Incident:Cliffed Out in Eaton Canyon 2023/09/17

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Incident:Cliffed Out in Eaton Canyon 2023/09/17
Date 2023/09/17
Location Eaton Canyon
Severity No loss
Canyoneering-related Yes
SAR involvement Yes
Navigation problem Yes
Environmental problem No
Communication problem No
Planning problem Yes
Skills problem No
Body movement problem No
Rigging problem No
Rappel problem No
Insufficient gear No
Gear failure No


We attempted to bypass the lowest fall via the class 3/4 route, but were not able to find it. We got stuck on a steep slope with no safe way up, down, or across. We called 911 via iPhone 14 satellite SOS mode, and got hoisted out via helicopter.

Thank you Sierra Madre Search and Rescue, Altadena Mountain Rescue, and LA Fire Department aviation unit for responding so quickly and getting us home safely.


This canyon is significantly more physically demanding and time intensive than Rubio canyon.

Our party consisted of two: an intermediate canyoneer and a beginning canyoneer. For additional context, we're comfortable rock climbing 5.10 and 5.8. We've descended Rubio canyon several times in dry conditions, which felt easy and fun for both of us. We observed the water flow rate to be "moderate" at 10:30am as defined by the example photo on Ropewiki.

We started descending the handline from the telephone trail at 1:30pm. There were many pools that were deep enough that we had to swim. Fortunately we had brought life jackets, or this would have been extremely difficult and exhausting. With life jackets, the challenge was reduced to unclipping while bobbing in the water fall zone, then swimming to the end of the pool, which drained far more energy than we expected. The flow rate also contributed to us moving slowly, simply by making the rappels more technical and much more slippery. The water was cool but not cold, and we were extremely thankful to be wearing 3mm wetsuits. Mine was full length which helped protect my knees and elbows, for which I was grateful. My partner's was a shorty which sufficed but resulted in extra bruises and abrasions.

It seemed like there were many more obstacles in the canyon than the CalTopo map described, particularly in the upper canyon. The first few obstacles are marked as slides but it seemed reckless to slide/jump into pools of unknown depth, which meant each of those was its own rappel. So instead of there being 2 raps, there were 7 or more.

It took us until 8:30pm to get to the second-to-last rappel. Because we were in complete darkness and relying completely on our headlamps, we chose to bypass the rappel. The trail around was easy to follow, and slightly stressful due to the height of the scramble, but not too bad. I comfortably free climbed the scramble, and chose to belay my partner up behind me since we were both physically exhausted, and a slip/fall on that 30' pitch could easily be fatal. We expected the bypass around the lowest rappel to be similar. It was not.

We intended to bypass the lowest rappel by following the orange route described on the CalTopo map. However, we were not able to find a passable route across the north-facing cliff. There were no available natural anchors like trees or bushes, and rock quality was extremely poor, with boot-sized rocks easily pulling off the slope. We were stuck on the wall and did not feel like we could get back the way we came without sliding off. We called 911 via the iPhone 14's satellite SOS function, and passed our coordinates and location description to the sheriff.

The rescue team attempted to get to us by climbing the orange bypass route from the east, but they were not able to find a traverse through the north-facing cliff either, and so were unable to access our location. They called for a helicopter hoist, which was fortunately successful.

The root cause of this incident is we did not give ourselves enough time to complete the canyon before dark. While we had headlights, we did not trust their ability to keep working if we were to rappel through the last waterfall due to the expected water volume and force, which motivated us to attempt to bypass the rappel. Neither we nor the rescue team were able to locate a safe route through the cliffs.

One member of the rescue team speculated that a previously passable route may have been washed out over the heavy winter. It's also possible that we simply took the wrong path and never recovered.

Bottom line: we were extremely thankful to be wearing life jackets and wet suits for the many pools we had to swim through. We should have started descending not later than 8:00am to leave ourselves enough daylight to get out safely.