On the morning of September 2nd, over Labor Day weekend, six friends set out on a challenge. Clark and Margaret Proffitt, Graham and Cherise Glauser, and A.J. Miller, all from Marana, and A.J.’s brother Chris Miller from Stansbury Park, Utah, planned to hike Behunin Canyon at Zion National Park, rappelling the nine stations along the grueling trail. They posed for a picture at the top of the canyon, smiling and excited about their adventure. Eight hours later, they found themselves wondering if they would all make it out of the canyon alive.
The trek started at about 7:30 a.m. Eight hours into their hike, they had reached the fifth rappel and were preparing to descend. That’s when things took a tragic turn. Clark Proffitt, a Tucson attorney, “ventured across the way to check out a rock formation,” as his wife Margaret describes it. She and the other members of the group watched in helpless horror as Clark lost his footing and started sliding. He fought to grab something solid but couldn’t. Reports would later show that he plummeted almost 80 feet down the narrow slot canyon, crashing into a small ledge at the bottom and landing on his back.“He was sliding feet first, frantically trying to grab anything he could along his way. “Cherise recounts, “He was sliding feet first frantically trying to grab anything he could along his way. He was saying, ‘oh shoot, oh shoot.’ As he went over I remember clenching my teeth and ears in anticipation of an awful sound on the ground as he hit. I didn’t hear a loud sound, but it was apparent when he hit.” AJ Miller describes how they all felt. He said, “Everyone wanted to reach out and grab him, but he was too far away. We were helpless. Then we saw him bounce over the cliff. It was an eerie moment, something we couldn’t believe we were seeing.”
Cherise continues, “Margaret and I were sitting right by each other, and began frantically yelling Clark’s name over and over. “I remember praying over and over, pleading with the Lord to spare his life.”While Chris was on his way down the rappel to check on Clark, AJ told us to quickly say a prayer. I remember praying over and over, pleading with the Lord to spare his life.”
Stationed on the other side of the world, Margaret’s father, United States Ambassador to Kuwait Matthew Tueller, had no idea of the peril that his daughter and critically injured son-in law were facing. When he and his wife heard about the accident they felt helpless that they were so far away, but turned to prayer for assurance. At mosques around Kuwait City prayers were offered on behalf of the Proffitt family and dozens of Kuwaitis called Ambassador Tueller to say they were also praying for Clark’s recovery. “We received great comfort as hour by hour and then day by day we received impressions that the many prayers on their behalf were being answered,” said Margaret’s father. He shared what the family was going through with a close Kuwaiti friend who knew Margaret when she was a young girl. This friend, who calls himself Ambassador Tueller’s “Kuwaiti brother,” told how he asked his parents, brothers, and close friends to pray for Clark during their Friday prayers. At mosques around Kuwait City prayers were offered on behalf of the Proffitt family, and dozens of Kuwaitis called Ambassador Tueller to say they were also praying for Clark’s recovery.
Friends from different religious backgrounds and family throughout the world began to pray as well. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to which all 6 hikers belong began to fervently pray for Clark’s healing and recovery. Margaret expressed her gratitude to everyone: “Clark is being strengthened by all the prayers on his behalf. I feel them too.”
The forces that combined to save Clark that day in the wilderness were nothing short of miraculous. The group would use years of training from Scouting trips and youth activities as they quickly and quietly divided responsibilities that would help get everyone down the canyon safely that night.
Describing the moment right after the fall, Chris Miller (who was the first to rappel down to a seriously injured Clark) said, “we heard a moan and I knew he was alive, but had no idea how bad he was because we could not see him. I dropped over the ledge and looked over to catch a first glimpse of him. It scared me to see how banged up he was and twisted, plus there was a lot of blood in a pool under his head. I then let the rope slide through my hands and hit the ground as fast as I could.” Graham followed immediately.
Margaret wanted to see what was going on. She wanted to know if her husband was alive. It would be several fearful minutes before she would know. She jumped up and wanted to look over the edge. A.J. grabbed her and held her as she began dealing with the situation.
Clark was unconscious when Chris arrived. He cleared Clark’s airway. Though he had been wearing a helmet, Clark had suffered serious injury to his eye sockets and nose, as well as a broken femur and a compound fracture of one arm. It was clear he had significant injuries, but the full extent was unclear. Examination would later add a shattered upper forehead skull, two cracked ribs, fractures to the lumbar spine and a broken tailbone. He was in severe pain, and all they had to give him were eight ibuprofen tablets.
“I realized he needed a Priesthood blessing because if anyone could help right now it would be our Father in Heaven.”Chris Miller started to run for help. He recalls, “I realized he needed a Priesthood blessing because if anyone could help right now it would be our Father in Heaven. I ran back and Graham and I prayed and gave him a blessing together that he would survive this experience and get the help he would need so he could recover. The best part was when I asked Clark his full name he gave it to me! I was so relieved to hear him say it. That was a great sign.”
Chris shares, “As I ran off to find help, I felt we each had a role to play in this, and I knew there was no way I was going to let them down.”
Once Margaret was emotionally ready, the women and A.J. rappelled down one by one and stayed with Clark while Graham and Chris went for help. Graham asked his wife to get Clark water, so she filled a bottle for him and gave him small sips while Margaret was coming down.
Cherise Glauser’s initial reaction to seeing Clark’s injuries was shock, although she had tried to prepare herself for a gruesome sight. “While he was indeed ‘broken,’ I remember feeling an urgency to do EVERYTHING we could to get him help, and that in turn he would be okay and able to see his kids again. This is the peace that would sustain me for the next several hours.”
Cherise recounts, “When Margaret reached the canyon floor, she ran to Clark and knelt next him. She was much calmer than I had expected and kissed his head, telling him, “You’re ALIVE, Clark. I thought you were dead! I thought I would be planning a funeral. I love you! I thought you were dead!”
Graham and A.J. began working their way down the canyon to communicate with Chris. They prayed with a direct request to be able to understand what Chris was yelling. God immediately answered their prayer.At one point, Graham and A.J. could hear Chris yelling down the canyon but couldn’t understand him. Did he say help was on the way or was it that he needed a rope? Or did he say something about a helicopter? Graham and A.J. considered their options. If one of them went down the next rappel, they might be stranded at three different levels of the canyon for the night. They prayed with a direct request to be able to understand what Chris was yelling. God immediately answered their prayer. Chris yelled again and it was clear that he needed a rope. Graham rappelled down and was able to get within 130 feet of Chris. Communication had been reestablished. Chris later reported that this was at 4:45 p.m.
Chris had made it close enough to Emerald Pools to alert some tourists, and they went for a ranger. The ranger positioned himself 165 feet below Chris at 5:00 p.m. The ranger communicated by radio with the ranger station and relayed vital information to Chris which he then passed to Graham. Graham would shout back key details to Chris that the rangers needed. It was this communication that would start the rescue efforts and span over the next 7 hours.
The process began of relaying messages by running up and down the canyon. “Run” here is really an inadequate term. They had to run, rappel, climb, and more, all at full speed. On top of everything else they were facing, the hikers could see a major thunderstorm approaching. Between Clark’s injuries, the weather, and the fact that they were so far down the trail, they knew that time was at a premium. Because the regular park helicopters were unavailable for a night rescue, the head ranger, Cindy Purcell, called Nellis Air Force base for help. An Air Force helicopter rescue would be the only way Clark could get out of the canyon that night.
Graham retraced his course, meeting A.J. around 6:30 p.m. who would let the others know that help was on the way. Graham relayed to A.J. that the rangers wanted everyone who could get out of the canyon to self-rescue. Their instructions were to leave one person with Clark and for the rest to rappel out of the canyon before dark, if possible. There was a very real possibility of a flash flood, and those who could get out on their own power were ordered out of the canyon to avoid more emergency rescues. A.J. had to run back alone and tell Cherise, Margaret, and Clark what was happening.A.J. prayed again with Margaret and grabbed her in a bear hug. He held her for a long time and told her not to worry because he knew Clark was going to be okay. Meeting Margaret who had hiked down the path in hopes of finding information, he told her about the rescue being planned. It would be at least two more hours before rangers arrived. All airlift rescues require rangers to be on the ground before the helicopter could attempt a rescue. He told her only one person could stay with Clark. Who did she want that to be? A.J. prayed again with Margaret and grabbed her in a bear hug. He held her for a long time and told her not to worry because he knew Clark was going to be okay. Margaret said she needed to stay. A.J. and Margaret hiked to the other end of the short canyon to speak with Clark and Cherise.
Cherise reflects on her reaction to the news, “I remember thinking ONLY ONE?! How? How do we leave them here? They said help would come in two hours. Would it really? As these moments floated through my head, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of peace and urgency to leave and leave NOW.”
Margaret and Cherise embraced for as long as they could. It was 7:30 p.m. and nearly dark. As she watched them walk away, Margaret was emotional and overwhelmed. Cherise recounts, “I cried, and she cried. I firmly told her that she had to put her own fears aside, and that she had to be strong for Clark— STRONGER than she had ever been. She needed to have faith. As we left, I remember hearing, “Don’t leave me,” and this plea is what would haunt me for some time.”“It wasn’t until later on that I realized and recognized our Heavenly Father’s plan in this, but I know what I was impressed to go, and I am grateful that I followed it.”Cherise continues, “I knew the overwhelming impression I had, I knew what I had to do, but extreme guilt filled my heart. It wasn’t until later on that I realized and recognized our Heavenly Father’s plan in this, but I know that I was impressed to go, and I am grateful that I followed it.”
The four who hiked out had no idea how difficult and dangerous their exit would be. It required hiking and rappelling in the absolute darkness.
Chris Miller was waiting at his station down the canyon. He had sat alone on a ledge for five hours. “They were a sight for sore eyes,” he recalls. “They got to the anchor bolts above me at 9:07 p.m. and rappelled down to me in the dark. I was a nervous wreck by this time, and I think everyone felt the same. It was time to go to work again to help get us all down safely.”
There was still one more rappel and another 1 1/2 mile hike to go, and it would be midnight before they were out of the canyon.
Clark’s sister, Rebecca Garn, summarized Margaret’s experience in the canyon as they awaited help. “In the hours to come for Margaret, each minute passed more slowly than she could imagine. Literally counting every minute, Margaret tried to entertain Clark and keep him with her. She played games aloud, by herself, and sometimes he joined. They (mostly she) talked at length about their first dates, their wedding, their top five marriage moments, the births of their three boys, and anything she could think of to keep him engaged. He wanted so badly to lose consciousness so that his suffering would be over, but she just as badly wanted him to stay awake so that she knew he was alive. She made him promise over and over to keep breathing. Just keep breathing. Every hour she gave him a sip of water and said a prayer. It was very difficult for Margaret to forget her worries and keep talking hour after hour. By 9:30 p.m., the 3-hour mark came and went and it became a desperate struggle to keep herself and Clark warm with one little emergency blanket. She found Chris’s wetsuit and put it on to keep warm. Every time she touched Clark, thinking she would warm him up, he yelled with the pain. He wanted so badly to lose consciousness so that his suffering would be over, but she just as badly wanted him to stay awake so that she knew he was alive. She made him promise over and over to keep breathing. Just keep breathing. Every hour she gave him a sip of water and said a prayer. As each hour passed without signs of a rescue, she felt more and more panicky. When she saw lightning, she worried that they had called off the rescue. When Clark noticed the lightning, she lied and told him that it was the lights of the rescuers far off in the distance and that they would be there soon. She didn’t know what she would do if they were stuck there all night and a flash flood were to come through the canyon. She was afraid Clark wouldn’t make it. Finally, at about midnight she heard voices and started yelling to them. Half an hour later, at 12:30 a.m., the park’s rescue team made it to her location and gave Clark an IV with morphine. During this time, unknown to Margaret, her friends had just reached the bottom of the canyon and just found out that the Air Force had agreed to take the mission.
What followed was more dramatic than anything Hollywood could dream up. The storm was upon them. The canyon was narrow. The Air Force Times said that there was less than 15 feet between the propeller blades and the canyon walls.
The Air Force rescuers had a lot going against them. Canyon wind, the approaching storm, the fact that they had never been in this particular canyon, and the weight they would be taking on created further complications. Racing against the clock, the rescuer who came down with the basket had the patient loaded and ready to go within 10 minutes. The plan had been for Margaret to get out on her own, but at the last minute, as a family member explained, “in God’s mercy the rescuer motioned for her to get her harness on, then he harnessed her to himself just in time for them both to be pulled into the chopper.”The forces that combined to save Clark that day in the wilderness were nothing short of miraculous.The story continues to develop in ways that show that the prayers of people on both sides of the world are effective. After two weeks at Las Vegas UMC, where he endured multiple surgeries, Clark is recovering remarkably well. On September 18th, he was transferred to a rehabilitation center close to his home in the Tucson area. His wit and intellect appear to be completely intact. Although it will take time for his injuries to heal, the prognosis is extremely good.
To read about the reunion of the hikers with the Air Force rescue team, see our story, Angels With Rotors.
Media Contacts: Stephanie Ashcraft, 520-661-6741, firstname.lastname@example.org or David Hoefferle, 520-861-1360, email@example.com