In January of 2013, a few of my friends kept talking about doing a second trip to Zion later that summer for some more canyoneering. The way they described their first trip and the stories that were told of rappelling down 100ft waterfalls, wading through the Narrows, and weaving their way through challenging slot canyons piqued my interest. At this point I had only been climbing casually here and there for about a year and could boulder nothing over a V0 and had no idea how any of the climbing gear worked. Honestly, looking back, I had a fair amount if naivety about the whole trip to start. But after a few exuberant conversations and having my friends express their willingness to teach me everything I’d need to know in the coming months, the boyfriend and I jumped in and bought two tickets to Utah for October that summer.
Over the next couple months, we learned how to tie knots, belay, rappel and climb a few more challenging routes on top rope. We learned what a chockstone was, what webbing is and why you need it and the importance of wet suits and dry bags. With the utmost patience, our friends spent numerous training sessions with us at the Mountaineers wall in Magunson learning the ins and outs, what to expect while in a canyon, and how to put your trust in your climbing partners and in the gear. I still thank them for being such amazing teachers and look to pass along that same patience and excitement to any of my friends that need help getting started in something new.
Soon enough the summer dwindled and October came. We had packed 2 boxes full of gear, shipped it to Utah and were hopping on a plane headed for this new and exciting trip that would be, to this day, number one on ‘best trips’ list.
Our friends had done a few days in Havasupai while we were at a wedding in Salt Lake and we were all going to meet up in Zion a few days later. Once in Zion, we ended up setting up home base for the next couple of days in an amazing VRBO find that ended up being owned by one of the regular canyoneering guides in the Zion area, Jonathan Zambella. My friend Ben ended up getting a few tips from him on where to go and how to go about it. I felt a little sheepish in the fact that I was such a noob at this whole thing, I felt like I wasn’t worthy being in such an amazing place, about ready to do something I thought only super-pro people did and now I would do for the first time ever. And with the added guidance and advice from a local guide nonetheless. We sorted through our gear, got the plan together for the next day and I fell asleep with anxious glee.
(If you’re looking for an excellent place to stay, great hosts and right in Springdale, you can find Jonathan and Catrin’s VRBO it here.)
Ben had all of our permits in place ahead of time so we headed to the National Park office to snag the one we’d need for that day. As we got to the front desk, the ranger asked if we wanted our other permits now, since they may not be open tomorrow. It was the middle of the week so we all raised our eyebrows and asked her why they wouldn’t be open. She gave us an incredulous look and replied, “Because the government may be shut down tomorrow. That’s why.”
As much as we’d heard mumblings of the shutdown happening in the news, none of us even gave it a second thought that it would ever affect our entire trip that was planned within government-owned (‘government’ being the operative word here) land. After realizing the gravity of the news we just recieved, we went on to make the most of the one day we knew we had for sure. Day one at Pine Creek and Keyhole Canyons.
Okay. Pausing for a moment here. NOTHING can describe what a slot canyon is like until you are in one. I kept feeling like no silky and cool sand, no perfectly smooth rock walls of that color could possibly exist in nature. It all had to be man made because there was no way it could be real. Mother nature never ceases to amaze me and she caught me gasping in wonder more than a few times that trip. Followed by gasping in shock from the freezing cold canyon water that would soon be an imminent part of our trip through Zion (and would later save my ass in Escalante, Part II of this post).
Day 1 (fist half): Pine Creek Canyon
It is 90 degrees outside the canyon. Inside it’s 55 in the shade. In the water….it’s 45. At times it is so shocking that even with a wet suit it numbs your throat within a few seconds. Though being cold is never fun, the challenge and beauty of the canyon is well worth it. Down climbs, large (and small) rappels, sliding and stemming (super gracefully might I add) down canyon walls all to get through the maze of rock and water back into the bright sunshine. Pine Creek was my first 100ft rappel and it was the coolest thing in the world to experience hanging freely in the middle of that quiet and cool canyon. This was also my first Tarantula encounter. As it happens, when two people are ‘cleaning’ the rope (i.e. putting it away neatly-ish), one person is sent to scout out whats ahead to see if we’ll need to use the rope again for another rappel. The next leg was a swim and I was that scout so I jumped in. I was just swimming along in the first section when a few feet above my head chillin’ on the wall was that fabulously hairy 8-legged creepazoid. It’s pretty crazy seeing those things in the wild, not to mention also having to battle them in order to continue on some parts of the canyon. Let’s just say we learned tarantulas can swim. *shudder*
Camille is a brave brave lady. Photo: Ben Varner
Photo: Ben Varner
Photo: Ben Varner
Day 1 (second half): Keyhole Canyon
Keyhole Canyon was the second leg of the day. In all honesty, the most vivid memory I have of this canyon is once again, a Tarantula. As it happened, we were in the middle of our journey and I was the scout for the next section. The next challenge was a down climb into a more shallow key hole and what do you know, right in our down climb path was a big fat hairy jerk. So, naturally, in order to make it move, we decided to throw rocks at it. Not to kill it of course, but just to get it to move along. Rock after rock we threw and that guy just did not care. That is, until we just all out ended up hitting it. Big man flew into the water and to our shock, started to swim. Yes….swim. Tarantulas SWIM. And where did he swim to? Right back up the goddamn wall we needed to come down on. We eventually were able to shoo him away far enough for us to pass, but not without a few threatening raised front legs to tell us ‘hey man, don’t f*ck with me. My canyon, my rules’. Yes, okay, they’re not REALLY dangerous, but none of us wanted to do battle with a spider the size of your hand. Just to be spiteful, once we got down into the keyhole, I peed in his little water hole just to show him who’s boss.
Moon landing. Approach to Keyhole Canyon.
Photo: Ben Varner
Day 2 (full day): Spry Canyon
The day the government shut down.
But….we found a loop hole. The National Parks were saying that you were not allowed to park and take pictures but only drive through Zion. With one caveat: campers had 24 hours to vacate themselves and their vehicles from the park. With this news we decided we’d try something a little risky. If we could take two cars and drop one car off fast enough before a park ranger or state trooper came around, jump in the other car and park up near the approach entrance and bail with the same speed and quickness, who’s to know we weren’t just some campers out in the park completely oblivious to the shut down? So we did exactly that. We figured the worse that could happen is we get caught and are told to get out of the park, or we don’t get caught bailing out of our cars and get a parking citation.
Spry canyon was an amazing day. It was also a very LONG day, but amazing. The approach was a long hike through sand, followed by a super steep climb with multiple switch backs along the hills in order to traverse into where we needed to go. The entrance was located in a little notch in the hillside that dropped off into a steep tiered rappel. What was so cool about this canyon is that it had a little bit of everything. And it was relatively high up. The rocks were different from the smooth slot canyons we had experienced the day before in that they looked as if they had been folded and layered on top of each other to create this amazing color and texture. If felt like it walking on the surface of Saturn. Throughout Spry we got sandy valley floors, scrambles, large rappels and a few rappelling swims if you can picture that (rappel into a pool, but stay connected to your rope and feed it through your belay device as you swim to the next ledge, then rappel over again).
Photo: Ben Varner
Photo: Ben Varner
On the last rappel of the canyon. Photo: Ben Varner
Photo: Ben Varner
The way out of the canyon, back to our drop-off car was a looooong boulder scramble that was like working your way through a maze. To top this day off, the trial back out to the car on to the main road was pretty open and the switchback of the road could clearly see down into the trail we were coming in from. We were still a little wary of what the consequences would be if we were caught inside the park, obviously spending the day in the canyons. So we devised a little plan. As we headed toward the car, from the bushes we saw a state trooper with his lights on parked directly behind our car. Immediately we hit the ground and found some cover in the bushes alongside the trail (as if we were coming under heavy artillery fire, for real). After about 5 minutes or so, the stater took off and headed up the switchbacks. From where we were, we decided we’d end up sending one ‘scout’ (i.e. Dusty) to go ahead with nothing on him but his keys, (so he could play dumb and say he had to stop and pee) while we waited in the bushes with his pack. Once he whistled and gave us the all clear, we ran as fast as we could to get to the car before the state trooper came back around the corner to spot us again. As we ran into the road, a couple in a Prius saw us bounding out of the bushes and stopped the car as if we were an attraction of the park, gave us big gaping smiles and waved.
WHAT!? Why are you WAVING!? Can’t you see we’re running for our LIVES!? SHOO awkward Pruis folk, away with you!
We dove (some of us head first) into the car and Dusty sped off just before anyone else could come around the bend. Exhausted and elated, Zion had treated us with the best and luckiest way to end a day ever…..we came upon our other car and the worst thing that had happened was a parking citation. We’ll take it. Loophole successful. We headed back to our little home in Springdale, cleaned up and went out for a nice dinner before spending the next 4 days in middle-of-nowhere Escalante and Neon Canyon.
This next leg of our trip was by far the one time in my life that has challenged me most both physically and mentally. But what happened in Neon Canyon has forever stuck with me and made me realize that having a loyal and tight-knit group of friends to travel with is indispensable when something goes awry. I also learned that I am indeed much stronger than I give myself credit for. More on that in Part II.