When you think of canyoneering in Utah, a few things probably come to mind. Aron Ralston’s arm, or rather, his lack of arm. The other, much more beautiful Wall Street. Getting sand in your shorts, and having some with lunch. That one iconic photo of the Narrows – you know – the one you’ve always planned on taking yourself someday. When I visited Zion National Park this past spring, I had all of these things in mind. But that’s the thing about expectations. They’re usually a bad idea.
When we arrived beneath the red cliffs of Zion on the first day, an unexpected windstorm was kicking up sand a mile high. Brushing off the unusual weather, we decided to get acclimated. Our group was made up of four reasonably fit Colorado explorers, so we kicked things off with a quick hike on the sometimes treacherous and always beautiful Angels Landing.
The steep, 2.4-mile trek did us good. It had been a long winter in the Rocky Mountains, and we were more than ready for some well-deserved desert sun. While we knew there was something exciting brewing at the tail end of all that wind, we weren’t concerned. Our ever-entertaining guide from A to Zion added to the general ambiance. A self-proclaimed super-Mormon, he hiked all twenty-one of Walter’s Wiggles in Aqua Socks at a speed that made us mile-highers look weak. A heel striker, he was not. Our valiant leader was younger than half our group with more kids than we made up together, and his glowing persona only added to the surreal quality of the park. Where were we, some wonderful, undiscovered planet? Who even named Zion? Bob Marley, right? Such were the discussions of our group as we tromped back to town.
Wind be damned. It was just Utah, after all.
Wrong. That night, the town of Springdale lost power in an electrical storm that put the mountains back home to shame. Just as we were finishing up our 3.2 beers, every establishment and home in the entire city went dark. We returned to the Cable Mountain Lodge with quite nothing to do as hail pounded the surrounding rocks, using lightning as our only guide to navigate our cabin-sized suites. Maybe it was just bad timing, but it was most likely God forcing us to unplug from our iPhones and soak in the unnatural scenery of the park right outside our windows, illuminated in stunning flashes of white. I complied. The next morning, we were scheduled to go canyoneering. None of us had ever been, and we were all still thinking this was just a typical thunderstorm that would roll on through.
Wrong again. The next morning, we awoke to snow. In late May. In Zion National Park. Only partially dissuaded by the abnormal circumstances, we packed into the Deep Creek coffee shop for some whiskey-infused black fuel and piled into the already soggy Zion Adventure Company SUV. Plates, “CANYONR”. We rolled higher into the tundra to our destination, Lambs Knoll in Kolob Canyon, and inadvertently into colder weather and bigger snowflakes. By this point, the temperature gauge on the SUV was hovering around 34 degrees. I found myself staring at my hands, wondering absentmindedly if the fleece gloves provided by our trusty guides would do much, if anything, to protect me from the elements. We definitely didn’t need the sunblock we’d packed. SPF 50, anyone? I hear it’s waterproof.
Luckily a fan of all things cowboy, B.J. the guide distracted me for a solid twenty minutes with a fun fact. We were standing in one of the filming locations for the 1969 classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He asked me if I recognized the field and surrounding cliffs where one of the opening scenes had been shot, and I squinted into the falling snow. Sure, I said. I could practically see Newman and Redford riding towards me through the flakes. “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”, ironically sung by another B.J., was officially stuck in my head.
Developed by a handful of desert dirtbags in the 90’s, canyoneering is a way to explore the landscape in an inherently playful way. The sport is a mixture of scrambling and rappelling down crevasses and cliffs previously thought impassable. It requires gear, general outdoor smarts, and most typically, a guide. There is often deep water requiring wetsuits and guaranteeing extra fun. Routes are most plentiful along the Colorado Plateau, and have been documented in detail since the beginning of the Internet on Canyoneering USA’s website. Founder of the site, Tom Jones, explains the activity to a tee.
We use ropes, often. Our hands and feet, quite a bit. Our shoulders, elbows, hips, thighs, calves, backsides – also quite a bit. Our cleverness, our wit, our fortitude, our sense of humor, our pluck, our desperation, our relationships with one-another, our spirit of adventure – all these at times, we use, on these adventures of the spirit.
Tom was on to something, but I wasn’t aware of it just yet. As it turned out, the fleece gloves lasted about ten seconds into the first rappel. After a short hike to our first drop-off, we stood in a huddle watching the other equally adept guide, Laura, explained the ins and outs of rope management. Always clip in before you gaze over any kind of drop off. Sling the rope around the Petzl Pirana belay device just like this if you weigh so many pounds. Back up your rope with this incredibly technical knot I’m only going to show you once. Snow was building on our high-end waterproof jackets, and the rope we would momentarily use to rappel was literally resting in a creek running at our feet. We were desperately trying to pay polite attention while ignoring the fact that things were about to get a lot worse. Without further ado, Laura punted the remaining rope bag over the side of the ledge with a hearty kick and disappeared out of sight. The whole scene had admirable dramatic flair, a little like something out of a Cohen Brothers film. Dark but funny, if only looking back on it later.
Everyone was unusually quiet as we descended one by one into the abyss. It probably had something to do with the fact that the ice-cold water had started to soak into our boots, and the rope we held onto with our lives was literally funneling a channel of the same water straight up our waterproof sleeves. No amount of Gore-Tex was going to help us now. And the fleece gloves? Those were nearly disintegrating before our very eyes as they slid down the length of soaked rope. They would’ve probably been more helpful if they did disintegrate. My long-stagnant wilderness first aid training was starting to stir in the back of my mind, telling me that maybe it wasn’t so smart to get stuck in a canyon with wet-everything in a whiteout. But our guides, ever the young professionals, acted like this was just another walk in the park. We resisted the growing urge to gripe and followed their lead.
The second rappel was more fun than the first. Laura and B.J. intentionally hadn’t told us how deep the drop would be, and as I took my first few steps it became evident it was much, much higher than the previous one. Hoping B.J. was somewhere at the bottom delivering a dutiful fireman’s belay, I switched my attention to the elements. Streaked gold, red, and bronze patterns were painted dramatically the walls of the canyon. A glance over my shoulder provided views of snow-capped pines on the other side of the sandstone, seemingly close enough to brush my fingertips over. Was that Sundance in the distance? I was cold, but not cold enough to ignore the fact that the swirling white flakes were an unusual and uniquely gorgeous thing to experience in Kolob Canyon. You couldn’t pay a guide enough to re-create these kinds of conditions. They just happened to the lucky, or the unlucky, depending on your attitude. Plus, my boots were holding up to the abuse just fine.
Whenever situations become unbearably uncomfortable, hilarity ensues. I guess that’s the comedic part of a black comedy. The next obstacle to tackle set the stage for a much needed dose of laughter. In order to escape the elements and get back to the parked car, we’d need to wedge our bodies through a shoulder-width, tiny slot canyon roughly twenty feet in length. Brushing aside thoughts of claustrophobia (and Ralston’s aforementioned lost appendage), I snaked my way into the slot with another barely 100-lb explorer. Like people who have never touched nature in our lives, we idiotically pushed ourselves front-ways through the gap. We were quickly elevated off the sandy floor as our shoulders jammed us higher than ground level up the wall. Laugher and shrieks echoed through the canyon. We were ruining the moment, but we didn’t care. Swinging our legs helplessly above the sand, we were finally experiencing what canyoneering is supposed to be all about – exploring a completely new terrain, and feeling like a kid in the process.
Once passed that crux, I started to notice an obvious snot-like substance running along the rock. It was much too near my face. I couldn’t avoid but drag my arm through it, and I immediately let my partner know that I was disgusted that she found it acceptable to blow snot rockets at a time like this. Really, everything was already wet and sandy, and to add snot that to the mix was just too much to bear. Offended at my accusation and with a bit of a stink eye, she suddenly wrinkled her nose.
We both smelled what had happened at the same time. Banana. Her overly ripe fruit snack was being smooshed through the mesh of her backpack side pocket into a snot-colored goop all over the canyon wall. There was no way to avoid the chunky cream but to go right through – as is the moral of all dark comedies – and I smeared through it in a fit of laughter. We made it out, more than ready to head back to the lodge to thaw our frozen fingers in a snowy hot tub and find the ever-elusive full strength beer.
Behind us, our oblivious guides were also laughing. “Hey, it smells like bananas in here!”
DO IT YOURSELF: If canyoneering or sport climbing where Paul Newman and Robert Redford got into a knife fight sounds like a good time, snow or sun, you’ll want to visit Lambs Knoll in Kolob Canyon. To reach the trailhead and crag, drive through Virgin and north on Kolob Terrace Road for ten miles. You’ll cross a cattle guard and exit Zion National Park itself, and then take a left. Leave your vehicle at the roundabout and walk down the sandy trail towards the sandstone walls that awaits.
PRO TIP: It is always best to explore with a guide, and I recommend Zion Adventure Company out of Springdale for everything from burger recommendations to outfitting the perfect adventure for any skill level or activity. Just don’t borrow their fleece gloves.