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December 7, 2009

“Yeah…the thing about an up is there’s always a down after…”

– Len, cowboy at Zion Mountain Ranch

In October, Jenn and I took another spectacular trip to the desert southwest.  After visiting southwestern Colorado and Utah over three years ago now, we were itching to get back down there to soak up the unique scenery and, of course, enjoy more of the spectacular climbing.  This time we aimed further south, setting our sites on the excellent rock climbing at Red Rocks, NV with a short trip to check out Zion and get the lay of the land figured out for a future trip.

After this trip, I expected to post a blog about the climbing at Red Rocks – yes, it really is as good as they say and you should believe the hype – but instead we discovered something new (for us) and I think it’s more interesting for now.

After a spectacular week’s cragging which included a bit of moderate multi-pitching, we decided to head to Zion for some easy hiking and a rest.  During a quick stop at REI on the way out of Las Vegas for some last-minute supplies, the cashier got VERY excited upon discovering where we were headed and told us we HAD to try canyoneering:  “You’ll love it, and you already have all your climbing gear, so you should get some beta and a permit and go to it!”.  At the time, we were fairly set on doing some easy hiking and scoping out a few climbing objectives for our next trip, so we brushed the advice aside as a “well, maybe one day” activity.  After all, what could be so exciting about slogging and rappelling down a canyon?

Well, it turns out there’s a lot more to it than that, and it’s actually really good fun. Upon arriving in Springdale, we were struck by the number of outdoor shops advertising canyoneering adventures, figured there must be something to this activity, and our interest piqued a bit.  In the park visitor centre, we found a copy of the local canyoneering guidebook, which I began reading cover-to-cover in the bookstore to figure out what the activity entailed.  It turns out Zion is a mecca for canyoneers – lucky us!

We hurriedly purchased the book and obtained canyoneering permits, and the all-important flash-flood forecast for the area’s headwaters – this is one of the sport’s big objective hazards, and the whole park and visitor centre is posted with various warnings and scary photos showing massive waves of water, mud, logs, rocks and other debris slamming down narrow canyons – it’s unlikely one would survive if caught by one of these.  A quick stop to the local outfitters had us set up with some new toys and the necessary rental gear:  dry suits with protective coveralls, neoprene socks and funky canyoneering shoes resembling a cross between a climbing approach shoe and a diving slipper.  To that we added our old rappel/tag line, helmets, harnesses, a dry bag liner for the day pack, some rap gear and basic slings, self-rescue gear and of course some food and headlamps.  With the forecasts looking reasonably safe, we barely slept the night before, a mixture of excitement and trepidation about a new endeavour looming over us.

Gearing up at the top of Pine Creek Canyon

Early the next morning, we descended under the bridge near the top of Pine Creek Canyon, one of the area’s classic canyons and recommended as a must-do in the guidebook for climbers new to the sport.  We suited up, still excited but also wondering a lot about what to expect, and constantly thinking about those flash-flood pictures we saw in the visitor centre.  Before we knew it, it was time to get going.

I made it all of five feet before I began hesitating.  The canyon begins with a pool of very cold water (about 4C) that is difficult to get into.  Right off the bat, I slipped and found myself swimming, hard to do with all the gear we had on but the pack fortunately provided some flotation.  It was my first time in a drysuit and the sensation was definitely weird, swimming yet totally dry.  Two more steps over some rocks and we realized we were committed as we rigged the first rappel.

The rest of the canyon was a mixture of awkward downclimbing, “skooching” on our butts down sandstone water slides, spectacular rappels and the obligatory swims in the deeper pools.  The sensation of rappelling into water was a very odd one.  We were also very fortunate to see a rare spotted owl mid-canyon – a trip highlight to be sure.

The whole morning was spectacular, we got to see some spectacular natural features and apply our climbing and navigation skills in a totally alien environment, and we had bags of fun along the way.  In that regard, it was a lot like ice climbing – getting into some spectacular settings and positions that most folks just don’t get to see and experience.  Perhaps the best part though was that we had the entire canyon to ourselves, not encountering anyone until the end of the canyon when two more folks caught up to us.  I’m told this is unusual for this particular canyon, so we’re psyched to have been so lucky.

After that, the day just got better.  Exiting the canyon lower down, we needed to hitch-hike back to our car.  Incredibly, the folks that stopped to pick us up were two highly experienced Colorado canyoneers headed to the same canyon, Keyhole, that we had planned to do for the afternoon!  We immediately hit it off with Ira and Alicia, and they invited us to do the canyon with them.  Though shorter, this canyon was much narrower, and we had more fun than I can remember having in ages sharing the experience with them – I can remember laughing A LOT.

We also had the added benefit of learning a pile of new techniques and tricks that we would never have learned in dozens of canyons on our own – both Ira and Alicia have over a hundred canyons between them all over the world, and they saw to it that we learned a lot and got hooked on the sport.

So now, we have even more great reasons to head back to Zion, and this time we will definitely be properly equipped.  I think a regular wetsuit will be more suitable – less restrictive – and should make the whole experience a bit more fun.  Some dedicated gear like a more burly pack, a static canyon rope and old biners would also be a good idea.  We destroyed a rope, and the 5 rappels we did in Pine Creek, not totaling more than 100 metres, destroyed our rapping gear – the wet, sandy ropes ate more than half way through a new Attache biner and left our ATC Guide devices ready for retirement.

If you wanna see more about what this unique sport is all about, check out Ira’s awesome films at

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 29, 2009 23:42

    Pine Creek ate my gear too! 2 attaches, an 8, reverso and tag line all shredded. Good time though, the triple arch is a sight to behold.

    Have fun!

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