Best Canyon Ever? – Dan Ransom in Heaps Canyon, May 2012

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I started canyoneering for a very simple reason: to experience beautiful places. Ropes and carabiners and harnesses are kind of fun and all, but really that stuff is just a means to an end. I’m there to see beautiful places. Rapping off sketchy anchors, hiking for days, high ball stemming, free hanging rappels, flowing water – those things don’t really interest me. If they get to me a pretty place, then they are tolerable. Sometimes they are even enjoyable. But in the end, they are just a small part of the composite of a place, and it’s the place I’m after.

When I explain to people what canyoneering is all about, without fail, the question I’m asked the most is “what’s the best canyon, ever?”

Bshwkr swims out from under a natural bridge.My reply is almost always the same. “I dunno. I don’t really have one. Poe is pretty good. Climax is exceptional. Shenanigans is fun. Imlay is crazy good…”

Invariably, the reply is “But what about Heaps?”

“Oh Heaps? I have no idea. Never done it…”

Seriously, I’ve never done Heaps Canyon. Hell, I’ve never even had a huge motivation to get in there. And I can’t really say why that is. There’s a laundry list of reasons involving summers in Alaska, brain tumors, other projects, the fact it’s in Zion, etc… But ultimately it just boils down to this – I’ve never really thought the place looked that beautiful. It’s got countless rappels, lots of swimming, very dark narrows, and a huge exit rappel sequence. Which sounds interesting, but is it really all that pretty?

Kip’s been swearing to me for 5 years it’s one of the best. Technically, physically, aesthetically – it’s got it all, in spades. So when he put a trip together for the weekend of my birthday, told me to fill the permit with a few of my friends, and he’d even take care of the car shuttle, it was pretty tough to turn down.

Rich, Todd and I were just coming off another monster expedition into the Grand Canyon, investing 4 days to descend what turned out to be 400 yards of limestone slot. When we finally got back to civilization, every one of us was looking for an excuse to NOT do Heaps. But here we were, in Fredonia, an hour from Zion, with a permit for Heaps the next day, yet we couldn’t come up with a reason that was any good. So we went to Kanab, got Todd a milkshake, and it was on.

Awesome light in the second narrows. The first two sections are more mellow, and tend to have better light before the deep and dark 3rd narrows.A couple hours of miserable sleep later, we rallied towards Canyon Junction, met Kip and Gaydon at 3:30 am, left a car, and headed towards Lava Point.

I woke up feeling like I’d been run over by a freight train. Fortunately there is this 8 mile approach in the dark that takes a few hours and shakes out most of the cobwebs. A little after sunrise we found ourselves at the head of Phantom Valley, at the top of the first rappel. Looking down toward the knife edge ridge, we could see another group in front of us, and below them, yet another group.

Ah, yes. This is why I don’t come to Zion very often. A full day ahead of us, and 11 other people in the canyon in front of us. Yikes. This has the makings of a looong day.

Right off the bat, the canyon delivered the goods. The upper sections had been flowing as recently as a few days earlier, so we had the thing in tip-top conditions, with beautiful clean water that was ice cold. Immediately we had some beautiful pools, some mild little logjams, and fantastic light. We made it quickly through the first two sections and to the crossroads.

At this point, it was just a romp through some great narrows. We took an hour lunch, fueled up, and began into the final narrows, which Rich and Todd assured me were relentless and much harder than the first two sections. They never end, apparently.

In full conditions like we had it, the canyon remained fairly easy. The biggest obstacle is exposure to frigid temperatures for multiple hours in the final narrows. There is nowhere to get out down there. Logjam and keeper potholes were essentially nonexistent, with the exception of a few easy jams. A few awkward rappels, a few jumps into pools, and lots of swimming. I can only imagine how the game changes in lower water.

But best of all, the place was insanely beautiful. Photos and words can do the place no justice. In the depths of Heaps, there is so little light, it’s almost impossible to photograph the place well. The only solution is a tripod, and I don’t think I’d have the patience or heat generating abilities to make it worth it.

There were a couple of places that were exceptionally good, better than I would’ve ever imagined. First was the green hallway – unbelievable mosses on the wall, with bright orange iron oxide seeps streaking the walls.

The Mean Green Hallway - insanely cool!


And the second is one I’d heard about many times, but wasn’t sure what to expect – the Iron Room. That place is just wild, I can’t think of anything that compares to it. We were fortunate to have just enough light to make some photos in there.
First Iron Room.
Surprisingly, we had little in the way of a crowd in there either. Shaun and his group let us play through early on, while the group in front made quick work of the canyon. We barely caught up to them at the final drop, where we swapped some tales. Very cool guys, and it turns out they were the crew from the Corona Arch swing video. They graciously let us play through. We returned the favor by getting our ropes tangled on the final drop, and had to spend a half hour re-rigging it. Sorry about that. Thanks to Austin and crew for letting us play through, and for your patience having to wait for us after letting us pass.
Coming down the big boy - Rich on rappel. Notice the rope tangles at the bottom of the frame? That is NOT the proper way to manage ropes at this drop.
It’s been a long time since I really poked around in Zion. Rapping 300 feet into the crowds at Emerald Pools quickly refreshed my memory why I avoid the place. The place is a zoo. Yet, you can’t argue that Zion has some of the most photogenic and beautiful canyons anywhere on the plateau. I guess it’s all just part of the package.

As my feet hit the boulders above emerald pool, my first thought was “best canyon ever?”

I don’t know. It’s a silly question. But there is no question – that canyon is darn good.


2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Stevee B.

    So sorry I missed you guys! I’d just finished a trip with Jonathan Z. and thought I’d try for a Heaps permit that Saturday, but heard it was full. Full? Heaps? Guess I should have called Kip.
    The ticket for getting good shots in there, especially the Iron Room, is to catch the morning light. 8am at the first suit-up spot puts you in the Iron Room with some great illumination. I’ll be back in October if you’re interested in getting some more shots ;-). 3am out of Lava Point kinda stings though….

  2. avatar

    Hey Dan, great blog post! We were sitting at the top of the final rap behind yall wondering what was taking so long then after doing the rap sequence myself I completely understood. It got nice and cozy with two people on that bottom bird perch with the 300′ drop below you. Beautiful pictures my friend, way better than our little point and shoot. Still impressed you brought that camera and massive case thru but looking at these it was well worth it. It was fun getting to know you guys up there.

    Cheers!
    Creighton Baird

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