Escape from The Narrows

By: The LA Field Guide + Save to a List

When the weather takes a turn for the worse, a slot canyon is probably the last place you want to be.

July 9th started the way most big adventure days do: a pre-dawn wakeup, hot coffee, and stress about whether or not I’d be able to poop before we got on the trail.

Two days earlier, on Wednesday afternoon, I got the news that we'd scored last minute permits to hike the entirety of the Narrows in Zion National Park from top to bottom. While anyone can hike the lower—arguably more dramatic—section of the Narrows without a permit, the National Park Service only allows forty people to enter the top of the canyon every day. The eighteen mile trek promises a wilderness experience like no other, and LNT practices are strictly enforced. This means carrying out everything, including human waste—hence my poop stress.

One thing slot canyons are infamous for are their dramatic and unpredictable flash floods. Just a week prior to our trip, the worst flash flood in fifty years swept through Zion, washing away roads, tents, and cars. Needless to say, we were checking the forecast every day leading up to the trip and fortunately saw nothing but blue skies ahead. One final check at 5:00am the morning of departure confirmed no rain or flash flooding was expected. We started hiking at 7:30am in bright sunlight, 18 miles of slot canyon ahead, and one lonely puff of white cloud overhead.

The Narrows is a river walk through time. You begin alongside meadows atop the Colorado Plateau and mile by mile wind your way downward through eons of Navajo Sandstone. In another million years, the canyon we’re hiking through won’t exist anymore. The river will have eaten away the layers of stone, one and three quarters of an inch every thousand years, until the high-country meadows of today are finally eroded into the dramatic slot canyons of tomorrow, and the slot canyons of today are lost forever to time. Lush forest gives way to larger and taller canyon walls until, as if by magic, the plateau is a thousand feet above our heads, perched atop looming sheets of ancient sandstone.

At lunch, we couldn’t help but notice that the one, small, solitary white puff of cloud in the sky had grown considerably less small and notably less solitary. The white puffiness bordered a deeper gray center. If I had to guess, it looked like a storm cloud, but it’s hard to decipher any weather patterns from the bottom of a canyon where you can only see a sliver of the sky. Needless to say, we picked up the pace a bit and covered the next five miles to Big Spring in good time, my fiance Nicole leading the charge. She’d heard enough horror stories of flash flooding to know she didn’t want to be anywhere near a slot canyon in the rain.

After a few hours, we arrived at Big Spring, the furthest point you can go without a permit. Day-hikers were a strangely relieving sight after many hours alone in the canyon. Several groups lounged in the water, laughing and taking photos. Nobody seemed alarmed by the growing clouds, which over the last few miles had developed into ominous dark-gray waves that covered the canyon behind us, accented by strong gusts of wind. The unmistakable “a storm is coming” kind of wind.

At this point, the worry in our group is tangible. Behind us looms a growing afternoon thunderhead, and ahead of us awaits the inevitable Wall Street—a two mile section of vertical walled slot canyon. It’s the part of the Narrows you’ve most likely seen photos of—huge and dramatic, and completely devoid of high ground. Utterly inescapable in the event of a flash flood. As much as we’ve been looking forward to the walk through the most prolific segment of canyon, the possibility of a flash flood festers in the back of all of our minds. And then, as if on cue—and I promise I’m not making this up—a deep roll of thunder bellows from the clouds behind us.

Ohhh shit.

Immediately, the mood shifts, and everyone at Big Spring starts hastily packing up to head out. And then, the cherry on top—and again, I’m not making this up—we find out from a group of hikers that at 6:00am, just as we were hopping on the shuttle to head for the top of the canyon, and just after we’d checked the forecast for the last time before leaving cell service, the National Park Service upgraded the flash flood forecast for Zion from “not expected” to “possible”.

The most beautiful section of the entire hike has in an instant become the most treacherous. We head into Wall Street, moving over the slick river rocks and boulders as quickly as possible, when rain drops begin to fall. Big, icy cold raindrops. Lightly at first, but the situation appears to be quickly unfolding in an unpleasant direction. I make a point to check in with everyone from our group.

“How are you doing?”

“Umm, pretty concerned, to be honest.”

“Yeah, me too. All we can do is keep going and look for high ground.”

The conversations are brief, and interrupted with booms of thunder, growing closer together every minute. The rain comes down harder. Wind rips up the canyon in strong gusts, blinding us with water and dust. My eyes wildly scan the canyon walls for cracks and chimneys, in case things take a turn for the worst. I imagine scrambling up inside one as a wall of water roars down the canyon. How long could I hold myself out of the current? Could everyone else manage to scramble into a crack as well? How high would the water get?

Every roar of thunder at this point sounds exactly what I imagine a flash flood would sound like. Every few seconds another roll of thunder. Every few seconds a panicked and instinctual glance over my shoulder. Every few seconds a wave of relief when there isn’t a wall of water chasing me.

Then the rain really picks up. Wind kicks it into horizontal sheets, slapping against the canyon walls and streaming down the sandstone faces. It’s an absolute downpour, and I’m practically running through the river in search of high ground. A switch flips, and I feel a wave of pure, unadulterated, animal instinct fear wash over my entire being. We’ve been in Wall Street for almost an hour, we have to be close to the end now.

Then it appears. A fifteen foot mound of sand and boulders tucked into a corner of the canyon. One by one, our group reconvenes on top of it—we’re all safe, but none of us has the canyoneering experience to know whether the ground we’re on is high enough. The driftwood wedged in the rocks around us seems to indicate it is not, but it’s the best we can do for now.

A minute later, a group of three older hikers join us. They don’t speak much english, but seem to be in good spirits. I flash a questioning thumbs up to the group and the oldest responds with a smile and thumbs up in return. A family of four joins a few minutes later. The two kids must be only seven and ten, and they’re both shivering. Luckily, we have a camp towel to share and they dry off and take shelter under an overhang. The rain and thunder continue, and ghosts of waterfalls come to life, spitting their way down the canyon walls.

I grew up in church (conservative evangelicalism, if you’re curious—but that’s a whole set of stories for a different audience, probably.) I’ve spent many hundreds of hours talking about god, questioning god, imagining god, praying to god, and generally wondering whether god actually cares about any of these bizarre human things we have going on down here like what colleges we go to, what nonprofits we support, or whether they will ever restock the choco-tacos at the mini mart down the street because nothing hits quite like a choco-taco and I’ve prayed for them for weeks now and they’re still out.

Your move, big guy.

Standing on a small patch of high ground in a narrow chasm in the earth as rivers rage vertically down sandstone walls, as thunder reverberates through the canyon, hits the resonant frequency of the earth itself and vibrates up through feet and chest, as chemicals pulse through mind and body and reflexes twitch with clarity, I am face to face with capital-G God. This is God beyond language, beyond understanding, and beyond any delusions of human influence or control. This is God of fear, of raging wild power—the kind of strength that needs no introduction, no sacred texts, no prayers, no pastor. Beliefs, convictions, and ideals crumble like sand in the face of this God—this One is inevitable, and so far beyond the reach of such small human efforts to comprehend. To my dismay, I realize in the downpour that this God certainly has no opinions on choco-taco inventories.

I made it a point to check the water level every few minutes. Even through the worst of the downpour, the water level didn’t change. None of the classic signs of a flash flood presented themselves, no floating debris, no chocolate-milk water. I have no way of knowing how long we waited on high ground, perhaps twenty minutes, but eventually the rain stopped and the skies lightened to reveal small patches of blue again. Noting no change in the river, we collectively decided to make a move, and tentatively made our way back into the water, continuing our trek out of the Narrows.

While the threat of a flash flood still loomed, our spirits took a turn for the better and the final few miles to the mouth of the canyon were punctuated by dazzling patchworks of sunlight, fleeting momentary waterfalls, and a palpable gratitude for life. Plus, I never did have to poop in the canyon, thank lowercase-g god.

There wasn’t a flash flood in the Narrows on July 9th. Had we known before we left cell service that the park service upgraded the flash flood warning level, we probably wouldn’t have gone for it in the first place, but the experience brought us all face-to-face with the unpredictable nature of nature.

It’s easy to forget how insignificant we actually are when we’re surrounded by so much of our own creation. Air conditioning and cars and fast food and bluetooth noise cancelling headphones. Zion National Park can feel a lot like Disneyland when you’re hopping on and off shuttle busses to hike on paved trails to well-crafted vista points, and while I wouldn’t necessarily choose to spend another thunderstorm in a slot canyon, it was one of those encounters with nature—the unpaved, gritty, raw, unpredictable real nature—that is pretty fleeting in modern life.

I took it as a stark reminder that the nature of the world is always and continuously and forever wild, powerful, and complex beyond our understanding—whether we’re paying attention to it or not. With some grace, perhaps I’ll be a little better equipped to pay a little more attention moving forward.

Also, no joke, when we finally made it out the bottom of the canyon, we turned around to this:

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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