Deep Impact: Canyoneering in Utah's Zion National Park

Over Your Head and Hanging From a Rope in Search of the Unfound
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The view from my vantage point—halfway down a sheer 140-foot canyon wall above Utah's Kolob Creek, dangling from a rope—must have been spectacular, but I was too terrified to look. Inching backwards down the wet, slippery rock face, I stared straight at the wall and groped for traction on the slimy sandstone. An icy rivulet splashed my face, trickled down my nose, and cascaded into a pool 70 feet below. All the while, the bulky 30-pound pack on my back was trying to flip me upside down—a position from which, I'd been advised, recovery was unlikely. Clenching the rope in the life-or-death grip of a novice who's in way over his head, I recalled the comment of Mark Freed, my guide on this unlikely adventure, when he first peered over the canyon rim 400 feet above: "You know, this could be a little more intense than I had anticipated."

What he—and I—had anticipated was a rather more gentlemanly introduction to the arcane art of canyoneering. Practiced by a handful of secretive zealots in the American Southwest, canyoneering eludes easy definition. Basically, it amounts to doing whatever it takes to follow the course of deep, narrow, twisting gorges called "slot canyons," which lace the deserts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. In its mildest form, canyoneering may consist of nothing more than a hike or pleasant splash along an ankle-deep stream. More difficult routes may require the canyoneer to swim, raft, scramble over rocks, or rappel (i.e., walk backwards down a steep pitch while being supported by a rope).
Typically, canyoneers descend into the steep, sheer upper reaches of a canyon and make their way downstream to a point where the canyon widens and becomess accessible to normal walking trails or roads. It's also common to start from the accessible point and make an out-and-back exploration. Whatever the technique, canyoneers have a common goal: to find their way into extraordinarily isolated and beautiful places.

Canyoneering hotbeds include Arizona's Mogollon Rim, north of Phoenix, and Utah's Escalante Canyon, near Lake Powell, and Zion National Park. Mark, a veteran climber and canyoneer from Salt Lake City who'd agreed to show me the ropes of the sport, suggested Zion because of its accessibility and the vast variety and beauty of its canyons. "Don't worry about crowds," he assured me. "Zion gets two million visitors a year, but I know some canyons that even the rangers have never seen."

Published: 13 Jun 2001 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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