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Postcards from Steve -- Arriving in Zion

Long time readers know that from time to time I enjoy stretching my writing legs a bit by venturing out of the realm of basketball. This is one of those times. Depending on many factors, this will be a series of several posts detailing my canyoneering adventures in Utah this summer. If you're not interested in this stuff and only want to read about the Clippers, that's fine, don't read these posts. For those of you that are interested, I hope I can do justice to the trip.

After a couple of days in Las Vegas at the start of summer league, I headed to McCarron Airport Saturday night to pick up canyoneering buddies Dan and Nick and we headed towards Zion. Nick is usually busy rock climbing in Wisconsin, but he was able to escape for a few days to misadventure with us. We arrived in Rockville a few miles from the park entrance around 1:30 AM. Unfortunately, the forecast for the next day called for thunderstorms, and deep slot canyons are pretty much the last place you want to be when it starts raining, as flash floods are a real and deadly possibility, so we went to bed fearful that our first day in the park would be washed out (literally).

We got up Sunday, not nearly so early as we had intended, and checked out the weather report, which turned out to be the worst kind -- non-committal. Something like 30% or 40% chances of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Not enough to make it obvious you shouldn't go, but enough that the smart decision would be to stay out of the backcountry. It didn't help that the skies were pretty clear, making it seem safer than the weather report suggested.

The uncertainty of the weather managed to keep us in something of a holding pattern, chatting into the early afternoon. By that time our decision had seemingly been made for us -- we had a backcountry permit reservation for Behunin Canyon, but the length of the canyon dictated that we'd have to have everything go right while setting a very fast pace just to get out before sundown. We decided that we needed to do something as it hadn't actually rained yet despite the forecast, so we hopped in the truck and started behaving as if we were going to hit the canyon.

As we approached the permit desk, I joked with Nick about the look we were going to get from the ranger as we requested a backcountry permit for a deep and long canyon around two o'clock on a cloudy afternoon. Indeed, as anticipated, when we said "We'd like a permit for Behunin" he shot us a look that said "Today? Are you suicidal? Forget it." We assured the guy that we weren't in fact stupid, that we knew what we were doing, that we'd keep an eye on both the clouds and the clock as we were hiking to the drop in point, and that in the end we probably were full of crap, that we weren't going to do Behunin at all. In fact, essentially we were just making a $15 donation to the park service since there was very little chance we'd get into the backcountry and require the permit, but so long as it was a possibility, it certainly made sense for the authorities to know our whereabouts -- you know, to facilitate the identifying remains downstream.

We got the permit and continued on our journey, with each step so far taking much more time than expected, and our window of daylight ever-shrinking. By the time we got to the trailhead Nick was fairly convinced that we were never actually going to get into the canyon, to the point that he considered leaving his canyoneering boots behind so he wouldn't have to carry them up the trail and back down for no reason. But the plan all along was to push toward the canyon, taking checkpoints along the way based on time and skies, so we pressed forward hoping that we could make great time from the trail head to the drop in.

Little did anyone realize exactly how out of shape I am.

I've never been into exercise. I will play basketball for several hours a day given the chance, but I've never been able to sustain any sort of regimen. I just can't exercise for exercise's sake, but even so my body has always been pretty good at responding when I've pressed it into service. However, this year has been a little different. For one thing I'm getting older (the big five-oh is a matter of months away) and that age is certainly beginning to manifest itself in several ways (like blood pressure and cholesterol medication for instance). This was also the first season that neither one of my children has played soccer, and I've come to realize that running soccer practice two to four times a week and then pacing the sidelines on Saturday had actually been surreptitiously providing me with some consistent cardio work for many years. Without kids in AYSO, it's as if I had let my gym membership lapse. And as it happened, my twice weekly basketball game has rarely had enough participation in the past six weeks, so I've played very little basketball lately to boot.

I knew all of this would be a problem, and I knew this trip was looming, so about a month ago I did something I dreaded -- I started swimming. My house sits a few blocks from the bay that separates Belmont Shore from Naples Island, and I reluctantly joined a neighbor of mine on his daily swim in an attempt to build up some cardio strength in advance of my Zion trip. After two days of swimming,with the process being painful but not nearly as painful as I had feared, disaster struck. As I was working in my son's room, my back began to spasm, putting me out of commission.

I was flat on my back for two full days, unable to stand up without passing out from the pain, unable to do anything other than lie in bed. Even after I was able to actually sit and stand a bit, I was obviously still very sore, very cautious and very far from healthy -- strenuous exercise was out of the question and with only a few weeks remaining, there was serious doubt whether I'd be able to take my trip at all.

On that trail on Sunday, my lack of preparation caught up with me very quickly. The drop in point for Behunin is up the Angel's Landing trail, which if you're familiar with Zion, is no picnic. After the first set of switchbacks, I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to handle the pace that Dan was setting. I swallowed my pride, put up the white flag and we took a rest. A few minutes later it started raining, so it was all for the best, as we were never really going to descend any canyons that day anyway. Instead we slipped down into a shady spot in a pleasant dry creek bed and talked for two hours. All in all a very good day, but not exactly a success on the canyoneering side.

Next: We actually canyoneer on our canyoneering trip.