LOCATION: Water Canyon. Zion, Utah
This is part of my Zion Trip series.
Canyoneering is defined as traveling in canyons using a variety of techniques such as walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, swimming and rappelling. It’s a technical hobby since rope work is involved to rappel down.
I don’t know what possessed me to add canyoneering to my list, but the idea of it never really stuck in my head until the movie 127 Hours came out. When watching a movie about a serious and gruesome accident, most people would abstain from trying that activity. However, after seeing how gorgeous the scenery was in the slot canyons, I decided to pursue more info on what exactly canyoneering was all about. The topic was interesting enough. Some of the best canyons are located in Utah and the slot canyons are formed over time from the wear of rushing water. The way the sandstone fades into the walls and the various lights cascading into the caves seemed breathtaking. Even after doing my research, I still wasn’t SET on my adventure quite yet. Intrigued by Ralston’s story, I decided to read his book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”. I felt instantly connected to Ralston’s various stories of adventure. While his journeys were much more dangerous and strenuous, I still believe our ultimate goal in life was the same; to gain more out of life and knowledge of our self through a priceless experience. His descriptions of the canyons and the sandstone against his skin even in the wake of such pain on his arm created a sense of urgency in me to experience this myself. A week after I finished his book, I used my free Southwest Credit Card flight voucher and booked my trip. (Thanks Southwest!) With limited vacation time or the funds to stay as long as I had wanted, I decided to make the trip just about canyoneering. The plan was to fly to Vegas, rent a car and drive to Zion, Utah (a 3 hour road trip), go canyoneering, hike in Zion, drive back to Vegas, and return home. The total amount of time from take off to touch down would be 52 hours, making this the most insane spur of the moment thing I’ve ever done. Oh, and I was going alone! You can read about my experience going on a vacation alone, HERE.
The journey began with an arrival in Las Vegas. I rented a car and drove the way to Zion. The trip was masked with completely deserted roadways for a good portion. Finally around sundown, I made my way through the winding mountains and was awarded with the most fantastic view of the sun setting against desert hues. If you’ve never seen a sunset in the desert, it’s a must. Breathtaking doesn’t even begin to describe the colors. I felt completely at home.
The next morning I fueled up on Gatorade and loads of carbs to make sure my body was ready for the hike I was about to complete. I began my 30 minute drive into town to meet my guide at the Zion Rock Guide shop. Considering my hike was going to be 9 hours long, I was more nervous about spending that time alone with a stranger than I was the hike itself. What if this person was a jerk…9 hours would be torture! I made it to the shop and was soon dissolved of the nervousness when I was greeted by a young man with a bubbly personality who seemed very welcoming as he uncoiled our ropes. My guide’s name was JJ. The adventure was about to begin.
JJ and I had an hour drive out to the remote area where our hike would begin in Water Canyon. The road was extremely backcountry and treacherous and I was surprised by just how much the jeep could take. Along the drive, JJ and I talked about the various adventures we had been on and I was in awe of everything he’s been able to accomplish in his 24 years. We had a lot in common and I knew my 9 hour excursion would be well received. Along the road headed to the back side of the canyon, we past a polygamist town. JJ explained to me the various teachings of their religion and how they were all closing up shop due to a “prophecy” that the world would be ending in a few days. The women wore outfits like pilgrims and had long braided hair. It was interesting to see the town they were in without our normal privileges that 2011 cultures are customary to.
Finally we made it to the hiking trail. When I first learned about canyoneering, I was under the assumption that I would hike a relatively easy trail to drop off points. Needless to say, I was a little startled to know that I would be hiking a large elevation to the top of the mountain and then making various rappels back down. The hike started out strenuous by gaining elevation in a short amount of time. Hiking in soft sand didn’t make matters any better and we took breaks often to catch our breath. Along the way, we past various streams of rushing water and zebra stone walls. JJ pointed out the various blast marks from when trail markers would dynamite out the way for horses to climb to the top. Finally after about 2 hours, we made it to the top and to our first rappel.
JJ set up the ropes and anchors while I glanced over the edge. It was about a 150ft drop off. Knowing that I wasn’t set up in the harness yet, I definitely kept my distance. My extent fear of heights stems from my inability to trust my own foot coordination and balance. If equipped with safety features, bring on the drops! Once I had the harness on me I felt leaning back on the edge was second nature. With simple instructions of “keep your feet planted on the rocks and slowly lower down” I was off the edge and before I knew it, my rappel was over. I was completely hooked to the idea of canyoneering from that point forward.
Once JJ made it down, he pointed to an area for us to set our bags. After looking around at what he was possibly wanting us to do, I didn’t see much in the area. JJ then pointed to a very small crack in the rock and said, “We’re going to go through that slot canyon.” I glanced at what he was pointing at and just laughed, “You want me to fit in THAT?” I asked. JJ just smiled, he had obviously received that response from other trekkers.
JJ helped me up on to the rock in front of the crevice and showed me how we would maneuver through the slot. The technique was called “stemming.” Stemming involved planting your feet on one side of the canyon wall and planting your hands on the other while you shimmy across the walls to the other side. Stemming was easy at first when it was in a wide stance, however the narrow stance stem proved to be difficult, especially with slippery tennis shoes. As the slot canyon narrowed as well as my stance, I found that under my feet was a shallow pool of water. JJ asked for my camera for safe keeping saying that “you’re guaranteed to get wet…I won’t.” I just shook my head. That was nice to hear. But, sure enough, a few more stemming steps in and my foot slipped sending me straight into the water. The water, which came up to my chest, was the coldest I have ever felt in my entire life (mind you I was in the desert in June) The water was SO cold, that I didn’t even know I had hit my left knee against the canyon wall (which later I would find out actually fractured my patella). Until I could get out of the narrow part, I was left walking in the water, sending out calls of coldness, while JJ spidermaned himself across the canyon, laughing at my predicament. When I was finally able to climb back up into a stem, my legs were numb and red. Needless to say, if I’m ever in pain…I want to be immediately in that water!
Once I made it out of the slot, I was rewarded with the beautiful sandstone walls and light cascading from different outlets. The scenery was breathtaking and was as I had hoped. I found myself running my fingers along the wall just as Aron has described in his book. I couldn’t believe I was here. After spending some time taking photos and playing in the water, we made our way back through the slot. This time, the stem was much easier and I made it all the way across without hitting water! We grabbed our bags and continued our hike.
From there, we had four more rappels to get to the bottom of the canyon. One rappel was a large drop, while the others were short and tight squeezes. Once to the bottom, we had to hike a little upwards to get back out of the canyon. While my canyoneering experience only lasted for that day, the memories and sights would last a lifetime. I can’t wait to get out there and do this again. By far one of the best things I’ve ever done and truly life changing. Next, I would head to Zion National Park. You can read about that experience, HERE.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?: Absolutely. This was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
HOW TO DO THIS:
Zion Rock Guides is amazing. Various types of climbs and activities: http://www.zionrockguides.com/index.html
Read Aron Ralston’s Book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” Loads of inspiration from there!