Tuesday, July 31, 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.