One of the great things about living in Utah is the proximity to excellent technical slot canyons in Zion National Park. Many of these are considered “wet” canyons, which took on a whole new meaning for me after my first one. In a wet canyon, it can be over 100 degrees in the sun, but after swimming through water in a slot hundreds of feet below the sandstone rim, an ill prepared canyoneer can be nearly frozen with cold.
One of the cool and gripping elements of canyoneering is that after you have pulled your rope from the first rappel there is a huge sense of commitment as the easiest way out is through the bottom. In some cases, like Heaps and Imlay, this can involve 20-40 rappels, bag tosses, hooking out of pot holes, delicate friction climbing and some huge, exposed free-hanging rappels.
We recently spent three days in Zion and did Pine Creek, Heaps and Mystery. Brad Barlage organized the affair, and also donated all of these photos as my Pentax Optio W80 committed cameracide in a slime filled pothole.
Quite a few of the Zion canyons save the biggest drop for last, as in the photo above of the 60m drop at the end of Pine Creek canyon. The granddaddy of them all is the final 280′ free-hanging single-rope rappel at the end of Heaps which lands you right above the Emerald Pools.
Like Big Wall climbing, efficiency in canyoneering relies on having your systems dialed. It’s all about working as a team, moving the ropes forward, taking turns leading, cleaning raps, coiling ropes and thinking ahead. Tom Jones of Imlay Canyon Gear has made some excellent canyoneering packs including the almost mandatory rope bags and backpacks which quickly drain water. You can get by with rappeling basics for most canyons (harness, rope, locking biner, rap device, daisy chain), but specialized equipment makes the whole process much smoother.
Heading down into Heaps, which is the slot just to the right on the white cone in the center. Many of the canyons flash flooded the day before we did Heaps, which meant we could swim through thick scum over the top of most of the tricky potholes without doing any hooking or trickery to escape.
Flash flooding is to canyoneering as avalanches are to skiing, and it is something to always think about. Due to the huge catchment basins above and very tight slots below (sometimes 2-4 feet wide and 200+ feet tall), being caught in one of these slots when it starts flashing would be grim. We once watched Pine Creek flash flood and it went from bone dry to an unsurvivable seething mass of deep, brown water in about five minutes. For a great video of a river in full flash mode, check out this video.
Category: Trip Reports