I started canyoneering for a very simple reason: to experience beautiful places.
Ropes and carabiners and harnesses are kind of fun and all, but really that stuff is just a means to an end. I’m there to see beautiful places. Rapping off sketchy anchors, hiking for days, high ball stemming, free hanging rappels, flowing water – those things don’t really interest me. If they get to me a pretty place, then they are tolerable. Sometimes they are even enjoyable. But in the end, they are just a small part of the composite of a place, and it’s the place I’m after.
Caption – edit me
When I explain to people what canyoneering is all about, without fail, the question I’m asked the most is “what’s the best canyon, ever?”
My reply is almost always the same. “I dunno. I don’t really have one. Poe is pretty good. Climax is exceptional. Shenanigans is fun. Imlay is crazy good…”
Invariably, the reply is “But what about Heaps?”
“Oh Heaps? I have no idea. Never done it…”
Seriously, I’ve never done Heaps Canyon. Hell, I’ve never even had a huge motivation to get in there. And I can’t really say why that is. There’s a laundry list of reasons involving summers in Alaska, brain tumors, other projects, the fact it’s in Zion, etc…
But ultimately it just boils down to this – I’ve never really thought the place looked that beautiful. It’s got countless rappels, lots of swimming, very dark narrows, and a huge exit rappel sequence. Which sounds interesting, but is it really all that pretty?
Kip has been swearing to me for 5 years it’s one of the best. Technically, physically, aesthetically – it’s got it all, in spades. So when he put a trip together for the weekend of my birthday, told me to fill the permit with a few of my friends, and he’d even take care of the car shuttle, it was pretty tough to turn down.
Rich, Todd and I were just coming off another monster expedition into the Grand Canyon, investing 4 days to descend what turned out to be 400 yards of limestone slot. When we finally got back to civilization, every one of us was looking for an excuse to NOT do Heaps. But here we were, in Fredonia, an hour from Zion, with a permit for Heaps the next day, yet we couldn’t come up with a reason that was any good. So we went to Kanab, got Todd a milkshake, and it was on.
A 3:30 am wake up felt like getting run over by a freight train. Fortunately there is this 8 mile approach in the dark that takes a few hours and shakes out most of the cobwebs. A little after sunrise we found ourselves at the head of Phantom Valley, at the top of the first rappel. Looking down toward the knife edge ridge, we could see another group in front of us, and below them, yet another group.
Ah, yes. This is why I don’t come to Zion very often. A full day ahead of us, and 11 other people in the canyon in front of us. Yikes. This has the makings of a looong day
The upper sections had been flowing as recently as a few days earlier, so we had the thing in tip-top conditions, with beautiful clean water that was ice cold. Immediately we had some beautiful pools, some mild little logjams, and fantastic light. We made it quickly through the first two sections and to the crossroads.
At this point, it was just a romp through some great narrows. We took an hour lunch, fueled up, and began into the final narrows, which Rich and Todd assured me were relentless and much harder than the first two sections. They never end, apparently.
In full conditions like we had it, the canyon remained fairly easy. The biggest obstacle is exposure to frigid temperatures for multiple hours in the final narrows. There is nowhere to get out down there. Logjam and keeper potholes were essentially nonexistent, with the exception of a few easy jams. A few awkward rappels, a few jumps into pools, and lots of swimming. I can only imagine how the game changes in lower water.
But best of all, the place was insanely beautiful. Photos and words can do the place no justice. In the depths of Heaps, there is so little light, it’s almost impossible to photograph the place well. The only solution is a tripod, and I don’t think I’d have the patience or heat generating abilities to make it worth it.
There were a couple of places that were exceptionally good, better than I would’ve ever imagined. First was the green hallway – unbelievable mosses on the wall, with bright orange iron oxide seeps streaking the walls.
And the second is one I’d heard about many times, but wasn’t sure what to expect – the Iron Room. That place is just wild, I can’t think of anything that compares to it. We were fortunate to have just enough light to make some photos in there.
Surprisingly, we had little in the way of a crowd in there either. Shaun and his group let us play through early on, while the group in front made quick work of the canyon. We barely caught up to them at the final drop, where we swapped some tales. Very cool guys, and it turns out they were the crew from the Corona Arch swing video. They graciously let us play through. We returned the favor by getting our ropes tangled on the final drop, and had to spend a half hour re-rigging it. Sorry about that.
It’s been a long time since I really poked around in Zion. Rapping 300 feet into the crowds at Emerald Pools quickly refreshed my memory why I avoid the place. The place is a zoo. Yet, you can’t argue that Zion has some of the most photogenic and beautiful canyons anywhere on the plateau. I guess it’s all just part of the package.
As my feet hit the boulders above emerald pool, my first thought was “best canyon ever?”
I don’t know. It’s a silly question. But there is no question – that canyon is damn good.