Water Canyon 12-25-16


Feb 15, 2013
Holy Water.....

Here is the 2016 Christmas adventure. The lens is scratched and the camera was literally dragged thru snow all day, but it should give you a good sense of the thing.....enjoy:cold::cold::cold::cold:

It was that time again. For seven straight Christmas', we had sought that sweet spot. The place where beauty is overwhelming and the concentration to deal with the danger, that is inherent in winter canyoneering. First comes the drive out. Timing the trip mostly between storms, I encounter only 3 whiteouts. This worked, in spite of briefly dozing, while driving. YIKES! There was snow on the ground from my home in north central Colorado, all the way to Hurricane. Then came the gathering of the tribe, the night before. The real trick is to pick the right canyon to suit conditions. Some of this is guess work, some scouting and some application of experience. In other words, more guess work. This year would prove more challenging than most years and bring to the fore, the ability to adapt to circumstances.

On the drive

Zion permits limit us to 6 souls and the "usual suspects" would say yes, so when I found myself recruiting folks, it was a first. Tom Jones, would be in Montreal, following his heart. Jonathan had tickets for the family in Switzerland. A check in with the BluuGnome had Luke with a commitment. So with 3 spots open, I open the address book and scan prospects, for perhaps the day of the year people are least likely to be available. The nucleus is Tim Hoover , Tre-C Kwan and myself. Then Jonathan informs me that his trip has been rescheduled for January. He is in. Wes Grove signs on and comes up from Flagstaff. Other folks who say yes, eventually say no. We are 5 to go.

But go where? Years ago, I did a wonderful Engelstead/Orderville in February. This tops the list. Alternatives where Observation Canyon, Behunin, Jacob. We would end up in none of them. First off , the snows fell heavy on the 24th, above the valley. The snow totals up near Lava Point went from 36 to 63 inches of snow in the 24 hours, into Christmas Day. Access to Engelstead or retrieval of the vehicle became dubious, in deep snow. Observation Canyon has traverses, on steep ground, with fresh snow. That falls from the dance card. So does Jacob, as ascent of Lady Mt. seems unwise. This leaves Behunin.

The choice of Behunin, a canyon I don't normally list high, is FULL of challenges, under snowy conditions. A VERY serious proposition and I am very excited, to see the canyon dressed in its finest. Then we note that that Behunin permit is no longer available. WHAT? It was 2 hours ago! Someone take them? Park close the canyons? Not sure, but it looks like you have to get the permit a certain amount of hours before the day you plan. Could have gotten it before, but not now.....At 8:30 PM Christmas Eve, we do not have a plan and barely an idea. Jonathan suggests a canyon that he has guided 100 times and 2 of our party did years ago. We decide on Water Canyon. It turns out to be anything BUT a consolation prize.

In the darkness of Christmas morning, with a sketchy forecast, we drive from Springdale, down to Hurricane and all the way to Hildale/Colorado City. As we approach the canyon, we see that the area has gotten more snow than the Zion area. Ut oh! Will we even be able to get to the trail head? I follow closely behind Jonathan, on the Canyon road, making fresh track through 8 inches of snow. We manage to make the parking lot, without getting stuck. Every foot I travel this day, will be in a place I have never been. A new place on the planet, for me.

Jonathan breaks trail. Wes on his heels. Tim follows closely. I am in the rear chasing Tre-C. It snows. Then snows harder. The world blanketed in deeper snow. With each uphill, the snow is growing even deeper. A wonderland it is. The access trail along the canyon lay close to the drainage, up on steep slopes. I am sure the exposure is real, when dry, but in these conditions, it feels like full on alpine conditions. A slip or a snow slope collapse could be your last act. Caution is taken, with each step. Time passes as we climb higher. Jonathan knows the place and ascertains that entering at the top of the intermediate section is what the time and conditions allow for.

We pound out platforms, in deep snow, so that we can change into dry and wet suits according to preference. It is snowing hard. The wind reaches us on our perch. It is freezing and we are in various states of undress. This is quite crazy. Only self deprecating laughter will do. I mean, it is hilariously stupid. Harnesses on and we do something for the first, but not the last time, on this day. We do full belays out to every anchor. In fact, even with extra ropes, we do each rappel as a group, one at a time. The rap into the canyon, looses spin drift avalanches on ourselves. Under dry conditions, it is my understanding, that escapes are easy and plentiful. Not today. Our tracks from approach, disappear quickly and lateral escape is desperate looking. We are in it now!

At entry and for the next few hours, we plow through snow estimated at 26 inches deep, with drifting often a foot deeper. We avoid water for a drop or two. We will do 9 raps altogether. We are thankful for Jonathan, for he knows where the anchors are. They are buried in deep snow and without him, I wonder how we would have managed. The snow piled up horizontally to the edges of drops....except the ground, 2-3 foot below, sloped down and over the edge sooner. Without the belays, approaching edges would have been reckless. Soon the water and swimming would be unavoidable.

On the edge

I have done my share of winter water canyons, ice breaking, log soup and all manner of it. On this day I experienced something new. Slush water. No surface ice to break. Is that because the canyon still had a slow flow? Water was a bit brown too. Mixed in sand? makes icing over slower to occur? Regardless, 1-2 feet down from the surface, the water would best to be called slush. Sort of like plowing through deep oatmeal. As you moved into it, it would pile up and become like cement hardening. I found my only way through, especially on point, was to use my hands, fingers webbed as much as possible and push the sludge down 3 feet, to where it dissolved, to some degree. This was slow, cold, tedious work, with numb hands resulting. One time, alone on a swim, I moved two feet a minute across a 12 foot swim, in a narrow corridor, finishing out of breath. More often than not, a partner holding a rope, aided the swimmer out of the hole they were in. A reminder to thank my friends who did most of this work during the day.

Our efforts kept our core warm, but extremities would go numb, then get warm again. Warm teas and calories, kept the engines going..... but we could feel that there was a limit to this type of exposure. Some of our ropes ended up uniformly coated in ice and were no longer easy to control speed on. We had almost a rope per person. We envisioned setting up multiple drops. But the extra rope ended up having a different use. As ropes froze, new ones came out for use. Reserve ropes became a hedge against a new danger, not considered at days start. Our packs, became much heavier, coated in ice balls. Carabiner gates began to ice over. There was never a feeling that we were in over our heads or of conditions worsening to the point of real trouble. Just these observations, as reminders, that little things add up and there is a tipping point, somewhere out there.

The final 100 foot rap was done. An awkward one, with slow water flow, self created snow avalanches and a deep crack to try to avoid. We started our hike down, amazed that our tracks were filled and the route taken barely discernible, at all. Arriving at the cars, we saw a truck, off the road, almost in the ditch, blocking the road.His pals pulled him out. One of our vehicles would not start...fuel line? Gas gauge malfunction? Gas was gotten, at the Border Store, which was remarkably found open on Christmas Day. Gas cans bought and filled. The drive back to Tim and Susan's went quickly, after the 2 hour delay.

Nine of us feasted on a variety of tasty dishes. There was no reason to tell lies. The reality was quite engaging enough. Everyone who went was enchanted by the experience. Another view into the unexpected and beautiful, requiring our full attention. Safe to say, all want back again, a year from now. By morning, everyone scattered to the winds. Wes and I headed to FreezeFest. His father Chris, joined us the next afternoon for a short canyon, the fests first. At the fest, many would comment on how dry and snow free the event was. Wes and I would smile. We knew where the real FreezeFest was to be found this year. I was enthralled by our Christmas tradition, once again. A mind filled with images and new lessons. A real blessing. Lucky am I.


Desert Rat-Weekend Warrior
Jun 7, 2012
Woah! My manhood shrunk up just thinking about this.

Thanks for sharing the story with us. To think that alpinism is cold, but the snow is frozen. Slushy water? damn.


Formerly Cuberant
Aug 8, 2016
I cannot even imagine the transitions between wet and dry (eyes rolling)


In search of Fresh
Oct 17, 2012
We all do these backcountry trips for fun. I spend a lot of time carving up fresh snow and hiking "high country" in mid winter and deep snow. Some days are more fun than others and some weather days are more gnarly than others. All bring a little character to the day which we can all laugh about later over a beer or two.
You guys crazy?! This was fun!? I'm sure in a masochistic way it definitely had it's moments. You guys had to look at each other a few times and say "REALLY??" Definitely a character builder! I applaud you for your FUN day in the canyon.

Mike K

Jul 6, 2012
Crazy. Beautiful. Epic. Engaging. Pushing the envelope. Great stuff!!
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