They sought one of the most beautiful and remote and exclusive sites in the country, but they also got the fright of their lives.
They sought nature’s serenity, but they also got its fury.
So when they returned from Havasu Canyon in Arizona, these two midtown Columbus women were grateful for not only surviving a flash flood from the same storm that killed seven other hikers in a bordering state, but also for learning more about themselves.
"I did better than I thought I would," said Dianna Helms, 70, retired from the Pastoral Institute, where she was development coordinator.
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"I guess you pull it together when you have to," said Susan Hardin, 48, an attorney working part time as a contractor with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office to represent the Georgia Department of Human Services.
Getting to yes
The Havasupai Tribe Reservation comprises 188,077 acres adjacent to the western edge of the Grand Canyon’s south rim. It’s at the end of Indian Road 18, about 60 miles off historic Route 66.
On the reservation is Havasu Canyon. It features spectacular vistas and waterfalls with turquoise water. The gorge is so gorgeous, it’s a must-see-before-you-die spot on many travel and hiking websites. But flash floods can make it the spot where you die.
It just doesn’t look like it’s anywhere in this country. You look at the photos, and you think somebody’s doctored them because the water cannot be that blue.
Because the canyon is sacred land, the tribe allows only a certain number of visitors each year. The permits were limited to 250 last year, when Dianna and Susan went.
Susan’s sister, Cindi Hubbard, called from California in June to offer two of her group’s 12 Havasu passes. Cindi is an avid hiker, but Susan certainly isn’t, especially with an artificial hip.
"That sounds great," Susan told Cindi. "I don’t think so, but I’ll check it out."
A few clicks on the Internet revealed Havasu’s magnificence and hooked her.
"It just doesn’t look like it’s anywhere in this country," Susan said. "You look at the photos, and you think somebody’s doctored them because the water cannot be that blue."
One problem: Susan didn’t want to be the only one in the group coming from Columbus.
"I wouldn’t have gone by myself," she said. "I was just afraid I would neglect some crucial detail. It’s not the kind of place that has a 7-Eleven down the street."
Susan first asked a fellow attorney. When she was turned down, she immediately thought of Dianna. "She’s so open to any kind of adventure," Susan said.
They have known each other for 20 years, first as next-door neighbors and now friends down the street.
Dianna is a seasoned traveler. She has been to Europe 15 times and Africa four times. She also is an experienced hiker, but she never had camped as an adult. Nonetheless, she was intrigued when she saw photos of the Havasu waterfalls.
"They’re incredible," she said.
More importantly, Dianna thought, "to be with Susan and share that adventure with her would definitely be a calling."
The folks at Outside World Outfitters in Columbus helped them prepare, and they borrowed backpacks from neighbor Pete Pease and a tent from the Rev. Jimmy Elder of First Baptist Church.
Dianna and Susan flew from Atlanta to Las Vegas on Sept. 12, a Saturday, then drove approximately 220 miles to the Havasupai campground parking lot, called "Hill Top," the staging area for the hike down the canyon.
The next morning, they awoke at 6 a.m. Their group of 12 divided into three teams of four. Their passes were good for three nights, Sunday through Tuesday, but circumstances beyond their control kept them from making it through to the last day.
In addition to the total of $91 in fees per person for the three nights, they paid $150 each for the mule train to transport their gear roundtrip. Dianna also wanted to reserve a helicopter ride on the return trip, but she was told the helicopter doesn’t operate on Wednesdays, the day they were scheduled to leave the canyon.
Dianna and Susan ended up getting that helicopter ride out, but not for a welcomed reason.
The canyon’s path is a series of switchbacks. It’s well-maintained but narrow and rocky and steep — and no railings. The 2,000-foot descent is about 10 miles long, about 8 to the tribe’s village and 2 more to the bottom, where the waterfalls begin.
It took them about 5 hours to reach the village and another 2 to arrive at their campsite. "We were not in a rush," Susan said.
The team ahead of them found a campsite toward the end of the canyon. "They picked out the prettiest one," Susan said.
It started raining as they waited for their bags. They took shelter in an outhouse.
All of their bags arrived intact, except one woman’s panties were lost when her pack popped open en route.
"She had no underwear left," Susan said.
"Everybody had to loan her some," Dianna added.
They camped alongside Havasu Creek.
"Our beautiful, blue, peaceful water," Susan said.
The rain stopped, so they hiked all day and inhaled the breathtaking scenes. That night, however, it rained again. And harder.
Susan fretted about snakes slithering into the tent she shared with Dianna. Not one was spotted. But that proved to be a minor worry.
They awoke that Monday to clear skies and hiked a quarter-mile to Mooney Falls. Dianna, nursing foot blisters, walked to the edge of the 200-foot drop and said, "I don’t think so. I don’t believe I’m going to do that one." Susan replied, "Why rush? We’ve got two more days."
Thunder rumbled throughout the canyon as Susan hiked down the falls’ trail with two other women in their group. Another hiker passed by and told them, "I’m not going on. I’ve been in a flash flood before."
So they turned around and reached the top in about 10 minutes. An Indian guide casually asked whether they saw anyone else down the canyon. Susan told him there were four other women from their group at the lower falls.
"I didn’t think anything about him asking me that," Susan said.
While it poured, Susan and her fellow hikers smooshed together in a rocky cutout within the canyon wall. Then they sprinted to an outhouse.
"The bathroom is so big," Susan said with a chuckle, "all three of us sat in there for another 20 minutes."
When they returned to the campsite, they huddled under a tarp. A stray dog joined them. Then they heard a helicopter overhead.
We still didn’t know we were in danger.
It turns out, the helicopter went to fetch those other women from their group in the lower part of the canyon, which floods first.
"They had been picked up off a ledge and flown up to the top," Susan said.
But they thought it was an isolated incident.
"We still didn’t know we were in danger," Dianna said.
The torrential rain wouldn’t subside, the creek beside their campsite started to rise — and the water turned from that soothing blue to a bothersome brown.
Getting in danger
By 4:30 p.m., the calm creek was a raging river. Across a footbridge from their campsite, a family of 11 from Iowa had gathered on an island. Dianna and Susan asked Indian guides who passed by whether they should leave, and they were waved off.
But when the footbridge washed away, their concern grew into a panic. The family from Iowa was trapped, and their island was shrinking. One of the men traversed the river via a fallen tree as the women screamed, "No!"
Some people were taking pictures, but how could they do that while these people might die?
After he made it across, the Indian guides attempted to rescue the rest of the family. They strung a wire to the island, and one of the guides tried to shimmy across, but the line wasn’t taut enough, and he dipped into the water.
"We thought he was gone," Susan said. "He made it, but they realized that wasn’t a good idea."
Just after they noticed water flowing down the canyon walls as well, several federal officers arrived on four-wheelers with cables and ropes and harnesses.
"As soon as they started," Susan said, "we realized we were in danger. … Some people were taking pictures, but how could they do that while these people might die?"
The last family member was rescued around 11 p.m.
"They lost everything," Dianna said.
But at least the outcome was better than she originally feared.
"At one point," Dianna said, "I thought I was going to see the end of all those people. I really did."
In sometimes knee-deep water, their group frantically moved their tents to higher ground and closer to the way out of the canyon. Their tents were wider than parts of the path, and they yelled at each other out of frustration and fear.
They moved their gear about 100 yards and pitched their tents against the canyon wall. It was too dark to determine how much the water had risen and how close it was to them.
"We couldn’t get any farther back from it," Dianna said. "But we didn’t say a word about it."
Rumors gushed as fast as the river and the rain. A camper from another group reported that the path to the top of the canyon was flooding. They also heard that the canyon was too narrow where they were for a helicopter to rescue them, but it could pick them up in the morning if they could reach the village by then, 2 miles back up the path.
The force of the water was so loud. It was violent.
So they hunkered down and waited for sunrise. They had moved their tent so many times, it was too wet and too dirty for comfort.
"We didn’t own a single dry piece of anything," Susan said. "… It’s almost unbelievable. You’re just going, ‘Holy crap. I can’t believe this is happening.’"
Listening to the rain pour and the river roar, they couldn’t sleep.
"The force of the water was so loud," Dianna said. "It was violent."
And she thought, "This could be it. I don’t know if we’re going to get out of this."
In retrospect, they realized, the federal officers wouldn’t have left them in the canyon if their lives were in imminent danger. But such perspective wasn’t evident then.
Sunrise shed light on a lovely day. The rain had stopped. Susan hiked to the village to scout out the situation. Along the muddy path, she met another federal officer, a policeman with the U.S. Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.
"He said it was a giant cluster and there would be emails going to D.C.," Susan said. "They didn’t have all the gear they needed, the Indian guides, and they were lucky nobody died."
The policeman also told her the water had risen so fast, the sensors didn’t go off and it was Havasu’s worst flood in 18 years.
She asked whether they could hike out, all the way to the parking lot, but the policeman refused; the water level and the path’s condition were unclear between the village and the top of the canyon.
At the village, Susan didn’t see anyone available with information, but she found a clipboard at the helicopter field, and she wrote the names of her group members. Then she sat and waited for the rest of them to join her.
"We thought everybody in the campground was coming," Susan said. "We wanted to be the first ones in line."
Back at their emergency campsite, Dianna packed up their gear and left it, hoping the mule service they paid for would honor the second half of the deal.
Dianna reunited with Susan in the village. About 90 minutes later, the six-seat helicopter indeed had room for them. Hearing their names called, Susan said, was "awesome." Dianna called it "a relief."
"If we couldn’t get in that helicopter," Dianna explained, "we would have been stuck in that village without any of our gear and no place to stay and stranded again."
Dianna was nervous about the 5-minute ride to the top; Susan daydreamed about going to a spa. Their gear arrived about an hour after they reached the top.
Then it was again Susan’s sister who suggested the next destination.
"We’re so close to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and Susan never has been there," Cindi said, "so let’s drive over and camp there."
Susan muttered, "No spa?"
Along the drive, with cellphone service regained, they learned the extent of the danger they had survived. Multiple media outlets reported seven hikers were killed during a flash flood at Zion National Park in Utah, about 200 miles north of them.
"We were amazed that nobody died where we were," Susan said.
They stopped to buy wine and watch the sunset. As they entered the campsite, which was more meadow than canyon, an official warned them that there was another flash flood warning.
Dianna and Susan couldn’t contain their laughter.
As their gear dried, they drank wine and ate smoked salmon, cheese and crackers. And they reflected on what they had been through.
"I don’t even have the words," Dianna said. "It’s just so remote, you felt helpless before the forces of nature."
"It was all just disbelief," Susan said. "Maybe I shouldn’t have been so scared, but I feel perfectly justified being scared."
If you go
What: Havasu Canyon, featuring spectacular vistas and waterfalls and turquoise water sacred to the Havasupai tribe.
Where: Outside the southwestern edge of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.
Who: The tribe issues a limited number of passes each year. The number was 250 last year. This year, the number has increased to 300, but they already are taken. They sold out in less than a month after they went on sale Feb. 1, the reservation operator said when the Ledger-Enquirer called earlier this week.
Cost: $35 entry fee per person; $17 nightly camping fee per person; $5 environmental fee per person. The website BearFootTheory.com says the Havasu Canyon camping office might admit hikers without a reservation if there is room, but they will be charged double the fees.
More information: 928-448-2121 or 2141 or 2180 and www.havasupai-nsn.gov