Panic and Triumph in Pine Creek Canyon (Zion NP)

A huge rumble engulfed the cavernous space, and I yelled for the others to “go, Go, GO!” Terrified of facing a flash flood in the tight confines of Zion’s Pine Creek Canyon, I moved faster than I ever had before. I knew that we wouldn’t stand a chance of escape with slick, moss-covered sandstone walls rising vertically for one hundred, maybe two hundred feet above our heads. I couldn’t help but envision myself (and the ten other AOCers I was with) ping-ponging through the narrow passages, swept away by raging waters along with boulders, trees, and other debris. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of an alarmist when it comes to the dangers of canyoneering, but that’s why I try not to find myself in such situations to begin with.

 

11 AOCers ready to tackle Pine Creek Canyon

11 AOCers ready to tackle Pine Creek Canyon

Despite the slightly overcast morning sky earlier that day, the Zion rangers assured us there was a zero-percent chance of rain when we picked up our permit from the backcountry office. Mike and I and nine beginner canyoneers set off for the short-and-sweet Pine Creek Canyon.

Although it has five rappels, and some of them a bit challenging for beginners, Pine Creek is a brief canyon with virtually no approach or exit hike. It is dramatic and awe-inspiring and the type of canyon that would make any outdoor enthusiast go gaga. Because of the narrow canyon walls, Pine Creek does not see much sunlight, and it is filled with chilly swims, so we were outfitted in wetsuits accordingly.

Jordan's mad stemming skills

Jordan’s mad stemming skills

After reviewing safety precautions and teaching some brand-new canyoneers how to control their descent with ATCs, we made it to the bottom of the first two-stage, 70-foot rappel. Just then it started to drizzle, but we were already committed to the canyon. It was too late to turn back, so we carried on.

Regan looks thrilled to be rappelling

Regan looks thrilled to be rappelling

Just below a short, awkward rappel, we had a stunning 60-foot rappel into a beautiful cathedral. I supervised this one as Mike leap-frogged past to head down canyon. About halfway through getting our group down this rappel, the weather seemed to worsen. The temperature dropped a bit, and the drizzle of rain turned into a more steady patter. Unlike the rain, my heartbeat took on a frantic, slightly erratic patter. “Oh no, oh no, oh shit,” I kept thinking. Well, that and “damn, I wish these newbies would pick up the pace a bit.” (Sorry, guys. You really did very well, but my thoughts turn uncharitable when I’m terrified.)

The 60-foot rappel into the cathedral

The 60-foot rappel into the cathedral

Finally, Austin, the last person before me, started his rappel. As he edged around the awkward start and began his descent, a deep, prolonged rumble interrupted my worried thoughts. “Flash flood!” is what screamed in my brain, and that’s when I started shouting for Austin, and the few remaining people below (Ian, who was taking pictures, and Jordan, I believe) to get a move on. To his credit, Austin flew down the rope like a pro. I told them not to wait for me and to catch up to the rest of the group.

By this point it was clear that a flash flood was not actually crashing down atop my head, but I was still incredibly spooked, thinking it could happen at any moment. What I now assume to have been thunder was still a very ominous sign. I rappelled very quickly, stacked the rope in my bag in record time, and hauled ass down canyon. Before long I caught up to the guys, who had stopped, feeling guilty for leaving me behind. They assured me that I had scared the bejeezus out of them. I assured them that I had scared myself as well but that I still wasn’t sure we were in the clear. We nearly sprinted through the next section of the canyon, completely forgetting how cold the water was due to our pumping adrenaline.

As the canyon widened a bit, I started to relax somewhat, and we all began to laugh about how freaked out we’d been. I felt a little silly for panicking, but considering the nervousness still roiling in the pit of my stomach and the rain still coming down steadily, I felt justified as well. The guys seemed to think the added drama merely heightened the whole canyoneering experience. We caught up to Mike and the rest of the gang at the next rappel where only one person had gone down so far. Mike said he hadn’t been expecting us for another 20 minutes or so. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we really moved through those narrows.

Oh no! Mike's stuck!

Oh no! Mike’s stuck!

Even though the canyon was somewhat wider, we still had two significant rappels to complete with eleven people. That never goes quickly. The rain continued to terrorize me. Even so, it didn’t take away from the sheer drama of the last rappel, which dropped us 100 feet (with about 90 free-hanging) into another cavern. Everyone’s jaw dropped as he or she realized there was nothing to place one’s feet on while easing down the rope. Everyone did remarkably well with this non-beginner maneuver.

The 100-foot, free-hanging rappel

The 100-foot, free-hanging rappel

Finally, to my infinite relief, the canyon completely opened up into one of the most pleasant boulder-hopping exits ever. Having passed all the dangerous slots and chilly swims, we were practically giddy with our success. We enjoyed the pretty autumn leaves, the mildly challenging down climbs, and the early evening calm. We made up a “canyon dance” to illustrate the unique way one hikes and stems through a canyon. After a short while (especially in comparison to the 3-hour exit hike of Fat Man’s Misery the day before), we scrambled up to our waiting shuttle vehicle.

This was the exit from the narrow section. After this point I began to breathe normally again.

This was the exit from the narrow section. After this point I began to breathe normally again.

A park ranger saw us and stopped to chat about our adventure. When I said that I had been a “little concerned” about the rain, especially since the rangers had told us there was a “zero percent chance,” he replied, “yeah . . . that kind of took us by surprise. There was even some hail up canyon a ways.” Yeah . . .

This canyon proved somewhat psychologically traumatizing for me. It may be that I overreacted. It may be that I am overly cautious. I sure as hell didn’t want to be responsible for leading so many trusting adventurers into a crash course of flash flood survival, though. I know that things can go seriously wrong, seriously fast, so I can’t help but berate myself a little for our risky decision to proceed despite the cloudy skies. Lesson learned. Every trip is an exercise in calculating acceptable risk, and the size and experience of the group must be taken into account.

Nonetheless, our Pine Creek canyoneering adventure was a huge success. The canyon has a high fun-to-effort ratio. It showcases the best of the sport, in my opinion. Nine new canyoneers got to experience one of the coolest little canyons around, and nobody even suffered a minor injury. That’s a major win in my book.

The group's "after" picture

The group’s “after” picture

 

*Photo credits go to Mike Zysman and Mike Jacobson

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