Last year we had the incredible opportunity to hike The Subway bottom up; meaning that we started the hike and finished the hike on the same trail. Although it was amazing, we decided that if we ever had the chance to do it again we would do it top down with a few rappels and swims. Blake’s sister and her husband, Alison and Eric, were supposed to come with us but were unable to so they have been wanting to do this hike ever since. Alison looked a few months ago and permits were available to do it top down! She didn’t have to ask us twice; we were in!
We headed down Friday afternoon; we didn’t have a camp site so Blake and I were in charge of finding a spot. Blake’s parents also decided to come down with their trailer. We drove into Springdale to see if their was any availability, but because it was Easter weekend, there was nothing. The trail head for The Subway is on the Kolob Terrace Road so we headed up that road to scout camping locations. A few miles up the road we noticed that there were some nice spots close to the river and in the trees. We found the perfect spot that could fit the trailer and our tent; it also had a nice fire pit. Blake made an excellent fire as we waited for everyone to join us. By the time everyone found us it was getting pretty late and we wanted to get an early start so we hung out for a bit then hit the hay.
Alison and Eric woke up extra early to pick up the permits. When they returned we packed up our gear, had breakfast and got on the road. We ended up starting the hike around 10:30. The trail head for top down starts at the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead; we left our car at the Left Fork Trail head where we would exit the canyon. The beginning of the trail is fairly easy, it is well marked and doesn’t have any obstacles. About a mile in there is a sign that points you left to Wildcat Canyon. Very shortly after that there is another sign to Northgate Peaks Trail, head right on that trail until you come to the sign that indicated that you are on The Subway route. We missed this trail and added about a half mile to our trip. Here the trail starts to head to Russel Gulch on slick rock. There are cairns that guide the way. The canyon really starts to open up and the scenery is quite remarkable. The towering canyon walls and the slick rock definitely made us stop a few times for photos. If you are following the cairns and sandy trail closely, you will be led right to steep descent into Left Fork. This descent is very rocky and very steep. At one point, we had Blake use his webbing to set a handline down the steepest section. Blake was using a branch to balance and a rock under the branch let loose and missed his foot by a few inches. We were all very grateful it didn’t land on him or he would have had some broken toes at the least. Thankfully, we reached the bottom safely with no other problems.
This is where the fun was supposed to began for us! We were all excited to get rappelling and see the beauty of the canyon. By this time, we were feeling a little hungry and wanted to get out wet suits on. Some food, warmer clothes, and a little boulder hopping later and we reached the first rappel. Everything we read said that this was a pretty awkward rappel. We all agreed it was fairly easy and not that awkward. The first swim was next and we thought we were ready. I was the first to enter the water; all I can really say about the water is it was the coldest water I have ever had to swim in. It was the kind of cold where it just hurts and you can barely move. Luckily, there was a small bit of sun right as we exited the water; there we sat and basked in the sun until the feeling in our hands and feet had returned. I was thinking because we had experienced the cold water, the next swim would be a little easier. We knew how cold it would be so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Unfortunately, I was so wrong. The next section is called the bowling ball corridor because there is a bowling ball shaped chockstone wedged between the narrow walls. There is also a log wedged under the rock that provided a little help as well as a little more of an obstacle. To reach the bowling ball, there is a short swim. Blake went first and I followed closely behind so that I could see how he was going to get down. It is about seven feet or so into more deep water. I sat on the log while he shimmied his way down. I hate having to down climb when there is no where to put my feet and this down climb was exactly that. I was freaked out at this part, but Blake stood on the log and helped me get down. I was seriously so grateful he stood there and calmed me down. This was definitely the hardest part of the entire hike because of how awkward it was to get down but even more so because of how ice cold the water was. As soon as I reached the water, we took off swimming. It was another very short swim but it felt eternally long because of how frozen our bodies were. We saw sun in the distance and walked as quickly as our frozen bodies would allow us to. We felt bad not waiting for Alison and Eric, but we knew we had to get our bodies warm. When Alison was climbing down she slipped and hit her tailbone on the log and went completely under water. We felt awful that we weren’t there to help her but she was so tough! At this moment we were all pretty scared about the reality of hypothermia.
By this point, we were all completely frozen. Everything hurt because of how cold we were. We sat in the sun for quite a while until we realized that this was taking us a lot longer than we had planned. We knew we were done with the swims and the next section was the most beautiful. The second rappel into waist deep water was next. This rappel was the most awkward. There wasn’t really anywhere to put your feet so both Alison and I ended up swinging quite a bit. I went first and to my surprise the water was warm. All four of us had definitively been saying silent prayers that we would be okay. I truly believe that this warm water was a tender mercy and a push of motivation. This is where The Subway really begins; the pipe shaped walls are incredible. I wish we had been able to admire it more but we were seriously so cold. Never in my life have I been so cold as I have in that canyon. We reached the famous “north log” room and suddenly my whole energy seemed to change. I was excited to finally see this iconic room. I got my camera out and took as many photos as I could. There was only one more rappel and we would be in the most beautiful section of The Subway. The rappel was very easy; it was a little longer than the previous ones. Once I reached the bottom, I didn’t wait for anyone to finish. I hiked as quick as possible to find the sun and get the cold wet suit off. I feel a little bad because I didn’t even stop to see how beautiful everything was. I just knew I had to get the wet suit off and dry clothes on and then I could come back up and admire it and feel happier about it. We all warmed up quite a bit and then headed back into The Subway to get some photos. We realized that it was 5:20 PM and we had told Blake’s parents that we would be done between 5-7 and we still had a 4.5 mile hike out. We knew they would start to get nervous if we weren’t back soon. Blake pumped us all up and told us we could finish the hike by 7. We didn’t really believe him but he pushed us and kept the pace up. The hike out isn’t easy; you are boulder hopping and crossing the river quite a bit. Our feet were getting so sore but we knew we had to push it. The hardest part of the hike is the ascent out of Left Fork. It is a 400 foot climb in a short amount of time. I realized while I was climbing up that I was finally sweating; I knew this meant that my body was recovered from the cold temperature and that it was regulating temperature the correct way. Blake hikes faster than the rest of us so he went ahead so he wouldn’t lose momentum. He had yelled his parents names a couple times in case they were out looking for us and ironically enough, when he reached the top he ran into them. They were worried about us when we weren’t back to our car by 7 and started down the trail. They made it to right before it starts to get steep and his dad went to look down into the canyon and yelled his name. Blake was about 30 feet from them and yelled back. It was so nice to see them! We were all very exhausted both mentally and physically so seeing them really gave us the boost to finish the hike. They also got us dinner and a hotel room after and we are extremely grateful for that.
While this may have been the hardest hike that Blake and I have done, we have been thinking about what we could have done differently and what we could learn from this experience. We could have been more prepared. We knew the water was going to be cold but we just didn’t expect it to be as cold as it really was. We thought that the wet suits were sufficient enough, but we definitely should have had full body wet suits or even dry suits with neoprene socks. I learned a few things about myself and about Blake that make me happy. I know that I can do hard things. My body is capable of incredible things. We looked up the signs of beginning hypothermia and we definitely had quite a few of them. However, my body recovered almost immediately. Blake was definitely the rock of this excursion. He kept us positive and laughing even when we were shivering and freezing. He waited for me in the freezing water, because he knew I needed his help and encouragement. I know we are always being looked for even when we choose to do something crazy like canyoneering in a wet canyon in March. Prayers are answered and miracles occur every day! While we were hiking out, we said that we wouldn’t be able to do this hike for 10 years but after some thought, I think Blake and I will try it again later this summer (at least apply for permits)! I think our only advice for this hike is to NOT do in March 🙂