A Zion Backcountry Canyon Adventure Overnight
Friends from ZAC, Robby and Hayley, had descended a way-backcountry newly found canyon near Zion, and said it was really cool. Most Zion-area canyons are rather rappel oriented, but this one was down-climb oriented, saving its two rappels for the end. Being way-backcountry, the adventure insisted on being an overnight. Cassy Brown had a 2-week gap between working the floor at ZAC and her winter gig working the desk at a local hotel. The weather was holding. Sure, daylight hours were scarce, but that’s why the gods made headlamps and alarm clocks. Adventure planned.
We bivied in the cars on a nearby side road, and it was a warm night. Nine o’clock bedtime meant the 5:15 wakeup call was just fine. We ate a quick brekky and headed to the exit “trailhead” to spot a car.
Our friends had picked a direct route that included summiting a peak and crossing some rugged terrain. They are younger, stronger, and faster than I, and they did it in summer which meant carrying less bivy gear but more water. I mapped out a kinder, gentler though perhaps longer 9 mile approach to the canyon, using a ridge another friend had descended in the area, an obscure ‘secret passage’ past a cliffband I had found 10 years prior, and some ‘sidewalks’ to sneak past a peak that looked passable on Google Earth. Nine miles to the START of the canyon. The map showed 2500 feet of descent and 1900 feet of climbing across that nine miles. The canyon itself was short – should work out… hey, it’s not an adventure if you know what’s going to happen!
6:20 AM. Picked up the packs, headed up the trail. We packed light – no wet suits required, one 200’ x 8mm rope, one 200’ super pull cord, minimal webbing, light bivy gear considering it was December. Reasonable packs felt good. An hour on the trail and we cut left to climb to the crest of a ridge. Descending the ridge to the valley below looked unlikely, but friend #2s beta proved true and the ridge was scenic and straightforward, with a few short 4th class sections. Unknown #1 completed.
Next task was to find the “secret passage”. We did some farting around in this section, trying to find the best route in steep terrain. My memory of the location of the secret passage was what you would expect after ten years – approximate. Eventually I recognized the spot, and we scurried up some steep slickrock to the bench above. Unknown #2 completed, and on schedule to boot. We summitted a slickrock pass, had a bite to eat and… well well well. I guess it could not all be easy peasy!
Ahead stretched one of those Zion monsters – a plateau of tight, waist deep Manzanita! I faded to the right and it just got worse; Cassy faded left and found clear passage on the edge. We worked the edge relieved to escape the monster’s grasp. Climbing slightly we crested a shallow pass. Ahead was the slickrock peak we really wanted to pass on the shoulder. If we were unable to cross the steep slickrock to the pass, the route around would add at least another hour and a half to the day, as the slickrock came into view, we could see the sidewalks, but they did not look like much. Can’t really tell from there…
We made our way closer, and it became apparent the sidewalks were not sidewalks, more like horizontal strips of white rock among the predominant darker rock. Uh oh. Without the weakness of the sidewalks, the rock was too steep to climb and traverse, especially as the final bit to easier ground was around a corner out of sight. We hurried along the base of the face, hopeful and apprehensive. As we got close to that corner, the face flattened out a bit and the rock was featured. Looked reasonable going up – how far hard to tell, but looked like easy high enough to sneak around the corner to easier ground. Cassy launched upwards with youthful enthusiasm; I followed at a more modest pace. At the second sidewalk, an actual sidewalk-type ledge led around the corner and… win/win! Easier ground! I said a brief prayer to Fortuna. Unknown #3 in the books.
The weather had been nicely cold and overcast all day. I was in thin pants and tee shirt; Cassy was bundled up. We carried a fair bit of water, and drank very little. It was 2 pm and we had made the top of the canyon, on time, and feeling reasonably fresh. Our water source was at the far end of the canyon, but our lack of water consumption meant we could bivy without it, if we had to. THREE hours of daylight for this short canyon should be plenty. The sun came out, and we relaxed for a bit, enjoying our second lunch highlighted by pumpkin seeds. Then the sun clouded over and the wind picked up. Must be time to go. The rest of the day would be in this deep canyon, sunless. We geared up.
Over to the canyon: I was kind of expecting a rap off a big pine into the canyon, but it started as a narrow slot, and the downclimb in was quite reasonable. Since our friends were proficient at FiddleSticking, we did not expect to find many signs of passage, though they had placed two bolts at the top of the 200’ exit rappel from the canyon. They had reported one 100’ rap and the 200’er at the end. We downclimbed in and worked our way down the narrow canyon, hampered by our big packs. The canyon stayed narrow, then widened, then narrowed and started dropping, in a most peculiar way.
The canyon leaned – the left wall slanted at about 45 degrees with a plentitude of ledges, but with fine dust that made the footing insecure. The right wall overhung about five feet away, at least where I chose to work it, 30 feet above the bottom. Hands on the right wall, feet on the left. Some wider and steeper spots spiced things up. Then a wide spot forced us to the bottom. The bottom 15 feet proved especially slippery, polished by waterflow. We ended up in the crease, downsliding polished rock. A bit spooky, but not bad.
We got a few minutes of walking on the canyon floor, then it started again. We stemmed up. Scurried across. More of the same ish, tighter perhaps… Damn these immature canyons. Dangle pack, pack on one shoulder, dangle pack. An hour and a half of this, then it looked like big air ahead. Perhaps a rappel. I squeezed up and over a narrow spot, then stemmed forward above a 6” wide slot. I could see a rappel was ahead, but it looked like my slot just ended in air. Uh, not looking good… then Cassy found a passage 20 feet below my narrow slot.
“Do I fit down there?”
Funny girl. I scurried back and squeezed below a chockstone, yanking my pack behind me. The next chockstone had a sling tossed around it with a ring. Rap #1. We set up a Fiddle, rapped down, tip toeing around a pool; retrieved the rope and pull. 4:30 – half an hour of real daylight left.
The rappel was a brief respite from the stemming. Back at it. More peculiar angled slot. Not far down the canyon, we come to THE problem. It got narrow.
I squeezed in and tried to pull my pack after me. With help from Cassy, I got the pack through that constriction, but it got narrower ahead, and dropped. We pushed my pack back upcanyon. That’s not going to fit.
I moved forward a couple more feet. Yes, I will fit. Ahead, the canyon dropped down into darkness, narrow enough to likely be “safe”. Ahead of that, I can see sunlit flat sandy floor. Wide, like 2 feet wide. We can get there, but how do we get the packs there?
Technical problems like this, my brain is really good at coming up with solutions. Not necessarily good solutions. First idea – maybe we can stem up over this spot and elevator down past this narrow section. Cassy clambers up, chimneys forward about 20 feet and… and that is as far as a non-suicidal person can go. Hmmm. Second idea – well, they aren’t really coming that fast. I’m tired, this is a lot harder and more physical than I expected, slightly chilly and its getting dark. And there’s still canyon ahead. Unknown canyon. Figure it out Tom. Serenity Now.
Okay. I pull the rope up, toss the end to Cassy. Plan 2 is she will scoot forward with each pack, then lower it on a loop to that sunlit flat sandy floor, then drop one side of the loop and retrieve the rope. Okay? Cassy comes back towards me, pulls my pack up on the rope, chimneys with it back out to the end. Sets up the rope, starts lowering. But of course, the canyon below her is narrower than the pack. She lowers it, it gets stuck. Jerks it around, it gets another couple feet down. Not gonna work. Okay. Pull it up, let out some slack. Throw the pack forward. It sticks. Try again, throw further. Out around the first constriction, then sticks. Shake rattle roll. Jerk jerk jerk, and my pack is through the constriction down into the darkness and… *splash*. Damn! My non-waterproofed pack is now floating in a pool down in the darkness.
Cassy drops one end of the loop and tries to retrieve the rope. Of course, it is stuck. Well, what is there to do… I really want to go get my pack out of the water STAT! We use the other end of the rope to pull Cassy’s pack up to her, and I squeeze into the canyon, steeply down toward the darkness. As before, the rock for the downclimb is sweetly polished, slippery, but laid back at just enough of an angle to keep it under control. I land next to my pack which is indeed floating in a pool. How deep? It looks possible but strenuous to stem over the pool and really, I am just not up for it. I wade in – just over waist deep. I wade the 6 feet to the other end of the pool and push my pack up into the exit slot. I free up the rope, which is elaborately tangled to itself AND the pack, then CLAW my way out of the pool. Cassy is above, wondering whatup!
We set up what amounts to a guided rappel for Cassy’s pack and, with quite a bit of struggle on Cassy’s part because of course it gets jammed in a tight spot, finally get her pack over to me. She goes back, scurries down the tight slot, stems over the pool only getting her feet wet, joins me in the gathering gloom. We are at the exit rappel. We pull the headlamps out, set the rope. Rap down 195 feet or so.
We land on a shelf with a 20’ drop below us. Too far to slide and jump. We rig a sling around a rock, fiddle off that. The canyon is now wide, flatish. Soon, another short drop, another rap. “Daylight downclimb” we declare. More open slickrock. We work our way down. Our canyon drops into a more major canyon. How far of a drop? Further than our headlamp beams allow. After poking around for awhile and not finding possibilities, we decide we really need to bivy. Brain not working. First priority, don’t do anything stupid. Er, stupider. We go back to a flat spot on the slickrock and drop packs. This is where I find out how wet my pack is.
For not drybagged floating in a pool, not bad. I made a brand new silnylon stuff sack for this trip, and my down sleeping bag was pretty much dry. My sleeping clothes, on the other hand, were soaking wet, as were the pants I had on. A bit of food was ruined but most of it was fine. I had 3 shirts on, and the bottom six inches of them were soaking wet. We had a flat spot in the open on the slickrock, but the temp was dropping and the wind was gusting. I was going to be cold. I got out of my wet clothes and hung a few things up to dry, blew up my NeoAir, crawled into my sleeping bag. By good fortune, at a point in the day when I took the rope from Cassy, I had handed her my (thin) puffy jacket to carry. Which was dry, and invaluable. I got in the sleeping bag and started to warm up. We cooked some dinner. At some point, I got up and spread out gear to dry or something, and my NeoAir blew away 30 feet, up-canyon, thankfully. I retrieved it. We lay down to sleep, huddled together, buffeted by the wind. My NeoAir went flat about every hour. I blew it back up. We took turns shivering and dozing off. The night was long.
In the morning, we got up late. The sun did not reach us. A quick breakfast, we packed up, did a couple rappels and the seven mile hike out to the trailhead, arriving a half hour before dark. Quite the adventure!!!
One thing I love about first descents is that you never know what you will get into. From a casual conversation with Robby and Hayley, this is not the canyon I imagined. They didn’t give it away. But they gave us enough. We knew what we needed to know: not easy, bring the A team; bolts in place where necessary; no wetsuits; keep the pack light. Still quite an adventure.
Cassy Brown and Tom Jones, December 2017
Postscript: I don’t consider it responsible to publish the location of this canyon. It is extremely unusual for Zion-area fare. We have enough people “trying” Englestead and Heaps who lack the skills to be in there. If you want to know where it is, ask me.