"Put That ******* Camera Away!"
The latest installment of the series showing how I lose hiking and climbing partners.
An Old Idea Comes to Fruition
My brother Chris, not the one who almost got lost out on the Jackson Glacier, got it in his head back in 1996, after our first visit to Zion, that he wanted to hike the Virgin River Narrows. Looking at pictures of the canyon, I was interested as well, and everything I’d read about it said to me that the Narrows was one of America’s most spectacular and unique hiking destinations. And since the water in July, according to the NPS site and some other guides I’d read, would only be around ankle-deep in most places, it sounded downright good for a Utah summer day.
Contradictions-- I love real wilderness, but I hate backpacking. I love to climb, but I don’t like getting my hands dirty. And I like to swim, but I really hate getting wet except when I want to. So although I find slot canyons fascinating, I’ll never explore many of them because I just don’t go for wading and swimming with my hiking and climbing.
But it had been a heavy snow year in southern Utah.
I knew that. My wife and I, with our then-6-month-old son, had taken an April trip to Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion, and we had seen the heavy snow accumulation in the Bryce Canyon-Cedar Breaks area. And I knew that southern Utah had been hit with heavy snowfall in May. But I hoped that maybe, just maybe, the water levels would be normal for July by the time my brother and I got there.
We left camp at Cedar Breaks at around 5 A.M. and arrived at the Zion Lodge, from which we had to take the shuttle to road’s end at the Temple of Sinawava, around 7. We were headed into the Narrows by 8. Our goal: Big Springs, about 5 miles upstream from the road’s end.
The early start was for two reasons: to avoid afternoon thunderstorms that might pop up and cause flash flooding in the canyon and to avoid the crowds we knew would be thronging to the area by late morning. The downside was that there was no sun in the canyon yet and that the water and the air were consequently cold. Not hypothermia-inducing cold, but cold enough to make you wonder whether the hike was really worth it given the chill and the wetness.
Up the NarrowsOh, the wetness. Things started out okay, meaning the first tenth of a mile, if even that long, was just knee-deep. Then came the plunge. Without warning, we dropped into a chest-deep pool, and we knew we were in for a lot of shivering and cursing ahead. I double-checked that my camera was zipped into my waterproof jacket, repositioned the jacket at the top of my pack, and headed on. Every shallow spot, every exposed bank, was a blessing. At our first real stop, about a mile upcanyon, we unwisely enjoyed the dryness so long that we became dry ourselves and had to get wet all over again, which is sometimes colder and worse than staying wet to begin with.
There were, of course, some ankle-deep sections living up to the hike descriptions, but they were not the norm. One particularly unpleasant spot occurred a bit upstream from the junction with Orderville Canyon, which is about three miles upstream from road’s end and where the best of the Narrows begins (or ends). The stream widened and deepened, coming up to our necks and still deepening. Ahead of us was a small rapid that had a respectable current, and we didn’t think it would be wise to swim against that. But the only alternative was to climb up a mossy boulder on the right that itself was very difficult to access. It also turned out to be dangerous to downclimb. But we got past the spot with a slight scare and agreed that any more such spots would be our turnaround point. Each of us knew we probably wouldn’t adhere to that, but it sounded good, anyway. It made us feel wise and in control.
SOMEONE Woke Up in a Bad MoodSo now to the heading at the top of this trip report.
We encountered another section of rapids where the water was pretty deep and much swifter than the earlier rapids had been. In a dry August, this spot would likely be a minor nuisance, but in a deeper-than-normal stream, this was the first truly dangerous spot we had encountered, truly dangerous because the only way through was to negotiate the rapids themselves. And the only reasonably safe way was to creep along a submerged ledge barely wide enough to accommodate one’s foot (this shelf kept us in knee-deep as opposed to what would have at least been chest-deep water); the ledge, which was on the left side of the stream as we faced upstream, led to the top of the rapids, where then we would have to cross through knee-deep rushing water with large rocks and hidden holes all around us.
I had a pretty easy time of it, not because I am some stream-crossing god but because I’ve forded enough swift mountain streams to know what I’m doing. But Chris had no such experience, and I forgot that what merited my caution but not my fear might scare the hell out of him. So since I crossed first, I thought it would be a good idea to grab my camera and take some pictures of Chris crossing. Good souvenir shots to impress the girls and frighten the parents with.
To put it diplomatically, Chris was not appreciative of my efforts to lionize his achievements. About halfway across, he slipped and nearly lost his balance, and when he looked up to see me with a camera pressed to my face, he ungraciously shouted, “Put that ******* camera away!” And then I could see the fear on his face, so I honored his request and stepped out to offer him help, which he declined. He had a few more things to say when he got to the nice dry bank, but I won’t repeat them here and make him look ill-mannered and foul-mouthed. My parents never were strict enough with him.
Not long after that, the canyon opened up a bit, and there was real sunlight, not the reflected stuff that makes for pretty pictures, on the canyon walls. Having to take advantage of this, we exited the stream and climbed through and above the brush to some sun-soaked perches about 50 feet above the stream, where we spent a good half hour doing absolutely nothing. Although Big Spring was less than a mile away, we decided we’d seen enough and were ready to head back, this time looking forward to the water that would cool us off under that hot sun getting increasingly directly overhead.
Heading downstream through one of the shoulder-deep sections, I managed to find a hole which promptly caused all of me, pack included, to go under and ride the current for a few yards. It wouldn’t have been that bad, aside from the surprise of the plunge, if I hadn’t forgotten to zip my camera back into my waterproof jacket. Well, the camera was killed and the film ruined. After the camera dried out completely, I tried it just in case it was hardier than I thought. It made a few feeble sounds and gave up the ghost. I never really liked that camera, anyway, and it was just a point-and-shoot I’d brought specifically for the Narrows hike since I wasn’t going to risk an SLR there. But my brother felt a little vindication over the justice he felt had been served for my seeking entertainment value in his struggles, and there would never be any proof of how silly he had looked while crossing those rapids.
The Trouble with Eye Candy, and What Comes of OglingAfter that, I just embraced the deep sections, floating or swimming through and enjoying the ride. Below Orderville Canyon, the crowds we left early to avoid showed up in full force. I suppose I can’t blame them for splashing in the water on a hot summer day, but I couldn’t help but carry a little whiff of arrogant superiority for having been much farther than most of them would go. So I was glad we had started when we did; we never saw another person beyond the great section around Orderville Canyon, going in or out.
The only other noteworthy event was an embarrassing one. True to form, I humiliated myself by stumbling and falling in front of a pretty woman. There I was, masculine and heroic in my sweat and my grime, returning from the far reaches of the Utah wilderness, way more a man than the wimp hiking with her, and I had to trip on a rock and fall almost quite literally at her feet. It doesn’t matter that I’m married and not looking around for anything on the side (one woman is enough, thank you); you just don’t want to look stupid in front of a pretty woman. Period. But it afflicts me frequently this way. I once heard of a sign in an auto-repair shop saying, “He who looketh upon a woman loseth a fender.” An adaptation of this would work for me as a hiker. God help me if I see a pretty face while I’m climbing.
Afterward, Alone Again, and a Word of Caution
I have my own little list of must-do day hikes in U.S. national parks, hikes that step-for-step are just the best the system has to offer. I don’t claim it’s an exhaustive list, and I admit to some regional bias, but here it is: Hidden Lake in Glacier (but go very early to avoid a circus), Paintbrush Divide in Grand Teton, Longs Peak (Keyhole) in Rocky Mountain, Devil’s Garden in Arches, Telescope Peak in Death Valley, Wheeler Peak in Great Basin, Whiteoak Canyon in Shenandoah, and the Mist Trail in Yosemite. I’ve added the Zion Narrows to the list. It’s amazing and, for the typical day hiker, unique. It probably won't excite real canyoneers too much, but it'll do for the rest of us. I doubt I’ll do it again until my kids are old enough to try it, but I do recommend it highly.
I don’t know if this hike is what steered Chris away from hiking and climbing with me when he used to be my best partner for such. I suspect it had more to do with the exposure he didn’t like on Devil’s Castle and Mount Superior in the Wasatch Range (again, a case of familiarity vs. inexperience that I underestimated), but the troublesome crossing in the Narrows, plus my relative nonchalance at it, probably played a role.
And you SP members planning to hike and climb with me in Wyoming soon might be in for it. It was 2001 when my wife and I got separated during a thunderstorm in the Bighorns after my great idea to push high above timberline when clouds were starting to move in. It was 2003 when I put my brother Mike through a few trying experiences in Montana. It was 2005 when Chris and I did the Narrows. So we might be due for another “event.” Let’s hope not. But those of you with whom I might hike and climb NEXT summer in Montana are probably better off; the even-numbered years seem to be better for hanging out with me.