Trip Report: January Descent of Icy Keyhole Canyon

As a year-round resident of Springdale and Zion, I can say yes, sometimes even WE take our surroundings for granted! Winter often brings mud, rain, and colder temperatures to the Canyon, making canyoneering more challenging to enjoy in frigid water. For me, winter is primarily for down jackets, skiing, and staying DRY.

So, in the midst of my winter canyoneering sabbatical, my friends from Cumberland Transit in Nashville called and said they were visiting mid-January, before hitting the Winter Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City. They had all seen the movie, “127 Hours”, and wanted to have a similarly epic experience. Hmmm, I thought, this might be tough. So, we thought about the North Wash area, thought about Blue John Canyon, but snowy conditions in Southern Utah prevailed, so my friends decided to come to Zion, which would provide great hiking, even if a canyon wasn’t do-able.

When they arrived, the weather was nice and warm, but I knew the canyon would be frigid and icy, so we decided on an afternoon descent of Keyhole Canyon, a short-ish 2-3 hour canyon on the Zion’s east side. Another group I knew had descended Keyhole the previous week and said they wish they would have taken ice axes! In the past month, we had a huge amount of rain and then freezing temperatures, which I knew had made the ice climbing fantastic, but what would it do to canyoneering???

As we dry-suited up at the head of the canyon, we heard moderate flow coming from the exit. Going in the afternoon meant warmer temperatures, but melting snow?!?! The hike up was dry slickrock, but once we crossed the ridge, the north-facing slope held a lot of snow and ice, so we all slid on our backsides to the entrance.

Once we were in, it was incredible!! Chunks of floating ice, icicle chandeliers, crawls along frozen ice, and even an “ice curtain” we needed to crawl through! The canyon was very fun and exciting. The toughest challenge brought by winter was to keep moving, as the frigid water quickly cut through our double neoprene socks, and multiple layers underneath our drysuits. By the end, we were happy to be back in the sun! Ice on the walls also made some downclimbs spicier (we spotted and partner assisted A LOT), and of course, helmets were essential for possible falling icicles.

So, I was expecting a “Freeze Fest”, but we got a beautiful winter wonderland instead. If you are thinking of descending a Zion canyon in winter, be sure to take the appropriate gear and be ready for cold, but enjoy the winter silence and wonder of our often-crowded summer canyons.

Enjoy the pictures and see you all soon in Zion!


About Sarah

Sarah Stratton is one of the fine guides and outfitters you will meet at Zion Adventure Company. When Sarah isn’t helping people have adventures in Zion, you can find her cooking scrumptious food or playing in the Park.
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