A couple weeks ago (before the government shut-down) I headed down to Zion National Park for a weekend of canyoneering along with Michael Sproul (from The Carefree Traveler) and another mutual friend. Living in Utah allows many opportunities to get outdoors and experience things that many could only hope to see in photos. While Zion National Park is full of tourists with cameras, few experience the park like we do. It’s not the cheapest adventure when you are getting started, but once you have all the gear you can definitely keep the costs down (it’s best to find a group of people that have gear that you can tag along with until you can build up your own supply of gear). We aimed to do 5 different canyons in 3 days, which we didn’t quite make, but we came close. We ended up rappelling over 1,000 feet through 4 canyons and hiking about 15 miles through some of the most impressive landscape in the country. It’s definitely a thrill to live in a place where I have outdoor adventures around every corner.
For those of you not familiar with canyoneering it’s the process of making your way through (usually down) a canyon with the help of ropes, harnesses, creative thinking, and whatever natural elements you can. In many canyons you also have the aid of bolted anchors to attach ropes to, which can be helpful but also takes some of the natural challenge out of the equation. There is often water to travel through so everything you carry typically needs to be waterproofed or put in dry sacks or other waterproof containers to stay dry.
In fact, one of the things that make canyoneering so interesting is that water levels and other obstacles frequently change, which alters the dynamic and difficulty of the canyon. These changes are usually the result of a flash flood, which is one of the most dangerous aspects of canyoneering since the speed and force they come with is not forgiving to anyone. These floods also carry debris, rocks, and logs along with it leaving things scattered throughout the canyon. Until you experience one first hand, it is hard to appreciate the destruction that can occur. The more narrow the canyon, the more dangerous a flood is. What can start as a completely dry canyon can turn into wall-to-wall rapids in minutes–not hours. And many of these canyons have no escape except down (good luck trying to outrun a flash flood). This is why it is extremely important to check the weather before you go (and is also the reason we decided not to complete the final canyon on our trip).
Guerrilla Packs was kind enough to provide a pack for us to take on our trip, which I carried during much of the trip. The pack was called the Emperor and has 85 liters of space. It went through a pretty good beating over the weekend, getting dunked in and out of water, rubbing against sandstone, dragged through the mud, and getting dropped multiple times. It held up well to the abuse and has some good characteristics. One of my favorite things about the pack is the layout of compartments. My standard pack has one large compartment and then a lid, so it was a nice change to have several different pockets to keep things organized, especially since I could access them without going through the entire pack. It includes a zip-on day pack which I never removed, but did use extensively while attached to the pack. It also has a decent size compartment at the base of the pack and in the lid.
The pack comfortably carried a 300 foot rope, my harness, helmet, carabineers/additional canyoneering gear, emergency pack (with first aid kit, food, clothes, and other items in case of an overnight emergency), 3 liters of water, and other miscellaneous tools and safety equipment.
While the pack did hold up well it wasn’t without some damage. There were some small rips in the mesh side pockets where I carry my water bottles. Not enough to render the pockets useless though. Carrying the pack was pretty comfortable, but there’s not quite as much padding in the shoulders as I’m used to. The pack served it’s purpose well but it would be better served on more traditional backpacking or camping trips, rather than canyoneering. Almost everything gets ruined rubbing against sandstone so it was a tough test to go through, and it did very well overall.
Our trip started on Friday morning when we hiked Pine Creek Canyon. This is a beautiful canyon that drops in right off of the main road in Zion. It has three rappels in the slot canyon section including the “Cathedral”, which drops about 50 feet into a pool of cold water that never sees the sun (wetsuits are recommended!). After you exit the slot portion of the canyon you have two rappels left, including the 100-foot free hanging rappel that drops you down into the exit.
After we finished Pine Creek we needed to take care of some business like finding a place to camp that evening and getting that set up. Once we had that taken care of and had eaten some food we set out for Refrigerator Canyon. The approach is the same as Angels Landing in Zion. It’s short and paved, but steep. And carrying a 300 foot rope in addition to all your other gear in your pack up the steep trail is sure going to try to convince your legs to quit. But about two-thirds up the trail you drop down into the canyon and start going back down—the fun way. It starts with a couple down-climbs (climbing down obstacles without a rope attached to your harness) and then has a couple short rappels to get you to the top of a high cliff. The next two rappels were actually one rappel with a ledge on the cliff to rig a second rappel. At a total of 300 feet between the two it is definitely easier and safer to rig it separately. After you are down you are left with a short hike out where you meet back up with the paved trail.
Saturday was already scheduled as a long day, but a few mistakes on our part made it even longer. In the morning, we parked one car at the Zion Visitor Center where we would end up and then headed out to the trailhead for Englestead Canyon with the other car. We weren’t driving a four-wheel drive vehicle so we decided to stop short of the trailhead and hike in the rest of the way based on the dirt road conditions. However, we missed a turn for the trailhead and continued hiking past. While still trying to follow the directions (but on the wrong side of the canyon) we ended up hiking almost two hours in the wrong area before we finally were able to get back on track. From there the approach hike was much quicker and easier. We arrived at the first rappel about 11:00am. At almost 300 feet it offers quite the majestic view. We took our time getting everything set up using 3 different ropes and we were on our way. The canyon meets up with Orderville Canyon and you can exit either way out. We chose to go down Orderville and then down the Narrows where it exits at the Temple of Sinawava. It adds a lot of water (especially at that time since the canyons were pretty full). The combination of canyons offered many challenging rappels and down-climbs as well as hiking in and through water including several “swimmers” where we had to swim through sections. We made good time once we got started down the actual canyon and ended up finishing in 7 hours. We were quite pleased with the time and also enjoyed the unique landscape and environment that few people get to see.
We took the Zion shuttle to the Visitor Center where we had one car parked, then headed out for dinner. After we ate, we started driving up to the Englestead trailhead where we had left our other car. We got there after dark and realized that we were going to have issues getting the car out. It was parked on the top of a hill, but rain earlier that day had turned it into a few inches of mud and there was a rut in the road that forced the car straight into the side of the hill. We had one four-wheel drive vehicle but not one that was equipped to handle the conditions. It made it up the hill but at the top we had trouble turning it around and then kept sliding into the side of the hill trying to go down. After about 30 minutes, we finally got the four-wheel drive vehicle out and decided to leave the other car there and come back in the morning, hoping it wouldn’t rain anymore and the mud would harden enough to drive it out.
We went back the next morning after we had packed up camp and while it wasn’t perfect, the road conditions were much better. After a little work, we got the other car out. We were very glad we had stopped where we did and didn’t drive any farther as the road was much worse beyond that point. Now we had to decide if we could hike another canyon that day. We had two options but had already ruled out the first, Mystery Canyon, since it was a pretty long hike and we already were getting a late start. We were still considering the second option, Birch Hollow, which was in the same neighborhood we were in and was quite a bit shorter. We drove over to find the trailhead and were a little concerned that the roads still had some slick mud on them. We were also out of cell phone range so we couldn’t check the weather and looking at the sky saw some stuff that caused concern. After deliberating we decided we should bail on the canyon and just head home. Without a firm weather report we didn’t feel good about it. Not only did we have to worry about flash floods, but also the roads would be impassable if it did rain any more. It was sad to turn away the opportunity to go through another canyon, but we decided it was better to enjoy what we had done and plan another trip to continue the adventures.
Author’s Note on Canyoneering: While canyoneering is a safe outdoor activity when done right, there are inherent risks associated with such participating. It is NOT recommended that you participate without the required skills and equipment. If you do not have the skills or equipment needed, it is recommended that you participate in classes, hire a guide, or find other people who do have the skills and equipment that will take you and teach you the proper way to participate in these types of activities. It is not recommended that you buy equipment, watch some YouTube videos and then head out to the canyons. Many people have been seriously injured or died as a result of improperly descending a canyon.