The Zion Death March
Thirty years ago I just about bought the farm in Zion National Park. Here's the story.
A challenging four-day loop in Zion National Park, that’s what we planned. A challenging loop with a near fatal fall for me, borderline hypothermia and sheer exhaustion for us all is what we got. We ended alive and thankful, all too aware of what a close call it was. The years since have not diminished that memory.
Setting out on a pretty summer Thursday in late June 1985, Randy, Greg, Gary and I are prepared to scramble and even swim part of our route down Kolob Canyon, a narrow side canyon that feeds into the South Fork of the Virgin River. Then we walk down the river to the park road. About 25 miles total, all sheer-walled narrow canyon. , No place to be during thunderstorms or high water. That’s why we’re here in June; the water is lowest and chance of thunderstorms is low. Most people hike the Zion Narrows via a more accessible route from the east. We are taking the route less traveled. We’ve been hiking Arizona and the southwest together for the past few years as members of the Central Arizona Backpackers Association and know each others capability well. We’re pretty confident that we’re ready for this trip.
The first day’s walk is nothing surprising for anyone who’s hiked in canyon country. We follow the West Rim trail straight up a thousand feet from the Virgin River. The climb is steep, offering ever more grand views into the dark and deep narrow gorge we will exit three days from now. A side trail takes us out to Angel's Landing, an isolated knob high above the river. The trail is a knife edge with a chain railing that provides welcome support for me. The drop off on either side is precipitous and long. At the landing I can peer straight down at the river far below. Back on the West Rim Trail, we are actually on pavement for the first two miles--the ultimate tourist trail. A ranger passes by on a three wheeler. Vistas from the rim are grand: intriguing and unusually shaped rock stretches off to the horizon. We camp early after a hard 12 mile day.
Friday begins in the wonderful coolness of early morning but turns tricky early on. We can’t find the route into Kolob Canyon. The ranger at the station above the canyon isn’t much help. That’s typical of the Park Service response to our inquiries on this trip. The rangers at the backcountry office weren’t much help either. They told us only that hiking in Kolob Canyon is not recommended but take 75 feet of rope if you go. We have the rope. The rangers had no information about water levels but we know from the route description that water is lowest in late June. We think know the score.
Using dead reckoning, map, compass and, we drop into one drainage and thrash our way through brush to a 100 foot sheer drop. It looks climbable but we rope up to be safe. One by one we climb down to a ledge on belay. Off belay, Gary finds a route to a flat area without rope. I follow but pick a slightly different route that looks a bit easier. I edge my way cautiously down. My toehold breaks. I slide down the rock wall, digging with my hands trying to slow my fall. I don't slow. The canyon edge looms ahead. No time to think. I drop over the edge with panicked, “Oh shit!” And just when I know that I am about to die, I land on brush and timber wedged into a narrow defile a few feet below the edge. Rock and debris continue to fall as I scramble off the brush to a rock a ledge. I am terrified. Fuck. I should be dead or maimed now.
Gary is first to the rim to see what became of me and it tell him that I’m okay but don’t want to move unless I am roped up. That takes a while as Randy and Greg are still making their way down the first wall. Once they are down and I am secured to a rope, I easily scramble out, shaken and scared. I lay back to regain my composure.
For all of the drama and sphincter-puckering fear encountered, it turns out that this is not the correct route. We climb back up the wall and find a rest spot. I debate whether to continue. My fall left me banged up and shaken but not seriously injured. My partners offer to walk back the way we came. I regain my composure and decide to continue. I don't really want to walk back on the West Rim. We try another route. The right one this time. We chimney down a rock chute. My back and hips are sore from the fall but I make the descent with little trouble. We can hear Kolob Creek below us but encounter another drop. We're hungry and tired; the day is late so we make camp. It's been a long, long day. Tomorrow will be better, walking a slot canyon with swims around a couple waterfalls. Maybe even fun. For better or worse, the only way out for us now is down the canyon.
Saturday we reach Kolob Creek and find lots of water, far more than we expected. Instead, it looks like we'll be in water far more than we planned. We pick our way along the banks and encounter lots of brush that makes for slow going. I wish I had an internal frame pack--my external frame snags on everything. Now we're in the creek. The water is cold and the creekbed is rocky. Damn, this is fucked. We come to our first waterfall. We toss our packs (with gear thoroughly encased in plastic) over and jump behind them. I plunge into the water but cannot float with my heavy boots and parka filling with water. I call to Gary for help and he pushes my pack over to me. I grab on for life and make the shore, wet and cold. Little sun filters into this narrow canyon to warm us. We keep our warmth by eating and burning energy as we pick our way down Kolob Canyon. We've got to make it to the Virgin River by nightfall; camping in a narrow canyon like this is very risky, even in good weather.
At the second waterfall we are looking at 50 or more feet of sheer-walled canyon with water sluicing through it after we negotiate the fall’s 20 foot plunge. Greg comments dryly, “Shouldn’t we be hearing 'Dueling Banjos' about now?" Laughter breaks the tension and we set about negotiating the waterfall. We lower Greg over the fall on the rope. He lunges out on his backpack, paddling and kicking furiously as he tries to break free of the roiling water at the base of the fall. Then he's gone. He reappears in a second attempt as futile as the first. Undertow! We hoist him back up and rethink our approach.
Some previous hiker anchored a D ring to the rock at the top of the waterfall. Someone in our group--not me--knows how to rig the rope on the D ring so we can retrieve it. We tie other end of the rope to Gary's pack and heave over the undertow. The pack floats down the narrows where it snags on rocks at the narrows' end. We tug on the rope and find it snug. Gary lowers himself through the waterfall and begins pulling himself down the narrows. Randy, Greg ad I pull the rope taut so he can keep his head above water. He reaches his pack, wraps the rope around his waist and stretches it tight over the narrows.
I'm first to follow. Wearing gloves, I put my weight on the rope, expecting to drop into the water like Gary. Instead, I find myself suspended above the maelstrom and quickly haul myself hand over hand through the narrows to shallow water. What a ride! I would never have thought myself up to it. Amazing what necessity will do. Greg and Randy send the rest of our packs down the rope using carabiners. I retrieve the packs and then the others follow. We retrieve the rope, having rigged it so cleverly. We're wet and cold. We fire up the stoves and drink hot water.
That was the last of the two expected jump and swims but we're still in water from here on, picking our way around rocks and debris. The water is ankle to waist deep. And cold. The day is getting late and we have no idea how far till we reach the Virgin River. Only hope is to keep pushing on. But we can't. We're hungry and light is fading. No choice but to camp and hope. We find a spit of sand large enough to the four of us and fall into place. Despite the all the water today, our gear is dry. We eat and crawl into our bags uneasily. I'm close enough to the stream that a drop of water occasionally splashes into my face, making me think rain. I can't see the sky so I don't know what the weather will be like. I sleep fitfully despite physical and mental exhaustion. During the night Greg drills a hole in his big toenail to relieve the pressure of a blood blister from a banged up toe.
Sunday morning we are battered, tired and almost out of food. Yesterday's effort consumed much of what we had. I begin the day with a freeze dried omelet, a granola bar and a Slim Jim. Not much fuel for what will be a long day's walk. Gary has a bagel and some gorp as we leave camp so he seems well supplied by comparison. We reach the North Fork of the Virgin River after a short hike. Thank god! Now just 8 more miles to the entrance to the narrows and the end of our route. No waterfalls on this leg but water is high in places, much higher than in Kolob, with chest deep wades and a few swims. Bottom rocks are much slicker here so footing is tough. I fall a lot; each time getting up is more difficult. I eat the last of my food around mid morning. Greg drinks the last of his maple syrup. The day is long and hard. Will it never end? The narrows are starkly beautiful: dark, sheer walls rising a thousand feet or more overhead. Little sunlight reaches us as we pass through. I can appreciate the beauty of this place but what I really just want to get out of here.
After a few hours wading, swimming and falling, I see two guys sunbathing on a large rock in the middle of the river. Tourists! We can't be far. But the tourists were ambitious and the remaining distance is farther than we think. Time drags. Energy is low. My body is battered, beaten and banged. My legs have been flayed by a million thorns, brambles and branches. I look thoroughly flogged. Moving is an effort but I have no choice. I manage somehow. We are all hungry and tired. We use our remaining strength to plod on and encourage each other. More people! A ranger followed by a TV camera asks if we saw a Girl Scout troop upstream. I think of all the places where this group of six-footers had to wade and swim and hope those Girl Scouts are holed up somewhere or went out the way they came in.
Finally we are nearing the end. The canyon opens up and is crowded with people enjoying the water on this bright, sunny day. We pass by like specters from another dimension. We are, shivering in our parkas and straining to walk. I am far removed from these happy frolickers in their bikinis with air mattresses, children and video cameras. All I can think about is pain and the difficulty of taking each step. I am beginning to warm up in the sun but feel like I will never be really warm again. We reach the end of the trail and collapse. Randy hitchhikes back to the truck. We are out! I am alive.
After the hike, I am laid up for about a week, moving with great difficulty. That’s when the enormity of it all hits me. By all rights I should be dead. Surviving that fall was sheer luck. And the desperate route down Kolob Canyon could have easily killed any of us from hypothermia. The fact that I am alive to ponder all of this is no relief from the shock and fear. The following weeks are very sobering.
Sometime later I hear from Greg. Looking at map during the hike we all noticed that upstream from the point where we dropped into Kolob Canyon was Kolob Reservoir. Greg managed to track down the dam operator to inquire about water releases around the time we were in the canyon. We had expected about 5 to 7 cubic feet per. Greg learned from the operator that releases had been increased to around 35 cfs just prior to our hike, which explains why we encountered so much water. Had we known about that—the backcountry office never said anything about water releases—our plans would likely have changed; our pre-hike information warned about the danger of hiking in the canyon during periods of high water. I like to think we were sufficiently smart to act on that information. As it was, we were very lucky. Sure, we brought a certain amount of skill to the whole affair but luck was surely with us.
Later hikers were not so lucky. In July 1993 a group of 13 teenagers and three adults rappelled into Kolob Canyon and encountered high water. The two most experienced leaders died shortly after entering the canyon as they tried to get past a plunge pool. That would be the first waterfall we encountered not long after we reached the creek on Day Three. The surviving adult did not attempt to go forward and huddled with the hungry, cold teens in a small alcove beneath a cliff to await rescue, which came five days later. A story in the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the water flow was 28 cfs. Once again I was reminded my good fortune eight years earlier.