A Day in the Guiding Life

My day today begins as many have over the past few months. Greeting clients, directions to the restrooms, overview of what our canyoneering trip will likely entail. As we chat, I am attempting to distill insights into their desires and motivations from seemingly idle chatter. At no point in the day will I have less information than I have right now and yet I must make decisions that will determine the outcome of our day.

West TempleThe pantheon of the winds have been particularly irascible of late; the last three mornings have dawned angrily, like an old man trying to send back cold soup in a deli. Zion has no care for my schedule or your vacation plans. I decide to take advantage of this morning’s remarkably clear and cool skies and head down to Water Canyon; it has flash-flooded since the last time I have been there so I anticipate deeper pools, and some mud and sand lining the canyon walls but I still feel as though I am visiting an old, familiar friend since I have been denied access to this particular location on several of my last trips.

Water CanyonMy clients and I are becoming very well acquainted by the time we arrive at the trail-head. I steel myself for what has become a very routine approach to our drop-in point, but at least I have friendly conversation to ease the monotony of sand in my shoes punctuated by the occasional branch to the face.

I point the way up the trail and we begin. It takes all of ten seconds for me to realize that something is—different today. To be more specific, a huge swath of the trail has vanished. What was a smooth and obvious trail less than a week ago now was a gaping divide. I look to my right at the usually docile creek and notice that it is flowing with unusual fervor; it is seething and discolored.

We continue on and many parts of the path which were intact days ago, are no longer; the underlying stones on the trail have been laid bare and tempt ankle injury at every step. My clients have no frame of reference in which to assimilate the changes in the canyon other than my frequent exclamations; yet they seem pleased that they get to discover along with me, what lies in store.

At the bottom of the canyon we begin ascending near the watercourse and I point out the usually knee deep pools of water which are now buried in sand. Where water once flowed, a wet mass of sand now languishes. I feel like I am in some sort of bizarre dream where one of the most familiar places I know has been turned on its ear.

RappelBy the time we reach the top I am able to restore my confidence in the familiarity of the canyon. The anchors are the same as the last time I had been there and the bottom of the first rappel appears much the same as I remember it a week or so ago. All this goes out the window as we founder in thigh deep quicksand at the bottom after completing the first rappel. I declare a state of martial law in the canyon, deputizing my clients as fellow problem solvers and ask for their help in figuring out solutions since all of the information I had so meticulously collected about the canyon was essentially swept away by the flood.

As we work our way down the canyon, once waist deep pools become full-on swimmers, filled with murky water; other previously chest deep pools are filled with malevolent looking quicksand. Logs which had been fixtures in the lower canyon have completely vanished, and new ones, larger around than the girth of a fat man are jammed into slots and crevices so improbable, we can only marvel at the furious hand of nature which placed them there.

We are nearly at the bottom of the canyon and I am beginning to pat our group on the back for not succumbing to the surprises of the canyon. I lead on into a section which looks to be about knee deep and was only a little shallower than that a week ago. I let my clients go first and “discover” the water depth; it is time that I take my turn running the gauntlet. I step down and am pleasantly surprised. The bottom of this slot has indeed been scoured free of sand, but its true depth is only about two feet deep. I relay this information back to the group and they begin to follow. I continue on, hugging the left wall and it is only when I attempt to step to the right that I make the horrifying discovery that I have been walking on a small ledge and within the slot there is a sizable drop-off of unknown depth.

Flute RappelI ease down, trailing a foot, hoping to touch something solid and am rewarded with no purchase for my feet. I am swimming now, full on, in a slot barely wider than my own shoulders. My years of aquatics training do absolutely nothing to refine my stroke which bespeaks more of survival than athleticism. Cold water is sapping my breath and erasing my muscle memory, replacing calculated movements with spastic flailing and muffled curses. I regain my footing after what seems like an hour of frantic paddling. Now comes my clients turns, and I have the camera ready. Kodak moment.

We drag ourselves out of the mire and to the bottom of the canyon where we remove our gear after a full value day of adventure. We return to our vehicle no longer clients and guide but simply friends chattering excitedly about the events of the day. Things are not always as they appear. The beauty of Zion is only one of its many faces; its unbridled fury gives gifts no less valuable.

Stephen RichertStephen moved from San Diego to join the ZAC Guide Corp in March 2010. A climber, writer, and philosopher, Stephen has been learning – and teaching – the ropes of canyoneering this year, while sharing his breadth of outdoor experiences with the clients he meets every morning.

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