Icy Winter Potholes Lead to Shattered Dreams

Ryan Cornia perches in Imlay Canyon on Christmas Day after an icy swim. (Photo: Steve Ramras)

You might think winter canyoneering would be a breeze. You might think the water freezes in all the potholes, creating little ice rinks you can slide effortlessly across. You might think the frozen water would leave your ropes dry and supple, and your hands warm and gloved. But you’d be wrong.

Even now, after I’ve seen dozens of canyons in the winter, I still feel hopeful when I reach the first frozen pool. “Fantastic,” I think, “Maybe the ice is strong enough that we can just walk across it.” I take the first step tentatively, testing the ice. It shifts slightly, with perhaps a slight groan and a bit of watery pulse somewhere deep underneath. By the second or third step, visions of grandeur start to form, and I think I might actually make it across. And then, on the fourth or fifth step, it all falls apart, the ice breaking in large, clean sheets, all at once, opening up for my plunge, hitting the pothole walls, then sailing back at me with sharp, jagged edges. I sputter, try to use the floating ice for support, but realize the futility as ice shards splash my face and threaten my cozy drysuit. I turn and swim backward, taking the brunt with my back, breaking any remaining ice with backward thrusts of my elbows. When I reach high ground (it wasn’t really that far, of course), I find a way to get excited about breaking through the next pool. And the next one. And the next one.

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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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