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Interagency SAR Team Responds to Two Accidents in the Same Canyon over Three Days

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Date: July 5, 2013
Contact: Aly Baltrus, 435-772-0160
Contact: Alan Alldredge, 435-644-4995

At 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 29, 2013, a multi-jurisdictional search and rescue was deployed in Kane County, just outside Zion National Park, after receiving a cell phone call that a 21 year old woman had fallen 40-60 feet in the Birch Hollow Slot Canyon. Kane County’s request for assistance was answered by Zion National Park (through a Mutual Aid Agreement with Kane County), a Ranger from the Bureau of Land Management, and Utah’s State Department of Natural Resources Park Manager. Kane County Sheriff Sgt. Alldredge and NPS Chief Ranger Purcell served as incident commanders for the Unified Command Rescue.

Kane County mobilized their technical rope rescue team led by KSCO Volunteer King. Zion National Park responded with medics, a technical SAR team, and short haul rescue. The rescue was a success due to the resources and cooperation of all the agencies involved as well as their previous experience training together. BLM Ranger Alberts, also a KSCO SAR volunteer, was instrumental in leading the Interagency SAR team to the best location on the canyon rim to quickly access the patient. NPS Ranger Medic Fitzgerald and EMT Holthouse rappelled into the canyon, assessed and stabilized Ms. Moses, from Pocatello, ID. Suspecting a possible hip fracture and potentially significant internal injuries, the team quickly and efficiently secured her in a full body splint and litter and raised her 90 feet out of the deepest part of the slot. The remaining two members of the Moses party were also raised out of the canyon. Still not to the rim of the canyon, a tough 4th class climb through a heavily vegetated slope awaited the SAR evacuation team if a short haul rescue was not possible.

The Interagency SAR team remained overnight with the stabilized patient. On Sunday, June 30, NPS Helicopter 7HL utilized a 250’ line for the short haul operation NPS Medic Fitzgerald and patient were lifted out of the canyon and delivered to a helispot north of the Zion Ponderosa, where a Life Flight Medical ship was standing by. The group, which consisted of five friends from Utah, Idaho and Colorado, had come to the area for a long weekend of canyoneering. They had already successfully completed Spry and Orderville Canyons inside Zion National Park. However, on their route through Birch Hollow, they experienced what all canyoneers need to be prepared for- something going wrong. The accident was caused by the incorrect use of a technique referred to as simul-rappelling with a non-experienced person on one side of the rope and Ms. Moses on the other counterbalancing each other’s weight. Simul-rappelling is considered an advanced skill by many in the canyoneering community. “She was still 40-60 feet from the bottom of the rappel when her tandem partner touched down and apparently let go,” said Chief Ranger Purcell. Kane County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team reports “we saw this exact accident happen at the same rappel in Birch Hollow two years ago.”

The canyoneering party admitted to the Rescuers that they were in the process of trying to pass another group in the canyon and that their attention was divided between the task at hand and their next move. They had also purposefully packed to be “light because they didn’t think anything bad would happen” according to Ranger Medic Fitzgerald. They were not well prepared when trouble struck. “Canyoneers need to have the ability to ascend ropes. They should carry extra food, headlamps, and a water purification system in case something goes wrong and they need to spend the night,” said Purcell. “It seemed this group relied on luck to be able to send someone to make a cell phone call and they were indeed lucky that they could get cell service. They were lucky too that the weather was not a factor in flying, and that the short-haul helicopter was available.”

Late the next day, July 1st, Kane County Sgt. Alldredge received a telephone call reporting a second accident with injuries on the same rappel in Birch Hollow. A 21 year old female from Oregon, new to canyoneering and rappelling, had rappelled off the end of her rope and fallen 20-25 feet. Ms. Lindstrom-Demant and her partner apparently misjudged the length of the rappel. The victim was the first to descend, sustaining spinal and lower limb injuries. Luckily, a second canyoneering party was able to hike out and notify Kane County Dispatch. Kane County, Zion NP, and BLM and State Park Rangers reacted quickly and once again formed a Unified Command Rescue. The patient was accessed, stabilized, and raised out of the slot. NPS 7HL performed a second 250’ short haul with NPS Medic Thexton to an awaiting Life Flight Medical Ship in an amazing span of 6 ½ hours. Both of these incidents were successful because of the great working relationship of the numerous agencies involved. “Canyoneering and Rappelling have an inherent risk associated with them, “said Sgt. Alldredge. “When you add haste and inexperience, it can result in injury or even death. As the canyons of southern Utah and Zion National Park grow in popularity, we urge everyone to come prepared with the proper skills and equipment so their outings end successfully and without mishap.”

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