Thursday, 16 August 2012

A loss in the Zion Narrows

I clawed my way out of the muddy current and up onto the right bank, trying unsuccessfully to get out of the water and throw my now heavy, water filled, backpack up in front of me at the same time.

F*#k.

Tell me this didn't just happen.

I finally got my pack off and threw it up onto the sand.  F*#k, f*#k, F*#k.  How could I be so stupid.  I am so stupid.  I'M STUPID!

I turned back into the river and plunged back into the deep water where it had all gone wrong.  There ... I saw the special floating case I kept it in bob to the surface and I lunged for it before it went back under.  I felt an immediate relief ... everything was OK.

I grabbed it ... it was empty.  f*#k. F*#K, FFF***###KKK.

I spent the next few minutes feeling around on the bottom of the river with my feet as best I could, I swam up stream into the current where it was well over my head and drifted down trying to feel, just for a second, something hard that might be it, but all I felt was water and mud.

Eventually I swam back to shore next to my backpack and stared forlornly back into the thick muddy water in utter disbelief.

How could this have happened?  one stupid, stupid, stupid moment of bravado, of inattention, and now my camera ... and all my photos from this trip ... were sitting somewhere at the bottom of the narrows gorge, separated from me by a 10 foot wall of thick muddy water.  I knew where it was, it was such a small search area ... but it may as well have been on the moon for all that I could get to it.

I just stared at the muddy water for a few more minutes... gone, how could it be gone.  This place needed photos to describe it, not words.  Stupid.

I eventually pulled out my iPhone thinking I could at least take some photos of the rest of the narrows, but today God obviously had it in for me - when I'd packed my phone in its hard waterproof case this morning, I'd accidentally depressed the power button and the battery was now empty.

I didn't know whether to be angry or sad.  My camera was so close.  I sighed, threw my pack back on and continued on down the narrows ... I guess this will be one trip which has no photo memories.

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The trip had started so well, I'd set of from Chamberlain's Ranch, the top of the sixteen mile hike down the Zion Narrows, around 11am the day before, and it had been great.  Only one other group - a family of four - had caught the later shuttle with me, so we basically had the walk all to ourselves.  I walked with them for a while just chatting away, but eventually they decided to stop for a break and I decided to continue alone.

The walk into the Narrows starts on a gravel road through paddocks and bushland, but after an hour or so the road stops and the path begins.  Over the next 5 miles or so (I don't really know, I'm just making these distances up) the trail meandered from side to side, and often straight through the creek as the canyon walls grew higher and higher and slowly started to close in.  Not that it was a gradual thing, one moment you were walking through cliffs a few metres apart and the next you were back out into more open sided valleys.

It took me a lot longer than I thought it would to get down to the first narrows section, just below which is a 25 foot waterfall which you can (carefully) swim in - the carefully bit is because this section of the narrows has such a high bacteria count they tell you that it can't be drunk even if you use iodine and filter the water - there's just too many bad bugs.  Yum.

However, the water was nearly crystal clear and it was so nice to cool off on a hot day so I couldn't resist a swim.  It took me nearly six hours to reach my campsite, which was almost an hour longer than I expected based on the map notes, and which had me worried for the next day which was meant to be 7 hours walking.  Gulp.

That night it was nice just sitting next to the river listening to the water flow by whilst eating my peanut butter bagel dinner with a warm vanilla cherry pepsi (yuck - in fact why did I even think that might taste nice?).  It was nice to be alone.

I got up early the next morning, a bit worried about how long it would take me to complete today's walk.

I soon discovered the river had changed overnight.  The level had risen slightly and the water had turned from a clear blue to a muddy, more angry, brown.  This latter colour change was a real issue because it meant you could no longer see what was in front of you or how deep the water was.  It made for interesting walking.

I walked past the other camp sites over the course of the next hour or so (there are 12 camp sites spread out over a couple of miles and I was at only the third camp) and all those other lazy bones were still snoring or just getting up, so by the time I got to the Big Springs I was the first walker of the day heading downstream.

There was a certain magic in being the first person descending the river and for the next hour or so I was entirely by myself, wading waist deep through a tight, narrow canyon with cliffs, just the tops of which were bathed in sunlight, rearing hundreds of feet above me.  It was wild, and in a few places the water roared into clefts and it sounded like a massive wall of water was coming crashing down behind me.  It was very raw.

I was quite often knee to waist deep in the river, but only twice went in up to my shoulders.  The second time was when I came down around this rock and, already waist deep I realised (after prodding around with my stick) that the only options were to backtrack and try and climb up and around the rock or trust that like everywhere else it would quickly become shallow again in a few steps.  I decided to trust, and stepped forward, I quickly was in over my waist, then over my chest and then up to my shoulders.  My backpack was starting to push me forward into the water, so I undid my waist belt to let it float out from me a bit, this made it a lot easier as I stepped forward one more step and suddenly found myself swimming.

Not worried, but struggling a bit to breathe, I unthinkingly reached down and unclipped my chest belt as well to allow a quick escape from my backpack ... just in case ... even as I did it, even before the clip was fully undone, I realised what I'd just done ... my camera was threaded through my chest strap.  I forgot about staying above the water and grabbed down with both hands to save my camera, hoping that it would still be caught onto the straps, but it wasn't there.  I think I went under, came up reaching, grasping everywhere, hoping it was still caught on me somewhere.  That's when I swam to shore realising that I had to get it soon or I'd lose it forever ...

You know the rest.

Probably 30 minutes later, I met my first upstream walkers for the day.  We had a good chat and then continued on our respective ways.  Not long after that I met my next group of walkers, and the next and soon it was a constant stream of people walking up river.  I was soon asked by one guy, in a spectacular section of the river, if the narrows get any narrower further up, I walked around a corner and found a lady pissing into the river, not far downstream I found two boys doing the same.  People stopped saying hello at about the same time, there were orange peels thrown on the side of the river where people couldn't be bothered to carry their own rubbish back out, and I found myself walking along, deliberately choosing the side of the river that everyone else didn't, and if they were on both sides, well I walked down the middle in the deepest part of the current.

Despite this rude reintroduction to humanity and the loss of my camera, the Zion Narrows is truly one of those walks that you have to do in your life, but I mean the full walk from top to bottom not the crowded touristy bit down the bottom, and if I did it again, I'd do it in a single day, carry less water (I packed in 6 litres of water, a litre of powerade and a pepsi as I didn't have a water filter) and I definitely wouldn't lose my camera.

I promise.

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Some things I wished I'd known before I walked the Narrows:

1. When you pick up your permit they give you a map (it's basic but it's all you need) and also what I was most worried about sourcing - my - well let's call it portable carry in / carry out toilet.  Sounds better than silver ziplock bag.  This is part of the permit fee.

2. Hire the canyoning shoes, wetsuit socks and stick.  They will make the walk so much better (I did).

3. The campsites are all pretty close to each other (probably an hour top to bottom) and they all looked pretty good to me, so don't fuss about the site.

4. At the wilderness permit place in the information centre they list the sources of fresh water on a whiteboard behind the desk and whether they are available.  I didn't realise this at the time, and if I had known wouldn't have carried so much water - just a filter or iodine tablets.

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