Few clients have accrued more stories with Zion Adventure Company than Jerry King. Jerry’s been adventuring with us for the better part of a decade, annually bringing neophytes to Zion for their canyoneering baptisms. When Jerry saw we were looking for 15th Anniversary stories, naturally he jumped right in. Thanks for sharing your time and passion with us, Jerry.
HOLY COW! THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS….
ONE-DAY BASIC PROGRAM, OCTOBER 2005
After treks into The Narrows the previous couple of years, it was time to step up my game, so I signed on to a basic canyoneering course by the good folks at the ZAC. I anticipated a simple program… perhaps some white-board talk and a gear review in the ZAC shop, and maybe a little time in the field. Wrong! Our group of four neophytes headed out at 7:30 am for a Class III slot canyon. OK…so this might be a bit more serious than I thought. Oh… but I didn’t know how right that observation was!
After a 45-minute drive into the backcountry, we hiked a couple miles to the head of our canyon “classroom”. After practicing some important knots and a reviewing the equipment we had been given, we donned dry suits and clambered into our rapelling gear. Our initial assignment: select an anchor for our first rappel, then rig the ropes for the 50′ descent. This exercise played out under the watchful eye of our instructor, Evan Pfaff.
Mind you, he had only showed us once how this was all going to work. After that, he remained silent… only challenging us occasionally with the question, “Would you trust your life to that set up?” If the answer was not a resounding “yes,” he merely stated that if it didn’t look or feel right, then it probably wasn’t… and then crossed his arms and watched us group-think our way to the solution. It took a while to realize this was a very effective teaching technique… getting us to think and act on our own, rather than waiting for the instructor to fix the problem or give us the answer.
Anyway… the balance of the day was spent descending Water Canyon, encountering and solving a series of technical challenges along the way. Some descents required ropes, while others were unprotected down-climbs using various rock climbing techniques. The drops were mostly in the 20 to 50 foot range, until we came upon a 100-foot rappel into a deep pool of 40-degree water! Yikes! What happened to the easy one-day orientation I had envisioned? This was serious business!!
Either because I was scared out of my mind and wanted to get it over with, or because my ego kicked in, I volunteered to go first. If there was ever a time to do something right the first time, this was definitely it! I very, very carefully rigged my descending gear, my mates check out my set-up, and I backed off the sheer drop into the abyss. All I could see was dark, foreboding rock faces dropping straight down into an inky, black pool of fetid water, 100 feet below. Did I rig my gear correctly? Did I compute the right length of rope to get me all the way to the bottom? Have I selected the best route down? Will I be able to swim with all this gear on once I get to the bottom? OK… this is really, really getting serious! Jeez… wouldn’t an instructional video have been just as effective?
Obviously, I made it… with much hooting and hollering at both ends of the rope. I’d have done an end-zone dance upon splash down, but I was too busy detaching the rope while staying afloat in frigid water. No time for any showboating!
After a couple more descents, Evan announced, just as we got to a tricky rappel, that he was leaving us. What? Leaving us? How could be… we were just babes in the woods! But leave us he did… heading off down-canyon and out of sight! So there we were… looking over a tricky descent, with no one to correct us if we made a mistake! Now things were REALLY getting serious!
But here’s where Evan’s training approach really kicked in. We carefully went through the routine, double-checking each step… then one by one, over the edge we went. Unknown to us, Evan had snuck back up and was hiding in the proverbial weeds, recording the action with his digital camera. Of course, once we were all safely down, there was much strutting and puffing going on. Were we good or what?!
Either we were incredibly slow, or we got so caught up in the experience that we lost track of time… but we didn’t exit the canyon until after 7:00 pm. Mates and loved ones had expected us to return to the ZAC shop somewhere between 4 and 5. We didn’t make it home until just before 8:00 pm, long after the sun had gone down! Needless to say, a few folks were pretty worried. But not us… we had just had an experience of a lifetime!