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.
Labyrinth Canyon (Green River)
10/05/13 – 10/08/13
That indistinguishable reddish brown sand that fans out from my garden house is not only a reality of gear cleaned, but also serves as a reminder of another adventure in the books. This past time was no exception. Though this was a different kind of an adventure. It was not one of adrenaline, suffering and end of the day achey muscles. Though miles from any motorized vehicles and in wilderness as remote as it gets, this one involved multiple dutch ovens, coolers and even pirates.
Here’s how it broke down: 11 friends old and new, 4 aluminum canoes and a kayak, 3 nights and 4 days along 45- miles of stunning scenery through the Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon. Government shutdowns couldn’t stop us from tracing this route of Major John Wesley Powell.
The crisp air keeps us from getting to hot and the intense early Fall sun from being too cool as we paddle down the placid and in places shallow waters. A pair of deer take advantage and slowly cross from one bank 50- yards to the other. They are not swimming. Curve after curve, the sandstone walls becoming increasingly grander. We pass a homemade wooden raft, Huck Finn style. Their boatmen are dressed as pirates. They have water guns and are drinking rum. We stop fairly often. Mud is knee deep and abundant. Early we try to avoid it but it is futile. One most embrace it in this place.
In camp we pull out all the stops. Cooler after cooler, cold beer, rum and coke or whiskey if that is your thing. Steaks one night, Indian food and nan the next, and for a grand finale, Dutch Oven lasagna. Entertainment includes music, fires, stories, lots and lots of stories, a dance competition that never really went anywhere and a neon light show.
We follow mountain lion prints through the still wet sand up a meandering side canyon. Quick sand swallows Eric nearly to his waist.The sun gets lower in the sky and we turn around and head back to the river.
Back in our 18-foot aluminum vessels, Laura and I fall back a little. It is all quiet except for the faint sounds of tiny riffles of water hitting the boat and the dulled laughter of the rest of the party half a mile ahead. The scenery passes by ever so slowly. A sense of priorities or urgency couldn’t be further away. It is a nice feeling for a little.
Tex’s Riverways out of Moab provided us with canoe rentals and transportation to and from the Green River. I would highly recommend them.
Kolob Canyon, (thru trip to Temple of Siniwava) 3CVR
Zion National Park
06/22/13 – 06/23/13
David told tales of crows and condors. Of flowing water down tight technical sandstone passages. Of exquisite beauty and never ending narrows. Of an exit hike through much of the Virgin River Narrows. Ever since David got back from his trip down Kolob Canyon in 2009 it had been on my bucket list. At the same time we had been wanting to take our two-and-half-year-old son Wyatt for his first visit to Zion National Park. With David’s parents in Arizona for an extended visit, we loaded up the vehicles, rented a cabin at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort and headed up to the place I love so much that I hadn’t visited in nearly four years.
As Wyatt and I, and my in-laws, Marsha and Lee, settle into our cozy little cabin, David drives down to the visitor’s center to see if we can secure a permit for a descent down Kolob. Due to its location downstream of a dammed reservoir, where water releases can turn the canyon into a death trap, Kolob is one of a few canyons in Zion National Park where permits can not be secured in advance. This was only the second weekend that the park service had been issuing permits for Kolob for the season. That in conjunction with the perfect weather, could make it a popular weekend for the descent. With Brian, Cody and Adam joining us for the technical portion, we are unsure if we can get a permit for five, falling below the park’s daily quota. David returns to the cabin with a smile on his face and a permit in hand.
Early the next morning we unsuccessfully sneak out of the cabin without waking Wyatt up and rendeszvous with Brian, Cody and Adam at the trailhead. After a short hike through dense forest we hit Kolob Creek above the technical section to find the slightest of flow (probably just below 1CFS) despite the Washington County Water District’s scheduled release of 3CFS. Though the boys seem a little disappointed with the flow it makes no difference to me and we suit up above the first drop.
The canyon is as beautiful as David described: relentless obstacles of rappels, down climbs, slides and balancing over logs to negotiate minor drops, all through frigid water in narrows that only get deeper and deeper. I am very happy for my 3mm neoprene hooded vest and 1mm shirt in addition to my 4/3. The technical section ends all too quickly, but I know from what David has described that some of the best parts of this adventure are still to come.
Shortly below the end of the technical section we reach a 400- foot waterfall from the rim above. At its base is a one-car-garage-sized ice block. The ice is mixed with sandstone sediment. From a low angle it blends in with sandstone walls hundreds of feet above. With Brian, Cody and Adam exiting out the MIA for a day trip and David and I hiking down through the Virgin River Narrows for an overnight, we say our goodbyes before the boys forge ahead.
Between several frigid swims, we pass a deer carcass rotting in the otherwise crystal clear water. The narrows are sustained for miles upon miles as midday moves into late afternoon. We begin to think about a place to camp for the night but we want to get past all those frigid swims so we are not faced with them first thing in the cooler morning. Just when we think we have passed all the swims we are faced with yet another one in a hauntingly dark hallway. The canyon opens a little and we see a flat sandy spot below a tree with plenty of places to hang our soaking gear for the night. We throw in the towel hoping that last one was in fact the final swimmer.
After a restful night’s sleep where we actually sleep in a little, (at least by backcountry camping standards) we continue to make our way down Lower Kolob. The water has gone fully underground with us getting nothing more than our feet wet. After a few hours we reach the confluence with the Virgin River Narrows.
At Big Spring we stop to refill our water bottles and wonder how long that water has been underground. Has it been 500 years? We marvel to watch that moment as all of that water gushes out of the bottom of those thousands of feet of sandstone. We chuckle to ourselves as we watch a backpacker filter the water right as it comes out of the ground. We continue downstream past hidden gurgling springs, stopping to swim in a hole and hide from all the people in a shallow cave. We emerge and zig-zag past fellow hikers whose numbers grow and grow the closer we get to the Temple of Sinawava.
Back at the cabin we hear all about Wyatt’s adventures with Marsha and Lee around the park. The following day we return to the Temple of Siniwava with Wyatt, Marsha and Lee for a hike a short ways up the Narrows. Wyatt starts in the baby back, but with a pole in hand ends of hiking much of the way himself. Perhaps the next time we descend Kolob Canyon Wyatt will be joining us.
Quartz Canyon via Peters Canyon , 3AIII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
Summertime in Phoenix is a combination of hibernating indoors, traveling to higher elevations for outdoor activities and lounging in our community pool like water buffalo. As I type these words temperatures outside are near 110 degrees. Sitting in front of my laptop in a dark room under a whizzing fan to the sounds of the hum of our air conditioner it is nice to look back several months to when our Sonoran Desert was not so roasting hot.
Spring time in the Superstition Mountain is a beautiful time. The drainages are often flowing, the rocky terrain covered in grass and the desert wildflowers blooming. All were present on this day for a descent of Quartz Canyon. It was a rather warm day. The desert letting us know that summer is just around the corner.
Laura and I are joined by Brian K. who I only just recently met through another friend. Brian has a great energy and passion for the wilderness and we are excited to be sharing the day with him. As we set foot on the trail we almost immediately encounter a plethora of varied wildflowers. 2013 shaped up to be a banner year for wildflowers and this trip gave us a great show. Tortilla Creek is flowing nicely as is Peters Canyon. A scenic narrow section in Peters reveals some nice swimming holes for the return trip. A brutal bushwhack out of Peters to gain the ridge above Quartz Canyon is far from pleasant but does afford some stunning views of the wilderness. We also encounter, for Laura and I the never before seen Desert Mariposa Lily, stunning.
Good and hot now we drop into Quartz Canyon. Not much to this canyon outside of two interesting enough rappels with a trickle of water to cool us down. After the second rappel we explore a nearby alcove cave. Firewood covered in what appears to be maybe decades worth of dust is piled inside the cave. We rejoin Peters Canyon. Taking advantage of those swimming holes we cool off during the hike out. This would be our last Sonoran Desert outing until cooler times return. With a new season it just means a different part of the Southwest landscape to explore and hopefully with the right mindset those cooler times will be here before we know it.
A different sort of day this one. For starters, it begins by water not land with a nearly five mile float down the Colorado River. After spending three days battling immense and uneven terrain slowly and tediously by foot, heavy loads on back, this portion of the trip represents the sweet reward for our toils. The mighty Colorado does the work as we sit back and seamlessly watch the world from 5000 feet below, sail by. So excited, I inflated my packraft the night before. Besides what would make a better pillow. In the morning I wake to discover my “pillow” is a third deflated. I am unable to locate the slow leak in the nearby pool at the bottom of the trickle waterfall at Olo Canyon. I can only hope the leak is so slow it will not too greatly effect the seaworthiness of my vessel. We walk across the beach, backpacks around one shoulder and packrafts and paddles held in the other hand. Life vests are strapped down and packrafts tempered to the 46 degree temperature of the water for maximum inflation. I clumsily board my little boat, my backpack on my lap, my lanky legs hanging out of the sides. I dig my “spatulas” into the water and sand and away we go.
Being so low in the water you feel every undulation, riffle, current and eddy. Its power remarkable. We keep the boats straight and true through the first set of riffles and the water calms. We can relax as the river takes us like a tracking shot on a camera mounted dolly through this magnificent scenery. A herd of maybe 10 big horn sheep run on the rocky slopes above the banks of the river along with us for nearly a mile.
It is not entirely a free ride even on the calm water. Currents can come out of nowhere and it would not take much to eject us from our tiny and flimsy boats. Taking a swim in the 45 degree water would be very serious. As we hear the approaching Matkatamiba rapid we move closer to the north shore. Just before the rapid (we decided earlier in the trip not to run it after scouting it) we dock in individual pockets between shoreline boulders. We exit our boats and portage around the rapid, reentering the river in the riffles just below. We float by a rafting party breaking camp at the Matkat Hotel. I want to say they look at us with perplexity, but they are too far away and I can’t see beyond their waves. Four and a half miles is over very quickly and we leave the marine world behind to return to that of feet on rock and dirt.
150-Mile Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
A break in the cliffs allows us a layer several hundred feet above the shoreline. At times we use existing bighorn trails, at others we negotiate exposed, chossy and off-camber terrain as we negotiate down river to get into 150- Mile Canyon via a ledge above the Muav Narrows. The ledge is also somewhat precarious forcing us to our bellies in one place to negotiate the narrow ledge maybe a 100- feet above the canyon bottom. Once on solid ground in the bottom of 150- Mile Canyon we begin heading up-canyon for our ticket out of here. The drops that we rappelled on the way down will either be bypassed using shelves above the narrows or we will have to ascend using the rope we left behind.
After a long a bypass hundreds of feet above the narrows below we drop back down to the canyon bottom. At the next dryfall we reach the first set of cord left behind. Instead of leaving a rope at each of the drops, lighter parachute cord was left behind. We attach our rope to the cord and pull the rope into place so we can ascend the drops. To save weight we brought only two sets of ascending gear between the five of us. After the first jug we break into teams to tackle the next three ascents, all of them featuring awkward boulder chokestones at the top that are challenging to get above and around. The jugs are separated by beautiful narrows in shifting light that because of our direction of travel look entirely different than on the way down. The final obstacle out of the Redwall narrows features an exposed but not too difficult 100- foot climb. Shortly after topping out on the rim of the Redwall, I hear Mark who is ahead shout something. I can not make out the words. I then immediately see a Bighorn Sheep sprint right past me right on the edge of the cliff into the narrows.
The Bighorn close encounter was one last treat before the three hour, 2000 plus foot slog to the rim above, much of it in the full force of the afternoon sun. The accumulation of the last four days is being felt now. Nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other until you are there. Upon reaching our vehicles Brian, Cody and Mark make preparations to hit the road and try to make it to Kanab before all of the restaurants stop serving dinner. Eric and I, on the other hand came prepared, having brought food and beer that remarkably is still ice cold in our coolers left behind. Our plans include eating mass quantities of food, washed down with a few brews and then sleeping. Driving can wait until tomorrow. With hugs goodbye, the team separates. Eric and I mosey over to a massive vista of the Grand Canyon landscape below. We marvel at its size. Though we just explored a considerable chunk of this wilderness it is a a mere drop in this truly grand bucket.
Often the most interesting stories of adventure are those that contain a little bit of misadventure. A tale of a true epic will really catch people’s attention. This post and the three that will proceed chronicling a four day backpacking and canyoneering journey through a remote section of the Grand Canyon is NOT one of those stories. Our team of five worked together like a well oiled machine, flawlessly tackling a wide array of challenges. I can’t think of a single mishap to report to add a little spice to the tale.
A week before the start it didn’t look like it was going to go so well. At one point the forecast said temperatures could reach triple digit highs in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. With 45- pound packs, tackling three thousand foot climbs, on rugged and uneven off trail terrain, exposed to the full fury of the desert sun, you could say we all had some serious concerns. The dozens of emails exchanged on a private thread would attest to this. Never-the-less, as we took the first steps away from our vehicles and into this massive expanse of wilderness we were filled with excitement and good spirits. Others who had been here before had said that some of the most magnificent side slots of the “Big Ditch” were in store for us. The forecast had improved somewhat. We were in shape. The utmost attention had been paid to packing efficiently. We had been well advised by those who knew this route better than anyone else. We were ready.
150-Mile Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
Hiking the Grand Canyon is a lesson in geology. This geology is all about layers. Off trail hiking and canyoneering allows you to slowly descend through these layers en route to the Colorado River. The nature of canyoneering in particular forces you to become intimate with the rock; being surrounded by it, touching it, sliding on it, evaluating it and gazing at it. The more time you spend in these side canyons the more familiar you become with this geology.
The hike begins on the eastern terminus of the Tuckup Route which quickly takes us through the Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap formation and Coconino Sandstone to the canyon bottom of upper 150- Mile Canyon. Here is a link that shows and explains the layers of the Grand Canyon that can be used as a reference. It should also be noted that this canyon’s name comes from the distance in river miles to Lees Ferry, the starting point for rafters on their journey through the Grand Canyon. With so many side canyons cartographers did not get creative in the naming of all of them. Despite its clinical name, 150- Mile Canyon is anything but ordinary. After a few hours of wash walking through the Supai Formation we reach the Redwall Limestone where the canyon drops down into a narrow slot. Rapping in we are surrounded by beautifully polished white walls. Stained from the red Supai Sandstone above, much of the Redwall Limestone ranges in hue from light pink to amber to scarlet red. The sun filters through the bends of these narrow walls forcing the light to constantly shift in color and quality.
150-Mile Canyon is not just our route to the Colorado River but will also serve as our means to get out of the bottom of the Big Ditch. On the return trip some of the drops we will be able to bypass by hiking or climbing up shelves above the bottom of the slot, but others we will be forced to ascend rope. Instead of leaving a rope at each of these five drops, lighter parachute cord is left behind. We will then have the ability to fasten our heavier rope to the parachute cord which we will use to pull the rope in place so we can ascend the drops. Thanks to Todd Martin and Rich Rudow for sharing this technique..
150- Mile Canyon does not drop elevation quickly. Therefore it takes a long time get below the Redwall Limestone, thus the Redwall Limestone narrows are unusually long and sustained. Eventually we reach the Muav Limestone and its horizontal layering forming pronounced striations. Not as thick as the Redwall Limestone we quickly reach the Colorado River at Upset Rapid just as several rafters tackle the rapid rated at “8″ on the 1-10 Colorado River scale. We hoot and holler as they slam into the massive white waves.
The journey continues on the opposite side of the Colorado River where we will explore three more side canyons. First, we have to cross the mighty river. From Upset Rapid we beach walk, which really means clambering over boulders on sandy sloped terrain along the river to a point where we can cross the river in our pack rafts to a beach on the other side. This will in turn provide a break to a shelf above the river. From here a short, but strenuous walk along the off-camber shelf above a cliff that drops sheerly several hundred feet into the river, brings us to a break where we can climb down to a flat beach known as the “Matkat Hotel”. Aptly named, the beach serves as our camp for the night and staging area for the next day when we will head up the nearby side canyon of Matkatamiba.
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area
4/7/13 – 4/8/13
One of Wyatt’s favorite books to read before bed is “Fred and Ted Go Camping”. Fred and Ted pack their car, hike into the woods and have a few adventures/ misadventures along the way. To celebrate David’s birthday we planned two days in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area with our two and a half year old son for his very first overnight backpacking trip. In the weeks leading up, we read that book countless times. While reading we talked about how Mommy, Daddy and Wyatt were going to do those things too.
The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is a 19,410 acre wilderness area on the northern fringe of the Galiuro Mountains featuring a perennial stream that has carved a scenic canyon 11- miles through the Sonoran Desert. Hiking under sycamores, cottonwoods and willows below towering cliffs we cross in and out of the warm, shallow waters as we make our way up canyon.
Thirty pounds of Wyatt sit snuggly in the baby backpack on David’s back. Another 20 pounds of gear is stuffed into the few available pockets of this pack in addition to a daypack filled to the brim with gear and lashed to the back of the larger baby backpack. With David unavailable to carry the majority of food and camping equipment like he normally does my bag weighs more than it ever has.
The weight on my back aside, seeing Wyatt’s face light up when he spots a frog hop under our feet is almost as gratifying as hearing him say “Good job Daddy” as David ducks under a fallen tree. We stop for lunch between narrow, red rock walls where Wyatt has a chance to put his toes in the river, feel the current, throw some sticks and watch them float away. “More sticks, more sticks,” demands Wyatt.
After lunch we continue up canyon. The gurgling of the river, light wind and rocking, lull him to sleep for 45- minutes. David and I share in conversation in hushed tones. About nine miles from the start we set up camp along the creek under a giant sycamore tree. With Wyatt’s assistance we erect the tent, collect firewood and pump water out of the stream. In the pre-dusk evening we go for a stroll giving Wyatt a chance to do some hiking on his own two feet before eating dinner by campfire. “Like Fred and Ted,” Wyatt says.
What will not go in the record books as the best night of sleep, though it could have been worse, we wake not long after first light and warm up by the campfire. Before breaking down camp we explore the nearby side canyon of Deer Creek. A dozen vultures circle overhead as the walls of the canyon narrow in. “Tunnel,” Wyatt shouts. A few miles up this deep, accordion canyon we break at a natural spring flowing right out of the rock lined with Golden Columbine flowers. We fill our bottles and Wyatt put his lips up to the trickling water, drinking right from the spring. On the way back to camp we spot the sluggish, brightly colored and venomous Gila Monster.
After breaking down camp we see more wildlife during the hike out. “Monkeys!” Wyatt shouts. The long tails throw him off. Just off the banks of the river is a pack of ten coati mundi. Again Wyatt falls asleep as we make miles only to be woken by 40mph gusts of wind that develop in the afternoon. Wyatt is not pleased, but we trudge on.
One aspect that makes spending time in the wilderness so special is the experience is scaled back to a much simpler form. It is all about what exists before you and what you need to do to safely enjoy these surroundings. All the other noise of everyday life fades away. For a toddler that simplified existence is the everyday. Sharing that with your son is truly special.
Things we did wrong: We forgot coffee. We WAY overpacked clothes for Wyatt. We even brought 2 pairs of shoes yet he was barefoot most of the time.
Things we think we did right: Talking about the backpacking adventure for a few weeks before the trip so Wyatt would know what to expect.