I have been lucky to visit Zion NP twice and descend 4 technical canyons each time. Our first trip occured in 2002 with a convergence at the Watchman campground in September. There were 7 of us: Taylor (LA), Brian(Phoenix), Shawn(New Jersey), Jimmy Graves(Provo), Scott and Jimmy Page (Greensboro, NC), and myself(Virginia). (Talk about connections: I went to elementary school with Taylor; and high school with Brian, Jimmy P, and Scott (who were also in my wedding). Shawn was Brians brother and Jimmy G had worked with Scott in Chattanooga but also hiked with Scott and I in North Carolina before moving to Utah.) Over the years all or part of our group had hiked together in the west (Sierras, Winds, Rockies, etc) and various places in the southeast. It is said everyone is no more than six connections from every person on earth, strange? true?
We have hiked out west every few years since 1989 and decided to do some canyoneering this year. Jimmy G had much experience canyoneering all over southern Utah and had been to Zion on many occasions. I had done a fair amount of vertical caving. Tay did some climbing. We let Jimmy G lead our trip.
We had discussed gear, food, and beer prior to our meeting. We knew each other and felt we would have a succesful trip, made interesting by some members fear of heights. We all met at the Watchman CG after driving from SLC, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Luckily for us this year, it was a drought year and all the usual wet slots were fairly dry.
Technical slot cantons are graded as to difficulty. The rating is divided into four parts, the Technical Class, which indicates the technicality of the terrain and the type of ropework required; the Water Rating, which indicates the complications due to flowing or still water; the Risk Rating which indicates the presence of more risk factors, and the Time or Grade, which indicates the length of the adventure. This rating system is used by the American Canyoneering Association and most guidebooks. The rating system is below.
Canyon rating system
• 1 Canyon Hiking: Non-technical. No rope required. See route description for difficulties.
• 2 Basic Canyoneering: Scrambling, easy vertical or near-vertical climbing or downclimbing. Rope recommended for handlines, belays, lowering packs and possible emergency use. Exit or retreat possible upcanyon without fixed ropes.
• 3 Intermediate Canyoneering: Real technical climbing/downclimbing, difficult and dangerous. Most people will rappel instead. Rope required for belays and single pitch rappels. Retreat upcanyon would require fixing ropes.
• 4 Advanced Canyoneering: Aid climbing, multi-pitch rappels and/or other complex rope work (such as re-belays, tyrolleans and guided rappels) will be required. Might also require extensive downclimbing, or difficult to establish natural anchor problems.
• A - Normally dry or with very little water. Wading to waist deep at most.
• B - Water with no current or light current. Still pools. Falls normally dry or running at a trickle. Swimming expected.
• C - Water with strong current. Waterfalls. Wet canyon rope techniques required.
Risk / Seriousness
• (no rating) - Normal risk factors are present on this adventure.
• R - Risky: One or more extraordinary risk factors exist that will complicate the descent. Solid technical skills and sound judgement required. Not appropriate for beginners, even in competent company.
• X - Extreme: Multiple risk factors exist that will complicate the descent. Errors in technique or judgement will likely result in serious injury or death. Descent should be attempted by expert canyoneers only.
The presence of an R or X in the rating suggests that the canyon will involve higher than average risk, over and above the many risk factors found in canyons normally. Some examples of additional risks: long and/or difficult rappels, station to station rappels, exposed climbing or traversing, extensive 4th or 5th class climbing unroped, difficult anchors, sections of loose or dangerous rock, difficult or committing route finding, prolonged immersion or extensive swimming. Specific factors should be addressed in the route description.
• I - Short. A couple of hours.
• II - Requires about a half day.
• III - Normally requires most of a day.
• IV - Expected to take a long day. Get up early, bring a headlamp. Possible bivy.
• V - More than one day. Normally done in two days.
• VI - Two full days or more.
day #1 Middle Echo/Keyhole (9/21/02)
Echo is rated 3B II, permit required.
Jimmy thought that Echo would be a good canyon to start for the group. Prior to our shuttle we went to town and purchased Neoprene socks and dry bags, we debated renting wet suits but Jimmy thought we could do without. We shuttled up to Weeping Rock and began the hike to the canyon entrance, 1000' vertical gain. The day was warm and forecast to get warmer. We suited up with our harnesses and headed down canyon. The canyon tightened up we had one repell and walk before the 4 "Poo Holes", a sucession of short repels into "stanky" looking potholes with floating disconnects. The water looked like sewage effluent. I fully expected to se a large mammal floating upside down. We all went from pot to pot, our forward progress slowed by our size. The members also had to learn to get off repel in pools, without standing. Bcause of the low humidity, we were cooled quite rapidly by evaporation, resulting sometimes constant shivering and we were all happy to finally dry out.
Shortly after we entered the echo chamber.I found it interesting we were all making echo's, like little kids. We finally exited into the sun and warmth then made our way down the trail to catch the bus to the CG. We all smelled funny, talked about the canyon and hoped other canyons would have less Poo holes. Poo holes has since become part of our backpacking vernacular.
Keyhole rated 3B II, permit required.
Keyhole is a short slot with everything about technical canyoneering packed into a short trip; wet, deep, climbing, short repels and a narrow, cold exit swim. The canyon is above the Mt carmel tunnel (the tunnel). We walked up the slickrock and down to the slots entrance. The initial slot has nothing technical and can be walked by exiting to the south. Here the fun begins. Three short repels and downclimbing bring you to the exit swim, a 3 foot wide water filled corridor. The water was damn cold. But past the swim one can basically walk out to the TH and back to the car. A great ending to the first day.
day #2 Mystery (9/22/02)
Mystery is rated 3B III, permit required.
With Jimmys input, we decide to tackle Mystery on Friday. Rather than access the canyon from Weeping Rock, with its 3.6 mile/2400 foot gain, we opted hike in on the East Mesa trail from the parks eastern boundary. Utilizing a GPS, we found the East Mesa trail. Hiking west the first canyon on the right is South Orderville, DO NOT DROP here.(In South Orderville, the final drop into Orderville, is on the order of a few hundred feet and people have been trapped by this drop.)At the turn there is a fairly defined trail that drops steeply into Mystery, about 1000 feet.Once in the canyon, headed down canyon there are many small drops before the canyon slots up with 5 drops, up to 50'. Here the canyon turns at the elbow and one is confronted with the "Devils Hole". The hole is a muddy swamp (when water up) do to a massive rockslide, its impressive to climb over.
Next up is the big drop, 115', into a clear clear and cold pool; the seeping walls covered with greenery. This was a way cool drop, very pretty.
A short walk downstream ended with a 10' drop into another clear and cold pool. The final drop was 115' down into the Virgin Narrows. It is a spectacular repel, down the huge wall as waders looking up in awe as you descend to the river. We walked down river about a mile to the shuttle stop at the Temple of Sinawava, to me a somewhat boring walk after three slots canyons. (Granted its impressive but to me the slots were more exciting and constantly changing.)We were avoided by other passengers somewhat on the shuttle. Mystery was a good full day adventure, followed by a night of food and brew in Springdale.
day #3 Pine Creek, (9/23/02)
Pine Creek is rated 3B II, permit required
For our last day Jimmy chose Pine Creek, one we could do with our group size in a reasonable time to get OOT (to catch flights). Pine Creek is a favorite, its easily accesible and impressive. It can be dry or have major swimming. Access is at the upper entrance of the tunnel. It slotted up almost immediately and The first pothole was completely dry, Jimmy knew the canyon had little water. We were treated to downclimbing and 2 repels through the dry potholes. The canyon deposited us at the drop into the Cathedral Room. A 45' repel ended on a sandy floor. It was impressive, oval windows and arches in the sandstone. The prettiest spot I saw all weekend.
The dry slot continued, narrow and dark but finally opened. We then encountered a 40' drop and then then the final drop, 100' free hanging repel to a cool spring grotto. What a great finish to a great canyon but the hike out was another story. We contoured almost a mile out to the road, dusty and dry. Back to the CG, we packed and went our separate ways; Vegas and SLC, while Brian,Jimmy and I headed down to Marble Canyon for more hiking (or Jimmy fishing for world famous Colorado River trout, with bugs he brought from NC, and he proceede to catch NOTHING.)
We decided to return to Zion for more canyoneering adventures. Once again we converged from points beyond at the Watchman CG (all except Jimmy G from Provo). I had researched various canyons and we made a rough schedule for the next 2 1/2 days. This was somewhat complicated by the fact my equipment; rope, hardware, sleeping bag, harness, etc, did not make it from Chicago O'Hare. Luckily Scott had an extra rope and harness. A short stop at the Wal-Mart in St George and I purchased a $5 blanket and $10 Sponge Bob towel under which I slept for the next 3 nights. I never got my equipment but that is another story.
day #1 Birch Hollow/Keyhole (9/8/05)
Birch Hollow rated 3A II, permit NOT required.
After a cold night under my blanket, we ate and went to the office and got permits for the 2 canyons for the day. (We didn't realize Birch Hollow is outside the park, nor did the ranger, so we needed no permit. We paid for one and this fee ended up paying for tomorrows trip.) Birch Hollow is a dry canyon flowing into Orderville. It is accessed east of the park on what I call the North Fork Rd. We ended up using the GPS to locate the TH as 2 canyons diverge near the road. It was steep drop but the bottom was a pleasent stroll. We first encountered a 100' dryfall that we bypassed on west side. We then hit a 75' dryfall we ended up repelling as some of our group was concerned about the exposure on the downclimb. The canyon slotted and there were 7 more drops in fairly rapid succession, between 30-100' and the floor of Orderville. Rather than hike up Orderville canyon to the road, we (actually me) decided to come back to the car via a bushwhack up Wild Wind Hollow and the ridge. To put it mildly it was somewhat unpleasant. My friends also. But we made the car and looked forward to Keyhole as a nice way to clean up and cool off.
Keyhole rated 3B I
The canyon was cold and wet but a nice way to end the day after Birch Hollow. We reached the car by dark, rode to the CG, ate some PB+J and went to sleep; too tired to go to go to town.
day#2 Spry (9/9/05)
Spry canyon is rated 3B III, permit required.
In our research, Scott and I thought that Spry would be a good canyon for the group to descend. The TH is above the tunnel. A hike of about 1 mile took us up Pine Creek, up the slickrock and over the pass and down into the canyon. Prior to the pass there were some petroglyphs (see photo).
The canyon starts as a wide lush watercourse but then one hits the biggest repel, 165'.The sides of the repel are the massive heights of the East Temple and Twin Brothers. Down canyon we had short repels, downclimbs, and wading. One 10' overhanging repel into a little tunnel was interesting. The repel anchor was a tree stump to an overhang and pool. I went first (which I seemed to do alot), flipped and groaned. Scott said, "Are you ok?". "Yeah" I replied, "come on down, its a little awkward." It was interesting. We thought we might be able to bypass but that would take the fun out the reason we came!
We down climbing, scrambling and multiple repels (up to 120') as the canyon alternated between slot and open. One drop fell into a bottomless crack. When the rope was tossed a few seconds passed before a big splash.
As I was tired of being the guinea pig, Tay volunteered to descend first. Imagine our suprise when he announced the rope fell into a nasty pourover pool next to a sandy narrow slot. We continued down, repeling, wading, and swimming. One repel ended in a narrow water filled slot, inhabited by a trapped snake. But being the shortest, it was over my head. One or 2 more drops brought us to the overhanging cliff band, which led down the steep watercourse to Pine Creek. Back to the CG, a change and off to the Bit and Spur for dinner and brews.
day#3 Pine Creek (9/10/05)
Pine Creek rated 3B II , permit required
We picked up our permit the night before. The rangers told us the canyon was full of water. It was a cool morning and we all dressed warmly. I only had a farmer John wet suit and a paddling shirt. I wore my rain jacket to help with evaporative cooling and a wool cap and neoprene socks. (This is what I wore in Keyhole as well.With such low humidity you will dry quickly and the heat will get sucked out of you, you will get cold.) Since we were leaving around noon, we got an early start. We were the first group in the canyon. Even with our large size we made great time, a smaller group behind us never caught up.
The rangers were right, the canyon was completely flooded. The potholes were full. The repel into the Cathedral Room was again spectacular. While the 2002 trip the room was totally dry, this year the pool was cold and deep, with a floating disconnect. The canyon continued with wading and climbing in the narrow slot. The canyon finally opened up but the sun was still was below the canyon walls. We made our way down the final 2 drops. The early descenders in the grotto went into the sun to heat up while waiting for the others. Great canyon, so different with all the water. We made our way the rocky stream and stopped at a big deep clear pool to take a swim. What a way to finish another trip to canyon country.
Make sure you have adequate clothing. You may be hot in a canyon, you may get hypothermic. Take a wet suit, they may be needed in some canyons even in the hottest of summer. It is wise to take an extra layer. You may need a dry suit (but if your a novice an in a canyon that requires a dry suit, you may be in the canyon beyond your abilities.) Take Polypro or similar insulating layer, rainjacket/pants, gloves and a hat. Dry bags and Pelican boxes may be needed if canyon wet.(A dry bag can also serev as a flotation device fro floating disconnects. You may need rope, slings, rings, harness, gloves, a helmet. Consider a headlamp. Have enough food and water.
Also remember to stay in the watercourse as much as possible, to minimize erosion problems. Being the desert once a trail is cut it stays cut because of the dearth of growth and precipitation (except snowfall in the winter).
It is imperative the team has a good leader, one who is familiar with the canyon and its difficulties. The group needs to be strong, cohesive, and move quickly. Do your homework and heed warnings. In National Parks groups must have a permit and check out. In may other federal or private land YOYO. Consider the time of year, summer monsoon season greatly incrases your risk of thunderstorms and hence flashfloods. Flashfloods have deadly consequences, see this report.
Do not exceed capabilities, you may get more than you bargained for. Some canyons are deathtraps if unprepared or unskilled. Be safe and have fun!