Maybe you've heard about it, maybe not, but Zion Adventure Company has been working tirelessly for the past two years to develop one of the, if not the, most unique canyoneering/adventure experiences in the greater Zion area. The Eye of the Needle (EOTN) canyon descent, finished off with the 400+ ft. via feratta ladder ascent, is an adventure like nothing else. This past April, myself and a group of other guides loaded up the Land Cruisers and headed up north of Zion to one of the company's cabins for a weekend of adventure; our goal was to complete some of the beautiful canyons found north of the park, including Eye of the Needle (our privately owned flowing water canyon) and to experience the newly completed ladder for the first time.
Upon arrival, we ditched all of our gear at the ZAC cabin, and headed immediately down the trail to the practice wall, a 50ft. high demo wall that allows you to experience the systems used and sensations felt while ascending the via feratta. BIll Westerhoff and Rich McIver, the chief engineers of the via feratta, gave us an active demo of how to set up our safety systems, including how the safety cable and gear worked together, and how best to set ourselves up for success on the ladder. While I've guided canyons for a number of years at ZAC, climbing 400ft+ up a via feratta was a completely new experience, so I was curious how it all worked. In the end, it's quite possibly one of the safest systems I've ever been attached to. Essentially, at no point are you not attached to either the safety cable or the ladder by less than two points of contact. You also have an "auto-locking" device that slides up the cable with you, and an extra tether on your harness that allows you to rest on the wall, or go hands free for a sweet picture of the amazing canyon unfolding below.
Once the demo was finished, we hiked a short distance to the head of Eye of the Needle, and began our descent. Eye of the Needle is one of the few flowing water canyons found in the desert southwest. Springs keep this canyon running year round, giving it a "Class-C" rating. The rating system lists canyons as either A (dry), B (stagnant water), or C (flowing). Flowing water presents its own unique challenges in canyoneering, as you are forced to adapt to your environment. Communication and rope management are imperative for a safe and successful day.
(Eye of the Needle may be on of the most demanding canyons that we offer. While the canyon itself is shorter than most, and drops precipitously from the start; the challenge of maneuvering through cold, flowing water, and traversing several sections of flash flood debris can be physically demanding for even the most seasoned canyoneer.)
We were likely the first people through EOTN this season, and so we found a bit of maintenance was in order. Checking bolts and replacing anchors is par for the course as a guide, with staff trips being no different. There's nothing quite like anchoring yourself to a bolt out over 120ft of exposure to replace an anchor. We crushed out the remainder of the canyon, including the dramatic and aptly named "Eye of the Needle" rappel, where you rappel through a beautifully eroded feature in the rock, giving the canyon its namesake (sorry, no photo spoilers!)
Upon completion of EOTN, the anticipation was building in the group to finally get on the via feratta. We as guides had heard so much about this project over the previous few years, but had yet to set eyes on it ourselves. Now was our chance. Trust me, it was worth the wait. I geared up quickly, took a deep breath, and clipped myself into the first rung. Let's see what all the fuss is about.
The first 30ft or so are almost completely vertical, so you find yourself really focusing on your hands and feet. This gives way to a more forgiving angle, which suddenly allows you to relax and realize you're already way off the deck! I really didn't know what to expect of the ladder. As my climbing background has mostly kept me a pitch or two off the ground, I've never had the opportunity to experience the elation and exposure offered by climbing one of the "big walls" in Zion. The via feratta gives you all of that and more. The ladder is not a straight shot from the canyon bottom to the top, but instead a series of traversing sections that move both vertically and horizontally up varying degrees. This not only gives you that "big wall" feeling, but forces you at times to look down for your footing, which in turn forces you to see 300ft straight down! Gulp! Amazing!
Soon enough I clipped my last rung and was over the edge. What an amazing job the crew has done with this project. The time and care put into crafting such a challenging, yet riveting route certainly reflects the dedication they have for presenting future visitors with a once in a lifetime experience. I feel like I speak for my fellow guides when I say that this sentiment is shared across the board.
The remainder of the weekend was full of canyon fun and frivolity, but was hard pressed to exceed our first ascent of the via feratta. There's been a lot of chatter and excitement out there on the interwebs about this project, and so we invite anyone curious about the adventure to contact us with any questions or inquiries about potential bookings. We've been beyond excited to finally share this project with the public, and as the leading innovative force in Zion for over 20 years in both Narrows outfitting and guided adventures, we will continue working hard to give you or your family some of the most unique, unforgettable experiences possible in this place that we call home.
Thanks again for reading. See you on the trails (or ladder?)!