A day in the backcountry ended tragically last Wednesday when a local man was killed in a rappelling accident at Teardrop Arch in the Pritchett Canyon area near Moab.
Zachary John Taylor, 20, died of his injuries at the scene as a result of a 110 foot fall. The accident occurred at approximately 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 13 as Taylor attempted to rappel from a tree near the top of Teardrop Arch, also known locally as Pool Arch. There were five others in his group who successfully completed the same rappel just prior to the accident.
The group of friends had begun hiking to the arch about 5 p.m. intending to do a popular rappel from the headwall behind the arch and then camp overnight. Emergency services were contacted by three members of the group who hiked for nearly two hours to reach the Pritchett Canyon trailhead where they placed a 911 call from a local residence at 9:20 p.m.
“We received the call and immediately mobilized all available resources. We did everything we could,” said Grand County EMS director Andy Smith. As many as three dozen individuals from different agencies were involved in the rescue effort.
One team of rescuers responded via Careflight helicopter from St.Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., while another team approached on foot from the Pritchett Canyon traihead on Kane Creek Road. Rescuers from the helicopter reached Taylor at approximately 11 p.m.
The incident location was high above Pritchett Canyon in the rugged Behind the Rocks area – a labyrinth of sandstone fins and narrow canyons west of the Moab Valley.
“It’s relatively close to Moab, but remote at the same time,” Smith said.
Taylor died before rescuers reached him and the decision was made that his body would be brought out in daylight the following morning.
“The last thing we want is the possibility of someone else getting injured,” Smith said.
Lt. Kim Neal of the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, who assisted with the recovery of Taylor’s body and the investigation, said that the cause of the accident was the failure of a knot in the nylon webbing portion of the anchor that Taylor was rappelling from.
“There are several ways a knot like this can fail if it’s not tied correctly,” said Neal. “We know that the knot came apart.
We do not know the exact reason why.” The group had attached its ropes to a carabiner that was connected to an 11-foot loop of one-inch nylon webbing fastened around a large pinyon tree.
Taylor is the son of Thomas Taylor and Kristin Millis of Moab. He had recently returned to Moab after spending several months in Mexico as part of what his mother called a “spiritual quest”.
“He was a renaissance man,” said Millis. “He lived a full and authentic life. He loved to sing and dance. He wrote poetry, essays and songs. He was a natural comedian and loved to act. He spoke excitedly about someday being a father and husband. He loved the camaraderie of football and soccer. He was a fierce wrestler. He found joy on the river. And he loved to climb.”
Taylor had quickly reconnected with his old friends in Moab, including Kord Jackson, who was with him at the time of the accident and had known Taylor since 2008.
“He was just the best of dudes,” said Jackson, 23. “He absolutely loved life and wanted to experience everything.”
Jackson and Taylor had successfully rappelled at the same spot just a week earlier. Another of Taylor’s friends at the site of the accident was
Bettymaya Foott. Foott, 19, a sophomore at the University of
Utah, had known Taylor since their freshman year at Grand County High School. She had been in Moab for the week on spring break and spent much of it with Taylor enjoying outdoor activities.
“He was really happy, really fun and sarcastic,” said a tearful Foott. “He was a great person and a great friend.”
Foott and Taylor had dated years earlier and recently they had been getting close, she said. Just earlier in the week the adventure-loving Taylor had persuaded her to join him in jumping into the frigid water of a swimming hole in nearby Mill Creek Canyon.
Taylor left a lasting impression on many around him, including his employers, B.C.
Laprade and Danelle Ballengee, owners of Milt’s Stop & Eat.
“I saw him grow up. He never said a bad word and was easy to like,” said Laprade, who had hired Taylor for a stint at his restaurant several years ago when he was a high school student, and then re-hired him just a month ago.
According to Grand County officials, last week’s accident was the first recreational backcountry fatality of the year. But rescuers who investigated the accident scene were quick to point out that the group did not appear to have been reckless or negligent in any obvious way.
“This actually appeared to be one of the better-prepared groups we’ve encountered,” said Smith, a veteran of 13 years of emergency calls.
In hindsight, Taylor’s friend Jackson says he would urge anyone who participates in potentially dangerous activities like canyoneering to use caution in the backcountry.
“You need to keep a high level of respect for the outdoors,” Jackson said, “If there’s any message, I’d say it’s that anytime you’re putting your life in the hands of equipment that you triple check it.”
The six friends had rigged a commonly used anchoring setup for the rappel.
“If I ever go out again I think I would use two of everything,” Jackson said.
Local canyoneering outfitters said that a simple set-up like the one used by the group — a single piece of webbing and a single carabineer — is not at all unusual and that when used correctly the equipment will support thousands of pounds.
“A ‘single strand’ is often used as long as the gear has been carefully inspected before it’s used,” said Matt Moore, the owner of Desert Highlights in Moab.
Brett Sutteer, the owner of Moab Cliff and Canyons, agreed that most recreational rappellers use a similar arrangement, but he added that in a commercial setting he would use additional backup anchors to create “a system with redundancy.”
Taylor’s friends and family appear to find some solace in the fact that he was so busy recently enjoying life and all the things that he loved about the Moab area.
“He told me during one of our recent hikes that this was one of the best days he’d ever had,” Foott said. “That makes it a little easier.”
Bridget Phillips, 20, was also with Taylor at Teardrop Arch and had known him for several years, accompanying him in high school to his Junior Prom.
“He was such a caring person, with a good heart,” she said. “On the day of the accident he was having a really great time.”
“He died doing what he loved most with friends he deeply loved and who loved him,” said his mother.