Saturday, September 19, 2015

Zion National Park

The planned high-point of my trip was a visit to Zion National Park with Cathy and my mom. None of us had been to this part of the country before. The Narrows hike in a 2000ft deep slot canyon looked like a really cool thing to do. But wouldn’t you know it, we picked a week where it rained every day for four days in a row. Didn’t rain all the time, but when it did, it really came down. 20 people lost their lives in and near Zion due to flash floods. 13 were in vans that got swept away, 7 parished in a slot canyon in Zion. Sobering thought.

The hike up the Virgin River Narrows supposedly gets shut down when river flow exceeds 150 cubic feet per second. Before the rain, the river flow was around 30cfps, very low, as it typically is around this time of year. But when the canyon flashed, the flow exceeded 2500cfps! That is a lot of volume in a narrow slot. We had to wait a couple days after the rain stopped until the flow dropped to a level we felt safe with and there was no threat of additional rain.

Staying just an hour away, we were able to get an early start in Zion. This was important in being able to park in the park and get a head start on the masses. It was a bit chilly, and I wondered how mom and Cathy would handle chilly air while wading in frigid water. Being from Michigan, we were used to chilly water, as some years Lake Michigan never warms up much. The water was fine once you got used to it. You could stay in it indefinitely.

Seems a lot of people just hike to the end of the Sinawava paved path and don’t enter the water. You miss the best part! Mom and Cathy both have bad knees and didn't care much for the inability to see submerged rocks. The water was still murky from storm run-off. We all brought two poles along, so we used them as a blind person would, feeling for deep holes and submerged rocks.

We made it deep into The Narrows, the junction with Orderville Canyon, a side slot canyon that some venture into. Mom and Cathy figured that was far enough, given they had to go back through 1.5 miles of river walking to get back to the paved path. They did alright with their handicaps.

While they worked their way back, I went up into Orderville Canyon. You can hike up to a falls where a permit is required to go further. I didn’t realize that even to reach that point was a bit challenging. This canyon was much narrower, had chest deep pools, rock scrambles and cascading falls. There were logs and other tree debris to work around too. Fun stuff. I couldn’t help but think about the 7 that perished nearby in a similar canyon. There is absolutely no escape if the flow suddenly increased. You really have to be sure of the forecast and your ability if doing a long traverse through one of these canyons. Orderville goes for many miles, requiring rappels in places.

When I reached the turn-around falls, I was tempted to scale up the tiny footholds cut into the slimy sandstone, but I read warnings against doing so. I might have been able to get up just fine, but many have gotten hurt trying to get back down and required rescues. There was nobody in the canyon with me at this point. It was nice to have such a wild, confined space to myself. The water was almost clear too, with a bit of emerald glow to it.

As I headed back down Orderville, I passed a large group coming up, apparently led by a guide. The water suddenly became murky. I wondered if the water in the main canyon is murky only because hundreds or thousands of feet are churning up the bottom.

I made very good pace heading back down, almost maintaining running pace at times. I stayed in the water much of the time because now the masses were heading up and used any bits of dry ground around the edges. So many people. There could easily have been over 1000 people in that 1.5mi stretch of canyon. I caught mom and Cathy just as we reached the end of the paved path. Perfect timing.

I had my hopes set on a more strenuous hike in the park during our visit too. When I saw Luke had done the Angel’s Landing hike a few weeks earlier, I pondered whether I had the guts to do it. Extreme exposure doesn’t describe it with justice. I’ve read six people have perished on this hike in the last 10 years or so. Why am I doing these things people die on again?

Mom and Cathy found a couple of less strenuous sights to visit while I gave Angel’s Landing a go. I was surprised to find the first two-thirds a wide, paved path. This actually weirded me out. There was constant stream of hikers heading up and down. There were many places where the path drops 200ft straight down to switchback below with nary a lip or railing. What if somebody tripped coming down and knocked me over the edge? The pavement was busted up in places and I could easily see this happening. What if somebody just pushed me over the edge for kicks? Weird thoughts ran through my head. Guess that shows how much faith I have in people.

I maintained a pretty good pace up the first 1000ft of the 1500ft climb. A guy stopped right in front of me to take a picture, blocking the path, not realizing somebody was right behind him. When he noticed, he said “you’re not breathing, you must be verty fit!” in a foreign accent. I told him I race bicycles up mountains for fun. He got chuckle out of that.

Once you reach the saddle at the junction with West Rim Trail, there is a respit in climbing. There were a lot of people sitting about. I later learned why. From there, you get a taste of what is to come: exposure while hanging onto chains with barely a foot hold and 1000ft to the bottom.  A few sections of this are traversed when a false summit is reached. You think oh, I finally made it. Then you crest over this false summit only to have a horror of horrors revealed. The real summit requires a near vertical scale on knife edge.

Comments from people when first setting eyes to what lies ahead were priceless. “No f’ing way!”  “Nope, how about we just say we did it!” I was hiking at a similar pace on this rough part with Lawrence from the west coast. His friend sat out this last part. Lawrence and I shared similar “respect” for exposure. We informally formed a buddy system for the rest of the hike.

Traversing the knife edge scale was a bit of a conga line. Lots of waiting for people coming down or going up. There was no room to pass on much of it, so you had to wait for a group at a time to get through sections. It was mostly a pretty young crowd, although there was one guy shadowing Lawrence and I that was at least as old as I was. You could tell he was a seasoned pro. I kept thinking what if somebody above me slipped and fell? They’d take me right over the edge with them. Again, not liking not have full control of the risk. A lot like a road bicycle race really, where a mistake well ahead of you takes you down. Except here, the stakes were much, much higher.

Reaching the landing was all I thought it would be. Great views over much of the park, north and south through the canyon. There were maybe 20-30 people up there at any one time, a bit crowded given how small of an area it was.

I feared the descent more than the climb, but strangely, I got a bit used to the exposure on the way up. I wouldn’t say I became cavalier in my descent, but I relied on the chains much less than I thought I would. Looking down all that exposure didn’t freak me out. I had on my good Scarpa hiking shoes (which were still wet from the river) with tenacious grip on sandstone. That instilled some confidence.

When I got back down to the saddle, I still had some time left before heading back to rendezvous with the women. I hiked up West Rim Trail. On the shuttle bus out to the Narrows in the morning, the driver pointed hikers out on the rim. It was so high and so straight up, you could barely make them out. Yeah, I wanted to experience that too. Like the first 1000ft to Angel’s Landing, West Rim was partially paved and wide. Gone was the exposure. Plateauing on the ridge, I found nobody up there. Awesome! Because of the domed top, I didn’t quite dare go to where you could see straight down into the canyon. The bare dome was slightly higher than Angel’s Landing and provided a stark viewpoint of how crazy that hike was. I hung around for bit up there, basking in full sun, eating a couple poptarts before heading back down.

I lightly ran parts of the descent. I felt pretty nimble on my feet and prayed I didn’t catch a toe and face plant. The initial part was a pretty rough natural surface. With the sun getting to late afternoon position, the switchbacks in Refrigerator Canyon below the saddle were getting dark and chilly. Sound really lingers in there, sometimes hearing an echo reverberate 4 or 5 times. Many people were entertained by this. You’d hear a voice that seemingly came right out of thin air hundreds of feet above the slot floor, but it really came from a hiker on a switchback a hundred feet under you and bounced off the opposite canyon wall.

My knees were trashed by the time I got back to the bottom. That was some steep descent and I took it kind of fast. I got back on the shuttle on time to meet the women back at the visitor center.

Hard to say what the total stats were for the visit. As expected, the GPS went bonkers in the narrows. The barometric altimeter almost worked, that is until I think I submerged it and got water in the breather port. Not much elevation change there, maybe a couple hundred feet total including Orderville Canyon. The hike up Angel’s Landing fared much better, being more exposed to the sky.

I really liked this place. Much different than visiting say Yellowstone, in that you interact with the environment in a very direct way. There more risk in making a mistake or having the weather turn against you. I’d probably come back here again when I could do deeper excursions into the canyons or visit another slot canyon that requires a permit by lottery system, like the one called “The Subway.”

Cathy and mom starting out in the water from end of the Sinawava path

Cathy and mom ahead of the masses

Sometimes wall to wall water

Mom on section that might be called "Wall Street"

Still pretty good flow to the Virgin River, about 55cfps that morning

Never deeper than thigh deep

Mom and Cathy in The Narrows

At the turn-around point in Orderville Canyon

Obstacle course through Orderville Canyon. Approaching some of these
falls were chest deep pockets

Orderville was much narrower

Look up at Angel's Landing. A path goes up that somehow?

The bottom 500ft of vertical

The middle 500ft of vertical

The top 500ft of vertical. When people crested this point and realized
there was still this to go, the expletives flew.

Lawrence on final bit to top looking north through canyon

View south through the Zion canyon

Looking straight down 1500ft on shuttle busses

Angel's Landing crest

This point of the knife edge was no more than two feet wide with only wobbly chain
to grasp

Not a knife edge but almost vertical

Up on West Rim Trail, looking back at Angel's Landing

Solitude on West Rim

Another perspective of Angel's Landing and the knife edge that has to be
scaled to get up there.


Unknown said...

Great write up - Outside Magazine quality.

Jason said...

Facebook doesn't do these pictures justice. Their real beauty is shown in full size here.

Anonymous said...

Southern Utah is one amazing place! So diverse yet beautiful.