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:

Spring 2017

The hills above Salt Lake City are finally turning green.

Earlier in the year my family took a short trip to southeast Utah but it rained so much one day that I didn’t think the dirt roads would be passable, so we visited Ratio, a land art installation near Green River UT.

The next day started out foggy and cold, here’s an unassuming stretch of Muddy Creek shortly before it joins the Fremont River to become the Dirty Devil.

Later it cleared up and we explored the San Rafael Desert. This track didn’t seem to have seen much traffic over the winter.

In a nearby canyon I found a grinding stone that someone had stashed between 700 and a few thousand years ago.

Later in spring it turned out my kids’ school vacations were misaligned so instead of getting out into the desert as a family I took each kid individually on a short trip. Here we’re partway up a trail that was used in the first half of the 20th century to give sheep access to a remote mesa top.

The weather was imperfect but showy; here the Henry Mountains, the last part of the lower 48 to be mapped and explored, are getting stormed on. I feel like deserts are supposed to be dry but it seems like we get rained on on almost every trip.

Wind and grass.

North Caineville Mesa and Factory Butte.

Indian paintbrush.

This is the kind of photograph you only seem to get when you’re soaked from one rain storm and another is approaching. We had gotten the tent up during the first shower, so were mostly dry and happy. I accidentally grabbed a one-person tent for this trip so the ten year old and I had a pretty cozy night.

During his break, my older son and I explored some areas around Escalante, UT. This Anasazi granary under an arch is something I’d been wanting to see for a long time, but had previously been thwarted by logistical problems such as a long, rugged drive.

The masonry is in about as good condition as any I’ve seen, and notice the sticks at the top of the opening.

We also ran across some less well-preserved granaries.

I always wonder about the circumstances that lead to this kind of thing being abandoned, perhaps it broke inside an animal or when it hit the ground after a miss? Often you find broken arrowheads along with chippings indicating a site where people sat and worked, but this point was all by itself.

Afternoon light in Alvey Wash, a large canyon draining the Kaiparowits Plateau.

The next day we visited the Red Breaks canyon system, which has some spectacular slots filled with nice sandstone and small climbing problems. Not shown: climbing problems and freezing, waist-deep water.

A bizarre landform in the Red Breaks area that is often called the Escalante Volcano (though it is not, as far as I know, of volcanic origin). It’s hard to tell from this photo but this thing is enormous; the sandstone dome in the center of the “volcano” is about 80 feet tall.

A neat area of petrified logs in Egg Canyon off the Burr Trail near Boulder, UT.

Some of the logs bridged the waterway.

I hope everyone else had a nice spring too!

Elk and Arch

I wanted to share a few pictures from a long, very cold snowshoe/hike I did in January. The goal was to reach a natural arch that I had previously spotted in upper City Creek Canyon. This was fun to find: I hadn’t realized there was an arch large enough to stand inside within walking distance of my house. I also saw the big herd of elk that live in this area, which doesn’t get a lot of visitation from humans other than hunters.

Nine Mile Canyon

One of my boys and I spent Sunday exploring Nine Mile Canyon, in the remote Book Cliffs a few hours drive from Salt Lake City. This canyon is known for its dense collection of rock art and ruins, a lot of which can be seen from the paved road that follows the canyon bottom. This was a lot of driving for a day trip but it wasn’t too boring since I had checked out an audiobook of Fahrenheit 451 from the library.

A great pictograph panel, the figures are several feet high.

Typical scenery in the upper canyon.

A dodgy ice bridge. This one held us but I got wet to the knees on a different stream crossing.

Fremont people in a large part of Utah drew sheep this way:

Zion NP and Environs in Winter

As we enter faculty and grad recruiting season, I’d like to present a bit of Utah propaganda. No heroics are required to see this stuff: just a few hours driving from Salt Lake City (on pavement) and some mild day hiking. I’ll provide detailed instructions for visiting any of these locations upon request.

Obelisk

Classes start next week so I sneaked out for a quick hike on Tuesday, climbing a minor local peak that is informally called The Obelisk. This one had eluded me for years so it felt nice to finally stand on top. Summitpost says “Obelisk is rarely climbed during the summer and provides ample solitude,” and I found out why: the ascent involves a long, steep boulder field, with many of the rocks just barely balanced. Ugh — the next time I climb this peak it’ll be when the boulders are covered by snow.

Looking out over Cottonwood Ridge.

A couple of friends.

Wild and wonderful Hogum Fork, it sits just a few miles from a half-million people and is hardly visited.

The Obelisk at the top of Obelisk Peak. I could hear the music from 2001.

You can see my summit beer in the background.

Maybird Gulch with the Pfeifferhorn looming beyond.

Perseids

Matthew Flatt, my 9 year old son, and I stayed out last night watching the Perseid meteor shower. To find some dark skies we drove out to the Utah-Nevada border, along the way passing a sign that said “NEXT GAS 130 MILES” — always a good sign on a road trip. We arrived around 12:30 and the show started right away, we saw several meteors before even getting out of the vehicle. Here’s Matthew in the moonlight along with a very faint meteor:

After the moon set things got better although the sky never got as truly dark as it should have in that location — I don’t think the air was very clear. Even so, the milky way was pretty jaw-dropping and we saw hundreds of meteors. I know nothing about astrophotography and don’t really have the right gear but I did manage to capture a few meteors.

After a while Isaac timed out and went to sleep in the truck and Matthew and I started to get really cold so we left, getting home before dawn. Definitely worth losing a little sleep to see this.