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Cindy Purcell
our correspondent in the wilderness
Subway to Zion
Monday, Mar 8, 2004 (03:52 PM)

Spring break will be here in two weeks, and even though there is still snow in the high country of Zion (above 6000 feet), we'll have a noticeable increase in visitors. Some of the backpackers will be disappointed to find that they won't be able to get into the high country if they didnít come prepared to travel in the snow. There's about five feet of snow on the West and East Rim trails, and snow shoes or skis are still the preferred method of travel up there.

Early Spring, High Country Version

We'll also see an increase in permit requests for slot canyon day trips. Many people have heard of the slot canyons in Zion, and the relatively new sport of canyoneering has really taken off. Canyoneering is essentially hiking and swimming through slot canyons with the use of ropes and rappel gear. It can be a very dangerous sport for those who donít have technical rope skills. Canyoneers need the equipment and knowledge to get back up the rope they have rappelled down, to be able to place bolts and create safe anchors for their rappels, and to be able to solve a variety of problems that may involve a stuck rope, a lost rope, or not enough rope. We tell all canyoneers that they are responsible for their own safety and that rescue is not a certainty out of these canyons.

Canyoneering is most popular during the hot months of summer. It's quite refreshing to plunge into a cold-water pool when the air temperature is 90-100 degrees. Because the sun passes over the slot canyons quickly, it doesn't warm the pools, and they average 30-45 degrees year-round. Hypothermia is a serious concern, especially if people are not prepared with extra clothing, or if the warming sun has already passed the canyon walls. What is confusing to people is that regardless of the daytime temperatures (in April it can reach into the 90s), there is still snow on the ground in the high country. This means that the slot canyon pools are at their coldest in spring, due to the melting snow pack.

One of the most popular backcountry areas is the Left Fork of North Creek, also known as the Subway. There are two ways to hike the Subway. Both trips involve extensive route finding. Visitors are encouraged to go with an experienced Subway hiker and/or obtain a detailed route description. Permits are required regardless of the direction of travel.

Rappelling Into the Subway, Summertime

The hike from the bottom and back is a strenuous nine-mile round trip requiring route finding, stream crossing, and scrambling over boulders. The through hike from the top to the bottom is a strenuous nine and a half mile hike that requires rappelling, 60 feet of rope, and extensive route finding skills. The route also requires swimming through several deep pools of very cold debris-filled water. Visitors to this canyon donít always prepare and plan appropriately for their trip, so we have to perform regular rescues.

At the end of March last year, the air temperature was around 80 degrees when a group of young adults started off on the Subway route in cotton shorts, T-shirts, and sandals. The leader said that he had hiked the Subway before, in late July, and that he knew the route. The ranger issuing the backcountry permit explained how cold the canyon would be and suggested they bring wet suits or dry suits.

The next day, April 1, park dispatch received an emergency phone call from the trip leader requesting assistance in the Subway. The group had gotten so cold in the canyon that they refused to travel any further. They built a warming fire and spent the night in the canyon. The leader hiked out of the canyon the next morning to get help from the Zion Search and Rescue team.

Knowing how cold the canyon was, another ranger and I geared up with extra clothing and dry suits for the stranded hikers. As we hiked in from the top of the canyon, we noted that there was quite a bit of snow melt in the pools. We were amazed that this group came prepared only with cotton shorts and T-shirts. It was no surprise that they got too cold to move.

When Marcia and I got to the group, we found them in relatively good shape. I guess youth has a way of forgiving poor judgment. Our plan was to share the dry suits with the group and move them one at a time through the rest of the cold pools, before hiking them out the bottom of the canyon. This was a rude reality check to them, because they expected a ride in a helicopter. We let them know that we do not call a helicopter for every rescue, and that we expected them to get themselves out, with our assistance.

It took Marcia and me eight hours to coax these people through five more cold water pools, down a 30 foot rappel, and out to the trailhead. I gave the group leader a violation notice for creating a hazardous condition and endangering these people. Regardless of their level of expertise, the group leader/permitee, is held responsible for the actions and safety of the group. Despite a lengthy explanation and discussion, I am not convinced that he fully grasped the seriousness of the situation, even after leading his friends into a potentially fatal situation. I could only wonder how many times he would repeat this mistake before his luck eventually ran out.

Note to readers: this is Cindy Purcell's final entry for POV's Borders. We hope you'll check out her previous entries, below, and browse through the other guest pages on Border Talk. Thanks for stopping by.

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Snow Mo on Patrol
Monday, Mar 1, 2004 (04:29 PM)

After eight straight days of rain and snow, the sun came out today. Chuck and I head up to the high country of Zion to do a backcountry snowmobile patrol, check on a backcountry ranger cabin, and measure the snow depth. This isnít just a fun snowmobile trip -- these are big, noisy, air-polluting machines...

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A Dangling Rescue
Friday, Feb 27, 2004 (03:13 PM)

I made my first rescue in Zion National Park during my third month on the job. It was my day off, but...

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Training Day
Wednesday, Feb 25, 2004 (11:23 AM)

Today I'm working the middle shift, covering law enforcement patrol duties in the main canyon. I'll respond to calls for assistance from visitors and try to slow down speeders on the main road...

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Night Patrol
Thursday, Feb 19, 2004 (10:02 AM)

A winter evening shift in Zion National Park is relatively quiet. I check overnight campers in the campground, late-night travelers, and climbers on the cliffs. Along the main canyon's scenic drive, the full moon is coming up in the east...

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Past Entries
02/19 Night Patrol
02/25 Training Day
02/27 A Dangling Rescue
03/01 Snow Mo on Patrol
03/08 Subway to Zion