Our Harrowing Adventure Up the Narrows27 July 2012 in Reviews, Trails/Hiking, Traveling
Today I awoke bright and early in anticipation for our hike of the Narrows. We had our rented gear, an ideal weather forecast and a low flow rate on the river. Translation; we had special shoes, socks and a hiking stick from a local outfitter, it was supposed to be sunny with no precipitation, in other words no reason for concern regarding flash floods, and there hadn’t been much rain and so the river was low and slow, making for a easy hike, bottom to top, against the current.
But it was a little chilly when I got up and we hadn’t planned for cold weather since highs neared 100 and lows were in the 70s. I wanted to get an early start, but I knew we needed a little more sun before we entered the 65 degree water so I let Lindsay sleep while I took care of breakfast (PB&J tortilla rollups) and lunch (PB&J sandwiches). When Lindsay awoke we broke down the tent and headed over to the visitor’s center to catch the shuttle bus to the top of the valley and the entrance to the Narrows.
We both felt ridiculous in our giant boots, which resemble rollerblades without the wheels, but we were quickly relieved to join others with the same funny looking attire. The boots and socks were tight and on the bus ride up, just sitting I felt uncomfortable, but the lady had mentioned they would stretch out as the day went so I tried to ignore my already achy feet. Once we exited the bus and began hiking the paved walkway that parallels the river for about a mile, my excitement overtook the continued discomfort of my feet. I just couldn’t wait to get in the water.
At the end of the paved portion the more adventurous hikers—some in funny looking boots, others in plain shoes (more on that later)—bid farewell to the leisurely spectators who look on from the cement trail as we plunged into the river. The first stretch is easy. Once you get used to the water temp, the uneven, slippery river bottom consisting of large rocks, and the flow of the river working against you it’s all downhill from there—or rather up river I guess. But really it’s not too difficult and it was rather shallow for the first hundred yards.
Then you hit the first deep spot. Before we were happily splashing around in the refreshingly brisk, ankle deep Virgin River, now we had to hold our packs above our heads and wander into chest deep or shoulder deep water, depending on your height. It was a shock to say the least, but unlike the beach you don’t have an optional depth you can base on temperature and comfort. Here it was hike through or return you $50 in hardly used rental gear. So we submerged ourselves, thankfully this portion of depth was short and we were quickly back to the ankle deep waters of the beginning.
Free and drying quickly we were able to take in the grandeur of the Narrows. This section of river alternates between twenty to fifty feet wide, with walls of sheer, monolithic rock rising up on either side to absurd and unbelievable heights. I’m talking more than a thousand feet. It was like walking through a big city, filled with skyscrapers, but replace the building with red sandstone and melt and mold into wavy, smooth surfaces and replace the sidewalk with a rock lined shore and the street with a shallow river. That’s a pour description, but there’s no good analogy. The other, more detached comparison would be to liken it to an ant in a large, deep crack. If you didn’t feel small and insignificant in the main part of Zion Valley you’ll surely feel like a speck in this gigantic chasm.
Every corner we rounded lead to new and more dramatic views, which Lindsay gave me plenty of time to take in as she attempted to capture every bend with her camera. That might sound like a snide remark and it may have been as it passed through my mind at that time, but her pace and picture taking really does help me slow my pace and enjoy the scenery. My problem is I’m often to eager to see what’s around the next bend, that and I felt like we were being passed by the hoards of fellow hikers who were also out enjoying this trail. This led to concern regarding potential completion of the permit-free portion of this trail. I would later find this to be unfounded as we were making descent time and would see more than we could handle.
Continuing up there’s not a lot I can say. It’s about the experience. You have to be there. The rustle of the wind through the brave and tenacious cottonwood trees that occasionally speckle the river’s edge. The gentle ripple of the river lapping over the boulders that fill this valley. And the towering sides that can produce a kind of reverse vertigo as they block out the sun until well past noon in most portions of this hike. There are a spattering of deep portions, but they were few and far between.
One such portion appeared to be impassable at first. The folks we did watch cross it did so by swimming. I didn’t have a dry pack and even though Lindsay did she wasn’t about to trust it with her camera. So we began problem solving. There was a large, mammoth of a rock you could walk to from there I scurried onto, jumped to a smaller rock near shore and reported it all back to Lindsay who followed me as I retraced my jumps and steps. From here we could safely jump down into waist deep water and proceed.
It was a beautiful day and while we were getting sections of sun here and there Lindsay couldn’t shake the chill from our last submersion so at the next stretch of sun we took a break. This little patch featured some large stones to rest on and the meditative crash and roar of the river through a tight gap. After some crackers and water we were back at it.
Around one we took a lunch break in another ideal section. Here there were more boulders, but larger and they were surrounded by deep, cool pools of greenish blue. I made note of this spot as we ate our sandwiches and gave our feet a break. I would like to take a swim here on the way back.
We proceeded on and on. We had foolishly left the free map we had taken at the outfitters in the truck and there were no signs or any indications of how far we’d gone. There was the legend of a sign instructing day hikers to turn around and that permits were needed to proceed beyond that point, but we never found it. And no one hiking from the top down had seen it so we decided at fours in we were at a good halfway point and should turn around. If it took us the same amount of time to get back we’d have a little more than enough time to get our gear back to the outfitters on time.
The hike back was completely different. The sun was now high and the sky and portions of trail that were formerly dark were now brightly illuminated and where we spent most of the hike bordering on a chill the way back was hot. The shade became our savior and the sun our enemy as the roles were now reversed. At one point I did take a quick swim and convinced Lindsay to join me. It was still a little chilly, but in the hot sun, overall it was refreshing.
While the scenery on the way back was still breathtaking there were no surprises. We had seen it on the way up and so with a less enamored set of eyes the complaints of my feet could take the reins and proceed to ruin the hike back. My feet were hurting and so were Lindsay’s. And each person I saw in their own shoes only increased my misery. See we had only been to Zion in colder weather where hiking the Narrows required special dry suits and so we mistakenly associated the need for cold weather gear with the need for warm weather gear. This paired with my brief amount of research which produced a photo of a pair of destroyed shoes was enough to convince me we needed the ill-fitting bricks attached to our aching feet. I wasn’t about to destroy a nice pair of running shoes in one day. But the ominous pair of ruined shoes were probably destroyed at a higher flow rate, under harsher conditions. We had ideal conditions and saw a wealth of people in a variety of footwear that all appeared far more comfortable than ours.
It made perfect sense though, which hurt even more. Why would a pair of stiff and heavy shoes, that you’ve never worn before be a good idea for a long and strenuous hike. You wouldn’t hike a long trail in brand new shoes or boots. You’d break them in first. If this seems drawn out or overly dramatic picture four hours of it. It’s all I could think of as we hiked. I couldn’t take in the scenery or enjoy the beauty of my surroundings. All I could do is think of my poor, smashed feet. Had I broken a toe? Fractured one of the many tiny bones in my foot? Lost a toenail? Was there blood?
I couldn’t wait to get these things off and had I been carrying a lighter I would have gladly burner them to save the next poor sap the pain and anguish. Eventually my feet, which now felt more like rigid stumps or hooves carried me to the shore. With great relief I removed one boot at a time and to my surprise and great pleasure, no blood, no lost toenails and full movement. All that said I would never put my feet through such an unpleasant experience again. I walked the mile back to the shuttle bus barefoot and the lava hot section of parking lot and road from the bus to the truck barefoot as well. Never again!
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