Southern Utah hikers or Super Heroes?  You decide.
Sandra, Becca, Shaun & Hannah wait out a downpour below an overhang on the highest ground available.

Zion's Subway

     Here's how it began.  Sandra called Shaun at work on Monday, mentioned that they had gotten a backcountry permit (max 50 people per day are allowed in the slot canyon) and that the guide book recommended going with an experienced guide the first time. 
     "So what you're saying," Shaun responded, "is that you want me to take Wednesday off and tag along."
     "Would you?!"
     Of course.  He had never been there and always wanted to go, and with July already half over, summer was slipping away much, much too quickly.   The only thing you can ever do when time is slipping away too fast is get busy and use it all up.  Hannah got a call half an hour before leaving and readily agreed to join us.

     You'll need to pick up a back country permit ($5 for a group of up to 12 people) at the Zion Nat'l Park visitor's center just inside the park (check if you can get them at the Kolob Canyon end, right off I-15 if you're coming from the north.  This will save you both time and the $20 entry fee, maybe).  Get reservations in advance.  Then turn off toward Kolob Reservoir from the town of Virgin, on the way back toward I-15 & St. George.

Dropping down to the North River.The wrong way...maybe.We left one car at the Right Fork Trailhead (Shaun knew how to find that one from below) and drove to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead.  From there we followed instructions found on the web until leaving well marked trails and following cairns -- piles of rocks -- marking the trail over sandstone into pine and aspen forests. 

Using a topo also found online, we left the trail and headed further east in order to drop in farther up-canyon than the standard route.  Either the topo or Shaun's GPS was off on altitude (GPS' least-dependable variable) and we got in a little more hiking and scrambling than we had to.  If you find yourself to the left of the sharp fins in the picture on the right, you've probably gone too far left (and way too far for the standard route).  That said, next time we go, we may go even farther left in hopes of catching even more canyon.

90' rap into the slotOnce we finally bushwhacked our way down to the slot canyon (seeing occassional footprints but no apparent trail), we set up a few rappels and finally found ourselves in the refreshing cool of the canyon floor.

The girls took the first rappel, while Shaun found a way to scramble around so he wouldn't have to leave the gear used for anchors.

Sandra located a large pine for an anchor and the girls rapped a single line to be sure it would reach the floor.

2nd stage rappelShaun had a contingency plan.  It turned out he didn't need it, because the 60 meter rope reached the bottom doubled, allowing for a double rope rappel all the way down, but wound up using it anyway. 

About half way down the cliff, a large hole in the rock formed a window.  When a miscalculation left one rope end dangling only as far as the hole, Shaun had the choice to fix it (or fall and break a few bones when one end of the rope ran out) or change anchors at the window.  He did both.  First he used prussiks brought along for emergencies (didn't expect to self rescue) to lengthen one rope end far enough for a good safety margin (along with tying a knot in the rope end).  Then he rapped to the window, pulled the rope off the tree, had Sandra tie into one rope end for an anchor, and rappelled out through the other side of the hole.

Sandra kicks back
Sandra enjoys the cool canyon floor after a 4 mile tromp through the desert.

One of many log jams.COLD WATER!  The wet back floats as well as keeping the pack dry.Now the real fun began.  We wound our way down canyon over and under log jams, wading through shallow water, and finally donning our wet suits once a swim became inevitable.

Hannah had felt a little silly lugging a wet suit through the desert, but it certainly paid off now!  This water was COLD!  (aka: unforgettably refreshing)

"W-w-w-w-w-ait f-f-f-f-f-or m-m-me t-t-t-to g-get ov-ver t-t-to thi-thi-this le-ledge b-b-bef-fore y-y-you..." Shaun began, warning Hannah not to dive in quite yet with the heavy rope, which would weigh four times as much when water logged.  The water was well over our heads and the rope might either make swimming difficult or get dropped and sunk in the pool, requiring a rather uncomfortable (aka: unforgettably refreshing) recovery. 

Hannah didn't hear or understand, however (can you blame her?) and jumped in anyway.  Luckily, the rope bag held plenty of air and the whole thing floated behind her as she swam along.

Rapping down a 20' waterfall      The adventure continued with more swims and rappels until suddenly the sound of rolling thunder caught our attention.  "It's raining," Becca announced.  Sandra had a college roommate who had been caught in a Zion flash flood whose sister had been killed.  "Should we get to higher ground?" she asked.
     "Not for this much rain," Shaun answered, but the rain continued and the thunder grew louder and more frequent and when we reached an open spot with a high ledge, we decided to take a break, just in case, and to enjoy the thunder.
     Within fifteen minutes, a two-foot wall of brown, muddy water gushed from the narrow canyon above us.  It momentarily settled into the wider area of sand and rock below us, which soon filled to overflowing.  Another three-foot wall then surged through and this continued on down stream. We sat staring at the water open- mouthed.  If we had continued, who could say whether we'd have found another good high spot to wait out the storm?
     Just kidding, there was no sign of flooding, though there was slightly more water than usual flowing when we reached the end of the canyon.  We wished we could have seen a flood, as we had enough food and gear to keep us warm for an overnight wait.  Also, once we left the narrowest part of the canyon (the "extra" we got by not following the standard trail), there were plenty of areas with higher ground.
     When the thunder slowed and the rain stopped, we continued on, only to take shelter a second time when the rain began falling hard.
     "It would still take a lot more rain to make much difference here," Shaun opined, but better safe than sorry.  Besides, it's easier to enjoy a storm when you can stop for a while.
No ordinary mild-mannered hiking group...When the water showed no sign of rising, we took off down canyon again, running across long sandy stretches and stomping through puddles and tadpole-filled ponds.  The storm had cooled the air enough that we stayed comfortable in our thin wetsuits even when swims grew infrequent.  

If you stare at this photo long enough, you'll notice that we begin to look like super heros in our form-fitting garb.


nearing the finishThe canyon finally began to open up and the stunning views of the narrow slot turned into a rambling, stone-filled creek.  We sloshed our way along, alternately following trails through willows and rushes and other changing vegetation. 

Finally we reached a sign announcing the Left Fork trail up the rim to the road.  We decided it would be easier to hike up now and then follow the road to the car than to continue down river another mile to where the Right Fork trail climbed the lava cliffs of the canyon rim.   Somewhere near the top, we lost the main trail and bushwhacked west looking for it (hint: go left/south).  We finally found the road and Becca and Hannah volunteered to run down the road to the car while Sandra and Shaun guarded the packs.

After sorting out gear, Sandra and Becca headed back to St. George to continue their vacation, while Hannah and Shaun began the four hour drive home (not including sleep stops on the way) to arrive home at 3:00 a.m. and get to work by 6:00.  Days like this make life worth living.

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