This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
When Noel de Nevers first sent his manuscript of "The Kolob Tragedy" to a publisher, it was quickly returned with a brusque note: "This reads like an engineering textbook."
To his credit, de Nevers wrote and published three chemical engineering textbooks during his 39 years as a professor at the University of Utah. So when he started his most recent book a more personal pursuit that de Nevers calls his "retirement project" it took him a while to break the habit of writing a science manual.
"I don't consider that an insult," he said. "I like engineering textbooks, and I'm proud to write them."
After some editing and reframing, his project took new shape: a 128-page book examining the events and resulting court case involved with a Zion National Park canyoneering trip that turned fatal.
"The Kolob Tragedy: The Lost Tale of a Canyoneering Calamity" follows eight members three adult leaders and five teenage boys on a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints youth trip. The group set out in mid-July 1993 to rappel down Kolob Canyon.
The creek running through the canyon, however, was flowing rapidly at the time. Two of the group's leaders, Dave Fleischer and Kim Ellis, drowned in the waters during the descent rappels. The remaining members were trapped for five days before the National Park Service rescued them.
In a subsequent lawsuit, the survivors said the National Park Service was to blame for the deaths because it assured the leaders that the trip was safe when it issued a permit. They also sued the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which oversees the reservoir.
The park service, though, argued that the trip was poorly planned and that the inexperienced leaders missed obvious signs indicating that they should turn back.
Though de Nevers holds off from making a judgment on the case which was settled outside the courtroom in 1996 until his brief epilogue, he opens the book by calling the canyon a "beautiful but unforgiving place." It's a stand-alone sentiment in an otherwise objective story detailing the group's excruciating decisions, the role of the LDS Church in the lawsuit and the park's reaction.
De Nevers began researching the book in 2002, when he left the U. His interest in the topic stems from temporarily serving as an expert witness in the case. (Lawyers for the park and the water district chose him because he'd been through Kolob Canyon on a trip with some of his students in 1994.)
"All sorts of people remember this event," de Nevers said, "but not many know much about it."
Working from the court filings, phone interviews with a few of the survivors and local newspaper articles covering the incident, de Nevers pieced together the story over the course of two years. Editing the initial manuscript and finding a willing publisher took another 12 years, with the book coming out early this year. During the time he worked on "Kolob," de Nevers revised and rereleased new editions of his textbooks.
"In the engineering textbook business, if you write a bestseller, you can buy a yacht with your royalties I can buy a pretty good canoe," he joked.
Having worked in the industry for most of this life, de Nevers first sought to print "The Kolob Tragedy" with McGraw-Hill considered one of the top publishers for textbooks. The company refused the manuscript, though, confirming for de Nevers that this book fell outside of his typical purview and should be treated differently.
He later found a publisher in Tom Jones, a renowned canyoneer who has written books on the adventure sport. The two polished the manuscript and printed it as a "tale of warning about how fast things can go wrong" in the outdoors, Jones says in his forward to "Kolob."
De Nevers says the story boils down to one question about problems in the wilderness: "If something goes wrong, who has to come and save you?" But while the text explores that thought, it also expands into who has to pay for rescue or recovery the people injured or the people who own the land. In the case of Kolob Canyon, was it the park service's fault for not making the wilderness safe, or do people assume a risk when they go outdoors? That question has frustrated lawyers and backcountry activists for years.
That isn't to say de Nevers himself doesn't take risks. The 84-year-old skis every year at Alta (with what he calls his free "geriatric" passes for people 80 and older). He's also climbed to the tops of several prominent peaks, including Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Whitney, and discovered an arch in Arches National Park.
He believes that while "nothing is absolutely safe," people shouldn't take risks they don't understand. With a pacemaker and five stents, de Nevers avoids more extreme activities, though grinningly says "the rocking chair is waiting for you, if that's what you want."
"The Kolob Tragedy" is sold at Salt Lake City's Kings English bookstore, 1511 S. 1500 East, and select REI stores, as well as Amazon.com. De Nevers hopes the U. will carry it in its campus bookstore soon.
De Nevers and Jones will speak at an event promoting the book Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Millcreek REI, 3285 E. 3300 South.