. Another surge was coming. The dam had been breached.
Mike Deeter: That was pure panic mode.
Host: Mike Deeter recalls.
Mike Deeter: It came so fast and I knew what had happened already, but that was one of those moments where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if we were going to be able to get out and, uh, scared for my life at that point. We moved to the top of the falls, left all our gear, everyone just basically ran up there. And when you get to the top of the falls, you have the river on one side and on the other side where the canyon wall is, you’re cut off by a graveyard that had been there, who knows how long. But out of respect, we stayed outside of the graveyard until the guy with the walkie-talkie had confirmed that it was okay to go in there. A group of us found a crack in the canyon wall that we could basically just kind of climb up to a ledge, probably 20 to 30 feet above the canyon floor.
And about the time we started climbing, we heard that surge rush in again, freight train ripping through, that sounded like earth was just being ripped out. The ground was shaking beneath our feet. And we could actually hear trees getting ripped out with this one. So we got to a ledge where everyone could safely sit without having to worry about falling in. Looking down below, it was just mass destruction down there. Swallowing up huge pieces of earth. Where we were standing outside the graveyard was gone. That was just all water at that point. There was a lot of people that got cut off from their group. Didn’t know if their friends were safe or dead.
Host: Adam Higham was one of those people.
Adam Higham: It wasn’t just our group in the cemetery. It was probably a hundred of us. Everybody from the campgrounds had been evacuated to the cemetery to sleep for the night. It was really, really solemn. We were abandoning our friends and that was a huge struggle for us. I mean, it was just absolutely gut-wrenching. You’re sitting in a safe area in a cemetery, hoping that your friends are going to be okay, that they got high enough into the trees, that they’re not going to get tired and fall in. You’re hoping that the trees, I mean, we’re seeing trees float down the river.
The temperature dropped and it was truly cold there. I spent most of the night trying to figure out if there was any way that we could get to our friends. I felt a lot of responsibility, so I went back down as far as I could and got up on the ridge above where the campgrounds were and tried to see if I could see them, tried to see if I could yell to them, and wasn’t having any luck.
We tried to see if we could wade into the water and go the direction of where, uh, my friends were stranded, but the current was just too strong. We couldn’t make it. So we had to pull back and go back up the way that we had come. It was, it was a struggle, not knowing exactly what was going on with our friends. All we can do is pray and hope for the best.
Host: Meanwhile, back down below, Nathan and a handful of his friends were trapped with water raging on both sides with few options for escape. Then, as hope began to dwindle, people from the Havasupai village appeared on the other side.
Nathan Cowlishaw: The Havasupais on the other side, you know, we couldn’t ever hear them because the roar of the floodwater was so loud. You could shout at the top of your lungs and you wouldn’t be able to hear these people on the other side. There was this young kid, this young Havasupai kid, probably about 17 years old, that had really good hollering skills. And he shouted at the top of his lungs—and we could barely hear—he says, you guys are going to perish. You guys are going to die unless you listen to me. He says you have three choices: You could die in the flood. You could climb a tree and hope to survive the next wall of water coming down the canyon, or you can come across the lifeline right now.
Host: The villagers had brought two old, frayed ropes and strung them across the water. One to stand on like a tightrope and the other to grip for balance. Nathan and his friend would have to traverse 45 feet above the gushing floodwater, but it looked like the ropes might snap under their weight.
Nathan Cowlishaw: We’ve been sitting here for an hour or two because we were too scared to go across the line. We had this line constructed. And nobody had the courage to go across the water. That’s how nasty the deathly current of this floodwater looked to us. It was just unnerving. I literally tried to climb a cottonwood tree in cowboy boots. You know how slippery and slick cowboy boots are. There’s no tread on there. There as shiny as a whistle underneath. I realized I wasn’t climbing any tree. So guess what? I scratched that one off. I was coming face-to-face with my maker while I’m sitting here trying to climb a tree. And the thought of dying—this was a moment of reckoning where I realized I could die.
That was a really, really, really sobering, dark moment. So it was like, okay, I don’t have a choice. I’ve got to go across the lifeline or die. That’s pretty simple, when you rule all the other options out, you’ve got those two options, die in a flood, or go across the lifeline. What are you going to do?
And that’s when the flight or fight response kicked in. And it was like, you got to go across this lifeline. That’s your only solid bet. My two buddies wouldn’t come across. They climbed up the trees. I wasn’t the first one to go across. There was one person before me. I felt so selfish going across that lifeline and not staying over there and persuading them to go across the lifeline.
I felt totally guilty that I had left my buddies behind. It was pure adrenaline. I realized that my cowboy boots worked to my advantage as it was going across the lifeline, because the heel, it helped me keep my balance. I tried to go across with my backpack. And there was not enough balance for me to maintain the pack and go across the line. So I ended up having to discard the pack and I never saw the pack again. And I nearly fell in, by the way, going across the lifeline; it was that flimsy, but I made it.
So, you know what? I started feeling survivor’s guilt. I started to cry. I started to break down. It was like my best friends from, you know, from my hometown, were stuck on the other side. And we were all trying to shout at them as loud as we could. And they finally showed up at the very last minute, just in the nick of time. When the flood water started to go up they got across the flood line, as the flood was rising, they finally went across.
As we looked back down at our camp, our high ground. It was completely inundated with flood water. It completely covered all the high ground that we had that had kept us safe all night. And this is after the earthen dam broke. So we were lucky. I think we were genuinely lucky. It was a miracle that this flood, that more people didn’t perish.
Host: With Nathan’s group reunited, they scrambled up the canyon walls and followed the Havasupai rescuers back to the village. As the sun began to rise, Adam and his splintered group were being evacuated up to the village as well, anxiously awaiting news of their friends.
Adam Higham: They started having people climb up this cliff to get out of that area because the river had rearranged the path so much that there was no direct route back up to the village. The group was kinda disheartened.
And about an hour later, we received news that they had rescued our friends. Two of the tribesmen had gone down there with ropes, had rappelled down the cliffs and were able to get to where they were. They weren’t able to get all the way. I know of at least one member of our group that actually had to jump in the water and just let the river flush her towards where the tribesmen were. And then they reached down into the water and grabbed her out of the water. From her telling of it, she said she didn’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t grabbed her hand when they did cause the water was so strong, it was pushing her so hard. She doesn’t think she could have stopped herself.
Host: With the trails cut off from the flood, the task of evacuating the hundreds of campers was monumental. Survivors were shepherded to the Supai village to wait for helicopter evacuations. Some waited overnight, camping out on a basketball court with little shade from the blistering Arizona sun. Many had lost their gear, wallets, and car keys, but they were left to reflect on how things could have ended much worse.
Adam Higham: You know, you always hear about flash floods and hear about the concerns about it. The dam broke upriver and there was no way that we could have known before it actually occurred. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we would have decided to get water two minutes later. We had literally crossed the river within two minutes of when this flash flood hit, we were in that water waist-deep. And so if we would not have gotten in and out when we did there’s no telling how bad things could have gotten for us.
Mike Deeter: Since then, anytime I’m traveling in the backcountry, whether it’s backcountry skiing or climbing or hiking, just keeping my head on a swivel. And if I see anything or hear anything that just says, you know, you need to turnaround, I go with that.
Host: And for Nathan, this experience only deepened his love for the area and its people.
Nathan Cowlishaw: You’d think that this would scare me from ever wanting to go back to Havasupai, but it didn’t, it didn’t scare me. It became a life-bonding experience to that place and to the Havasupai people. It’s a sacred place to me now. Because my life was spared and the canyon taught me something about myself and the Havasupai people became more important to me than Havasupai. The people down there are some of the most incredible people I have ever met in my life. It was owed to them. They were out there in the flood water, risking their lives. They don’t want these people dying on their watch, right? They saved my life.
Host: This episode of Out Alive was produced by me, Louisa Albanese along with Zoe Gates. Story editing and sound design was by Andrew Mairs. Our script writers were Andrew Mairs and Zoe Gates. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from Electric Audio, Inc. Thank you to Adam Higham, Michael Deeter, and Nathan Cowlishaw for sharing your stories and perspectives. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive, please subscribe and leave us a review.