A typical scene in the first “Extreme Narrows” of Imlay.

The alarm clock almost never rings too early in Zion. But for some reason, my body didn’t want to roll outta bed this morning. Perhaps I was really tired. Or perhaps I was just a little hesitant about the monster day we had ahead of us.

The alarms rang at 5:00. The plan was to leave the cove by 5:30 am, and be on the trail by 6:00. I had acquired the magic permit the day before, so we were able to drive a car into the main canyon. Hopefully the early start would ensure we’d make it out before dark. As it turns out, we couldn’t have cut it any closer.

Kat making the always fun trek up Walter’s Wiggles.

Our team today consisted of Chris, Porter, and Ryan, who had all descended the canyon once, if not multiple times. John, Kat, and I were along to carry the ropes and offer moral support, or something like that.

We hit the trail around 6:45 a.m., sacrificing a little trail time for some nice breakfast. I continually prodded the group to get moving, but I was quickly silenced with some masterfully cooked eggs. Ok, I can handle waiting a little longer.


Chris makes the tough decision: Angels Landing, Imlay, or jump?


Looks like Chris went with Imlay. On the trail to the sneak entrance to Imlay.

The temperatures in the canyon floor would hover around 95 degrees today, so attacking the approach with some early morning shade was a must. We made decent time to the bridge, and began the bushwack to the saddles. We gained the first saddle in a little less than 3 hours, and figured we were making decent time. After a quick mishap with the GPS that cost us an hour, we navigated the rest of the way to the crossroads, had lunch and suited up. Our pace slowed significantly, and by now it was already 1:00 pm.


Porter and John exit the last easy swimmer before the “extreme narrows” start.

The first 45 minutes or so is a romp, and nice little warmup to what lies ahead. We set up two groups of three, each with a rope, and planned on leapfrogging each other. This first section of canyon is nothing special, with the obstacles being annoying rather than enjoyable, and the canyon is still exposed to the sun. Makes for some very hot and tedious work in the drysuits. There is one decent swimmer, and then the canyon widens up for a couple hundred yards. Then the real fun began.


Ryan on a very cool rappel near a natural arch early in the extremes.

I’ve never descended Imlay before, and although I’d read alot of trip reports and beta about what to expect, it just doesn’t really sink in until you see it in person. It certainly didn’t disappoint. The scale of it all was just phenomenal. Most of my experience has been in the Roost and North Wash, where the slots are super skinny. This isn’t so much slotty as it is just HUGE. I don’t know how else to put it. The walls soar to incredible heights, potholes stretch long and deep, and the number of rappels just keep adding up.




Kat works her way out of a keeper.

The canyon was in pretty good condition Saturday. Probably 85 percent of full, if I was to wager a bet. Then again, I have nothing to compare it to, but simply judge the depth of the potholes. We ended up encountering 6 or 7 potholes that required some attention, either with a talon, a happy hooker, or a potshot. The first serious keeper was right after the natural bridge rap, and Chris was able to negotiate it without too much work, and set up the guide for the rest of us.


John on the backside of the same rappel, just exiting the keeper.

Our team work and rope management was excellent, and we moved at a decent pace. Effective I thought, though not particularly quick. No wasted effort, and nothing stupid had happened yet, so I was having a pleasant time, just taking it all in. Another big keeper was around the corner, and again, Porter and Chris easily set the potshot and we were on our way. About this time, I noticed Kat was starting to get a little bit chilled why we would wait to knock out a solution to the next keeper. Kat, John, and I had rented drysuits, while the others had used their own. Well, John scored a nice one, that had no leaks. I got the next best one, which had a few significant leaks. Kat picked up the worst one, which might as well have been left behind. She was filling up and retaining water in the suit like Hoover-friggin’-dam. Every step she made you could hear the gallon of water around her ankles slosh around. The suit had booties too, so there were no gaskets at the bottom to drain the legs. She would just have to stick it out for now. (Note to self, don’t rent drysuit again…)

Chris and Porter string a guided rappel with a potshot.


The first real challenging pothole. Chris and Porter hooking out.


Ryan is a happy hooker.


Kat catching a handline, while her suit continures to fill with water.


Nice light in the extremes. When you aren’t busy negotiating potholes, it’s nice to look up. The canyon is remarkably beautiful, but there wasn’t much time to take it all in.

Despite being almost unbearably cold, the rest of the extremes went very well, and we made it to the nice opening between the exit narrows and the first narrows in a little over 4 hours. A little slower than we were hoping, but still in pretty good shape. There was a nice section of sun hitting the rocks, and Kat was able to warm up and lose a little bit of water from the dry suit. We ate some food, drank up a little, enjoyed some sun, and headed back in. We figured two or three hours in the exit narrows, and we’d be at the Temple of Sinawava as the sun sets. Later than we thought, but still within our window. I was still feeling pretty excited about the canyon at this point, but a little more nervous about the nearing nightfall.


John and Ryan negotiating another rappel into swim, this time in the exit narrows.


The exit narrows seem to have the same potholes replayed over and over and over. There must be a string of 8 of them.


Nearing the end of the exit narrows. There are 4 or so raps left from this point.

After completing the huge string of identical potholes into swimmers, we go to probably the trickiest keeper we faced. Chris went down to negotiate it. After a few minutes, it was obvious he needed a partner assist. Porter went down to help out. Almost, but not quite. One more person would do it. At this point, the sun was going, and it was getting colder. Kat was clearly uncomfortably cold, and we had nowhere to move to get warm. A few minutes turned into a lot of minutes as the keeper was negotiated. After a little group discussion, we decided Kat needed to warm up one more time before the last few raps. We swapped some clothes and drained her suit one last time, and did our best to get her psyched up. Hat’s off to Kat for enduring what must’ve been some form of cruel and unusual punishment. While we were rearranging up top, Porter had been floating around in the keeper below that rap for about ten minutes and was getting a little chilly – and theyhad a hard time getting him out because the water was too deep for a partner assist. After about five or ten minutes, he was able to boost out Ryan, and they hooked out Porter with the help of some aiders.


Part of my motivational technique for Kat was to take pictures of her. I guess she didn’t like that. Sorry Kat.

After some reasonable amounts of teamwork, we made it to the last rappel just as the last light was gone, about 3.5 hours later. We lit up our headlamps, and started heading down. With fears of a possible bivy now assuaged, I was amped to get to the shuttle stop. I touched foot on the ground of the narrows at 9 p.m. The last bus from the Temple of Sinawava would leave at 10 p.m. This is when you hurry… Needless to say, after a mad dash through the narrows in the dark, one head over heels fall that broke my camera, and a sideache from hell, I flagged down the last shuttle with my headlamp at exactly 10:08 p.m. Lucky us, the bus was a little behind schedule. I picked up my car at the grotto, drove back to the river trail, and that almost ended it.

But the night wasn’t over yet, the hardest obstacle was yet to come: Ryan still had to call his wife. She had been told that midnight was the drop-dead hour to call for help, and we were rapidly approaching it. He had a satellite phone, but no reception in the canyon. A little after midnight, he made the connection, and thus officially ended his canyoneering career.

Imlay is the real deal, no doubt. It wasn’t exactly the glorious descent we had planned, but at least it didn’t get any worse. The canyon took about everything we had, and a tangible dose of primal fear on the last few raps. Main lessons learned: start early, and don’t trust rented gear.