My Introduction to Zion Canyoneering

I planned this summer to be a summer of fun and adventure. I was not planning on much racing and my back/leg nerve issues this winter solidified that decision. Luckily, it did not have much of an impact on my adventure plans (other than shortening the duration of the adventures). My head has been filled with all kinds of ideas for the summer, but other than the volcano skiing, the best ones have been unplanned.

A couple weeks ago I had an email from Tom Diegel asking how long the rope we use for the Powder Keg fixed line up Mt Millicent was. Always curious, my response was 250-300M and what type of adventure are you scheming? This was enough to get an invite for a weekend of canyoneering in Zion National Park. There were no exact plans so we put in for last minute permits for Imlay and Heaps Canyons for Friday and Saturday and figured we would fill in other canyons or runs on days we didn’t draw a permit. Jared Campbell spends a significant amount of time in Zion linking together amazing adventures. My first call was to Jared to find out what I was getting myself into, if I was in above my head, and if I could borrow some gear (pack, wetsuit, rope, etc). As usual, he had a plethora of information and gear and was eager to encourage me. Not wanting to purchase much gear, I was able to remove the soles from an old pair of New Balance MT1210 running shoes and glue on Five Ten Stealth C4 Dot soles. I knew this wouldn’t be perfect, but it would have to do. My timing wasn’t perfect and I ended up cutting and sanding them at our Thursday night campsite.


Shoe grinding at our campsite

Tom, Paul Diegel, Colter Leys and I loaded a ridiculous amount of gear into my truck on Thursday and as we were read to leave the city we got our permit lottery results and finalized our plan. We would get a walk-up permit for Icebox Canyon int the Kolob section of Zion for Friday, pick up our lottery permit for Heaps Canyon for Saturday, and play Sunday by ear.

We had an amazing campsite on Thursday night overlooking the Kolob and were treated to an amazing full moon.

Icebox Canyon Canyoneering Trip with Colter, Paul, Tom

The Kolob from our campsite

I had had only been canyoneering twice before and both times were on guided trips when I was out of the country (Australia and Nepal) so when we got up early on Friday I was a little bit nervous. Luckily Icebox canyon had some familiar terrain, our 7+ mile walk out would be on the trail from Kolob Arch to Lee’s Pass Trailhead a section I have run a few times. We loaded gear and we were off quickly headed down the trail, then bush whacking and scrambling to the North Pass entrance. Not being much of a climber any longer, I was a little nervous on the first rappel, but quickly settled into the groove of quickly moving in and out of rappel stations and getting ropes setup. Canyoneering is a very different mentality than climbing and I continually looked at anchors and gear and questioning it. In climbing, you are taught to have 3 points of protection. Many of our canyoneering anchors were a single bolt or 1-2 pieces of webbing slung around a rock or tree. In climbing you use 10+mm ropes and usually rappel on a double rope. In canyoneering, in order to save time we only let out enough rope to reach the ground or water and then tied it off with a ‘biner block’. As a precaution, I had learned an ‘auto block’ using a prussick to backup my rappel. Most accident happen on rappels so I wanted to be sure I was doing everything in my control to be safe. I ended up using this technique on all rappels that didn’t drop us into pools. Icebox was a lot of fun, we took our time, enjoyed the sites, took lots of photos, had relaxing snack breaks, and then cooked in the sun for the 7+ mile hike out. This was a great introduction canyon. It was not overly challenging and had the perfect amount of rappels, swims, scrambling, and down climbing to get me ready for Heaps.

We reached the trailhead, rehydrated with a beer, ate a little food, then headed to Springdale. We were able to complete Icebox in an easy 9 hours to cover the 12+ miles.

It was late afternoon and we still had to pick up our Heaps permit and stash the long rope at Emerald Pools for our last 300’ rappel out of Heaps. Tom and Colter stashed our rope while Paul and I took over 3 parking stalls in the afternoon sun to dry our gear. We got done with all of this at 8:30 and started looking for dinner. Being a weekend, of course Zion was packed busy. It was 10PM before we finally got to where we were going to camp and still and to get gear packed up and ready to leave by 4:45AM.

Heaps would be a completely new beast. It had a long approach with over 3000’ of climbing; it had long, dark, wet sections; significant amounts of scrambling, and a massive 3 rappel exit with the final rappel being 300’ (and free hanging).

Heaps Canyon Canyoneering Trip with Colter, Paul, Tom

Final Heaps Rappel to Emerald Pools

We had a great hike up to the West Rim Trail from The Grotto and were treated to sunrise just before the rim. After about 3 hours we reached the start of Heaps which was a 65’ rappel, a knife ridge scramble, the a 205’ rappel. This canyon was going to start ‘full on’. We then had a great hike down to the bottom of the wash followed by some great slickrock hiking. From the wash, the real fun of Heaps would being. We donned wetsuits, gloves, and hoods and headed into the dark and wet narrows. We would spend the next 5-ish hours rappel into pools, swimming and wading, crawling out of potholes, down climbing into more pools to eventually find an exit that was still high above the canyon floor. There had been rain causing flash floods several days prior so the water in the narrows was high and full of debris. This was great for escaping pot holes as we didn’t have to deal with any challenging escapes, but it meant we spent more time cold and wet. The narrows were an amazing corridor carved into the sandstone with sunshine visible a couple thousand feet above our head at the canyon rim. It was truly amazing. After 10 hours of hiking, rappelling, scrambling, and swimming, we arrived at the exit point. We got out of wet and cold wetsuits, snacked, warmed up, and then got ready for a short 5.4 climb, then 3 massive rappels out of the canyon to Emerald Pools. We talked through our plan in detail for this exist as there was very little room for error and we would be very space constrained on the rappel ledges so we needed to have things planned and organized. The first rappel dropped us into a small crack with a tree anchor. It was small, but plenty of space for 4. The last rappel station (above the 300’ rappel) would be a small 3’ x 1’ ledge. We talked through our plan of rope management, pack management, etc and headed down. Tom, me, Paul, then Colter. Once Colter was firmly on top of us (there really wasn’t anywhere else for him, we commenced setting up the final rappel. We were all getting tired so we talked through each step, checked and double checked ropes/anchors/knots, then proceeded with caution. We would tie our 120’ and 200’ ropes together, belay Colter down on the 120’ rope, then he would be tied in below the knot and rappel the 200’ rope. He would then get our 250M rope from where it was stashed, we would pull it up, rig it then the 3 of us would rappel on a single strand of this long rope. We had been warned that if we did not plan fully, this could take 4 hours. It was definitely time consuming and we were all stuck in uncomfortable positions on this ledge. It took us 3 hours from the start of the exit to Emerald Pools and 1.5 hours just for the last rappel.

We were all happy to be on the ground. We had a snack and loaded up all our gear for the ~2 mile hike back to the trailhead. We were all giddy on the hike out over the amazing experience we had during the day. After 20+ rappels, lots of swimming and scrambling, and 13.5 hours, we were back at The Grotto trailhead. I found it more mentally exhausting than physically exhausting. We snacked, had a beer, and headed into Springdale to find much needed dinner (and more beer).

After another late night, we were back at a campsite with a plan to do Pine Creek on Sunday. We would hopefully be able to get a walk up permit on Sunday morning. This would be a great canyon as it would take less than 3 hours which would allow us to get home by early evening.

Arriving at the Zion Visitor Center on Sunday morning, I immediately saw Adam and Lindsay from Sedona Running Company. It turned out they were also planning to do Pine Creek. We spent some time catching up both while getting permits and at the trailhead, then we moved on. We had a long drive ahead of us. Pine Creek was a beautiful slot and a nice and easy excursion after the prior 2 days. We enjoyed taking it easy through the canyon with 5 rappels and about 30% water. We enjoyed ourselves and took it easy on our hike through. It was amazing how different all 3 canyons were. We were in a small area and yet each was as diverse as they could be.

My introduction to canyoneering in Zion was amazing. I can’t thank Tom enough for the invite and I can’t wait to return.

Instead of posting a bunch of photos, I merged them into this video of the 3 canyons.