"Their Own Introduction?" the curious reader asks. Heaps and Imlay are unlike other canyons in Zion, and deserve their own introduction. Deeply incised into the stone, Heaps and Imlay have a character both sublime and perilous. Sublime because the dark hallways, carved stone and subterranean pools offer an experience only hinted at in other canyons; perilous because what accompanies these beauties are continual exposure to water, difficult pothole exits and a degree of strenuousity one giant leap greater than other Zion canyons.
So what's the big deal?
There are several factors that make these a big deal:
Extreme Condition Dependency. When the potholes are full, Imlay and Heaps are a romp - a cold, strenuous romp, but a romp nonetheless. The technical difficulty in these canyons is the long chain of continuous potholes. When full, rappel into the pothole, swim to the other side, and exit with ease. As the water level works its way down, the pothole exits become more and more difficult, and the number of difficult exits becomes significant. So if your buddy says these canyons are "way over-rated, not hard at all," ask her how many potholes she had to hook out of.
Leadership Counts. Do not underestimate the difference between leading and following in these canyons. If you were "taken down" one of these canyons, don't think it is easy to be lead planner and risk manager.
Big, deep potholes with water in them. Imagine yourself swimming in a pothole. You swim to the other side. The lip is 6 feet above water level, the sandstone smooth, polished and slightly overhanging. Can you get out? There are 4 or 5 potholes in both canyons that CAN be in this condition. Be prepared to deal with them... because you might have to.
Hours and hours in the freezing cold water. The "extreme" sections of both Imlay and Heaps take anywhere from two to eight hours for a party to traverse. Much of this time is spent in pools, swimming and wading, and walking between pools. This alone requires a great deal of energy, and will wear you down.
Excess Baggage Charges. Getting your body through these puppies is hard enough; schlepping your stuff through is even worse. Unfortunately, their length encourages people to do them as overnights. Of course, with camping gear, the canyons take even longer...
So how do you prepare for these canyons, and stack the odds in your favor?
Bring a strong team. By which, I suggest:
• Conditioned Athletes Only! People who are not fit enough become a big liability in these canyons.
• Everybody Climbs! There are climbing sections that are difficult to belay in both canyons. Everybody must be able to climb.
• The Right Size: Three to five is the best group size. Less than three restricts partner climbing and pothole exits options, more than five definitely slows the group down. The small ledge on the last rappel of Heaps fits no more than 4 people.
• Variety is the Spice of Life: Physical variety is of great benefit in partner climbing and pothole exits. It helps to have one small, lightweight expert climber, and one big strong guy that can boost the petite gymnast when needed.
Know what you are doing. Here's some specific skills to consider:
• ALL members of your party should be capable of rappelling quickly. With 20 or 40 rappels each, folks uncomfortable or unreliable with rappelling are major liabilities.
• For Heaps, ALL members of the party should be ready for a 300-foot (90-meter) single-line free rappel on a skinny cord. One canyoneer recently broke his back on that rappel. Why? Because he had not rappelled single strand before, had inadequate skills and equipment, and lost control of his rappel.
• Escaping Potholes: Do you know how to escape? Techniques used include Pack Tosses, partner climbing techniques, and, as a last resort, hand-drilling small holes and bat-hooking out. You should have ALL of these tools and techniques available to your team, AND some practice in deploying them, so you can choose the best tool at each point.
• Managing Cold Water Exposure: These two "big boys" have extended cold water exposure unlike other canyons in Zion. Experience in these conditions and how to deal with difficulties in these conditions is critical to a safe trip through Heaps and Imlay.
• Experience! Unfortunately, there are few Zion canyons that have these kinds of obstacles. I recommend doing Kolob and Das Boot in preparation, as well as The Squeeze and Quandary Direct (in the San Rafael Swell) before considering yourself ready for Imlay. Try taking your team with 30-lb packs through Pine Creek in wet conditions, in less than 45 minutes (for the technical section). Now you're getting there.
And did I say BRING LESS STUFF? Moving the baggage around can be half the effort; don't bring stuff you don't need. Here are some things you probably SHOULD bring:
Hooking Kit: Hammer, 3/8" drill, drill holder, 2 Black Diamond Talons, and etriers or a bunch of slings (10) to tie into Aiders to hang on these things.
More on Escaping Potholes: Drilling and Hooking should only be done as a last resort. Spend at least an hour trying pack tosses, partner assists, floating assists from rafts, etc, before reaching for the hardware. If drilling, minimize your impact by using already drilled holes as much as possible. A geologic hammer ("Geo-Pick") is not considered a valid technique, as it is crude and overly destructive.
Family Band Radios: Are extremely helpful on the final rappels in Heaps.
Imlay Sneak Route: The longest rappel is 120 feet (36.6 m).
Full Imlay: From Potato Hollow, longest rappel is 165 feet (50 m).
Most of the rappels are quite short. In the lower part of the canyon, after the Sneak Route comes in, only the last rappel is longer than 60 feet - except the two-stage rappel that leads into the bivy alcove, likely the first rappel many will do in the canyon (and which many other people avoid altogether). Thus, I find two 120-foot ropes to be the best rope combo for the canyon, maybe 3 if your party is 5 or 6 people. In a canyon like this, ropebags are almost essential.
Heaps: The longest rappel is the last one, almost 300 feet or 90 meters. If you carry a 300-foot (90m) rope through the canyon, seal it carefully in a drybag after the long rappel getting off the ridge. The second longest rap is the one off the ridge, approximately 210 feet (64 meters). The third longest rappel is the second to last rappel, about 145 feet down to the bird perch. The fourth longest rap is the first rap starting the ridge in phantom valley, which is about 70 feet. The first rap after suiting up is 60 feet - all other rappels are shorter. Thus, I like having two 120-foot ropes in the canyon for "working ropes", plus the 300'er. With more than 3 people, I might bump one or both of those ropes up to 150'ers so we could get stuff moving off the bird perch faster. Or drybag a 150'er just for that purpose.
The second-to-last rappel often surprises people. It is steeper than it looks. You will want to hang your pack for this one, and set up your rappel with plenty of friction. Of course, if I have to tell you this ...
The final rappel can be handled a variety of ways. Carrying a 300-foot rope through the canyon just for this rappel is popular. With two shorter ropes, a lower-and-rappel can be rigged, and a 300-foot rope stashed in the talus below sent up. Careful rigging of the final rappel is highly recommended. It is a free rappel for all but the first ten feet (3 m).
Comment #1: If you stash a rope below the final rappel, hide it from view. That three-leafed plant among the rocks is poison ivy – don't touch. I like to stack the rope into a pack, so it is ready to go. Attach a sign to the pack that says (something like): "Please leave this rope here. We left it on July 21. If you take it, we will DIE."
Comment #2: Don't wear your pack on the last two rappels. Hang it by a sling from your harness.
And now, to the Canyons!
Gunsight Approach (from The Grotto)