Zion Overnight Backcountry Adventure: Right Fork of North Creek Canyon
A guest Rave by Mark Duttweiler
Zion National Park, Right Fork of North Creek, Hammerhead Entry, Direct Variation
June 2-4, 2012
CANYONEERS: Kirk Belles, Tina Fiori, Steve Irvin, Patti Jones, Mark Duttweiler
We're in it now...
The route thus far has surrendered so much to us so freely. The warm glow of the morning light across the gentle floral sweeps of the West Rim. A pleasantly brush-free route to a dramatic drop-in at the Hammerhead Entry. Fluttering butterflies. And the nocturnal acoustic stylings of frogs clinging to life amid potholes stubbornly resisting solar extinguishment from an open slickrock streambed.
But now the canyon is giving us more than we'd expected. Having (mistakenly, I fear) spent several hours thrashing around in easily-bypassed potholes further upstream, noon has come and gone, it has become clear that we're just now really getting started with the Direct variation.
Tina, despite several stout (but comparatively open and dry) Death Valley canyons on her resume, is spooked by the cold, dark, and committing nature of the Direct. Though blessed with incredible toughness and always outwardly cheerful, Patti's inner thoughts can only be surmised. This is her first canyon. "I think you may have chosen the wrong group for this trip," Steve had conceded (admonished?) one day earlier, as our progress through the Hammerhead proved unexpectedly sluggish. Still, it's the first-time Zion visitors that surge ahead down canyon.
Tina and Patti lead into a pothole that extends out of view. Thrashing sounds and bewildered voices skim back to the upstream shore. I follow in, and get a brief look at the downstream lip of the pothole -- it's indeed steep and smooth. Already cold, with our packs still on, it's clear we're not escaping this go round. Time to cut our losses and retreat. Dry and warming on the upstream shore, we discuss our options. Kirk has BD Talons, and we conclude they are worth a try. But a cold few minutes in the pool provide no joy.
The first tentacles of panic begin to feel their way in. In assembling the group, I'd assumed that the exemplary fitness and mental toughness of those less seasoned, combined with Kirk's solid experience and stellar ropework, would carry us through. "Like the Subway, only longer and with a few more rappels." "Casual pothole problems." Or so I'd read. But perhaps I've miscalculated. Having given so much, perhaps the canyon seeks something in return.
During my initial foray into the pool I'd checked the depth and failed to touch bottom. Perhaps (the much taller) Kirk can find firm ground below the waters? With a bit of prodding, Kirk plumbs the pool, and surfaces in the affirmative. Still relatively dry and warm, Steve volunteers to play "Tossed-Dwarf" to Kirk's "Giant". An initial attempt at a submerged shoulder stand fails, but Steve believes it's worth one more go. They're practiced now, and perhaps pushing off at just the right angle will get Steve the surge he needs to attain secure ground on the downstream lip. A deep breath; a careful, steady push... and Steve sticks. We are through!
The release we share provides a brief rejuvenation. I swim across with a rope, toss Steve a coil or two of slack, and he counterweights to provide me a hand line out. Up I go... only... Am I even weighting the rope? Overcome by curiosity, it's back into the pool, and yes, the downstream lip is indeed climbable using not immediately obvious holds. So perhaps we've made this harder than it needed to be. But the resulting chill and fatigue are very much real, as is the palpable relief that accompany the easing, sporadically sunnier windings of the narrows ahead.
We are much delayed, so there is little time for rest. We cruise past fiery sandstone walls soaring over cottonwoods with interior illumination that verges on iridescence. An abrupt right turn at an intersection of fault lines, and into the Black Pool we plunge. Efficient route finding through rugged terrain recovers lost time, and we find ourselves in camp at the Grand Alcove with light to spare.
Gobsmacked... The grandeur overwhelms, and the beauty soothes the lingering tensions and fatigue. A waxing gibbous moon rises clear of the southern rim to flood the Alcove with silvery light, and shadows creep the sculptured walls. The canyon continues to give. In the deep of the night, we are all awake -- it would be unforgivable to miss this display -- tied by the fortune of sharing this place and this time together.
"A remarkable journey," proclaim the dropped capitals atop Tom Jones' route description. This seems apt. I think of the geological and emotional terrain we've covered. Delicate flora, resilient fauna; long overhanging raps, (moderate) escape challenges, dark and cold pools; luminous narrows, and austere sandstone architecture. It's all found somewhere here in the Right Fork. Frustration, fear, and fatigue. Relief, release, and rejuvenation. Friendship. You can find those here too.