Shitty Day on Prodigal Sun

Page Type
Trip Report
Utah, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Jul 31, 2009
Big Wall
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Shitty Day on Prodigal Sun
Created On: Aug 24, 2009
Last Edited On: Sep 1, 2009


Prodigal SunP4

I am not trying to minimize the tragedy of that day by my choice of title. The day was indeed a shitty one for us but that of course pales in comparison to the tragedy experienced by a family on that very same day. Our deepest condolences go out to them.

Many thanks to Trevor Long for the beautiful photos he emailed me & allowed me to post up.


Prodigal SunP1
Prodigal SunP4
Prodigal SunP3
Prodigal SunTrevor Long photo
Prodigal SunBivy

Our late arrival in Vegas on Friday night was followed by a long wait at the rental car counter and finally a 3am bedtime in Motel 6 in St. George. We woke up equally late, ate breakfast and slowly made our way to the zoo that is the visitors’ center of Zion NP. Whole lot was full and so after unloading our pig & gear, I drove back to Springdale to park. Finally by 1:30pm we got off the shuttle bus, crossed the river and shortly found ourselves hiking along the base of the northeast face of Angels Landing. I started up the first pitch ladder at 2 pm – we figured no problem: short route that is (reportedly) mostly C1. I linked pitches 1 and 2 and dispatched the fun (C2-ish) pitch 3 (crux being a topstep onto an aider hanging from a talon hook to place a high yellow Alien…good gear below, no issues). Somewhere mid-pitch, the stitching on one of my aiders’ steps gave out and I almost took a fall. Too much aid this season? Our elementary school-level big wall regimen this year is to be blamed. We did one more pitch but as I was setting up to haul atop P4, Shirley suggested that perhaps we should fix P4 and bivy on the narrow ledge atop P3…given that it was 6pm and there was a decent if narrow ledge there, we set up camp for the night. With 4 or 5 more pitches for Sunday, we figured we had plenty of time to finish before our Monday morning flight home. We set up the ledge and enjoyed a decent dinner while entertained by “people watching” the tourists getting on and off the shuttle bus.

A somewhat uncomfortable night followed. First, my insomnia (I’m too long for the portalege) and the accompanying tossing and turning eventually tipped the ledge – we both had to wake up in the middle of the night to straighten things out. Then, as predawn hours approached, the temps dipped and we were actually both shivering in our (very) light bags…Zion in August, go figure.


Prodigal SunProdigal Sun
Prodigal SunBivy Views
Prodigal SunP3
Prodigal SunBivy
Prodigal SunTrevor Long photo
Prodigal SunBivy (Trevor Long photo)

When the sun came out, things finally became comfortable and we slept in late. By 8:20am, we were almost packed up. Shirley was at the left edge of the small ledge at the main DA anchors and I was closing up the pig hanging just below the ledge from the chains on the right side (kinda like in this shot from night before). We both heard a loud noise above and felt as though our hearts stopped. Time slowed down to a crawl…

Shirley later told me that I yelled “ROCK!” but I do not recall. Whatever the noise was, it instantly directed our gazes skywards. My eyes locked-on to an object clearing the rim 500-600 feet directly above me. HAULBAG! I thought to myself. I would later find out that Shirley was tracking a large rock that sailed left in her direction while not really noticing the larger “object” that had my undivided attention. She was trying to make herself small under the slight overhang/dihedral that marks the start of P4. Did I mention that time flowed like molasses? I felt frozen yet my memories of those seconds are crisp. I was hanging below the ledge with nowhere to go. All I could do was watch and so I did. A tiny fraction of a second later, my brain shifted gears to “BASE JUMPER!” I assume I made out limbs by that point. I followed the person with my gaze hoping I could shift my position at the last moment if needed. With a horrendous sound of rushing air, the person flew behind me and slightly to my right. Close. My eyes followed. I don’t know why. I wish I would have looked away. By the time they passed my position I knew that shit was not right. We were less than 300 feet above the ground. I have no clue about base jumping but it seemed improbable that things would turn out well. And then came the impact on the rock slab marking the top of the rock band at the base of the wall. The body ricocheted into the brush below the rock band. We saw a small object falling by us slowly. A small pack and jacket. We knew then it was not a base jumper. I saw small papers gently floating down as well. Without thinking I grabbed one as it floated past my face. It was a twenty dollar bill. I recall telling Shirley not to look down. But there was nothing to see. The brush below obstructed any evidence of the tragedy. I thought “suicide” – there was no scream, no struggle. Shirley did not see this and was asking whether I was sure it was a person. I was.

It was a rare moment – there was no shuttle bus below. In fact there was no one below. We were almost sure that it was a lone person who decided to kill themselves by taking an early shuttle & hiking to the top. We had to alert someone – there was no question about a rescue of course but still…how could you continue moving up IF you had a choice to come down easily? I jugged our fixed line on P4 and rapped down. I kept looking down to see if I had imagined it all. I couldn’t see anything…maybe I was wrong? Maybe I just imagined shit?!! I felt the bill in my shirt pocket. No – I saw what I saw. We had to get down. I was careless pulling the ropes on P4 & they got stuck. Time ticked by. Shuttle bus came and went with people ignoring our waving. We did not want to yell to give anyone the idea that it was us who were in distress. We thought we saw a hiker up on the rim and up-canyon looking in our direction. We tried to signal him. We had no idea if we were successful. Couple tourists at the bus stop waved back at us and then left. Silence. The ropes finally pulled and we started rapping down. As we were atop P2, a marked park ranger sedan arrived. We waved & tried to communicate with him. Couldn’t hear us but at least we knew that others knew something had happened. Two rangers were crossing the river as we rapped to the ground. I found the pack and some personal belongings hanging on a bush directly in line with our route. I put the twenty dollar bill in the pack. By this time one of the rangers arrived at the base of Prodigal Sun. He told us that it was reportedly a slip…a hiker, a woman had slipped on the trail above. She was hiking with her family. We packed our stuff. There was nothing else to do. Two St. George detectives met us on the hike out. A chopper arrived on scene above apparently to examine the cliff top. The recovery team was crossing the river as well. We left our statements and headed home.


Three Fingered Jack3FJ
Three Fingered Jack3FJ
Three Fingered Jack3FJ
Angels RestAngels Rest

About a week later we were elsewhere. That outing had been preplanned before. I was midway up pitch 1 when I heard a short scream from Shirley. Without thinking I yelled out “Duck Shirley!!!”, flattened myself against the rock and waited for the sound of rushing air and the horrible impact below. Nothing happened of course. I looked down only to see a startled black bear running away from Shirley (having apparently snuck up on her). Fu…ing idiot that I am. Prodigal was to be a dry run for something bigger. We felt like shit. I felt out of it. We got no further. We went home in defeat. It’s been three weeks. I don’t think about the accident all the time. It’s only in those moments before sleep comes that the memories resurface without fail. They push back sleep. Our free time is spent running and hiking. The most ambitious climb was the 5.easy route on Three Fingered Jack. Good time spent with the whole family.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 41-60 of 81

rpc - Aug 31, 2009 6:33 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Holy Sh*t

Thanks Moapa.


peladoboton - Aug 31, 2009 12:35 am - Voted 10/10 pours

it is devastating and helpless to experience such tradgedy. two years ago my dad and I watched a fatal accident happen and I called for the chopper. two weeks ago I was with my dad in the ICU following his own severe trauma until he passed. all I can say is to keep talking about it with those close to you and the situation, and seek help if it becomes too much. PM me if you need to talk to someone in person....prayers and deepest thoughts for the family of the poor hiker, these are wounds that never fully heal, and leave you limping a bit sometimes.


rpc - Aug 31, 2009 6:34 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: pours

I'm sorry to hear about your father & thank you for sharing.


norco17 - Aug 31, 2009 1:36 am - Hasn't voted


that you had to witness such a tragic accident. Hope you and Shirley can get the thoughts of the accident out of your mind and get your heads back to normal.


rpc - Aug 31, 2009 6:34 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Sorry

Thanks Norco - hope time makes things better for that family.

Travis Atwood

Travis Atwood - Aug 31, 2009 12:01 pm - Hasn't voted


Thanks for sharing this. It was very well written and a good reminder to stay safe. Best wishes as you work through the memories.


rpc - Aug 31, 2009 6:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Sorry

Thanks Travis.


DudeThatMustHurt - Aug 31, 2009 12:41 pm - Voted 10/10

I hate to vote on this

Wow, my most sincerest goes to the family of the dead. Also send my thoughts out to you and shirley, I don't know what else to say on the matter. I hope you are both ok having to see this happen... my condolances..


rpc - Aug 31, 2009 6:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I hate to vote on this

Thank you.


nicozone - Aug 31, 2009 5:54 pm - Voted 9/10

Serious Warning

Well described situation; my thoughts go out to the family. I could feel the situation play out in my head and I'm definitely heading the warnings of this event. Good luck in getting back on the horse rpc.


rpc - Aug 31, 2009 6:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Serious Warning

Thanks Nico.


SawtoothSean - Aug 31, 2009 7:06 pm - Voted 10/10


That's a rough one to experience. Too bad for the hiker. You'll get past it though- as time goes by the haunting memory will fade for you and you will once again enjoy wall climbing for all the reasons you do it.

Several years ago I was part of a year long search for a body in the Sawtooths (a horrific fall on the Grand Mogul) which included cadaver dogs and night time searching (smells are better). I felt horrible for the family, and it was the right thing to do to help. It really haunted me that summer, and I felt like my usual sanctuary called the Sawtooths was tainted by tragedy. But I got past the imagery of death and falling etc.


rpc - Sep 2, 2009 12:56 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Tragic

"I felt like my usual sanctuary called the Sawtooths was tainted by tragedy"
yup! Thanks for sharing Sean. Take care.


Smoove910 - Aug 31, 2009 9:09 pm - Voted 10/10

My thoughts

are with you and your well being. I hope for a fast recovery.



rpc - Sep 2, 2009 12:56 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: My thoughts

thanks Kris.

Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson - Aug 31, 2009 9:17 pm - Voted 10/10

Radek-No Words...

can be found to express my deepest condolences to the family that have suffered in this tragedy you and Shirley had to witness. This report has left me numb and without adequate words to express. You and Shirley take great care and as much time as needed to recover from this event. Frankly, I don't know what I would think or do...I'm stunned.


rpc - Sep 2, 2009 12:57 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Radek-No Words...

Tragedy for the family. For us, just a lousy, unfortunate day. I appreciate the kind words Aaron. Take care & thanks.


96avs01 - Aug 31, 2009 9:51 pm - Voted 10/10


that both you/Shirley and the family find the needed strength to move forward. Thanks for the submission! Cheers, Chris


rpc - Sep 2, 2009 12:58 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Hope

Thanks for the kind word Chris.


PowellJason91 - Aug 31, 2009 9:58 pm - Hasn't voted

I can't even imagine.

What an unfortunate event...
Sent chills up and down my spine.
What a tragedy.

Viewing: 41-60 of 81