Sunday, April 8
Jenn and I retire to our tent and and darkens slowly falls, and not just because of sunset. Somewhat greyer and darker clouds roll by. The sprinkles we feared start to fall, too... along with some occasional faint rumbles of thunder.
Calm before the storm
We lay awake, listening to the light patter on our tent's fly, and to the occasional bit of thunder. I'm hoping this annoying bit of unsettled weather passes us by and leaves alone for good. I want some cloudless, clear blue sky!
The sprinkles worsen into a steady, light rain. At first, I think the thunder is happenening less often, and I'm glad. But then it returns, stronger than before, and the rain, too, intensifies. I open the vestibule of the tent and spend a good 15 minutes, propped up on my arms, looking around at the sky, listening to the thunder, and trying to get a general sense of what the trend is with this weather.
It is well along towards dark now, and in the low light, the rumbles of thunder are now accompanied by reflected flashes of light. The sky above is much darker now, although it is hard to tell if that's from approaching sunset or from thicker clouds.
I start to get a little more concerned when I see some direct bolts of lightning. I start counting the lightning-thunder interval in order to determine distance. I think I'm seeing more lightning to the east, which I find a little heartening, because the clouds are travelling east and so I'm hopeful that this electrical storm is heading away from us, and not towards us.
But nope, it isn't to be. Soon the lightning is much closer, and from the other side, too, from the west. The rain ramps up in intensity and becomes a hard driving, rain. I start to think about the catchment area of the basin that Pictograph Fork drains. I briefly recall the topo map: there were an awful lot of little squiggly side canyons that emptied into this one...
"I can see a dark line, twice as wide as the current flow coming down our side of the wash. It is obvious at a glance that it will absolutely engulf Ewart's tent"
I discuss the situation with Jenn, and I come to the conclusion that if this goes on much longer, I should probably get out and further assess the situation - looking at the minor side drainages, checking in on the main wash. We ourselves had positioned our tent quite aways away from the main wash, so we were pretty safe from any main wash flow, but we were in the bed of a tiny side wash. If that started to flow, it'd get all of our stuff pretty soaked.
Then came the big double-crack: Two side-by-side strokes of lightning that were very close - the kind where there's no counting between stroke and boom; the kind where the sound has no rumble at all, just a colossal ear-splitting crack: CCRRACCKKK-CRRRACKKKK! The echo of it reverberated up and down the canyon. Ok, I think, this has gone on long enough -- even though I'm warm and cozy in my sleeping bag, I have to get out and check things out. On a side note, I'm impressed with how well our new super-light Big Agnes Seedhouse 2 tent is keeping us dry in this downpour.
I pull on my clothes and get out my rain gear and head out into the night. I still am not positive about how much rain will cause the washes in this canyon to flow, and I am half-hoping that I'll find that everything is ok. I shine my headlamp up the tiny side-wash our tent is parked in, and there's no flowing water to be found. "I'll head up for a bit", I think to myself, "up the little bit to where it meets the wall of the canyon. I can have a look and see how much water is running off the rock.". Seemed like a good plan, so I started briskly walking up the foot-wide, twisty-turny little sandy drainage. It is only a few hundred metres to where it ends at a sloping wall of slickrock. Fortunately, at least, it isn't windy.
Partway up the little drainage, my heart skips a beat: there is a foamy little front of water coursing down towards me! We'd better move our tent, RIGHT NOW, I think.
I immediately turn around and start running back to our tent, trying to figure out how long it'll take for the flow to reach it. I estimate no more than a couple of minutes. I reach the tent and yell several "GET-UP-NOW"s to Jenn, and start yanking out tent pegs. I frantically start moving all of our gear out of our tent's vestibule, furtively glancing up every few seconds to verify that the water-front hasn't yet arrived. Fortunately, there's a small rock ledge with an overhang just a few feet away, and I stow as much as I can underneath this overhang, where it'll stay reasonably dry.
Our original tentspot
I return to the tent, where Jenn has managed to get dressed and out. I glance up and see that the foamy front of water is only about 20 feet away from the tent now, and Jenn and I immediately lift it up, bags and all inside it, and get it over to higher ground. The little foamy front of water passes through where the tent was not five seconds later, covering the spot in a few inches of flowing water. Whew!
Now that this minor disaster is averted and I have time to think a little more, I realize that our (Jenn and mine) troubles may be just minor annoyances. My thoughts turn to Ewart, and I remember that he is camped pretty much right in the main wash!! I explain that I really need to check in on Ewart, and leave Jenn with our repositioned tent. I walk briskly down to the main wash -- and I see that indeed there is a large flow already in it. I get a little pit in my stomach and start running towards where Ewart is camped.
Soon, and much to my relief, I see Ewart's tent. It is on a slightly higher bar of sand in the wash, and it is still high and dry. Ewart's not outside. I wonder if he's not realizing that this wash can and is flowing, and that it could very well get worse. I yell to Ewart to get up, get out, and get ready to move his tent. I then turn around and look upstream. At the range limit of my headlamp I can see a dark line, twice as wide as the current flow (which is already 10 to 20 feet wide) coming down our side of the wash. It is obvious at a glance that it will absolutely engulf Ewart's tent.
I wonder why Ewart's not out of his tent yet -- isn't he taking this seriously? doesn't he wonder about the lightning and rain? and then I hear a sound intermingled with the driving rain, hissing water, and rumbling skies. Another kind of rumbling... believe it or not, Ewart is asleep and is snoring.
I yell, swear, and violently shake his tent. "Get the #$@#$ up, Ewart! NOW! There's a wall of water headed your way and you have to get up NOW! like, RIGHT NOW!!!". As I do this I whirl around his tent, yanking up the pegs.
"It doesn't even sound like Luke, such is the level of intensity and stress in his voice."
Ewart, finally rowsed from his slumber, tells me to take the most important thing first - his boots. I quickly take pretty much everything in his vestibule, including his boots, and throw them up to the vegetated bank of the wash. A bare arm pops out of the tent and hands me a plastic-wrapped sleeping bag, and then ewart pops out of his tent, "starkers".
Not having anything intelligent to say about this weird situation, we grab the tent and start hauling it up to the bank, just as the frothy water hits. Fortunately, we're already raising the tent up and it only gets slightly wet from the flow. We quickly make our way up to the bank -- again, just in the nick of time, we've moved everything. Am I glad I decided to get up and investigate things when I did!!
Despite the near and dangerous miss Ewart's had, he seems to be reveling in the fury of mother nature, and is loving what's going on. Welsh people sure are weird sometimes!
We position Ewart's tent over a bit of uneven ground near the bank, well away from the water, which has gotten noticeably higher in the few moments that have passed. Ewart pops back into his awkwardly-placed but now-safe tent and says he'll get dressed and remain in the tent, ready to leave if necessary.
Ewart's original tentsite
On a side note, you'll notice I have no actual pictures of the flash flood. Well, with all the frantic running around and waking people up, and moving tents before they are inundated with water, I don't have much time for pictures. I do give it a thought or two at this point, but it is pitch black and it is pouring rain and I'll probably have a hard time avoiding getting my camera totally soaked and the flash will probably just reflect off of the raindrops anyway, so.... there's no flash flood pictures. Please enjoy my little lightning-and-rain graphics instead!
Turning back to the wash, I look at it a little more closely. Wow... this thing is turning into a raging torrent! The water flow is now a good 30 feet across, and near the other side, I see motionless two-foot high waves. I think to myself, I don't recall seeing any boulders in the wash that would cause those waves....
Ewart's new tentsite
My thoughts then quickly turn to Luke, Sophie and Catherine. Damn... how are they doing? They're further upstream, and they would have encountered the water flow earlier than us. The fear which had left me creeps back in... "I should go up and see how they are doing", I thought. But then I have another look at the wash and the water. Crossing this raging torrent is pretty much out of the question - I'll probably not make even the first crossing -- and there are two, maybe three crossings to make after that before reaching their camp. I realize that physically, we are effectively cut off from Luke, Sophie and Catherine. They are on their own, and at the moment there is nothing I can do for them.
I then remember the communicator, and run back to our tent to fetch it. If Luke is ok and is thinking along the same lines as I, then he'll be wondering how we are doing. Hoping, hoping, hoping, I turn it on and start making periodic calls.
With a huge sigh of relief I hear a voice over the radio. It doesn't even sound like Luke, such is the level of intensity and stress in his voice. "Everybody here is ok", he says, "how are you guys?".
"I think we lost one of Sophie's hiking poles, and we've moved the tents up the bank to a safe spot. I think we trashed a little of the crypto soil in doing so.. but we had to move quickly from where we were."
[on the storm and flash-flood]
"I am not really a fan of thunderstorms but have become somewhat desensitized to them since living in Ottawa, so having to endure the mother of all thunder and lightening storms with only a film of fabric between me and it was a little on the freaky side. When Andrew started up the small side-wash to check out whether or not it might be flowing, I was crossing my fingers that all would be well as I was warm and cozy and, so far, dry inside the tent. Through the driving rain and thunder I could hear Andrew shouting "GET UP, GET UP, GET UP"... I quickly got myself dressed with shoes on, and out of the tent as Andrew was frantically pulling up the pegs. After I got out we lifted the tent up and only a second later did the water rush over my feet. Phew!
Once the tent was up on the rock slab, Andrew left to check on Ewart as I tried to find rocks to tie down the guy wires...not so easy with rain driving down all around you, and only the small light from my headlamp and the occasional lightening strike to guide me. Once the tent was secure I went down to find Andrew and Ewart, and saw the raging river before me. Andrew was contemplating going to check on Luke and crew, but there was no way. The water was raging past us and probably several feet deep in places. This was turning into quite the adventure!"
With the important things -- the safety of all of us -- established, I start to relax again. Luke and I agree to ping each other every 30 minutes for the next little while. We don't know whether the water pulse from this storm has peaked or not, and if not, how strongly it will peak. This is, after all, my first real bona-fide flash flood!
I stand next to the wash, near where Ewart's tent had been, and monitor the flow of the raging brown torrent of water. It doesn't seem to be getting any higher, but just in case I place a soft footprint near the water's edge and stand there, watching, seeing if the water rises above it. It does, it doesn't, it does, it doesn't. So far, inconclusive.
I think about what might have happened if I hadn't gotten Ewart out of his tent. The flow of water where Ewart's tent was is, by my estimation, at least a foot deep - and moving fast. In the deeper part of the wash, but my recollection of the shape of it, it was probably at least three feet deep. If Ewart's tent had been swept into that deeper, faster flowing section, complete with rapids, things might have gone very badly. How hard was it, I wonder, to escape from a zipped-up tent that is tumbling along in a fast flowing stream? Let's just say, I don't think I'd want to experiment.
I walk back over to Jenn and our tent, and together we locate a reasonable piece of flat real-estate on a big slab of bedrock, and we set up the tie-downs using rocks. Jenn is getting a bit cold, standing out in the rain soaking wet, and in any case our tent is not in any danger, so there's no point in her staying outside. The rain does seem to have started to subside, and now that I think of it, I haven't heard or seen any big, close thunder or lightning in the past little while.
I stay outside, going down to near Ewart's tent and further monitoring the water. It has definitely gone down, and the intensity of the rapids and flow has noticeably diminished. I keep in periodic contact with Luke, until the batteries wear down (unfortunately in mid-conversation, so I've left Luke hanging). After scarfing Jen's headlamp batteries, I re-establish contact with Luke and we both agree: everything seems to be calming down, and there's no point in any further communication until the morning. I had originally specified a pretty early get-up time, but with tonight's late-night antics, I basically tell Luke to 'get up when you get up'.
New respect for 'flowed' vegetation
The rain has stopped. After one last look around, I think about turning in, myself. The water has _really_ gone down now -- in fact, it has almost completely stopped flowing. I marvel at the speed at which this event has occurred : bone dry at 7pm, raging flood at 9:30pm and a few wet pools and sand by 11:30pm. I return to our tent and peel off my moastly soaked clothes, and crawl into my sleeping bag. In the middle of the night, I wake and poke my head out of the tent for a quick check. Above us is a sea of bright stars.
What perhaps might be the lessons learned from our little adventure? Well, either be very confident in the forecast, or position your tent very prudently. And don't hesitate to get out and prepare for moving camp if the weather appears iffy. I'm sure glad I did! Also, I've learned that Ewart's power of sleep must be some sort of re-emergent, long-lost human hibernation. Man, can that guy sleep through anything, or what?...!
Thankfully, the next morning dawns crisp and completely clear. It seems as if the unsettled weather that culminated in last night's tempest has finally passed. The walls of the Maze are enhanced and vibrant in the sharp cool air of the morning. Above us, one of the slabs of the Chocolate Drops glows ochre in the early morning sun.
We take our time and sort out our wet and mixed up gear, organizing and laying things out to dry on rocks and on the branches of trees. After a thorough accounting, we find that we've managed to not lose a single thing, not even a tent peg.
We make contact with Luke, and things are going well there as well. They'll be moving shortly and when they do, they'll call us. This is the last day of our Maze backpack, so we're heading to the end trailhead today. By my estimation, it is a less-than-10km hike out. It should prove to be extremely scenic, what with the beautiful clear weather and the contrasts that will be presented to us as we hike up a narrow Maze side-canyon, then scramble up onto a ridge with far-ranging views of Canyonlands country.
Back to blue
We reflect on the night's events. We return to various points of interest, seeing where our original tent spots were. Ewart's old spot was a raised bench of sand. The raised bench of sand was now gone, and Ewart's spot was now transformed into a scoured dip in the wash. Good thing his tent wasn't there at the time! I had a look over to the spot in the wash where I recalled seeing large waves last night. I figured some large boulders must have been causing that, but now I could see that there were no boulders in the wash. What I had seen were large, standing waves from the large flow of water. I'm very glad I didn't try and cross that raging wash last night.
The other 3 survivors
We have new appreciation for the little plants and shrubs that are all bent over from being in the water flow. Based on signs from these plants, we conclude that in the deepest part of the wash, the water was probably four or five feet deep. Do not underestimate a unnassuming dry wash. They do flow at times!
Once our camp is packed up and breakfast is made, we decide to head up-canyon, sans packs, to meet Luke, Sophie and Catherine coming downcanyon. Jenn wants to capture the 'survivors' on video, and we also want to find a spot in the sun to warm ourselves. The morning, as I said earlier, is quite cool. We soon meet the upcanyon gang hiking down to us, and they're cheerful, singing lots of songs with a water theme (like "Here Comes The Flood" for example, by Peter Gabriel).
A video of the morning after the flash flood in Pictograph Fork:
Flash Flood Aftermath - Click on video above to start