Monday, May 31, 2010

Zion Canyon Country
Winter Water

Its the first week of a summer long adventure and we've just left Zion. Snow was heavy this spring in the mountain southwest and the rivers there were running high – clearly not conducive to exploring and rappelling the regions wild canyon watercourses. Though the handful of canyons we were able to explore left us dumbfounded by the beauty of this red rock desert landscape. Its a landscape so completely created by the course of water carving through sandstone on its way from the high desert to the Colorado river the irony is not lost on us. We cannot explore the place fully, purely because the regular forces that created the massive steep-walled canyons are at work at present.

At first entry to Zion National Park we were excited and ready to put some new canyoneering gear to the test. We choose a canyon with a short drainage, supposedly little water, and an easy approach. Easy approach means: park the car at the end trailhead, hitchhike with the tourists scurrying around the park like ants, hike an hour or two straight up exposed slickrock, backcountry navigate to the canyon head. Easy. Turns out the most likely people to pick up hitchhikers these days (even those clearly not running from the law) are French tourists roaming around Utah with a full-size van they bought when they landed. I think our French friends picked us up from the roadside of the wildwest simply for the stories back home – but we got a ride and were soon gaining elevation and perspective of the massive Zion landscape unfolding below us.

Spry Canyon is mellow to an experienced canyoneer (which we are aspiring to be), but to the armchair adventurer it may sound a little extreme. The entrance to the canyon is guarded by loose and exposed sandstone ledges that empty into a narrow defile chalked with brush. This side canyon pours out into a wide and wild-looking bowl surrounded by towers. All the while the geology has mixed up and swirled all the colors of rock to give the place an otherworldly sense. After traversing the bowl and dodging catci we came to a small stream pouring over the slickrock and ending in a wispy fall of maybe 40 meters (130ft). Just a glimmer of water apparently reached the pool below, the rest was sun dried or blown away. We locate two bolts and some webbing, uncoil our ropes and prepare the rappel. The ropes fall through the water then splash and tangle into a smaller pothole halfway down the falls. I clip into the ropes, check the system, and slide the near-vertical watercourse towards the chilling shadows below. “Now we're canyoneering,” we say.

Honestly, after that first big drop in Spry the rest of the canyon seemed to go by in a blink of the eye. The next morning we were ready for more deep Zion. We got what we were looking for, as spring conditions meant melting snow and deep and cold water in the traderoute canyons of Pine Creek and Starfish. I will pass by the chance here to soapbox about how the National Park reamed us, charging us $10 per canyon, thus $20 for a day of technical permits, while the hoards scramble freely amongst every day hike and viewpoint in the park. But my digression on the state of park management in the 21st century will have to wait for another blog entry. A second ride through the Zion tunnel puts us atop Pine Creek, clearly Zion's most accessible technical canyon.

When you see snow at the top of the drainage your just about ready to swim through its OK to be nervous. Despite our wetsuits and neoprene booties the many long, dark pools in the deepest recesses of central Pine Creek Canyon turned out to be debilitatingly cold. Be reminded though: once you start on your way down and pull that rope down to you while your treading water in an iceberg pool your on your way – no u-turn. While the cool water and cloudy conditions made Pine Creek kinda a freeze fest, we found it hard to get caught up in our own discomfort. Spinning down a free-hanging rope though water-carved red walled sandstone amphitheaters vertically hiking past hanging gardens and natural arches it's easy to say to yourself, “I'll be in the sun soon, even though I can't feel my hands, this is beyond fun and way too beautiful to worry.”

Photos: 1)Michelle gets us a ride through the tunnel 2)climbing from Upper Pine Creek to find Spry Canyon 3) Egypt 3 mile-long slot 4)special thanks to our 5.10 canyoneering shoes 5)the final rappel into the wild sandstone alcove of Pine Creek