The incident that is being recognized took place on the evening of April 30, 2010, after Zion National Park dispatch received a report that a canyoneer was in distress on the final rappel of Pine Creek. The reporting party stated that a member of his party had lost control while rappelling, was hanging upside down, and was unable to right himself. The Pine Creek canyoneering route travels through a deep, narrow canyon and requires five rappels. The final rappel is 90 feet long and free hanging. After completing the final rappel, canyoneers must walk and scramble ¾-mile to reach a road. The one-mile long Zion/Mount Carmel tunnel parallels the rappel route and one of the tunnel windows is 200 feet above the anchor for the final rappel.
Rangers immediately recognized the life threatening nature of the situation. Rangers Ray O’Neil, Craig Thexton, Therese Picard, and Dan Hovanec responded to the tunnel window. They rigged a lowering system and a belay line and lowered Thexton and Picard out of the tunnel window 200 feet down to the subject. The 230 pound 40 year old male victim was hanging 80 feet above the ground and had almost entirely slipped out of his climbing harness. The only reason that he had not fallen to his death was that his climbing harness was still around his ankles and he had managed to wrap the rappel rope around his body several times. The victim was losing his ability to hold onto the rope and was not able to assist the rangers with his rescue. He told the rangers that he was too weak to continue holding on to the rope and that he had to let go which would have led to an 80 foot fall. The rangers assured the victim that they were not going to let him fall. While hanging in their harnesses next to the victim, they wrapped webbing around him in an attempt to create a new harness. Due to the wetsuit and other factors, the webbing repeatedly slipped off the desperate man. After a few minutes, they were able to wrap enough webbing around him, that they believed that he could be raised ten feet to the rim of the last rappel. They requested that O’Neil and Hovanec haul them up. Hovanec and O’Neil and other rangers who arrived at the window used a mechanical advantage pulley system to haul Thexton, Picard, and the victim to safety. From the time of the initial report a total of 56 minutes elapsed before the victim was sitting safely at the top of the last rappel. During that time, rangers organized a response, prepared gear, drove to the scene, constructed an anchor and lowering system, lowered two rangers to the victim, and raised the victim to the top of the rappel. During this response minutes mattered, and the quick actions of the rangers saved a life. The victim did not suffer any long term injuries as a result of the incident.
Craig Thexton and Therese Picard will be receiving their Valor Awards during the 69th Annual Department of Interior Awards Convocation, taking place in Washington, DC, today. Valor awards are the Department of Interior’s highest level of recognition for heroism.