Canyoneering in Zion, May 2022

Pine Creek, Tuesday 24th

Description (Canyoneering USA)

Ah, Pine Creek. The most technical canyon I did on my last trip to Zion, featuring an epic 30 m final rappel which at the time seemed impossibly far. We had arrived at this rappel to find a long line of other groups, and when it was finally our turn it took our group of eight almost ninety minutes to descend. Needless to say, this time I was determined that we would be a little faster.

The next day was Pine Creek, a shorter but wetter canyon than Spry. Both canyons start on the far side of the Mt Carmel tunnel, and end up on the near side. Spry forms a bigger C which encloses the smaller C of Pine Creek. The canyon starts with an immediate unavoidable swim, which is very welcome in the hot sun in full neoprene.

The closest parking to the canyon was closed due to a rock fall, but the walk in was still very short. We changed into neoprene in the shade, and Rhys led the way, immediately taking a dunking in a deep and refreshing pool. This first rappel is very pleasant, and the rest of the canyon rapidly unfolds.

Alex’s little peep hole.

Pine Creek is popular for a reason – it is very fun, and very beautiful. As with many Zion canyons, the diffuse light bouncing down through the narrow slot provides stunning illumination of the textured and sculpted rock, and it’s easy to spend an age lost in the contemplation of the next arch or pothole.

The camera got a bit wet here, so the photos are more impressionistic – Rhys swims out under the arch of the Grand Cathedral, a spectacular rappel into a deep, cold pool. At this point most of the team put on neoprene gloves and even hoods.

The highlight of the middle of the canyon is the Grand Cathedral, a nice 15 m rappel into a deep pool, followed by a swim out under a grand arch. The water is impressively cold given it isn’t flowing and the temperature reaches 32 C during the day. Most people added extra neoprene at this point to stay warm, and the canyon plunged and twists into a series of short swims and wades, broken by downclimbs and pitches.

The narrow slot canyon alternates between wading and swimming.

At times you can hear the cars from the Mt Carmel tunnel, and occasionally catch a glimpse of the windows in the rock wall, high above the canyon floor. The canyon mellows out a bit and gets slightly sunny, with places to rest for lunch and some interesting downclimbs.

The shapes in the rock are unbelievable.

The final abseil arrived all too soon. We had seen no one throughout the canyon, and the anchor was deserted. I decided against the (now bolted) alternative route, and opted for the classic descent. I went last, and I hope Rhys has some good photos because from above I was unable to get a good angle. The descent is as impressive as I remember, a free hang into a giant cathedral, with a pool of clear spring water at the bottom. Here we changed out of our neoprene and removed our harnesses, getting ready for what we had assumed was a short hike out.

At the bottom of Pine Creek there is a long walk out – we mislead ourselves into thinking it’d only be an hour, and so two and a half hours later when we crawled back to the car we were somewhat overheated and unhappy.

This belief in a short hike out was predicated on a misreading of the canyon beta, and instead of less than an hour we were still slugging through the full midday sun two and a half hours later. There’s a huge amount of boulder hopping and route finding to be done, round unattractive pools full of slimy algae, and although the rock walls are still beautiful they began to lose their glamour as we trudged on and on. We did spot some excellent dragonflies, frogs, tadpoles and birds, but it was a huge relief when we finally arrived back at the cars. Here we found that Rhys’ last minute lottery application for the Mystery Canyon permits had been successful – instead of a much needed rest day on Wednesday, we would be doing our toughest canyon yet!

We drove again to the Hurricane Cliffs camping, but it was so warm that it was a while before we could raise the energy to put up our tents, and the insects made it hard to socialise. Eventually we retreated to a car, turned on the AC and played some card games before slinking off to bed for a disturbed and very warm night’s sleep.

Mystery Canyon, Wednesday 25th

Description (Canyoneering USA)

Mystery is my favourite canyon in Zion, and is in my top five worldwide. There were two ways to tackle it – one way is to hike up from the main Zion canyon and return back that way, and the other is to drive to the East Mesa trailhead and do a car shuttle. The first option is no longer possible since the massive rockslides in 2019 took out the Hidden Canyon trail which links the main canyon to the East Mesa. This may be a blessing, as the shuttle to the East Mesa avoids hiking the 800 m of elevation gain. We still had an early start to avoid the heat, leaving the visitor’s center at 7 am and arriving at the trailhead an hour later. We stopped for our traditional bagel breakfast, shouldered heavy bags and ambled along the flat and broad East Mesa trail to Mystery canyon.

The next day was supposed to be a rest day, but Rhys managed to get last minute permits for Mystery, a very popular canyon which only has permits for twelve people a day. As exhausted as we were, we couldn’t miss the chance, and we left one car at Springdale very early in the morning and drove the other car to the East Mesa trailhead. After an hour of walking on the flat, we suddenly plunged down a steep screen slope into the canyon. We hadn’t thought to bring hiking poles, but we quickly scavenged appropriate walking sticks from the woods.

Mystery begins abruptly, seemingly with a steep plunge straight down a cliff at a right angle to the trail. On closer inspection, a narrow and unstable path through the scree leads rapidly down into a scrubby forest. The first section was quite challenging, and we wished we’d brought hiking poles. After half an hour or so we’d all acquired walking sticks from the woods and were feeling much more stable, and the shade in the deep canyon was very welcome.

After the steep scramble the canyon levelled off for a bit, with beautifully sculpted rock walls and lush forest, as well as evidence of ferocious flash floods.

There’s still quite a lot of walking before we get to the major rappels, but there are a few nice downclimbs on the way. My favourite was setting up a “meat anchor” with the rope belayed from me (sitting down) down a sloping chute. The others used the rope as a handline or for rappelling, and at the end I slid down down the chute, guided by them.

The first few rappels were short, and apparently downclimbable. We didn’t want to be the idots with the broken legs and an unused rope, so we rigged every one.
Alex strides under the many fallen trees, trusty (and recently acquired) walking stick in hand.

Suddenly the canyon narrows and the real fun begins. Every abseil is interesting and enjoyable – smooth, sculpted rock and clean hangs. We move swiftly, using our leapfrog approach in teams of two to get the next abseil rigged before the previous one is derigged.

The abseils are very beautiful, with nice clean lines.

In between these the canyon opens out, closes again, wildly turns from side to side and plunges into narrow slots with down climbs. It’s non-stop fun, with some beautiful places to rest and get a bite to eat in the shade.

More downclimbing fun, often in the slot with the elevator technique, back on one wall and feet on the other.

Suddenly, the canyon opens out into a wide, flat sandy beach. At the far end is a tall dam of flood debris which was deposited by a flash flood in the 1970s. Crossing the beach in the hot sun was not very pleasant, but the shade on the far side was very welcoming.

One of the many stunning lizards who enjoy doing press-ups in this canyon.

We scrambled up and over the dam, and the down a steep rock strewn slope to where the canyon narrows again, providing welcome shade. The pools mentioned in the guide are all dried up, and we easily bypass the muddy sections.

A flash flood in the 1970s piled up a dam of debris. Behind this dam, sand from the flood waters deposited a long, flat beach which is scorchingly hot to cross in the full sun. Below the dam is a steep boulder scramble down to the blessedly cool shade of the slot canyon. An impressive reminder of how often these canyons can change.

Soon we are at the most spectacular rappel of the entire canyon. Surrounded by impossibly high dark red walls, the canyon turns left then right and opens out at the bottom. A wide, gently sloping ledge provides access to a well placed set of bolts that take you down an increasingly steep ledge to a deep, clear blue pool, formed by water seeping out of the rocks halfway down.

Alex descends into the Mystery Spring. You can see Rhys and Cecilia below, and halfway down water seeps out of the porous rock, leaving a deep pool of water and one of only two mandatory swims in the canyon.

At the top of this rappel the group behind us caught up – I had a brief chat with them, all locals from St George. We offered to let them past, but they were very relaxed and so we chatted as I sorted out the ropes for the derig. I landed on a log directly above the pool, and after a big of faffing managed to pull the rope smoothly. Dropping into the pool I found the water was very cold, but in only a few strokes I was out to the other side. The rope got tangled on the log as we packed it, and Cecilia kindly volunteered to retrieve it, getting quite cold in the process.

Looking down canyon from the spring shows the lush plant life supported by this water. The Narrows awaits!

From here on the canyon is lush with plant life sustained by the spring. We warmed up in patches of sunshine and swum another pool before reaching the final abseil. From the top as I rigged I could see crowds of tourists in the Narrows below, some looking up to see my bright orange rope flashing in the sunshine. I lowered the rope gently down the long, slippery rock face rather than chucking it onto an unsuspecting tourist’s head, and handed it over to Rhys for the first descent.

Rhys tackles the slippery rock leading down to the Narrows.

He got most of the way down the slippery green rock before elegantly converting to a butt slide, resulting in a flurry of applause as he reached the bottom, in control but at high speed. As Cecilia defended, he yelled up “Get on your bum!”, much to the confusion of the mostly American crowd.

A view down canyon shows the scale of the Narrows.

One after the other we made it safely down. I was last, derigging and I tried very hard not to get tangled. I finally converted to a butt slide and managed the last bit in fine style, but by this time the crowd was bored and I received no applause. Such is the burden of immense talent. We packed our ropes, answered a few questions and joined the vast throng heading back down the canyon. The walk out was longer than I had remembered, with much of it on a path to the side rather than in the water, but soon enough we were at the Temple of Siniwava and on a bus heading back to the car.

Cecilia prepares to descend.

That night we had already booked a motel in La Verkin to give us a chance to rest and clean up. We showered, changed into clean clothes and did some laundry before heading out to dinner where Cecilia once again badly misjudged the portion sizes and ended up with about three meals worth of food.