The Secret Maze at Zion
The brilliant red sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park draw millions of visitors each year, but very few ever experience the maze of magical caverns that lay hidden deep within their walls.
As I peer over the guard rail that quarantines the tourist in the parking lot from the spectacular wilderness around us, the solitude of the dark abyss of the slot canyon below me beckons. With a steady drone of undecipherable languages buzzing all around us, I help Abby don layers of fleece beneath her watertight drysuit in an effort to protect her from the frigid temperatures that await us, deep in the bowels of Zion National Park. We accessorize our ensemble with climbing harnesses and helmets and step over the guardrail onto precariously perched boulders that mark the entrance to the slot canyon. As we continue our downward scramble, we find ourselves funneled into a deep and continuously narrowing gorge. By the time we reach the bottom, I can touch the walls on either side of me with outreached arms, and the serpentine cliffs that rise almost a hundred feet above completely obscure my view of the sky. I notice a small group of people, perched securely behind the safety rail at an overlook high above, keeping a careful watch on our progress until we round another bend in the canyon and are completely out of sight. In just five short minutes we find ourselves completely alone in one of the world's most famous and busy National Parks, isolated in the dark, dank and spectacularly surreal world of Pine Creek Slot Canyon.
The first challenge we encounter as we work our way down through the tight canyon is minor, but not negligible. It is a 6 foot drop into a deep, cold pool of water that is best navigated with a jump. I offer to go first and manage, just barely, to suppress my gasp reflex as I plunge into the icy water and make a mad dash swim to the warmth of the dry land on the far side of the drop. Abby and Peter follow in quick succession and we press onward through the meandering chambers.
Our next obstacle is two-tiered, sixty foot drop that requires two rappels. We remove the rope from our packs and rig the first anchor. Peter leads the way down the first drop followed by Abby, with me bringing up the rear. Even with over 1000 rappels under my belt, my heart still stops, just for an instant, the moment I shift my body weight from the safety of my perch on the cliffside onto the rope. My brain overpowers my innate adrenaline infused reaction and relays to my body that I am in fact safely suspended from a 9 mm strand of nylon, dangling out in space. My breathing and heart rate return to normal, and my experience takes over and I slowly lower myself down the rope. On my way down, I have to remind myself to shift my focus from the rope feeding through the belay device in front of me and take in all of the grandeur of the cavern I am entering. The light reflecting off of the pool below me dances around chamber that surrounds me giving the impression that the walls are alive. I stare in wonder at the surreal environment that has consumed me until I am jolted back to reality by the cold water that nips first at my feet as I lower myself into the terminus pool and struggle to release my harness from the rope while trying to keep my hands warm and dry. Once free, I grab the rope and swim to the far end of the pool where Abby and Peter are doing jumping jacks trying to warm cold appendages.
We forge on through the canyon, sometimes scrambling through narrow passages, while other times swimming through arctic pools. There is a fair smattering of perilous drops that require a rappel (or two) to navigate that frequently impede our progress, but the technical nature of Pine Creek Canyon is what drew us here in the first place. Each drop or bend in the canyon brings us a new vantage point to experience the magical and extraordinary inner chambers of the massive sandstone walls that make up Zion National Park. Long before we are ready we reach the end of the slot canyon and step out into desert sunlight for the first time in hours. Almost instantly, it warms our chilled bodies. We follow a faint path along a steep hillside back to the road and are once again immersed in the cacophony of spring break pilgrims who are each experiencing the park in their own way.