I’m always planning some adventure, so it wasn’t surprising to my friends when they got an event invitation for the Subway Hike accompanied by a 20-page information packet (a trademark feature to all my planned adventures). Little did I know that it would be one of the hardest hikes I would ever do up to that point and that it would put the lives of all my friends at risk.
You must have a wilderness permit to hike the Subway Hike, a premier canyoneering route in Zion National Park. Permits are difficult to get and are awarded through a lottery system. The only weekend available for me to bid on was in October, the last month of the year they permit you to hike the hike. I won some permits, and eight of us embarked on a journey that would test our will power and change our lives forever.
The hike is a strenuous 9.5 miles (15 kilometers) through rugged territory with steep down climbs, cold swims, and several short rappels ranging from 15 feet (4.5 meters) to 30 feet (9 meters). The obstacles are fun – you rappel down a waterfall, swim through a slot canyon, traverse a stream, walk beneath a long tree trunk lodged between two rocks. It is a stunningly beautiful hike with water cascading through brilliant rock formations. The sunlight reflects off the water and walls effectively illuminating the canyon with warm colors and casting the forest with glittering light spots. The most famous part of the hike, called The Subway, is tubular shaped with smooth slick walls. It’s decorated with emerald colored pools. The sun peeks through this part giving it an ethereal expression.
We got a little bit of a late start, starting a couple hours after sunrise. The first section of the hike is relatively easy, a flat mile trail to Lava Point, a breathtaking layered rock formation in the shape of a bowl formed by lava flows millions of years prior. We took the trail with more leisure at first, stopping here to laugh and snack before descending for another two miles and 2000 feet (609 meters) down Russell Gulch, which includes a steep down climb. This part of the trail was marked by cairns as there is no clear path on the rock face.
It was chilly once we descended into the canyon. I knew this hike would be in this section. The average temperatures in October range from 78 degrees fahrenheit (25 degrees celsius) to 49 degrees fahrenheit (9 degrees celsius), and the temperature can be much cooler in a slot canyon since it gets little direct sunlight. What I did not count on was that just within the week before our hike there was uncharacteristic snowfall and, subsequently, snowmelt leaving our hike filled with deep pools of freezing cold water and lower temperatures overall. Our swimming sections doubled, and, where typically you could wade through them, we now couldn’t touch the bottom.
In preparation for the hike some websites suggested a wetsuit, but when I called a local Zion Park outfitter, they told me that we wouldn’t need them since the swimming parts are minimal and wetsuits aren’t very effective going in and out of water for small amounts of time. And not having them or dry suits, would have probably been fine, had there not been snowmelt just the day before.
The Left Fork section is the most exciting part of the hike. It’s where all the obstacles are and some of the most picturesque moments. This was also the section we all almost died. The first obstacle should have been the boulder, but for us, it was a large pool of water to wade through reaching the heart level for some of us. We spent some time loading up our dry bags, and then made our way through the arctic water. Immediately, we were shivering and huddling together, but we were fine, except that our body temperatures wouldn’t recover for the next couple hours.
Once we reached the boulder we handlined down the side, into, yet another pool of water. Normally, this part doesn’t have water, but that day it did. Shortly thereafter we reached the emerald pools, two pools of water about two arm’s lengths wide bordered by canyon walls, and the only way to pass through them is to swim. The first pool is usually about 30 feet (9 meters) long, but, given the increase in water levels, it may have been longer for us. The second pool is a little less long. You also have to take care to not jam your knee, foot, or leg into an unseen rock lurking below the surface. More swimming and wading followed.
All the while hypothermia was becoming a real possibility for all of us. Our lips were blue and uncontrollable shivering had settled a while ago. Even the strongest of us, were starting to crack in their resolve, and once I saw this, I knew we were in trouble. I have never been that cold in my life; it felt like my soul was frozen. I shiver – pun intended – thinking about it. Now, even if I am slightly cold, I freak out as it hints to a memory of when my insides were frozen in a glacial cold ice cube, and the prospect of feeling, even marginally, that cold again gives me anxiety. When you’re that cold, your brain starts to get sluggish and you get tunnel vision, where your thoughts can only revolve around how cold you are. Regardless, I put on a facade of positivity, “We got this.” Sometimes hope is the only difference between dying and living.
There was a small sliver sunshine high up on a hill. We hiked up to get into it. I had brought an emergency blanket, but unfortunately this hike happened a year before my Wilderness First Aid Course that taught me how to properly use it, so we all just ended up getting colder, wasting energy, and losing precious time.
We had no choice but to go forward though, as the previous obstacles prevented us from going back. And forward meant rappelling down a waterfall into a deep facile whirlpool surrounded by canyon walls, and then swimming underwater to pass under a chockstone, a rock wedged between a very narrow slot canyon, and then finally swimming through another pool of water. This was a very emotional section of the hike. I won’t go into, describe, or postulate what others were going through, some moments are just individually special, personal and exclusive to that place and time. I will tell you my personal experience. I wanted nothing more than to not go back into that water, but I knew I had to. I was the second to last to descend into it. When I fully immersed into the frigid water, at the base of the waterfall, my heart stopped and I couldn’t find my breath. “I can’t do this,” I whispered to no one. It echoed on the slick canyon walls surrounding me. And for a moment, I thought, “This is how I die.” It was Chris Poese, who then broke me out of my hopeless thought spiral and said, “Yes you can.” And then I did.
The last main obstacle was a rappel into one of the most picturesque parts of the hike. This took a while, as most of our crew opted to use a harness. Despite the cold, we all managed to take a moment to bask in the beauty of The Subway, afterall, we went through a lot to get to this point. We took photos and then emerged from the canyon into the sunlight which sparkled on the small layer of water cascading over the layered rock shelves. Surrounded by waterfalls and trees we took some goofy pictures, enjoyed the sun, and pulled on our dry clothes.
We weren’t in the clear yet, as we still had another 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) to hike and a fleeing sun. Those miles were gruelling. Many of us were beaten up from the first half of the hike and a few of us kept everyone at a rigorous pace trying to make it out before dark. The route was hard to follow as the cairns were few and far between. Poor Heath was struggling with some blisters and foot pain from some poorly fitting water shoes. He lost a toenail on that hike, and he will proudly tell and show you how it still has yet to fully grow back.
We did stop briefly to check out some dinosaur tracks, Eubrontes to be exact, that were imprinted in the rock.
The last part of the hike is a 400 ft ascent out of the canyon up a very sloped hill. It had some switchbacks and left our thighs burning.
We dined like kings at the Cracker Barrel afterwards, regaling each other with our experiences and cheersing to life.
There is something amazing about going to your edge and being in an extreme situation of life or death. It’s not a situation that people often willingly put themselves into, but if it happens, a lot of insight and appreciation for life can be obtained. I got to see how I behaved and dealt with stressful situations with serious ramifications. I found that I can remain calm, and focused, and hopeful. You get to test your will, your resolve, your strength, your perseverance, and your fortitude. You get to see how you face death. It’s a side of you that you won’t know until you are in a situation like that. And, anytime you almost die or your friends almost die because of a situation you got them into, your appreciation for life skyrockets.
We survived it though, and while most of my friends refuse to go on any of my adventures now, all of them say they would not have traded that experience out of their life, and they would do it again. And once you go through something like that, your friendship reaches a level unparalleled. We all share a bond now that will forever unite us.
I don’t have a group picture of all of us, so I will leave you one that I feel Heath would appreciate.
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“Almost dead yesterday, maybe dead tomorrow, but alive, gloriously alive, today.” Mat Cauthon, from Robert Jordan Wheel of Time