Some names, locations, and professional details have been changed to protect privacy.
Wilderness therapy guides train at The Blobs in the Stansbury Mountains, UT. Photo Credit: Haley Tapia.
In the desert just outside St. George, Utah, wilderness therapy guide Haley Tapia awoke in her tent just before dawn. It was a perfectly normal day in late November 2016. Rounding up a group of students and gathering gear, she and her group prepared to leave the field. The plan was to hike quickly to the company van, .3 miles away across a wash, and drive it three hours north to company headquarters. Thunder rumbled nearby.
Tapia and two co-guides, Hannah Abaraxas and Tim Mayes, were guiding eight students on a climbing itinerary for their company, which administers outdoor behavioral health programs to at-risk adolescents and young adults. Tapia felt something was wrong as the group broke camp. The guides were communicating poorly, and they were about to make a series of decisions that would lead to disaster.
An hour later, Tapia was drowning in the wash. She lost her footing and clung to a handline while the current ripped at her body. Ice and debris filled her jacket, pants, and boots. In a few moments, the current would overpower her and rip her into the abyss downstream. Tapia wondered if she was going to die.
A year after the incident, Tapia and I conducted a safety analysis of the events of that day, boiling down the group’s decisions and consequences.
Decision One: Leaving Camp
Typical student-built shelters rigged with tarps and ridgeline at Welcome Springs, St. George, UT. Photo Credit: Haley Tapia.
The group would have to hike out of their campsite in the dark to make a scheduled afternoon event. As the storm approached, students packed chaotically. The guides coordinated the students’ actions to get camp packed, but a hailstorm engulfed them as they started to hike.
Lead guide Abaraxas made the call to leave the campsite despite the disorienting, painful conditions the hail produced. Unable to see or hear each other, the group splintered on its way to the wash. The three guides—Abaraxas leading, Mayes in the middle, and Tapia in the back of the pack—were left with no communication between one another until the group stopped at the wash.
Decision Two: No Lightning Drill
Eventually, the guides confirmed that all eleven group members safely arrived at the wash. Tapia arrived last, finding the wash filled with a steady current of dark water. The actions of the lead guide were confusing.
“Hannah tied our ridgeline [rope used for building shelters] to a tree on our side of the wash. We had to yell to communicate, because of the noise of the storm.”
Leaning toward Tapia to be heard, Abaraxas yelled, “keep the students here! I’m going to take this line across, and we’re all going to cross!”
“I remember thinking,” says Tapia, “this is f*%#ing stupid. We should be doing a lightning drill.” In a “lightning drill,” members of a group spread out and stand on their foam sleeping pads. The loose formation is designed to avoid multiple casualties in a potential strike; the pads add insulation. The group simply packs up and moves on once the storm passes.
“Looking back on it,” Tapia says, “the storm passed after about twenty or thirty minutes, max. If we had done a lightning drill, we would have been fine.”
Gunlock Reservoir, St. George, UT. Photo Credit: Haley Tapia.
Instead, Abaraxas carried the rope across the wash. She crossed relatively easily, but flash floods are notoriously powerful and unpredictable. Abaraxas secured the hand line to her body once on the other side. Most of the students crossed the wash uneventfully, but the water level rose rapidly. Tapia prepared to lead an apprehensive student, Trevor Forst, across.
Decision Three: Packs On
Everyone in the group wore a pack while crossing the wash, which, Tapia points out in retrospect, was dangerous. The oversight would nearly kill her and Forst. “I told him to cross, and I saw his face in a lightning flash,” Tapia says. “I’ll never forget it—I saw terror. I had to act.” Tapia instructed Forst to keep one hand on the line and one hand on her pack as the two crossed together.
Tapia stepped into the current, which she found stronger and deeper than she had imagined. The water itself was frigid and filled with branches, rocks, sand, and ice that pelted her and Forst as they began to walk. Their full 65-liter packs added significant balance challenges. Soon, Forst lost his footing.
With one hand on the rope and one hand on Forst, Tapia was powerless to assist. Forst's pack pushed his head and torso underwater as she watched, handcuffed. He fought to get his feet back down to the wash bed, but the current was far too strong. Two students jumped in (one from each side of the wash) and helped Forst regain his footing, saving his life.
Tapia lost her footing in the chaos and went face down, landing in the same position from which Forst recovered with help. Since Forst was unable to escape the wash by himself, the two students had no choice but to escort him to safety, leaving Tapia at risk and alone.
“I was getting mouthfuls of sand and ice. My jacket was filling up with ice. With each passing second, I got heavier, and my grip felt weaker. I was trying to keep my head above water; I was choking. I could feel the current wanting to rip me away.”
Tapia began losing her grip, but as soon as the two student rescuers had delivered Forst to the bank, they came back for her. Trauma paralyzed her as she stood back up in the current, now up to her chest.
“I couldn’t move. I remember looking up at the sky, thinking ‘I’m going to die.’ Or, ‘I’m dead,’ or ‘I’m going to get fired.’”
Assessment: Communication is Key
Instead, all eleven group members escaped the situation with their lives and their jobs. Tapia, Abaraxas and Mayes' company implemented various special training sessions in response to the incident in the following weeks. But to Tapia, the most important lesson had nothing to do with wilderness technique or storm safety. Remember, she and her co-guides were certified wilderness guides with years of professional experience. They were Wilderness First Responders—the highest classification of backcountry first aid operators. They already knew storm safety. They, on paper, were well-qualified.
Students take a break from fieldwork in the southern Utah desert. Photo Credit: Haley Tapia.
Tapia knows that her team’s failure to communicate was their most glaring mistake of that day. “We didn’t talk about a plan. We didn’t address the rain, the hail, the wash. We just followed Hannah’s lead. And I think a big thing when working with a group is never blindly following.”
Tapia says the team of guides became inexplicably obsessed with getting to the van, and this “tunnel vision” led to a departure from their company’s communication protocol.
“Usually, we ‘staff up.’ We talk about things; we make decisions together. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture [as a company]. For some reason, amidst all the chaos of the day, we lost that [protocol]. We had to get to the van; it was like there was no other option. But in my mind, I was going through all these other options [like the lightning drill]. But I didn’t speak up.”
Tapia sought in-house therapy at her company when she started experiencing symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident. The company decided against major consequences for Tapia's guide team and maintained updated training techniques. No guide or student at the company has since reported a similar incident.