Canyoneering Birch Hollow in Zion and How to Check If Anchors are Safe for Rappelling

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I recently went down to Zion with my good friend Wes and his two friends Jason and Martha. We headed down with the mission to canyoneer down Birch Hollow. This canyon is “technical,” meaning it requires rope to get to the bottom of it. This particular canyon requires 12 rappels.

Wes and I had gone down to Zion about a month and a half earlier to try out a defining ridge on the Zion skyline called “Cowboy Ridge.” This ridge is an 11 pitch “alpine” climb. Only the last 2 pitches are 5.7 crack climbing. The rest are class 3 and 4 along the exposed ridge to the base of the last technical pitches where you make your way up the crack that sits above the 1000ft drop off the side of the ridge that you just climbed.

We read online that the ridge could be done in one day, car to car. We started up at 4am to give us the time to make it during the short days of February. We ended up getting a bit lost on the approach and we didn’t make it onto the actual ridge until about 9:30am. We both knew the odds were slim of making it to the top before dark, but we pressed on and enjoyed the scrambling that dipped up and down the sides of the ridge.

Eventually, we made it to a point on the ridge where that we decided was the point of no return. It was nearing 3pm and we still had about half the ridge left. We decided to sling some trees, rappel 6 pitches, and make our way back to the car. Long story short, we arrived at the car after dark and knew we had made the right decision to bail.

Cowboy Ridge is awesome. We only did part of it, but I am super excited to give it another try!

Anyways… I was hoping that on our return trip last week that we would be able to give the ridge another shot. However, due to weather a few other issue we were not able to. I was a bit bummed because canyoneering doesn’t give me quite the rush that climbing does, but after the idea settled in, I was pretty excited to get into some slot canyons… And I was not disappointed.

Zion National Park is pure magic. It is one of the most beautiful places that I have been to. Being able to make half length 70 meter rappels down into narrow canyons with no escape is pretty exciting. Combining these two things is an experience worth having at least once in your life.

The hike and rappels through the canyon with a party of 4 took us about 6 hours with a hike back to the car of about 2 hours. This adventure was a lot of fun with a few new friends, and we were lucky enough to be the only ones in the canyon that day.

A few days later, I was thinking to myself about the anchors we rappelled off of and the ones we replaced along the way.

Looking at webbing and quick links and judging their wear and strength is something that is beginning to feel obvious and second nature to me. It wasn’t too long ago, though, that I didn’t know this skill or the importance of knowing it.

When I climbed Granite Peak in Montana. The 4th Class ridge had about 7 rappels on the way back down. Two other climbers that we pass on our way up told us that slings were on the route and that others that day had rapped off of them, so they should be safe.

We used the old slings on our descent and were fine, but what if we weren’t? A simple skill of being able to check slings, webbing, rappel rings, and quick links to see if they’re worn, sun damaged, or tied improperly can be the difference between life and death especially high in the mountains where you are hours or days from help.

There are a few things that I do when I come up to a rappel and a sling happens to be there already:

1. If it’s webbing, I check the water knot. The ends of this knot can creep their way out and come untied. I usually see if there is about 4 inches of slack on the ends of the knot and pull them tight.

2. The sun can damage nylon. I’ll check to see if there is fading in the color of the sling or webbing. If it’s significantly faded, I consider replacing it. Another way I test it is by feeling it. If it feels crispy or stiff, not soft like a new sling or piece of webbing, I will also consider replacing it.

3. I will check points of contact or areas where the sling or webbing comes in contact with the object that it’s slung to. If there is a sharp point of contact like an edge of a rock or even a bolted anchor I will look for signs of fraying or tearing.

4. Last, I will check the quick link. I look to see if the screw portion is closed properly. They are designed to bear weight, but must be screwed shut to be able to support this weight. If not, they can bend and even break just under the weight of a person.

If everything looks pretty good, but I am still a little bit concern about the age or wear, I will sling the object with new gear, leaving the old sling as well. I will make the new sling slightly longer than the previous sling. I will run my rope through the old and new sling and quick links so all the weight is only bearing on the OLD rappel anchor. My gear is there just in case the old gear fails and will catch if it does. One climber will rappel off the old anchor system with the back up. If the old gear holds, I will grab my back up sling and link and rappel of the old gear only. This is a safe way that I test old gear and save myself from having to leave something behind.

If you are unsure about gear, replace it. Make sure to clean the old gear otherwise too much can damage trees or cause unnecessary eye sores.

I am pretty excited to have a simple but extremely useful skill under my belt. I am also glad that I was able to get out to Zion and do some canyoneering. That place is amazing!

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