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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Helicopter rescues Utah hikers after 24 hours in freezing canyon

Utah public safety officials hoisted two 26-year-old men out of a slot canyon in Zion National Park

The Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau, including rescue specialist Geoffrey Hall, pilot Dennis Charney and hoist operator Kyle Curtis, after a successful rescue in Zion National Park. (NPS/Jonathan Shafer)
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A helicopter crew for the Utah Department of Public Safety saved two hikers who were in danger of freezing to death in Zion National Park earlier this month.

The National Park Service released video footage last week that shows how the rescuers utilized infrared camera technology to locate the men before hoisting them out of a slot canyon.

On Saturday, Jan. 21., the park service received a report that two hikers had missed their scheduled return from Zion’s Left Fork of North Creek, or “Subway” route. Utah DPS told the St. George News the two men, both 26, were from New York and Nevada.

“Their car was still parked at the exit of the hike,” sergeant Kyle Curtis, the St. George base manager and hoist operator on the rescue mission, told The Washington Post.

Two hikers stranded for more than 24 hours in Utah’s Zion National Park were rescued by members of the Utah Department of Public Safety on Jan. 21. (Video: Utah Department of Public Safety/National Park Service)

The men were attempting a top-down trek that NPS describes as a “very strenuous 9.5-mile through-hike that requires rappelling skills, 60 feet of rope, and extensive route finding experience.”

Following the report of missing hikers, Zion NPS staff and Utah DPS were dispatched to the Subway trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road. They prepared rescue teams and a landing zone for the helicopter, while the crew used Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) to locate the stranded men. Curtis said after taking off from the airport, it took about 30 minutes to find the hikers.

The next challenge was figuring out how to get help to them. While conditions were good, the team wasn’t able to land the helicopter near the men or even drop a rescue specialist in their exact location.

DPS lowered rescue specialist Geoffrey Hall into the canyon where he had to wade through waist-deep, freezing water. A route for experienced canyoneers only, the Subway hike requires swimming “through several deep pools of very cold debris-filled water” that can sometimes be neck-deep.

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Once Hall could reach the men, he found they were uninjured and instructed them to climb down to him. He hooked them, and pulled the hikers into the helicopter.

According to NPS, one of the men was “dangerously hypothermic” after the pair had been stranded in freezing temperatures for more than 24 hours. Curtis says the men were lethargic and had “a hard time moving and a hard time thinking.” The hiker was transported to a hospital, and is reported to be in stable condition. Curtis says neither will be required to pay for the helicopter evacuation.

Luke Bowman, chief pilot for DPS said in an NPS news release the rescue team was well-trained for the mission and dedicates a lot of time to preparing for such emergencies.

On June 10, 2022, a DPS helicopter hoisted a youth group of 19 (including 17 children) to safety after becoming trapped for 30 hours in Sandthrax Canyon in Utah’s Red Rock region. According to the department’s early June Aero Bureau Report, the team had flown 16 rescue missions that week alone.

While more people need help during the busier, warmer months, it’s during the winter that “it’s more common that [recreation] will turn into a rescue,” Curtis said.

Part of the danger is that conditions in these popular Utah destinations can change quickly. “You can be prepared and still get in a sticky situation,” Curtis said. And with frigid canyon pools you can’t avoid, Curtis says it’s easy to get in over your head “literally and figuratively.”

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While helicopters can be lifesaving for visitors, they’re not always available, or may not be allowed to fly depending on conditions, says Zion Chief Park Ranger, Daniel Fagergren.

“Winter conditions create an extremely challenging rescue environment,” Fagergren said in a news release. “Currently, many of our canyons drop to sub-zero temperatures at night, streams and pools are iced over and deep snow covers the trails at higher elevations.”

Last year, two Zion visitors died in separate tragedies, including a 31-year-old woman who died after becoming dangerously cold during an overnight trip with her husband, and 29-year-old Jetal Agnihotri, who died in the summer during a flash flood.

NPS officials say it’s essential to prepare accordingly before a visit and check in with rangers when you arrive. Subway hikers in particular are required to both get a wilderness permit to hike the canyon, and take a park shuttle to reach the trailhead. For more information on Zion planning, visit the park’s website.

Curtis also recommends always telling other people your travel plans, and carrying a satellite communication device in case of emergency. Being able to communicate your needs, injuries and location can expedite your rescue.