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ZION NATIONAL PARK — The National Park Service on Thursday identified a man who died this week while canyoneering in the back country of Utah's Zion National Park, but the exact cause of his death remains unclear.
On Tuesday, 74-year-old Yoshio Hosobuchi and his wife were descending the Left Fork of North Creek, making the last drop into a popular and photographic slot canyon known as The Subway. The retired neurosurgeon's rappel device jammed and he became stuck upside-down in a waterfall. His wife, who had reached the canyon bottom first, was not able to climb back up to help him.
Zion National Park Chief of Interpretation Aly Baltrus said neither Hosobuchi nor his wife were experienced canyoneers, but they were not complete novices either.
"They actually had taken a course, just an introductory course on canyoneering which we recommend to everybody. They had also gone through Keyhole Canyon first which is a much easier descent," he said.
Rescuers are not sure why Hosobuchi decided to descend the waterfall. Most published guides recommend another, easier rappel into The Subway. Baltrus said he was likely unaware of the easier route and took on a more challenging rappel by accident. Once stuck on the rope with a jammed device, he might not have had the experience to recover.
Just because he was 74 didn't mean he wasn't in shape. He had hiked Kilimanjaro last year.
"They seemed to be trying to get the skills they needed but perhaps in that short, limited time they weren't able to get all that they needed," Baltrus said.
Another canyoneer who had passed Hosobuchi in the canyon prior to the accident noted that the couple were moving at a slow pace and would likely not reach the exit by nightfall. That person alerted park rangers at about 9 p.m. Tuesday. However the park staff opted not to launch a full-scale search in the dark of night, not realizing the tragedy that had taken place.
Hosobuchi's wife was unfamiliar with the exit route and did not manage to make contact with rescuers until late Wednesday morning. By the time they reached The Subway, Hosobuchi had died. A helicopter retrieved his body from the canyon on Thursday.
The Utah State Office of the Medical Examiner will conduct an autopsy to determine his cause of death. It's believed that hypothermia, exposure and complications from spending a prolonged amount of time inverted on the rope were contributing factors.
Park officials note that the death is the first in The Subway in at least 10 years. All groups traveling in the Left Fork of North Creek are required to obtain a permit, as Hosobuchi did. Rangers stress the isolated location and difficult terrain can make even minor injuries there life-threatening. Still, it's growing popularity and scenic value lead to increasing visitation each year.
"They were accomplishing kind of his bucket list, which included The Subway," Baltrus said. "Just because he was 74 didn't mean he wasn't in shape or anything. He had recently hiked Kilimanjaro, last year. That was also on his bucket list."