The canyon earns the most technical classification—a 4, for Advanced Canyoneering—in the main guide to the slots in and around Utah's Zion National Park.
All the guidebooks, not to mention common sense, warn neophytes (like me) not to commit to such an undertaking till they're comfortable descending moderate rappels and navigating claustrophobia-inducing tight, cold, wet spaces. First-timers should steer clear of the 300-foot plunge that introduces Englestead Hollow. But photographer Lee Cohen, who put the trip together, seemed bent on shocking me into a varsity canyoneer. "Double back your harness strap, and don't be a victim," he says, with a pronounced lack of empathy.
So last September, six of us—two Coloradans and four guys from Utah—park a car in the paint-scratching scrub oak at Englestead's unmarked trailhead, heft packs full of water and climbing gear, and trudge the all but invisible path to the canyon rim. We swat pricker-brush from our faces for 30 minutes. Then the Earth simply falls away.
Lying on our stomachs and peering into the abyss, I imagine a 30-story building standing in the pit. I glance to my left, and contemplate the weathered anchor webbing wrapped around a ponderosa pine. I'm reminded that the gaps on my outdoor resumé mostly involve ropes. I've rock climbed a fair piece, but never led or soloed. I've done gobs of ski mountaineering, but my next crevasse rescue will be my first. For someone who lives at altitude in the Rockies, I display a shameful ignorance of knots.
Yet, I'm oddly calm as I step off the precipice. I'm wearing a snug, secure-feeling harness, and more important, there's an expert in charge. Dave Medara is a renowned rock monkey who performs technical rope rigging for million-dollar Marlboro film shoots and owns a climbing outfit in Moab, Utah. For this rappel, Dave has tied two ropes—including one 450-footer—together. He calls the rig a "Euro-death-knot with backup."
I reverse over the edge almost as smoothly as Max, the Zion local, though I'm surely gripping the line a lot tighter. At first I bounce slowly, acclimating to the movement of rope through hardware. Per Dave's advice, I'm wearing gloves. Without them, my lower, braking hand would get rope-burned to the bone. My comfort grows with each downward bounce. I pick up speed, fathoms of Navajo sandstone whipping past my eyes. Two-hundred-fifty feet later, I alight on a narrow ledge. I catch my breath, then zip, exhilarated, down the cliff's final 50 feet to Englestead's floor. Well, not really its floor. Rather, the first "pothole" of many we'll plumb as the canyon stair-steps down another eight miles, sometimes narrowing to just 15 feet across.
Canyoneering—the art of plunging off perfectly sunny cliff-tops into gloomy, Gollum-infested chasms—remains the youngest outdoor sport in existence. The American Canyoneering Association was founded only in 1999. The first big gathering of canyoneers, the International Canyon Rendezvous, occurred in 2003 in the Spanish Pyrenees. Plenty of people think it's cool to abseil thousand-foot rock faces into streams and pools, but only a scant few do it. Estimates put the worldwide population of dedicated canyoneers below 500.
Zion owns their dreams. The park's rare combination of 7,000-foot plateau and porous sandstone engendered steep, vertical erosion. The area is riven by dozens of the deepest, darkest, slimmest canyons anywhere. One Zion slot goes by the name "Fat Man's Misery."
In the indispensable guide, Zion: Canyoneering, author Tom Jones writes, "the biggest surprise to many new canyoneers is the shockingly cold water hidden in the depths." Many crevices demand wetsuits—and punish noncompliance with hypothermia. Along with a dangerously lowered body temperature, hypothermia also leads to diminished mental capacity. In 2006, a party of three that took a wrong turn into Heaps Canyon inexplicably split up, ran out of food and water, and necessitated an expensive rescue.
On our second day, we startle white-hairs in RVs by scrambling through the sun-scorched sagebrush above Zion's main road while cloaked in thick black neoprene. The temperature zooms to 95 degrees. Along the road, anyway. In the cold folds of Keyhole Canyon, our lips will soon turn blue. It's a short, but thrillingly narrow canyon as the name implies. Wedging through with a pack on is often impossible, so we'll drag gear behind or heave it into the chilly pools ahead.
Cinching harnesses around our already-compressing wetsuits, we feel like sausages with girdles. NBA shorts in the '70s weren't this tight. We heckle each other a bit, then thread ropes through established bolts (most Zion canyons, other than Englestead, hold permanent anchors) and rappel into the murk. "Canyoneering is a commitment," Dave says. "It's not like climbing, when you can say, 'The weather sucks, let's rap outta here.' Canyons demand you see them all the way through." Down is the only way out.
In the Keyhole, 20- to 30-foot raps lead to several dank pools. They're deeper than they look; we swim, rather than wade, most of them. When the walls squeeze especially close, we "chimney"—climbing between opposing rock faces, with the back and hands against one wall, and the feet against the other.
Toward the end of the half-mile canyon, we slip into a long, water-filled, three-foot-wide corridor Zion veterans call the "flooded hallway." We propel ourselves by pushing against the walls, then worm through a few more pools, before emerging into bright sunshine. It's startling. Keyhole has rendered us cave-dwelling, mole-eyed creatures of the dark.
As you might imagine, you wouldn't want to be in a slot canyon during a flash flood. We get lucky with the weather: No rain falls anywhere near Zion. Other canyoneering parties, however, have suffered dearly. Even when skies above canyons are clear, distant storms can send torrents crashing down on unsuspecting adventurers. Canyon hydraulics drowned two youth group leaders in Zion in 1993. Six years later, 21 tourists on a commercial canyoneering trip drowned in Saxetenbach Gorge, Switzerland.
But droughts can be dangerous, too. When water levels recede, potholes become hard to exit. An unlucky canyoneer might find himself marooned deep inside, looking up at 15 feet of overhanging, snot-slick rock. There's zero traction. Canyoneers call such rain-depleted cavities "keeper holes." Because this is a shitty way to die, experienced gorgers have developed tricks to escape—like heaving a weighted rope bag over the lip, then pulling themselves out of the trap.
We finish our trip with an excursion down Spry Canyon. Max, who owns the grocery store in Springdale, just outside the main park entrance, rates Spry his all-time favorite canyon. The canyon takes four to seven hours to complete, beginning with a quintessential desert hike, up a thousand feet of sandstone and piñon, that qualifies as a big adventure on its own. The ruthless, Old West nature of the climb is encapsulated in a dead bighorn ram baking on the slickrock just downslope of Spry's rim. We wiggle down through Ponderosa pine on an exposed rib of stone just to reach the first rappel. Now, supremely comfortable threading rope through 'biners, we drop it fast—and prepare for nine more raps. If there's another canyon requiring that many abseils, we don't find it.
The second rap deposits us in a dark pothole. You never know what gravity and rushing water will flush into canyon pools. Don't be surprised to find feathers, cactus spines, floating mud, or small trees. In the Spry pothole bobbed a dead frog. One of the Utahns, Tyler Sterling, stared at the stiff carcass and recommended a name change to "not-so-Spry Canyon."
While Dave threads a rope through an anchor bolt, Max tells a cautionary tale of canyoneering—the moral of which is, essentially, lay off the donuts. "My brother-in-law," he says, "is fat. And Irish. We were rapping here a few years back. There was a free-hanging pitch where he couldn't brace his feet against rock. He's so top heavy he wobbled upside down. His harness almost came off! And the rope deeply burned his forearm. Then he went swimming in an iffy pool, and the wound got gangrene. Infection bloated his forearm. I got a call a few days later, him raving in his Gaelic accent: "I was driving to work when the swelling popped my watch off my wrist!'"
One of the raps in Spry falls an astonishing 165 feet. Another drops 100 feet down a wall as black as night. We find ourselves in a crevice filled with waist-deep water and set up a zip line across it. The line won't hold a human, but it will allow us to whisk our packs down, thereby sparing us the indignity of waterlogged Twix bars.
As for us, we try to stay dry by crabbing ourselves into human bridges, planting our hands on one wall and our feet on the other. The method works for a 6'6" Coloradan, but the walls are just a tad too wide for my 6'2". I lose my grip and fall, inevitably, into the drink...steeping as if I was a pocket-sized white parcel with LIPTON stamped on my side.
At that moment, I recalibrated a bit. I'm kind of a cat when it comes to unforeseen saturations. I'm bothered by water-balloon attacks, and get pissed when jerk-offs with Super Soakers spray music festival patrons like me who come for the sunshine. There in the blistering Utah desert, I didn't mean to submerse in stagnant water of indeterminate age. I felt klutzy, and kind of cold. But I was thrilled and invigorated, too. And goose bumps don't lie.
Zion doesn't allow professional guiding services, but if you want an outfitter for your canyoneering, don't despair: Plenty of canyons exist outside the park boundaries. Zion Adventure Company (zionadventures.com) runs several tours and rents wetsuits and other gear. Get your vittles at Sol Foods Market (95 Zion Park Boulevard) in Springdale.
Fortunately, Zion boasts canyons where potholes don't exist, and ropes and harnesses aren't required. Check out the Narrows—a stunning gorge that winds 16 miles between soaring perpendicular walls decorated with hanging gardens. Snagging a permit for one of its 12 spectacular campsites earns big time Zion bragging rights.