A Snowy Echo Canyon, Zion National Park, Winter Canyoneering
Guest Rave by Steve Ramras; all the good pictures by Ramsel Adams.
It doesn't happen every year. Usually about every 4 or 5 years. When it does, I can't resist. It happened to us the first time, in the early 90's. We descended Middle Echo, one May day, finished the short raps and came smack into a walls of ice. For the next 2 hours, we dangerously weaved our way through the snow and ice. One stretch we crawled in a 2.5 foot high tunnel, half filled with flowing ice water, for 40 yards. That same day we cut steps in an ice wall with the only thing we had that was hard enough to do the job, the edge of our helmets, cracking mine in the process. It was a 95 degree day, out in the sun, but in the slot? The ice turned to vapor (sublimation) and we were in a hazy cloud. Huge blocks of ice hung overhead. Blocks that would crash down soon. When? Spin the wheel. Pays your money, you takes your chances.. After getting out that day, we sat on a ledge, in the high heat and sun, in our wet suits, getting our core temp back up, smiles a mile wide. Our response to the experience was to... Go back there 4 days later, of course. A huge block had collapsed in the time between descents. In this way we learned that something special could be found in that canyon, at certain times.
Cable Mountain towers above Middle Echo. It has just enough angle, that snow lands and accumulates for a bit, but it is too steep to hold the snow for long. So it slides down the wall and into the canyon in a series of mini avalanches. In this way, the canyon fills with snow, with every storm. It is unusual for there to be snow in May. It takes a huge snow year for that to happen, but an above average snow year will provide wonders to those who dare, in February and March. The thing about it, is almost every week the conditions and the route through can and does change. Snow has accumulated up to 85 feet high, then melts out, isolating slopes and forcing one to weave through tunnels and passage ways inside the snow masses. You often don't know you are so far up...until you see ....gulp....a hole. Other places, gaps in the moats form and the unwary could plummet dozens of feet, deep down into the unseen and black abyss. Then the blocks over head can collapse at any time. Huge icicles form overhead too, turning the canyon bottom to brown and blue ice fields with their icy drips. These areas are passed one at a time and without dallying. Also, down canyon snowfields tend to melt out along the canyon walls, in ways that the unsuspecting could break through to their demise.
Now that I have made the case for how totally insane and potentially reckless this is....It is also, off the charts, surreal in its beauty and diversity. All life has objective dangers. There is just a little more of it here, during those special spring seasons. With all of this in mind, four of us headed up and in for a peek. Very wise are those that go from the bottom up, for more hazards are visually observable going that way. And one can just turn around if it becomes more dangerous than one wishes to experience. One also can't get trapped between the raps and the bottom, where the snow is most often found. The objective? Get to the bottom of the lowest rap, then get back out in one piece. Bring ice axes, thermal protection and your alpine judgment.
A group of 2 had gone down the canyon, found the snow and without choice, made it down thru. We came a few days later. We found the conditions to be safer than average compared to my half dozen trips through, in the last quarter century. We did not have to "tunnel" at all, staying up on top. Melting along snowfield edges has not really started yet. What we did note, was the moats are forming, soon to isolate the upper snow fields from access and force tunneling. These holes we observed were frightful to peer into. It has been a week since we were there and I am sure a more sinewy route, with snow above head, is likely to be required now. Watch for that huge dripping icicle too!
We encountered something different than I had seen before. There were places, with sand ripples on the canyon floor. WAIT! That was NOT the canyon floor, but solid and human supporting ice. Coulda swore I was on the ground. Small floods had moved sand across solid ice. We would drop off these false bottoms into swims. Tom was likely sick of hearing me talk of this experience, over the years. Same with Guy. Both signed up. Tom led most of the way, with a wicked little smile in the corner of his mouth. Guy stayed back spotting and generally helping us over the moats before dealing these dangerous spots as "last person at risk." Kat said no initially but got a meeting changed so she could join us. I think she was pleased with her choice. A great time! Once the 6 hour round trip was over, I hit the road for home...The next big snow year? Yeah, I will be back. The stories I could tell of past snowy trips in there!!