Claustral Catastrophy: the story of a deadly flash flood

The following first-person account from a survivor tells the story of the worst flash flood tragedy to occur in a Blue Mountains canyon. It occurred on the Australia Day long weekend in 1982, when a freak thunderstorm claimed the lives of three people in Claustral Canyon. Two of those who died, Ian Crawford and Cheryl Russell, were experienced canyoners. The third was an international visitor, Noreen Ryan. It was reported at the time that the thunderstorm responsible dumped an incredible 60cm of hail in the area.

The following was first published in the Australian Speleological Federation Newsletter No.96 (1982).

Claustral Catastrophy

By Shane Wilcox

There have been a few short articles printed in newspapers and outdoor magazines, none of which really tell what happened on that Australia Day long weekend.

On Sunday, five of us left Sydney and drove to Mt Tomah, arriving late – 10:15am. The amount of cars in the car park told us there were a few parties ahead of us. We walked across the fields of long grass on the ridge, the sky had a very light cover of cloud and the valley was full of mist. We descended to the saddle, which dropped off steeply to the creek, a short swim, a down climb, a jump and into the steep narrow canyon. We stopped for photos of the cascades and the thick green ferns and mosses.

We arrived at the top of the three pitches with two other groups. The first consisted of one leader and about twelve youths most of whom were inexperienced, did not own their own gear, and had to pass the abseiling equipment up the pitch after each abseil. The second group (SPAN) had eight members of which all were experienced canyoners or abseilers. We put on our cold water gear, full wetsuits and pile clothing, and had a long lunch. It started to sprinkle.

Half an hour later, after leaving enough time for the first group to continue, eight members of SPAN quickly organised themselves and rappelled the first 12 metres. We followed and sat in the water between pitches, the drizzle turned into a ten minute downpour. The first party managed to complete the third (14 metres) and SPAN started down. The water was rising, but slowly.

The first of our group abseiled down, waded across the pool and watched the last member of SPAN descending the third and last pitch. He left the rope there for us. By the time it was my turn (last) the water was very high and fast making breathing impossible while descending and unclipping. The torrent crashing down gave us headaches and made conversation impossible.

The third pitch started under a natural arch, the hole being 1.2 metres high called “The Keyhole”. Three members of our party had decided not to risk the third pitch and had climbed onto the arch. Two of us pulled down the rope and hurled ourselves toward the others. The water was now 2 metres deep and covering the Keyhole, we found ourselves in a whirlpool just like that around the plug hole in a bathtub. Round and round with tangled rope, both of us struggling to stay afloat and not get sucked down the plug hole. Garbled voices and blurred figures. I hurled the rope towards them to drag us in, and with help, we climbed onto the arch. After a few minutes of coughing and nausea, we realised we had lost our rope in that episode.

The water was still rising and started lapping at our feet. We had no where to go perched on a little ledge between the rising water and 14 metres of waterfall. The walls were vertical and slippery, we belayed ourselves to three rusty ‘I’ bolts at our feet.

The water was still rising, two of us climbed out to a tiny ledge 50cm x 20cm. The raging torrent was now at waist level for the three who were bridging across the walls. The noise was deafening. After 10 minutes the water subsided to ankle deep just as quick as it rose. We organised ourselves better and relaxed for an hour.

Two of us were sitting on a slippery ledge directly above the 14 metre waterfall. The other three standing on the arch shivering, as they were in the wind and spray of the second pitch.

We were acutely aware that the high water mark was 6 metres above the normal flow and 4 metres above us! It got dark before the water was low enough to proceed. We finished the lunch scraps, a block of chocolate and dried fruit. The other three covered themselves with a lilo. It was raining and windy. The longest night any of us had ever had, was spent staring at the pitch black and the glow worms.

Seventeen hours later, the sky was finally light enough to see. The water was down and the rope left by the SPAN group was intact. We abseiled down and found our own rope in a log jam at the bottom.

This part of the canyon had a catchment area of approximately 4 square kilometres, 100 metres further down, Raynon Canyon comes in on the right, making a catchment area of approximately 8 square kilometres. The next 500 metres of canyon has vertical walls and no alcoves to escape the raging torrent. This is the part of the canyon in which SPAN was caught. Eight went in at the top and five came out. The other three were caught in the log jams.

We continued on, past the connection with Raynon Brook into half a kilometre of open canyon. About 200 metres further on we saw a person sitting between two large logs and wondered why he did not welcome us. A cold shiver ran down our spines. Then another broken body. It did not surprise us knowing the situation.

The next canyon revealed five stunned survivors with varying injuries, standing around a smoky fire. We walked out together meeting up with the first party on the exit track. They had spent the night cold but dry in the glow worm cave.

We climbed silently out of the canyon and were met by the Police Rescue Squad who were looking for the over-due first party.

8 Replies to “Claustral Catastrophy: the story of a deadly flash flood

  1. Shane. I sit here stunned reading your account.
    After 35 years you finally provided me with insight as to what happened to the woman I had loved, Noreen Ryan.
    Please contact me as I long to know more.

    Carl DeVito

    1. Hi Carl, I have only recently come upon this article . I was with Doug , Mark and Shane and on this trip. I remember talking with Noreen whilst waiting to abseil on the first waterfall. She seemed a lovely girl and was keen to return home as her mother had cancer if I remember correctly. I was shattered when we found her the next day. I have done this canyon many times since but the shear force of nature on this occasion was something to behold. I was very close to being swept through the key hole , but with luck managed to grab a sling prior to being swept over. My thoughts go to you and Noreen after all these years. regards Art Humphreys

      1. Hi Art and Carl, Im Noreen’s niece. It was really interesting finding out more about what happened. I would love to get in touch with yous. Ann-Marie

  2. Shane it was very good of you to write this. This sort of succinct description of what can go wrong informs current and future canyoners, and ultimately helps save lives.

  3. Hi Shane,
    Just found this article, my sister was Cheryl Russell, one if the 3 deceased. My father, at the time of this tragedy, shielded me from the horrors of the day, so am just wandering if there is a bit more information somewhere on this story. It is 40 years next January and would like to visit the area of where she may have walked out, after her adventure.
    Any information would be welcomed.
    Regards Val Fox

    1. Hi Val did you get any responses. I may be able to help you. I was in Span back then. I was down to go on that trip but on the Friday night I changed my plans and joined another Span trip leaving at the same time to cascade down Kanangra creek. On our return at night we heard about the disaster and drove to the Claustral car park to assist in the rescue. Both Ian and Cheryl were very good friends of mine. It was a tremendous does loss and to this day I reel at comments made by so many bushwalkers who did not know the full story or the truth of what happened. I am glad this story set the records straight. Other than Noland everyone was a regular and experienced canyoner within Span outdoors club. You are welcome to contact me if you wish. Colin. (3 Nov 2023)

  4. I canyoned Claustral a few times, years ago. It has a strange triple semi-underground section that could be lethal in high water.
    The first hole is deep and committing. There is no way back up. The second is like a round bathtub as described. Then down thru the keyhole, sliding down a slope into a deepish sheep -dip type water section with sheer igneous (black slippery) walls. Even in normal conditions, I was usually buried underwater here, while releasing my descender. I never had anything on outside my wetsuit that could catch on a tree branch. You are all alone, in truth, in those conditions.
    It would have been very dangerous in high rushing dirty water. It is fast and strong.
    Your friend / family member would have been forced underwater there, rushed off round the corner and their harness or even their body would have been easily forced against, and then jammed under, a stuck tree branch, treetrunk, or rock in the next 500 metres.
    The force and speed is enormous in flooded rivers. Unlike the ocean, it never lets up. There is simply no way to release anything.
    Although not instantaneous, it would be a relatively quick way to die. Sorry!
    Came across SPAN teams during canyoning. Always found them to be young, skilled, equipped and professional. Though doubtless they could be as crazy as every canyoner can be, at times
    It wasn’t their fault really. And so quick. And it was very impressive that the last SPAN member left their own rope for the third group. That was truly a fine and selfless act, that I’ve never come across. Especially if it was their last. Best wishes.

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