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Flash flooding is a devastating weather phenomenon that causes fast-moving water to suddenly rush through low-lying areas, submerging or carrying away everything in its path. These floods can turn a small creek into churning rapids in a matter of minutes, often with little to no warning. The skies may be clear where you are, but heavy rainfall miles upstream can cause water to rise to dangerous levels before you have time to escape.
Floods have been the most deadly weather hazard in the United States in both 2015 and 2016, according to reports by the National Weather Service, and each year they kill more people than tornadoes, hurricanes, or lighting. In fact, during those years floods killed more people than all three of those natural disaster categories combined. The risk of finding yourself in the middle of a flash food is especially serious if you’re traveling through canyons or mountainous areas in the backcountry. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, “a creek only 6 inches deep in mountainous areas can swell to a 10-foot deep raging river in less than an hour.”
Considering the seriousness of finding yourself trapped in a canyon with an incoming flash flood, our Survival Scenarios question for today addresses how you might deal with this danger. What would you do if you were hiking through a deep canyon in Utah and the rising waters of a flash flood came barreling through? Would you run for the canyon exit, or attempt a risky climb up the canyon wall to safety?
In case you’ve missed our previous installments of Survival Scenarios, here’s how it works. We ask you how you’d handle a difficult choice in a hypothetical survival situation. These exercises can help you mentally prepare for an event you might encounter in real life someday. Previously, we asked which survival tool you’d rather have on a desert island, and whether you’d rather be snowed-in or snowed-on in a fierce blizzard. As always, today’s post ends with a poll where you can make your choice, and see how others felt about the scenario.
Before you make your decision on what to do in this flash flood, we’ll share some background info that may affect your choice. As we mentioned above, the scenario occurs in Utah, specifically Canyonlands National Park in the southeast corner of the state. It’s late spring, and the weather is beautiful with clear skies.
You headed out for a three-day backpacking trip inside the national park, accompanied by your friend Paul. Both of you are experienced hikers, but neither of you had visited this part of Utah before, so you wanted to do some exploring and camp off the beaten path. You’re each carrying 30-pound backpacks that contain lightweight one-person tents, food and water, spare clothes, and an array of basic survival tools.
On the morning of the second day of your trip, you and Paul head down a trail that meanders through the bottom of a canyon. The trail descends steeply, and the walls rise to what you’d guess is three or four stories tall at their lowest point. In some places, the walls are much higher than that. This is wider than the narrow slot canyons you know to be notorious for flash flooding, but you can tell from patterns in the sandy canyon floor that large amounts of water have passed through here. There’s a small creek on one side of the canyon, but it’s not more than a few inches deep.
After about an hour of walking through the canyon, you sit down to eat some lunch. During your meal, Paul points out that the creek appears to have grown and is now flowing faster. You stand up and look upstream — in the distance over the edge of the canyon wall, you can see rain clouds. Those weren’t there this morning when you started your hike.
You and Paul discuss the possibility of a storm upstream leading to flash floods, and you both agree that the best choice is to play it safe and head downstream towards the exit of the canyon. If a flood is coming, the obvious solution is to get to higher ground. But as you quickly walk back down the trail, you watch the water level in the creek swelling with every passing minute.
First the fast-moving river occupies one quarter of the canyon floor, then half, then three-quarters. Tree branches and other debris are being swept downstream by the muddy water. The skies darken. You begin to run along the steep rock wall, but each footstep splashes as the flood water continues to rise.
You know now that this is a life-threatening situation. If you can’t get to higher ground soon, you and Paul may be swept away. Considering your options, you see two possible courses of action: continue running downstream and hope to reach the exit of the canyon in time, or attempt to climb up the steep rock walls to reach safety.
If you choose to continue running, you’ll need to move as quickly as possible. You remember reading that just 6 inches of fast-moving water can knock over an adult, and 12 inches can carry away a car, so there’s not much time to spare.
As you run, it’ll be necessary to stick to the edges of the canyon since they’re still mostly dry. This means weaving around shrubs and scrambling over boulders, instead of following the established path that has now disappeared into the river. Your heavy backpack isn’t helping any either, but even if you leave it behind, you’re not sure if you’ll reach the exit in time. It seems like a long way off, and the water is still rising.
Attempting to outrun the flood is a major gamble, because you’re not sure if the pace of the rising water will slow down or continue accelerating. However, if you and Paul manage to make it to the exit in time, you’ll be able to walk right out of the canyon unscathed.
If you decide that attempting to run is futile, you’ll need to consider moving vertically. The rock walls of the canyon are certainly imposing, but they’re also not what you’d consider completely insurmountable. Some parts of the wall are 40-foot sheer cliffs, but other 30-foot sections slope more gradually. You see some cracks and crevices that could serve as potential hand- and foot-holds.
Climbing the walls won’t be an easy feat, and it carries a substantial risk of falling and becoming injured. Also, this choice guarantees you’ll need to leave your pack behind, although you may be able to work with Paul to use cordage in your pack to hoist gear up as you climb. Either way, you know there’s no way you’re scaling a steep canyon wall with 30 pounds strapped to your back, weighing you down and throwing off your balance.
If you try and fail to make the ascent, you might end up in an even worse position as the flash flood progresses. But if you’re successful at climbing to a ledge even 15 or 20 feet up, you’ll probably be able to escape danger until the flood subsides.
Based on the location, circumstances, and your gear, which course of action would you choose: keep running or attempt to climb to safety? Enter your decision into the poll below, and feel free to justify that choice in the comments section.
Survival Scenarios is a recurring feature on OFFGRIDweb.com, and will ask you to make a difficult choice between two or more hypothetical situations.
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