Staying Safe Outdoors Part I: Flash Flooding
Just about everyone who has travelled off the beaten path knows a thing or two about safety. Some of us have legendary stories about surviving in harsh conditions – others of us have some hard won lessons from injuries and near misses. Due to the inherit danger and increased exposure that we face on adventures, here's some pointers to stay safe outdoors. Part one will deal with my first flash flood and very nearly losing my possessions and car!
The Situation: I found myself in the stunning lands of Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument located in Utah. This series of cascaded plateaus features some of the most rugged, dry terrain anywhere in the USA. Known for it's stark beauty and deep canyons, it is also home to flash floods, especially after a very dry summer. I was craving an adventure, so I looked at the NatGeo map and took my car down a goat trail to reach the trail-head. It had been raining and earlier at Arches National Park, I had heard various people talking about the possibility of flash floods – I also read an article in the local paper regarding the one year anniversary of many people dying in a Zion flash food. Still, the trail looked alright and wasn't too muddy.
Mistakes: Firstly, I should've done more research into flash floods. When you're a visitor, you tend to downplay the risk. I had only seen a few videos on Youtube in passing and none of them stuck enough to make me think twice. Secondly, I didn't look up the local weather – with no WiFi available, I decided to roll the dice on the weather.
Thirdly, I didn't realize that a flash flood could be a kilometer wide – I assumed that they would only affect tight, narrow canyons and not a big, flat area similar to what I would be driving across. Fourthly, I got too excited, which overtook any rational risk assessment thoughts I had. It's usually the one time you don't do a proper assessment that things go wrong!
The Danger: A flash food occurs when large quantities of rain are dumped in an area that can't hold the water – this is usually parched ground, canyons, natural gorges, or concave land masses. Often, the flash flood occurs with little to no warning – it may have been raining a significant distance away from where you are, yet the flash flood occurs in your area. They can range from an inch of water flooding a plain to a solid wall of water rushing down a narrow canyon. Either way, flash floods can occur so quickly that you are unable to get to safety. They are especially dangerous for canyoneerers who have little escape other than to continue down the canyon.
The Warning Signs: In a word? Rain! If it has been raining, or is scheduled to rain in an area known for parched ground, canyons and previous floods, stay away from these areas. Any time you enter a narrow chasm, or canyon, talk about the weather with your buddies. Look for dark clouds in all directions. Lightening and thunder are also a dead give away. Phone up a the local ranger station to get their take on the situation.
The Incident: I drove into a large dip with mounded, rocky walls that gradually tapered up to loom around 250 feet from where I was – the area between the walls was close to a kilometer. To be honest, I viewed this distance as a safety net, as I couldn't believe that water could come and fill the entire gorge. It started raining heavily as I slowly worked my way to the trailhead. About 3/4 of the way across, my vehicle could no longer handle the terrain, so I decided to pull on the Gore-Tex and keep hiking.
I gained the rocky wall while the rain continued– then it hits. I hear the sound of swelling water and look over my shoulder to see water rushing towards my car – covering the entire valley floor with a solid 4 inches of water. It is was slowly creeping towards the lower part of my doors.
The Reaction: SADA - Stop, Assess, Decide and Act. I like to take the acronym one step further and make it SADAN, which stands for Stop, Assess, Decide, Act ... NOW! High ground enabled me to Stop and Assess. Unfortunately, those swept away in flash floods rarely survive, so avoid that at all costs. I assessed the situation that the water was still rising and I had a decently safe spot. I decided that going back to my car would put me into further danger. I quickly decided that I would stay where I was and wait out the flood. The action part was simply sitting down and waiting for the flood to stop. It can be tough not to jump the gun and rescue your stuff, but never leave a safe area and put yourself in harms way unless it's a dire circumstance.
The Result: One muddy car and one wet Spence! Luckily, after about 20 minutes, the flood ran itself out and the water drained. I was able to get my car out and slowly inch through the now wet soaked earth. A little bit of water got through my seals, but nothing major. It certainly could've been a lot worse.
Always research potential dangers within your exploration environment in advance of the adventure. This way you have the knowledge to avoid the situation in the first place.
Written by Spencer Madden, Photos also by Spencer.
See more of Spencer's adventures on Instagram: @mtobsession