Mitch Gouse doesn’t spook easily. In fact, every winter the 30-year-old from Montana plots out an expedition that will challenge him both mentally and physically. Last year he cycled across Mexico and across Colombia the year before. Another year he solo kayaked 800 miles of the Alaskan coastline.
On Sunday, though, as he and Zoey, his 8-month-old Australian shepherd puppy, prepared to make a multi-day trek through the southern Utah slot canyons, he felt uneasy. His BLM-issued permit allowed him to enter the canyons at Wire Pass, about 35 miles east of Kanab on the Utah-Arizona border. His gut, however, advised him otherwise. So did his shuttle driver, Yermo Welsh of Seeking Treasure Adventures, who refused to drop him off at that trailhead because, Welsh said he “knew what the conditions are, and the conditions are dangerous.”
So Gouse initiated his hike south to Lees Ferry in Arizona from the White House trailhead instead. That route is typically drier and wider and has more exit points, so he expected it to be a less-treacherous-but-still-challenging route made somewhat worse by recent rains. He wasn’t prepared, however, for all that he would encounter in the narrow canyon cut by the Paria River — including icy, neck-deep pools of water; quicksand and a body.
“That probably was one of the scariest moments, though, was that cold water and getting all deep and that the water’s just like chocolate and you don’t know what’s in there,” Gouse said. “It’s creepy. A creepy feeling down there.
“Especially when you find a dead body. I knew it was dangerous. That just confirmed it.”
The conditions in this popular backpacking area, particularly the Buckskin Gulch slot canyon, have been made so dangerous by Utah’s unusually wet winter that longtime guides are not only canceling trips, they’re also refusing to shuttle anyone but day-trippers to the trailheads. Thru-hikers keep coming, however. They’re driven by a thirst for adventure and, at least in part, by a permitting system that locks them into leaving on a specific day, even if the weather or conditions are less than ideal.
On Monday, the second day of his four-day journey, Gouse came across the body of one of two men in their 50s who died after being caught in a rain storm while backpacking through Buckskin Canyon over the weekend. The other body was found by searchers Tuesday near the middle section of the gulch, Kane County Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Alldredge said.
A third man who was traveling with them was found in the canyon Monday afternoon by a helicopter using an infrared camera. That man was taken to a hospital and is being treated for injuries and hypothermia. Authorities have not named any of the men. At least one of them had hiked through Buckskin Gulch before, according to Alldredge.
The two men are believed to be the first to have died while hiking Buckskin Gulch (another died after falling into it from above). Still, it harbors a reputation for being perilous. In 2008, Backpacker Magazine named it one of its 10 most dangerous hikes in America.
“Rarely more than 10 feet wide, the eerie corridor is 400 feet deep at its junction with the Paria River,” the article said. “Most chilling: The entire length of sandstone wall is virtually insurmountable – except for a single escape hatch at the Middle Route, about 8 miles in from Wire Pass.”
The men began their 50-mile hike from Wire Pass to Lees Ferry on Friday despite reports of dangerous conditions created by months of rain combined with recent snowmelt. In the 16-mile stretch from Wire Pass through Buckskin Gulch, that included quicksand, deep pools of near-freezing and murky water and the threat of flash floods. More rain was forecast in the area Friday night and Saturday.
The surviving hiker told Search and Rescue crews that the group was caught in a flash flood Saturday, Alldredge said. At that point, one of the men was separated from the other two. Those two continued through the canyon in an effort to seek help, Alldredge said. One of them had injured his leg prior to the flood, however, and, according to Alldredge, “got to a point where he didn’t feel like he could go any further.” The uninjured man went to find help but had not made it out of the canyon by Monday evening, when he was discovered near the confluence with the Paria River by a Utah Department of Public Safety team in a helicopter. Two helicopters had been sent out after the spouse of one of the men called authorities earlier Monday to report them missing.
While searching for the men Monday, the Kane County Sheriff’s department fielded two more calls for help in that region. One was a party of six, another a party of four, and they were all several miles south of the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River channel, closer to Lees Ferry. None were injured, Alldredge said, but all 10 had to be airlifted out.
“Just because of the water conditions, because of what was going on, they couldn’t go really any further,” he said. “They were worn out and the water had them trapped, essentially.”
Gouse, who refused an offer to be airlifted out in part because he was concerned about the cost, estimated he followed the same route as those hikers. He said at times the canyon was so narrow and the walls so tall that the sky almost disappeared. He followed Welsh’s advice and lined his pack with garbage bags so his gear wouldn’t get wet when he had to swim across some of the pools. In addition to his 60-pound pack, he carried the 30-pound Zoey on his back for most of the trip after she became hypothermic early on.
“Everything about it was more intense than I was really expecting,” Gouse said. “I mean, Yermo got me prepared somewhat for it. But the water was really cold and it just started getting deep quick. And the first day I think it got to the point where I was having to swim. And that’s when it really gets scary.”
Finding the body of one of the missing men was more unsettling. It was unavoidable, he said, laying in a 25-foot wide area of the canyon near where he made camp at a site called Big Springs in Arizona. Gouse reported it after he emerged from his hike Wednesday and searchers located the body shortly thereafter, Alldredge said.
With the rains that started last summer, it has only grown more difficult to traverse. Experienced guides in the area, who often double as shuttle drivers for those who want to leave their cars at Lees Ferry, have been refusing to take hikers there. Welsh, who has been guiding in the area for decades and spent his 70th birthday last year hiking the length of Buckskin Gulch in one day, said he has only delivered three parties to Wire Pass since last July.
Susan Dodson called this one of the wettest of the 30 years that she and her husband have operated the Kanab-based Paria Outpost & Outfitters. Like Welsh, they also have been deterring backpackers from taking the Buckskin Gulch route and refusing to shuttle them there. That doesn’t always go over well, she said. The biggest issue is that hikers have to secure their permits three months in advance via Recreation.gov and must set out on the day indicated on their permit. With that pressure plus the effort and time it takes to orchestrate the hike, Dodson said, they don’t think a few rain clouds should stand in their way.
“Sometimes people almost demand, ‘Oh, this is the only day I have and this is the day that I’m permitted to go!’” she said. “You just have to say, ‘Sorry.’ If I can see the dark clouds up towards Bryce Canyon, I won’t put people in the Buckskin Gulch, even if they want to go. I’m just like, ‘No.’”
At least one shuttle service has been saying yes, however. That’s how the three men got from Lees Ferry to Wire Pass.
Dodson acknowledged that taking that stand has financial consequences for her and her husband.
“Even though this is my living,” she said, “I’d rather give up a little bit of income than to have the blood of somebody’s life on my hands.”
If hikers are determined to enter that area, Welsh and Dodson agreed, they need to be prepared. Welsh said he would like to see the BLM require all permitted overnight hikers to carry a signaling service like a satellite phone that can send an emergency message and serve as a beacon. In addition, he said, anyone planning to enter the slot canyons needs to check the NOAA.gov weather and flood forecasts for at least four areas: at the Paria River, on the Paria Plateau, at the Paria-Buckskin Gulch confluence and at Bryce Canyon National Park. And Welsh and Dodson both suggested checking in with a guiding service like theirs even if a group doesn’t intend to hire a guide because they are intimately familiar with the area and its hotspots.
Gouse did all of that, but he said it still didn’t prepare him for how unnerving his trip would be.
“He told me all of it,” Gouse said of Welsh, “but, you know, just to get down in there to actually feel the consequences of all the elements coming together, it was really a spooky trip.”
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