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One Dead, Two Rescued, After Rappelling Accident in Zion

Andrew Allen Arvig, 31, passed away during the night of Saturday, November 27, after overshooting a ledge while rappelling and becoming stranded overnight.

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Two rappellers were rescued and another passed away in Zion National Park over Thanksgiving weekend. 

Andrew Allen Arvig, 31, of Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, was on a canyoneering trip with two companions through Heaps Canyon on Saturday, November 27. Heaps is one of Zion’s more difficult canyons to navigate, rife with large potholes that routinely fill with water and are difficult to escape from. Parties regularly break their trip up into two days. The canyon is “both sublime and perilous,” according to a route overview from Canyoneering USA (CUSA), which described Heaps’ difficulty as a “giant leap greater than other Zion canyons.”

The group successfully navigated most of the canyon’s length in a single day, and Arvig led the trio on their final rappel, which descends to Upper Emerald Pools, late Saturday. The last rappel sequence is entirely free-hanging, and broken up into two sections approximately 145 feet and 290 feet in length, respectively. 

Arvig rappelled past the tiny ledge, “Bird Perch,” that breaks up the two sections (the point where he’d need to land and re-anchor), and ended up stuck at the end of his line 20 feet below the ledge (270 feet off the deck), and 50 feet away from the wall, unable to ascend, likely either because of lack of proper equipment and/or training, exhaustion, conditions, or a combination of factors. 

His companions used their pull line to lower to Bird Perch 20 feet above, but could not retrieve him, and due to poor cell reception in the canyon, were not able to contact Washington County Dispatch for rescue until Sunday morning. Zion National Park Technical Search and Rescue Team responded with over 30 rescuers, including a Life Flight helicopter from St. George, but when they reached the stranded party, Arvig was already deceased. “All of us at Zion National Park extend our sympathy to the Arvig family for their tragic loss,” said Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh in a public statement.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office could not disclose the cause of death, and the National Park Service could not be reached for comment, but exposure is likely. Temperatures are regularly below freezing at night in Zion this time of year, and ​​navigating Heaps’ numerous potholes prior to the final rappels would have required spending “hours and hours in freezing cold water,” according to CUSA.

Arvig is a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard, where he held the rank of Captain, serving in the 65th Field Artillery Brigade. He was originally from the Zion area, attended high school in Hurricane, and earned a degree at Dixie State University in St. George, before moving to Virginia in 2015 after accepting a job with the Boy Scouts of America. He was an avid and experienced canyoneer, posting about jaunts into Zion canyons as far back as a decade ago.

His former National Guard chaplain, Tim “Chappy” Clayson, posted his condolences on Facebook. “Andy was one of the finest individuals any of us have served with,” he wrote. “He was a smart and capable officer, but could still somehow cause the room to smile with a collective eye-roll. He was fearless, he loved his family, and he will be sorely missed.”

Arvig is survived by a wife of eight years, Anna Kyrychenko Arvig, and two daughters.