Trip Report - From the Facebook Page of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Assn.
August 9, 2018 at approximately 5:00pm while camped at Fern Glen Camp
(mile 168.8) on the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon a
severe weather event occurred that radically changed the course of our
river trip. We were enjoying a layover day at the camp on our 11th day
on the river. Around 2:30 - 3:00 pm, the typical afternoon clouds began
to form above the canyon.There was some light rain during dinner, then
shortly after dinner the winds picked up with sustained gusts over 30
mph requiring us to take down our tarps & sunshades. The winds were
followed by heavy rain & hail. The hail stones quickly grew in size
& frequency from pea sized to marble sized and finally to golf ball
size with significant accumulation of hail occurring.
As a result of the intensity of the hail storm & rain, several
people sought refugee under aluminum kitchen tables & the cliff
overhang alone the back of the camp. Under the deluge of heavy rain
(approximately 5” in about 20 minutes per accompanying weather radar
images), the 1500’ cliff face effectively became a functional drainage
system funneling water and debris down its face & into our camp.
There were two primary areas into which the debris was focused. At the
west end of the beach, a small waterfall of rock & other debris fell
forming a dump truck sized pile of rubble that narrowly missed three
members of our party who sought protection under the overhanging face of
a large boulder while severely injuring another member resulting in a
complex fracture of the right upper arm. Meanwhile, those seeking
shelter under the cliff at the rear of the camp, were hit by a number of
small rocks & decided to abandon their position and run out onto
the beach area & into the river. Immediately after doing so, a 30’
section of the overhanging cliff ledge collapsed burying the area along
the cliff where they had been sheltering. The high volume of water
coming off of the cliff also created several large drainage ravines that
ran from the cliff on the north side of the beach to the western end of
the beach & then into the river.
Four members of our trip were injured as a result, 1 complex fracture of
the right upper arm, 1 major laceration of the left forearm, 1
significant laceration of the head with no loss of consciousness, and 1
soft tissue injury to the elbow. The satellite phone was activated and
the National Park Service as well as the Department of Public safety
were made aware of our position, situation & request for medical
evacuation of the wounded. We were advised that related to timing of our
incident and impending fall of darkness, extraction of the wounded
would not occur until the next morning.
Immediately, an area for triage was designated where tents &
sleeping bags were set up to administer aid to victims at the highest
area in the center of the camp away from the cliff, river &
historical flash drainages from Fern Glen canyon. A lookout was posted
within view of the historical drainage to monitor conditions along that
drainage & provide warnings should conditions merit.
Concurrently, all the rafts ( 5 - 18’ NRS self-bailers ) were moved from
the destabilized anchorage at the western end of the beach to a stable
central location along the shore. Immediately after securing the rafts, a
camp wide retrieval of all gear was initiated & the effected gear
piled in an area adjacent to the triage area.
As the water in the small cove began to rise, it brought with it two
commercial “J” boats, 1 boat towing the other disabled boat, carrying 15
people total. The water level in the cove & river would rise a
total of 4-5 feet and remain high for several hours thereafter. The
commercial group had fled their camp at Lower National with only their
PFD’s & the clothes on their backs. We offered & they accepted
our aid immediately increasing the number of souls involved in the
disaster from 15 to 30 individuals.
In the commercial group there was a trauma surgeon, who volunteered to
render aid & treatment to our wounded. As such, he managed the
triage & medical response. All patients were treated &
stabilized as best as possible given our situation. While our people had
already eaten dinner, the people in the commercial group had not. Our
kitchen was impacted during the collapse of the cliff face requiring us
to retrieve the parts & re-establish a functional kitchen. The
commercial group was fed & sleeping accommodations provided in a
safe area adjacent to the kitchen. They were also given use of our
groover & shown where it was as well as the protocol regarding its
use. At this point in the disaster, we had established & set-up an
area for medical triage and treatment, a functioning kitchen, sleeping
areas for our private party as well as the commercial group, provided
groover facilities, collected all gear effected by the storm in an area
next to the kitchen and finally set-up & cleared a landing zone away
from our people on the western end of our camp.
At dawn, the commercial group left our camp on two functioning
‘J’ BOATS. it was our understanding that their intent was to travel to Whitmore Helipad to evacuate their people by helicopter. Shortly
after dawn, the NPS helicopter arrived on scene, the oranges panels
forming an “X” on the LZ were removed prior to landing the aircraft. The
NPS personal accessed the scene, provided aid & evacuated the
fracture, major laceration & two children to neighboring medical
transport & the South Rim Clinic.
The eleven remaining members of the trip policed up all manmade items
from the camp. The majority of the remaining day was spent cleaning and
packing gear for transport out of the canyon. Plans were made for
takeout at Pearce Ferry on our scheduled takeout day. To reach our
planned rendezvous with our outfitter Ceiba Adventures would require us
to row 120 miles over three days which we were able to do.
While what happened to us was an act of God disaster, we were able to
mitigate the severity of the event with a quick, decisive and focused
response to the adverse event. Our group was assembled with a mix of
seasoned members with extensive Grand Canyon river experience, 30-40
year old males with substantial outdoor experience, a surgical nurse
with level 1 trauma experience, a dentist, two young adult males &
two 70 year old individuals with river experience. Prior to meeting on
the river, group skills were accessed and noted. Immediately upon launch
of our trip, river skill assessment continued and training initiated to
bring all members up to speed. We had two raft flips before reaching
Fern Glen Camp. Those flips provided “Z” drag training &
implementation as well as further team building exercises. Our team came
together early in the trip giving us the ability to easily make our
miles, provide safety & perform as a unified team during our trip.
The emphasis on training & team building coupled with extensive
Grand Canyon river experience were major contributing factors to the
successful deployment of our disaster response during this event.
YouTube Video of the Incident: