Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Checkerboard Canyon, a wild gem in an ever busier place

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 8, 2016

The sun comes up during the approach along Dakota Ridge.

Checkerboard Canyon, 3BIV
Zion National Park
June 2016

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First a warning. I let too much time get in the way before sitting down and writing about our late Spring descent of Checkerboard Canyon in Zion National Park, so a detailed cohesive report might be a bit lacking. Though easier than Heaps or Imlay, Checkerboard Canyon has the feel of a rugged, remote and wild canyon far removed from the hordes that descend the jeweled trade routes glimmering on the canyoneering crown of Zion National Park. If you want a detailed report you can easily find one out there but this won’t be it. Included are a few gems that cut through my memory fogged from rearing 3 children, too many hours working outdoors in the hot Arizona sun and too many after work cocktails.

Checkerboard eluded us last Fall when weather made a descent out of the question. I wasn’t going to miss it this time around, but 48 hours away from home was about all the time I had. This includes 14 hours of driving and around 12 hours for the descent itself. Driving solo and trying to make time I let my speed get the better of me and I’m pulled over east of Kanab by the Utah Highway Patrol. The trooper can not be nicer and lets me off with a warning, but not before he asks me about what are my canyoneering plans for the weekend. He tells me he has never descended Checkerboard. Needless to say my weekend could have easily gotten off on a worse foot had it been for a different cop.

Mark in more diagonal walls.

Upon arriving the rest of the crew is already established at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. It is more crowded than I’ve ever seen it.  We awake before sunrise in preparation for the long day. The dozens of other campers still sleeping. The journey begins on the long approach along Dakota Ridge. As expected we have this part of the park all to ourselves. Though only a few miles as the crow flies away from Zion Ponderosa Ranch it feels a world away from the zip-line, swimming pool, ATVs and drunk campers. Ironically, we may have been some of those drunken campers last night but on this morning we are all business as we march efficiently across Dakota Ridge.

After a several hour approach the canyon begins in dramatic fashion and never really lets up. Some rather tough down climbs, tight squeezes, diagonal walls and awkward start rappels which are far more characteristic of points Utah east than normally found in Zion, are rather common in this canyon. Cold water comes in and so do humping frogs. Narrows are sustained and the canyon ends with a unique rappel dumping us just above the confluence with the North Fork of the Virgin River.

The crew at Big Spring on the hike out in the Narrows.

Spring run-off is still a factor and we are able to body kayak down some of the deeper sections of water. The higher flows and the fact that it is late in the day are keeping the crowds out of this normally busy place. We not only have Big Spring to ourselves but don’t see a single other person until we are just upstream of Imlay Rock. Soon as we get downstream of Orderville Junction the crowds explode. It is an international sea of humanity. I have never seen this many people in the Narrows in over half a dozen visits. Though it is wonderful to see so many people from all across the world connecting with this magnificent place it also brings up notions of ‘loving your park to death’. We reach the shuttle stop to find a line of people backed up well over a 100 -yards. The word comes down the line that it will be a 45- minute wait. As we wait I think back on the contrasts of the day. It’s good to know that wild and isolated places still exist in our smaller and more popular national parks. At least for now. It’s been a 100 years. I worry what it will be in another 100. We are on the shuttle in 30- minutes.

– David

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A multifaceted adventure in the Full Right Fork of North Creek

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on November 17, 2014

Chris rappels as David looks over Double Falls. It should be called Quadruple Falls.

Full Right Fork via the Hammerhead, 3BV
Zion National Park
10/4/14 –  10/5/14

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I am rappelling down a 250-foot sandstone cliff at the headwall of a canyon. As I slowly make my way down I am scanning below for the next anchor. I know I will need another anchor to reach into the canyon bottom referred to as “The Hammerhead”. I am not seeing any webbing and am getting close to running out of rope. I am still almost a hundred feet above terra firma. I spot a massive pine tree that will work as an anchor but it is off the line of the rappel and will require a bit of effort to get to. I reach the tree growing out of the tiniest of platforms on the near vertical wall. There is no preexisting anchor around the tree and our webbing is inconveniently with Laura and Chris above. I take my personal anchor and wrap around a smaller tree (more of a bush really) just next to the large pine tree and clip back into the personal anchor to provide some security in this space. Laura gets on rope, rappels down and negotiates the features of the cliff face to reach me. She clips into my personal anchor before we set up the legitimate anchor around the tree. Every facet of life has completely faded away except this place, these challenges and these people.

Anytime Laura and I get out in a canyon together it is special. They are times when the stresses of life and our life together melt away and we just experience the canyon on it’s terms.  For this occasion I wanted to select a venue that has a special place in our hearts, one that has been there since we began canyoneering six years ago. That place is Zion National Park. The Right Fork of North Creek had been high on my “to do” list for a long time. I was really excited that we were both going to be experiencing the canyon for the first time together. Just a few days before we were about to embark on the trip, life almost got in the way but everything lined up and after a seven hour drive Laura, Chris and I, dirtbag it not far outside the park for a few hours of sleep before waking up early to get our permit at the Zion National Park Visitors Center. A pleasant morning hike along the West Rim trailhead and a short bushwack up and over a ridge brings us to the top of the headwall of the Hammerhead.

Laura rappels in the narrows.

Laura rappels in the narrows.

Laura and I are now clipped into a true anchor and Chris make his way to join our world. We pull our rope and re-rig our life line to the sweet shaded coolness of the canyon bottom below. The Hammerhead itself, an upper fork of our ultimate destination the Right Fork of North Creek is an exciting technical descent in itself with a handful or rappels and spicy down climbs through some tight sandstone narrows before reaching the Right Fork. After several hours of slogging in the Right Fork, the walls begin to move in and the vegetation subsides. At first down climbs and potholes can be avoided and then they can’t. This is where the real fun begins.

The canyon tightens to a subterranean world completely cut off from that above. It is already late in the day so little light penetrates down below. Continous pothole obstacles and down climbs ensue. Its relentless nature is reminiscent of the narrows of Imlay and Heaps, but on a much friendlier scale. After way longer than expected the narrows relent and the slogging continues. The clock is now ticking as it is getting later in the day and we are still not really sure how much further we have to the Grand Alcove and our destination for the night. Before that we know we must negotiate something referred to as the “Infamous Black Pool”. A thousand feet above I see the rim illuminated in a glow that only the just before sunset light can create. We hit the Black Pool and quickly swim and wade through the obstacle. Not long after that we hear the flow of fresh water and reach the Grand Alcove. Ten minutes later and it is pitch black. We make camp and bed down for the night.

David wades through a shallow section of the infamous Black Pool.

David wades through a shallow section of the infamous Black Pool.

We wake to a crisp morning, pack up our gear and debate whether or not to put on our wetsuits. We decide against it and suffer through a cold wade in the bottom of the Grand Alcove. We continue the hike down stream through a series of tiered waterfalls spread out over nearly a mile. A long slog seems to never end before we reach the Kolob Terrace Road in the heart of the scars of the 2006 Kolob Fire. Our only vehicle is 15 miles of road and 3000 feet above. A hitchhike is a must.  Chris lays down in the shade of a tree as Laura and I stick thumbs up on the shoulder of Kolob Terrace Road. A half dozen cars pass us during the course of 15 minutes. In one of them a women in the passenger seat mouths ‘I’m sorry” as the vehicle speeds by. I start having premature doubts, but Laura tells me to relax. Just then a pick-up stops and takes us to just within a mile and half of our vehicle. After a long drive home during which time we reflect on this multi-faceted adventure Laura and I return to the same stresses in our lives, but feeling recharged and fortunate to be able to have this time and experience together.

-David

After Four Years Gone, Back to Zion in Kolob Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on July 12, 2013

Laura hip rappels into a beautiful room.

Kolob Canyon, (thru trip to Temple of Siniwava) 3CVR
Zion National Park
06/22/13 – 06/23/13

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David told tales of crows and condors. Of flowing water down tight technical sandstone passages. Of exquisite beauty and never ending narrows. Of an exit hike through much of the Virgin River Narrows. Ever since David got back from his trip down Kolob Canyon in 2009 it had been on my bucket list. At the same time we had been wanting to take our two-and-half-year-old son Wyatt for his first visit to Zion National Park. With David’s parents in Arizona for an extended visit, we loaded up the vehicles, rented a cabin at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort and headed up to the place I love so much that I hadn’t visited in nearly four years.

As Wyatt and I, and my in-laws, Marsha and Lee, settle into our cozy little cabin, David drives down to the visitor’s center to see if we can secure a permit for a descent down Kolob. Due to its location downstream of a dammed reservoir, where water releases can turn the canyon into a death trap, Kolob is one of a few canyons in Zion National Park where permits can not be secured in advance. This was only the second weekend that the park service had been issuing permits for Kolob for the season. That in conjunction with the perfect weather, could make it a popular weekend for the descent. With Brian, Cody and Adam joining us for the technical portion, we are unsure if we can get a permit for five, falling below the park’s daily quota. David returns to the cabin with a smile on his face and a permit in hand.

Early the next morning we unsuccessfully sneak out of the cabin without waking Wyatt up and rendeszvous with Brian, Cody and Adam at the trailhead. After a short hike through dense forest we hit Kolob Creek above the technical section to find the slightest of flow (probably just below 1CFS) despite the Washington County Water District’s scheduled release of 3CFS. Though the boys seem a little disappointed with the flow it makes no difference to me and we suit up above the first drop.

The canyon is as beautiful as David described: relentless obstacles of rappels, down climbs, slides and balancing over logs to negotiate minor drops, all through frigid water in narrows that only get deeper and deeper. I am very happy for my 3mm neoprene hooded vest and 1mm shirt in addition to my 4/3. The technical section ends all too quickly, but I know from what David has described that some of the best parts of this adventure are still to come.

David takes in the canyon walls shortly above the confluence with the Virgin River Narrows.

Shortly below the end of the technical section we reach a 400- foot waterfall from the rim above. At its base is a one-car-garage-sized ice block. The ice is mixed with sandstone sediment. From a low angle it blends in with sandstone walls hundreds of feet above. With Brian, Cody and Adam exiting out the MIA for a day trip and David and I hiking down through the Virgin River Narrows for an overnight, we say our goodbyes before the boys forge ahead.

Between several frigid swims, we pass a deer carcass rotting in the otherwise crystal clear water. The narrows are sustained for miles upon miles as midday moves into late afternoon. We begin to think about a place to camp for the night but we want to get past all those frigid swims so we are not faced with them first thing in the cooler morning. Just when we think we have passed all the swims we are faced with yet another one in a hauntingly dark hallway. The canyon opens a little and we see a flat sandy spot below a tree with plenty of places to hang our soaking gear for the night.  We throw in the towel hoping that last one was in fact the final swimmer.

After a restful night’s sleep where we actually sleep in a little, (at least by backcountry camping standards) we continue to make our way down Lower Kolob. The water has gone fully underground with us getting nothing more than our feet wet. After a few hours we reach the confluence with the Virgin River Narrows.

At Big Spring we stop to refill our water bottles and wonder how long that water has been underground. Has it been 500 years? We marvel to watch that moment as all of that water gushes out of the bottom of those thousands of feet of sandstone. We chuckle to ourselves as we watch a backpacker filter the water right as it comes out of the ground. We continue downstream past hidden gurgling springs, stopping to swim in a hole and hide from all the people in a shallow cave. We emerge and zig-zag past fellow hikers whose numbers grow and grow the closer we get to the Temple of Sinawava.

Lee, Wyatt and David hike in the Narrows.

Back at the cabin we hear all about Wyatt’s adventures with Marsha and Lee around the park. The following day we return to the Temple of Siniwava with Wyatt, Marsha and Lee for a hike a short ways up the Narrows. Wyatt starts in the baby back, but with a pole in hand ends of hiking much of the way himself. Perhaps the next time we descend Kolob Canyon Wyatt will be joining us.

-Laura

A battle with Heaps

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 2, 2010

Heaps Canyon via Phantom Valley, 4BVR
approximately 11.5 miles
Zion National Park
07/24/10 – 07/25/10


DAY ONE

The first rappel into Phantom Valley, a sloppy, rock strewn 60- footer was behind us when the clouds really started moving. We had seen some weather in the distance from our elevated vantage point during the muggy, 6.5- mile approach hike along the West Rim Trail, but it didn’t seem bad enough to abort, so we continued. After the 60- foot rappel we made our way down the precarious ridge heading closer towards Phantom Valley and our objective, Heaps Canyon. The clouds were building in height, size and darkness. I could see Eric and Mike, who were ahead of Chris and I, making their way across the appropriately termed “fin of death”, a knife edge ridge of crumbling rock, about 50- feet long, several feet wide and with drops off of 200- feet on either side. By the time Chris and I reached the “fin of death” we were being sand blasted by gusts of wind ripping across the ridge. The sand stuck to the perspiration on my body as Chris and I both quickly and carefully crab walked with 45- pound packs across the fin. A few drops of rain began to fall as I felt a kitchen table sized slab of rock atop the edge teeter like a seesaw. Across and at the edge of the ridge, the four of us were in a precarious position as by now lightning flashed and thunder roared. We had to get off this ridge. We quickly rigged the 200- foot rappel off the tree and made our way down. I was the last to rappel and the time between the flashes of light and the claps of the thunder were getting shorter as I waited my turn to get off of this vulnerable position.

Once we were all down the rain increased in intensity. We decided not to pull our rope figuring if we had to we could escape by ascending the 200- footer, retrace our steps up the ridge and one of us could probably climb up the first 60-foot drop. It was not an ideal option, but if the weather really took a turn for the worst it was something. For over two hours we sat in the rain, scanning the horizon for an improvement and discussing our options. Mike sat with a compactor bag over his head to stay dry. Our discussions began leaning us towards ascending once the weather improved. By the time that had happened we had run out of water and were exhausted. It now seemed prudent to hike down to the valley floor, find water, rest for the night and ascend out the next morning. Reaching the first substantial pothole of water that we could pump, the clouds parted and sunshine illuminated the valley. We had another healthy discussion and with some apprehension we decided to continue the descent. Eric and I hiked back up to our rope to pull it, as Mike and Chris went down to find a suitable place to set up camp. By now it was too late in the day to make it to the Crossroads (our planned camp) before dark. After pulling the rope we caught up to Mike and Chris, who had set up camp right at the deep dark entrance to the Phantom Valley narrows; a very eerie and special place to bed down for the night.

DAY TWO

We woke to the beeping of Mike’s watch an hour before sunrise, anxious to get an early start realizing we would have to cover more ground than anticipated. There was little light as Mike, Chris and I dropped into the cavernous narrows. Eric was minutes behind us getting the last of his stuff together, when we heard, “FUCK!” echo on the canyon walls. When he caught up to us he didn’t seem happy about the fact that the zipper on his 7mm wetsuit had completely busted, making it impossible for him to seal up the neoprene around his body. Initially concerned about the predicament we soon realized that 7mm suits were perhaps overkill in this water that just wasn’t that cold. Maybe not cold, but there was a lot of it. Finally we were in a rhythm; down climbs, rappels, swims and jumps. This is what we came for. We engaged a keeper, a flaring off-width. Mike and Eric jumped in. Eric’s boosts, Mike’s excellent climbing skills and ridiculous grunts got him to the top.

The canyon opened up to a beautiful hallway and then dropped into more narrows. We were moving fast now, saturated in water and fun. We were trying to catch a group of eight that Chris and Mike had seen briefly seen the day before when they went ahead to set up camp. We would later find out they were descending Heaps for a bachelor party. Shortly into the “Terminal Narrows” we could hear them just ahead of us. After a little commotion we made a clean pass on the bachelor party. The narrows were now filled to the brim with a steady flow cascading down the drops. Initially we attributed it to the 12 people in the canyon displacing water, but the deeper we got into the “Terminal Narrows” it seemed apparent that the canyon was flowing on its own from the recent monsoon rains. The conditions allowed us to slide and jump many of the anchor ready drops. Reaching a 12- foot drop, Eric and Chris had some reservations about down climbing a stem that flared out and then narrowed again making a reverse hourglass shape. I was feeling confident and felt like pushing myself. As I down climbed past the stem and into the flared out section, I lost control and my foot clipped the narrower section of wall before hitting the water. I immediately knew I had injured myself. I composed myself, shouted out to everyone else not to attempt the down climb and rap it (as if they needed to be told) and began testing my foot. The injury did not seem to be too be bad as I could walk without much of a limp or too much discomfort. Realizing I had dodged a major bullet I was upset at myself as we continued down canyon.

The narrows relented and we reached a large flat rock above a narrow chute that channeled the water down and over a 450- drop to the Emerald Pools. We stripped out of our wetsuits and took a much-deserved break. This spot marked the start of the multi-pitch rappel down the big wall and out of the canyon. The multi pitch consists of three rappels, the final a magnificent 290- foot free hanging drop from a tiny slanted ledge called the “Birds Perch”. From this spot tourists who hike up to visit the Emerald Pools look like ants. On this day the normally green pools were turned brown from the run off. I was completely surrounded by big air as I slowly made my way down alongside the cascading waterfall. The further down the wall the waterfall became more of a cloud like mist. We completed the multi-pitch with total precision. I was the first to sequence down the multi-pitch. When I reached the ground I received a round of applause from the tourists.  Standing around waiting for my partners to join me on solid ground gave my ankle plenty of time to swell and stiffen. What was not bothering me before in the canyon with the constant activity was now extremely uncomfortable. By the time everyone was down and we bagged the 700 feet of rope involved in the final rappel I moved with a serious hobble in my stride as we made our way down the mile and a half path to Zion Lodge .

A few days later we would find out about the flash floods on that Saturday in Spry, Lodge and Pine Creek Canyons that had occurred when we were caught in the same weather getting into Phantom Valley. Three canyoneers were seriously injured in Spry Canyon from the flash floods, as all three were swept over a 40- foot fall and two of the men were swept over a second 60- foot fall. The incident was a chilling reminder of the very real dangers of flash floods. I do not regret our decision to continue our descent after being caught in this weather. I say this because much thought, discussion and deliberation went into this decision. With glorious weather the following day, the battle with Heaps did not end as we were faced with equipment failure, passing a large group and a minor injury, in addition to the challenges of the canyon itself.

-David

Style in Imlay Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on October 1, 2009

Style in Imlay Canyon

Imlay Canyon, 4BVR (Potato Hollow entrance)
15 miles (approximate)
Zion National Park
09/26/09 – 09/27/09

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I would be lying to you if I told you that I did not have butterflies in my stomach as Laura, Eric and myself started the 7 hour drive up to Zion National Park to attempt a descent of Imlay Canyon. Like a “tell-tale heart” Laura could not mask her nerves if her innocence depended on it. Even Eric who is cooler than Eli Manning on Sundays talked about his very healthy respect for this one. Our group of three were all first timers for Imlay, a canyon that is so challenging it shares its own chapter in Mr. Jones’ guide book with none other than Heaps (another canyon which none of us have descended). What we did have was fitness, know how, the necessary gear and humble respect, all the ingredients necessary for a safe and successful descent. Regardless, we talked about how most likely everything would not go 100 percent without a hitch and we would deal with situations as they occur, just as we always have.

After getting our permit the following morning behind a man who had been waiting at the backcountry office since midnight, we hopped on the shuttle and began hiking up the West Rim trail from the Grottoes. The strenuousness of the approach of nearly 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain with heavy packs was matched by the intensity of its beauty. Five hours in and we reached Potato Hollow. Before beginning the descent we pumped iron-flavored water out of the nearly dry pond at Potato Hollow sharing it with dozens of thirsty but non-threatening bees.

Initially having trouble finding the anchor for the first rappel, Laura quickly got us on track. As we rigged the rope we all seemed to get a second wind. Rappels 4-6 consisted of a spicy and unexpected multi-pitch including a not quite hanging bolt station into a 170-foot rappel down a beautiful sheer wall baking in the afternoon sun. We handled the multi-pitch with precision, parched throats and hot feet. Once in the cool shadows of Imlay proper a sense of calm and serenity filled the air. Nearly a dozen rappels, a number of down climbs and a great section of really narrow canyon brought us to a flat, sandy spot alongside a water filled pothole. The water in the pothole looked relatively clear and darkness was setting in so we decided to camp for the night even though we had not yet reached the Crossroads.

A night of sipping filtered pothole water, whiskey and rum, filling our bellies with dehydrated pasta, chicken and rice, sharing in good conversation in such a unique setting could not have been a better way for Laura and I celebrate 10 years as a couple (the last four as husband and wife). Getting a relatively decent night’s sleep, we woke at first light. Suiting up in our armor of 7mm wetsuits we headed down canyon. By the time we reached the Crossroads we were warmed up and really finding our rhythm.

David boosts Eric our of a keeper.

Using short ropes Eric and I would leap frog Laura. Any especially difficult obstacles the leader would wait and we would tackle together. Any sequences that consisted of multiple drops consecutively we would make sure to locate the next anchor before pulling the rope. This rule saved our butts several times as we had initially rigged too short a rope to complete a second part of a double drop rappel. About an hour from the Crossroads the canyon got narrow, very dark and keepers emerged. Despite the frigid water our protection of thick neoprene kept us comfortable, allowing us to focus on the obstacles and really absorb just how much fun we were having. At the first big pothole (15 feet from the surface of the water to the lip) instead of hooking we repositioned a log jammed in the canyon bottom. Eric climbed the log and then on to my shoulders. Eric was able to gain some position with his hands on the wall as I shoulder pressed his feet and he clambered atop the lip. We waded through a hallway of wood soup, crawled through a tunnel under a logjam and worked together on down climbs and keepers. We were sweaty and grimy as we reached the end of the first section of extreme narrows in great time and style.

The second section of extreme narrows began right away as the rappels and the keepers returned with ferocity. By now we were pretty aware that water levels were extremely low (although we can’t say for sure as we were all Imlay first timers). Even though the apparent low water levels left for a number of deep keepers, because of these conditions we were able to stand in all of the potholes. This factor combined with my large size and Eric’s light body weight and climbing ability allowed us to boost out of all keepers but one that we had to hook out of. I also wonder if the potholes have recently been filled with sediment. Evidence of this was a number of holes drilled into the pothole walls that seemed ludicrously low to the ground. The canyon ended with a dramatic 130-foot free hanging rappel into the Virgin Narrows. Touching down into the Narrows the unexpected problems we figured we were bound to encounter never came and it felt pretty darn good.

-David

A Das Boot(in)’ good time!

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 12, 2009

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Das Boot/ Subway, 3BIII
10.8 miles
Zion National Park
07/26/09

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Das Boot, a canyon as fun to descend as it is to say.

Mike, David and I drove up to Zion late Saturday after work to meet Eric, Eric and Chris for a few days of canyoneering. Bright and early Sunday morning we headed to Das Boot. Our only real trouble of the day was finding the Das Boot entrance point after crossing Russell Gulch. David and Mike went one direction, Chris and Flagstaff Eric another while Phoenix Eric and myself found our own path to the bottom of the canyon. Arriving at the head of the narrows we were excited for a deep, dark and cold day. With full body wetsuits on, although not fully zipped up, we made our way into the slot. The narrows were beautiful and deep, reminiscent of Buckskin Gulch, surrounded by a symphony of sandstone fins. I had read that Das Boot is a good precursor to canyons such as Heaps and Imlay so I was prepared for a mini adventure filled with cold swims, potholes and tough down climbs. As it turned out we had an extremely hot day and very low water levels in the canyon. This made for easier going than any of us expected. The few pot holes we encountered were easily escapable. I am glad I had the wetsuit to cover my legs and for a couple swims although Flagstaff Eric went with no wetsuit at all as he has an unusually high tolerance to the cold.

After eating lunch at the junction with Russell Gulch we continued down the canyon. Having descended the Subway last October in abnormally cold weather, going back and doing it again in the middle of the summer was a real treat. The swims that had sent a shiver to my core and made my fingers tingle were pleasant and inviting in July. The warm water, intense sunlight, sublime beauty, great company and technical ease made the Subway feel like one big canyoneering playground as we took time to crawl through small tunnels in the rock, soak in pools and slide down natural water slides.

-Laura

On edge in Englestead Hollow

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on July 30, 2009

Englestead Hollow/ Orderville Canyon, (thru trip to Temple of Siniwava) 4BIVR
8.5 miles
Zion National Park
07/27/09

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A few nights before leaving for Zion I had a dream about the 300 foot- rappel in Engelstead. In that dream my sister Ellen was with us on the trip. (A note about Ellen; she is a marathon runner not an outdoorswoman. Her motto in life is “Maximum Comfort”. A day at the beach is too dirty for her. She has not and probably never will go canyoneering.) In the dream I was extremely worried about her. It would be her first time canyoneering and I kept telling her she did not have to rappel if she didn’t want to. She looked at me and told me she was confident in her skills, trusted the equipment and was ready for the challenge. I on the other hand was terrified and chose to stay in camp and clean up a picnic table. Waking up from the dream I knew my subconscious was playing two roles at once. I was both Ellen and myself. I was confident and scared; ready for a mental challenge and wishing I could just stay home.

It is no secret I have a slight fear of heights. The night before Engelstead after a long day of canyoneering through Das Boot and the Subway I was talking to Phoenix Eric and warned him the morning of the big rap he might see me cry. I was just kidding about crying but the truth is I knew I was going to be on edge the next morning, literally and figuratively.

After a late start and some trouble finding the head of the canyon we finally made it to the 300- footer. Chris rapped down first followed by a very eager Flagstaff Eric. I was third to go over the edge. While waiting my turn I laid down, closed my eyes and worked on my yoga breathing. With super high friction on my double eight I backed off the ledge. In the end my experience on the rappel turned out to be more of a physical challenge than a mental one. Rappelling with such high friction I was forced to push the rope through my devise the whole way down. I concentrated on my progress moving down the rope and the wall in front of me. I did not look up or down or take in the scenery. By the time I made it to the canyon floor I was sweating, tired, proud and safe.

With Phoenix Eric, Mike and David safely down the rappel all that was left to do was pull the rope. With all of our focus on descending safely we failed to perform a test pull to ensure we could successfully retrieve the rope. A BIG MISTAKE. Now the trouble began. The rope did not budge. We sent waves up the rope; we pulled from every direction and used jumars for advantage to no avail. All of our rope for completing the canyon was tied up and we needed it to continue the descent. As a last resort David volunteered to ascend the rope. It was a tense 45 minutes watching David ascend 300 feet. I was not interested in chatting with anyone. My eyes were glued to my husband creeping farther and farther off the ground. When David made it safely back up to the rim I let myself take a breath. When he safely rappelled back down with the rope recovered I felt an enormous sense of relief. Drenched in sweat David told us the pull rope was getting stuck in a small notch that was perpendicular to the canyon rim.

Attempt to pull the rope to no avail.

After the rope incident I was as emotionally worn, as David was physically tired. Talking to Mike we both agreed that it was hard to get back in the spirit of things. I had to force myself to stop and appreciate my surroundings, but once I was able to do that my canyoneering rhythm came back to life. Englestead proved to be a test with a few awkward rappels and difficult down climbs.

Nearing the end of the canyon our group experienced another heart stopper. While on top of one of the last rappels there was a thundering clap in the sky. We moved as quickly and safely as possible through the final narrows coming out in Orderville. The weather became a major concern. At this point our group split on what course of action should be taken. Several felt we should immediately go up Orderville, which would be the fastest way out of the canyon and would avoid the more narrow sections lower down in Orderville but leave us many miles from our car on the rim. Others felt we should seek high ground, wait to see what happens and then descend Orderville as planned. This is when our group got a little bit chaotic. Hastily we decided to go up canyon as the clouds got darker, the thunder continued and a few sprinkles could be felt. At one point several in our group investigated ascending a side gully to exit Orderville. This proved fruitless and as quickly as the bad weather rolled in, it subsided. With some opposition we decided to turn around and head down Orderville as planned. In retrospect, I feel the best course of action would have been to seek high ground and wait in which case we would have saved time and energy. However, in the moment of the inclement weather I feel both options held valued weight.

Lower Orderville was extraordinarily beautiful with tight narrows, elegant sandstone fins, an abundance of small springs, clear pools and vegetation. We reached the Narrows, the tourists, and the shuttle and then unfortunately the excruciating drive home to the “Dirty Bird.” It was 4:30 am by the time my head hit the pillow and I fell into a dreamless sleep.

-Laura

(Props to Phoenix Eric and Chris for going back the next morning to the top of the 300- foot rappel to recover our 325- foot rope.)

The crow and the condor in Kolob Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on July 1, 2009

The Crow and the Condor in Kolob Canyon

Kolob Canyon, (thru trip to Temple Siniwava) 3CVR
16.5 miles
Zion National Park
06/28/09 – 06/29/09

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I am a planning kind of person. I like to put my toe in the water before stepping in the pool. In canyoneering that is a good thing. For a canyon like Kolob, with the wild card of extremely cold swift water cascading down a deep gorge that drops 700 feet in a 1/3 of a mile planning is an especially good thing.

Canyoneering is a dynamic sport that allows participants to explore such extreme wilderness you can’t plan for everything. The unexpected is where I believe the true treasures exist. This could bring me to “Crow and the Condor” but about that later in the post.

Our journey began with nine hours of driving, including a two-hour traffic stand still on the edge of the megalopolis that seemed to not want us to escape. Reaching the outskirts of Zion our few hours of rest under the stars were marred by the roar of a semi’s diesel engine continuously running to allow its inhabitant a comfortable night of air conditioned sleep. The next morning entailed waiting in line at the permit office, a shuttle to the trailhead and a bit of cross- country navigation that finally brought us to the canyon.

The Washington County Water Conservancy District (WCWCD) said they would be releasing 3 CFS, (water released from the dam at the Kolob Reservoir is responsible for the near constant flow in the canyon) but after a crude test we determined that the actual CFS just above the technical section to be somewhere at a maximum of 2 CFS. WARNING – It absolutely cannot be assumed that there will be less CFS in the technical section of Kolob Canyon than that of what the WCWCD is releasing. It is just as likely that the opposite could be true. Needless to say conditions were going to be easier than what we were expecting. Easier, but still challenging with the constant pattern of rappel, wet disconnect, swim and pull over a series of 11 rappels. All too soon the technical section was over and we were stripping out of our 7mms and enjoying our lunch.

A short stroll down canyon brought us to the bottom of a 400- foot spring fed waterfall; a magical surprise that I had completely skimmed over during my research of the trip that had focused on the technical section.

 

After about an hour of boulder hopping, hand line assisted down climbs, wading and swimming I was in the lead hiking with my head down when I was completely startled by an enormous bird sitting on the canyon floor. As the bird grunted and hopped/ flew onto a shelf about 60 feet away, Chris who was right behind me said, “That is a California Condor.” According to the National Parks Conservation Association there are roughly 160 California Condors that exist in the wild. Stunned we stood and watched as the massive bird observed us, but the moment did not last long because suddenly a shower of small rocks began falling upon us from hundreds of feet above. We immediately began running back up canyon but not before watching one rock nearly clip the wing of the condor and another coming from what I estimate to be within 15 feet of hitting Eric. The shocking event was over as fast as it started but we were spooked. What aligned to allow us to witness two such rare sights of nature at the exact same time?

After waiting several minutes to ensure safe passage, we continued hiking. As we approached, the condor flew down canyon several hundred feet beyond view. Minutes later we were back in its presence but this time it was joined by a crow that cawed at the larger bird. We passed the pair but before not too long watched as the condor was chased by the ensuing crow through the slotted corridor 30 feet above. We were treated one more time at the confluence with Oak Creek Canyon, the crow still harassing the condor. As we headed down Lower Kolob Canyon the crow and the condor headed up Oak Creek Canyon out of sight.

We bivouacked that night near the MIA exit absorbing all that had occurred during the day. The following day included a number of cold swims, one hand line assisted drop into an icy cold pool and slogging challenges before reaching the confluence with the North Fork of the Virgin River, known as the Narrows. It is pretty amazing when the exit hike for your technical canyon descent includes the best part of one of most famous and utterly stunning hikes of the southwestern United States. We took in all the beauty; Big Spring, the deep dark narrows, Imlay boulder, Orderville junction and Mystery Falls before reaching the Temple Siniwava.

Chris later spoke with the Zion National Park wildlife manager who was very excited about our condor spot. The wildlife manager told Chris that there are a number of tagged condors in the park and believe the one we saw was a juvenile non-tagged condor that could very possibly be the offspring of two tagged condors; wonderful and exciting news for all.

-David

Autumn in Zion

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on June 5, 2009
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We may have been even more excited for our second trip to Zion National Park than our first. This time we knew the mind boggling beautiful wilderness we would be exploring. An early cold spell had descended upon the southwest changing conditions from mid autumn to early winter canyoneering. Not wanting to waste a day of canyoneering our crew left Phoenix right after work and headed north. Around midnight as we approached the eastern end of the park on Utah State Highway 9 the headlights of John’s Toyota Tundra illuminated the falling snow. It was going to be interesting.

Autumn in Zion

Birch Hollow, 3AIII
7 miles
East of Zion National Park on BLM land
10/12/08


The full range of autumnal colors greeted us as we started Birch Hollow Canyon, along with a fine dusting of snow. The sun was nourishing, but the air was cold. John’s car read in the high 20s as we took off for the canyon. Birch Hollow was bone dry, but certainly not short on action. One rappel followed another. The highlight of the canyon may have been a beautiful 110-foot rappel down polished fluted walls. Birch Hollow ends in the larger Orderville Canyon. A relatively easy hike up Orderville and back to our car was a great way to start the trip.

The Subway

The Left Fork of North Creek, aka “The Subway”, 3BIII
9.5 miles
Zion National Park
10/13/08


The Subway is a famous canyoneering route. What it lacks in tough technical challenges it makes up for in sublime beauty. The Subway is also filled with water; part of which flows from a spring and with temperatures in the 30s this trip was going to be far from a walk in the park. After picking up another member of our team, Justin from the Great White North (who we had only met the day before at the outfitter, Zion Adventure Company) we began navigating across gorgeous slick rock to the entrance of the canyon. After we all suited up in double wetsuits we began the descent. With strong teamwork, using each other as ladders we down climbed all the recommended rappels. Kim fell off one of those human ladders into a pool of water. Her reaction…. Hysterical laughter. More down climbs and swims and we reached “The Subway” a place where the canyon walls form a cylindrical like chamber. After a long but straightforward hike we reached the end of this must do adventure for canyoneers.

Mystery Canyon

Mystery Canyon, 3BIII
7.5 miles
Zion National Park
10/14/08


Mystery is another classic Zion canyoneering adventure. Our trip began with a beautiful and brisk ascent up the Observation Point Trail. The hike afforded us magnificent views of the main canyon of Zion. After 2100 feet of switchbacks we made it to the head of Mystery Canyon. After a sketchy descent into the canyon through towering trees and over frozen ground we were quickly surrounded by soaring sandstone walls. Before not long, the rappels began one right after another. With our team of four geared in at this point and with two ropes we were able to leap frog each other on the rappels and make real good time. Mystery had it all: a heart pounding approach, beautiful narrows, a majestic forest within parts of the canyon, relentless rappels, an enormous rockfall, a long multi-part rappel into a deep mysterious spring and concluding with a sliding rappel into the famous Narrows with an audience of tourists below. This part of the Narrows is less than a mile upstream from the Temple of Sinawava, the final stop on the Zion shuttle and a popular hike among visitors of all ages. As we walked down the Narrows back to the shuttle stop, we received a number of weird looks and questions from hikers as we were clad with wetsuits and harnesses. I even heard a foreign tourist say a bunch of words in language I did not understand and then clearly say, “SCUBA”. I am embarrassed to admit it but we kinda felt like rock stars.

-David

Arriving in Zion

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on May 8, 2009
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Zion is unbelievable. The Checkerboard Mesa and Navajo sandstone formations in a rainbow of color greet us as we drive into the park. With a few Arizona canyons under our belt, Mike, Ira, David and I planned our first trip to Zion National Park in Utah. Along the way we also stopped at Horseshoe Bend downstream from Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Arizona. We picked three canyoneering adventures for our first visit, Fat Man’s Misery, Key Hole and Pine Creek.

Fat Man’s Misery, 3BIII
9.5 miles
East of Zion National Park on BLM land
06/21/08

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Fat Man’s Misery canyon is misery indeed. Don’t get me wrong, the canyon itself is beautiful and narrow. The misery becomes apparent after the technical section on the hike out. The canyon has a number of fun rappels and a beautiful grotto followed by a natural sulfur spring before coming to the end of the canyon at the East Fork of the Virgin River. We were foolish enough to do the canyon in June (recommended time of year spring and fall) when temperatures were in the high 90s/ 100s. While hiking out of the canyon I was far behind the boys. I was dehydrated and exhausted in general (I later found out I was being referred to as a zombie looking for brains as I hiked/ stumbled/ shuffled along). I think I would have been fine if it wasn’t so darn hot out (no shade anywhere), if I had more water and if we didn’t waste time getting lost and trying to find the trail.

Keyhole Canyon, 3BI
.75 miles
Zion National Park
06/22/08

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Our original plan was to do Birch Hollow the day after Fat Man’s Misery but we were all wiped and it was going to be another scorcher so we decided to go a little more low key. We got a permit for Keyhole Canyon also known as Starfish Canyon. Keyhole Canyon takes only a couple hours to descend; it is dark and narrow and like a carnival fun house with rappels, down climbs, twists and turns. There is one crazy long cold swim through a hallway that curves so you cannot see the other end where you come out back on dry land. Keyhole was a great way to start the day. Mike and Ira decided to spend the rest of the afternoon tubing on the Virgin River while David and I chose to hike up the famous Narrows. The hot weather was welcomed in The Narrows as we hiked through the water from the Temple of Sinawava up into Orderville Canyon.

Pine Creek Canyon, 3BII
1.5 miles
Zion National Park
06/23/08

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If ever there is a classic canyoneering trip it is Pine Creek. You park and immediately drop into the canyon; it really doesn’t get much better than that for canyoneering logistics. Once you are in the heart of the canyon it is hard to believe that a busy road and many tourists are just above you. While in a deep and dark section of the canyon we were privileged enough to see four Mexican Spotted Owls, 3 of which were owlets. The owls, perched high above us on logs jammed between the canyon walls, bobbed their heads and watched us as we watched them. The most amazing part of the canyon is the rappel into the Great Cathedral. It is one of those rappels where you just have to stop midway down and appreciate your surroundings. The final rappel is 100ft, partially free hanging into a shallow spring pool. After hiking out of the canyon back to the road below the tunnel we needed to hitch hike back to our car. Mike was our designated hitch- hiker as David, Ira and I waited by the side of the road for Mike to catch a ride. After about 20 or 30 minutes with RVs, minivans and sports cars blowing by Mike, David decided to put his thumb out…. and of course the first car driving by picked him up no problem. Driving home that evening we were already talking about planning our next trip to Zion.

-Laura