The Zion Subway

When Josh, my older son’s best friend’s dad, suggested that we take our combined kids through the Left Fork of North Creek in Zion National Park (more commonly called The Subway), I wasn’t immediately excited. For one thing, it’s a somewhat technical canyon, and for another the permit that we got was for mid-May, towards the end of the spring runoff, when the canyon would contain plenty of deep, cold water.

The first problem to be solved was figuring out a process where we could get our kids safely down multiple rappels in the canyon. We couldn’t just hire an experienced guide since Zion NP doesn’t allow that. We settled on spending a couple of sessions practicing rappelling with an instructor before leaving home, and then doing some more practicing in Zion before entering the canyon. I was ready to nix the trip if any of the kids seemed unsafe but they all did really well. We ended up with a process where Josh would rappel first, then the kids would rappel down with me backing them up with a belay, and then finally I’d rappel with Josh giving me a fireman’s belay. The rappels in this canyon are fairly short so we knew that a number of common failure modes (unable to communicate, rapping off the end of the rope, etc.) weren’t going to be an issue. Also the canyon is bolted so we wouldn’t have to worry about building anchors. We spent a lot of time making sure the kids wouldn’t get fingers/gloves/clothes pinched in their belay devices.

The second problem was dealing with 40°F / 4°C water. We ended up renting drysuits for the three younger children and putting the rest of us in wetsuits; this worked well. I saw a bit of chattering teeth in the longer water sections but luckily we were in the deepest part of the canyon in the middle of the day and there were always patches of sun to warm up in.

Here the kids and I are hanging out at the upper trailhead while Josh makes the car shuttle happen:

The upper part of the hike is a short section of alpine forest and then some gorgeous slickrock:

Finally we’re looking directly into the narrows, but still a couple hundred vertical feet above the canyon bottom:

A steep gully bypasses the cliffs:

And finally we’re in the canyon, getting suited up at the first sign of deep water:

Alas I have no rappel pictures since I was managing the process from above. The second rappel was challenging: it had an awkward start, running water, and finished in waist-deep water. Here Josh is coiling a rope at the bottom of the first, easy rappel, which was down the face of this boulder:

Since each person’s backpack had a drybag inside of it (with as much air trapped as possible), the backpacks could be used as flotation devices. Also, all of the kids are decent swimmers and the drysuits kept them pretty warm. They found the wet parts of this canyon to be tremendously fun:

Plenty of short, slippery downclimbs:

A little unnerving to watch the kids swimming off into the dark:

The scenery was really spectacular:

Finally we arrive at the actual “subway” section where the canyon bottom is rounded out:

Perhaps the most-photographed log in the world, not particularly photogenic here due to the harsh light, but other people have done better:

After this there’s a final technical obstacle, a 15 m rappel, and then a long and not particularly easy or fun walk out.

Still smiling at the end, but tired after 10 hours on the move:

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