(This is a trip from early summer 2011. I’ve haven’t felt like writing until now.)
I felt like Davy Crockett. The Trans Zion – a wonderful run that traverses Zion National Park from one end to the other – was getting too crowded. Once an uncommon adventure, it seemed like someone was now doing it every spring weekend.
So in May when Jared Campbell shoots me an email with a Google Earth file attached and the entire text of the message is “Call me. :)” … well, I examined the file then called immediately. Turns out he had devised a new route thru Zion National Park, a very clever one going from west to east over the best summits, thru the best canyons, crossing some unknown territory, and with minimal time on actual trails. The Google Earth file showed a technical route climbing up to and then descending Icebox Canyon, running up the Hop Valley Trail to Wildcat TH, climbing the two Guardian Angels, then launching across unknown terrain hoping to connect with the West Rim Trail. From there the idea was to descend Imlay Canyon to the Narrows, then complete the Traverse by scrambling up Orderville Canyon. I loaded my Utah Topo! DVD, carefully studied the contours, and was somewhat surprised: this route actually seemed possible. This looked great.
I fly into SLC (the flight was delayed 2 hours, which proved significant). Jared picks me up at the airport in his Prius, and we head down to Zion NP, where we’ll meet Ryan McDermott, our partner in numerous other Zioneering Projects.
The logistics for Zironman are daunting: The most difficult canyon in the Park, a long run in 100+ temps, technical summits, and a march across “No Mans Land” – an interesting sub-plateau so remote there was no record of anyone being in it. And the weather is definitely sub-optimal:
Paradox abounds in the desert: while by mid-June it had become virtually too hot to do this route, the Narrows of the Virgin River is still running at flood stage. Desert trips can have just as narrow of a window as mountaineering trips: one has to pull the trigger after the snow has melted but before it gets too hot; this year the window never opened – the snow was still melting by the time it was already too hot. Ah well; this route really grabbed our attention; we didn’t want to wait until next year.
“There are two ways of dying in the desert – by thirst, or by drowning.”
- Craig Childs
We buy supplies, including 30′ of webbing (which we hadn’t brought but would save the trip), shuttle a car all the way out of the east side of the Park, and then drive all the way up the Kolob Terrace Rd to hike 5 miles in to drop a gear cache at the put-in for Imlay Canyon.
Like I said, logistics were tricky: Imlay is one of the most technical canyons in the Park, and our route would have us reach it after bushwhacking across the desert in 102 degree temperatures. So it was necessary to schlep in and stash heavy packs containing a full set of ropes and full wet suits including neoprene booties and gloves,for the cold pools of Imlay.
I climb a tree, and stash our packs where they wouldn’t be disturbed, and we start the 5 mile run back out to the car. Due to my plane being delayed, we didn’t get around to doing this until after dark. I started feeling uneasy about our project for the first time … we were running uphill, at 11pm the night before a 24 hour effort, after getting up at 4 am that morning to catch the plane, and knowing we wouldn’t get to our campsite until 1:30 am, with a 3 am start planned.
Back in the car and driving out to the start at the far east end of the Park, Ryan starts lobbying for starting at Wildcat TH instead of the full deal from the west boundary. Jared was psyched for the full route, but he is always totally psyched for doing anything, so this isn’t a big help for decision-making for mortals. I realized Ryan had a darn good idea; Wildcat was on the way just a few minutes ahead; we could save ourselves hours of driving, catch up on sleep, and still do all the hard parts, most of the good parts, and all the unknown sections of the route. I apologized to Jared – he is so strong, he could have done the full deal – but I didn’t think I could speed descend Imlay at night safely on 1 1/2 hours of sleep, so at Midnight we pulled over and beached ourselves at Wildcat. I fall asleep off in the bushes while listening to Ryan and Jared happily talking and drinking beer in the parking lot.
I wake up to a glow of light in the east instead of an alarm at 3 am – I’m already feeling great about this decision!
The opening section is a delight: we run down the trail at dawn, temperatures still cool, and scramble up North Guardian Angel. These are great peaks: each a singular massive rock, at an easy angle, in stunning locations. South Guardian Angel is one of the finest summits in the hemisphere, and is probably climbed a mere 2-3X a year. We joke that half the names in the summit register are ours. The crossing of the Subway (Left Fork of North Creek) is what keeps people away, but if you don’t mind filling your shoes with dirt and prickers and getting your body all scratched up, it goes fine. Jared and Ry even know of a freshwater spring down there, which helps a lot, as it’s hard to carry enough water for 12 hours.
From atop SGA we take a good look at No Mans Land – it is important to plot a good route thru the ultra complex hoodoos below us – after that, an upper valley in the distance looks fine. Out of sight is the crux of the whole route, getting down an uninterrupted cliff band to the Right Fork of Left Creek. We examined this spot on Google Earth and TOPO!, but there’s no way to tell if it’s doable or not except by trying it.
The hoodoos are quite complex: a series of disorganized and discontinuous ridges and rifts, filled with brush, loose sand, and Cheat Grass. We navigate a good route, while the dry grass seeds turn out to be surprisingly annoying – a hundred little prickers embedded in our shoes and socks – we want to stop and pluck them out, but since they’d be instantly replaced with more, better to mush on.
At last we’re out of all that, and cruising thru amazing country: a deep, dramatic, and unknown canyon on our right, assorted almost-never-climbed-peaks all around us. Normally we’d power up this but we take it easy conserving water, because it’s quite possible we could thrash for hours all the way to where we can almost see people up on the West Rim Trail, but would be unable to get there – and thus be required to retrace our entire route back to Wildcat TH in the afternoon heat with no more water. Jared powers ahead eager to see if the route we’ve planned for a month will actually go.
It does! The cliff band is no prob, and soon after we drop into and cross the Right Fork, knowing the West Rim Trail is directly above us. All it takes to get up is 1,500 vertical feet of 5.4 dirt, scrambling hand-over-hand up steep unconsolidated sand tenuously held in place by thorny bushes and loose rocks, and we’re back to the known world. Once up on the trail I run ahead to retrieve our packs from the tree, and find 15 boy scouts napping at the base of it. I run up, and without breaking stride, jump up and grab the lowest branch, swing up, and with loud thuds, toss down three packs amidst the scouts. My two companions run up, shoulder their packs, and hike off into the hinterland without a word. This scene was probably so weird, none of the scouts said anything.
We start down Imlay at 2:30 pm. Good – I have no desire to do a technical canyon with headlamps – this will probably give us enough time to pull the exit rappels in daylight.
We feel we have Imlay dialed, and it is very likely we have done it faster than anyone. This feels good. Zironman is the type of route one doesn’t just go for; one works up to it.
Nonetheless, a few curveballs are coming our way, as we are the first party down Imlay this year. It is choked with brush from massive spring floods. Some anchors are gone and have to be re-worked. Real good thing we brought that 30′ of webbing … but 30′ is puny … will it be enough? We motor thru the Crossroads … some people spend the night here; we eat a bar without stopping and enter the extreme narrows section.
The water is cold and the light is fading. We’ve had to set a few anchors and are almost out of webbing. Wearing everything, I pull my hood up, and with a shiver from more than just the temperature, turn on my headlamp for this dark and tight section. This is no longer a romp. One realizes we are really out there, with no possibility of rescue. I look at Jared and Ryan.
“No mistakes guys!” says Ryan.
“No mistakes.” I emphasize.
I look Jared in the eye. He quickly nods affirmation.
There will be no mistakes. We are a great team, we trust each other totally, we have done this before, and we know how to do this now.
Two hours later, we pull the ropes after the long exit rap into the Narrows. The technical crux is done. We’ve exited the bowels of the earth.
Standing in the swiftly flowing Virgin River in the heart of the Narrows, where nobody has set foot for 7 months, it nonetheless feels sort of comforting … we know this place, and could bail here if needed by just heading downstream. But no thought of that: we load the wet ropes and gear into our packs, and with wetsuits still on, simply lay down in the current, and off we go. This works really well; butt down, we keep our feet pointed forward to bounce off rocks, and scoot down to the mouth of Orderville, an unassuming 25′ wide cleft in the 300′ high dark sandstone walls.
Deeply incised into the stone, Heaps and Imlay have a character that is both sublime and perilous. Sublime because the dark hallways, carved stone and subterranean pools offer an experience only hinted at in other canyons; perilous because what accompanies these beauties are continual exposure to water, difficult pothole exits and a degree of strenuousity one giant leap greater than other Zion canyons.
Perfect timing – it just got totally dark – wetsuits come off, headlamps come on.
We’ll hike up Orderville in the dark for the next few hours. It’s unusual to be going up a canyon instead of down, but is sort of pleasant: headlamps at the bottom of a deep slot canyon cast surreal shadows and shafts of light up the walls, with the sound, smell, and glimmer of flowing water at our feet. It sure has been a wet season; I’ve never seen Orderville with any water in it before. There are three falls or chockstones that require ropes when descending; at the first I scout a possible means of ascent, but then realize it’s much easier to just fake like I’m trying, and instead stall for a few seconds while Jared quickly fires it, and then accept his helping hand.
We march on. Ryan got a bug in his ear. Literally – a bug flew in his ear and wouldn’t come out. Odd to have a totally random and seemingly innocuous event become somewhat cataclysmic, substituting high anxiety for an otherwise peaceful night hike, but such are the vicissitudes of life; one can do a great job avoiding travails, until one flies up your ear.
We are careful in the dark to look for the side canyon exit, not wanting to add miles to this journey, then find it and are on an old jeep track heading back up to where we’ve stashed the car, which we reached at 3:15 am after 21 hours. Not bad. We were a little wet and cold, and still sort of revved, so drive for an hour back down toward the valley where its warmer and we can flop out in the dirt for a couple hours of sleep before the drive back to SLC later that morning.
Everything went well. It’s a fabulous route … depending on what turns you on. We shortened it with our revised start, but did the trickiest and all the unknown sections, so it’s clear the complete Zironman, a technical traverse from the western to the eastern boundary of Zion National Park, is doable.
Many things undone. One thing in particular.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.
- Steve Jobs