Just thought I might be able to entertain you with my latest trip to Zion National Park.
Now fully embedded into my mid-life crisis I am enthusiastically chipping away at my adult facade and working to return to the fountain of youth. My latest attempt to trade a facade for an illusion has brought me to learn a little about canyoneering.
Canyoneering (Canyoning in Europe) is the act of hiking down a stream’s watercourse and engaging in such activities as rappelling, climbing, rafting, and waterfall jumping. Often rappels are completed using anchors (solid structure from which you attach your rappelling rope) that you construct yourself from debris found in the watercourse (rocks, logs, bushes, etc.).
Being a careful outdoors-man and just naturally enjoying the learning of new skills, I traveled to Zion late last year to attend a canyoneering training course and practice the basic skills with professionals. I read books on climbing and canyoneering rope techniques. Then this summer I drove back out to Zion and was able to meet a few experienced and not so experienced canyoneers and gained a little “real canyon” experience of my own.
Several months ago my training, study, and practice paid off as I was invited to be part of a four person canyoneering team that planned to complete several of the classic Zion canyons. These guys had much more experience than me and I was excited to be the newbie on the team and felt honored to have the opportunity to learn from them. For several months before the trip I communicated with Ted, the leader of the team. We discussed equipment, techniques, emergency gear, canyon selection, and general logistics. Ted was engaged, detail oriented, safety minded, just the type of guy you wanted on the team. The other two team members never participated in the email conversation even though they were always CC’d. Ted assured me that they were good friends of his and were a lot of fun to have around. Last week the trip was completed and I’m happy and lucky to say that I survived the experience and had an overall excellent time. However, We did fewer canyons than planned and those we did were more exciting than they needed to be. So, let me tell you what happened in Zion National Park last week.
I met up with Ted and Mike in Las Vegas where we rented a car and drove to Springdale, Utah. By the time we arrived three hours later, I already had reservations about Mike as although he was hilarious he also never stopped talking and telling stories about his life and just generally making shit up. He was entertaining but needed a mute button. Mike is 33, recently married, and a real estate agent and landlord in Atlanta. He is obviously very smart and will probably be very rich someday. In Springdale, we met up with Robbie, 36, a very interesting landscape artist whose work it seems is quite popular out west. He is a great guy with a family and thriving art studio in Salida, CO. Ted, 42, is a salesman for an office supply company (I think). They are all successful, intelligent, full grown men, and Mike and Robbie are both insane. By the time we reached Springdale the sun was an hour from setting and we stopped into an outfitter to rent drysuits for the next several days. Mike did not think he needed a drysuit and said he was going to just go naked or at most with his jeans and t-shirt. Ted, with difficulty, convinced him that he needed a drysuit. Robbie claimed that he had his wetsuit and was prepared for cold water in the canyons.
With our gear in hand we rushed over to the start of a very easy canyon called “Keyhole.” Keyhole canyon is a lot of fun, has real rappels, cold water, and other slot canyon features but is very short (30 minutes). We decided to do it at night with our headlamps and then lay out on the slickrock at the end with a cold beer and get to know each other. This was a ton of fun and other than Mike constantly ripping apart the silence of the deep blackness, we all worked well together. At dinner, over beers and buffalo burgers, we planned our big adventure.
Kolob canyon is not known as one of the most difficult canyons in Zion but it is known as one of the coldest. The creek that flows through the canyon is dammed up high on the Kolob Plateau and water is released from the damn at regular intervals. If a water release is in progress and it exceeds 3 cubic feet per second, then the canyon is too dangerous to be attempted, many have died trying to push their luck. Luckily no water was being released and no rain had fallen for over a month. To get to the drop-in point for Kolob canyon, we must drive for an hour up onto the Kolob Plateau and park in a wilderness, on a 4×4 road and then hike three miles through this wilderness on animal trails. Ten hours is the best case estimated time for us to complete the technical part of the canyon and then exit out of the canyon back to our car. Therefore, to have any hope of completing this canyon before dark we must be hiking down the trail at 8:30AM.
The agreed upon plan is to get up at 5:30AM, eat a quick breakfast, pack our bags and head for the trailhead. When my alarm goes off at 5:30, I’m up and making some coffee, pack my bag in about 12 seconds, choke down two granola bars with some peanut butter and sit out front of our hotel by the car and wait for the others to be ready. At 6:30, Ted comes out front and says he sure could use some breakfast. So we jump in the car and go get a ridiculously expensive bacon and egg biscuit sandwich at a silly looking coffee shop with wind mills and chimes and Yin/Yang drawings all over the walls. At 7:15 we are back at the motel and Mike is awake and taking a shower. He then would like to have some breakfast. Since we are now late enough to allow us to get tomorrow’s canyoneering permit from the Zion NP office, Ted and I go there while Mike is feeding himself. At 9:00, Robbie finally shows up, he is camping in his own camper at a local campground. We finally pile into the car and drive to the trailhead. Forty five minutes to the trailhead, twenty minutes repacking our bags. At 10:05 we start walking toward the canyon. Ted and Mike start walking one way and Robbie and I start going in the opposite direction. We all stand around looking at the map and reading the text directions. Mike just cracks jokes, Robbie just yells that we don’t know what we are doing, Ted just nods his head. I try to explain to them that the map is upside down and that north is this way. Ten minutes later we are headed in the direction of my choice. The trail is nothing but a game trail and often is crossing the brushy bottom of a small stream until it crosses a very nice logging road heading east. They all start marching east happy to go where ever it might take them. I immediately start explaining how this road doesn’t seem to be headed in the correct direction and doesn’t seem to match any of the text directions we had. It took about a quarter mile but I finally convinced them and we were back on track.
We make it to the first rappel and start to suit up. Robbie busts out his wetsuit which turns out to be a 3/2 shorty with a hole worn through on his left hip. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he is wearing Chacos on his bare feet! When no water is flowing through Kolob, the plunge pool at the base of each rappel is usually filled by a spring. The Water is crystal green in color and as cold as water can be. I’m now thinking that Robbie is going to die of hypothermia and I’m going to be trapped in this damn canyon for three days while waiting for helicopters, or vultures, to start circling.
I check the rope that is tied around a pine tree that we plan to use as a rappelling anchor. I show them that one of the tag ends on the knot has been cut flush with the knot. Mike and Robbie are okay with it. Ted says to retie it if you think it needs it. Now I’m starting to panic. We are two hours late and if all goes well will still not get out of the canyon until dark. And how could all go well if they don’t seem to give a damn about the quality of the anchors and Robbie is going to be unconscious in about two hours. And none of them can navigate and finding the exit point requires a lot of navigation skill. At this point I mention to Ted that we are very late and can’t possibly finish before dark, “maybe we should bail and try this tomorrow.” But he just shrugs and Robbie says to not worry, “We got this!” Mike is telling a story about something but I had tuned him out long ago.
We rap into the canyon and it is spectacular, just a miracle of creation There is such a contrast between the hard, cold, water-polished rock, and the lush jungle of trees, ferns, and moss. We move well through the various rappels and only have one small problem when the rope was 30 feet too short. Fortunately, I couldn’t see the bottom of the rap and insisted we reset the rope and throw all 200′ of it until we could hear it hit the bottom.
About half way through, Robbie is starting to shiver and can’t use his hands any more. We now have to connect him to the rope and then just hope he can control his descent with his numb fingers. We should have been lowering him but he insisted he could do it. Eventually, during a disconnect while floating in a freezing pool, he drops his rappel device into the green abyss and isn’t able to find it.
Now let me digress a bit and tell you about the things we carry and why.
Let us look at Robbie’s equipment list:
- Torn ragged shorty 3/2 wetsuit
- Climbing helmet
- Climbing harness
- Locking caribiner and rappel device
- 1 litre water
- 1 Green bell pepper
- 1 12 0z tub of hummus
- 1 ziploc full of Colorado’s best weed (Smelled nice)
- 1 glass one-hitter pipe
- 1 Bic lighter
All the essentials for travel down a canyon that can kill you if you make one mistake.
Let us look at my equipment list:
- Five/Ten Canyoneero boots
- Kokatat dry suit
- full thermal underwear
- 2mm polyester fleece shirt
- 3mm polyester fleece jacket
- 1mm arimid/nitril coated gloves
- 5mm neoprene booties
- 2 pair heavy rag wool socks
- 1 pair thin polyester liner socks
- Fleece hat
- Climbing helmet
- Climbing harness
- 6 locking caribiners and 3 rappel devices
- 2 tibloc rope ascenders
- 2 prussic loops
- 4 2′ sewn slings
- 60 feet of 1 inch webbing
- 4 5/16 inch quick links
- 3 liters of water
- 4 granola bars
- 1 apple
- 1 ham, cheese, tomato sandwich
- 2 cliff bars
- 2 power bars
- 1 snickers bar
- 1 bag of peanut M&Ms
- Esbit burner and for Esbit tablets
- 4 bullion cubes
- space blanket
- 50 storm proof matches
- 6 square feet of aluminum foil
- Folding knife
- Toilet paper
The warm clothes are important under the drysuit and I had a spare set of warm clothes in case of total immersion or if I wished to change before we exited the wet canyon. The food is obviously important for a 12 hour day of strenuous activity. An extra rappel device seems mandatory as dropping one is very easy during a floating disconnect with numb hands. The Esbit stuff, space blanket, and matches are only needed if an emergency bivy is required. Before the first rappel Mike had to “borrow” my toilet paper and now Robbie is going to need one of my spare rappel devices!
Fortunately, the technical section of Kolob relented before Robbie froze to death and we cruised to the exit from the canyon. The exit is a very strenuous climb out of the canyon over steep, loose rock and dirt that gains 1900 feet of elevation in .7 miles. It was hard but warmed us up. Robbie and Mike took a hit of Colorado’s finest every 20 minutes or so. Darkness didn’t take us until we reached the top of the exit trail so I was much relieved that we actually survived. We still had a two mile hike, over 4×4 roads back to the car but all was good and the sunset on the Kolob Plateau was life affirming.