Fatal Canyoneering Accident in Mildred Falls, near San Diego

I’ve been following the story of 24-year-old canyoneer, Matthew Pack, from San Juan Capistrano, CA, whose body was spotted hanging limply in the middle of 400-ft Mildred Falls on Friday. Hikers spotted Pack’s body in the falls after hearing screaming. They called 911 for rescue, but helicopter rescue efforts were delayed Friday by the dangers surrounding the heavy waterfall flow. The next day, a San Diego SAR team was able to recover Pack’s body at 1 p.m.

I have seen little in the forums regarding Pack’s trip plan, experience, or commentary on the accident, and I haven’t been to Mildred Falls, myself, so it’s difficult to speculate on what might have happened here. Seems like a rank beginner wouldn’t have the equipment or cojones to venture out to a canyon with a 400-ft drop on his own, though, so I’m guessing Pack had some experience under his belt. Why he went alone on such a big trip (500 feet of rope is a lot to carry on your own) with such strong water conditions (big flow, water temperature in the 30′s) poses some powerful questions. Mildred Falls is generally listed with a 4 A/B III rating, implying no flowing water; perhaps Pack did not anticipate the cold, raging torrent that greeted him at Mildred? At the same time, from the various site descriptions and photographs available on the web, it looks like you can see the falls pretty easily on the hike in.

Whatever the scenario, it is incredibly scary to imagine being entangled in your own ropes in the middle of that much cold water. Let us learn from his tragedy, that less stories like his happen within our community. Deepest sympathies to Pack’s family and friends, and to Pack, who died pursuing great adventure.

Here are a few links to related the limited available information:

Fox 5 San Diego
Orange County Register
Update from Jenna Chandler at San Juan Capistrano Patch

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About Nick

Nick Wilkes found ZAC in 1996, working first as an outfitter, then a guide, then as webmaster. An ardent adventure enthusiast, Nick's recent exploits involve laying down roots in Wisconsin, chasing his kids around the house, working as a Madison, WI photographer and growing his Wisconsin climbing business. Connect with Nick on Facebook, Google+, or directly via email.
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4 Responses to Fatal Canyoneering Accident in Mildred Falls, near San Diego

  1. avatar Camels & Chocolate says:

    His sister is my good friend and former roommate, and I received an e-mail from her early yesterday morning with the terrible news, but I’m a little nauseous now reading these details. (She only told me he was involved in an accident, not to what extent.) Yes, he was an experienced canyoneer and actually from West Virginia, not California (just been living there the past three years or so). Why he was alone, I don’t know. But I can’t even imagine what the family is going through right now.

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  2. avatar WV Climber says:

    Obvious but excellent point about rappelling solo, Nick. No one should forget that as a crucial complicating factor.

    Hard to say what a partner/team could have done, though.

    With a free-hanging rappel, what does a team do at the pitch bottom? Gri-gri up a rope sucked into a waterfall? Cut the anchor loose? Climb up to set a lateral belay and swing the climber out? All incredibly unique and unlikely tasks for a team to perform. With 500′ of rope already necessary for Mildred’s 2-3 pitches, and given rappels like this basically ruining rope for good, it also seems most climbers would not opt for a back-up belay that could have taken the tension off the system in order for Matt to come unstuck (if that was even possible given the water).

    No, it’s worth looking at how the situation develops in the first place – in a waterfall.

    If the water force is powerful enough to lead to physical trauma, how is this a Class B canyon? “Class B: Minor to moderate water flow rates with deep wades and or swims.” Hydraulics and waterflow dangers are taken into account for C routes, and one prepares for that, but not generally for B routes. That’s the point of a rating system. To anticipate what technical risks to prepare for, mentally and technically. Class A/B may apply to the stream in Rechie Canyon above and below the falls. But if you’ve been under a waterfall (even a small one) it has unimaginable force. Class “C” (definition): “conditions have difficult and dangerous hydraulic scenarios”.

    Mildred at flow sounds like the norm during winter snowmelt, not a fluke.

    I’d put it at Class 4 C X III, and I hope canyoneering blogs consider updating that too. (I know you all are just a tour company)

    All in all, an astonishing tragedy to remind us all how precious life – and our adventures in it – actually are.

    (ratings cited from canyonbeta.com)
    n.b. C is downgraded often to an A in the dry season, so the fact that mildred runs dry at other times has no bearing on its rating.

    [Reply]

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    Nick Reply:

    Your point that Mildred is currently in Class C conditions essential. I agree that having a partner doesn’t do you much good if you’re being pummeled with 50 cfs (or whatever it was) of water. If you’re in that situation and you can’t get out VERY quickly, you’re in deep trouble. That kind of water flow easily flips you upside down, snaps your spine, etc., depending on the many dynamic possibilities. The best solution to this situation is pro-active prevention at a few different points in the approach process:

    1. Monitoring the drainage from the comfort of your home computer and realizing conditions are unreasonable, giving current water flow. I’m unsure there is streamflow data available on Mildred via USGS or other, so this may not be possible for this canyon. In Zion, Kolob Creek is the classic “check before you go” canyon, where flows over 5 cfs mean “don’t go” due to unsafe Class C flow.

    2. Failing the above, the next pro-active measure might be arriving at the head of the canyon, observing the flow, and calling it off. This is where having a partner along can help a lot. Having somebody else to bounce ideas off, ask questions of, etc. have helped many adventures stay safer.

    3. If you and your partner monitor flow, decide its reasonable, and decide to descend, you still have one more point of prevention as you descend that first drop into the falls. It’s very possible Matt didn’t think the rappel line would go into the falls; that could explain why he ended up where he did. As he descended, however, there was probably some point where it became obvious he would be going in. If he had had good control over his rappel, stable body/equipment balance and position, and knowledge/gear to ascend (all these take good preparation and prior training), that would be a last opportunity to avoid a bad situation.

    All this to say: Any canyon can feature Class C conditions (that’s how it became a canyon); canyoneers must prepare for such conditions on A/B routes, so they can avoid the impossible situation Matt found himself in on Friday.

    Thanks, Chris, for the thoughtful reply.

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  3. avatar Tom Jones says:

    WV Climber
    Mildred at flow sounds like the norm during winter snowmelt, not a fluke.
    I’d put it at Class 4 C X III, and I hope canyoneering blogs consider updating that too. (I know you all are just a tour company)
    All in all, an astonishing tragedy to remind us all how precious life – and our adventures in it – actually are.
    (ratings cited from canyonbeta.com)
    n.b. C is downgraded often to an A in the dry season, so the fact that mildred runs dry at other times has no bearing on its rating.

    Any RATING is for the canyon in “typical” conditions. So an A/B rating for this canyon is appropriate. Yes, it was in Class C conditions, but I think Matt knew that going in. Looks like the canyon is visible from the road, it was certainly visible from where he set his anchors. I would guess that he went to do it NOW because it WAS flowing. My memory is that it only flows a couple weeks a year.

    A sad loss.

    Tom

    [Reply]

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