Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Birch Hollow and Orderville Canyon

I went to Zion National Park this weekend with some friends to go canyoneering. We had a great time, but the trip was filled with unexpected adventure.

I drove down with Amy and Tyler on Friday. We missed the Zion exit (each of us thought that the other two were paying attention) and so we decided to take advantage of our time in St. George by stopping at Jack in the Box. I had misheard the backcountry office hours earlier that day, so by the time we got to the park, it was closed. We would have to wait until the next day to pick up our permit. We explored a possible new campsite, decided it was no good, and headed back to my usual Zion hangout: Mosquito Cove.

We waded around in the soft, fine mud of the Virgin River for a little while—until Tyler and I felt some mystery critters started nibbling on our toes, that is. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing, watching for shooting stars, and talking on the hood of Tyler's truck. (Note to self: bring camp chairs next time.) Although not action-packed, I really enjoyed the evening.

Cherise, Mike, and Channing showed up late in the evening, and we set up camp and tried to go to sleep. Another group not too far from us was up until about 1:30 talking around the campfire, and I couldn't fall asleep until they did.

We got up early on Saturday morning to pick up the permit. When we got to the backcountry office, the updated weather report predicted a 20% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. There had been nothing but dry, blue skies predicted all week, and now this? Since we were getting started on our already-tight schedule later than expected, and since the flash flood potential had risen, and since there are a couple of sections of Englestead that are pretty committing with respect to flooding, I reluctantly made an executive decision that we weren't going to do Englestead.

I told the backcountry office that our spot would be free, and then went to tell the rest of the group. They were all disappointed, as expected. Mike suggested that we could do Birch Hollow instead. It was shorter and less committing, and dumps into Orderville, which has more places to run in case of flooding. I decided that Birch would be safe enough to do, so after reviewing it in the guidebook, I walked back to the backcountry office and picked up a permit for Orderville. (Birch is outside the park, so no permit is required for it. If you exit up Orderville, you don't need a permit at all.)

We all piled into Tyler's truck and headed to the trailhead, which is about 45 minutes from the visitor center. We got our gear ready and headed down the drainage. After five or ten minutes of hiking, I came around a bend and Cherise and the others were stopped on the side of the trail. As I looked closer, I realized why: she had a bunch of plant splinters sticking out of her eyelid.

Some of the splinters were in pretty deep, but Amy stepped right up and started pulling them out. Cherise was a great sport about the situation, which may have been helped by the fact that there are apparently no nerve endings in her eyelids. After a while we managed to pull out most of the spliters, and Amy and I ran back up to the truck to grab some Neosporin (note to self: bring that next time, too). It looked like Cherise would be fine, and we were only delayed by about 45 minutes.

At 9:30 we started down the canyon again, and soon came to the first rappel: a drop off a shelf of loose rock down into a big bowl. There was a group in front of us, so we waited for them to rappel down and pull their rope. It took a little while to send everyone down since it was the first rappel, but everyone did really well.

The rest of the canyon was filled with seven or eight rappels, all of them bolted, and many of them quite breathtaking (with beauty, not fear). The people ahead of us, a group doing an advanced canyoneering course, kindly let us pass, and we were making quick progress down the canyon since we had two ropes. On one of the last rappels, Channing got her long hair stuck in her ATC and had to chop off a big chunk. I was at the top, so I couldn't see what was going on. When I finally made it down, it looked like she had chopped off a small furry animal!

The rest of Birch was pretty uneventful, and we reached Orderville Canyon at about 12:30, so we had spent a little over three hours in the canyon. As we walked down Orderville, we passed the exit of Englestead and took a look up at where we might have been. I would have loved to do the entry rappel and seen the inside of Englestead, but I was pretty happy with Birch. It was a fun, beautiful canyon.

After a while we hit our first puddle in Orderville, and the water just kept getting deeper from there. There were a couple of swimmers and lots of beautiful slots. Tyler and Channing jumped down a small waterfall into one of the pools. We felt a couple of raindrops once, but there was no evidence of flooding at all.

As we neared the end of Orderville we were getting chilly (we didn't bring wetsuits), so we kept moving faster and faster. We stopped around 4:30 at the Orderville-Narrows confluence to talked to a couple of groups who had just come out of Imlay, but soon were on the move again to stay warm.

We reached the Temple of Sinawava around 5:30, and were back at the visitor center a little after 6:00. When we arrived, we discovered that our adventure would be extended a little longer, since the keys to the car we had left at the visitor center were locked in the car we had left at the trailhead. Ironically, I usually bring and extra key on trips like this, but I had forgotten this time—the only time so far that it would have come in handy.

Fortunately, I always bring my phone and wallet with me everywhere, so was able to call Zion Ponderosa (the ranch near the trailhead) and have them send a shuttle down to pick me up. $35 and a little over two hours later, I was back at the visitor center with Tyler's truck—and the keys to the other car.

We stopped at a Mexican restaurant in Springdale for some much-needed dinner and then headed back to Provo at around 10:30. I drove home, and I'm really glad that Tyler stayed up to talk to me—both because it helped keep me awake, and because we had a good conversation.

Despite a few (mis)adventures, I thought the trip went really well. I was really impressed with Cherise and Channing's cool in tough situations, and everyone else's calm reactions. No one got mad about the keys, and everything worked out just fine in the end. I couldn't have asked for better company, I got to know my friends better, and the unexpected events gave me some good stories to tell. Verdict: definitely worth it.

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Alex said...

fun times. Birch canyon actually is the extreme bottom end of a drainage that starts up in my family's private property where my great-grandpa homesteaded.

those mystery toe nibblers were probably what we used to call mud-puppies. they're kind of a salamander-looking critter that likes to burrow down into the mud in the crick. I have no idea what they are really called, though.

Bruce said...

I noticed Esplin gulch on the topo map when I was preparing for the trip, and figured you were related somehow to whoever it was named after. You live in a pretty cool neck of the woods.

Jonathan said...

Man... I want to go with you on one of your trips. I'm always afraid you do impossible hikes and climbs. Sounds like you all had a lot of fun.