Sunday, October 19, 2014

Our Epic Zion Adventure--Birch Hollow Canyon

 My brother Ed called me up one Tuesday and told me that he and his girlfriend Christina were flying into Las Vegas on Saturday. Did we want to meet in Death Valley or Zion? I told him Zion would be great, we love going there and we could go canyoneering. He agreed, and then it was time to decide where we could go canyoneering. I decided Birch Hollow Canyon would be a good spot. Just outside the park, it didn't require a permit, was 4-6 hours long according to the beta, had a number of fun rappels, but none too long, and it was dry. That was good considering it was mid-October and chilly. On Thursday I heard from a caving friend, Rodney, that he would be down there with his girlfriend. I welcomed the extra rope expertise. So on Sunday morning we met up at the side of the road to begin our journey.

 I knew that this was a popular canyon and expected to see quite a few people. We saw a guide group start ahead of us with some clients. After we had all our gear ready, we started out about 10 am from the trailhead, having fun skirting the obstacles.

An old ATV ramp was one of the memorable parts of the approach.

We even found a couple caves on the way, and Desert Boy checked one out. He reported back that it had a lot of mud and flies.
Photo courtesy of Ed
After about an hour of hiking, we reached the first rappel, the longest, at about 120 ft. I had bought a new 200 ft canyoneering rope the day before and we also had 100 ft of caving rope. I tied the ropes together, and secured the canyoneering rope with a releasable anchor as only two of our group were comfortable with rappelling. I had my caving friend Rodney go down first, as he has tons of rappelling experience. From the bottom he could bottom belay everyone and make sure they got down safely. I lowered Desert Boy from the top. We decided Desert Girl should go down double with her uncle.

Photo courtesy of Christina

I was a little nervous about getting the anchor right for pulling. I'm used to cave anchoring, where we go down and then back up the same rope. For canyoneering, you rig so that you go down the rope, then pull the rope, and then continue down the canyon. Since this rappel was longer than just one rope, I had to rig it so we could pull the knotted side after I had rappelled down the unknotted side. It all worked out fine.

Then we had a little hike and got to our next rappel. Another group was there, having approached from another route. We ate some lunch while they put their dog into a rope bag for the rappel. Then it was our turn. This rappel was about 80 feet.

Then we had some fun in the canyon, as the walls narrowed and we had to scramble down obstacles.

Photo courtesy of Ed 

It wasn't too long until we got to our next rappel, about 20 feet. It was time for Desert Boy to learn how to rappel. He was very excited. We explained how to rappel and that if he had any trouble he just needed to call out and his bottom belay would stop him. We all got down relatively quickly and were feeling comfortable with rappelling.

Desert Boy found a scorpion at the bottom of the drop.
Photo courtesy of Ed
Desert Girl had a blast chilling between rappels.
Photo courtesy of Ed
The canyon opened up a bit and we enjoyed some fall colors.
Photo courtesy of Ed
A little bit farther was the rappel I remembered most: an 80-foot drop into a fluted canyon. Rodney led the way.
Photo courtesy of Ed
I lowered both kids down this beautiful drop. Desert Boy was pretty sure he could rappel it, and now I am sure he could. But better safe than sorry!
Photo courtesy of Ed
 After I came down, the kids helped Uncle Ed pull the rope.

Another drop waited just around the corner. And then another. And another. Even though I had been to this canyon in 2008, I had forgotten there were so many rappels!

Photo courtesy of Ed
Photo courtesy of Ed

Photo courtesy of Ed
It was clear we wouldn't be back to the second vehicle by 4 pm (a six-hour trip), as it was already past that time and we were still in the rappelling part of the canyon and had a two-hour hike back once we finished. We ate more snacks to keep our energy levels up.

Then we reached the last two rappels, with a view of a chockstone wedged into the canyon above us. It was spectacular. And a place you really wouldn't want to be in a flash flood.

After the last rappel (we had lost count, but there were probably 10-11 total), we had a very short walk out to Orderville Canyon. The last time I did this canyon we exited down canyon and into the Narrows, but we wanted the short version this time, so we headed up canyon. The short version was still long, and we ended up walking out with our headlamps on.
Photo courtesy of Ed
It was certainly an epic adventure. The kids fell asleep on the short ride back to camp, but then woke up and ate heartily. They were great troopers, taking the new experience in stride. We hiked close to 6 miles with at least a 1,000 ft elevation change, and they both did fine.

My tips for a successful canyoneering trip:
1. Watch the weather--it's not worth it to get trapped in a flash flood, too many people have died that way
2. Go with someone who knows how to canyoneer. It's better if you have a couple experienced people in the group. Canyoneering takes specialized techniques, and once you pull your first rope, you are committed. Guiding services are available if you're new to the sport. Here's an article about going with Zion Adventure Company in this same canyon (and they also took longer than 4-6 hours, so that made me feel better!)
3. Have lots of snacks (especially if you have kids with you)
4. Have a surface contact--Rodney's girlfriend knew where we were and would contact authorities if we weren't back by a certain time; we had absolutely no cell service, so don't rely on that
5. Wear appropriate clothing for the canyon--some are very, very wet and cold, easy to get hypothermia
6. Have fun! Even though it took us longer than we anticipated, we still had a super time, and as we progressed down the canyon, we became a stronger team.

I've already been checking out other possible canyons, although I think the next one with the kids will be a shorter one.


Andrea said...

Awesome!! I wish you had posted this before our summer trip...but maybe just as well not. :)

Luke Smith said...

Great blog..
It was so exciting to hear from you about the Canyoneering adventures you had in Zion and the experience you shared is wonderful. Seems like you enjoyed a great time with your family. A while ago I also joined Rock Odysseys for Canyoneering Zion National Park. With its expert guides, you can feel safe every time. They provide best packages as well as take care of your safety.

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