This past Memorial Day weekend, while most of us were grilling brats and drinking our favorite beverages, Buzz Burrell, Jared Campbell, and Ryan McDermott were engaged in the quirkiest ‘triathlon’ you’ll probably never hear of again.
In a nonstop push, the trio traversed Zion National Park from its west to east. Not by car, of course, because, as most Utahns know, Zion’s got some wily terrain that—thank goodness—makes extensive road building an engineering improbability. And not via the ‘Zion Traverse’ either, a 50-ish mile trail-ed route from the Lee Pass Trailhead on the park’s west side to the East Rim Trailhead on the east side which has long been a well-known, multi-day backpacking route and is becoming a popular one-day run for ultrarunners.
Instead, the three gentleman traveled via the most technical and aesthetic route they could find: a canyoneering descent of Icebox Canyon on the park’s west side; a cross-country traverse that included ascents of the North and South Guardian Angels, two prominent sandstone summits in the west-center of Zion; a drop through Imlay Canyon, an advanced canyoneering route; and an ascent of Orderville Canyon, which is perhaps equally described as a gnarly, off-trail hike or a moderate canyoneering route connecting the Narrows with the park’s eastern boundary. The completion of this route required skills from three distinct disciplines: canyoneering, scrambling/climbing, and hiking/running/manzanita shwhacking.
It took the trio 28 hours to complete the traverse, which they—in what can only be called a fit of unadulterated brilliance—coined ‘Zironman’ for its three modes of travel and locale. As far as these guys know, they are the only ones to have linked those four obstacles into a single outing.
How Zironman was born is perhaps as interesting a story as the endeavor itself. Thirty-three-year-old SLC resident Jared Campbell readily admits he is obsessed with Zion National Park. The mechanical engineer says, “I visit Zion five to 10 times per year, usually in the spring and fall. There is no such thing as too much time in the park.” When Campbell isn’t in Zion, he spends time studying it by map, looking for new routes and destinations in a landscape he might know better than anyone alive today.
In high school, Campbell was a sport climber who soon turned to bigger projects in regional mountain ranges. In his early to mid-20s, he added moving fast and long on foot into his pedigree of outdoor abilities and he’s since completed dozens of ultramarathons, including the locally revered Wasatch 100 and the excruciatingly difficult Hardrock 100 in Colorado.
Campbell met Boulder, Colorado resident and 61-year-old trail-running legend, Buzz Burrell, after they stalked each other online and saw that they had similar outdoor interests, namely the desire to intermix terrain and skill sets to travel through wild environments. After turning their internet courtship into a real-life friendship during a play date in Zion eight or nine years ago, they keep going back together.
“Ryan is one of my very best and oldest friends,” says Campbell about the third member of this posse, Ryan McDermott. McDermott and Campbell met in a SLC climbing gym when Campbell was still in high school. “Jared was a riot then,” explains McDermott, a 37-year-old engineer also from SLC. “He used to sew his own chalk bags. I remember this huge, fuzzy chalk bag that hung off him. It was just ridiculous.”
“When the three of us started going to Zion together, we all had backgrounds in climbing and ultrarunning, but not canyoneering, yet. We learned that skill together,” says Campbell. Not only did these fellas’ learn how to drop through canyons, but they’ve also become practiced at doing so faster and longer than almost everyone else. In 2007, Campbell and McDermott first merged running and canyoneering, doing Zion’s infamous Pine Creek Canyon in 30 minutes, 50 seconds from start to finish. Before Zironman, the group’s other big-and-fast project was to enchain the park’s three biggest canyons, Imlay, Heaps, and Kolob. They hoped to finish in 24 hours, but misfired on the off-trail route from the end of Kolob Canyon back to the car and finished in 25 hours, three minutes instead. This was in 2009 and, to the group’s knowledge; no one’s yet tried to repeat that whole shebang, which they call the ‘Trifecta.’ Most Utah canyoneers take a full day to do one of those canyons and a whole life to complete them all.
“It’s funny,” begins Campbell, “we joke that there are very few people who’d be interested in outings like these. It’s pretty much just us three.”
McDermott says that the infant Zironman concept was born several years ago when he and Campbell were descending Icebox Canyon. “Jared asked, ‘what if there was a way to traverse the whole park like this?’ After we came home, he began poring over maps.” The specific Zironman route was born in Campbell’s head one night while studying Google Earth.
Says Campbell, “Basically, I stood back and put my fingers on some of my favorite spots in the park, Icebox Canyon, the Guardian Angels, and Imlay. Then I figured out how to link them into a traverse of the whole park using the least amount of trails as possible.” “I remember when Jared contacted me about the route,” recalls Burrell. “I was skeptical at first because Jared has conceived routes of such difficulty. They are either impossible or you don’t want to do them if you could. But I started looking at it and I thought, this goes. It’s not contrived; it’s almost a straight line; it traverses the best canyons and summits. I was immediately excited.”
The threesome originally planned to tackle Zironman in the summer of 2011. But Burrell’s arriving flight to Utah was delayed and this forced the group to do an abbreviated version of the route. Though they completed it with success, that abbreviation only whet their whistles for completing the entire, west-to-east traverse. The stage was, thus, set for a 2013 Zironman attempt.
The group wanted to do the route’s most complex parts, Icebox and Imlay Canyons, by day. So they started the bushwhack to Icebox from the Lee Pass Trailhead in the late afternoon of their first day. Remembers Burrell, “Right away, at the head of Icebox, the character changes. It’s a 300-foot series of big-wall rappels into the canyon. There’s basically no reversing once you go in.” After exiting the bowels of Icebox past famous Kolob Arch, it was a just-shy-of-seven-mile, on-foot hop on the Hop Valley Trail to its trailhead on the Kolob Terrace Road.
Just before 11 p.m., the group met Campbell’s wife, Mindy, there. She was set up with a transfer station for the boys to ditch their canyoneering gear and pick up ultralight running packs for the next section, about 12 hours of cross-country travel over both of the Guardian Angels, across the Subway, and through a rugged, remote, trail-less valley they’d coined ‘No Man’s Land’ because, as Campbell says about it, “There’s no reason for anyone to go there.”
A 12-hour, overnight, cross-country gig in rugged Zion alone—not flanked by three canyoneering routes—sounds pretty tough. But when I ask the fellas’ about the night’s travails, no one points to pain and suffering.
Campbell remembers nailing the descent to the Subway, the Left Fork of North Creek, after the North Guardian Angel. “It’s a really tricky off-trail section that is rarely traveled. There are a few cairns here and there, but no trail. I’ve been down that section five or six times, and I always get lost and end up in thick brush, and that’s during the day. It was 2 a.m. and we were navigating by headlamp. Luckily, we nailed it!”
And Burrell’s favorite moment from the depths of that night? “We ascended the South Guardian Angel by the light of a full moon. We didn’t need our headlamps. The moon was shining off the mountain’s buff-colored sandstone, lighting the way. It was magical.”
McDermott loved sunrise the next morning. “At around 4 a.m., we were crossing No Man’s Land as it started to get light. It got lighter and lighter, and then the sun hit the top of the South Guardian Angel, where we’d been a few hours earlier, before it hit anything else.”
Once across No Man’s Land, Zironman’s biggest technical challenge, Imlay Canyon, still loomed. The group crossed the Right Fork of North Creek, scrambled up to the West Rim Trail, and followed it into Potato Hollow. There, they collected the 100-plus pounds of canyoneering gear they’d schlepped in and stashed the day before starting Zironman. “Ryan and I had also pre-run Imlay the weekend prior, so we knew the condition of water levels and debris amounts in the canyon,” says Campbell. Nevertheless, while donning full wetsuits and harnesses, Burrell surveyed the posse to make certain everyone was still prepared for Imlay’s rigors. He says, “I figured we were all good to go, but having that conversation was appropriate given that we’d already been going for 16 hours. And once we rapped into Imlay, there is no way out except to complete it.”
All three men agree that Imlay went without issue. “It’s something like five big-wall rappels and 25 other rappels to get through Imlay,” says Burrell. “The canyon’s core is filled with potholes,” adds Campbell. “Depending on the water level in those potholes, they can either be very easy or surprisingly difficult to navigate.” “Jared was terribly impressive in Imlay,” remembers McDermott. “Well, if I am completely honest, he’s terribly impressive on all terrain. Basically, I can just draft off his aerobic and technical abilities.” “Yes,” says Burrell, “Jared jumped up and executed a one-armed pull-up to hook himself up and out of a pothole—a pothole that almost anyone else would have needed equipment to exit—while another group looked on. They couldn’t believe what they saw, and asked what tool he used. Jared told them, ‘my hand.’”
The team emptied themselves out Imlay’s exit rappel, into the Narrows, after about seven hours. “Tourists wading in the Narrows looked up to see us looking like Batman in our wetsuits coming down the rope. They applauded. We felt like rock stars,” laughs Burrell.
In addition to raw talent, the trio’s rope-handling mastery allows them to progress through places like Imlay in what must seem to other canyoneers like light speed. Says McDermott, “One person pulls the rope from the last obstacle; another sets the rappel for the next; and still another shuttles rope to make sure it’s ready for the next rappel down the line. In this way, we’re always moving forward without delay, like a conveyor belt.” “After we go through a canyon,” says Campbell, “we’ll write down exactly how we did it so we can do it the same or better the next time. And we mark our ropes so we know exactly which ones to use on which rappels. This meticulousness makes us hyper-efficient.”
After touching down in the Narrows and traveling a short distance downstream, the gentlemen took a left turn up Orderville Canyon and left their tourist cheerleaders behind for some more quiet, backcountry time. “Orderville is mostly a long hike with some climbing intermixed,” explains Burrell. “We finished up before dark on the second day.”
For a team of men that has now completed two complex Zion enchainments, the Trifecta and Zironman, one has to wonder if they feel a sense of completion and accomplishment, or if they are only egged on to do more. I ask Campbell this and his answer is rather a soliloquy on his love of the place: “I know Zion really well. I’ve been going there most of my life. The more time I spend there, the more intrigued I become by obscure objectives. I have a long list of things to do there, and it gets longer every year. I love the concept of seeing what’s between the trails of Zion. I want to go there in the rain, the flash floods, and the snow, to see Zion under the conditions that have shaped it through time. It’s a spiritual place, for sure. I’m humbled by it, yet drawn to it.”
“Oh yes, there are blank spots on my personal map of Zion,” says McDermott when I ask him about future explorations. “I want to fill those in, see what’s there.”
And Burrell adds his thoughts to the Zion mystery, “Zion is an undiscovered natural wonder. The average person takes the bus in and out and says, ‘wow, that’s pretty.’ But the backcountry is far less explored than many other national parks, and its prominent summits, what you can see when you’re eating a hamburger in Springdale, are climbed less than K2, let alone Everest. There’s a huge disparity between what most people see of Zion and what’s actually there. But I know why; the backcountry is remarkably technical.”
Clearly, for Campbell, McDermott, and Burrell, the Zion adventure is an unending one.