The question has been asked: Why descend Imlay in the winter? A wonderful canyon maybe, but it’s hard enough during the warmest times of the year. Why build in extra suffering and risk? There are a few reasons really, but paramount is I am competing. Competing with who? For what? Competing for time with my son, Aaron. His options for adventure are great and varied now that he is an adult on his own, with great skills and many talented partners. He likes FreezeFest. He has attended six straight years, but North Wash fare doesn’t move him anymore. So Imlay on Christmas sparks the man-child’s desire for challenge and I am rewarded with time. Time with the man.
Last year, the idea was Christmas in Choprock/Kaleidoscope… that was something for him sink his teeth into. This year it was Christmas in Imlay, and I upped it with a plan to climb Ancient Art and Castleton Towers on the following days. He owes me more climbs than canyons anyway, and it is a chance for him to show me his fine skill set. He is on board for this. If I don’t come up with the goods, he will go elsewhere. You say he owes me, from the years of implementally more challenging adventures, that led him to where he is today? That might be true, but it might not be true. Besides, I am not a charity case quite yet. Imlay for Christmas appeals to me and doesn’t seem beyond my range… yet. But when Brechja proposes doing Moonlight Buttress with Aaron on the days after Imlay, I surrender my post-Imlay climbing plans gracefully without a peep. I can’t compete with Moonlight.
But I must admit, the draw of such a canyon in winter arises within me, too, all by itself. A curiosity drives it. I want to know what it looks like. What extra challenges will be encountered? Will it be iced over? Snowed in? What many subtleties and lessons await? Realities as yet unseen, thus unknown. The draw of such things are very strong within me. Eyes gotsta know!
I toss out invites like seeds. Some take hold and sprout. Tim Hoover was there for Kaleidoscope the year before… he is interested in Imlay. He has now descended these canyons once each, both on December 25th. Others decline the offer. Tom would if he could… Jenny would, if she was about… Ryan Cornia jumps on board. Who else would have if I had thought to invite them? It is a day most are occupied with other things. Four to go!
Tim and Sue Hoover offer up their bed and breakfast in Orderville as camp for before and after the canyon. The idea of sleeping indoors makes me uncomfortable – having to figure out appropriate inside social behaviors stresses me – but gaining advantage for a winter Imlay is hard to resist. Aaron and I sign on. When we get there, just after dark on the 24th, Ryan is already socializing with the gracious Tim and Sue. The place is spectacular, with beautiful wood floors and wonderful decor. I am out of place in such luxury. We will spend two nights, eat well, and sleep on fine mattresses, under vaulted ceilings. Magnifico! If you like such things or know others that do, allow me to recommend staying there. They are animal friendly too, by the way. I could go on and on, but we have a canyon story to share.
Down to the business. We pack an ice ax. We pack some crampons. Hooks, potshots, many ropes, much thermal protection, thermoses of hot calories come also. Game on! We awaken at 3 AM. A civilized breakfast is followed by last-minute organizing and the hour-long drive. We spot the short car shuttle. We hit the trail at a few minutes after 5 AM. The Zion Canyon is breathing. It breathes up in the evenings, and down in the morning. The breeze is in my face and bites and penetrates my clothing as I hunch over, against it. The entirety of Zion Canyon is silent on the moonless night, aside from the breeze. A light or two around Zion Lodge is all that intrudes on the blackness. It is like going back in time… the lodge light and our headlamps are all that break the spell.
The chill from the wind pushes the pace. We can only go so far in the dark, as off-trail hiking by headlamp is navigationally very difficult. We are ahead of schedule when Aaron’s and my headlamps start to fade… fresh batteries might have been a good idea. We take a short rest at Scouts Landing, in lee of the wind. It is still cold and we move along before long, this time slowly, with an eye to the east searching vainly for first light.
Once on top of the ridge, we encounter snow and ice on the paved trail. It is difficult to stay upright and we slow to take care. When we leave the trail, just past the bridge, we encounter slickrock slopes treacherously covered with snow. Finding the key ramp and then navigating it safely in the snow is tricky by headlamp. We cross the Telephone Canyon drainage and head up the ridge toward the sneak route passes, as first light creeps in. We choose the Left Sneak, reasoning that when traversing the slope just before Imlay, the Right Sneak will be more dangerous if snow covered. We find passage to the left easy, as we pass a forming ice column. We enjoy a rest, hot liquid, and food before going over the pass and into the wind and snow.
We are concerned with the backsides of the sneak passes. They are exposed to the north and we expect snow; we are not disappointed. We follow the trail as best we can, me loving my ski poles. We slide in the snow where it is too steep to traverse. Holes between logs and debris are hidden by the snow and caution is the word, when probing with our feet. A bad time and place for a misstep. We sense the steep drop and entry crux before we see it. The traverse across the exposed slope gets trickier for each successive person. Aaron is last and is nervous about it, so we decide to rappel what we surely could descend easily, sans snow. We rap twice, then Ryan leads a complex snow route below the raps to the canyon floor. It is 9:30 AM and we are in Imlay, at the Crossroads. We climb a slope into the sun and nervously suit up.
The slope that bypasses the drop between Crossroads and the Amphitheater is snowy and we are forced into the land of ice immediately. Icicles drape the walls. The one- to three-inch ice covering the water does not support our weight, and passage is slow. Broken plates of ice must be turned vertical and filed down into the water (this works!) or slid under other plates of ice still not broken. This makes for slow progress across pools. The deeper the water, the harder the passage is to negotiate. Going first is hardest of all.
Soon we are in the relatively new log jam section. When water is deep, this passage is quite difficult. I worry for Ryan’s dry suit: a rip is a dangerous thing this time of year. I lead and balance on logs, but often slide off to my waist in ice water and must climb back up to proceed. The logs are so densely packed that one must go over them. Short rappels, short swims, and snow covered boulders alternate. We are relieved to find no ice under the snow slopes.
We arrive at the Extreme Narrows. Here my picture quality drops off the charts. One needs a tripod, but if one had one, what wonders one would capture. The water is low and quickly we encounter the first of over a dozen pothole escapes. Tim and I do our part. Ryan does more than he credits himself with. Aaron does the lion’s share of the work, with an intense smile upon his lips. Two man hauls, etriers, climbing moves, pack tosses all help the group along. Toward the middle of the narrows, the water almost disappears. We work the many problems in relative comfort. In fact, the potential for overheating becomes a concern.
As we near the bottom of this narrows section, the water reappears, and ice appears shortly afterward. Aaron breaks through the ice at a pothole that proves to be a swimmer. The down canyon lip is 4 feet high, and the ice plates are 3 inches thick. Aaron puts a foot along the edge of a fixed ice plate, putting pressure sideways, not weighting from above. He lays his body out at a thirty degree angle, propped by the foot and an ice plate and an arm on the keeper wall. Then he launches… dynos up, lands a finger on an invisible hold, on top… and pulls up and out of the pothole. We are all blown away. The problem? His tendon on his right arm is also blown away by the move. A move his mind was able to conceive, then his body make, but beyond his body’s ability to sustain without injury. The resulting strain would end his FreezeFest, as he would need 2-4 weeks of rest. But at the time, the tightness of the wet suit, the icing from the water, and his abundant ability allowed him to protect the injury and still be our lead gun, getting out most of the rest of the potholes. Man, that boy can play!
We exit the Extreme Narrows and we all need food and drink. It is 1:30 PM. No need to rush, but the need to stay on task remains an imperative. The rest break chills us, so we don’t dally. The Terminal Narrows come next and have a different feel. They are not as entrenched. More open canyons are more likely to form ice. Snow is found within these narrows too. Add the many escapes and this section, often easier than the Extreme Narrows, is considerably harder today. Break through ice, slick and snow covered logs, potholes with 10-foot down canyon lips. We are at war. We are working well as a team and progress is steady. It starts to approach 3:30 PM and we note the water splashed on the walls from our efforts, is beginning to freeze and glaze the wall. This makes progress more difficult. We start to feel we have a time limit. A need to get out of the narrows before the ice slows us further. And we have no idea what the Zion Narrows conditions are like. A nighttime descent does not appeal.
I love these guys! The rope work and escapes are worked to perfection. Climbing over broken and piled up ice plates, to the final rap, is the last major challenge. We sprint out the Narrows, where I expected to see no one. I encounter and pass two trios, of Indian descent. Then folks of Asian descent. The Narrows was downright crowded on Christmas Day! Then we catch up to a group of American kids coming off an Orderville descent. WOW! I did see a rope stuck on Mystery’s final rap, encased in ice – ice that will grow for months. This type of thing casts a poor light on our community. Nothing to be done about it now, until spring.
The parking lot at Sinewava had over a dozen vehicles. Aaron and I land at the car at at 5:10 PM, twelve hours and a few minutes after the start. Tim and Ryan are along shortly. A successful day, in spite of the injury. We head back to the luxury of Tim and Sue’s lodge. Aaron hopes his arm will heal overnight. It seems better, then worse. I take him to the emergency room in Kanab, just to find out if it is something that will be made worse from continued use, or something we can work through. He wants so much to head up to Moonlight Buttress. When we walk into the hospital, the nurses think it is me who is hurt, as I walk in rather stiffly. The day in Imlay used way more than the usual muscle groups I use so often canyoneering… I am shuffling along like an old man. In a creepy irony, we are seen in the same bay, and by the same doctor who treated Tom one month and a few days before. Both right wrist injuries too. Both splinted. Enough already on that trend.
Rest was the prescription for the wrist. So at 2 PM, after looking at way-too-expensive flight possibilities, we decide to drive Aaron home. Nine hours later, I sleep in my own bed, in Colorado. I sleep for 4 hours and head back toward Utah, before the sun rises the next day, arriving at FreezeFest 25 hours and 1150 miles after leaving the hospital. I am just in time for a solo Blarney. Aaron is in Utah now showing some of his non-technical buddies around. Already ideas are being tossed around for next Christmas Day. In this way, traditions are born.