I started canyoneering in Southern Utah a few years ago, and one of my favourite activities down there is what we refer to as a “Midnight Keyhole” – a descent of Keyhole Canyon, in Zion National Park, at night. Keyhole is an ideal canyon for a night descent. It is very short – takes about 45 minutes or less, car to car, for a capable party. It has a couple of short swims, so needs a wetsuit, but is close enough to the road that you can hike in and back out with the wetsuit on. There are two short rappels, some easy downclimbing, and a few beautiful skinny sections.
I’ve descended Keyhole at night two or three times with fun groups, and this spring I descended it at night solo. What an incredible experience! I used a headlamp until I was done with the rappels, then did the subsequent swims, wades, and easy downclimbs entirely by feel, and the tiny bit of moonlit that filtered into the canyon.
For the last couple of years, Jeff and Damien and I have thought about how cool it would be to descend Cypress Creek, in West Vancouver, at night. It is relatively short (2-3 hours), and close to the city. It involves four rappels and a number of short jumps. It took on almost mythical status – we talked frequently about doing a “Nightpress” trip, and mentioned it to other canyon friends as well.
This past week, Chris mentioned that the coming Friday would be a full moon, with nice weather and clear skies – and what a perfect time it would be for Nightpress. With a little discussion, we decided on Thursday for the descent (as I had to work on Friday night).
And so it was that five of us met up at the parking lot at Cypress at 9 o’clock Thursday night. We packed up our gear, and Jeff handed out glow sticks to the participants, as well as a couple of extra waterproof flashlights he had kicking around (it’s good to have a gear junkie in the group!) At 9:25, we started up the trail for the drop-in point.
We managed to make it all the way to the point of the ridge, where you drop steeply into the gorge, without using headlamps. At that point they were definitely needed! We dropped down, and donned our wetsuits.
At 10:15, we were rigging the first rappel. It was pitch black – the moon wasn’t nearly high enough to reach into the canyon. Damien went first, dropping into the abyss filled with rushing water. OK, half-filled with rushing water – the creek was pretty low, with the current drought conditions!
We each rapped down, in turn, with our puny headlamps providing a small circle of comfort, with a whole lot of “unknown” all around us! For some of the photo opportunities, one or two large flashlights would be pointed at the rappeler as they descended; half the time, they only made it more difficult to see what was around you on the way down!
The section of canyon from the third rappel to the footbridge and fourth rappel can often seem to drag when descending the canyon in the day; it is a fairly long stretch of boulder walking. Walking it in the dark is rather a different experience, as all your concentration is focused on the small pool of light in which you and your companions are traveling. All attention is trained on aiming your light at your feet, in order to avoid tripping. At one point, one of my companions remarked that doing the canyon at night sure made that boulder walk pass quickly. Five minutes later, another companion stated that it certainly made the boulder walk seem to take forever. Such a subjective experience.
We eventually reached the final rappel, and sequenced our way down to the pool below. Chris went first, as he wanted to set up his tripod and camera to attempt capturing some of the rappelers descending. He went all the way to the pool.
I descended next, and got off the rope at the final ledge, about 4 meters above the pool. I was, again, surrounded by a pitiful pool of light (from my non-waterproof headlamp), being drenched by a heavy rain of water on all sides. I pulled out my bright (waterproof) flashlight, and sized up the best location in the pool for the jump. I tossed down my pack, extinguished the flashlight, and hurled myself off the ledge. It was an interesting drop, one I’ve done many times before, in daylight, that seemed completely new in the dark.
Finally, all of us were down the final rappel, the rope pulled smoothly, and on we went. The jump that followed immediately was also a good one in the dark. In fact, Jeff and Damien both climbed back up the side, and did the jump again from a couple of meters higher!
We reached the exit point, and debated whether to continue down to the big pool jump just down canyon. Jeff and Damien and I decided to go for it. We jumped off the big ledge on canyon left, then climbed up to another stance on canyon right. This one was about 6 meters above the pool, and was very spooky – yet exhilarating – in the dark. After a couple jumps each off this spot, we decided we’d better get on our way, if we wished to get any sleep that night at all!
Some of the jumping during our Nightpress expedition:
We hiked up and out, and were back at the cars around 1 AM. A quick change, a quick beverage (thanks, Maarten!) and we were on our way before 1:30.
An unforgettable trip, with a great crew, that is just begging for a repeat! I was joking with the guys that maybe that’s where we ought to be celebrating New Years… HA!