DOWN UNDER

Weekends are made for canyoneering in Zion’s slot canyons.

If it’s Friday, you’ll likely find me printing out maps and—between tasks at work—studying some new topography. Co-workers may drone on about their weekend plans, but by now, they’ve stopped asking about mine. They know my bag is packed and waiting in the car for another smooth escape south from Salt Lake City to the myriad canyons snaking through the Colorado Plateau. From Moab to St. George, there’s more hidden there than you could explore in a thousand weekends.

“Have fun canyoneering,” my friends say to me on my way out the door, “… whatever that is!”

As a sport, canyoneering started to gain traction around the 1970s, particularly in the region that now makes up Zion National Park. Rock climbing had taken off some 20 years prior, but a few intrepid climbers, such as Dennis Turville, applied their technical climbing skills in a downward direction, even though descending may have seemed counterintuitive and even claustrophobic.

Turville and his close circle of canyoneers were credited with making the first descents of now-famous canyons such as Heaps, Keyhole and Pine Creek. However, precious little was shared about those descents, save for a few photos snapped by Turville deep inside the canyons. Even still, it proved impossible to keep these canyoneering exploits a secret, and others learned about the adventures and soon followed.

Waist deep in water
Once en route, I discover that Friday nights are for navigating dirt roads in the dark, squinting at guidebooks as I try to find a suitable campsite. Pavement becomes dirt roads, and road signs gradually disappear. My only means of navigating is by counting raw mileage: “Follow the jeep trail 6.7 miles, turn left, reset your odometer, and head another 3.3 miles to a fork.” The remoteness becomes palpable, and I start to remember why the long drive south is so worth it.

Saturdays (and Sundays), then, are for canyoneering. My fellow canyoneers and I load our bags with ropes, harnesses, webbing, rappel devices, wetsuits, drinking water and extra layers. We march onto the plateau in search of an entrance to our canyon. Many are hidden from plain sight, and you need to rely on navigation instruments. Just when you begin to doubt that a canyon is there at all, your descent comes into view—perhaps a steep rappel or a slow hike between sandstone walls.

Descending further, the walls grow up around you, and the canyon becomes dark and cool. Another rappel, and we’re waist-deep in water. In some sections, we’re swimming, jumping into natural pools and sliding down wet slabs of sandstone. What I like now, beyond the natural water park, is the fact that we’re fully committed. While climbing, you tend to have the ability to bail, but most canyons require you to see them through to the end. Thus, you need absolute faith in yourself and your group that you’ll be able to make it out.

It’s the unforgiving, no-turning-back nature of canyoneering that makes the sport especially dangerous, but that’s also at the core of why it’s so fulfilling. You can be deterred by the canyon’s ebbs, flows and obstacles, or you can learn to trust in yourself and those with you that you’ll handle each down-climb, pothole and rappel as they come.

And sure enough, when you make it through, there’s a collective sigh of relief and sense of empowerment that I find to be unmatched in other climbing sports.

Navigating these narrow slots carved out by centuries of snowmelt and flash floods, I have the sense of being choked out by time itself. Struck by the notion of my impermanence—knowing this canyon was here before me and will be here long after my visit—I am left more inspired than disheartened. I smile and step down deeper, digging my shoulder into this too-tight corner of the Colorado Plateau.

NOTE TO CANYONEERS
Zion National Park (State Route 9, Springdale, 435-772-3256) offers dozens of canyons to explore for both amateur hikers and skilled climbers alike. Note that a permit is required for all technical canyoneering trips.

For beginners, get your feet wet at the lower end of The Narrows (no permit is required for the bottom-up hike from the Temple of Sinawava). Meanwhile, The Subway and Orderville Canyon provide nontechnical opportunities such as route finding, swimming and short rappels.
Thrill seekers won’t have a hard time finding more challenging canyons around the park’s boundaries, either. Heaps, Imlay, and Behunin represent some of Zion’s more difficult routes.

Unless you’re going with an experienced party, you should always go through a guiding company. Not only do you need the skills they can teach you but also the awareness of dangers such as flash floods and rappelling challenges.

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