MFDJ 04/29/24: The Dangerous Narrows

Today’s Concentrated Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

The Virgin River sculpts a dramatic and compelling corridor through the heart of Zion National Park, one that lures otherwise cautious hikers to take on a challenge entirely different from the ones they find on dry land. Here sandstone walls stretch upward for a thousand feet or more, allowing a glistening ribbon of water to find its way between them with only twenty or thirty feet of tolerance on either side. Sunlight generally forsakes this slim waterway, making this a dim or even murky journey— but when a shaft of natural light casts a momentary glow on a towering wall, the effect can be so remarkable that hikers pause to admire the play of sun and shadow against the folds of sandstone glowing in shade so vermillion, white gold, and mahogany.

Hiking the Narrows

While hiking the Narrows at its most shallow may result in an unplanned dunking into the water or at worst, a twisted ankle, there’s a greater danger from the middle of July to the end of August. Just as Zion’s shuttle buses become jammed with passengers and the trails are crowded with day-trippers and visitors from around the world, torrential thunderstorms begin to pop up regularly in the mountains north of the park. Hikers in the Narrows report looking up past the canyon walls to see bright blue sky even as rain drenches the land twenty or thirty miles away.  As the rain falls and the runoff from the desert and mountain swells the volume of the Virgin River, all that water flows into Zion Canyon.

Once inside, the volume of water becomes concentrated as it squeezes between the monolithic walls. The water level rises instantly, racing down the canyon at rates as high as four thousand cubic feet per second—and as the canyon becomes even narrower, the water level rises again. What may have begun as a few extra inches of water high in the mountains now speeds down the center of the canyon, reaching well over hiker’s heads and creating a deadly situation for people who have been lulled into a sense of security by the patches of clear blue sky they see above them. If they are caught on low ground, they may be swept away by the current’s force.

So on Monday afternoon, July 27, 1998, when 0.47 inches of rain fell at Zion National Park headquarters and the Lava Point area west of the Narrows received 0.37 inches, parties of hikers— fourteen people in all—became trapped overnight about two miles upriver from the Temple of Sinawava parking area. They managed to scramble to higher ground as the water level rose three feet in a matter of minutes, and as the flow increased from 110 cubic feet to 740 cubic feet per second, making wading in the roiling river impossible. They made makeshift camps, getting as comfortable as they could while keeping a close eye on the current for any sign that the depth might become passable once again.

That’s how the hikers spotted the body.

It floated by them at about 5:00 p.m., battered significantly by rocks it had encountered in the swift current. No medical expertise was require to determine that the person had most likely drowned in the flash flood.

Immediately seeing the need to retrieve this person’s remains, several of the hikers worked together to reach the body, bring it to a patch of ground, and secured it there. It remained in place until early Tuesday morning, when the river had returned to a manageable level and the hikers could make their way out of the canyon. They reported their find to the first ranger they could locate.

When Zion’s search and rescue squad entered the Narrows, it located the body where the hikers had secured it. Determining who the victim was, however, became a tricky process. “There was no identification on the man, and we haven’t heard any reports about a missing person,” park spokesman Denny Davies told the Salt Lake Tribune. The recovery team ventured an educated guess that the man was in his forties, and that he weighed between 230 and 250 pounds. Washington County sheriff Glenwood Humphries noted that the body had taken a severe beating in the swiftly flowing current, making it that much harder to achieve a solid identification. Whoever this person was, he had not obtained a permit from the park to hike the canyon, and he had not made an advanced reservation for a campsite. His identity was a complete mystery.

On Tuesday evening, however, park investigators found a an unlocked vehicle parked in Zion Canyon with two wallets in it, and they matched one of the driver’s license photos with the unidentified body. They determined that the victim was twenty-seven-year-old Ramsey E. Algan of Long Beach, California. Two other hikers who had emerged from the canyon after the flash flood confirmed what seemed to be the case: Algan had been hiking with another man, and that man had not returned to his car either. Park search and rescue teams now had to face the fact that they had another hiker to find—and the chances were slim that they would find him alive.

On Wednesday, July 29, Acting Chief Ranger David Buccello coordinated the second search along the Virgin River, breaking the searchers into teams to explore five sectors of the park. He also engaged the assistance of Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs from Salt Lake City.

On Wednesday morning, July 30, searchers discovered the body of the second man about a mile and a half upstream from where Algan’s body was first spotted. Paul Garcia, a thirty-one year-old man from Paramount, California, was located in a debris pile where his body had snagged during the flash flood.

Park officials were quick to use this tragedy to reinforce the message that those planning to hike the Narrows need to check with park rangers at a visitor center or ranger station before venturing up or down the Virgin River. “We cannot stress too strongly that visitors need to heed these flash  flood warnings and plan alternate trips that don’t include slot canyons,” acting park superintendent Eddi Lopea told the Salt Lake Tribune.  He urged hikers to get updated weather information before venturing into any narrow or slot canyon, and to delay their hike if thunderstorms are predicted.

Culled from: Death In Zion National Park


Dissection Photo Du Jour!

School unknown. The cadavers in these photographs almost always rest directly on the wooden or metal dissecting table, but in this tableau a sheet has been placed under the body. As in most scenes, none of the dissectors is wearing gloves.

Culled from: Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880-1930

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