It took two days for the storms to pass. By then, flash floods had scoured the canyons of Zion National Park clean once more. Only three weeks earlier, seven people had died canyoneering in the park when rising floodwaters caught them unawares, so I was under strict orders by my friends and family to take extra precautions during my last adventure of the summer. Only once the forecast predicted blue skies for several days did I venture down into the exquisitely-sculpted sandstone corridor known as The Subway.
Compared to the rest of Zion, not many parties explored this stretch of North Creek, for as soon as the canyon walls closed in and the first boulder obstacles were rappelled, there was no way to scramble back upstream again. It was a one-way journey, and the first portion bore many of the signs of a descent into hell. The trail through Russell Gulch drifted down a fiery landscape of two hundred million year-old petrified sand dunes, and the fierce red striations contrasted strongly with the peaceful white cliffs of Navajo Sandstone that ringed the basin, watching over like guardian angels. Obviously, I was not the first person to make that observation, as I later learned that the North and South Guardian Angels were, in fact, the official names for the prominent peaks overlooking the Subway.
Despite the intense sunlight, I wore my synthetic thermal layers on the trek through Russell Gulch, hoping the extra heat would sink deep into my bones and help me survive the shady slot canyon. In a few miles, the primitive trail plunged into a fissure in the earth carved by the Left Fork of North Creek, and I began to pass other canyon explorers, some of whom donned wetsuits in preparation for the frigid pools to come. The first rappel down a pile of obstructing boulders was easy, but once I pulled my rope, I knew there was no way to re-anchor it without a grappling hook. When you’re canyoneering, I guess you can’t be too afraid of commitment.
As the chasm grew narrower, avoiding pools of water became impossible. I thought the icy, ankle-deep passages were a bad enough shock to the system, but then the streambed dropped, and I was forced to swim. The temperature of the pool made me want to cry. A watertight compartment in my backpack provided buoyancy and helped me keep my head above the surface as I dog-paddled across to the sandy shore downstream. So cold. I emerged in my sodden polypropylene layers and kept moving. The countdown to hypothermia had begun.