Monday, August 01, 2011

Frustration and awe: The Zion Narrows

In my early 20s, I was a connoisseur of Zion National Park. I spent many weekends making the trip from Salt Lake City down to Southwestern Utah to hike in Kolob Canyon, or the Angel's Landing Trail, or the Subway. I once joined a large group of friends on a 55-mile backpacking trip from the northern edge of Kolob Canyon to the East Rim. Afterward, I looked at a map of the park and determined that I had traveled every single established (nontechnical) trail within the boundary of the national park — with the exception of the Narrows. A decade passed and I still had yet to knock that one off the list.

Of course, the Narrows are the most iconic part of Zion National Park, where the amber ribbon of the Virgin River flows through a thin slot between sheer sandstone cliffs. A somewhat difficult-to-acquire permit, not to mention a shuttle, is required to hike from top to bottom, which is the main reason I had never attempted it. When my dad scored one of these permits for Friday, July 29, I jumped at the chance to join him, and crafted an entire hiking binge road trip around the prospect. I was very excited. Just a few days before our scheduled hike, a massive monsoon storm flooded the canyon with runoff. Flows were more than four times what is normal, and well above the maximum allowable flow before the park service closes the canyon. We watched nervously as it dropped, slowly, over the next couple of days, but was still flowing more than twice as high as normal by the time we departed on Friday morning.


Still, I did not consider higher water to be that much of a problem. So we'd have to swim some? Big deal. I admit I was feeling a bit overconfident as we took an early-morning shuttle to the top of the canyon and started strolling down the ranch double-track that leads to the Narrows. The canyon route was 16 miles long, with an overall elevation loss of about 1,400 feet. And we had all day to do it. Easy peasy.

Let me preface this by saying that I have Utah slot canyon hiking experience — several dry wash canyons in the San Rafael Swell including Little Wild Horse, Bell and Quandary, the aforementioned Subway in Zion, Buckskin Gulch and Paria River canyon, the tough and swimming-heavy Upper and Lower Black Box Canyons on the San Rafael River, and one that skirts the edge of technical canyoneering, the Black Hole through White Canyon above Lake Powell. I'm not a complete canyon novice. But it has been a decade, and in my memory these routes are all filled with smooth sandy washes or small cobbles frequently interrupted by deep pools clogged with driftwood, and semi-terrifying scrambles down sandstone walls. The Narrows has none of these features, with the exception of occasional deep pools. What The Narrows does have is swift-flowing water and rocks. Endless rocks. As Beat would say, @#$&%*! rocks.

I actually think I am becoming clumsier in my old age, but I also think the river flowing at 90 cubic feet per second (as opposed to the usual 40 cfs) made the going more technical that usual. We dropped into the canyon and started picking our way across the slippery, cantaloupe-sized boulders as we crossed the river and doubled back, again and again. Whenever we crossed a channel that was flowing higher than knee-deep, it took all my muscle strength just to brace against my wooden walking stick to keep from tipping over into the rushing water. Once, when may dad was a fair distance downstream and I was trying to pick up the pace, I actually did topple over and was flushed several feet down the river, scraping across rocks as I tried to grab my pole. As far as exercise goes, the hike was, admittedly, a little bit frustrating.

But, at the same time, the canyon was incredibly gorgeous. Whenever I took a moment to look up, I was struck with instantaneous awe, a deep-set appreciation for the skyscraper-like walls towering over this narrow alley of smooth boulders and cottonwood trees. Every time I go to the mountains, I'm filled with a sense of smallness. But here, lost in this narrow crack of the Earth cutting through the vast desert, I was nothing more than a speck. There really aren't words to describe the peaceful feeling brought about by these realizations, these moments when I acknowledge that geography has rendered my existence to almost nothing. And yet I move freely through the vast world with an immuteable sense of purpose, all the same.

We came to this waterfall, about 25 feet high, and peered over the edge. "How do we get around it?" I asked nervously. "Oh, it's not real deep," my dad replied nonchalantly. "You just jump into the middle and hope for the best." He said this with his characteristically dry humor that still fools me every time. "Eeep," I squeaked weakly, before he pointed to a narrow crack hidden by a large boulder that allowed us to climb around the waterfall. My dad is so funny.

Early in the hike, I stopped often to snap pictures and soak in the wonder-inspiring views. But when we stopped at a backpacker camp for lunch and looked at a map, we realized we had only traveled about eight miles in four hours, and the walking only stood to become slower as the canyon tightened the water became deeper and swifter. I felt we had been going fairly hard, but here we were, two fit people who thought we'd be out of the canyon well before the afternoon monsoonal storms, now looking at a potential race against darkness if anything went wrong at all. I think we were both a little shocked by this realization.

From there, we just put our heads down and charged. We took no more breaks. The waterproof camera came out of my pocket much less frequently. Our food, stashed away in ziplock bags, was inaccessible while we were on the move, so we stopped eating. I even stopped drinking, and ended up finishing with nearly two quarts of water, meaning I only consumed about a quart and a half during eight hours of hiking in the desert. It was a full-on march. My exertion level was minimal, but I was honestly going as fast as I could manage and still keep my feet on the ground while negotiating the rocks and swift water. All of the balance issues that plague me in my running came to the forefront, and I teetered and tripped as I struggled to match my dad's pace. Spraining an ankle or wrenching a knee would be a small disaster in that narrow, inaccessible canyon, so I purposely stayed on the careful side of my abilities. But I really think if I had an opportunity to hike the Narrows once a week for an entire summer, the workout would substantially improve my balance, footing and confidence, and I would become a much better trail runner.

About 12 miles into the canyon, we encountered three miles of true narrows, where high ground became nearly nonexistent and deep pools stretched from wall-to-wall. Earlier in the hike we went to great efforts to avoid swimming, scrambling up and over huge boulders and even climbing hundreds of feet above the canyon on steep, sandy slopes, just to avoid having to drop into roiling pour-overs. The swimming proved to be quite strenuous — I'm normally a strong swimmer but it's surprisingly difficult to stay afloat wearing heavy shoes, a pack, and toting a big wooden pole. Still, the time off my feet was a welcome relief, and toward the end we swam every channel we could.

Spending the day in the water also made for a completely comfortable July hike in the desert. Just a few hundred feet above the water, the ambient temperature was a scorching 104 degrees. I could feel the hot sun beating down every time we climbed away from the river. But in the river, with a water temperature of about 60 degrees, I was perfectly comfortable. Toward the end I even felt a bit chilled. Late July seems like a great time to hike the Narrows, although the monsoon season does provide a layer of anxiety. Dark clouds started to build over the canyon in the late afternoon, and at 3 p.m., it started to rain. We tried to pick up the pace and looked around nervously for flash-flood indicators. At that point, we just wanted out of there.

We remained in front of the rest of our morning shuttle group, and enjoyed a full day of solitude. So it was more than a little bit of a culture shock when, about two miles from the end of the canyon, we started to encounter hordes of people who had hiked up from the bottom. It's perfectly understandable why this is such a popular part of Zion National Park, but it was unnerving to suddenly have to weave around huge youth groups and families who were strung across the canyon, splashing around and screaming like they were at a neighborhood water park. By the last mile, we were fighting just to squeeze through crowds of literally hundreds of people. It's just not an ideal way to end an experience like the Zion Narrows. I would do this hike again in a heartbeat, but I think I would be more inclined to consider a trip during the off-season, such as February or March, wearing a dry suit and seeking the solitude and reverence that this canyon experience truly deserves.

Still, it was a fantastic day in one of the most beautiful spaces I have ever occupied. Thanks, dad.