Missed Signs and Self Rescues in a Havasu Creek Flash Flood


When I got a coveted chance to join a March 2023 trip on the Grand Canyon, I was prepared for the ultimate blend of serenity and thrill. 21 days spent floating remote whitewater between towering sandstone walls and layers of ancient rock that tell stories of many generations past. I knew navigating the wild desert forges bonds between trip members that go far beyond the steady stream of notifications that have come to define everyday “connection,” I just didn’t know how valuable that connection would prove to be.

On Day 13, we pulled hard into the eddy at the mouth of Havasu Canyon, marveling at the water’s pale aqua color, the bright blue an exciting contrast to the brown of the Colorado. The hike up Havasu Creek to Beaver Falls was a long-anticipated trip highlight, and with only three hours to cover the five-and-a-half miles, we were anxious to get moving.

It was a mild day, and I swam through the mouth of the canyon to the trailhead in my sun hoodie, leggings, hat, sunglasses, and sandals, figuring I’d dry out soon. As I hiked with my partner Brandon, the water next to us gradually turned less blue, then, eventually, entirely brown. We shrugged, hoping the waterfall still had the intoxicating color it’s famous for.

Catching up to Jack, we dashed along together until the trail ended abruptly, an arrow pointing to the water. A creek crossing! Only, instead of stepping-stone hops, current rushed by. I hesitated briefly, but others from our group were still ahead; they must have crossed here, too. We linked arms, wading carefully against the current’s push. We were knee-deep when the strength of the flow broke our arms apart, sending us all swimming.

In a flash, I thought of the boulders and wood strewn downstream, knowing the cold water would push me right into danger. My knee bonked hard on a rock, and all I could think was, “Please don’t let my head be next.” Adrenaline fueled my muscles, and we swam furiously to the bank, soaked but relieved.

Panting, we briefly wondered how the rest of our group had fared as we hustled to catch up, following the trail until it led back across the creek. My stomach dropped at the sight of the swirling current, stronger and more threatening than before. Instead of crossing, we began bushwacking, hopeful there was a preferable spot farther upstream.

We were picking through cactus-studded brush when we finally spotted the rest of our group on the trail across the creek. It turned out that they’d never crossed, opting to wade along a sketchy wall instead. Without a rope to help us cross, they continued up the trail while we attempted to keep pace. Soon, stumbling through the brush became too tricky, and, noticing the time, we made the call to turn around.

Goosebumps covered my arms, my still-damp clothes clinging to my skin. Jack and Brandon had identified a spot where they thought we could cross, but the voice in my head screamed at me to stay on land. My knee throbbed from hitting rock earlier, and my ego was bruised even worse. My heart fluttered at the tangles of current beside me—but I was adamant that we wait for our friends before attempting to cross again.

Soon, our friends came back our way—they’d also bailed on the falls mission—and the tightness in my chest eased. There was power in numbers. We devised a plan to create a body fence with linked arms extending into the water so that we could swim partway across and have the link catch us, but quickly realized the current was too strong. With no other choice, we continued our crawl through the prickly brush, the temperature plummeting as clouds encroached.

Photo: Kristen Tedrow

When the bank eroded into the water and turned into sheer sandstone cliff, we stayed put while the rest of the group hiked back to get ropes and PFDs. Karen sat on the opposite shore, offering moral support while we nibbled our meager snack bars and tried to stay warm. The tightness in my chest returned as Brandon and Jack began debating alternative ways to cross, tiptoeing along the rock as they debated the consequences of the rapids downstream.

Desperate for a sense of safety, I begged them to stick to the plan and wait. Waves of dread washed over me as I watched them. Yet, I felt more insecure about myself. After all, they had more experience and comfort in water than me. Would they blame my unease on being a woman? Was I a “nag”? Did they think I wasn’t skilled enough to be here? Not “chill” enough to boat with in the future? A light rainstorm rolled in, and my goosebumps and I took shelter in a shallow cave.

Two hours later, a handful of our party returned with PFDs, which they lined across the river using throw bags. The goal: Wade as far as possible while grasping the rope, then hang on and let the current swing us across.

The water lapped at my chest, adrenaline tightening the fists I clutched around the rope. When I lost footing, I held on for dear life. But I had the rope on the wrong shoulder, and as I gator-rolled in the current, the rope twisted around my neck, pulling me under. I kept holding on, horrified that the rope would suffocate me or snap my neck. Kyle jumped in for a live-bait rescue and pulled me to shore, my body shaking. The tension eased when Brandon made it safely across.

“Phew! We’re okay!” I thought… Until Kyle told us that the rest of our hikers had gotten trapped further downstream and had to set up a second roped swim. We quickly made our way down the trail. Instead of a calm trickle of Gatorade blue, a Class V whitewater river raged beside us—an indisputable flash flood. As we hiked to the next crossing, we acknowledged, bluntly, how dumb we were. It hadn’t rained recently enough for us to consider a flash flood, but the color of the water should’ve been a dead giveaway. How had we not seen it coming?

Blame it on the human brain. Many wilderness accidents happen not because of a lack of knowledge or experience but because of mental processing. “Heuristics” are rules of thumb the brain uses for mental shortcuts based on past experiences. Although they’re often beneficial, when we make subconscious shortcuts based on past situations or existing social dynamics, we can ignore the complexities of the current situation’s hazards and risks, falling prey to “heuristic traps.”

Looking back from the safety of shore several hours and two more exhausting and stressful river crossings later, it was all too easy to recognize the heuristics we had fallen prey to in this Havasu Creek flash flood.

Familiarity Heuristic: This hike appeared similar to all the other desert creek hikes we’d done over the weeks and other trips, so we assumed it would unfold similarly.

Time Pressure Heuristic: The feeling of “We need to be quick to see the falls,” led us to cut corners, like not bringing much gear and rushing without paying attention to the water level.

Recency Bias: Since we hadn’t gotten rain in two days, we didn’t think to worry about flooding, and overlooked other data as a result.

Scarcity Heuristic: The hike up to Beaver Falls felt like a “once in a lifetime” none of us wanted to miss out on, potentially blinding us to signs of what, in hindsight, felt obvious.

As we sat around the firepan to debrief later that chilly March evening, grateful no one had been injured—or worse—we reflected on a few big lessons learned.

Complacency can kill. After two weeks on the river, we’d grown a little too relaxed when it came to safety. Because we only planned to be gone three hours, we neglected to bring personal supplies, like extra clothing or food to last longer or any safety gear, like a throw bag and a PFD.

Speaking up can save lives. I was nervous about vocalizing my needs and concerns. I was the least experienced, the most uncomfortable and the only woman when we were stuck on the other side of the creek. On expeditions, it’s often helpful to default to the most conservative opinion in the group for safety, not the most confident. It never hurts to speak from your perspective, and it often keeps the group safe.

Practice your skills. No wilderness training is a one-and-done. Had I remembered what I learned in my swiftwater rescue years before, I could’ve avoided the rope wrapping around my neck. I now commit to practicing my skills between trips, even if I don’t need to use them often.

Build a solid team. Even with experienced groups, incidents happen. Our mix of boaters, climbers and first responders was a huge reason we were able to execute a self-rescue, and the trust we’d built over two weeks on the river was vital in keeping the crossings as efficient and as safe as possible.

Use your resources. Excellent communication and delegation ensured that each team member contributed to the rescue, from gathering extra layers and snacks to setting up rope systems. Providing emotional support, from encouragement to genuine “Are you okays?” was equally as important as technical skills.

Additionally, Brian smartly scrambled to the mouth of the canyon early on, shouting to another party approaching the canyon. They graciously helped cam our rafts to the walls and tie them together in hopes of keeping them from blowing out of the eddy.

Acknowledge potential heuristic traps. Despite our collective group experience, moving quickly and overlooking indicators of risk resulted in a dangerous and life-threatening scenario.

On the evening of Day 16, I found myself alone, sitting in the sand on “Tequila Beach,” the rumble of Lava Falls echoing down the canyon. With my knee still swollen and rope burns aching, I sighed in relief. My group and I had made it safe and happy through the biggest hazards with a new appreciation for the forces of nature that drive them.

Nature has a way of leaving her mark on humans, hopefully for the better. I looked down at the splotchy border of new, pink skin of my rope burn scar, courtesy of our final swim across the canyon mouth, and vowed to never to take knowledge or experience for granted. The scar may fade completely over time, but the impact on my future trips is permanent. Human connection is powerful. Water can be even more so.


Editor’s Note: Interested in more flash flood experiences? Read about this flash flood on the Rio Grande.