Zion National Park: How not to die in the Narrows

Zion is world-famous for several hikes, but none is more famous than the Narrows. Basically, take a fast-moving river in a very narrow slot canyon and take intrepid people who want to hike in the river and you have the famous Narrows hike. People die in this place on occasion  as there is just no where to go in the event of a flash flood. The walls are a thousand feet of towering, smooth, sandstone cliffs and barring Spiderman- like abilities, you’re pretty much screwed if you get caught here in a flood. Why do it? Because it’s awesomely beautiful.

Gorgeous, isn't it?

Being married to a man with a butt smaller than mine is bound to make me look bad in a place like this. This is a hard hike. The water is cold (yesterday, a balmy 58 degrees) and it’s running fast (68 cfs) and you are slogging upstream against a current. If you have a brain in your head, you either rent appropriate canyoneering shoes and neoprene socks  (Zion Adventure Company rents both for about $20) along with a decent hiking stick or you own your own gear and you use it. Plenty of morons get in the water and decide to head upstream barefoot or in open-toed sandals or flip-flops. This is a terrible idea. The rocks are slippery and the footing is uncertain, and thousands of pounds of rushing water are trying to topple you. Not wearing appropriate gear can be dangerous. I know this because I broke my neck here in 2009.

In May of 2009, this rock broke my neck.

In 2009,  I decided to wear a pair of water shoes from Merrell in the river. It seemed reasonable, but these are not canyoneering shoes and they lacked the grip of better shoes designed for canyoneering. The flow rate was also almost 140 cfs which is about as high as it can be and the park will allow you to get in the water. I lost my balance in the water and in a freak accident, ended up slammed against the rock with a broken neck and a blown disc. I was about 1 1/2 miles into the canyon at that point. If you hike in, you have to be able to hike out. I did not realize I had broken anything and thought I had a shoulder injury. Not quite.  By the time it was over, I had a bone graft, several screws and a titanium plate in my neck and a permanent loss of strength in the right arm from nerve damage. This is unfun. Don’t do what I did. I got injured because I was careless and because I decided I did not want to wear the less comfortable 5-10s in the river. The only redeeming thing from the experience is no one can question my toughness as I hiked my bad self out of the canyon under my own power  (I will admit it is a damned lucky thing I’m not paralyzed).

If you do this hike, you will see a ton of Europeans, some of them hilariously over-outfitted. (Drysuits in August are not necessary and you will have sweat running down your ass crack in ways you did not anticipate). You will also see some girls in bikinis far up river in very cold water. They are Swedish or Danish and think 55 degrees is toasty. Pay no attention to these blonde glamazons as they are not of this earth and they exist to make you swear to hit the crosstrainer daily while subsisting on lettuce and air. If you slog up river far enough, you will be rewarded with this:

A much better version of Wall Street

Expect to get wet (chest deep in a few spots) but most of it is hard in the water and trying not to fall over hiking.

Troy in the river

This is a bucket list kind of place so unless you are in a wheelchair or dragging oxygen, you should do this before you die.

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Zion: the Narrows

Someone told me once that the Narrows is a long river hike. Having returned from hiking the Narrows, I am qualified to say that that statement is like saying that the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground.  Neither adequately explains what you will experience.  It is important to note that I am a genetic, orthopedic disaster. I have knee surgeries like Hollywood people get “work done”. The Narrows is a river bed composed of river rocks which are neither stable nor easy on the ankles or knees. Now consider that it is early in the season and snow melt is still occurring. Add to the unstable rock bed the added element of 46 degree water moving in excess of 120 cfs. That’s like wading upriver on foot through Class 3 rapids.

Like all good death marches, we started ours bright and early. When we got to the trailhead, there were several other people there preparing to do battle with the Narrows. They were all dressed from head to toe in dry suits. Troy and I had on wicking shirts and shorts with neoprene shorts underneath, neoprene socks and water shoes.  We decided they were pussies. Then we got in the water. It wasn’t so bad until I fell about 100 yards in. Then I was cold. Within ½ mile, the river was running about neck deep. For those who have never had the pleasure of hiking a river with a strong current running against you, it’s exhausting and tedious. The average depth of the river for the entire run we did (trailhead at the Temple of Sinawava to the Wall Street area) was between knee and hip deep. The canyon is spectacular and it is absolutely worth seeing. I would, however, suggest you consider it later in the season when the water is shallow and warm.  I spent most of the hike trying to stay upright in the current. By the time we hit the Wall Street area it was deep, cold and fast.

Troy points out that I fell in the river 4 times. He never fell in. Troy says he is invincible in the woods. I have pointed out that he is completely at my mercy when he is asleep. By the time we got back, I had completely torched my knee  and had begun to cough (I now have bronchitis). This is the single most brutal hike I have ever done. I was (blissfully) unaware of the muscle connections between my toes and my scalp until I woke up this morning and I could have gone a lifetime without the knowledge.

Later, after my return to the hotel from the emergency clinic, I realized that the great tragedy of it all is that the hospital sent me back with drugs that would have been great fun if only I didn’t need them.

The Narrows:

Troy tried to kill me here