Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Zion Narrows

As the echo of a distant jet thundered through the canyon, I thought of a metaphor for the unique experience of hiking the Zion Narrows — it's as close as I'll likely ever get to the sensation of being swallowed by the Earth. The route begins at a bucolic ranch in an grassy valley, a place not unlike any of the cow-populated properties spread throughout the American West. A sun-baked jeep track parallels the Virgin "River," which is little more than a gurgling brook at this elevation. Were it not for the red cliffs surrounding the valley, this place could easily be mistaken for Montana or Wyoming or even central California. The setting lulls me into a sense of complacency until the road ends and we wade into copper-colored, ankle-deep water. This is where the effort ceases to feel like hiking and more like a balance exercise.

The river crossings become more numerous until my focus narrows to the obstacles directly in front of me. So engrossed am I in the fine details of the terrain that I fail to notice as the sandstone walls close in around us.

When I finally look up, I can't help but imagine the esophagus of a monster. The stark change from desert ranch to slot canyon feels almost unnaturally abrupt, as though we're actually being swallowed. The river water deepens and the walls rise until there's no way to quickly escape. I begin to imagine a scenario in which we never leave the canyon, but instead grind our way deeper into the gut of the planet.

The Zion Narrows is such a unique place; I highly recommend the through-hike for a spot on anybody's bucket list. This excursion was particularly satisfying for me because of the people I was able to share it with — my mom and dad, Beat, and my dad's long-time friend Chad. Chad introduced my dad to mountain hiking twenty years ago — and my dad subsequently introduced me to the hobby a few years later. In a way, I have Chad to thank for my passion for the outdoors; I'm not sure I would have become so drawn to the mountains as a teenager if it wasn't for my dad.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, my mom worked hard all summer to get into shape for the sixteen-mile trek on highly difficult terrain. My mom keeps relatively active — I'm pretty sure she's been going to the same Jazzercise class for more than twenty-five years. But I think she finds outdoor activity intimidating and doesn't have nearly the level of experience as my father. When my dad and I decided to plan another Narrows trip, she was determined to join us and vowed to come prepared. She embarked on training hikes, tested knee braces, and established a regime of painkillers after getting the okay from my sister, who's a nurse.

My mom joked that the Narrows is "all downhill" and thus "easier than climbing mountains." I actually disagree. Although the effort is not as much of a cardiovascular workout as steep climbing or running, the strain on muscles and tendons when negotiating the endless bowling-ball-size boulders, slippery stones, and sand — all while fighting the strange resistance of flowing water — isn't trivial. I'm of the opinion that a person would have to be a fairly talented technical runner to average more than two miles per hour down this canyon. As far as fitness levels go, the technicality of the Zion Narrows is a great equalizer. My mom sometimes apologized for going "slow," and I was telling the truth when I assured her that I wouldn't be able to move much faster.

I think my mom was near her physical limit for much of the day. She struggled with knee pain and afternoon fatigue. And my dad was pushing the pace in an effort to keep ahead of both afternoon thunderstorms and potential nightfall. Even I thought the pace was a little too brisk — a couple of times Beat, Chad and I stopped to shoot a few photos and needed ten or more minutes to catch back up to my parents. But I could tell my mom was having fun amid the difficulty.

This was Beat's first time in Zion National Park, and true to form he jokingly urged the group to push the pace and spoke of carving out slivers of time to experience as much other stuff as possible. We even gave some serious consideration to making a quick run up Angel's Landing in the evening. The group logistics made this unrealistic — not to mention our rented canyoneering boots and the triple-digit temperatures outside the canyon would have made for a wholly unpleasant run — so reason prevailed.

The narrowest corridor of the canyon, known as Wall Street, begins just after Big Springs, about four miles from the end. The name seems apt because moving through this part of the canyon actually gave me memory flashes of downtown San Francisco, surrounded by walls of concrete buildings that block out the sun. I always think it's funny when incredible, wild places give me flashbacks of mundane man-made things, but it happens all the time.

The aforementioned triple-digit temperatures made any forays into more open and sunlit areas of the canyon feel quite uncomfortable. Although I was terrified to do so with my injured arm, backpack and heavy boots, we started taking every chance we had to go for a swim. My swollen left elbow didn't end up being much of a problem. There were a few times when we had to down-climb something, and I had to swing around awkwardly to grip with my right arm. Also, I should have made more of an effort to protect the wound, as there's a good chance my infection was exacerbated by the river water. But all in all, I learned you only need one arm (and a big wooden stick) to negotiate the Narrows.

My mom really showed some grit during the hike. She never complained and hardly slowed her pace. Right above Big Springs she mentioned her feet were bothering her and she wanted to fix her boots, but refused to make a special stop. When we finally made our planned stop, she pulled off her neoprene socks and unleashed an impressive stream of blood. My dad helped wash her socks and compared it to cleaning a trout. She made the classic mistake of neglecting to cut her toenails before the hike, and the tight socks caused them to dig deep gashes into her toes. Anyone who has made this same mistake (raises hand) knows how much this hurts. I tried to convince her to put duct tape around her toes, but Beat — the foot expert — insisted duct tape would just fall off and bunch up in the river water, causing more problems. So my mom just had to pull those tight socks back on her feet and gut it out. She's a tough old bird (her words.)

I'm really proud of my mom. Watching her complete the journey was the most satisfying thing about this trek, amid all of the fun survival swimming and incredible scenery. I love that we could all experience it together. 


  1. Great pictures Jill. As far as I'm concerned your Mom rocks!

  2. Yep, I never had that big of a problem with my toes, but I have had the nails dig in on a short day hike prompting my current pre-hike ritual of looking at my feet, getting a clipper and clipping those nails.

  3. This hike is on my bucket list for sure, looks incredible.
    It sounds like you did the entire hike from top to bottom as a day hike, is that correct? 16 miles one way?
    And that you rented your boots/shoes? Would you recommend that as a most to anyone doing the same hike and what else would recommend as a must for this type of excursion?
    Thanks for your feedback.
    Hope your elbows are healing quickly.

  4. Your mom rocks! There's no way I could get my mother to do that. And the way she pushed through the pain, I guess that's where you get some of your tenacity.

    I hiked part of the Narrows (out and back from the bottom to cater to our photographer friend) last fall and loved the experience...but the smell of those rental neoprene booties at the end of the day was horrifying.

  5. Ingunn — agreed on all points. I used to own my own pair of neoprene socks (requisite gear for bike riding in Southeast Alaska) but eventually threw them away because they really started to stink. The rental footwear — I'm not usually all that squeamish about such things, but it's definitely a little revolting.

    Carey — I do think specific footwear is important. The canyoneering boots have climbing rubber soles to grip wet boulders, mesh uppers and hard rubber on the toes. Regular shoes or hiking boots would be too slippery and wouldn't provide the same level of rock protection. The neoprene socks keep wet feet warm and also protect the skin from chaffing on some level, similar to a wet suit. The wooden stick is superior to hiking poles because sometimes you need to throw all of your body weight on it to brace against the current; hiking poles would likely snap. You can rent all of these things from several outfitters in Springdale. We rented from Zion Adventure Co.

  6. thanks for the tips Jill, I appreciate you taking the time to reply.

  7. Yay Jill-mom!!! Ted really still wants to do this hike.

  8. I love Zion... Definitely one of my favorite national parks. Thanks for sharing your pictures.

    And kudos to your mom for her achievement!

  9. I'd recommend not doing it as a day-hike byt camping in the canyon. While a day-hike is entirely doable (though we returned the gear like 3 minutes before the shop closed, that's a problem - the shuttle and bus rides take quite a while) it'll take 8-10 hours if you're moving pretty steadily - we didn't really take much time to explore or take many stops. The campsites looked super awesome and I imagine spending the night would be really cool and also allow exploration of some side canyons ...

    Initially I didn't want to get the boots but they're the right tool for the job - much superior to pretty much anything else I would imagine.

    Cheers, Beat

  10. WOW! Just WOW! Often times I'm not in the 'overly jealous' category of your trips (cuz they are like death-marches and such)..but this one has me seriously in the MUST DO THIS SOMEDAY category. Alas, lots of excuses but no real reasons (other than money and time I guess).

    Your mom is amazing! I can't fathom my mom doing this (well, like 30 years ago I mean). Good for we know where you get some of your mental toughness.

    Thanks for sharing the pics..I LOVE that one of the narrow sun-beam in the canyon coming straight must be other-worldly in there...typically pictures don't do justice to beautiful places, and in this case if that is true then it must REALLY be something to behold!

  11. Looks like a really fun trip! I really need to visit here.

    And as someone that has one arm that is largely for decoration (and sadly permanent), there's lots of stuff you can do with just one arm, it really just takes some adaptation. I hope you can get back at running again soon. :)

  12. Awesome family trip. Not an easy hike, especially for those not used to such things. I agree on the shoes, and neo socks. They make things much more pleasant.

    FWlittleIW, my personal best is 6:30 or so. Sub 5 is very possible, especially as the first third isn't in the water much.

  13. Dave — that makes sense for someone with your skill set. I'm curious what the water level was when you hiked it in 6:30? In my experience the traverse was considerably less difficult and less effort at 35 cfs (this year) than 90 cfs (last year.) Last year, my dad and I took nine hours to hike the canyon. While we were a bit lax about our pace for the first seven miles, we pushed hard without stopping for the last nine miles. This year our group took ten hours, at what I considered a much more relaxed effort. Still, for my part, I doubt I could finish much faster than eight hours, even at low flows. That whole "technical hiking" thing, both with canyons such as the Narrows and what you do with AMWC-type traverses, is fascinating to me. But sadly not something I excel in.

    Karen — I didn't realize you had permanent arm damage. That's impressive that you have adapted as well as you have. I struggle when one of my arms becomes too painful to use temporarily, both with last August's elbow injury, and now this. I hope you had fun on the Lost Coast!

  14. Jill

    Great pictures and a lovely tale.

    On her 80th birthday, with other (younger) members of my family, my mother covered a good 10 mile outing in the Lake District up hill and down dale, rough underfoot. Keep 'em moving!

    As someone remarked above, maybe stamina runs through families.


  15. what a cool adventure and very cool that you could share it with your family...sounds like a perfect day!

  16. Lower flows make a huge difference. I think (very cloudly) it was probably around 50 cfs. I did not swim once, though did come close a few times.

  17. I am SO proud of mom. She told me her feet were "hamburger" but she didn't say much else. I had no idea they were so bad. Maybe the "Homer toughness" has rubbed off on her. Maybe when my kids are older I'll train and do this too. It looks amazing and I love Zions! You'll have to be patient with me though. I'm with Beat
    ... camping overnight to break it up and enjoy the beauty.

  18. I am SO proud of mom. She told me her feet were "hamburger" but she didn't say much else. I had no idea they were so bad. Maybe the "Homer toughness" has rubbed off on her. Maybe when my kids are older I'll train and do this too. It looks amazing and I love Zions! You'll have to be patient with me though. I'm with Beat
    ... camping overnight to break it up and enjoy the beauty.

  19. I really enjoyed reading this post. I did this hike with 3 girlfriends a few years ago and was amazed how challenging it was. We had all come off a full season as hiking guides in Denali National Park and felt like we were in pretty good shape.
    I realize now that we were grossly unprepared for the trip. We knew nothing of the special shoes and all wore our hiking boots. Every one of us took a nasty fall at one point during the trip. Once the trip was over and I looked at other people's photos I felt kind of sad, as though I had really missed out. I realized I spent nearly the entire time staring at my feet to avoid slipping again. I think the river was much deeper the year we did it though. I got so sick of walking on those slippery rocks, I actually swam and floated a lot of it.
    Loved seeing your photos of what I missed.

  20. I really love this post. And the photos of mom and dad. Mom really held her own on this one! I'm proud of all of you. Missing you!

  21. found your blog through a post kam made for campfire chic. this is looks so amazing and i've been dying to get to zion for ages now. hopefully before within the next year, for sure!


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