Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Heaps Canyon - between monsoons

Since my first canyoneering adventures 9 or 10 years ago I have heard about the infamous Heaps and Imlay canyons in Zion.  As with challenging kayaking, it always seems like “the best” in terms of coolness are also the most challenging, and Heaps and Imlay both represent that; long, remote, committing, difficult…..and The Best.  And as our posse’s experience and skill grew with each canyon, we felt like we had the confidence and skills to give those a go, but the timing/conditions/personnel and permits (it’s hard for me to plan ahead) hadn’t really come around together to make one/both of them happen, but it finally came together this past weekend. 

Our team of Brother Paul, Colter, and Chad headed out of town on Thursday with a Heaps permit for Friday and a spot in the lottery for the same on Saturday, our preferred day.  As we rolled out we got a message that we had indeed won the lottery for Saturday, so we had a good day to do a warmup canyon.  We chose Icebox, which sounded good on a day when the high in the Zion valley was going to be in the triple digits. 

Icebox is in the Kolob Canyons area; as you look to the east from the overlook there are a bunch of impressive peaks and walls, and there are two low points which represent two different entrances.  One is a “big wall” entrance which sounded appealing since we needed to practice our big wallin’, but the mid-wall anchor apparently only has room for two, so we opted for the aesthetic slickrock couloir entrance, which is super cool:
worthy of contemplation
Just steep enough and rolling ever-steeper to be a bit spicy, just mellow enough to be tempted to solo it. 

Not a huge wall, but a nice one
Once down in the canyon the going was easy and fun, and was complete with a refreshing swim that we knew we would need to keep in our minds for the 7 mile hike up and out of the canyon.  

Some nice artsy shots from Colter of Icebox Canyon:

some nice red/green contrast

Chad had remembered this section as having multiple crossings of La Verkin creek, but as we clomped through the bone-dry wash multiple times, the splashing sounds we made with our voices weren’t quite as refreshing as the real thing!

That evening Colter and I hiked up to Emerald Pools, the go-to easy, more-than-a-hundred yards but less-than-Angel’s Landing hike in Zion to stash Chad’s monster 250 meter rope for our exit the next day.  As we were about to leave suddenly we heard a whooshing noise and a whump and we realized that a rope had fallen out of the sky!  Soon enough a person came sliding down the rope, and upon reaching the ground he introduced himself as “Deaps”.  “Deaps from Heaps!?!?” Apparently so, and one of his pards high above was the venerable Tom Jones of Canyoneering USA.  Deaps related that he and his crew had spent a couple of days in the canyon and that the pools were chock full from the first of the seasonal monsoon rainstorms that had arrived within the last week and it was therefore “a romp”, which was both a bit of relief and a bit of a letdown; when the pools aren’t full the represent a good challenge to exit, and we had the full arsenal (minus a bolt kit) of pothole-escape gear, including the secret weapon:

But it was reassuring to know that for our virgin trip we were probably not going to be doing an unplanned bivouac (many people do the canyon as an overnight or two; we were planning on doing it in a day) or be desperately trying to escape the seemingly inescapable. 

We were hiking by 5am and made the top of the West Rim in about 2.5 hours, trying not to “waste” time ogling at the sunrise as it bathed the soaring red walls and towers of Zion
wasting time

top of the West rim, looking into the Heaps valley below
A very cool ridge scramble:

took us down to a long rap off the ridge and into the beautiful Heaps valley. 

Practicing my topplin'-technique for my next trip to Goblin Valley!
I was unsuccessful....
The “valley” very abruptly becomes a slot, and we wriggled into our wetsuits to commence the swimming and groveling.  It seemed hard to imagine the need to stay as warm as possible with the searing sun overhead, but Heaps is notoriously deep, dark, and wet and we knew that not only wetsuits but (except for dumb me) neoprene vests with hoods over the top of the wetsuits (I’ve got one on order!). 
Goin' in.....
The canyon is sort of broken into four sections:  two narrows with lots of potholes separated by brilliant canyon strolling:

and the last, long technical section that has lots of swimming and obstacles but not as many potholes, then the final 500 foot rappel sequence.  As we anticipated from the beta provided by Deaps from Heaps, the potholes were a non-issue:  we got in, swam to the other side, and pulled ourselves out.  One section that was ‘supposed” to take 1.5 hours took us something like 20 minutes, and the quality was about as good as canyon scenery gets.  We were pretty giddy about the awesomeness; we had high expectations for the cool factor and were not disappointed. 

And thus we traversed down canyon ‘til we finally arrived at the obvious exit; we could hear the tourists far below cavorting in the upper Emerald Pool.  The exit starts with a short climb up to a nice starting platform, goes down 60 feet to a tree, drops vertically down the wall to 4 bolts at a 2.5 foot square block, then goes free for nearly 300 feet to the pool.  As I said a couple of times to try to lessen the tension that we all felt, a 300 foot rappel is not much different than a 100 foot rappel, but with four guys with healthy-sized packs jammed together in a tight spot, four ropes in play, four bolt anchors, and plenty of hardwear in play there were lots of opportunities for small mistakes that potentially represented big repercussions, especially at the end of a long day.

Once down onto the “Bird’s Nest” block our plan was to tie our 200 foot rope to our 125 foot rope, one person puts his rappel device onto the rope below the joining-knot, the anchormen belay the first down to the end of the first rope (which is then anchored), then he rappels down the long rope to the bottom.  Whereupon he retrieves the big, stashed rope (that hopefully has not been absconded in our absence), ties it to his descent rope, and the Bird Nesters haul that up to rappel down.  Colter led it off, and it was a bit of an odd feeling for him to be lowered pretty much hands-free for quite a ways until he finally was able to start rappelling.  Prepping for this sequence was pretty time consuming, mostly because we were pretty much quadruple checking all of our moves, and many of them proved to need modifications to ensure that everything was just right.  But once we got the big rope up we got more efficient and Chad and Paul slithered on down out of sight.  Brother Paul was the first to go down the 13+mm rope as a double-strand, which was challenging; he could barely go down the rope (forgetting to unclip his anchor didn’t help matters!). 
chucking the rope towards the Emeral Pools far below
As Chad was preparing to fly from the Nest I thought it would be good to let the party above us that was patiently waiting for us to exit that we were soon to be gone.   In talking to one of them Chad found that they were some sort of military search and rescue team, so I yelled up “Hey Air Force guys!  We are heading down!” and Chad quickly admonished me:  “They’re Navy!”  I know that military types absolutely hate that, so I yelled “Navy!  Whatever!”. 

I wasn’t surprised that they were military ops guys, because they were pretty classic, ripped, bulky military types.  They had asked us from above if there was indeed room for four and we said sure, we were making it happen, so they could to. But as the first guy descended to me – still in his wetsuit – I realized that 4 skinny aerobic geeks fit just fine, but their types perhaps not so much!  But I didn’t stick around to find out and headed down myself, but not before my new nestmate said “um, do you want me to unclip your anchor?” Ah, yes. That would be nice.  Must run in the family. 

And thus was Heaps.  I’d like to go back again and spend the night in the canyon and have less-full potholes, since that problem solving bit is one of the funner parts of slot-groveling. 

We wrapped up a great weekend by a quick descent of the classic Pine Creek canyon which – far from being anticlimatic after Heaps – proved to be a gem itself, despite it’s proximity to the Zion tunnel and park hordes.

Thanks again to a great team for some swift, fun, and safe descents.  The monsoons seem to be starting up again in earnest this week and will probably become more consistent over the next 6 weeks, so it’ll probably be early fall again before we head back down.  Maybe Imlay next! 

Here’s a link to Chad’s helmet-cam - “Blair Witch Goes Canyoneering”  - 6.5 minute video and his blog post: and thanks to Colter and Chad for all the good pics above. 

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