May 25-26, Zion National Park, Jared Campbell, Ryan McDermott, Buzz Burrell
Jared conceived of Zironman two years ago while studying Google Earth during one of his typical four-hours-of-sleep nights; it was an ingenious route, going from the west boundary of Zion National Park to past the east boundary via the most “interesting” terrain. “Zironman” was a fun way of saying the route involved climbing, running, and canyoneering, and it consisted of some iconic technical canyons as well as virgin country where apparently no one had been before. Now that the Trans Zion route seems crowded every weekend in May, these are the types of projects one dreams up.
We geared up for it on a hot day in back in June of 2011, but after spending 8 annoying hours shuttling a car in 100 degree temperatures, we wisely scaled our initial attempt back to 3/4 of the distance. That Zironman “fun run” went really well – we figured out that “No Man’s Land” had a viable route through it, we did all the hard parts, and were really keen to come back the next year and knock it off.
The following year I was injured, but Jared and his best friend Ryan very graciously offered to wait until I recovered, a relative term though that may be, so we were quite keen this year. But mere hours before we were to start, the project was in jeopardy.
Our plan was to start at 5:30 in the afternoon, knock off Icebox, the first technical canyon while it was still light, then do the entire middle section which is normally exposed to the blazing sun during the night, arriving at the start of Imlay, the most technical canyon in the park when the sun came up. An excellent plan. Except 5:30 wouldn’t come for another 4 hours. We were sitting around with nothing to do.
Could Jared handle doing nothing? I had seen him accomplish incredible projects, but never this. This might be the crux of the whole route.
After a few hours of sitting around we couldn’t handle it any longer, so decided to pull the trigger – let’s get this done.
Icebox was fun – a few big wall rappels took us down into the fun canyon with cold pools, big blocks of sandstone, and finally a path down to the junction of the La Verkin Creek Trail, which we reached with plenty of light left. I was pleased and relieved, as I had been very concerned about my knees, which 45 years after running my first ultra, weren’t quite as springy as days gone by. I had felt this first few hours would be my crux, and since my joints were holding up I felt we had this – we had the skills, the strength, the endurance, and knew the route.
We marched up the trail to where Jared’s angelic wife Mindy was car-camping at the Hop Valley Trailhead. That one “aid station” allowed us to drop our technical gear and go light for the run across the heart of Zion. I had been using the PB Adventure Vest which carried a small rope and tiny harness, and yet easily allowed running down the technical canyon because it didn’t bounce at all – excellent! Then dropping the technical gear allowed me to switch to the AK Race Vest, which is uber-light and comfortable while still carrying the water, food, and clothes I’d need for the rest of the night. The night would be long enough without having to endure bouncing, chafing, and extra weight.
The next highlight was North Guardian Angel, a moderate scramble up an absolutely beautiful desert summit, made even more so by climbing it by the light of the Full Moon. The bare desert sandstone was so clean and pure, it was almost as though we could see the millions of stars reflected in the rock.
Jared was doing all the navigating, and nailed the tricky bushwhack down into the Subway – the summits are almost the easiest part of backcountry travel in Zion, as steep little cliffs and gorges, packed with bristly Manzanita and Prickly Pear cactus are the norm. We filled bottles from our little spring in the Subway, and scrambled out of the gorge for North’s twin, the South Guardian Angel.
I dropped my pack at the base of SGA, turned off my headlamp, and did the whole thing by the light of the moon, with nothing but my great partners, the sky and the rock. SGA was one of the most amazing summits of my life.
Fun and games were soon over however, as we came off SGA and launched into No Mans Land, our name for the trail-less, route-less connection between the known and the unknown. Jared again did an excellent job of night navigation – at least I think he did – it’s sort of hard to tell, as an hour and half of mashing thru manzanita thickets in the wee hours of the morning leaves one too dazed to discern whether things are going great or horribly wrong. Ryan spent his time trying to decide which was more bristly: live manzanita or dead manzanita? I couldn’t tell the live ones from the dead ones, being occupied avoiding embedding a cactus spine in my foot.
At dawn we made another big drop down into the Right Fork of Left Creek, then started the long grind up to the West Rim Trail; our previous “fun run” proved very helpful, as we avoided the 5.4 vertical dirt pitch of 2011, instead reaching the sanctity of the Trail relatively unscathed, and before the sun rose to hit us.
The line of our route was very efficient, because after only a mile on the trail, we left it for the put-in for Imlay. The previous day Ryan and Jared had stashed a complete second set of technical gear here, plus food and water, ingeniously using a hunters cart to haul it all in.
The start of Imlay is always a sobering experience for me. Once you pull the rope after the first (of about 30) rappels, there is no way out except to keep going – canyoneering is very different than climbing in that respect – since what you are descending is impossible to ascend, there is no such thing as retreat. A mistake would not be good – I’m not sure how a rescue would be possible. It’s extremely confining, technical, and the water is shockingly cold.
As we put on our full wetsuits and harnesses, Jared asked me how I felt – a good question to ask. I felt tired. We started 15 hours ago and had just marched thru the night, so being tired made sense. I asked Ryan the same question – everyone on the team has to be good to go – one cannot “try” or “hope” to do Imlay Canyon – you gotta do it. Fortunately we know how to do this – the three times our team has done this canyon are almost certainly the three fastest times it’s ever been done – and we’re all ultrarunners, so we also know that being tired doesn’t mean you’re anywhere close to being finished. But it had been a dry spring so the water in the potholes was very low – the two parties that had gone thru the previous week reported difficult conditions, taking over 12 hours. We planned on seven.
Upper Imlay went fine, and then we entered the extreme narrows. Even though the only time I canyoneer is during these big projects, our system was working well – we alternate rapping off our 50′ and the 100′ ropes, moving them forward as fast as possible, plus using a 25′ length of bright yellow polypropylene tow rope to “batman” down the shorter drops, which is quicker than setting a rappel. The deepest pots require “hooking” out – placing a Black Diamond Talon (3 pronged hook) that’s attached to an etrier (stirrup) into a small hole drilled into the smooth, vertical, wet, unclimbable wall of the pothole – often while treading water.
We heard voices echoing in front, and soon came upon a group negotiating a tricky pothole escape. We wondered how to get around them, but only had to wait 10 minutes; at that point, with them safely out, Jared jumped in, swam to the other side of the pool, and with one leap grabbed a good hold and mantled out. The other party, who were really competent and nice people, witnessed this maneuver and gladly let us go by. Jared pulled the mantle so fast a member of their group wasn’t quite sure what she saw and exclaimed, “What kind of tool was that?” to which Jared replied, “My hand”.
After only 6 hours in Imlay, I started down the Exit Rappel, a 130′ free rappel into the popular and famous Virgin River Narrows. This is always a splendid moment, as the sense of escaping from the bowels of the earth into the delightfully vibrant and friendly Virgin River provides a palpable feeling of relaxation, of going into cruise mode for the rest of the route. I had about 20 spectators, stopping their hike to look up at some strange guy dressed head to foot in black neoprene, with a big pack and strange looking equipment draped all over, spinning slowly in the air above the River, emerging seemingly from nowhere. I smiled at the thought of being in someone’s slide show the next day.
We hiked down the Narrows, then turned up Orderville Canyon, a side canyon coming into the Narrows, to complete our trip. Orderville of course is normally descended, but Zironman is an inventive route and a linear one, so ascending the last canyon is how we were going to get to the east end of the Park. Going up rappels can be problematic, but our technique is simple: Jared just fires it, then extends a hand down to help Ryan and I up.
We marched up and out of Orderville, where Mindy was again waiting for us, and with the last remaining light of the day – perfect timing! – drove us out the dirt road to a motel, 28 hrs and 2 mins after starting. Jared is extraordinarily strong and technically proficient, and in reality, he is how we were able to do Zironman, at least in this time frame. Jared could have done this route in less than 24 hours, so I am very glad and grateful he took the time to do it with me. And I am very happy that my body hung in there one more time and I was still able to do such a grand route, and equally grateful for such great friends.
I hope someone else tries Zironman – it requires not only fitness, but skill, knowledge and excellent partners – so it’s a worthy challenge. But no one else has tried to repeat our Zion Trifecta yet, which is sort of disappointing. I would hope these two grand routes become like Trans Zion – done by only a few pioneers early on, then once figured out many others have a go, so they may discover the stunning hidden worlds of Zion National Park.
JARED’S PHOTO GALLERY HERE