Finding Chaos in Orderville
Yes, I’m back to blogging after some temporary impediments (AKA life).
Orderville Canyon, rated a 3B III, is one of Zion National Park’s famous slot canyons. This fall, my father organized a family outing to this narrow ravine with one of his friends as our guide. More family members ended up joining this expedition than expected, so our group of nine wadded and jumped through frigid waters as an odd entourage.
No matter how hot it is in Zion, the park’s slot canyons don’t offer much heat. The sun can’t reach into those deep and slim crevices, and the icy waters that seep through stone to fill their innards assure that no passer retains what limited warmth is offered by the air. However, the rest of the park does not share this all-too-efficient cooling system and was blazing hot during our stay.
Jason and I went down to Zion a day earlier than my family and completed two hikes. We did these at both ends of the day to avoid the sun’s most intense beams. During the morning, we took a 3.5-mile trek to a fantastic viewpoint of the Watchman, a spire that overlooks the valley holding Springdale. In the evening, we hiked the Canyon Overlook, a short one-mile jaunt with a gorgeous endpoint above Zion Canyon.
The next day, we got up at an ungodly hour to begin our slot adventure. Hiking Orderville involves a one-way journey down a thin gap that empties into Zion’s famous Narrows almost two miles from the Temple of Sinawava. Only 80 permits/day are given to enter this canyon. The distance is 10-12 miles, depending on how far along a bumpy dirt road you dare go in your vehicle. We did the 12-mile version. We started walking at 9:15 AM and barely caught the last shuttle out of the park from the Temple of Sinawava at 9:15 PM. Yup, those 12 miles took us 12 hours. One mile an hour? Perhaps a little pitiful. This trek is supposed to take 7-10 hours, so we were about 25% slower than normal human beings.
Why so sluggish? For one, our group was relatively large, so each rappel took considerably longer just based off our numbers. Second, our group was relatively timid, so prompting its members into freezing pools of unknown depth wasn’t always quick. Why rush into misery?
The thing about hiking slot canyons is that there isn’t a go-back option after a certain point. Once you make your first rappel, you are committed. So, even when an obstacle makes you think “I can’t do that,” you know you must. It’s both intimidating and empowering. In this case, our first rappel, and the point of no return, was a 15-foot drop off a chunk of stone known as the Border Boulder. Once our ragtag group bounded beyond that rotund pebble, we were past retreat.
The Guillotine, Orderville’s second rappel, falls between two massive boulders wedged into the canyon’s slender gap. A cold and cloudy pool obscures the rappel’s landing. While only about a 12-foot drop, the unknown depth of that water made us all hesitant to get harnessed up. Thus, Jason got elected to take the first descent into its indeterminate deepness, an honor he was not terribly excited about receiving. It turned out to only be about three feet deep, so no one had to attempt detaching from the line while swimming.
Orderville’s terrain and obstructions change frequently, more than most slot canyons’. Each flashflood alters the sand levels and debris clogs, shifting the wading, swimming, and maneuvering requirements. Beyond the Guillotine, the landscape went from a little wet to much worse for us. This section, officially Bulloch Gulch, is commonly called the “Orderville Waterpark” or the “Obstacle Course.” Somehow, frigid water escapes the towering canyon walls to gain mass and momentum here. This runoff is opaque with a turquoise hue, similar to glacier runoff. Therefore, the depth and subsurface conditions of its puddles are impossible to ascertain before jumping in. We had to wade nearly constantly once we hit this section, and we crossed at least three or four pools that required full swims. There might have been a few more… we lost track.
A friend warned me that wearing a wetsuit or drysuit is necessary when maneuvering through parts of Orderville, regardless of the temperature outside. I didn’t believe him. Zion was 102 degrees the day we trekked through Orderville, hardly wetsuit weather. So, with the exception of neoprene socks and amphibious canyoneering shoes, Jason and I passed on donning aqueous attire. Bad decision. Continual plunges into icy puddles combined with constant shade created by high canyon walls meant we all were soon shivering uncontrollably once the swims began. My body has a hard time staying warm anyway, so I was hit by fiercer shivers than most. Jason said I turned pale and my lips went blue. It’s been a while since I’ve been that cold.
Our last rappel wasn’t planned but was necessary. Veiled Falls, a waterfall, is typically only around six feet tall, but it’s the most frequent search-and-rescue site in the canyon due to people jumping from its ledges and breaking their ankles. To get past it without snapping our limbs, we concocted a makeshift rappel line using Jason and my dad as the anchor. Designing this workaround took a bit of time and left our shaking bunch even more dejected.
Due to our slower-than-average pace, we didn’t make it out of The Narrows before dark. We had to wander down nearly a mile of the Virgin River in the pitch of night. Wading through a flowing waterway when everything is black around you is an interesting experience.
The consensus on Orderville? It was unimaginably beautiful and unbelievably cold. The experience, a jumbled bundle of misery and majesty, will never be forgotten. While others from our group might not be eager to experience it again, I would be game. A wetsuit would not be considered optional attire though.