By Steve Law
We are in a canyon south of Zion National Park. We have just spent an hour hiking up a fairly narrow canyon. We did it by hugging the ledges and goat trails along its sides. We stop to rest in the shade of a slot canyon two shoulder-widths wide. Our instructor will give us some training, after which we'll go back downcanyon, this time right through its center, over its edges, ledges and waterfalls and through its cold pools of standing water.
Our instructor is 30-year-old Jonathon Zambella. A native of New Jersey, Jonathon fell in love with Zion National Park on his first visit in February, 1996. Just three months later he and his partner Rick Praetzel moved to Springdale and established the Zion Adventure Company, which specializes in rock climbing and canyoneering classes, as well as outfitting trips through the Zion narrows. Besides myself there are three other students in Jonathon's class today. Candy Rugg, a 30 year-old nurse from Louisiana who has recently re-located to Salt Lake City, Rudy Aguila, 30; and Dawn Lopez, 23, both school teachers from California.
Jonathon begins the instruction by pulling several feet of rope out of his backpack and showing us the first of several knots we will be learning that day, an Eight on a Bite. After showing us how to tie it he hands each of us a section of the rope and has us practice it. Jonathon watches as we each do it several times. We do it until we feel comfortable with it and confident we can do it again later.
We will spend the next hour learning several different knots we will be using, different ways to attach an anchor and proper canyoneering techniques. Jonathon never books more than six people per class for the simple reason that he strongly believes in hands-on training. Every time he shows us a knot or a new technique we get our hands on the rope and practice it until we feel comfortable with it. Even with just four students it takes a while for us all to try the knots. In some of Jonathon's more rigorous, advanced classes he allows no more than three students per class because of all the technical, hands-on instruction.
Jonathon's training is briefly interrupted by a miniature Apache helicopter coming down the canyon. We all turn towards the sound. A huge, brownish-black beetle flies by at chin level. We all marvel at its size. It's almost as big as a bar of soap. It has its elytra (that hard outer shell that covers the wings) held out like the open doors of a Mercedes Benz Gullwing Coupe. Its pincers look as big as salad tongs. It flies off down the canyon.
"Holy cow!" I blurt. "I think I saw a Volkswagen emblem on the hood of that thing."
"I think I saw some 50mm machine guns mounted under the wings," says Rudy.
Besides learning all the new knots and ways to fasten an anchor, you wouldn't think that the actual rappelling part is very hard. Especially if you watch Rudy, Dawn and Candy doing it. Rappelling is a pretty simple concept: throw your rope off the cliff, back up, slide down. I should be really good at this given all the experience I've had with backsliding. Yet I seem to be the one who's the worst at it. While the other three slide down the rope like it’s been marinated overnight in WD-40, I lurch my way down, like a car on its last fumes of gas, ricocheting off the rocks and cliff walls.
After two rappels we have descended deep into the canyon. The canyon walls are high and twisty. It's like being at the bottom of a vise clamp that was made by a pretzel company. Things are about to get a little more interesting on the third rappel. To begin with it's about 120 feet to the canyon floor below. And the canyon floor, at least that part that's below the rappel, is underwater. About 20 feet underwater, Jonathon tells us. Then he tells us his plan for getting around it: He will rappel down first, swim across the water to dry land and use one of the rappel lines as a zip line. We'll secure our backpacks to the zip line and send them down. Then, Jonathon explains, when we're ready to come down we'll attach onto both the rappel line and the zip line. By being attached to the zip line we will follow its course over the water. We won't so much as get our toes wet. Sweet.
We stand on the rock ledge overlooking the canyon below. Jonathon fixes safety ropes near the edge of the overlook for us to clip onto. I clip onto one of them and tie the rappel lines onto the anchor. We make jokes about what kind of dive we'll do into the water below after the knot I've just tied comes undone. Jonathon takes off his shirt (because he doesn't want to get it wet during his swim) puts it in his backpack, and rappels down. I should be the one volunteering to go down first. After two days of hiking in Zion without a bath I could swim through that smelly swamp and actually come out smelling better.
Dawn and Rudy clip onto the safety lines and lean out over the edge to watch Jonathon's rappel. I'm at the back fiddling with my camera. I hear the splash as Jonathon jumps into the water, followed shortly by an exultant yell, "Whoooh!"
The pool Jonathon must swim across isn't small. It's about 50 feet long. After swimming through the cold water Jonathon calls up to Candy, who you'll remember, is a nurse. "Do you know how to treat cardiac arrhythmia, because I'm going through it right now?" he jokes.
We're like four eaglets standing on the edge of the nest recently weaned from their mother's comforting, double-checking presence. From our vertiginous view we watch Jonathon tie the zip line around a large boulder. When he's done we attach the backpacks to the zip line, via small pulleys, and send them down. He catches and disconnects them from the line.
Dawn, not surprisingly, is the first on line. She first connects onto the rappel line, then attaches a pulley running from her harness onto the zip line. Rudy, double-checks her equipment. With no hesitation she backs over the edge, momentarily disappears. Her rappel line wants to carry her downward while the zip line wants to carry her in a more horizontal direction. Because of this opposition of forces and Dawn's sparrowish weight she actually has to pull the rope through her rappel device. Jonathon's zip line works great. Dawn swings out over the water and lands on dry sand.
Rudy clips on next, takes a few bounds down the cliff and glides out into air. I clip onto the air ferry next and cruise out over the pond of congealed licorice tea. Candy bats cleanup. We all make it down safe and dry, thanks to Jonathon's brilliant zip line.
It's about four o'clock in the afternoon. Jonathon reports that there's just one more rappel left. Upon hearing this news I find that I am at once exhilarated and deflated by it. The exhilaration comes from knowing that I have (nearly) successfully navigated my way through a new canyon and in doing so I have learned oodles of new knowledge. Knowledge I hope to continue using and building upon. The deflation comes from knowing such a perfect, exhilarating day is about to close. I have only known Jonathon, Rudy and Dawn for about nine hours but we have formed a quick bond and I know that I shall miss them. Remember the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, where he wakes up over and over to the same day. Today, I think, would make an excellent Groundhog Day.
We reach the last overhang. Pretty mild. About a 12 foot drop. There are no new knots to learn on this rappel but Jonathon does show us two new ways to anchor the rope. At this point, if Jonathon pulled a flute out of his backpack and played a snake charmers song, we would not be one bit surprised if the end of the rope came out of its bag and tied itself around the next anchor. By the end of the class I can see that Dawn's, Rudy's and Candy's proficiency at rappelling has greatly improved and their individual personalities are beginning to show forth in their rope work. Dawn is usually the first one down the cliff and after watching her rappel it makes sense. She has great instincts on the best route down the wall and sticks to it like ivy.
Rudy practically flies down the cliff wall. With the rope cascading though his rappel device he looks like a hybrid between a spider and a kite. Candy drops so smoothly down the rope and with the sun glinting off her confident smile it's like watching a guillotine drop. On the other hand when I come lurching down the rope it looks more like a guy who's breaking in a new colt. I bounce off rocks and scrape my elbows and helmet against the cliff wall.
If I were giving out nickname's based on today's performances Dawn's nickname would have to be Ivy Runner, Rudy's would be Air-achnid, Candy's would be The Guillotine and mine, I'm sorry to say, would have to be Bump-n-Grind.
The Zion Adventure Company, based in Springdale, Utah, teaches canyoneering and rock climbing courses from April to November. The canyoneering classes range from one-day beginner classes ($149 per person) to three-day ($495 per person) and five-day long expert classes ($695 per person). There are also three and five day intermediate classes for the same price as the expert classes. The intermediate class, Jonathon says isn't for intermediates, it's for people who want to become intermediates. Same with the expert class.
The Zion Adventure Company provides all the gear. The student only needs to bring the appropriate clothing, sunscreen, water, lunch and a daypack. If you take the advanced class don't be surprised in Jonathon teaches you how levitate.
To find out more visit their website at www.zionadventures.com or call them at 435-772-1001.