A vague scent of sage bush blew up from desert floor two hundred feet below us on a cool evening breeze. The last rays of sunlight peeked out from behind a distant thunderhead that flashed with silent lightning. The desert’s twilight tranquility was almost thick enough to muffle the concern in Becca’s voice. Her eyes began to well up as her voice cracked- “As much as I desperately want to make it…I just, I just don’t think I can. I think I have to hike back down.”
Our story didn’t start on an epic Zion adventure with a 200’ rappel. It started in early spring with an Instagram meetup in Zion National Park. One of our closest friends we never met, Becca, invited us to join her in Zion. We couldn’t make it, no matter how much we wanted to meet her in person. We offered to lead a technical canyoneering trip down Subway Canyon if she would come back with us. After we won the permit lottery, there was no way for Becca to back out. It was on.
Luck, however, is a fickle mistress. We felt on top of the world when the park service email came in. Top down in Subway Canyon on a summer weekend is the unicorn of NPS permits. It’s so rare that we could entice our super canyoneering friends, Spencer and Christina to come and lead the expedition. Everything was going swimmingly but, in Zion and in life, it’s the storms outside the canyon you’re walking in that you need to be aware of. Even on a sunny day, rain anywhere in the watershed could cause a flood that turns swimming into your worse nightmare.
The first drops of doubt fell when Becca learned of changes her company was implementing would be directly affecting her and her workload. Then, Spencer and Christina’s cat’s kidneys started to fail and they had to abort the trip to give her subcutaneous IVs. We felt confident in leading Subway. Jenn and I have a lot of familiarity with rope work, but Spencer and Christina were also our second vehicle to set up the car shuttle required for a one-way canyon trip. You don’t always think of Zen with luck is with you but you need it the most when the waves of uncertainty are crashing around you.
Logistics of Zion Adventures
Jenn is awesome at finding logistics. She plowed through all the top sites for Zion canyoneering shuttles but nobody seemed to be offering a reasonable shuttle service for Subway. We were to the point of looking for rental cars in St George, when I came across Zion Guru on Rope Wiki. Jenn said she would call them, mostly just to placate me, but they offered a very reasonable shuttle service to Subway. We solved the problems that we could solve and the Subway trip was looking good again.
It’s important to realize that, sometimes, the best solution is to pull the ripcord and abort the trip. The weather reports were touch and go. For example, the day before we arrived in Zion a group of hikers had to form a human chain to escape the Virgin River flooding in The Narrows. The backcountry ranger
implored strongly suggested that we pass on the coveted Saturday Subway permit. He said there will probably be some canyon permits open somewhere in the park on Sunday, if the weather cleared up, that we could pick up at the last minute. Canceled permits are available first come / first serve for the next day and with the sketchy weather he was betting at least one group would cancel.
We called the Zion Guru office and let them know Subway was off and checked to see if they could support a last minute Sunday trip to who knows where. They said they could, which was great. What was truly awesome is that they suggested their half day canyoneering trip at the top of the mesa that is free from flash flood dangers. All of a sudden, our uncertainty cleared. It was as if the universe was conspiring for us to take this particular trip. Luck may be fickle, but fate always seems to find you.
Outfitting Our Zion Canyon Adventure
We entered Zion Guru not really knowing what to expect. We were told for liability reasons, we would be using store equipment. That is fair enough. Every ropes course we worked on has had the same rules. When we would run professional trips, we had to log every piece of equipment so it stayed within its operating limits.
Looking around the store, there were a lot of accouterments that we didn’t even think to bring. For example, they offer a Zion Narrows gear pack rental of canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, and a hiking stick. There were all kinds of packs to rent, rain gear, and even bio bags so you can pack out what you bring in. Becca’s husband, Nick, opted for a pair of canyoneering shoes to replace his Chacos and a sturdy pack so we wouldn’t be scraping his bulky, waterproof pack through narrow canyons.
As we got our personal gear sorted, the owner, Jonathan Zambella, began his introduction to canyoneering. The first thing we noticed was his broad and inviting smile. He greeted us with a joy that oozed a subtle and assuring confidence. He explained that we were heading up the mesa to an outcropping called Lamb’s Knoll and went on to explain some of the skills that we would be practicing. After the brief introduction, we boarded the store’s flat out beautiful 4x4 Sprinter and hit the road.
Along the way, Jonathan explained how a boy from New Jersey became a Zion guru. Like so many kids growing up in the shadows of NYC, he entered the financial markets. After a few years in the confines of cubicles, fate intervened. He lost his job and headed out West.
His first stop wasn’t the crimson cathedrals of Zion, but the red rock walls outside of Vegas. He was an avid climber and he answered the call of Red Rocks. During a rest day, a friend suggested that they visit a place up the road called Zion. Jonathan looked at The Narrows for the first time and asked if anybody went through the canyon. The answer was a resounding – NO.
It was 1996 and the opinion was that entering The Narrows during cold weather meant certain death. Jonathan couldn’t believe this. Back in New Jersey, he would take his kayak out on frozen rivers in the winters. Of course, he had a dry suit on but surely there was a way with proper gear. The seed was planted.
When Jonathan returned to Jersey, he couldn’t stop thinking about running The Narrows, promises of his imminent demise be damned. Soon, he returned, this time with his dry suit. The equipment worked great. Not only didn’t he die, but the trip was epic and very doable. Imagine the scene when he emerged from the canyon, not only alive and well but decked out in the 90’s dry suit splendor replete with green trim. He must have looked like an astronaut or some kind of superhero. He did just cheat death in the eyes of the onlookers.
He found his calling right then and there. This canyon could, and should be run. He liquidated his life in New Jersey and moved – lock, stock, and barrel- to Springdale to be a Zion outfitter.
After moving to Springdale, Jonathan discovered true technical canyoneering. More than just an exposure suit, you use ropes and advanced techniques to overcome both obstacles in nature and obstacles in your mind. This was a natural extension to his climbing training.
According to the Random House Dictionary Zen is “…a Mahayana movement, introduced into China in the 6th century and into Japan in the 12th century, that emphasizes enlightenment for the student by the most direct possible means.”
The most direct means possible… Life becomes very simple when you are in a slot canyon. Your choices are up or down, forward or back. Sometimes, once you start, your only option is to keep going. That is about as simple as it gets. There is a very real Zen aspect to technical canyoneering above and beyond just getting your thrill on.
It was joyous listening to Jonathan talk. Yes, he loved life and his life, but he also had a love and compassion for the people around him. He loved his clients, not just their wallets. He loved showing them Zion and teaching, whatever he could possibly teach. It was almost too soon when we reached the Lamb’s Knoll parking area.
Zion Canyoneering Tour
Jenn, Becca, Nick and myself all listened eagerly to Jonathan’s instructions on how to put on our gear. The harness was a standard canyoneering design with a skid plate on the back to allow you to “butt scootch”. We had a helmet, of course, and an ATS belay device. (The ATS is similar to a rescue 8, with what they call “hyper horns” that allow you to lock off your device and quickly modify the friction.) Finally, we latched on our personal anchor and an extra length of rope to tie a friction knot or autoblock to back up the rappel.
As soon as we reached the first rock, Jonathan started to improvise. A large family group was on rope in front of us moving very slowly. We hooked right and scrambled up a dry falls. There was just enough exposure to get your blood pumping. It was also obvious that the canyoneering shoes Nick rented had super sticky properties.
Our next obstacle was an exposed traverse that we hooked into the rope for a safety. Again, Nick’s shoes and agility allowed him to glide across the rock, while the rest of us used the safety rope for some degree of comfort and aiding.
Finally, we made our first drop. We weren’t on a Disneyland tour. We were on a canyoneering class. I got to set up the first anchor. Jonathan told us how they load test all the anchors at the start of each season so the integrity of the anchors was a given. I slide the free end of the rope through the anchor and measured out the 60’ needed for the drop. Then I tied a BFK, some kind of a big knot that the rest of the rope from sliding through the anchor. Finally, I secured the rope with a beaner to close the system and we were good to go.
One by one, we made the rappel. Jenn was smooth and confident. Becca was all smiles making her first rappel ever. Nick and his super shoes had the joy of clearing the anchor and flaking the rope. Somewhere in the middle of this, Jonathan floated down like a ghost.
We worked our way through all kinds of obstacles on Lamb’s Knoll in much the same fashion. We would come to a bomber anchor. One of us would set the anchor under our guide’s watchful eye. Then we would all take turns rapping down and the last one down got to pull anchor. It was all easy peasy until it wasn’t.
The first real challenge came at a point called The Needle’s Eye. There is a very real concept of task loading that came into play here. Task loading is where enough stressors stack up on each other that you start to get overwhelmed. The Needle’s Eye had a vertical squeeze right on top of the rappel. Either one on their own would be doable. Put them together, and get’s a little difficult.
This is the first place where Jonathan, the super supporter showed up. We were all a bit task loaded but Becca looked for additional guidance. In his smooth, calm voice he explained to her that this was just like every other rappel we have done. I could hear her breath quicken as she slid through the Eye. Once through, she gathered herself and went on down the rope like a pro.
I like to think that our group was special and we carried ourselves well. In my mind, this is why we were offered the epic last rappel. If you were bad at math, it was about the same distance as we were doing all afternoon. Jonathan estimated the drop at 60 meters. I am metric savvy enough to realize that means 200’, which is big by any measure. We had some sense of how big it was climbing up the hill. It was a lot of work but there wasn’t any real exposure until we crested on top of the rock. Then, the 200’ drop became very real as we looked out to the horizon and the valley floor below us.
The Final Rappel of our Zion Adventure
It was Nick’s turn to set anchor. He measured out a lot of rope. Tied a beautiful BFK. Closed the system and clipped in. I always thought the term sweating bullets was just an expression, however, the nervous perspiration was beginning to accumulate at Nick’s feet. He shared a little trepidation, just so Becca would know it was ok, but all she heard was fear creeping in. Nick dropped down like a champ and soon the rope was open again.
Jenn and I encouraged Becca to go next. I have a working theory on the half-life of courage that is how long it takes your bravado to be half of what you started with. For me, it’s about 15 minutes. So, if I’m going to do something scary, I better do it quick or I’m going to wimp out.
In the experiential learning cycle you look to expand your comfort zone by entering the experiential zone but stay out of the panic zone. We could tell Becca was getting on the wrong side of her experiential zone because she was starting to loop. She kept saying over and over again how she just couldn’t make it. She clipped in her safety to peer over the edge and it didn’t make things any better. No matter what Jenn and I said, we couldn’t get her on rope. As a compromise, I decided to go next and show her how it’s done.
My Rapelling Adventure at Zion
For me, a 200’ rappel is much like a 50’ rappel. I have been on rope enough to trust my gear and my training. This drop was well within my comfort zone, which doesn’t make me objectively better or worse. I was just having a different experience on the rock. In many ways, I wasn’t expanding my comfort zone at all.
As I double and triple checked my gear, I could feel the task loading creeping in, along with nervous excitement. The autoblock (third hand) I have been clipping in all night just didn’t look right. I tried sliding it up and down but the rope weight made the friction feel too tight. I wasn’t afraid of falling, I was afraid of binding up 5’ over the edge. Still, it was my job not to show fear. As soon as I confirmed in my head that the slip knot was indeed slipping, I went over the edge.
It was a beautiful ride. The colors of the sunset merged with my adrenaline to create a surreal scene. Every breath was sweet with sage and the pure air that you can only find on top of mountains. Really, I wish it was 400’ long because I wasn’t ready to get off when I hit the bottom. With a loud call of “Ed off rope!”, my evening of rappelling was over.
I ate my Powerbar and took inventory of the day as I waited. Every part of me felt alive. I concluded that I need to do a lot more of this instead of sitting in my cubicle. The evening shadows grew a little longer and then I heard it – “Becca on rope”. Sure enough, I could see her bright orange helmet bobbing along at the top of the cliff.
In the end what nudged her over the edge was the guru’s gentle guidance and her faith that he wouldn’t put her 200’ in the air if he didn’t think she could do it. He told her to find her Zen place. Don’t think about going down the entire cliff. Just think about the three feet in front of you. Just put the rope on and see how it feels. Just drop down a foot and see how it feels. I could even see a safety line on Becca that he tied just in case the answer was “Hell No!”. But it wasn’t. Becca was heading down.
Finding Your Zen
With a rush of half relief, half release and half conquering hero, she let go of her “Becca Off Rope!” at the bottom. It’s moments like this that 150% alive is not only possible but expected. She made it down and she will always have that accomplishment.
That day, Becca did something truly amazing, that few people ever do. Not many people would do a 200’ drop on their first day. What was truly spectacular is that she willed herself back into her functioning zone by focusing her mind. It’s one thing to get on rope when you don’t feel fear. It is even braver, to get on rope despite your fear.
Shunryu Suzuki-Roishi, a spiritual master said – “When you are practicing zazen (sitting meditation), do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually, it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer.”
This is exactly how Jonathan talked her off the ledge. Take one foot of rope at a time. Experience it and then let it pass. I wonder if it was this philosophy that let a boy from New Jersey sell everything he has to set up shop in Zion? Hopefully, it’s something that Becca can hold on to during the uncertainty with her company. I know it’s something that Jenn and I will need to find life outside of the cubical as adventure writers or what ever else the waves have in store for us. With any luck, we’ll continue to meet incredible people along the way, like Jonathan and Becca, to teach and inspire us.
Options for Zion Adventure Tours
Zion Guru isn’t about supplying elite outdoor athletes. It’s about inspiring and empowering visitors with the right gear and information so they can explore Zion. Their main services are:
- Outfitting – Zion Guru offers rental gear, advice, and shuttle services to support Narrows trips, day hikes, self guided canyoneering.
- Canyoneering Guides – Canyoneering is a combination of hiking, climbing, rappelling, and swimming. Half day, full day and even multi day guided trips are available to introduce and teach these skills and empower you to explore more of nature.
- Rock Climbing Tours – There is a power in focusing your world into the raw simplicity of rock climbing. Jonathan describes it as “a vertical path to the mind-body connection.” If you think the red walls of Zion are amazing to look at, imagine climbing them.
No matter what your outdoor needs are, from equipment to advice, Zion Guru can outfit you and your adventure. Reconnect with nature and yourself to discover the guru that is buried inside of you. Perhaps they can even reconnect you to your dreams you let go. You are capable of so much more than you think, and only limited by what you can imagine.
Disclaimer: Although our experience was complimentary, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own.