Spring Canyoneering Surprises the Ill-Prepared

Noticed this great trip report from SportsLover, a local St. George-based blogger who ventured out to descend Water Canyon last week. Though these guys fortunately came out of their predicament unscathed, the hypothermic challenge they created for themselves was significant. While two well-trained, large men with a good sense of humor and adventure evidently dealt with the cold challenge well here, the same set of circumstances could lead to an emergency, or even a fatality, for a different team. Not only does cold challenge lead to hypothermia, but also hypothermic symptoms like slower movement, loss of coordination, and, most importantly, impaired cognition. These symptoms easily lead to accidents, compounding the trouble in such situations.

As you can see in the pictures, there can be a lot of ice and snow melting out in Zion’s canyons this time of year, which means ice-cold running water, dousing waterfalls, deep pools covered with thin ice, and even hiking in deep snow. When it’s 65 and sunny in town, it doesn’t mean the canyons are hospitable to those in sandals and t-shirts. At Zion Adventure Company, we love spring canyoneering, but we make sure to choose warmer venues OR warmer equipment to make sure everyone can be safe and enjoy their canyon time.

Commendation goes out to SportsLover for posting his trip report and acknowledging the questionable nature of his recent trip. Sharing his experience helps the rest of us avoid such a painful, if adventurous, outing.


With spring fast approaching in 16 days and temperatures projected to top 65 degrees near St. George, UT, I decided to go canyoneering this past weekend. My friend and I took back-roads through the FLDS town of Colorado City and off-roaded to a canyon in the northern part of Arizona.

Winter RappelThe recent rains caused us to navigate sizable mud troughs; however, the 30 degree temperature at 7:10 in the morning proved to be enough to freeze it all over.

We arrived very eager to get into our first canyon for the “season”. My friend tied up his trusted old sneakers as I contemplated my next move: sandals or sneakers? I reasoned that either way my feet would be cold in the water, so I opted to strap on the Chaco sandals and start heading into the canyon.

We followed the trails upwards, crossing streams and some ice that had formed on the canyon wall. Thirty minutes later we hit the mouth of the canyon. Regretfully, that wasn’t the only thing we hit–we also encountered snow. I followed in my friends’ footsteps but I still found myself 6 inches deep in ice and powder.

We had reached the point where we needed to scale the canyon wall by snaking our way up the side. My feet stung from the exposure but I figured I could tough it out for thirty minutes until we reached the top where the sun hit all day long. I pressed on.

Four hours later I still found myself standing in snow, which reached over a 16 inches deep in some places. I made sure that I didn’t stand still for too long and that my toes continued wiggling.

I figured I might as well die a martyr, but My friend refused to let me carry him across the ice-filled water holes. Any feeling in my feet was beyond gone, walking was comparable to the peg-leg sensation when you walk on a sleeping leg.

Winter canyoneeringAt one point we had to stem, the technique using your hands and feet to travel through rock corridors without touching the ground. Without notice my feet gave out and I crashed through the icy water up to my waist.

At that point we knew we couldn’t slow down. We navigated 7 or 8 rappels that became very technical considering the conditions. The black ice that coated much of the canyon wall, made smart footwork essential. There was no margin for the error of slipping into the waterfall, more than just freezing water, the ice formed deep pits that could trap you in an icy tomb. What more, thick ice sheets threatened to chunk and fall onto us from above. It was a danger-filled experience.

Lesson learned: winter canyoneering is a whole lot different from summer canyoneering.

Regardless, of the hazards we unwisely challenged, we had a fantastic experience. Gorgeous vistas, intense rappels, and incredible fun, basically everything a canyoneering trip should provide.

In fact, I think I’ll make a similar trip next winter; however, I plan on being slightly more prepared.

Go to the original article.


About Nick

Nick Wilkes found ZAC in 1996, working first as an outfitter, then a guide, then as webmaster. An ardent adventure enthusiast, Nick's recent exploits involve laying down roots in Wisconsin, chasing his kids around the house, working as a Madison, WI photographer and growing his Wisconsin climbing business. Connect with Nick on Facebook, Google+, or directly via email.
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