Mount Spry and Spry Canyon
An Introduction to Canyoneering
Spry Canyon is located in Zion National Park. It is a typical slot canyon with an intermediate difficulty rating (3B III). My friend Courtney (sp: cp0915) was interested in doing this canyon and invited me to join him and Mike (sp: Day Hiker). I was looking forward to spending a little time in Utah and this would be my introduction to canyoneering. I briefly looked at some info on the Internet but all I really knew was that this canyon offered 13 rappels (up to 165 feet) and that we would probably get wet. With 13 rappels I knew this would likely be an interesting trip. In addition to Spry Canyon Courtney also wanted to do nearby Mount Spry. Thus our adventure would include both climbing and canyoneering.
After setting up a car shuttle, we started out on the east side of the East Temple in the Pine Creek drainage. It was still dark but we would soon have light. Not knowing what we might need we brought three 60m ropes and a light rack (4 cams and half a dozen stoppers) as well as biners, slings, webbing, etc. Shortly up the drainage we encountered a funny phenomenon: quicksand! After several steps we quickly sank into the water laden sand and barely escaped with our lives. Ok, not really. We did sink quickly but escaped with only muddy shoes. Courtney's perfectly clean white shoes were now a muddy mess. So much for keeping our feet dry. This was a remnant of the heavy rain that had occurred earlier in the week. We also knew that this probably meant (for better or worse) that all the pools in Spry Canyon would probably be at peak capacity.
Further up we veered off to the left (west) climbing out of the drainage on a heading toward Spry Canyon. Mike and Courtney had been this far once before on another adventure and pointed out a petroglyph wall. We snapped a few photos and continued on. We were now descending into the upper portion of Spry Canyon. The sandy wash now turned to smooth sandstone and we soon encountered our first rappel. Though long, this rappel was just a warm-up. It was only a low angle rappel but due to the distance (165 feet) it required two ropes. There were two pools of water toward the bottom of the rappel but both were largely avoidable. After spending some time untangling a mess at the bottom of our ropes we proceeded on.
Nearing Mount Spry we exited the canyon and made our way toward the northern end of Mount Spry. There appeared to be several options to attain the summit. Courtney headed up on the east side of the North ridge. This looked like it could be a little tricky so I went a little further to the north to have a look at the ridge itself. It looked doable but I could see a couple large notches that looked like they might prove to be an obstacle. Thus, I turned back to follow Courtney's route which turned out to be mostly class 3. Mike decided to do the ridge.
Not far up Courtney and I attained the top of the ridge and looking back we could see that the ridge itself would have been the easiest way to go. I descended down the ridge to have a closer look and to check on Mike. In an attempt to stay clear of the cliff on the west side of Spry Mike managed to get into a very steep (probably class 5) section. There was definitely some exposure here and the sandstone which had absorbed water from the rains earlier in the week was rather crumbly. I was worried Mike was in trouble here and was just about ready to set up a quick belay around a tree but with some risk he climbed out of the tricky section to safety.
We then continued on up the ridge to the summit plateau. By now Courtney was well ahead of Mike and I. I shot some photos as he reached the summit. The summit is interesting and consists of many colored layers of eroded sandstone rising perhaps 200 feet above the south end of the summit plateau. After some more class 3 climbing Mike and I joined Courtney at the summit. As expected the view of the valley below and the surrounding mesa was spectacular.
After some time on the summit we climbed back down. This time we stuck to the ridge which proved to be an easy and interesting (class 3) descent to the north. Once off the ridge we dropped down into the drainage between Spry and Twin Brothers. In spots this drainage was choked with thick brush which occasionally proved formidable. As expected this drainage dropped into Spry Canyon but would require one or more rappels into the unknown to do so. Not wanting to venture into an unknown risk we climbed upward back toward where we had earlier left Spry Canyon and soon found an easy way to climb back in. This bypassed several of the shorter rappels higher up in the canyon but we had plenty more left to do.
Soon we reached our next rappel. It was at this point that things really started to get interesting. The next rappel was supposed to be about 80 feet but try as we might, we could not see the bottom. All we could see was what looked like a bottomless chasm.
As we started to set up the rappel I became increasingly curious about what lay below. The chasm was dark and ominous. Both Mike and Courtney watched as I threw a small rock into the bottomless pit. It seemed like you could count the seconds tick by. When would it hit the bottom? Damn, this thing is deep! And then we heard a sound echo up from the bottom that made all three of us groan simultaneously: an unmistakable loud kerplunk as the rock dropped into what sounded like a deep pool of water. Our groans were a strange mixture of fear, uneasiness, and delight.
Courtney then asked who wanted to go first and I quickly volunteered. I hooked up and then leaned back out over the gaping hole. This is always the hardest part of a rappel but it's only a mental challenge. Looking down I was somewhat relieved to see sand not too far from the bottom of the rappel. But then on the other hand, it was straight down. I descended into the darkness below. Nearing the bottom of the slot it opened up a bit and I had about 30 feet of free hanging before I reached the bottom. As I hoped, I was largely able to avoid the water below.
Courtney and Mike followed and we proceeded down the deep narrow slot until it opened up at our next rappel. This was a rappel from a tree down to a sandy pool of water in a more open area of the canyon. What made this one interesting was the extent to which we attempted to avoid the water. Mike went first and got pretty wet. I went next. Toward the bottom of the rappel it becomes free hanging and Mike attempted to pull me over the pool of water by pulling on the rope. This wasn't very effective since it caused the belay device to grip onto the rope. With the weight of an extra rope in my backpack I nearly went inverted at this point as I hung helplessly over the center of the pool. After righting myself Mike helped me swing over to one side and I dropped in where it was less than waist deep.
Beyond this point the rappels came one after another. By now we had gone through many fairly shallow pools of water but things were about to change. We eventually arrived at what our description said was the tenth rappel. Courtney went first. As he dropped down to the pools of water below he slowed down and we could tell by the tone of his voice that he wasn't happy. As Mike and I wondered what was going on below we suddenly heard a big splash and then some thrashing and groans of displeasure. Mike and I looked at each other with grins on our faces as we listened to our comrade struggle below. Somehow we achieved great pleasure from this despite the fact that we knew we were next.
I dropped in next. By now I knew things were going to get a bit wet so I had to put my camera away. Below were two pools: one below me and one further away. I aimed for the far end of the first pool and dropped into cold water that was a bit more than waist deep. I quickly pulled myself out and up onto the rock separating the two pools. This was a bit difficult given the fact that I was still on rappel and had to free up some slack. The slot here was from 3 to 4 feet wide with very smooth walls. I now saw the source of Courtney's thrashing about. The next pool was about twenty feet long and the smooth sides of the slot meant there was no avoiding it. Courtney said it was deep and that he had to swim across. Concerned I might sink to the bottom with my pack and extra rope I hesitated. After relieving myself of my pack and rope (I threw them over to the opposite side of the pool) I plunged in and thrashed over to the other side. As expected I did not find the bottom. On the other side I pulled myself out and waited for Mike. He threw his pack over and I dropped back in to fish it out. He then lunged into the pool sending a large tidal wave toward me and Courtney. All three of us were now quite wet.
Immediately beyond this small but deep pool in the slot was another vertical rappel down a slippery waterfall into a portion of the canyon that opened up. We were now leaving the tight confines of the slot as it opened up on its way down into Pine Creek. After another rappel from a tree we descended the rocky watercourse to the thirteenth rappel. The route description we had used the word "spectacular" in describing this last rappel. It was pretty high (95 feet according to the description) and was a rappel over the side of a sheer cliff. To be on the safe side we again used two ropes. Given the height of this rappel and the fact that it was another vertical one we backed up the existing anchor and then tied our ropes together.
I greedily volunteered to go first again and hooked up to the ropes. Leaning out over the cliff I could see that this was a long way above the ground below. This was our highest vertical rappel. As I looked down I was intoxicated by the surge of adrenaline. After descending about 10 feet with my feet against the cliff I soon understood why the description said this was spectacular. From this point on the cliff was undercut. The remainder of the rappel would be completely free hanging. By the time I reached the bottom I would be a good 40 feet from the side of the cliff. With a combination of fear and exhilaration I yelled up to Mike and Courtney, "You guys are gonna love this one!". My feet then left the cliff as I descended free in the air down the rope nearly 10 stories above the ground below. As I reached the bottom I had the feeling one has when they get off a rollercoaster. This was great fun and I wished it wasn't over. The fact that this was the most impressive and last of the rappels really made this a spectacular finish to a wonderful day. Courtney and Mike rappelled next and were equally impressed. Mike hung around for awhile on the rope fully absorbing the experience.
I know there are much more spectacular canyons in Zion but I really had a good deal of fun on this, my first, one. After another 45 minutes we exited along Pine Creek where we had parked our other vehicle. My first canyoneering experience was everything I was expecting and far more. Zion is indeed an amazing place and I have no doubt I will return.
A full set of photos is here: Spry Canyon and Mount Spry