Into Red Rock Country’s Chasm of Doom they rode, the sandstone hotter than an oven, toward the 17 children and two adult climbers trapped inside a deadly slot canyon for 30 hours.
It was Friday, June 10, and the Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau’s elite rescuers didn’t know it yet, but they were about to attempt the biggest rescue ever run in the infamously treacherous Sandthrax Canyon.
“We do these missions, one after the next after the next,” rescue specialist Sgt. Nick Napierski told Coffee or Die Magazine. “But we’ve never had one to this scale of 19 people that are trapped and need help right now. That changed the game for us a little bit.”
By 8 a.m., pilot Scott Barnes was holding his Airbus A-Star H-125 in a steady hover just 30 feet above a slot into a canyon that plummeted 10 stories. Trooper Landon Middaugh began lowering Napierski into a gash in the wind-polished slickrock no wider than a coffin. And the farther down Napierski went, the more grit and dust whirled by the rotor wash pocked his eyes, cheeks, and mouth. He could barely see his descent into the crevice.
Somewhere at the bottom were kids as young as 11 years old. Garfield County Sheriff James “Danny” Perkins Jr. later compared the daring rescue to “threading a needle.”
“We’re not worried about how it happened or why it happened, just that it did happen, and so we just try to get everybody out,” Napierski said.
It happened because a youth group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided to brave the morning heat and struck out from their camp for the North Wash tributaries of southeastern Utah’s Colorado Plateau.
It’s a region where the rocks have been rubbed red by erosion and the constant whistle of the wind. Weather has whittled the earth into Navajo sandstone domes, goblins, fairy chimneys, and slot canyons.
Debate continues over whether the group meant to enter Sandthrax Canyon or if they’d intended to traverse nearby Leprechaun Canyon.
But Sheriff Perkins told Coffee or Die it really doesn’t matter because “they’re all very high-level canyons, every one of them,” and only “very, very, very experienced” and physically fit climbers should even try any of the quartet of slot canyons there.
Although Napierski is an experienced canyoner, he said he wouldn’t even attempt Sandthrax on his best day. It’s only about a third of a mile long, but it’s reserved for expert climbers who routinely stem and chimney for hours at a time.
“It just takes a lot of physical strength and stamina to make it through,” he said. “I’ve never done this one, nor would I.”
Perkins said rescuers tend not to find many novices in Sandthrax.
“The people that we usually have that get in the most precarious positions are the experts because they question themselves and they get in trouble,” the sheriff said.
Most climbers enter the canyon by trudging through a muddy tunnel that quickly pinches into a crevice only a few inches across. Canyoners can’t see the sky. Light fades into the black.
“They had no idea what they were facing,” Perkins said.
The primary route to the upper part of the canyon is by scaling sandstone domes and then hiking roughly five blocks over slickrock, avoiding the sheer dryfalls that can plunge 40 stories, but that’s not a climb for schoolchildren.
So they kept going into the canyon until they were trapped.
“They were stuck. They couldn’t go forward. They couldn’t go backward,” Perkins said.
A few who never entered the canyon returned to the campsite to fetch food and water for the 19 trapped inside who would have to bed down for the night.
Perkins told Coffee or Die it was so tight in the slot that “they had to take turns lying down.”
There’s no cell phone reception in the wilderness, so a group leader drove an hour to Hanksville and called emergency dispatchers. Officials at the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office figured that with the temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, the best way to save lives was with a helicopter carrying a three-man Aero Bureau rope rescue crew.
Utah Department of Public Safety Sgt. Cameron Roden told Coffee or Die the team quickly realized that it was going to be very difficult to get a whole crew into the slot. They decided to use the helicopter to hover over the hole, sending a sole rescuer “down in there and help pull them out” one at a time on a hoist.
The team got half the kids out of the canyon before the helicopter began running out of gas. Authorities had planned for that, hauling fuel to the desert. Flying to the tank, filling up, and heading back to the slot cost the crew no more than 10 minutes.
“That fueling mid-mission actually worked out really well to get everybody sort of regrouped and give the pilot operator time to shake out their nerves and get reoriented for the rest of the mission,” Napierski said.
They pulled every trapped hiker from the Chasm of Doom.
Aero Bureau Report: We flew 16 missions this week. Heat strokes, lost parties, missing individuals, 24 people hoisted from slot canyons. 19 of those were hoisted out of Sandthrax Canyon after being stranded for 30 hours. Please go prepared, know before you head out, and be safe. pic.twitter.com/hPCCZohczh
— Utah Public Safety (@UtahDPS) June 11, 2022
The entire operation took 105 minutes.
Napierski said a well-trained crew like his team made the operation go “just like butter.”
“We just started to look at the totality of the circumstances and then make a determination if we can safely operate, execute a hoist, and reduce and mitigate whatever liabilities we have and different risk factors,” he continued. “But typically hoisting, that’s our bread and butter for getting people out of really bad spots and keeping the helicopter out away from hazards.”
But Perkins told Coffee or Die it was a lot harder than Napierski makes it sound, and the team was forced to “thread the needle 19 times” to rescue every person.