Since moving to Utah four years ago I've dabbled in just about every outdoor activity I've had time for -- skiing, climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, etc. One of the few things I hadn't tried was technical canyoneering. I'd hiked a few slot canyons, but not the kind that requires rappels and swimming.
This void in my outdoor sports repertoire was mostly just an oversight, but I had a few reservations. Flash flood potential is kind of scary, but mostly I just hate being cold and wet. I don't own a wet suit, and while I could rent one, I figured anything that requires wading through ice-cold water for, possibly, hours at a time was going to be a suffer-fest no matter how you prepared for it.
Still, I really wanted to give it a shot so when my girlfriend, Paige, suggested we go down to Zion National Park last month I was game. She's done a fair bit of canyoneering and had a new 80-meter static canyoneering rope so we wouldn't have to thrash my nice, soft climbing rope.
Our plan for the weekend began to unravel before we even left, as we both got delayed at work. We planned to camp up at Kolob Reservoir, as the temperatures would be way more appealing than down low in the valley. That fell apart when we encountered a series of closed gates and very serious-looking private property signs, so we had to turn back and find somewhere to camp on the side of the road. It was nearly midnight by then, so we abandoned our plans for a lengthy canyon that required a very long approach the next day. This turn of events was fortuitous in at least one way, however, in that I got one of my favorite photos from the weekend at the camp spot.
Following our revised plan, we drove to the park the next morning, got a backcountry permit to do the much-shorter Pine Creek Canyon on Sunday. Shortly before noon, despite the temperature cresting 100 degrees, we set out on a hike we'd picked out of the guide book.
While I absolutely love Zion's topography, I loathe the Disney-esque crowds the park attracts. The hike we picked for Saturday, the East Temple Loop, starts out on one of the shortest, most popular hikes in the park -- the Zion Overlook. That mile-long hike is easy for non-outdoorsy folks and people toting babies and it drops you off at an incredible viewpoint. This combination generally spells disaster for those seeking solitude.
If you hike to the overlook and turn north, however, you are forced up a steep section of terraced slick rock without any official trail except a few cairns. After leaving the overlook, we didn't see a single person for three hours.
After battling through the searing heat, we dropped over a saddle and into a beautiful, sweeping basin of rippling slick rock. A group of five bighorn sheep and countless lizards and birds were our only companions.
At the bottom of that basin you traverse around the precipitous drop off of Shelf Canyon, then drop into Upper Pine Creek, which spit us out exactly where we'd parked our car. The next morning we'd return to almost the same spot, and descend into Lower Pine Creek on the other side of the road.
Pine Creek Canyon is a great, relatively short technical slot canyon for a beginner. On the advice of the ranger at the backcountry desk, we did rent wet suits as full swims were in order. We got an early start and had two small, very fast groups come up behind us, so we let them pass. The rest of the time in the canyon we didn't see a single person.
All of the rappel stations had solid anchors and were pretty straight-forward. At least one will drop you into a deep pool, so trying to swim backward while feeding rope through my rappel device was a new and awkward experience. I've done plenty of climbing and the associated rappels down from the top of routes, but I definitely need to learn some better rope management for situations like that.
Walking through the shady canyon, we moved slowly so we could soak in the surreal shapes and textures of the canyon walls. I'll just let the pictures speak to themselves, but there is really something magical about being inside an ancient and ever-changing crack in the earth.
Most of the canyon bottom was rock or sand, broken up by the occasional short pools and rappels. One of the highlights was having to swim through a dark section of canyon so skinny I was doing more of a dog paddle than a breast stroke.
After a couple of hours, we did the final, 100-foot free-hanging rappel, after which the canyon widens into a lush, boulder-filled river bed. We stripped off our wet suits hopped between boulders as we continued along with the flowing water. Finally we made a short ascend back onto the road and hitchhiked back to our car. A brief stop to return our wet suits and grab cold drinks and we were back on the road, bound to be back in Salt Lake before sundown.
Though we encountered a few hiccups at the beginning, the weekend was a big success. I got my first taste for technical canyoneering and I can't wait for more. Being able to travel through such a bizarre and challenging landscape is a really special thing. I'm excited to try some longer, more technical canyons this fall.
A side note to this trip is how crucial it is to have an adventure partner who can roll with the punches. I've adventured with people before who do not adapt well when the primary plan starts to unravel, and that's no fun. Plan B usually ends up being amazing in its own right, and this was surely an example of that. Plus, Zion is only a few hours away. There's always the next weekend.