Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Subway in Zion National Park

My family was never a camping family and so throughout my life I've had to be somewhat creative about my interests in the outdoors. Early on there were the basement campouts, sleeping in small disney themed tents with my brother. Then there was sleeping outside on the trampoline which was as wild as you could get in west valley where I grew up. Later there was girl scout camp. All I really wanted to do was ride horses and though I was initially lukewarm about the short hikes and camping that went along with it, I eventually got on board. My first long hike happened at a youth camp that is operated by the Granite School District. We went on a 10 mile hike with a teacher from school and were mostly allowed to run free and explore at will. On this trek I watched birds in a bird blind and lost a shoe in the mud at a beaver pond. Covered in mud and all smiles my best friend at the time Kevin exclaimed that I was a true tomboy. It was the highest compliment for me and I was hooked on nature ever since.

Without any real experience to go off of, I've been seeking out opportunities ever since. My next run in with nature was when a friend Adrian invited me on a backpacking trip to the Uintas in junior high. Though I had never hiked seriously before and found hiking with everything bunjee-ed onto my school book bag quite difficult... and though I didn't bring enough food and nearly starved, I knew that I wanted to hike more and be outside as much as possible. Adrian was a saint in that she lent me all the equipment I needed to go on a few intermediate excursions. There were lessons along the way such as the difference between camping in an established campsite and squatting on private land- That's a good story!- and how dangling one of your mothers pots over open flames would ruin the pot and get you into a lot of trouble. It wasn't until college that I realized I wanted to get a better idea of how to be self sufficient in the wild.

In college I took several backpacking and rock climbing classes trying to educate myself and gain experience. Soon enough I was off adventuring in canyonlands, the uintas, and wherever else. I fell in love with southern Utah and the desert and became bound and determined to explore all of it whatever way I could. That's where canyoneering comes in and what leads us to my excitement over my most recent adventure.

I apologize for the lengthy preface, but it is important to understand the wonder and mystery that wilderness areas hold for me. These places were not accessible to me as a kid and little by little I have woven so many hopes and dreams around them. For me, canyoneering has stood as the next frontier of adventure. Anyone who has been in a slot canyon knows that there is nothing quite like looking up at high canyon walls and feeling so so small. Canyoneering is about using your knowledge to gain access to places you cannot go merely on foot. It's all about understanding the elements and what you can do to mitigate them. It's about being prepared for anything and about knowing you can survive in a place as hostile as it is beautiful. It's all very romantic you see and hiking the subway is the first notch on my belt. The first of many to come hopefully!

On to the hike! This hike is one of the most popular in zion and so it is limited to 80 people a day. This requires you obtain a permit in a lottery system usually 3 months in advance. Luckily there is a last minute lottery system that I entered. Out of some 600 bids for my particular day I won! I was excited but also nervous because repelling is not something I have a whole lot of experience with. Luckily I have recently made a friend who is very experienced and so I filled my four slots with her, my neighbor, and my step sister allie.

The hike is just short of 9 miles and involves steep climbs and downclimbs, navigating obstacles in a narrow canyon, rappelling over obstacles and into water, and oooing and ahhhing at amazing scenery and beautiful rock formations. Due to some serious dawdling and a bottleneck at one of the obstacles it took us just over 13 hours to complete the hike. Luckily we got started early with the help of a rather expensive shuttle (in the future I might try hitchhiking instead since we saw several groups with big pick up trucks). It was a great time overall despite one missed turn that cost us some time. Highlights include swimming beneath some debris lodged in a rather narrow canyon slot, sliding down a natural waterslide, and rappelling 30 feet while trying to ignore some rather risky behavior going on behind me.

If I had any complaints it was about a group that was going through about the same time as us. I realy prided myself on being prepared with the necessary equipment and knowhow- extra clothes/food/water filter so that we would be prepared to stay another night as well as helmets and harnesses. This group was a great example of what NOT to do. They were disrespectful to the canyon, other hikers like ourselves, and the very members of their party. Firstly, they did not have a permit which despite being wildly disrespectful to everyone else, is hazardous because it leaves no itinerary with the park which would delay a potential rescue. Secondly, no one had harnesses or helmets and they were "handlining" over the obstacles on a rope that is really meant for tying down loads on a truck and not for holding people at all. They had several kids with them and were merely tying the rope to the kids and hand lowering them over the obstacles. Thirdly, they weren't using the anchors properly which can damage the anchors. Lastly, they were rushing us and not giving us appropriate space to set up our own anchors and handle our business which was mostly just really annoying. We eventually let them get ahead of us but the last obstacle is the longest drop and it took them almost two hours to lower their 19 members down the 30ish foot cliff. At this obstacle, their rope was becoming very frayed so for some reason they opted to try to use another anchor on the other side of the chasm that gave access to a more gradual slope rather than a vertical cliff.

Unfortunately, getting to that point required jumping over a 5 foot gap which one of the kids was not tall enough to do comfortably. They tied a rope around the middle of the boy (just in case!) and three men stood on the other side of the gap holding the rope encouraging him to jump. That poor kid stood there for 15 minutes shaking and fretting, looking down between the boulders. Meanwhile we were sitting there becoming increasingly unsettled with the knowledge that if the kid fell, he might certainly bring the three gentleman standing on the sloping cliff down with him. Is anyone involved wearing a helmet? No. Unfortunately none of these boys seemed to have a mother around to lay down the law. Luckily, the boy made it safely across and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The relief was short lived however as they still had to descend the cliff using their frayed and melting rope. The drop off on that side was much longer, however, and their rope was 5 or more feet short of reaching the ground requiring lowerers to grasp at the bottom of the rope and stretch out on the wet cliff face to the water below.  Miraculously, no one was hurt in this endeavor but man, I would never gamble on my life and limbs like that! Witnessing this was a shame and detracted somewhat for our own experience. But what can you do?

Overall it was a good time and I gained some experience and confidence that I plan on putting to good use in future canyoneering adventures! In the meantime, it's back up to Yellowstone this weekend to hopefully get a glimpse at old faithful and if I'm lucky, a wolf!

So here are the photos in chronologicalish order. Props to Olivia, my neighbor for taking most of these and letting us share her camera. She really did a great job didn't she! Though I must admit I cropped a few of them to enhance the composition and tweaked the levels here and there. It's strange for me to be the one pictured in photos. I feel much more comfortable behind the camera! The ones I did take will have a JRM. Click to enlarge. Check back a little later for some photos of the natural waterslide we were playing in.

Girl power!

In the morning, down into the canyon. JRM

Emily and Olivia showing Allie and I how it's done. JRM

Allie at the first obstacle. JRM

Russel gulch! We climbed all the way down there on a real steep and sandy trail. JRM

A cold swim. I've seen many pictures with just the boulder in this swim. Today, there is a big log where you must swim underneath!
Rappelling down keyhole falls thanks to Emily's anchor building expertise. 
Another swim!
Olivia getting in rappel position. JRM

Olivia snagged this gem

Olivia out ahead. JRM

Everyone lounging in the sun after the cold swims. JRM

There were dragonflies everywhere, landing on my arms and buzzing around. These sat still for just long enough. JRM

Allie bemused JRM

Girl power selfie!

This scene is truly classic.

Either I snapped this one with Olivias camera or we had the same idea. Can't remember! 


More great shots from Olivia

The final rappel into a beautiful system of pools. Can't imagine doing this without a harness!

Here are some photos from the disposable camera. Though the film and plastic aperture make for low resolution fuzzyness, they also seem to capture the magical dream-like quality of moments spent in a beautiful place and the feeling that lingers in the memory thereafter. Or at least that is what the peeps over at instagram are banking on!

Allie lounging in a pool in the subway JRM

Sunlight illuminates the delicate waterways JRM

Blue shade in a particularly beautiful narrows. JRM

The narrows open into a sunlit grotto where Olivia is illuminated.

Gorgeous waterfalls and hanging gardens JRM

Emily examines the famous log JRM

Epic! JRM

Allie is all business as she rappels down keyhole falls JRM

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