Canyoneering is the technical descent of canyons through rappelling or downclimbing. It seemed like a great way to find some solitude in popular Zion. It also seemed like a great way to really connect to the landscape as you’re pretty much face to face with it deep in the slot canyons. This is a pretty hazardous activity, so we hired a certified guide to lead us. Below: hiking in to the start of the canyon.
We really liked our guide who was exactly my kind of instructor. She made sure we had our safety systems done correctly, but then let us lead and figure out what to do. We hiked up to the top and then as Bailey said, we would “be a drop of water” and flow down the slot canyon. The Canyon of choice was “Snake Alley,” a 3a1 rated slot canyon just outside of Zion. What makes these slots so interesting to travel through is that they have been carved out by water eating through soft rock. They don’t just go straight, they drop with twists and turns like an intestine in your gut. Gravity and the canyons do not always line up which makes roped descending tricky. Gravity pulls you one way while the canyon goes the other.
Above: The first pitch was a bit unsettling. After tying the rope into the anchor, I threw it down. “Did it reach the bottom?” asks Bailey. If the rope doesn’t hit the bottom, you find yourself stranded if you rappel down it. Because the slot twists out of sight, you can’t see the bottom and the weight of the rope makes it difficult to feel if it’s bottomed out. Using a personal tether tied to the anchor, I venture out into the well and verified that the rope was at the bottom. And so we descended.
Above: With me in the abyss at the bottom belaying Suz off the top anchor, she descends the first pitch. (Bailey’s picture) Last to descend is Bailey. Once safely down, we pull the rope through the anchor and coil it up and move on to solve the next problem.
Above: The canyon here is a few feet wide with a wonderful sand bottom from the eroding sandstone walls. The next pitch isn’t too big of a drop, more of a smooth ramp with a drop and a right angle turn. But it is very steep. If it was safe to descend without rope, it would save a ton of time as there was no good anchor point to tie the rope into. To determine if we could downclimb unroped, I needed to drop down just a bit and see more of it.
Above: Bailey suggests Suz braces herself and lower me a bit to check out the pitch. The rope is running through a friction device called a Pirana (the silver ring between her hands.) The Pirana allows the rope to feed through, but if I slip, it will grab the rope effectively tying me to her.
I check out the pitch and determined that it was pretty dodgy for us but an expert and experienced climber should be able to downclimb it unroped. My solution was for Bailey to be the anchor and lower each of us with the rope and then downclimb unroped. That way we wouldn’t need to spend forever trying to build a safe anchor. That suited everyone and down we went.
Above: Unroped, we descend a section of the slot by smearing the walls and inching down. The walls are like sandpaper and really let you stick like a gecko though it tears your hands and clothes up a bit. It’s exhausting work and after 20 feet of this I was all in!
Above: Bailey grabs a picture of Suz negotiating a confounding obstacle, a big rock under Suz feet is stuck in the slot about 5 feet from the bottom. She can’t go forward as the walls are simply too narrow to squeeze through. There is a hole directly under her feet but how to drop in it when there is no room to bend your knees?! This was the one place I felt a bit of panic. The walls are so luminous that I didn’t feel claustrophobic even through the very earth is nearly squeezing you to death. But in this problem I found myself realizing that what I was doing wasn’t working and I felt a pang of “oh no I’m stuck” or “I’m going to break something.” I couldn’t help observing that if something went wrong in here, you would really be in trouble. No helicopter extraction, no stretcher, no nothing was going to be able to squeeze through and get you.
Above: …And Bailey’s view of the same problem.
Above: No rocks to kick down each other so on a straight-forward pitch, we make a duel descent down each side of the rope for an amusing photo-op. Suz used some forethought and threw her pack down first. I had mine on and I got squished when the slot got too narrow at the bottom of this pitch.
At the end of the day, the canyon spat us back out into the desert. A magnificent day learning new skills and seeing amazing, hidden places. Suz loved it as the smile on her face in the picture above demonstrates! The experience has us thinking about trying some rock climbing around Canmore.
Apart from being an excellent guide and instructor, Bailey was definitely our kind of people and we had an enjoyable conversation as we made the 40 minute drive back Springdale. I find when I’m talking to people who love mountains, the conversation is always too short.