Grand Canyon stories: Thunderstorms and Flash Floods

July and August: high summer at the Grand Canyon. The monsoon season brings much needed moisture to the dry and dusty desert landscape. The clear blue sunny skies give way to massive clouds that build up to form enormous thunderstorms scourging the canyon below. These are ideal weather conditions for filming some impressive time lapses of the ravaged landscape and fast changing scenery. After having spent a couple of days down in the Canyon near the Colorado River it was time to leave and hike out to the south rim again. A bit disappointed Robert (my fellow wildlife filmmaker) and I left late morning. We hadn’t had much luck chasing storms down there since most of the time the weather in that area kept being quite stable: sunny mornings with an occasional build up of clouds towards the afternoon which refused turning into a real thunderstorm. Staying longer hoping for better conditions (actually ‘worse’ conditions) wasn’t an option: our time in the canyon was limited and we were running out of supplies.

But that morning we felt change was coming. Unlike before, a slight wind blew warm, moist air trough the canyon. While packing all our camera gear and personal belongings, the wind got stronger and the atmosphere more heavy. The first part of our hike out, clouds kept building and the last rays of sun spread a gloomy, hazy light over the canyon. We felt something was about to happen and were picking up the pace (of course limited by the heavy weight on our backs). Halfway all light had been lost and the sky turned pitch black. It began to drizzle upon us and we could hear the trembling noise of thunder rising in the distance. And then, just while hiking up a steep series of switchbacks known as Devil’s Corkscrew all hell broke loose. Heavy pouring rain turned the trail into a growing stream and continuous lightning bolts penetrated the dark sky and lit up the canyon walls in a harsh white flickering light. We were surrounded by the horrifying noise of constant thunder blasts and howling winds. We had to seek shelter and quick! Not only to avoid the risk of getting all our camera equipment soaked but also to limit the chance of getting hit by lightning which came down on us way too often and too close for comfort.


But on this part of the trail sufficient protection was out of reach. The only shelter we could find was a very narrow rocky overhang near the trail. With our backpacks stashed to the far end of the overhang to keep them dry there was barely any space left for us to take shelter. With the rain still pouring down on our heads and lightning hitting all around, we decided to try to capture this apocalyptic view with our DSLR cameras. In these conditions it was a major struggle to keep the equipment dry while getting it out of the bags and putting it in place. But we managed to get them up and rolling (as close to the ground as possible not to attract the lightning) and returned to our small overhang for shelter. Down below us in the canyon we could see how a small stream we crossed earlier had turned into a wild roaring river, swollen and painted red by the rain and sediments it carried downstream. We praised ourselves lucky not to be down there because crossing the river now would be impossible. Everywhere around us we could hear the roaring sound of reddish muddy streams, rapids and waterfalls, which all formed out of nowhere.

We were now in the middle of the storm with deafening thunder and continuous lightning all around us. Violent dark blue and grey thunderclouds painted beautiful patterns against the black sky. Every now and then we had to leave our tiny shelter and face the elements to check on the cameras, clean the lenses and reposition rain covers and tripods blown over by gusts of wind. After about an hour, just when this first storm started to move off, a second one came right overhead before we even could move on to find a better shelter. Even more violent than its predecessor, this storm front forced us to store away all camera equipment and kept us trapped for another two hours or so.


Finally, by late afternoon this thunderstorm too moved on trough the canyon and left us being soaking wet, cold, and way behind schedule. We had to hike out while darkness fell, still affected by these immense forces of the Grand Canyon.


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© 2019 Pim Niesten. All rights reserved.

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