The Depths of Mystery

The Depths of Mystery

This is a hard, cruel place. A place that can kill you in an instant. One mistake, one oversight, hell, a simple raincloud can take your life.

Oh, but its as beautiful as it is cruel.

A slot canyon, a crack in the earth hundreds of feet deep and only a few feet wide known as Mystery, has eluded him before. Three times in fact. A navigational error, a logistical error, and a freak snowstorm have all turned Eric Retterbush, known as Bushy, aside from conquering Mystery Canyon in the past.

But a fourth opportunity arose to descend into the bowels of the earth, to explore a technical canyon that requires ropes, harnesses, anchors, belay gear, climbing skills, and the expertise to carefully descend several thousand feet of rock.

Watch the video of the adventure

Setting out at sunrise, Bushy heads into the backcountry office of Zion National Park to secure a permit for the canyon. The park wants to know who is where in these canyons, in case an emergency rescue is required.

“Have you read the weather report for today?” The ranger asks.

Its monsoon season. Afternoon thunderstorms are common. And even a small amount of rain falling on the vast swaths of slickrock can turn deadly. Because the landscape is all rock and very little soil, rainwater doesn’t absorb into the earth as it does elsewhere. It sheds rapidly and funnels into slot canyons in the sandstone. The channeled water creates a wall of surging energy, carrying a lethal combination of boulders, tree trunks, and debris.

Bushy nods, aware of the risk that this is a distinct possibility.

The approach to the canyon itself is no easy task. From the floor of Zion National Park a trail rises steeply up, the switchbacks snaking their way up to the East Rim, several thousand feet higher in elevation. After five miles Bushy wanders off trail, seeking the head of Mystery Canyon. Emerging from the brush, a massive fissure in the earth appears. This is just the beginning.

Bushy begins his descent, picking his way down the steep, loose slope known as the “Death Gully.” It’s a long way down, and picking your route carefully on this dangerous path is imperative. After another two miles, Bushy comes to the first big drop.

This is the point of no return. Once you go over the edge of the first rappel, the only way out is down. An emergency here, even just a twisted ankle, could be life-threatening.

Bushy checks the anchor to make sure it is viable. Previous canyoneers have set the steel bolts and rigged it with webbing and a steel ring. He threads the 200 foot static rope through the ring and casts the rope down below, peering over to see if the rope hit the bottom. Hooking in to the rope with his rappel device, he steps over the edge, leaning back and weighting the rope. Below is a stretch of the true slot, a shadowy crack at the bottom of the massive canyon that’s only a few feet wide.

A series of rappels follow, one after the other. Bushy works his way deeper into the earth. While its over 100 degrees at the top, here in the shadows its a cool, pleasant temperature.

After several miles of rappelling, hiking, and downclimbing, Bushy encounters the biggest rappel he has faced thus far. Deep down in the orange and red sandstone, he peers up and notices that big, grey monsoon clouds have drifted overhead. Frowning, he picks up his pace. He works his way methodically down the rope, more than a hundred foot drop below him. Bushy drops down to where a large boulder has fallen from above, lodging into the crack and suspended in air. He stops here and inspects the next portion of the rappel, another thirty feet down into a small, clean pool of clear water. Mystery Spring seeps out of the sandstone, beginning a stretch of wet, chilly, and beautiful canyon.

Bushy has no choice but to lower himself right in to the pool. He disconnects from the rope and swims to the other side. After the rappel, he pulls the rope down from above, hoping that the rope does not get stuck. With more rappels below, this would be a bad place to lose a rope. He pulls the rope free from the anchor, the tail of rope whipping down and coiling into the emerald pool.

After a few more swims and short waterfalls, Bushy approaches the big payoff, what makes Mystery Canyon so special. Walking confidently to the dangerous edge, he glimpses a beautiful sight, the merging of Mystery Canyon and the infamous Virgin Narrows. One hundred and twenty feet below, a steady flow of hikers wade through the Virgin River that is responsible for carving out Zion National Park. The water rushes past Bushy’s feet, cascading off the edge and down a slick, algae covered slope down to the bottom.

A few hikers notice as Bushy secures the anchor, and hucks the rope down to the bottom. As he goes over his checks, ensuring everything is set properly, more and more hikers stop to watch. Bushy steps over the edge. A series of flashes go off from the waiting cameras of the hikers below. Immediately he notes how slippery the rock is. Trying his best not to slip and face plant into the rock, he works his way down the waterfall, and into the applause of the crowd.

Photographer, filmmaker, journalist, adventurer. I'm somewhere, maybe Flagstaff, AZ.


4 comments on this post

  1. Daniel

    September 11, 2013

    Great recap! I’ve down Mystery once and loved it. I’m heading out with some friends in Oct to do it again.

    What camera did you use to film your video? The HD quality is incredible. I’ve considered bringing my DSLR into Mystery with Me, but I’d prefer to find a smaller solution if possible.

    Ps. I’m glad you survived Behunin. Thanks for sharing your story. We encountered a flash flood in Mystery the first time we did it and its something I’ll never forget. It wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to you, but seeing waterfalls appear out of nowhere and flood your slot canyon is heart stopping!

    • Eric Hanson

      September 18, 2013

      Hey Daniel,
      Thanks, Mystery is a special canyon. I loved it. I shot this with a Canon 5D MK II and a Canon 17-40mm EF 4.0L series lens. I love the results I get with it, unfortunately the camera suffered its demise in the flash flood that happened two days after this was shot. It was ruined with water and sand damage. Fortunately our only losses were ropes and camera gear.

  2. Daniel

    September 24, 2013


    Bummer about your 5D. I’m headed to Zion a week from today and our first slot of the trip is Mystery. I’ll probably end up bringing my 5D as well. The footage you got is night and day from what I could capture with a GoPRO.

    I have a 16-35mm lens which should provide some nice wide angle coverage. Any recommendations on good backpacks? I currently have a Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW but it seems like it will get chewed up in some of the slot canyons as its not very rugged.

    From your flash flood video, its hard to tell the angle of the water. Is the flash flood coming down from where you plan to exit the canyon? Or was it pouring down from above the last rappel? Or both?

    Ps. We had a mini-flash flood hit us during our first Mystery Canyon trip. It was at the last rappel and we were able to get to high ground and wait it out. It was nothing close to what you experienced but it still scared the daylight out of us. The sound of toppling trees and falling rocks in a flash flood is something I’ll never forget.

    • Eric Hanson

      September 24, 2013

      Canyoneering packs inevitably get ripped to shreds. I keep my camera gear in as compact of a case as I can, which I then keep inside of a SeaLine Dry Bag (good even when you swim your pack), which is then stored inside my Osprey 68 Liter backpacking pack. I’ve written off trying to keep that Osprey from getting ripped up. Slot canyons are brutal on packs. Altogether that’s kept my camera gear perfectly safe, that is, until a flash flood hit. It stood no chance as I had it out and was filming when we got hit initially.

      The flash flood was pouring from two places, one was blocking our exit. The other one was pouring directly on top of us from where we had just rappelled.

      Even a mini-flashflood is a terrifying experience. Good luck in Mystery, its a classic! Send me a link to whatever you put together on it.


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