Boulders and Gravity Team Up to Attack Innocent Canyoneers

As I was hiking down Orderville Canyon solo one summer, I watched as a helicopter buzzed back and forth across the canyon at very low elevation. A little while later, I ran into a couple guys hiking up-canyon, and they told me about their group’s mishap in neighboring Englestead Canyon. Evidently, a boulder had rolled and landed on their buddy’s foot, leaving his big toe literally hanging by only a few ligaments. Just the thought of this made my whole body cringe… it still does, in fact.

A few large boulders on sandstoneAron Ralston’s arm entrapment and subsequent amputation may be the most famous example of rolling boulder carnage, but it’s certainly far from the only one. From personal anecdotes, to the pages of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, to the daily NPS Morning Report, big rocks have left a have a solid record of wreaking havoc on climbers, hikers, and canyoneerings alike. Here is the latest news of geologic assualt, this one from adventurer Rick Kent while descending Gunsight Canyon, here in Zion, on October 16th:

Had a great time in Englestead Canyon on Friday. Saturday not so good. At the 1st rap into Gunsight Canyon a huge boulder next to the rappel station decided to roll loose and I was in the way. The good news is that I managed not to fall 200 feet down the exposed face. Bad news is my lower left leg was crushed resulting in numerous fractures. Since we hadn’t yet completed the 1st rap Darija was able to go for help as I sat in a precarious position. NPS SAR decided to bring in a chopper and used a short haul lift to pull me and my rescuer off the face. At the hospital in St George it took a plate and 9 screws to reattach all the fractured pieces. The foot surgery went about as well as could be expected though one or two things couldn’t be salvaged. The drive home from St George yesterday was miserable. Pain seems to be coming under control today finally. I’ll be on crutches for a couple months. I’m not sure how long it will take before I can get back to hiking. Right now I’m really just thankful that the rock didn’t kill me. I easily could have fallen 200 feet to my death. Guess that’s about all for now. I need to get back to some rest.

Posted on on 10.19.2010.

The Famous and Beautiful Mystery Canyon Falls Rappel

Maya Buettner descends 110' to Mystery Springs

As a follow-up, Tom Jones posted a warning on the Yahoo Canyons group about a precarious boulder perched about the Mystery Canyon Falls anchor in Mystery Canyon:

On a related note, there is a carefully perched boulder above the Mystery Springs rappel in Mystery Canyon. I considered launching it yesterday, but it looks like the even bigger block above it is held in place by it. I am hoping the winter will remove it, but in any case, be real careful right there. That block and the one above could go at anytime, and squeegee anyone at that anchor.


Boulder incidents are difficult to prevent, if only because there are SO MANY of them around our desert canyons and cliffs and we can’t hope to inspect every one. To the extent possible, however, it is SUPER helpful to be aware of the volatile nature of both precariously perched and seemingly solid rocks, moving with care and delicacy whenever possible and avoiding easy assumptions that rocks are attached to the center of the Earth. Too often, boulders are only a slight shift away from rolling to a new home; make sure that home isn’t on your body.

Best wishes to Rick Kent for a speedy recovery, and a huge thank you to the Zion and Grand Canyon SAR crews for consistently helping adventurers out of trouble whenever possible.


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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