Canyon Tales
Zion Trifecta
by Jared Campbell & Buzz Burrell

We’d been planning the Trifecta for over a year. As of June 27, 2009 there is now one less amazing project in Zion National Park undone.

Trifecta Training
by Jared Campbell

Well, I was already on track for making 2009 the finest year in my life ... and things just keep getting better. For those of you who follow my travels and adventure plans you’re likely aware of an up–coming goal called the Zion Trifecta. The Zion Trifecta is a simple goal centered around three big Zion National Park technical slot canyons: Imlay, Heaps, and Kolob Creek. And ... why not try cramming them all into a single 24–hour period just so we can use the acronym that I’ve come to love—IAD (In A Day).

The Zion Trifecta was something that came up several years ago in a discussion I had with Brian Cabe at a climbing gym on a typical winter night in Salt Lake City. Brian is an encyclopedia of outdoor knowledge and he was intrigued by my recent Zion adventures at the time (an early December 2006 descent of Birch Creek, followed by a December 23rd, 2006 decent of Englestead, and then a subsequent ascent of what we called the ‘Zicicle’ at the head of Englestead on January 20th, 2007).

Brian mentioned that Tom Jones and Steve Brezovec had done Imlay AND Heaps IAD which caught my attention. Brian and I got to talking and jokingly said why not try to do Imlay, Heaps, AND throw on full Kolob. I laughed for a moment but then quickly started the mental calculations to see if it was possible. Within a few moments I had convinced myself that it was.

Fast forward to June of 2009 after several years of learning the three canyons as well as refining canyoneering skills with my two good friends Ryan and Buzz. This past weekend the three of us were in Zion NP with the goal of getting our systems fine–tuned and trying to have the three canyons fresh on our minds for the big push which is to happen in the next few weeks (exact date is condition dependent).

Friday, June 5th, 2009—We hoofed it up the West Rim Trail, hit the first rappel for Heaps in about 2 hours, ran down, suited up at the start of the technical section, made it through the technical section in 2 hours, and then executed the final three–rappel sequence in pretty good style, arriving back at the road in about 7 hours. The pace didn’t feel rushed at all. In fact, it was pleasant and allowed time for us to all constructively critique each other on things that we could do better to increase efficiency but in a safe manner.

If Heaps were approached in a ‘race’ mentality (not that it has to be) I feel that it could be done in 5 hours road–to–road. During Trifecta, we will do it on about a 7–hours pace. We all felt totally safe, learned more about the nuances of our systems, and gained a very high level of confidence in our new gear (Imlay Mystery packs, Bagarino and Baguette rope bags, 4/3 wetsuits, hoodie, free dive gloves and booties, and 8mm BlueWater Canyon–pro static ropes). A big kudos to Tom Jones for his excellent Imlay Canyon gear: it truly is THE way to go.

Saturday, June 6th, 2009—Our goal was Imlay. Given that we only had one car, we hoofed it back up the West Rim trail to Potato Hollow from the canyon bottom (about 8.5 miles and a bunch of vert) which tacks on over 2 extra hours from the ‘normal’ approach. We arrived at the first rappel in about three hours and started the sequence of five large entry rappels, which went fine, just slow. Everything about this day was slow and relaxed which we were all okay with. The middle portion of the canyon took much longer than any of us remembered from our previous times through it. We really excel at moving quickly through technical sections so once we hit the lower part of Imlay we started to fly. Total time from the start (road) to Temple of Sinawava was just under 10 hours.

Sunday, June 7th, 2009—The original goal Sunday was to do Kolob and exit MIA, however, given the large amount of skepticism from the canyoneering community regarding large and dangerous ice buildup in the canyon, we decided to forgo it given that Ryan and I know the canyon well already and we felt that going through it again wouldn’t do anything for our speed. We thought it best to let it melt for several more weeks and watch the Internet for signs of someone else going down it first. So instead we decided to do something new.

“How about the Icebox Canyon Loop,” Buzz proposed.

Sounded good to all of us so we went for it. Wow! is all I can say. Everything about this loop was perfect. The approach is difficult enough that it will keep most folks from attempting it. The entry rappels and views are spectacular, the canyon itself is perhaps my favorite I’ve ever done, seeing Kolob Arch at the end is real treat, and the run back to the car is awesome, especially in the not–too–brutally–hot conditions that we were lucky enough to have. We were back at the car in less than 7 hours from the time we left.

We’re kicking ourselves a little bit for not checking out Kolob, but Icebox was so good that it was worth it.

After this trip all three of us are highly confident in the Trifecta and we’re all itching to get back down for 24 hours of fun.

Jared Campbell

Zion Trifecta
by Buzz Burrell

We’d been planning the Trifecta for over a year and, as of June 27, 2009, there is one less amazing project in Zion National Park ‘undone.’ Jared Campbell, Ryan McDermott, and I did the three biggest canyons in the Park in one day.

Zion is aptly called a ‘Sandstone Yosemite.’ An appropriate name, but what ‘Yo’ lacks are the extremely narrow slot canyons deeply incised into the soft sandstone; they are often filled with cold water, are dark, and end in high vertical pour–offs above the main canyon bottom; an entire world apart—literally invisible until one finds and rappels into their depths.

Only in the last 10 years has the sport of canyoneering developed. Needless to say, the thought of not just doing them but seeing how fast I could do them entered my mind years ago. I’m way too old to win any trail races or set records on well–known big routes, but age paradoxically has some benefits similar to those of youth: 1) You don’t try to fit in and instead do what pleases you; 2) You can be a pain in the ass and your friends and family still tolerate you.

We’ll leave #2 alone; #1 is the aspect pertinent to this project. Projects like the Trifecta, are like ‘Plucking the low–hanging fruit, located way far out on the limb.’

— 3:00 AM —

We leave Lava Point TH and start running, with full packs, the 5 miles down to the head of Imlay Canyon. Three weeks ago we all came here and ‘pre–ran’ these canyons individually in order to dial them in. (Except for the last one, which will prove fateful … read on). This really helps; we are carrying three ropes of the exact length needed, marked at key distances in order to precisely set the rappels without looking or measuring. Since it is night, we are using headlamps, and the canyon entry is a linked series of 5 rappels each over 100′ in length down a near vertical cliff, so technical proficiency is a very good thing.

Once in the canyon proper, we motor down, scrambling through brush, blocks, and small pouroffs, occasionally wading pools, and setting short raps we couldn’t downclimb. It will surprise everyone to know we are wearing full one–piece wetsuits with neoprene gloves and booties inside our shoes. This water rarely sees the light of day; it’s cold! Even though these canyons are immediately surrounded by a desert landscape currently baking in 97 degree heat, arriving at ‘the business’—the extreme narrows—we additionally don a neoprene vest with full hood for additional warmth. Dressed thus, like extras in a James Bond movie, we blow by a party of four getting out of camp while doing this canyon in two days, at a full trot, ropes and hardware clanging at our waist.

“Is this a reality TV show?” one guy called out after us.

Nope. This is the strange niche sport of speed canyoneering.

We quickly do about 30 rappels, all short, all into dark potholes mostly filled with cold water. One then swims to the other side, scrambles out, and repeats. An utterly amazing and unique place on earth. Lower water levels is more difficult, as the potholes are slick, smooth, and almost vertical—a ‘keeper’—it’s impossible to climb out. Three times we resort to hookin’ out—placing a talon hook into a tiny hole drilled into the rock, and pulling oneself up and over the lip. Ryan is especially good at this; once out he would reach down and give me a hand; sometimes I leave a foot for Jared to grab; even though he could easily get out by himself, canyoneering is very much a team effort; individual pride is bad. Like adventure racing, the team is only as fast as its slowest member, so partner–assists and all kinds of never–ever–done–rockclimbing moves are applauded. The best and fastest is when you forgo downclimbing or rappelling, and just leap in—kaboom! The splash echoes in the narrow chambers, the cold water leaks down your back, and it’s hard to suppress a ‘yippee!’ Like being a kid again.

Or as Tom Jones says, “Canyoneering: sort of like fun. Only different.”

— 9:32 AM —

Temple of Sinawava Trail Head — 6:32 for Imlay is blazing. For the first (and not the last) time, we employ collapsable trekking poles, which really helps in powering out of Zion Narrows; hiking over slippery round rocks submerged in a running river is fun with poles. We had obtained a special permit allowing our car to be parked there overnight, so we re–fuel as we drive down to the Grotto TH.

— 10:00 AM —

West Rim Trail — How many times have we done this!? It’s still a fabulous trail, but carrying full wetsuits, ropes, and still–wet gear up 2,500 vertical feet in 90 degree temps is not the optimal way to experience it. Casual hikers must be wondering what the heck we are doing in the desert with all that stuff. On the final switchbacks I decide to throttle back; I’m burning up too much water and fuel. This costs us maybe 5 minutes, but I feel very good about doing it; this means I’ll be solid for the rest of the day. Ryan is very fit and a great climber and Jared is a monster who will power this train. So I view my job as not making any mistakes and keeping my wheels on the track so as to not slow this locomotive down.

Heaps Canyon is what we’re hiking up to the top of. 2:28 after leaving the TH, we start the entry raps; these go well, and soon I’m employing the poles and saving my knees running down the slickrock bowls of Phantom Valley into the start of the Narrows. Heaps is a delight; the pots are full and clear, and we jump when we dare, downclimb when we don’t, and rap when we have to. We’re moving slower than normal but make it to the spectacular exit sequence in good form. The Heaps exit is legendary. It’s 500 feet straight down a vertical wall! This is done by linking 60′, 165′, and 285′ free–hanging rappels, made all the more glorious as you end up at the upper Emerald Pools, one of the most popular trails in the Park, where a few dozen tourists sit and watch the whole spectacle. They often break into applause when the first person reaches the ground, which is understandable as it appears the rope doesn’t reach the ground and the rappeller will go right off the end to his death (there’s a reason it looks like that which I won’t explain now).

— 5:38 PM —

7:38 for Heaps — slower than our 7 hours flat of three weeks ago, but we’re on schedule. And the 14:38 for the Zion Double is pleasing—the only other Double we know of took 23 hours 6 minutes.

We’re in the car, eating, drinking, and driving back up to Lava Point to start our third canyon. We bring a unique package of skills to a project like this; Jared for example, has twice finished third at the Hardrock 100–mile trail race, as well has climbed over fifty 5.13 routes. Put him at the front of the rope and off you go. We learned specialized techniques and purchased key equipment for this project, which rather than being a bother, all adds to the experience. Unlike a running race, which is mostly a test of singular cardiovascular ability, for this you gotta have it all. By combining our athletic histories with newly developed canyoneering tools and techniques, we are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and make a quantum shift in how long it takes to descend a technical canyon.

— 7:10 PM —

Depart car for Kolob Canyon. OK, it’s a little late to be starting a route that sometimes is done in two days! On the hike to the entry, I think over and over: “I’m sooo glad to have strong and solid partners.”

Kolob is possibly the most beautiful canyon in Zion. It’s fed by dam–release, so there is clear, cold water flowing throughout. It’s quite an experience to be rappelling a 150′ high wall, into a cavern, streaked by green moss, sunset barely seen through the slit above, with the constant sound of running water … because you’re rappelling down IN the waterfall.

Jared hits the bottom on the last rap and I see his headlamp go on, as I clip in to the rope with the last vestiges of daylight. Ryan’s and my headlamps go on at the bottom—we sure nailed the timing on that! There’s some swims and short raps (because we can’t jump and submerge the lamps), but then we are hiking downcanyon, a couple hours of trying to stay upright while quickly hiking in a flowing creek. A beautiful place.

We reach the MIA Exit at 11:45 PM. This is a route that exits the canyon and climbs steeply back up to the car. We all feel fit and eager, and there is plenty of time.

“It’s in the bag unless we get lost!” I exclaim.

Never say things like that. Because that’s precisely what we do. Totally lost. We don’t know if the route is to the right or left, but it definitely is’t where we are. The canyon walls are very steep, covered with oak brush, cactus, and consisting of loose dirt over crumbly sandstone slabs. After mucking around for awhile, we finally slog straight up and go out, thankfully arriving at a closed jeep road that will take us back to the trailhead. Go left or right? We have a 50–50 chance and blow it again. We go right and spend a half an hour hiking to a dead end, at which we reverse course and re–trace our steps.

The sub–24 Trifecta now out the window, I relax and enjoy a wonderful night hike in the clear moonless sky. Venus was big, and Mars is rising red on the horizon. It has been a terrific day, one of the best I’ve ever had, with great friends, in one of the most remarkable places on the planet. On a huge route no one so much as stubbed a toe or dropped a biner; there were no near–misses, no weirdness of any kind. We dreamed up a big idea, researched how it might be possible, created a detailed plan, trained for it, and then actually executed it to perfection. Well, until the very end. For 21 straight hours we enjoyed the sweet, ephemeral marriage of brains and brawn, until brains decided to leave the relationship. It was terrific; a better record than most of my relationships.

— 4:03 AM Sunday —

Car. 25 hours, 3 minutes ain’t bad. In fact, it’s all good.

‹› ‹› ‹›

—  June 27–28, 2009  —

Jared Campbell, Ryan McDermott  &  Buzz Burrell



    0:00 – Lava Point TH (3:00 AM)
    1:00 – arrive entry rappel
    5:33 – off last rap into Virgin River
    6:32 – arrive at Temple of Sinawava

Reorganize, refuel, drive to Grotto with car at Sinawava


    7:00 – start hiking West Rim Trail
    9:28 – arrive entry rappel
    10:33 – start Heaps narrows
    14:28 – arrive at Grotto

Drive car up to Lava Point


    16:10 – leave car for Kolob
    16:43 – Kolob entry rappel
    20:56 – start up MIA exit*
    22:36 – arrive at dirt road*
    25:03 – arrive at car

*become utterly lost, lose over two hours


Imlay Canyon — 6:32
Heaps Canyon — 7:38
Kolob Canyon — 8:53

Zion Double — 14:38   (Imlay + Heaps)

Zion Trifecta — 25:03  (Imlay + Heaps + Kolob)


Imlay — still running at the top, fairly low water in mid–section; in the narrows had to hook out of three potholes including one requiring two hooks.

Heaps — had to take foot off the gas pedal approaching West Rim due to heat; narrows section was beautiful, full of clear, cool water.

Kolob — 3cfs at top, lots of water falling down from the spring, and fair amount in Oak Creek for a sizable flow below the spring; one big chunk of ice which was surprising but not a factor.


My partners — are fun, fast, supportive, and safe, all at the same time! The best way to get almost anything done is good partners—these people are great. Jared in particular is responsible for much of the speed as, at this level of canyoneering efficiency, the key is to move the rope forward. Jared was the caboose and was able to move the rope to the front of the train where it could be deployed.

To whomever — who figured all this out, and placed all these anchors! Someone else’s really hard work enabled me to just cruise and enjoy it all. Thanks.

Tom Jones — if you’re not using Imlay Canyon Gear and the techniques that go with it, you’re wasting a lot of effort and time.


We wanted sub–24 hours for the Trifecta, and adopted techniques and calculated a timetable enabling us to do it. We were spot on, even to the point of pulling the rope on the last Kolob rap just as we had to turn the headlamps on. Everything had gone perfectly, and we were feeling strong and eager, as we de–suited and started up the MIA exit with a little more than three hours to spare. We got totally lost. Every wrong turn possible we took. We still could have gotten under 24, but inexplicably turned right on the road instead of left, following it for 30 minutes to its dead end before retracing 0:30 back.

Oh well.

It was a fabulous day, in a terrific place, with great friends.

Buzz Burrell

Ambitious Adventures in Zion:
  Just Imlay & Heaps in a Day • Tom Jones
  Zion Trifecta • Jared Campbell & Buzz Burrell

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2009 Jared Campbell & Buzz Burrell