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Postcards from Steve -- We Actually Canyoneer on our Canyoneering Trip

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 the trip.

On our first day in Utah, we wound up going for a short hike and doing a lot of talking. Now it's time to get serious.

Monday morning played out in similar fashion to Sunday. A thunderstorm and massive downpour woke the house at 5:30 AM, not a good start with a very big day on the slate ahead of us. We all slept in a bit longer than we'd planned to, in large part because we assumed that our canyon plans had been scuttled by the rain. However, when we did get up and checked the radar and the forecast it was once again in that gray area -- we probably shouldn't get into a canyon, but it did look like it was clearing up.

We loaded up for either a hike or a canyon, with me dreading the idea of a hike, and started down the road. It had long since stopped raining, the skies were clearing, but every once in a while you'd catch a glimpse of an angry looking nimbus as you rounded a bend. As we exited the Mt. Carmel tunnel heading east, of course we blew right past the trailhead for our fallback hike, rolling the dice that the skies would continue to clear and we'd be able to do what we came here to do.

At the trailhead for Englestead we got one more omen that perhaps this just wasn't our day: when Nick went to put on the canyoneering boots he'd picked up the day before, to his dismay he discovered that in his haste he had grabbed two lefts and no rights. Happily he had some hiking shoes in the car which, while less than ideal, would suffice, but as it turns out those boots were yet another reason that we were never actually going to get anywhere on Sunday (so I shouldn't feel so guilty about falling behind on the hike, right?). When Dan (size 10) and I (size 9) then managed to put on each other's right boots, we made it about 100 yards down the trail with not a single one of the three of us wearing the correct right shoe. Dan's screaming toes alerted us to the mix up soon enough.

The rest of the day was amazing. The skies were brilliantly sunny as we descended into Englestead Hollow, a good thing too given that the initial descent is well over 200 feet and once you're i,n there aren't any escape routes aside from the one the water will take.

Our route would take us from Englestead into Orderville Canyon and then downstream from there into the famous Virgin River Narrows. It makes for a nice juxtaposition of the best of what Zion has to offer. Englestead is one of the most vertical canyons I've ever been in -- the ropes are in constant use as you move from long rappel to long rappel. It doesn't waste time either, with that massive initial descent. Without a 300 foot rope, we took a route that took us about 80 feet down to a second anchor just above a tiny ledge to balance on, followed by a 180 foot drop that is mostly free rappel. So if you haven't done any serious rappelling in three years (cough, cough), this is your warm up.

I've never been a very nervous type on rappels, but with so much air between myself and the canyon floor, I was breathing heavy on that first descent. It's a dirt simple rappel -- smooth rock wall right with you the whole way, no obstacles to speak of, it's 80 feet of Rappelling 101. Somehow though that 200 plus foot drop underneath you can still get the heart rate up. By the time I got to Nick at the intermediate anchor, I was a nervous wreck, for no good reason.

It turns out, Nick had the yips a bit as well (Dan insists that he was fine, but Nick saw him at that intermediate point and tells a different story.) But the good news is that we all seemed to get it out of our system on that first rappel, and everyone settled down after that. In contrast to that first, straightforward 80 foot rappel, the much longer free rappel that followed was a piece of cake, despite the fact that it was technically much more challenging.

Everything changes once you hit Orderville. Gone are the vertical drops of Englestead, replaced by a meandering and narrow slot. With the recent rains, it wasn't long before the natural springs along the way had us moving through a healthy stream, but there are few if any big drops. With the ropes packed safely back into our packs, we spent the next several hours downclimbing cascades, jumping into pools, and generally enjoying the many delights of a wet canyon on a beautiful Utah day.

It seems that on every wet canyon the same thing happens. Until you've placed boot in liquid for the first time, you struggle mightily to avoid the water at all costs -- picking and choosing any route, no matter how labor intensive, dangerous or just plain silly, just to avoid going ankle deep. As Orderville first became wet, we experienced this phenomenon once again. At one point, some canyoneer who had preceded us downstream had arranged a series of eight or ten stepping stones to help travelers cross a 25 foot section of the creek. Of course, three bends later we were up to our chests in unavoidable water that spanned from canyon wall to canyon wall, and we were in and out of the creek for the next several hours, but thank FSM that we didn't get our toes wet on that first creek crossing.

Another recurrent canyoneering phenomenon, at least for me, occurred when Orderville emptied out into the Narrows. We were six or seven hours removed from the truck, and in contrast to the prior day, I was feeling great. Spry, even. As a canyoneer, I've always been much better on the in canyon stuff than I am on the hike. A top down canyon like Englestead is right in my wheelhouse -- drive to the top, a short hike downhill to the drop in, and canyon canyon canyon from there. So I was easily keeping pace with the group and feeling pretty good about myself.

But once you hit the Narrows, everything changes. Despite the fact that the Narrows represent a brilliant adventure in their own right, the fact that I've been there a dozen times, not to mention the fact that thousands of park visitors most of them wearing flip flops are there with you screams that your day is over. Unfortunately, although the adrenaline that had been masking the various and sundry aches and pains stops flowing, it turns out that there's still quite a bit of river to negotiate before you reach the shuttle bus. In the final few bends of Orderville I was feeling terrific; three steps into the Virgin and I could barely lift my legs. The three mile trip back down to the shuttle had me feeling my age once again.

It also started to rain as we entered the Narrows. Not hard at first, but the skies that had been so clear before were now light gray and it began to drizzle. With the passing time, it began to rain harder. As we were heading downstream, many, many hours into our adventure, we passed many people still heading up stream -- families with children, barefoot college kids, that sort of thing. In the light rain we thought nothing of it -- after all, we had ignored the forecast to enter a deep and inescapable slot canyon: we were in no position to hand out common sense advice. But as it began to rain harder, we started thinking about those that were heading up stream, hoping that they knew to turn back soon.

By the time we exited the river it was raining harder still. On that final mile walk to the shuttle stop, the thunder and lightning kicked in, and for the final few hundred yards we were in a full blown downpour. The drops became thicker and denser such that I was sure they were going to turn into hail at any moment (and in fact someone later told me that it had been hailing in Springdale).

In the final analysis, our timing could not have been much better. Huge thunderstorms hit Zion at 5:30 in the morning and about 6:30 in the evening -- and we went on an eight hour canyoneering adventure in between. I'd like to say that we knew what we were doing, that we had confidence that the storm would hold off long enough, but it simply wouldn't be true. When we dropped into Englestead Hollow in the late morning, it was with a knowledge of the forecast and a look at the skies that we believed indicated that the rains were done for that day. We were flat wrong, and only blind luck kept that second thunderstorm from hitting while we were in a spot that you would certainly not want to be in during a thunderstorm. After all, the forecast indicated that the chance of a storm, though small, was higher in the early afternoon than it was in the evening.

As we boarded the shuttle, we were out of danger, even if our day was still not over. The 45 minute trip back up to the truck at the trailhead turned into an adventure in its own right as the final three miles or so were over a dirt road that had been transformed into a near impassable mass of slop during the course of the day. We got stuck once and barely avoided the ditch another time before we were all once again on pavement.

Next up: a day without rain, a beautiful canyon