Canyon Tales
An Unexpected Sleepover
by Eric Godfrey

— Kolob Canyon TR —

School has started and it is time to sneak in a quick trip over the holiday weekend since trips will become even less frequent now that I am doing school full–time. I contacted a few different people about taking a trip down to the Swell or the Roost to do some canyons, but everyone seemed to be too busy to fit it into their schedules. I started to think that I would end up spending the weekend watching season openers for college football instead of canyoneering ... what a tragedy. Then came a phone call, a group of guys from St. George that I met at the ACA canyoneering course gave me a call at the last minute and invited me to come down to Zion. I did Spry with them back in the spring shortly after taking the ACA course but hadn’t done a canyon with them since (they hadn’t done another canyon since—period). They are a nice group of guys and, considering the alternative, it wasn’t much of a choice. I was off to Provo to meet up with them.

We raced down to Cedar City to pick up wetsuits before the Mountain Shop closed. We missed it by about 10 minutes, but luckily I know the girl that was working that night, and she hung around to ring us up. We hoped to make it to the backcountry desk to get our permits before 7 PM, but started the drive too late and didn’t even come close. I was a little nervous of the fact that I didn’t really know a couple of the guys going with us or their actual ability. I was assured that one of the two I didn’t know was an experienced rock climber and had a lot of experience rappelling and all that, so that made me feel a little better. But it sounded like I was by far the most experienced in the group (a little scary in itself), and they were trusting me to take charge and get everything figured out. (I was the only one that brought maps and route descriptions ... what they were planning on doing if I didn’t come I don’t know.) I was also nervous of the fact that we were going to start late due to having to stand in line for a permit in the morning.

5:30 AM the alarm rang out. We threw down a little breakfast, packed our gear in the car, and headed out of St George (where most of the group was from; we stayed at their parent’s houses). We reached the permit window a few minutes before 7:00 AM and sure enough the line was as long as ever. An hour of waiting and talking to the guys in front of us in line about mine and their recent trip down Heaps. (They did it in shorties by the way. Did it in one day and reached the last rappel by 2:30 PM. Needless to say, they moved QUICK because they were freezing their butts off. The one guy said he shivered for five hours straight. They were doing it again on Sunday with shorties. I guess some people enjoy being miserable in the canyons ... I don’t get it.)

An hour passes and, as eight o’clock rolls around, we finally have our permits. We hop in the car and drive to the West Rim Trailhead to find our way into the canyon.

Nine o’clock we start hiking down the old logging road. I am the only one with a map and route description, so I am automatically in charge of finding the way into the canyon. We are looking for a fork in the road but never see it. I can tell from the terrain that we are past the pass we are supposed to go up, so we stop to do some situational assessment (that’s for you Ben). One of the guys was debating weather he should bring his GPS or not but luckily decided to bring it. I had him pull it out since we have it, and we confirm from the coordinates that we are slightly off–track. We backtrack a little and find our way over the pass and down to the road we were supposed to follow in the first place.

After a bit of hiking we make our way down to Kolob Creek. The water district said they were releasing 3 cfs from the reservoir, but Ray at the permit window advised us that with added spring flow this year plus possible water coming over the spillway because of rain, the flow could be higher. At first glance the flow looked fairly significant. Shane’s description said if it is flowing more than a trickle, don’t go. This looked like more than a trickle so we all stopped and assessed the situation again. We pulled out our amazing mathematical skills and did what was suggested on the canyons/canyoneering forums: we found in one spot the average depth was about 3 inches, the creek was around 9 feet wide, and by throwing a stick in the water it moved about one foot in one second. So from that we figured it was running around 3 cfs. Perfect! Exactly what we were hoping for.

We continued on until we came to the first rappel. It was great fun watching Jessie—a BYU student from Texas who had done a lot of climbing and rappelling but had never been to Zion—get overly excited about how awesome and beautiful the canyon was. He was getting really excited already, and we hadn’t even dropped into the canyon yet ... this was going to be fun.

Before suiting up, we ate a little lunch then threw on our gear and headed down. I went down first so I could set up the next rappel while everyone else went down. Dustin wanted to be last so he could get some experience with making sure the rope would pull, etc, ... so we stayed in this order throughout the rest of the trip. Looking at the first waterfall from above and now from below, it was easy to determine that our calculation was correct and that the flow in the canyon was not at all too much—it was just right.

The technical section was full of rappels down waterfalls, swimming through frigid pools, a few fun jumps, at least one good downclimb, and a really fun waterslide (the first time down I held on to the rope to make sure it was ok to slide, then I climbed back up the rope and slid down it three more times while waiting for everyone to finish the big rappel above). One of the members of our party, I learned at the beginning of the canyon, had only rappelled one time in his life. This slowed us down slightly but he did a great job. Another thing I learned after doing the first 140+foot rappel, one friend who claimed he had a 60–meter static rope, actually had a 60–meter dynamic rope. He still claims it’s static, but that thing was like rapping down a bungee cord by the time you reached the bottom of the long raps! This slowed us down slightly also. Some rappels seemed to take quite a while because of the fact that there were six of us that needed to make our way down the rope at each drop too.

After finishing the technical section the long scenic hike along the slippery rocks of Kolob Creek began. The tall waterfall dropping into the canyon from the rim was very impressive as it had a decent flow coming down it. Some of the members of the group were not used to the slippery rock hiking, and there was a lot of slipping and falling going on. Some guys seemed pretty frustrated, but, with the late start and all the time it took us to get through the technical section, we needed to move as quickly as possible. Three of us took the lead, and three others would fall behind. Occasionally we would stop and wait ten minutes or so to let the others catch up. The hike out seemed extra long because of the added stress of trying to make it to the exit before dark. Everyone was hungry and tired, but we really didn’t have time to rest so we kept on hiking. After a couple of hours, we finally reached the MIA exit. It was about 7:30 PM and I pulled a little food out of my pack and threw it down as fast as I could while we waited for the lagging three to catch up. Everyone was starving, and we needed to refill water before climbing out. So, as quickly as we could, we did all that and started our way up the MIA around 8:00 PM.

The MIA was everything everyone said it was. We followed the instructions in our description as best we could. The first exit canyon started to steepen up quite a bit and we looked desperately for the pass we were supposed to locate and climb over. It was getting dark at this point and was hard to see much. We searched high and low trying to find footprints or something we could follow to the pass. Two of us went down to scout out a trail while the others waited. We looked for a bit and finally found a decent social trail going in the direction we wanted. We called the others over and started up the trail with our headlamps ablaze. The trail ended with a 5.something exposed section and we all decided maybe this trail wasn’t the best one to follow.

We started to make our way across back to the main drainage where I found another set of footprints and decided to give them a try. Luckily this set took us to the pass with the hoodoo we had been searching for for the last hour or so. Now our next task was to make our way down to the actual exit drainage. I again took the lead and followed another social trail into a side drainage. I was worried that we were on the wrong trail because this side drainage wasn’t mentioned in the description I had. We hoped for the best, thinking, if we are lucky, this will drop us easily into the drainage we needed to get into to hike out. It soon slotted up and had a couple minor downclimbs. Once again I took off, while everyone else waited, to see if we could follow this to the exit canyon. I climbed down 4 or 5 easy spots and came to a section of two 10– or 15–foot drops. They looked downclimbable, but I didn’t know if I would be able to get back up them very easily. We could rap them, but we knew there was a better way, plus who’s to say what’s below. Didn’t look to smart to continue down this slot in the dark. I turned around, climbed back up the slot and told everyone it was a no–go.

We then went back up the way we came, looking high and low for footprints or something that would indicate a trail into the main drainage, but we couldn’t find anything. So we opted to climb back up where we came from to the pass with the hoodoo and figure out what we wanted to do from there. By now it was around 11:00 PM and everyone was tired. No one felt like dropping into that canyon again when there was a good chance we would run into another dead end and have to start over again. We all opted to spend the night; the sun would be up in six hours or so, and we knew it would be so much easier to hike out when it’s light again than trying to find social trails with our headlamps all night. The air temp was fairly warm all night luckily. But most of us were still slightly wet so it was a long cold night for all.

Finally the sun came up; we woke up from our sandy beds, threw our packs on and started up the rest of the MIA once again. We dropped into the side canyon we were in the night before, only this time noticing a trail about fifteen feet from where we were wandering earlier. We followed this trail and it lead straight into the main drainage. It was straightforward climbing to the rim from there. After reaching the rim, we ate what little food we had left then hiked the road back to the cars. When we reached the cars, we saw multiple park ranger vehicles and wondered if we had started a panic and they were looking for us.

There was a note on our car from Ray on Zion’s search–and–rescue squad telling us to call ASAP. As we were driving out, we passed one of our group members’ dads who was very pleased to see us ok. He informed us that the park vehicles were for a rescue taking place in Imlay, I guess someone broke an arm or leg (I forget which) and they weren’t really going to worry about us until they got that person out. I missed my ride back to Salt Lake because of the ordeal, but other than that everyone had a great time. I spent the weekend hanging out with my friends’ families until they headed back to Provo Monday night.

Kolob was awesome with all the water flowing, one of the prettiest canyons around for sure! This story will be included (a MUCH shorter version of course) in my letter to Zion about why I hate the permit system. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason we spent the night. But, if we had one more hour of daylight, we would have at least made it to the road, and I think we could have handled the roads a little better with headlamps. Live and learn, I guess. It was a good experience and, luckily, I slept better than most on our unexpected night in the canyon (although I did shiver quite a bit). Can’t wait for my next adventure!

September 11, 2005

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© 2005 Eric Godfrey