Antelope Canyon is world renowned for its impressive natural beauty and the dramatic images photographers are able to create using just the sandstone and available light. The slot canyon was formed over millennia through rushing water, creating an undulating scene of ripples and waves. It is a rare sight, especially in such a vast size as this, and brings in thousands of tourists from around the world every year.
Unfortunately the dangers of walking through such a beautiful canyon often escapes the minds of most visitors. Water flowing from recent storms—and the debris it picks up on the way—presents a dangerous situation in such a tall and narrow area. Sometimes it becomes deadly.
That is exactly what happened on August 12, 1997. A sudden storm 15 miles away quickly turned the slot canyon into a death trap for 11 international hikers who were just wrapping up a quick tour through the canyon with a guide, who narrowly survived the disaster. It was also the fourth disastrous flood to occur within a week that year in Arizona.
On the 17th anniversary of the tragedy, the guide described in
an interview with 12 News
what happened that day. The rushing flood waters were sudden and within just minutes, part of the tour group and others wandering through the canyon were swept away by the ten-foot deep water. The guide—who was found naked, battered, and his skin raw from the water and debris—clung to a ledge of the canyon after an ill-fated attempt to save a couple of the tourists.
In all, 11 hikers perished that day. Two were from New Orleans, seven were French tourists, and the other two hailed from England and Sweden. Because of the number of Europeans who died, the tragedy made international headlines. It also prompted a wide amount of criticism over the lack of safety regulations.
A lot of people—both Arizona residents and visitors—often underestimate the dangers of flash floods. Weatherology reports that it only takes six inches of water for someone on foot to be knocked over and carried away by rapid-moving water. More than that can cause a vehicle to lose control and can even lead to death.
Just how fast does that water move? Here’s a video that shows just how quickly and thoroughly the water runs through Antelope Canyon, which was taken in August of 2013.
At the time, the canyon had few restrictions. A small fee would provide unfettered access to the canyon for anyone who wanted to visit, did not require a guide, and provided little information about the potential dangers. A few steel ladders were placed in the canyon but, according to the guide, these were not mounted to the walls and presented a danger when they moved with the water.
Within months of the tragedy, access restrictions were put in place and better safety features were installed. A guide knowledgeable of the canyon and the surrounding area is required to access the canyon. Stairways, like what you see in the photo above, were mounted to walls to provide a sturdy escape route. And, perhaps most importantly, flash flood warnings have become more prominent over the years.