A couple of years ago, I decided to venture into the famous Subway in Zion National Park during a particularly cold and snowy winter season. I was able to photograph the place in conditions not seen very often and, not surprisingly, I received a large number of inquiries the following winter asking for information on how to make the trip. It so happened that the season turned out to be a mild one and the conditions I experienced were not repeated. A friend who happened to be visiting the Subway at the time, wrote to let me know that someone actually carved the words “No Icicles in the Subway” in the dirt at the trailhead. The implication was startling: in someone’s mind, the hike to this amazing place was not worth doing if there was no possibility of copying my image. Talk about missing the forest for the trees.
This year, forecasters predict another cold and snowy winter, and I suspect that more people will attempt the hike. What concerns me far more than having my work copied, is the fact that this is not an easy hike to make in winter. In fact, it can be quite dangerous. While there is little I can do to dissuade anyone from attempting it, I should like to share some notes from my journal of that day so that those who attempt it may have a better idea of what to expect.
As soon as I arrived at the park, I went into the Visitor Center to acquire the required permit to hike into the Subway. To my surprise, there was no-one at the backcountry desk and I had to locate the ranger on duty. When I asked for the permit she raised her head immediately and looked at me, perhaps trying to ascertain if I was serious or knew what I was doing. The questions that followed indicated that she was not quite expecting anyone to attempt the hike under these conditions. After assuring her I had been to the Subway numerous times and was no stranger to winter hiking, she began preparing the papers. Out of curiosity I asked her how many permits were issued that week. Again, she looked at me in puzzlement and said: “umm… one?” She also commented that the previous week a group of canyoneers tried to enter the Subway from the top, became stranded, and had to be rescued.
I arrived at the Left Fork trailhead about an hour before sunrise. Earlier, I calculated my turn-around time to make sure I was out of the canyon before dark. I did not know how far I should get but I had to start marching back at 14:00.
I began walking through the crunchy snow, the world limited to the small beam of my headlamp. The trail, covered in fresh snow, was not quite visible and I was making fresh tracks, which I was excited about. It meant that no-one had been to the canyon in a while.
The first obstacle I encountered was a large landslide at the top of the steep descent into the canyon. I scrambled around it and made my way down as the sky began to brighten a bit, revealing a thick layer of clouds. The forecast for the day was partly sunny and I hoped the clouds would disperse by the time I arrived at the Subway so that I could witness the golden light the place is famous for.
As I reached the bottom of the canyon, I found a chemical glow stick taped to a tree, likely a remnant from the previous week’s rescue operation, but no trail or tracks were visible in the canyon. Further up the creek, I found fresh cougar tracks on a sandy bench.
The thick snow proved a serious obstacle. Much of the trail required navigating through and over large boulders, some of which were buried and invisible below the snow, just waiting to sprain the unsuspecting ankle. Each step required careful consideration to find stable footing. The creek was running high, and some of the areas normally walked across were flooded, requiring a scramble up the steep canyon side to get around them. In some places I needed to crouch behind veils of icicles to get around icy pools. I was making slow progress.
It was nearly 13:30 when I arrived at Archangel Falls, just a short distance from the Subway. Having never seen it under these conditions, I stopped to make a quick exposure. Walking over the smooth sandstone, despite the fast-moving water, was not too difficult and I arrived at my destination finally at around 13:45, leaving me with just fifteen minutes to work before having to turn back.
Entering the Subway was a striking experience I shall not forget quickly. The morning’s clouds had separated and the warm glow reflecting off the walls lit the place in surreal golden hues. Large icicles hung from the walls, just as I had hoped, and the pools appeared almost emerald in color under the icy water.
I anticipated the scramble up and around the pools to be especially slippery and had thought originally of bringing a pair of crampons for this particular task, but soon realised their metallic spikes would scratch the wet sandstone. After some thinking, I found an alternative solution in the form of Yaktrax soles; they worked perfectly and left no marks.
The fifteen minutes went by very quickly. I was almost in a dream state as I kept moving about the place, capturing it from various angles before packing up and heading back. Though the park offered many more wonders, I was excited to return home and process my images, knowing that I should be hard pressed to surpass what I had just experienced.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 21 of Landscape Photography Magazine.