Little LO Canyon, 3BIIIR
Coconino National Forest, tributary of Sycamore Canyon
It was just over a year ago on Memorial Day weekend. Tanner, Ron and I were donning wetsuits and harnesses at the start of the technical section of Little LO Canyon when we stumbled upon these two canyon tree frogs mating. Undoubtedly shortly thereafter hundreds of eggs were laid in the pools of Little LO. Two weeks later tadpoles probably hatched and sometime in August they metamorphosed into the next generation of canyon tree frogs. Ten months later a small number of these frogs are very likely alive and could be breeding right now in the intact and pristine habitat of Little LO. Between five and 15 miles away in similar canyons comprised of the same geology and vegetation the canyon tree frogs may not be as lucky.
The Slide Fire began on May 20, 2014, near Slide Rock State Park north of Sedona. Southernly winds quickly moved it up into Oak Creek Canyon and then hikers, photographers, adventurers and outdoor lovers watched in horror as it moved into one of the gems of Arizona, the West Fork of Oak Creek. At the time of this post on June 1, 2014, the fire has burned over 21,000 acres and is 90% contained. Residents in Oak Creek Canyon that were forced to evacuate have been let back in their homes, so it appears the fire is very much under control. Firefighters have moved into the mop up phase.
Unlike the unimaginable tragedy of last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 firefighters and destroyed over 100 homes and structures, this fire has caused no major injuries or burned any structures. I do not wish to take away from the primary importance of the lack of human suffering in this event or from the hard work and bravery of our wildland fire firefighters that worked the Slide Fire, but I must say my heart aches to think that such a unique and pristine American habitat has undoubtedly been greatly affected, possibly for a very long time to come. Of course until boots are on the ground it is hard to say the extent of the damage to this habitat. I have heard some reports from firefighters who worked the Slide Fire that said much of the pristine quality of the W. Fork is still intact. They say in many areas the fire was kept at a low intensity preventing it from getting into the canopy of the trees. This is known as a crown fire and essentially obliterates the forest that it burns. If the fire did not crown then it is actually healthy for the habitat in the long run. Needless to say when you look at the map of the Slide Fire on the InciWeb site it doesn’t look promising. I think if you asked most Arizona canyoneers what area they would most not want to burn related to their favorite canyons, this is a worst case scenario. Illusions, Insomnia, Immaculate, Barney Spring, Flintstone, Casner Cabin, Crack Addict in addition to the West Fork and Sterling Canyons that they feed into, are all completely within the boundaries of the Slide Fire.
Conversations online from the canyoneering community were abundant as we watched the Slide Fire unfold. Remarks ranged from hope when early in the fire the line was being held at the eastern edge of Illusions Canyon to despair as people questioned if the canyons will ever be the same in our lifetime. Along the way were constant updates and various comments. I even saw one individual (I believe half jokingly) hint at forming a canyoneering hotshot crew whose mission would be to defend our beloved canyons. Others wondered how the area will also be impacted from flooding when the monsoons come and the debris that comes with flooding in fire stricken areas changes the canyons’ pristine character. Mostly people were just sad. A close friend of mine and fellow canyoneer said, “This is worse than breaking up with a girlfriend.”
I first experienced the West Fork shortly after moving to Arizona in 2006 and was amazed by its seductive quality. Since then I have been back over a dozen times, often on the hike out after completing a technical descent of one of the side canyons. There is no better way to finish out a day than a tranquil stroll through those soaring red and beige canyon walls as your feet slosh through crystal clear water. I have been in the West Fork during all four seasons. I have been there on assignment for work. I have been there with my parents, my sister, my dog, of course Laura. I have been there with my friends’ baby who at the time was six-months-old. Sadly, my son Wyatt, 3, who although has seen many other special places in Arizona’s backcountry has not experienced the West Fork himself. It could be years before the West Fork is reopened to the public for Wyatt to see for himself and when it does who knows what he will see of this place that I along with many others hold a special connection to.
Ultimately fire is part of nature; a raw, rugged and destructive aspect of it, but nature nonetheless. Although I can’t help but wonder how natural is it when fires are started often by man as was the case with the Slide Fire and burn with a greater intensity because of a number of reasons associated with human impact.
When will the area reopen and what will we see when we get there. Only time will tell but nature will continue one way or the other. Back in Little LO Canyon a year ago, Ron, Tanner and I had a wonderfully pleasant and uneventful descent. I imagine our canyon tree frog friends having such a good time when we ran into them or at least their kin are doing fine in their perfectly suitable habitat; how quickly that can all change.
Below you will see some of my favorite photos of the W. Fork of Oak Creek Canyon system and the nearby Crack Addict Canyon/ Sterling Canyon. We will just have to wait to see what we see when we get back in there. Also check out a slideshow of the Arizona Republic photographers coverage of the Slide Fire by clicking here.
Morocco Canyon, 3BI
Tents need to be broken down and it is 503 miles of driving from this Desert of Ahhhs to my home, also in the desert, although one entirely different. Mike and I get an early jump and decide to squeeze in one last quick descent about five miles into the drive. Morocco Canyon fits the bill perfectly. Not a whole lot to report really. The approach is 20- minutes, beautiful and requiring the right line to make it through. The canyon itself is varied, simultaneously easy and exciting. A few waders chilling us on this early morning before the sun’s remedy. In under two hours we are back to the car snaking on slick rock before the 498 miles left of the drive. Another Spring trip is one for the books.
For years I have heard Mike and Eric talking about a desire to descend Sandthrax Canyon. They were smart about it. They didn’t just rush into it. They worked their way up, starting with easier high-stemmer canyons. I joined them on these descents. It became clear that I was not going to graduate to that next level of an “X-Rated” high stemmer canyon like Sandthrax. No doubt, my skills were not at their level, but even more importantly I didn’t seem to enjoy the high stemming style of canyoneering as much as Mike and Eric. I would continue to descend these canyons to a moderately challenging level (R-Rating) such as Raven, Inferno, Limbo, Happy Dog, Stair, and the Hogs, but wasn’t interested in taking the risks required in a canyon like Sandthrax relative to what I got out of it. Maybe one day this will change, but for now, it was a canyon I would respectfully leave alone. This is the first ever post on this blog, of a canyon that has not been descended by either myself or Laura. Through all of their anticipation, planning and discussion and after descending Sandthrax Canyon safely, joining in their celebration, I felt somewhat part of the experience, even though I wasn’t there. For this reason, I wanted Mike to share his experience on this blog. Below is his trip report.
Sandthrax Canyon, 4AIIIX
“The summit isn’t the end all. Its about this experience, its about having this partnership with your buddy, going on this wild adventure, and not knowing what’s going to happen. Also, not bringing the mountain down to your level and rising to the occasion.”
- Climber Hayden Kennedy on his decision to chop the bolts of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia.
Passing by Sandthrax Campground on past canyoneering trips I would usually say, “We should do Sandthrax,” to my partner, Eric as we drove by. We frequently made up excuses; not having the right gear, the right practice, the right experience. This year we finally ran out of excuses. I was climbing really strong, and Eric was in great shape, canyoneering regularly. Both of us had done high stemming canyons so we kind of knew what to expect. As we finalized our plans and strategy, including borrowing two #6 cams from climbing partners, we added Cody at the last minute to our team.
We arrived in North Wash in mid-march with really great weather, it had been a mild winter after all. After doing the Hog Springs canyons on the first day, I felt pretty good. The canyons had great friction, and most of it was skinny and clean straight forward stemming. However, the next day in one of the Poison Spring Canyons I had let go of the rappel rope for the last couple of feet (a weird habit I had developed in the last couple of years) and landed on a pointed rock. My foot bent forward, and twisted. I ended up hobbling out of the canyon, and back at camp put it on RICE.
By the next morning my ankle felt pretty good, but the weather had turned. We woke to wind with clouds moving in. After hanging out at camp for hours, we felt the weather was starting to turn for the better. We walked to the head of Sandthrax under a light drizzle. Never-the-less, we got to the start, and immediately began down climbing. We quickly arrived at the first rappel, but instead of a sling around a chockstone, we found a shiny 3/8” bolt. After the rappel we got in stemming position, Cody in front, Eric second and me last. I was going pretty slowly, I had slipped on a down climb into the canyon, and was feeling kind of shaky. After stemming a bit we came to the nose up climb. It looked like a strenuous squeeze chimney up climb to me, but Cody face climbed it further up canyon with a stem to a back wall. He made it look easy, so I followed, but Eric opted for the more secure chimney. It was all stemming past that, which was pretty enjoyable. The walls had features and nubs that made for pretty secure footholds. We soon realized that the major worry was gear falling out of our packs. They were getting really damaged from the canyon, and a hole could send all of our stuff into a black hole. Eric’s pack was shredded from past trips, so he clipped everything in his bag together.
We continued and came to the first major obstacle. It was a climb up that looked like to me like an off-width that turned into a chimney. You could bypass the off-width, but would have to cross a silo to do so. We chose to drop down and do the off-width. I took the lead, since I had the most climbing experience. Jamming my left foot into the crack and my right leg knee barred outside I scooted my way up. It was strenuous; it definitely felt like real rock climbing. I kept moving and finally made it to some chockstones that I could stand on. We decided I would bring all the backpacks up on the rope. I started hauling as fast as I could, but still they became stuck right below me. I cursed Eric’s bag, which was the culprit. I down climbed to the bags, freed them one by one, and then climbed back up.
Right after this we came to the silo. It was really exposed and looked to be hands on one side, feet on the other, looking straight down while you stemmed it. A shiny bolt with rings, right above the original piton, protected this. After creating a mess with personal anchors, slings and backpacks on the single bolt, we reorganized and I was itching to climb. I stemmed down, back to feet, and switched over so my left foot was on the left wall and right foot on the right wall. As I walked forward I switched again so my feet were on one wall and my hands were on the other, with me looking face down. I quickly realized that this was totally unnecessary. I could easily do the splits and cross the silo. As I switched around, I heard something ping-pong down, and saw my Nalgene careen into the dark hole in the silo. In my eagerness to climb I had forgot to close my bag, and was lucky to only lose my water and not that crucial #6 cam. Across the silo, which although exposed was really easy, there was a second 3/8 bolt, with a rap ring on it. I tied the rope to it, and Eric and Cody created a safety line. Eric, being shorter, used the line, and then Cody came across with a belay. It was more for mental confidence for Cody, for if he fell, he would take a wild swing through the canyon and probably hit his head.
We came to the crux. I had originally wondered how I would belay from the top, but saw that there was a bolt above the off-width, with 5 or 6 links of chain hanging from it. We took a break and ate, and pulled out the gear. Eric and I had practiced aid climbing two weeks before at the local crag, so I felt somewhat confident. I attached one etrier to each #6 cam. Then I used personal anchors to attach the cams to myself. I started aiding, taking my time. Slowly I arrived at the top. After stepping up, then backing down, and repeating that a few times, I realized I would have to stick my foot in the top rung of the etrier and stand up. When I tried to do this my foot would swing unsteadily into the crack. I finally placed an arm bar into the crack and stood up trusting that I wouldn’t get spit out. I made it close enough to the chain, grabbed it, and walked heel toe sideways to a safe spot. I fixed a rope and Eric and Cody bat manned up. While they were doing that I noticed someone had bolted a cold shut higher up, above the chain. “Why would someone do that?” I thought.
After more stemming we came to the next rappel. There was a hueco, with slings around it, but it was backed up with a drilled piton below it. Also there was a long fixed rope hanging from it. I made a quick decision to clean it up by chopping the sling from the hueco. I took the rappel ring, which was a heavy-duty steel kind, and also took a locking biner from the piton. Cody produced a quick link and we attached it to the piton. I collected the rope and put it in my pack.
As we neared the finish we could see a long green rope trailing down the canyon. We came to a bolt that was screwed into the rock with webbing around it. A hex was tightened on a cordelette. We weren’t sure why it was there, the climbing at that point was very easy. I unscrewed the hex and took it, along with the cordelette and a heavy-duty quick link. Eric stemmed down canyon, collecting rope as he went. We came to the final elevator, which I was happy to see, because at this point I was pretty tired. After high-fives and a group photo we walked back to camp with plenty of daylight. Cody even did another canyon right after, a solo no less!
In all we took out 265’ of rope, as well as miscellaneous hardware. The new bolts didn’t really make the canyon all that much easier or safer, but it did take some of the adventure out of it. Because they were there in a few situations we used it, but I still wish they weren’t. Evaluating and creating natural anchors, crossing the easy silo on a piton, aiding out of the off width into the chimney without the chains, its exciting, it’s the reason we go out into the desert. We canyoneer for the adventure, and when the experience becomes watered down, then what are we doing out there? This sport has risk, its inherent, but we take what we feel is acceptable risk. The hard parts of Sandthrax are still hard and still dangerous, despite the impression that the hardware makes it more accessible for more people. Its not. Sandthrax is a great canyon, an amazing canyon, but it deserves respect.
West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon, 3AII
We pull into the Sandthrax campsite just coming back from our descent of Woodchuck and Woody Canyon. As we come around the bend to our cluster of tents I scan for Mike, Cody and Eric. I am hoping they are back and celebrating from their descent of Sandthrax Canyon, an X-rated high stemmer that many say has one of the hardest crux’s of the Colorado Plateau. They are not there. Though we are hoping they would be back we are not alarmed. Brian and I discuss a plan of when we should start looking for them from the rim, with 2- 200 foot ropes in hand in the event we have to send them down a life line. We are still hours away from enacting such a scenario, giving me just enough time for a solo run of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon just above our camp. In 2010 I descended the East and Middle Forks of Leprechaun canyon and am excited to complete the series. Mark, Brian and Chris have no interest in joining me, which means I’m going solo and is what I was hoping for. Solitude in the desert for a few hours is just what I’m looking for.
I move quickly on the approach, wanting to return to camp as soon as possible in the event that assistance will be needed for the Sandthrax crew. In little time I’m rigging the first rappel and am in the dark underworld. The solitude and silence is intoxicating. I continue to move quickly, carefully and deliberately, down climbing, stemming and rappelling here and there. I join the main fork of Leprechaun and can hear voices ahead. My private world is no more. I pursue the voices. I reach a section of canyon that I remember from my middle Lep descent in 2010 where boulders fill the canyon bottom. A small tunnel below the boulders allows passage on hands and knees. As I pop out of the rabbit hole of this tunnel I catch those voices. I say “hello.” In the dim light one of the canyoneers recognizes me from this blog. We have even corresponded some via email about canyons and such. Canyoneering is a small world made even smaller by its corresponding virtual world. The woman with him is on her first canyoneering descent ever. She has an ear to ear smile. It is nice to see. We talk for awhile and then I move ahead. In a short time I’m rounding the bend and heading into our camp. From a distance I can see the Sandthrax crew. No rescue required today. There will be plenty to celebrate tonight. It’s going to get loud. It was nice to have the quiet and this desert all to myself even if for just an hour or so.
Woke early on day three and the weather has shifted. The Henrys are shrouded in clouds. The winds pick up. With it sand becomes airborne and is thrown everywhere. Not ideal conditions for canyoneering. Especially not on this day with part of our group planning a descent of Sandthrax, an X-rated high stemmer that many say has one of the hardest crux’s of the Colorado Plateau. Sandthrax is not for me but more on that coming in a post soon. With the inclement weather we scurry around, getting stuff together, watching for the clouds to clear and debating whether to re-think plans. The clouds open a little revealing the mountaintops. We give ourselves a green light, say good luck to our Sandthrax friends without really knowing if they are planning on making a run.
Woodchuck Canyon, 3BI
North Wash area (side drainage of Woodruff Canyon)
As we set up this short shuttle I realize in the chaos of the sandblasted morning I have forgotten my helmet at camp. A careless mistake. Not willing to skip the descent and wait in the car for the others I venture into this sandstone without it. We quickly drop into Woodchuck Canyon, encounter a half dozen or so Valentine’s Day mylar balloons tangled in a prickly pear. I stuff them in my pack knowing I need good karma with no helmet. The canyon slots up. Some fun stemming and down climbing to warm us up on this still raw day. Then a pool. I go in first without a wetsuit. Only waist deep but Im cold again. More stemming and down climbs. Warm. Another wader. Cold. Repeat a few times and then we are spit out via a pretty rappel into the vegetated alcove below. Woodchuck providing a short but sweet appetizer to the main fare of Woody Canyon, where we are heading now.
Woody Canyon, 4BIIR
North Wash area (side drainage of Woodruff Canyon)
More Valentines Day balloons are stuffed into my pack as we stroll up Woodruff Canyon. No doubt they got separated from the rest of the cluster a mile away above Woodchuck. We criss cross the slight flow picking our way through the path of least resistance through the vegetation. A short ways and then up into the domes to gain Woody Canyon. The sun is out in full force as we face the first problem, a last man at risk, partner assist. I provide the meat anchor and then Chris, Brian and Mark provide a capture as I down climb the obstacle. The team work continues from there. I think of Mike, Cody and Eric who are almost certainly off the deck in Sandthrax. They are a team of three and teamwork will come into play somewhat, but so much of their day will be silence, each of them alone on an island, up to 50- feet in the air for hours. A dozen miles away as the crow flies, the wetsuits come on and we are deep in Woody Canyon, working half full keepers. No such thing as silence here. Communication a must as we problem solve and scheme our way past the obstacles. Alone on a deserted island could not be further from our experience as we crawl over, push and grab each other as a means to follow the path of water, if there were more of it. The four of us are isolated in a single bubble of reality. This is my favorite type of canyoneering. I want it to continue. But it ends too soon. Back in Woodruff canyon we move a herd of cattle over a mile up the now sandy wash, picking up a few more Valentine’s Day balloons. As we ride in the back of Brian’s pick-up to complete the car shuttle I am planning for a quick solo descent of a slot nearby camp. There is still ample light left in the day. I’ll just be sure to grab my helmet before heading out.
With more arrivals the previous night our group swells to nine. Today we split into separate groups. One party heads to the skinnies of Shenanigans and Middle Leprechaun, while the rest of us venture to the nearby steep and deep slots in the Poison Springs complex. I know little of these canyons, never before having set foot in these tributaries and barely exploring them online. I’m a blank canvas, with little to no expectations or pre-conceived ideas shaped from someone else’s TR and photos. Regardless, I know they will not disappoint. We are joined by Brian who drove in the previous night from nearby southwestern Colorado. Brian’s been through here before. He recommends we start with Constrychnine, so that’s where we go.
Constrychnine Canyon, 3AIIIR
North Wash area
We walk across sandy hills and washes with no indication that we are so close to the edge of a major canyon system. Abruptly the canyon reveals itself plummeting intensely to its dark bowels between massive tapered walls. It’s scale and steepness is intimidating. We know this is where we are headed and the terrain tickles the nerves as we work our way around to a branch of Constrychnine. We are quickly met with a large rappel. I drop in first, followed by the others. This is followed by an even larger rappel that brings us properly into the tantalizing world below. Deep within this dark chamber are more magnificent rappels, sprinkled with fun and moderately challenging down climbs. Time vanishes in this underworld and we are spit out back into the light. Its name and intimidating first impression aside, Constrychnine is rather benign. The hike back to the rim is direct, exciting and quick while offering outstanding views of the Poison Springs complex at large.
Slideanide Canyon, 3AIIIR
North Wash area
The entry rappel is behind us and we encounter the first elevator down climb. I place my body into position and find the right amount of friction from some combination of hands, feet, forearms, elbows and knees and let gravity do the rest. This is almost immediately followed by a similar obstacle. They keep coming, some approaching nearly a 100- feet. Despite their intimidating profile they are negotiated with just a little difficulty here and there. The key is to have confidence in the technique. I think of Mark or who we fondly refer to as Uncle Mark, who by now is squeezing his way through somewhere in either nearby Shennanigans or Middle Lep. He would love this place. You can often hear him shout out to whomever is in front of him while descending a canyon, “Is it an elevator down climb? I love elevator down climbs!” as if in Mark’s mind the person in the lead has some control over the obstacles we encounter. In Slideanide it most certainly would be an elevator down climb. I think eventually Mark would stop asking because he would know. This canyon is his wet dream and I was thoroughly enjoying it too. Anchors are passed over and we down climb nearly everything. We reduce the final sequence to the shortest rappel possible before we are forced to draw out the rope. We pop out to the relative open world of a canyon maybe 30- feet wide. We take a breather having moved rather aggressively during the entire descent and I place my hands on my derriere. I am amazed to feel an intact seat to my pants. I am, notorious for destroying pants while canyoneering and Slideanide is notorious for shredding seats even for the best of them. I am proud. I’ll be sure to let the others know around the fire. We move out and head back to camp; the toxicity of this place not amounting to much.
When does a tradition practiced year after year becoming a ritual experience? I certainly don’t have the answer and even as I type these words I’m not even sure I fully understand the question I pose, but it does bring up some ideas I wish to express. Our annual Spring canyoneering trip in Southern Utah has mostly certainly become a tradition. The question is through all that is within this tradition, all the sandstone beauty, comfort level pushing, sideways shuffling, abraded elbows, sand everywhere, drunken campfires, indulgent meals, loud conversing, ball busting, constant laughter and the feeling of aaahhhh, is there something more going on? Something even more meaningful?
Hog 1, aka Boss Hog, 3AIIIR
Day one begins with the Hog Canyons. There are four of them, Hogs 1, 2, 3 & 4, all adjacent to each other, meeting into one larger drainage at the bottom of these short, tight and intense slot sections above. Descending all four of them in a day is possible but requires an early start and good time management. We would see how much of it we could bite off but we aren’t exactly getting an early start. As one might expect we begin with Hog 1, aka Boss Hog. Named after the corrupt county commissioner, from the “Dukes of Hazard”, the first of the Hogs is far from an easy canyon and just like dealing with Jefferson Davis can get you into trouble, the other Boss Hog can also prove to upend the unprepared and unexpected. After ever present difficult down climbs and sideways shuffling and a sustained section of high stemming, we reach the end of the technical section with nothing more than a few sandstone scrapes on the elbows.
Hog 2, 3AIII
After a quick break at the confluence of Hogs 1 & 2 and caching some water, we escape to the sandstone world above via a tough 5th class slab with spotty holds. Others say it goes as high as 5.7. A short but strenuous hike surrounded by Hog slots on both sides and we drop into the top of Hog 2. Boss Hog’s sister to the East has a definite mellower vibe and seems to feature more of an emphasis on rappels versus stemming and down climbing. The canyon does however, end on a challenging down climb into a dark hallway, where Chris lands awkwardly and injures his knee. Fortunately, he is able to walk with a fair amount of discomfort, but his day of canyoneering is over. Mike volunteers to accompany Chris as they walk down the main Hog drainage to the Hog Springs Recreation Area parking lot, easier than climbing back up to our vehicle above the system. Eric, Mark and I repeat the 5th class slab back to the head of Hog 3, aka Razorback.
Hog 3, aka Razorback, 3AIIIR
Before we drop into Razorback from a high vantage point I can look straight down the pike and see its confluence with the main Hog drainage. Clearly wind and water carved this slot in a nearly straight fashion. As I process this visual information I realize what this canyon will lack in duration it will make up for in intensity. Razorback also has the reputation for being the most challenging of the Hogs. During the planning of the trip at large it was the canyon I was most apprehensive of. On any given day you never know how you are going to respond to the challenges, particularly the down climb/ high stemming heavy canyons of Southern Utah. Some days you feel good. Other days, well… By the start of Hog 3 I know I am feeling good. The climbs and moves are all well within my ability. I am in tune with the rock and not getting bogged down in my own headspace, just reacting and feeling. Speaking of the devil, my back is feeling those textured rocks embedded in the walls that gives the canyon its namesake. Nevertheless connecting to the landscape and the challenges it poses, the canyon is over very quickly and we are fighting our way through the reeds of the main Hog Drainage before climbing back up the fifth class one more time. Hog Four, aka Miss Piggy will have to wait for another day. Still a real Hogfest.
It is late in the afternoon by the the time we reach our vehicle. The Henries look beautiful in this light. My first pair of pants are already blown out, a few abrasions dot my the arms and sand already has invaded every crevice of my body. I’m buzzing from three wonderfully challenging and beautiful canyons just completed. I know the first night will be a wild one. Loud, probably. Delicious food and lots of drink, a certainty. It is such an aaahhhh moment that it is totally spiritual. A ritual? I don’t know, but I’ve felt this before and I know the series of actions to get back there.
South Fork of Alder Canyon, 3B/CIV
Mazatzal Wilderness Area
It is 4:30 AM as I type these first words. I was just woken from my phone ringing on my nightstand. I looked at who the call was from; a subject from a documentary project I am working on the Navajo reservation. Despite the hour, I had been waiting for his call for a few days so I answered. He could tell I sounded tired. “Oh shoot man I forgot you guys are an hour behind.” For the vast majority of the country the clocks had just changed for daylight savings time. Arizona does not observe daylight savings time, except on the Navajo Nation. So where Milton was calling from it was a much more reasonable 5:15 AM. Sheep herders, they start early.
Truth is I had been tossing and turning all night. No reason really, just one of those nights. I actually had just gone back to bed after spending an hour reading Craig Childs’ “Soul of Nowhere.” As I was slowly slipping back into sleep before my ringtone jolted me up permanently, I kept thinking back on a passage in his book. In it Childs describes how ever since he was young he dreamed of being completely consumed by wilderness. “As a child I often imagined jumping from an airplane with a parachute, aiming for the most delirious-looking place, an area that would swallow me.” He continues, “I stared at the plaster-textured ceiling of my bedroom and imagined the cluttered little shapes to be mountains wall to wall, thousands of miles of wilderness, and me on my way in, floating in my bed as I fell.” And this is the line that really stuck with me, “I somehow knew as a child that within isolation and ruggedness was a way of accessing the unexpected from the world.”
And so it was on a recent adventure through a little explored canyon in the Mazaztal Wilderness Area. Brian and I had discussed a descent of this canyon for years. We knew of only one previous descent and had little information. But with just three days left in 2013, schedules lined up and the right group of strong hikers coalesced. We were dirt bagging it the night before at the trailhead to get a pre-sunrise start on a day that we anticipated could be up to 14- hours.
It’s very dark. No moon and cold. We start hiking briskly, almost immediately up into these rugged mountains. Breath is visible but within minutes coldness is a thing of the past. Light behind the Sierra Anchas begins slowly but picks up speed. Headlamps go away and we are making progress. The sun is up now. A few hours later we leave the trail and pick our way through a mix of small pines and chaparral on a steep slope. We gain the crest and head into a bowl blanketed in snow. This area was untouched by the Willow Fire of 2004 that devastated much of the area leaving behind a Ponderosa Pine forest I have never before seen in these mountains. The snow gets deeper. We posthole to above our ankles as we head towards the upper reaches of the South Fork of Alder Creek. Direct sun is hidden and still covered in sweat from the 3500 foot climb we are chilled to the bone as our feet crunch into the crusty snow. We cross the creek and head for sunlight in the south facing walls. As we slip into our wetsuits and fashion our harnesses we survey the canyon below. The walls are covered in deep snow. The creek is flowing under a thick crust of translucent ice. It looks cold and treacherous.
Drops present themselves. We examine. The ice looks precarious and fragile with large open holes to the churning water below. At this point the canyon has not completely closed in allowing us to bypass along the steep snow covered walls adjacent to the drainage proper. Not exactly providing warm fuzzies of safe passage, but the lesser of two evils. Nearly every step requires both hands to be thrusted into the snow. With nothing but thin garden gloves to protect my hands from rock and vegetation my hands quickly go numb, but not that numb that I don’t distinctly feel my palm as it is pierced by the end of an Agave plant hidden beneath the snow.
We continue to avoid the drops in the main watercourse. Brian coins it “bypassaneering”. The canyon levels. The snow and ice subside and we begin to wonder if this canyon will be a dud, as least as far as a technical descent is concerned. Either way I am still surrounded by seldom seen wilderness. Ultimately that is what I came for. We trudge on for awhile. We are presented with an uneventful 100- foot drop. Bypassaneering is not an option this time. Further down another more interesting drop. And then an unexpected sequence of two rappels, a swim and another rappel, all through exquisite geology. More trudging until we hit the confluence with the North Fork of Alder. We look upstream to another potential route. There is a major drop, although it does look like it can be bypassed. I am almost certain this is the mysterious drainage I descended when I got lost in 2007.
A long slog and we are out. Back to our vehicles well before darkness sets in. Despite finishing hours under the time we anticipated it was still a tremendous amount of work for little technical canyon (although parts of this technical canyon were among the most magnificent in the range). Back to Craig Childs in “Soul of Nowhere”, “It wasn’t heroism or glory that I hoped to find in these places. Rather , it was the odor of rain, it was encountering an animal alone in heavy woods, or the moment in trackless country when I realize that I am utterly lost and suddenly there is no separation between me and the ground beneath me.” On this day I had this in full.
Big Kahuna Canyon, 3B/CIII
approximately 5 miles
Mazatzal Wilderness Area
Procrastination. I have been doing it a lot lately related to writing this blog post and others of recent trips. I often hear from those I share these wonderful adventures with that I take forever to share the photos. I can’t disagree. I tell them I should be getting that post and the pics up real soon. A month later and it still hasn’t been done.
Sometimes a minor epic or mishap gives you a narrative to write about. Other times you are feeling inspired and the writing comes easy. Neither were or are present from this particular cold winter descent. This does not mean the experience was any less special; it’s just that much harder to write something special about. In such a case it seems easier to do the dishes or clean up my son’s toys then sit down and write. So why chronicle every or nearly every trip? (A few have in fact been left out over the years for various reasons). I often ponder this, but always come back to the same conclusion. Life is short, but has the potential to be filled with the most amazing of experiences. For me those most special of experiences come from three main sources: family/ friends, my work and wilderness. I am extremely lucky to be blessed with health, an incredible family, a job I love and the ability to somewhat regularly venture into and experience wilderness.
We also live in a modern society where everything is recorded with 0s & 1s. They often are quickly shared and seen. From here this content resides many posts back in a Facebook account or on a hard drive literally collecting dust. Maybe actual photo albums are becoming a thing of the past, but for me this blog serves as an archive of these experiences. It is always there and not withstanding some sort of viral attack of the interweb, should always be there. Specifically, this wordpress blog allows me to organize these trips into various categories so they are logically searchable, such as features as the linkable canyon index. The blog allows me to feel close and connected to these adventures of the past. For this I will due my best to keep procrastination at bay and continue to committ to this personal archive, maybe just not in the most timely of fashion.
A few quick notes on this recent frigid jaunt down Big Kahuna Canyon in the Mazatzal Mountains. Nearly two years earlier, Laura, Wyatt and I ventured out for the same trip. At the time Wyatt, just over a year old, rested on my back in a baby backpack as we joined Laura for the hike up the Barnhardt trail to the start of the technical canyon. We waved goodbye to Laura as she joined our friends for the canyoneering descent of Big Kahuna as Wyatt and I hiked back down to the trailhead. This time the roles were reversed. Wyatt, now over three and probably nearly 20 pounds heavier, himself said, “Goodbye.” and “They’re going canyoneering.” as we headed into the canyon and Laura and Wyatt hiked down the trail. Not much to mention about the smooth descent itself other than the gorgeous rappels through moderately flowing water, past swirls of unique geology. Great company too and we were back to our vehicles rather quickly. Just enough time for the winter desert sun to dry out the muddy road just a tad before heading home.
Another year. Six years now actually that I’ve been lucky enough to partake in this sport and the amazing places that it allows one to witness and experience. Along the way some new partnerships and friendships have been forged. Highlights included: a multi-day trip into the tight slots of Ticaboo Mesa near Lake Powell. An overnight backpack with Laura and my son, Wyatt, in Aravaipa Canyon. An all business four day trek through some of the best technical slots of the Grand Canyon. Getting to share with Laura one of my favorite descents in Kolob Canyon in Zion National Park. And a 45- mile paddle filled with fun and relaxation down the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon. The year ended right with back to back cold, watery descents in the final two weekends of the year in the Mazatzal Mountains. Before leaving for the final trip, Wyatt, now three asked me, “You going canyoneering? I want to go too.” Another year. Here is a look back.