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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hiking Orderville Gulch In The Rain

Orderville Gulch - photo by Dave Webb
Zion Park is famous for its canyoneering adventures. It is perhaps the best place on earth to enjoy hiking/scrambling/climbing over chock stones and rappelling down waterfalls, as you make your way down slot canyons. I challenged one of Zion's slot canyons last week and had a great time.

Two of the park's most famous canyoneering destinations, The Narrows and The Subway, are very popular. To protect park resources, only a small number of people are allowed to hike these canyons top to bottom each day. Permits are limited and can be hard to get.

But the park offers many other great canyons. The one I chose, called Orderville Gulch, blends the best of its two famous siblings. It's like the Narrows, only more narrow and more rugged. Orderville is a tributary to The Narrows and so you end the trek by hiking out of the bottom of that canyon.

Like The Subway, Orderville is very narrow and you have to climb down chockstones, waterfalls and log jams. These obstacles make the hike challenging and enjoyable.

As long as it isn't raining. These canyons become very dangerous when rain falls anywhere in the drainage. Runoff is channeled into the narrow canyons and can become raging torrents that sweep away trees and boulders. Hikers need to take care and avoid hiking when there is a significant chance of a thunderstorm.

Normally, July is a dry month in southwestern Utah. In August, thunderstorms often develop on hot afternoons - what we call our "monsoon" season.

This year has not been normal. We've had strong thunderstorms during the past few weeks, and flash flooding in some areas.

That make sit difficult to plan canyoneering adventures.

We chose our date weeks in advance, knowing we would have to cancel if the forecast called for thunderstorms. We watched the weather closely. At first the report called for clear skies. Then, a few days before our hike, the report changed to a 20% chance of showers. Then, the day before, to a 30% chance.

We decided to make the trip and check again early the day of our hike, getting the best info we could before committing to hike the canyon.

Usually, mornings are dry and our storms develop later in the afternoon.

The sky was totally clear when we rolled out of our sleeping bags on Thursday morning. We stopped at the ranger station to pick up our permits, and get a final weather report, and they still said a 30% chance of rain.

The hike takes most people about 8 hours. We were making an early start and we figured we could be past the most narrow part by mid-afternoon, minimizing the chance that we would be caught in a storm. So we decided to proceed.

There was just one tiny cloud on the horizon as we started hiking. We descended into the slot, with the canyon walls rising higher with every step. In many places the walls are nearly vertical.

Orderville is a "technical" canyon, meaning you need ropes and gear to descend. There are two drops, both about 17 feet, where most people need to rappel. Strong, experienced climbers can make it without ropes but in my group we all needed to harness up and use the ropes to allow a controlled, safe descent.

When we stood at the top of that first rappel, I paused and looked at the sky, knowing that if we dropped down we would be committed to finishing the hike. Almost anyone can rappel down a cliff, but it is much more difficult to climb back up. By that time the sky was overcast but we decided to forge ahead, knowing there would be no turning back.

As we gathered up the rappelling gear it started to sprinkle. No problem, I though. The ground can absorb a light sprinkle. We decided to pick up the pace and continue down canyon.

As we approached the second rappel it started to rain hard. We quickly descended the waterfall and hurried to a wide spot in the canyon were we could climb to high ground - higher than a flash flood would reach.

We found such a spot and sat in safety, watching the rain, wondering how long it would last. It rained hard for about 10 minutes and then continued to sprinkle. We huddled under thick cover, mostly out of the rain, wondering if the storm was winding down or if it would pick back up.

We heard thunder and saw lightning that looked close. We had no idea what the storm was like up canyon. It could be raining 20 miles away and the runoff would channel down onto us.

We sat for about 40 minutes, until the rain and lightning stopped in our area. The stream had not risen and so we decided to proceed down the canyon, figuring we would find the next wide spot and re-evaluate. We did that, hiking and then pausing in safe spots, until we popped out into The Narrows and then completed the hike.

We enjoyed it, despite the uneasy feeling I got sitting under a tree in the rain.

The next day the park temporarily closed the slots because of high flash flood danger. Park officials try to monitor conditions and do what they can to keep people safe. Still, hikers have the ultimate responsibility for their own safety. It is impossible to tell just where and where flash floods will occur.

I love hiking the slots and I'll be back. But I'll also be alert and cautions.

(Here's a video that shows the Orderville hike, shot on a previous trip.)

– Dave Webb

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