Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

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


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.


A Das Boot(in)’ good time!

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 12, 2009


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


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.


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


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.


(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.)

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

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

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

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.


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


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


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


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.