What’s that in the sky above Kanarra Falls? It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…a ladder?

CEDAR CITY — The 2021 monsoon season was especially devastating to Iron County residents, causing millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses. 

L-R: Composite images shows a comparison of the old ladder at the first fall in Kanarra Canyon, the same waterfall without a ladder and then with the newly installed structure, Iron County, Utah | Photo on left by Benjamin Schaefer/iStock/Getty Images Plus. Other photos courtesy of Thomas Gunderson/SUU Aviation, St. George News / Cedar City News

As floodwaters raced through houses and washed out roadways, they also swept away the iconic ladder set at the first waterfall in Kanarra Canyon south of Cedar City. Prior to the August storm that detached the structure, a 15-foot log with makeshift rungs provided access to the upper portion of the Kanarra Falls hike.

Kanarraville Town Clerk Heidi Loveland told St. George News that flash flooding pushed the ladder far enough down the canyon that town leaders decided to expedite plans to replace the structure rather than restore the old log.

“We’d actually been talking about what we’d do to replace the ladder for about a year,” Loveland said. “After it was washed away, we had to speed up our process to get that going because we were receiving several complaints every day from people that didn’t want to go on the hike unless the ladder was replaced.”

With tens of thousands of visitors each year, the hike generates about $350,000 in annual revenue. Approximately 10% of that goes to the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to fund public education, and the rest goes to the municipal government of Kanarraville.

The town contracted Randy Carter, a local businessman and welder, to construct a more accessible and durable ladder made of aluminum. The new structure, which is more like a staircase, will hopefully reduce the wait time hikers face during high visitation times and prove to be quicker and safer for hikers and emergency personnel, Loveland said.

In this 2018 file photo used for illustrative purposes, rescuers in Kanarra Canyon transport an injured hiker using ropes and climbing equipment, Iron County, Utah, April 16, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Iron County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Carter consulted with the town board and Iron County Search and Rescue on the design and construction of the ladder,” she said, adding that 90% of the rescues in the canyon happen above the first waterfall and that search and rescue personnel would have to put up riggings to get an injured person down in a sled.

This new ladder will shave about an hour off of rescue time.”

The total cost for the new ladder was $7,000. Once it was completed, the only obstacle that remained was transporting the 500-plus pound stairway over a mile and a half up the uneven and waterlogged path of the hike. 

Michael Humes, town board member and administrator at Southern Utah University, realized the aviation program at the university had the tools and expertise to make the task much simpler and speedy.

“Trying to pack this ladder up to the falls would have been very time consuming and taken a lot of men,” Humes said. “The aviation program had the helicopters, and they trained students on how to pick things up with a tagline and drop things where they should, so I reached out to the aviation department and asked if they would be interested in helping us.”

The response was overwhelmingly positive, and many of the instructors and staff in the program volunteered to help with preparations and serve as ground crew.

On Oct. 21, a team of volunteers from the Iron County Sheriff’s Office, the town of Kanarraville and SUU Aviation supported Rich Cannon, the chief instructor pilot, as he lifted the ladder from the mouth of the canyon and carried it to a point just a couple hundred feet above the falls.

Rich Cannon, chief instructor pilot with SUU Aviation, flew the Bell 206 helicopter used to deliver the new ladder above the first waterfall, Iron County, Utah, Oct. 21, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Thomas Gunderson/SUU Aviation, St. George News / Cedar City News

Robert Paul, director of aviation marketing and assistant chief helicopter pilot, said the technical and safety requirements for the operation prohibited student involvement, but there were still many benefits to the program as a whole.

“It’s always good for our instructors, even our very senior instructors, to get the chance to do real world missions outside of the training environment,” Paul said. “It makes our instructors better, and we are able to pass those skills down to our students.”

Using a Bell 206 helicopter and a 100-foot longline, the SUU Aviation team was able to safely and quickly transport the ladder a distance that would have taken hours on foot. Once the ladder was flown to the point between the lower and upper falls, the pilot was able to detach it remotely, and ground crews carried the aluminum structure to its intended destination and secured it to the canyon wall.

Paul said the helicopter is the same model used in teaching students and that they get training in longline maneuvers like those on display in the operation. A video of the flight operation and the efforts of SUU Aviation can be found on the program’s Youtube page.

“We’re really grateful for local communities and the support they give us, so it’s really nice to be able to give something back,” Paul said. “We did not charge the town of Kanarraville – this was all volunteer, and we donated the flight time. We did it just because we like Kanarraville and we want to serve the people of Southern Utah.”

The town of Kanarraville, SUU Aviation and the Iron County Sheriff’s Office collaborated to acquire, prepare and install the new ladder, Iron County, Utah, Oct. 21, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Thomas Gunderson/SUU Aviation, St. George News / Cedar City News

Public reactions to the new ladder have been mixed, with some expressing a dislike for its appearance or a longing for the thrill provided by ascending the treacherous old log. On the other hand, some have expressed appreciation for the convenience and relative safety of the new structure.

For their part, Kanarraville officials expressed their approval for the new ladder and reiterated the advantages it has over its predecessor.

“This is something that grandma can go on. This is something for people with younger children and people that are afraid of heights,” Loveland said. “I know it’s not the iconic ladder, and it’s not the prettiest to look at, but it will save a lot of time for people going up and down. This is the direction the town needed to go in order to keep people as safe as possible.”

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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