Former Olympus Titan leads only woman-owned canyoneering and rock climbing guide service in Zion National ParkFeb 09, 2024 12:16PM ● By Collette Hayes
Gabby Olsen is a former Olympus High School Titan and owns Rock Odysseys, a premier canyoneering and rock-climbing guide service located in Southern Utah. (Photo credit Gabby Olsen)
The only woman-owned canyoneering and rock climbing guide service in the Zion National Park area is a former Olympus High School Titan. With a passion for rock climbing and exploring the outdoors, Gabby Olsen was hired in 2016 as a certified instructor and guide for Rock Odysseys, a guided service specializing in canyoneering and rock climbing adventure trips. Five years later, Olsen stepped in as owner and has grown the company to one of the premier canyoneering and rock climbing guide services in Southern Utah.
Olsen grew up hiking, snow skiing, and wakeboarding in Utah with her twin sister Sammy. She began her rock climbing career at Rockreation, a climbing gym previously located in Holladay. After graduating from Olympus High School, she continued her studies at the University of Utah.
“I graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism with an emphasis on sustainable tourism,” Olsen said. “Additionally, I received a certificate in Applied Positive Psychology. I feel that my experiences at the U of U helped set me on my current path.”
Zion National Park is a popular vacation spot for families from the Salt Lake City area. Rock Odesseys arranges guided canyoneering and rock climbing trips outside the park for ages four to seventy-five.
“Rock Odysseys operates in the greater Zion National Park area,” Olsen said. “The park doesn’t allow technical guiding inside its boundaries, but there are so many great locations just outside the park. We operate on public lands for our canyoneering and rock climbing. Locations range from St. George to Dammeron Valley to La Verkin across Zion National Park to Orderville, and south through Hilldale.”
Zion National Park is considered one of the most well-known areas worldwide for canyoneering. According to the Rock Odysseys’ website, canyoneering involves exploring slot canyons while hiking, rappelling and down-climbing into areas that otherwise would be inaccessible.
“The half-day canyoneering trip is our most popular trip for all ages,” Olsen said. “If you are fit to hike 1 to 2 miles on uneven terrain, then you can make this trip. It involves hiking, scrambling, rappelling and downclimbing through gorgeous water-carved slot canyons. It’s a great trip for families.”
Olsen has traveled internationally to pursue rock climbing. Her trips are usually one to two months long and include countries such as Spain, Greece, Thailand and Turkey.
Most experienced climbers select a very challenging rock climbing route to master. Although they may fall many times initially, they keep practicing until they memorize the route and can execute it skillfully. Olsen enjoys sports climbing.
“My most challenging route is a route in a cave in Southern Utah called the Hurricave, a play on the (nearby) town name of Hurricane,” Olsen said. “The route is a steep rock climb in a cave called Joe’s World, graded 5.13b.”
A 5.13-grade climb is technical and vertical and considered very difficult. It requires significant natural ability. Olsen’s personal goal of climbing at such a challenging level is to push herself while taking care of her body. Another climbing goal is to continue her education through the American Mountain Guides Association. She hopes to obtain her Multipitch Instructor certification within the next five years. This is an intensive course that requires several weeklong courses and exams. She has completed the first part of the trajectory with her Single Pitch Instructor certification.
According to Olsen, climbing has three parts to it. The sport is one-third technical, one-third physical and one-third mental. Climbers need to understand the technical aspect of how to safely tie into and utilize the ropes, including how to safely belay other climbers. A guide is a must to ensure that this is done correctly. The basis of a fun canyoneering or rock-climbing trip is safety. The physical attributes and skill of climbing are primarily in the legs. Balance, stamina, coordination and strength in the lower body play a huge role in climbing success.
“When participants climb well, they are driving most of their weight through their legs as well as using their arms and fingers to hold onto the holds,” Olsen said. “Like with hiking, there are beginner routes through advanced routes. So, if this is your first time climbing, we can put you on a beginner route and work up from there.”
Olsen said the most significant challenge of canyoneering and rock climbing is probably the mental aspect of it. Participants need help with trusting the equipment. Once the mental barrier is past, most will do well. Understanding how a backup system works usually alleviates most fears. A second rope is always attached to a person that a guide controls when rappelling, making this sport safer than sports like snow skiing and river rafting. The backup system prevents a person from falling, making it safer than the perceived danger.
Although trips are offered year-round, the best weather for canyoneering and rock climbing in the Zion National Park area is generally from March through November.
According to Olsen, the half-day trip to the Kolob Terrace portion of Zion features stunning panoramic views, three parallel slot canyons to explore and multiple rappels. The location has many options for more or less adventurous routes.
“Our passion at Rock Odysseys is in the technical world,” Olsen said. “Our half-day canyoneering trip is accessible for anyone, even if they are hesitant. Our certified guides are excellent at tailoring the trip to people’s comfort levels and ensuring they push themselves and also enjoy themselves during their trip.”