Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
Call of the Wild
by Ram

— December 25, 2014 —

Never again! Never! Never, never again! I swear it! It was just too much of a set up and such a big let down. Oh, oh so close. Descending Heaps Canyon for Christmas Day was a dream. Not least of all because I thought I had figured out just how to do it. So we waited and waited and waited. Year after year. Waiting for that one year when winter conditions would come late.

Some might say doing Heaps in the winter when winter conditions hasn’t arrived yet is kind of a cheat. I knew better. Deep within the wet corridors of Heaps, winter arrived many weeks prior to our planned visit. All that is needed is lower sun angles and time for the inner canyon to turn into a frozen world. I knew that the inner recesses have their own set of rules. Cold air is heavy and the canyon would be a snowy and cold place—an ice box.

But those icy conditions were not what concerned me most. Having done many Zion canyons in winter I know that the time needed to do the lowest and longest narrows of Heaps would not take much more time than the usual 4 hours. It would require caution yes, but these type narrows tend to be manageable. Manageable at least until the snows of midwinter accumulate, become deep, and then start to melt out. You see, the narrow bridges of snow that melt out are often invisible from upcanyon and those are the conditions of true peril. These conditions occur most often in March and April, not the very short days of late December.

So the key to a winter descent was making fast times in other parts of the journey. So I was watching the weather for months leading into our Christmas day tradition. What I hoped for was the approach and access to the canyon to be fast and safe. Speed here was the key to ‘safe passage. It snowed a few times in November and December, but was always followed by a warm spell afterward. I expected some of that snow to remain ... BUT it would be consolidated and older consolidated snow is easier and faster to travel upon than fresh snow.

The plan was built around entering via Gunsight Canyon AKA North Fork of Heaps, not the western fork AKA Phantom Valley approach. Gunsight faces south and if we could, just could, maybe get into that slot with good conditions, we could get down from the canyon head to Crossroads in three hours or a bit more. The numbers started to add up. You say another cheat this Gunsight plan? Go ahead and call it that. I will leave the harder Phantom project to others ... stronger, fitter, bolder. Just learn your winter nuance first. So says I.

A month out, three weeks out, two weeks out, one week out and all was a go ... then with 4 days left, the forecast changed. It said snow the AM of the 25th. It was OK. Four days out was still only 50–50% on accuracy. But the forecast didn’t change. All we needed was for the storm to arrive 5 hours later than it was suppose to.

Tom and I do Lower Refrigerator on the 24th. We test our mini rack devices, with hopes of making the final drop a bit easier. Tim Hoover caches a big rope at Emerald Pools. Big enough to do the watercourse out the bottom. Luke and Tre C come from Vegas and we all stay at Tim’s and Susan’s place in Springdale. They feed us. We do our final packing. Jonathan is a few blocks away and we are to pick him up at 4 AM. We whisper in the dark and pretend the storm will not come.

We awoke at 3AM, eat, boiled water for the thermoses, did final packing, and brought our gear out to the cars. My first trip to the car was at 3:10 AM—cloudy, but no snow. My second trip to the car was at 3:13 AM and there was a full–on blizzard happening, snow immediately sticking to the driveway, cars, and us. I sighed deeply. Maybe it would stop. Maybe it would be off and on as the forecast implies was possible. Maybe it wouldn’t be snowing 10 miles away. I was ... maybe all of us were in full denial and we proceeded as if the weather would work out.

We picked up Jonathan a minute before 4 AM and he was ready to go. Off to the Grotto trailhead. Minutes passed 4:15 AM, we were hiking in a full blizzard. The snow caused no real challenges, but neither was it letting up. Up to the Angels Landing turn off and beyond to the Imlay Bridge. Just beyond here, we noted that the snow was laying atop a layer of ice on the trail. We noted it by slipping to our butts. Out came the micro spikes. The snow intensified and accumulated. One inch, two inches, three, and then more. We passed the Behunin turn off and no one saod what everyone was thinking—Heaps was out! To descend Gunsight in these conditions would take several additional hours. That would tip the thing into impracticable.

Just before the West Rim we stopped at a spot sheltered from the snow and wind. We were able to put packs down, organize gear, eat, and drink hot fluids ... and get very cold, very quickly. Tom had been up front, flaunting his fitness along with Jonathan and Tim, but announces now that he was ill and begged off now that Heaps was off the table. He would head down, nap for three hours midday, go home, and take a few days to recover. The rest of us???? What to do? We continued up to the rim, now having tossed around the idea of doing Telephone Canyon. Its an OK canyon that could just be great, dressed up in winter. First light allowed us to turn off our headlamps after 2,500 feet of ascent in a blizzard and the dark.

Now was a critical time. We found our way over to the canyon head and the wind was whipping. There was no wind block. The snow stung and the prospect of stripping down and into gear for the canyon was a very unattractive prospect. I eyed my partners as they wrestled with the discomfort confronting them. It was the time people could bail on the project. To their credit, they agreed to go on. Hearty giggles were heard as folks exposed skin to the subzero windchill and then suited back up—three in dry suits, two in wet suits.

The normal access to the canyon is a downclimb of 20 feet to a tree and then a 200–foot rap. That slope is impossible in these conditions—at least for a last person, it is. A snowy slide and over the abyss would be the likely result. We also noted a rope and pull–cord left at the normal tree entry. It was frozen into the wall. We spied another tree on the left looking downcanyon. This too was a dangerous proposition, but I saw something I liked. I slid gently into the tree from above, stemming its trunk, sliding down to the tiny platform, and spotting Jonathan down to set the anchor up.

I watched Jonathan ease out on the of the snow–laden, slabby cobblestone slope to the edge. He did not like how sharp the edge was there. He gingerly slid over to another lip, smiled, and disappeared below the edge. I was next and when I came to the edge I was enthralled. The view down showed a large tube–shaped drop, drawing, calling me on, eloquently descending straight down toward an ice–covered pothole. The walls had horizontal stripes of snow that had clung to the circular sloping ledges. I rode past the tiger stripes to the bottom, broke the ice, dropped two more small drops, and got off rap below Jonathan.

I was tasked with finding the next anchor. It was my third time in the canyon and the first time in 11 years. No sign of an anchor and no material on this level. I suspected a bolt on the wall but it was invisible to the eye, buried in snow–plastered walls perhaps?. I took my ski pole, opened it, and slid it over the snow–covered wall like a windshield wiper, hoping to find something and keep my hands dry and sort of warm. I found nothing. I took a short break, heard others come down the big drop, and went back to the task of wiping snow off the wall, this time higher up and with tricky balance. Eureka! An anchor appeared. Tre C arrived. Rope was requested.

When I started my first rap down, the snow had mostly stopped. Patches of blue sky appeared, the wind continued to howl and flurries continued to fall from clouds not always seen. Then the sun burst into the canyon . The canyon was southeast–facing. I thought that perhaps no one had been here, with this timing, to see what I was seeing—the sun coming into the slot seemingly from below us, trom an angle possible just a few December days a year. And if someone were to do the canyon then, they would not likely be here this early. I noted something magical, looking out from the the top of the second rap. The sky was blue, with cloud flowing in and out nearby. The sun was reflecting crystals from the flurries seemingly drifting in slow motion up, down, and all around. Down here, a bit protected from the wind, the sun was almost warm as I observe the wondrous light show. I knoe, that if we returned safe, what I saw in front of me right now was very much worth the price of admission. I pointed the wonders out to those that came down to join me.

When the rope arrived, I took the lead. I thought only Tim had not done the canyon and he followed closely. I combined drops, unaware of the usual sequences. I recalled some downclimbs, but they were greased up with plastered snow and wet rock. Tim offered to sit on my pack as I took hold of the attached sling, hand–lining down some drops. I was uncertain I could downclimb safely in these conditions. Two of my four partners following me would lose purchase and ‘come in hot,’ sliding in quite fast but into a safe landing as we all regrouped halfway down the canyon.

I slipped to last, sated with my time out ‘on point.’ A tough rope pull lead into a section of canyon that had many short drops, was firmly in the shade, and was quite slippery with the new layer of snow. Just a few degrees of sun angle separated deep winter from the warmth just above.This was cold dangerous work and Jonathan mostly took point. But others got up front too. I stopped taking pictures as the passage required more of my attention. This section ate time in large bites. Anchors remained difficult to locate under drifted snow but the beauty was sublime.

We accepted spots from each other for what were normally easy downclimbs. We knew early on that the normal exit along slickrock slopes would likely be out of condition and so it was. Much time would be spent finding viable lines of descent, well lower than the standard exit. We slid down snow and slickrock into trees, hoping cactus was not under the snow, and criss–crossed the drainage in search of safe purchase.

Once we reconnected with the trail, the drysuit crowd stripped down and Tim and I, adorned in wet suits, moseyed on down. Luke and Tre C took many pictures and were a tad behind. We were alone all day long till we got to the Angels Landing trail junction. It was after 4:30 PM and we found crowds, most from India, some from East Asia, and the occasional Anglo, pushing daylight to the limit. We arrived at the Grotto at a solid 13 hours, car–to–car, having given many hours to caution on snowy slopes and elusive anchors.


Tales of FreezeFest:
Perfect Beginning • Ram
Escape from Canyon X • Tom Jones
FreezeFest II • Ram
Logjams in the Black Hole • Ram
Fixed Ropes in the Black Hole • Dave Black
Joining the Shenanigans Club • Ryan Cornia
FreezeFest III • Ram
Cheese on Ice • Ram
FreezeFest IX (short film) • Dan Ransom  
Crystal Kaleidoscope • Ram
Christmas in Imlay • Ram
A Left Fork Christmas • Ram
Call of the Wild • Ram
Mysterious Christmas • Ram
Holy Water • Ram
A Christmas Heaps • Tom Jones

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