The Subway via Russell Gulch, Zion, October 2011

Posted by on Oct 23, 2011

After my trip down Mystery Canyon on Thursday, I was feeling ready for more big raps and beautiful Zion Canyons. We had a permit to do Behunin Canyon on Friday but I woke up to a wobbly lower back. I slipped a disc a few years back and every now and then it gets pretty close to going again, it’s only happened once or twice since but when it does, I’m a useless heap of flesh. Usually it’s a completely immobile, laying on the floor screaming kind of thing. The last thing I wanted was to end up like that somewhere before the final 165-foot free rappel out of Behunin so I opted to stay behind while Tim, Jake and Rick did Behunin without me. Maybe next time.

While the guys were out having fun in Behunin, I decided to go for a drive up on the Kolob Terrace road to scout out campsites and check out Lava Point and Kolob Reservoir. I had never been much further than the Wildcat Trailhead before.

My first stop was at Kolob Reservoir. I tried to follow the road all the way around (counter-clockwise) but the road on the far side got really bad. At first it was nice and graded but eventually is runs into several spots that were flooded by the reservoir which people have made poor routes around. The fall foliage was nice up there though.
Kolob Reservoir

After that I stopped at Lava Point to drive through the campground and check out the overlook. Here’s a couple of shots from there.
Lava Point

Lava Point

After that I spent an hour or two exploring the area closer to the two trailheads for The Subway, searching for good campsites. I’ll be keeping the results of that exploration to myself and close friends but I will share this photo along the Kolob Terrace Road.
Along the Kolob Terrace Road

After a stop in Hurricane, I was back in the Watchman Campground by about 4:00 with my feet up and beer in hand, waiting for the rest of the guys to return from Behunin. This little deer walked in while I waited and dined on the grass between campsites. I was able to walk right up to it to take photos.

A little while later the guys walked back into camp with fun stories of ropes getting stuck in Behunin. Good thing they had spider-Jake around. Not long after that, Nate and Taylor arrived after their long drive down from Salt Lake. We hung out around the fire for a while where it was decided that we would take the technical Russell Gulch approach to the Subway. Rick explained that there were three good rappels, all 100 feet or less. This really got me stoke-o-meter going, this would be my third trip into the Subway this year and spicing it up with more raps sounded awesome.

I was however a bit worried about my ability to get through it. My back had stabilized, I figure sitting in my lumbar-supported truck seat for several hours must have helped. My legs on the other hand were killing me. I’ve hiked upwards of 400 miles this year but the Death Gully in Mystery Canyon ripped up muscles that I didn’t realize I even had. It wasn’t too bad first thing in the morning but as the day progressed it got worse and worse. Anything flat or downhill was pretty difficult for me. Sometimes I would nearly fall down because my legs just weren’t responsive. The thought of descending the steep slickrock route to the Subway seemed impossible. I went to bed hoping that some miraculous level of muscle regeneration might occur.

We got a late start in the morning, probably a bit after 9am at the Wildcat Trailhead. But this was by design, Rick likes to time it so that the exit hike is in the shade. Makes a lot of sense but it also made it so that we had to hustle through the canyon a lot more than I would have liked. I think in the future I will still start early but take my time in the beautiful sections of the canyon. It was very nice having the exit hill in the shade.

Starting out from Wildcat, my weak quads continued to be an issue. They didn’t improve at all overnight, in fact, they were even more sore today then they were yesterday. I decided to take my trekking poles along to help with the descent and the boulder-hopping exit hike which proved invaluable. For that first flat stretch I was almost using them as crutches at times. I knew that we’d be hitting the steep downhill soon and at the rate I was going, I’d be flat on my face when we did. The possibility of back in out on this hike was never really a possibility in my mind until this point. I figured the muscles would loosen up and I could just hike through it but after about a mile they were still stiff and sore as when I woke up.

But by some miracle, the steep descent wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. In fact, the steepness actually helped, for some reason it was the flats that were the most difficult. And after about 2 miles I had finally beaten those muscles into submission to the point that they were pretty responsive again.

We followed the usual descent route for the Subway all the way down to where the trail crosses Russell Gulch. Instead of continuing up and over the slickrock pass, we cut off here and started our descent into the bottom of Russell.

I love hiking with Nate. Everytime I point the camera at him he gives me some sort of cheesy pose. This is right where we cutoff the regular route.
Cutoff to Russell Gulch

And speaking of camera, I didn’t even bring my big SLR camera on this hike. I was hoping that the fall colors would be good enough that I could get some nice leaf shots in the Subway but it was still pretty green other than up high. It seems like 2-3 weeks later (Nov 1-7) would have been about perfect for it. Anyway, it was really nice not to have to pack a big camera and tripod through the canyon. No worrying about dry bag failure, just huck the pack into the water and start swimming. Gotta love it. But on the flip side, I didn’t get any spectacular photos. To make up for it I put together this 2 minute video with some stills and short clips from the route. I would recommend watching it at the end of the trip report but if you’re short on time or just don’t want to read through all this, hit it up now. I’ll embed it at the end as well.

After a few minutes we found a spot to scramble the rest of the way into the bottom of Russell Gulch.

From there it was easy hiking down the riverbed before reaching the first rappel. This one was about 80 feet with a fun pothole in the middle. Everyone avoided the pothole except Nate and I who got to discover first hand that it was nice and full of ice-cold, but clean, water. This is Nate on rappel.

Looking back at the rappel as Rick comes down. Notice the ledge about halfway up, that’s where the pothole is.

It’s a bit of a hike between the first and second rappels in Russell Gulch. There are a few good pools in between, some easily avoidable, others not so much.

The second rap was my favorite of the day. This one was closer to 100 feet and dropped down a sheer wall into a big pool in a dark, shaded slot. Really tough to get a good picture of the whole thing with the harsh light though. That’s Nate starting down from the top.

Nate coming out of the pool that the rappel ends in.

Taylor almost in the water. It was a bit more than waste deep where you dropped in.

After stuffing one of the ropes, Rick told Taylor and I to hike with him while the rest of the guys stuffed the other rope. There were some fun wet sections along the way.

And soon we reached the third and final rappel in Russell Gulch. This one was under 100 feet but had the added bonus of being a free rappel for all but the top 20 feet or so. For those not familiar, a free rappel is when you are just dangling from the rope below an overhang, unable to touch the wall with your feet.

There are two rappel stations here. One is up high from a big tree, the other is a bit further down the canyon at some bolts near the ledge. It’s not all that difficult to downclimb to the lower rappel station but it is a bit scary. It’s all sloped towards the big drop so a bad fall could carry some big penalty points. Rick quickly rigged up the 8mm 120-foot rope and rapped off the ledge. Up until this point Rick has been the lead, rigging up the ropes and always being the last man down. He had been teaching Tim and Jake how to do it all and decided this would be their test. So Taylor and I waited for the rest of the guys to come down so they could rig the second rope.

Taylor backing off the ledge at the third rappel. It would almost be easier to start this rappel off your feet as the overhang begins right away.

Jake stayed up top and set the ropes up for the final pull. Here he is coming down during the free section of the rappel.

Looking back at the last rappel.

We stopped there for a moment to sneak a quick bite of food before continuing down canyon. A few hundred feet beyond the third rap, we encountered the dryfall above a big pool. For those that do the typical Subway descent route, this is the pool at the bottom of the steep descent gully. Instead of rappelling into the pool, we took a faint trail to the left which connected with the last 40 feet of the typical Subway descent. From here on, we are now on the standard Subway top-down route.

We moved quickly past the first boulder obstacle and beyond. Given the time of day I think we all realized that there was a decent chance we’d be hiking out with headlamps if we didn’t move it. Here’s Nate and Tim at the first mandatory swim.

It was at this point that we ran into the first of many people on the hike. First up was a group of 12 or so. They all had wetsuits but I got the impression that they were tourists that had just dropped a big chunk of money at one of the outfitters in Springdale. Rick seemed to really enjoy running into the various groups, its almost like he adopts them for a bit to help them through or show them cool things. He showed this group the fun underwater arch so we were stuck behind them for quite some time while they all debated whether or not to swim through it.

After that we hurried around that big group just to encounter a couple more as we approached the Bowling Alley. First we saw a couple scrambling around up above the Bowling Alley with one of those donut-shaped inflatable pool toys. Then, at the down-climb into The Bowling Alley we ran into a family struggling to get down the ledge. None of them had wetsuits and there was some serious shivering going on. All of this BEFORE they actually got into the really cold water. I still wonder what happened to those kids, they were in pretty bad shape and they still had a lot of cold water to get through. While we waited the other group we passed caught up and at one point there must’ve been around 20 people lined up in the narrow section before the Bowling Alley drop waiting to get through.

The water in the Bowling Alley was soooooo cold. I had my 3mm farmer john wetsuit on and I was cold. And add to that the fact that I have a very high tolerance for cold water. It was f-f-f-f-freeezing! We moved through it fast and continued quickly on to Keyhole Falls without taking any photos. We passed by the group without wetsuits who had found a sliver of sunlight where they were desperately trying to warm up. If you want to see pictures and video of this section of the canyon check out one of my other Subway trip reports.

We arrived at Keyhole Falls just as Rick was explaining to Jake and Tim how to do the swing maneuver from the little arch on the left. Basically, you take a big sling, run it through the arch, hold on with both hands and swing around the corner. Once you’re hanging from it, you’re only a couple of feet above the water. The landing over there behind the arch is much better than below the falls.

I watched as the guys did the swing but decided I’d rather pull a bit of rope out and rap in. I find this obstacle to be rather awkward to downclimb and Taylor agreed. The last time I just rapped down my webbing but this time we used the rope.

Taylor below Keyhole Falls.

The slot below Keyhole. There was some incredible light down around the next bend.

It was nice to just take a snapshot of the really photogenic stuff this time around. No big camera to break out!

We ran into another big group just before the final rap. They didn’t seem to know where to go or how to do it so Rick went into guide mode and showed them to the rap station and helped them all down. Another significant delay but at least it was in such a pretty place. This shot is Tim handlining down while Rick and Jake watch. Jake hadn’t done the Subway before so he was in full photographer mode, hence the tripod sticking out of his pack.

Nate and Taylor in The Subway.

Looking back at the Subway from below.

The Red Ledges, one of my favorite parts of the hike.

After the Red Ledges, we were left with the part that always gets me. 3 miles of boulder-hopping and bush-whacking with a steep 400-foot ascent to the trailhead at the end. We powered through it pretty fast passing a couple of groups along the way. Tim, Jake and Rick went ahead and shuttled the cars while the rest of us (especially me) made our way up the final ascent. We made it to the trailhead with about a half hour before sunset. I’m reasonably sure that some of the groups we passed through the day had to have ended up hiking out in the dark at the rate they were going. Hope they had head lamps.

Alpenglow on the walls of Left Fork as seen from the trailhead.

And here is a 2 minute video I made of stills and clips from throughout the hike.

View the full set of photos on Flickr.

See more of my trip reports to the Zion Area.

See more of my trip reports to the Zion Subway.

Do you have questions or comments about this or any of my trip reports? Say something in the comments below or email me through my contact form.

Like my website? Follow me on Facebook and get updates in your News Feed whenever I post a new trip report.

Leave a Reply