We’d been planning the Trifecta for over a year, and as of June 27, there is now one less amazing project in Zion National Park “undone”. Jared Campbell, Ryan McDermott, and I did the 3 biggest canyons in the Park in one day.
Zion is aptly called a “Sandstone Yosemite”. An appropriate name, but what “Yo” lacks, are the extremely narrow slot canyons deeply incised into the soft sandstone; they are often filled with cold water, are dark, and end in high vertical pour-offs above the main canyon bottom; an entire world apart, literally invisible until one finds and rappels into their depths.
Only in the last 10 years has the sport of canyoneering developed. Needless to say, the thought of not just doing them, but seeing how fast I could do them, entered my mind years ago. I’m way too old to win any trail races or set records on well known big routes, but age paradoxically has some benefits similar to those of youth: 1) You don’t try to fit in, and instead do what pleases you; 2) You can be a pain in the ass and your friends and family still tolerate you.
We’ll leave #2 alone; #1 is the aspect pertinent to this project. Projects like the Trifecta, are like “Plucking the low-hanging fruit, located way far out on the limb.”
We leave Lava Point TH and start running, with full packs, the 5 miles down to the head of Imlay Canyon. Three weeks ago we all came here and “pre-ran” these canyons individually in order to dial them in. (Except for the last one, which proved fateful … read on). This really helped; we carried 3 ropes of the exact length needed, marked at key distances in order to precisely set the rappels without looking or measuring. Since it was night, we were using headlamps, and the canyon entry was a linked series of 5 rappels each over 100′ in length down a near vertical cliff, so technical proficiency was a very good thing.
Once in the canyon proper, we motored down, scrambling thru brush, blocks, and small pouroffs, occasionally wading pools and setting short raps we couldn’t downclimb. It surprises everyone to know we were wearing full one-piece wetsuits with neoprene gloves and booties inside our shoes. This water rarely sees the light of day; it’s cold! Even though these canyons are immediately surrounded by a desert landscape currently baking in 97 degree heat, arriving at “the business” – the extreme narrows – we additionally don a neoprene vest with full hood for additional warmth. Dressed thus like extras in a James Bond movie, we blew by a party of 4 getting out of camp while doing this canyon in two days, at a full trot, ropes and hardware clanging at our waist. “Is this a reality TV show?” one guy called out after us.
Nope. This is the strange niche sport of speed canyoneering. We quickly do about 30 rappels, all short, all into dark potholes mostly filled with cold water. One then swims to the other side, scrambles out, and repeats. An utterly amazing and unique place on earth. Lower water levels is more difficult, as the potholes are slick, smooth, and almost vertical – a “keeper” – it’s impossible to climb out. Three times we resorted to “hooking” out; placing a special talon into a tiny hole drilled into the rock, and pulling oneself up and over the lip. Ryan is especially good at this; once out he would reach down and give me a hand; sometimes I would leave a foot for Jared to grab; even though he could easily get out by himself, canyoneering is very much a team effort; individual pride is bad. Like adventure racing, the team is only as fast as its slowest member, so partner-assists and all kinds of never-ever-done-rockclimbing moves are applauded. The best and fastest is when you forgo downclimbing or rappelling, and just leap in – kaboom! The splash echoes in the narrow chambers, the cold water leaks down your back, and it’s hard to suppress a “yippee!” Like being a kid again.
Or as Tom Jones says, “Canyoneering: sort of like fun. Only different.”
Temple of Sinawava Trail Head. 6:32 for Imlay is blazing. For the first (and not the last) time, we employed collapsable trekking poles, which really helped in powering out of Zion Narrows; hiking over slippery round rocks submerged in a running river is fun with poles. We obtained a special permit allowing our car to be parked there overnight, so we re-fuel as we drive down to the Grotto TH.
West Rim Trail. How many times have we done this!? It’s still a fabulous trail, but carrying full wetsuits, ropes, and still-wet gear up 2,500 vertical feet in 90 degree temps is not the optimal way to experience it. Casual hikers must have wondered what the heck we were doing in the desert with all that stuff. On the final switchbacks I decide to throttle back; I’m burning up too much water and fuel. This costs us maybe 5 minutes, but I feel very good about doing it; this means I’ll be solid for the rest of the day. Ryan is very fit and a great climber, and Jared is a monster who will power this train, so I view my job as not making any mistakes and keeping my wheels on the track so as to not slow this locomotive down.
Heaps Canyon is what we’re hiking up to the top of. 2:28 after leaving the TH, we start the entry raps; these go well, and soon I’m employing the poles and saving my knees running down the slickrock bowls of Phantom Valley into the start of the Narrows.
Heaps is a delight; the pots are full and clear, and we jump when we dare, downclimb when we don’t, and rap when we have to. We’re moving slower than normal, but make it to the spectacular exit sequence in good form. The Heaps exit is legendary. It’s 500 feet straight down a vertical wall! This is done by linking 60′, 165′, and 285 foot free-hanging rappels, made all the more glorious as you end up at Emerald Pools, the most popular trail in the entire Park, where a few dozen tourists sit and watch the whole spectacle. They often break into applause when the first person reaches the ground, which is understandable, as it appears the rope doesn’t reach the ground and the rappeller will go right off the end to his death (there’s a reason it looks like that which I won’t explain now).
7:38 for Heaps – slower than our 7 hrs flat of 3 weeks ago, but we’re on schedule. And the 14:38 for the Zion Double is pleasing – the only other Double we know of took 23 hours 6 minutes.
We’re in the car, eating, drinking, and driving back up to Lava Point to start our third canyon. We bring a unique package of skills to a project like this; Jared for example, has twice finished third at the Hardrock 100 mile trail race, as well has climbed over fifty 5.13 routes – put him at the front of the rope, and off you go. We learned specialized techniques and purchased key equipment for this project, which rather than being a bother, all adds to the experience. Unlike a running race, which is mostly a test of singular cardiovascular ability, for this you gotta have it all. By combining our athletic histories with newly developed canyoneering tools and techniques, we are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and make a quantum shift in how long it takes to descend a technical canyon.
Depart car for Kolob Canyon. OK, it’s a little late to be starting a route that sometimes is done in two days! On the hike to the entry, I think over and over: “I’m sooo glad to have strong and solid partners.”
Kolob is possibly the most beautiful canyon in Zion. It’s fed by dam-release, so there is clear, cold water flowing thruout. It’s quite an experience to be rappelling a 150′ high wall, into a cavern, streaked by green moss, sunset barely seen thru the slit above, with the constant sound or running water … because you’re rappelling down IN the waterfall.
Jared hits the bottom on the last rap and I see his headlamp go on, as I clip in to the rope with the last vestiges of daylight. My and Ryan’s headlamps go on at the bottom – we sure nailed the timing on that! There’s some swims and short raps (because we can’t jump and submerge the lamps), but then we are hiking down canyon, a couple hours of trying to stay upright while quickly hiking in a flowing creek. A beautiful place.
We reach the “MIA Exit” at 11:45 PM. This is a route that exits the canyon and climbs steeply back up to the car. We all feel fit and eager, and there is plenty of time. “It’s in the bag unless we get lost!” I exclaim.
Never say things like that. Because that’s precisely what we did. Totally lost. We didn’t know if the route was to the right or left, but it definitely wasn’t where we were. The canyon walls were very steep, covered with oak brush, cactus, and consisting of loose dirt over crumbly sandstone slabs. After mucking around for awhile, we finally slogged straight up and go out, thankfully arriving at a closed jeep road that would take us back to the trailhead. Go left or right? We had a 50-50 chance, and blew it again. We went right, and spent a half an hour hiking to a deadend, at which we reversed course and re-traced our steps.
The sub-24 Trifecta now out the window, I relaxed and enjoyed a wonderful night hike. Venus was big, and Mars was rising red on the horizon. It was a terrific day, one of the best I’ve ever had, with great friends, in one of the most remarkable places on the planet. On a huge route no one so much as stubbed a toe or dropped a biner; there were no near-misses, no weirdness of any kind. We dreamed up a big idea, researched how it might be possible, created a detailed plan, trained for it, and then actually executed it to perfection. Well, until the very end. For 21 straight hours we enjoyed the sweet, ephemeral marriage of brains and brawn, until brains decided to leave the relationship. It was terrific; a better record than most of my relationships.
4:03 AM Sunday
Car. 25 hours, 3 minutes ain’t bad. In fact, it’s all good.