Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

The formation of a group in Upper Jump Canyon

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on October 20, 2014

Cody rappels through a three ribboned waterfall.

North Fork of the Kings River, aka Upper Jump Canyon
Sierra National Forest


During the planning phase of the trip there had been discussion of trying to do Upper and Lower Jump Canyons in one day. For clarification it is just one canyon, the North Fork of the Kings River. The canyon is broken up into two sections: Upper Jump and Lower Jump. Upper Jump actually ends right where Lower Jump begins. Though it would most certainly be possible to complete both routes in one long and exhausting day with a small and speedy group it wasn’t for us on this trip. Logistics made sense to do things out of order and hit Upper Jump second.

Before feet touch rock, water, dust and mud, planning and scheming occurs. It is a necessity of canyoneering. Last minute additions join; injuries and exhaustion result in one less. It all creates different groups tackling different drainages. It is a beautiful part of the sport. This is the first time this exact semblance of people has ventured into narrow places.

Mike's head pops up after jumping into water.

Mike’s head pops up after jumping into water.

For me and a few others in the group this will be my last day of this California canyoneering holiday. As I romp through the somewhat unpleasant long start to this canyon I become reflective. Will this exact group ever form again? A snake stretched out on a tree branch hanging right over a pool of water we swim under jolts me out of my own head space. Shortly after this the canyon gets going. A few fun jumps, a gorgeous boulder cave, long hallway swims and some awkward rappels that could become extremely challenging if flows were considerably higher, highlight the technical section. Upper Jump falls flat compared to the down canyon route, but it is still a pleasant half day route.

The spot that began yesterday’s adventure presents itself and we are removing our harnesses and wetsuits. This group of six: Cody, Daisy, Mark, Chris, Mike and myself charge up the mountainside and back to our vehicle. We pose for a group picture, exchange hugs and handshakes and then splinter into sub-groups, heading our separate ways.


The hype is real in Lower Jump Canyon

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on October 13, 2014

Chris and Scott in beautiful light.

North Fork of the Kings River, aka Lower Jump Canyon
Sierra National Forest


This is the canyon. This is the one the whole trip is built around, Lower Jump Canyon. The Interweb loves it, drawing lots of attention as of late. Cali canyoneers keep raving about it. It was only a matter of time before their inland cousins in Utah, Arizona and Colorado started venturing west to check it out. A couple of our friends did just that last season and they fully concurred the hype. Schedules align and we make the 12- hour drive to check it out for ourselves.

Just as we pull out of our water parched campsite to set up the shuttle for Lower Jump so do another group of canyoneers from LA. They are also headed to Lower Jump. We follow just behind their vehicles along a paved road on the banks of the bony Kings River and into the Balch Camp, another town built for the workers running the dams to create hydroelectric power for Southern California. Mike comments how it reminds him of the movie “Chinatown” with Jack Nicholson. I add it to my to watch movie list.

Chris getting air.

After the shuttle is set and the short approach complete we suit up on the banks of the North Fork of the Kings as it is called on the maps. Just ahead of us are two separate groups of at least six people each, including our campsite neighbors. Just minutes separate each party creating the potential for a real cluster fuck. The wheels in my head are spinning to figure out a way to considerately pass these groups so we are not on top of each other during the 9- hour descent. Fortunately, the wider nature of the canyon allows us to begin sending part of our group down off of meat while sending the rest down on the natural anchor. At the next drop we all jump as the group just ahead of us are rappelling. One party is completely passed. At the following drop we again use the meat technique for everybody but myself. The other group kindly allow me to use their rope to rappel down. We are now entirely out in front. The canyon gets going and we are in it, really feeling this place. Jump after jump, true Class C rappels with the deafening sound of water colliding with plastic helmets and endless swimming ensue. Never have I swam so much in a canyon before. I would be curious as to the total distance we swim on this day, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it approaches a mile. The middle section of the canyon opens wide with a series of especially long pools. The banks of the river are chock full of thick vegetation so a slow mellow back swim under a blazing sun while taking in the granite canyon walls above is clearly the path of least resistance. Ripe blackberries hang over these pools allowing for mid-swim snacks along the way. Despite this tranquil description it is still exhausting.

Daisy in the "Rainbow Room".

A lower technical section develops giving us the opportunity and misfortune to core shot a rope between a 150 foot plus and 100 foot plus rappels with nothing but a pool and ledge separating them. We now do not have one piece of rope long enough to complete the rappel. We could tie two ropes together to reach the bottom but the knot would then not allow us to retrieve our rope. After spending ten minutes brainstorming as a group to figure out the best way to tackle the problem we come up with a solution. We tie two ropes together and then perform a rap and lower for all but the last person. Our last man at risk, Mike, then raps over the compromised section of rope which is about 30 feet above a deep pool of water. Mike reaches the bottom with the rope still intact.

More slogging, down climbs through boulder mazes in the gorgeous late afternoon light and a final jump bring us to just above a dam and powerhouse and the end of the canyon. As our top car is retrieved snacks and beers are brought out. We all have that glow and buzz from having just descended a really good canyon. Those two other groups emerge not long after us and they look the same way. No doubt Lower Jump is the real deal.


A long drive to massive hydroelectric energy in Canyon of the Dammed

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on September 29, 2014

Canyon of the Damned.

Big Creek, aka Canyon of the Dammed
Sierra National Forest


According to google maps it is a 10.5 hour drive to Canyon of the Dammed, this first stop on our whirlwind Sierra-Nevada canyoneering tour. We actually picked this canyon because it has a shorter drive time than the pièce de résistance of the trip, Lower Jump Canyon. Leaving Phoenix after a full work day we know we have a nasty drive in store for us. With overheating issues those 10.5 hours become 12 and we pull off to the side of a dirt road to bed down for the night at 4:30 AM, just a few miles from Canyon of the Dammed. Three hours later we are getting our gear together. In an exhausted state I attempt to acclimate to my new surroundings. During those 679 miles we have left the desert and entered into a world of mountains, pine trees and massive granite features.

We set up our lower car shuttle in the town of Big Creek. The town has been built around Southern California Edison’s Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. We park a car not far from the powerhouse that creates hydroelectric power from the drainage that we will be descending. The structure is enormous and is one of 9 powerhouses generating a total capacity of 4 billion kilowatt hours a year, serving 4.3 millions customers in Southern California. It accounts for 12 percent of all hydroelectric power in California. It is fascinating to think we will be traveling through and be surrounded by the water and geography that makes all of that energy possible. We continue our drive through the town of Big Creek, not a person in sight at this early hour. The town appears to exist purely to serve the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. We switchback on a paved road up over two thousand feet to Huntington Lake, a reservoir, also part of the Big Creek Hyrdroelectric Project. In California’s historic drought, the lake is frighteningly low. The lake is at a third of its normal level. Tree stumps from when the lake was created in 1912 are exposed and docks lay in dirt far from the shoreline. Check out this story from the Los Angeles Times with amazing photos showing the retreating Huntingon Lake. I begin to wonder for how much longer will the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project be able to provide electricity to charge all those smartphones and run all those air conditioners. In the more immediate future is there go to be all that much flow for our descent.

At the start of the approach, Cody walks by Huntington Lake. With the extreme drought in California you can notice how low the levels of the lake are.

At the start of the approach, Cody walks by Huntington Lake. With the extreme drought in California you can notice how low the levels of the lake are.

We throw on our packs and walk alongside pipes, rails and other various infrastructure, of the hydroelectric project. Much of it appears to have been long decommissioned. As we work our way down a steep slope into the Big Creek drainage we are pleasantly surprised to see it is flowing considerably higher than from what we could see when we parked our bottom car. We now suspect that what we were seeing was after much of the water had been pulled out of the drainage for the powerhouse. Two thousand feet above there is enough water that I am second guessing my decision not to have brought my additional neoprene vest.

We get in it and begin to work the down climbs, rappels and slides. It is a place dominated by granite, way slicker than the sandstone we are more accustomed to. The canyon itself never really tightens but the adventure is exciting just the same and the scenery magnificent as we work our way towards and then past the massive granite feature known as Kerchoff Dome. One rappel is particularly exciting with the line right through the water course. As the descent nears its end we move past more pipes, wires, bridges and a small dam. A few more rappels past this and we can begin to hear the loud hum from the powerhouse. As I change out of my wetsuit studying the imposing quality of the powerhouse I am buzzing from an exciting Class C descent. I can’t help but wonder if the drought could put an end to what I just experienced and make the entire Big Creek Hydroelectric Project irrelevant.

A summer full of canyon fun with the family

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim, Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on September 22, 2014

Wyatt clings to David to stay dry in Pine Creek in Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

On this first day of Fall (even though it is sill triple digits here in Phoenix) it seemed like a good time to catalogue all the family fun we had these past four months in various drainages, canyons and lakes that until they were damed were free flowing rivers in canyons. Many hikes and strolls in the desert southwest will make their way into some form of canyons, drainages or washes. They are a dominant feature of this terrain. This summer’s family outings were no exception and it was such a joy to watch Wyatt experience and enjoy this quintessential part of our landscape.



Sin City weekend in Ice Cube Canyon

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on September 15, 2014

Beautiful hallway.

Ice Cube Canyon (The Maze)
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area


Vegas, it’s where two swinging bachelors run away to for the weekend. Well, we aren’t exactly swinging bachelors and this isn’t exactly your typical Vegas weekend. No Blackjack, strip clubs, Penn and Teller and all you can eat buffets on this 48- hour romp in Sin City. Well actually, there was not one, but two all you can buffets that were hit up, but the marquee event of the weekend was a descent of Ice Cube Canyon, also known as the Maze in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just 20 miles from the Strip.

Its late on a Friday night and Eric and I roll into a second rate resort and casino, on the outskirts of Vegas, not far from the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Despite my online reservation we are given keys to a smoking room. I object, but am told it is all they have available. I try to guilt them in to giving us some sort of comps. I am told this isn’t the Strip and they don’t do comps. I walk away with keys in hand and tail between legs. I am a real high roller. We enter our room and it smells almost as bad as the casino floor where at midnight droves of senior citizens are smoking Pall Malls while playing the slots. I am annoyed but know in less than 8- hours I will be a world away.

Also not living.

No car shuttle for us, so we will have to make the 3500 ascent by foot. We hit the trail early to beat the worst of the heat. By the time the sun gets to us we are at elevation and the temperatures are quite manageable. The scenery is vast, really giving a sense to the size of wilderness in Nevada. We top out and cross the ridge, the entire Strip and its one of a kind skyline clearly visible. We drop into Ice Cube Canyon and immediately encounter an enormous group. I don’t recall their exact numbers, but it was approaching a baker’s dozen. Eric and I decide to delay putting on our wetsuits so we can get a jump and get in front of this group. When we wade into the first pool of water it is entirely comfortable. We reach a swimmer, submerge, exit and not a single chill in the body. We keep moving and soon realize the wetsuits we brought are unnecessary. We turn a few rappels into challenging down climbs and that group is long behind us.

It’s just us and the canyon now. Its spectacular and way skinnier than I was expecting. The down climbs keep coming and they are not easy. Normally water this clear and fresh is bone chilling. Recent monsoon rains and warm temps have created the perfect conditions for dark, slotty, Class B canyoneering. The canyon opens up for awhile affording outstanding views of the surrounding countryside. The canyon narrows again with more swims and rappels. We pass the keeper of Ice Cube Canyon, a massive skull and horns of a Big Horn sheep. It sits on a ledge and may weigh 40 pounds. Its size and weight keep it in place and deter it from becoming a Vegas souvenir, just the way it should be. A rappel, hallway, rappel sequence brings us to the desert floor. We boulder hop to pavement, stash our packs under a tree and jog the approximately two miles in the stifling triple digit temps. That is Eric’s idea, but I was all on board. It is an agonizing 20 minutes

Back at the resort, a shower, a few pre-game cocktails and these two bachelors are ready to hit the town. An all-you-can-eat buffet, some poker and a few laps around the casino floor and we are in bed by 11pm. Like I said not your typical Vegas weekend.



Posted in Uncategorized by canyoneering on September 1, 2014



As professional photographers Laura and I are both used to seeing our images published in print. From the pages of the New York Times to the Arizona Republic to USA Today our photojournalism and portraiture is printed on a regular basis. Our canyoneering photography has always been more of just a weekend warrior labor of love, so when we get these images published its kind of exciting. In the last four months we have had quite a few of these photographs published in various publications, including Arizona Highways, Red Bulletin magazine, Phoenix Magazine and the Arizona Republic. Check out the slideshow and in the captions you will be able to link to the trips these images came from.

One footnote, the story in the Arizona Republic was about the 50- year anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act. Arizona alone has 90 wilderness areas at over 4.5 million acres. Arizona Republic reporter Ron Dungan and I explored what lead to the United States becoming perhaps the first nation to designate land to preserve it solely for its wild character. We also looked at the conundrums of wilderness today and why wilderness is important for future generations. To read Ron’s story, a video I produced on four perspectives of people deeply connected to wilderness and a slideshow of my images highlighting Arizona’s magnificent wilderness click here.


Too good to pass up in Frye Mesa Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona, Uncategorized by canyoneering on August 25, 2014

Katie swims during David's trip.

Frye Mesa Canyon, aka S’mores Canyon
Coronado National Forest – Pinaleno Mountains
04/26/14, 04/30/14

Laura was able to get away for the day and join the crew for a run down a new Class C canyon we had become aware of, Frye Mesa Canyon, also referred to as S’mores Canyon. I met Laura, Eric, Kyle and Mark for dinner after they finished their run. They were still buzzing describing it as an “instant classic”. As I listened to their canyon tales from the day, the wheels began turning in my head to try and figure out how I could sneak in a descent before summer temps and diminishing snowmelt would make the canyon less desirable. With an extremely busy schedule, a working mom and a 3 year old to boot, I could only find one day where it would even be possible. That day was smack in the middle of my upcoming work week. Now I just needed to get the day off from work and find some partners that can also take a day off from work on a Wednesday just four days in advance. Miraculously I was able to do both and without telling the boss I suddenly got a cold! While rush hour traffic was heading west on the US60 into downtown Phoenix, Brian, Katie and I head east as we make our way to the Pinaleno Mountains.

Mark rappels during Laura's trip.

Its a dusty and windy day as we make our way up an old jeep road to the head of the canyon. We are quickly able to see several waterfalls from the approach that in a short time we will be rappelling down. We know we are in for a fun day. Upon arrival about 2 cubic feet per second flow through a corridor of polished off white granite with blemishes of beiges and blues, providing the backdrop for a number of exciting rappels, down climbs and slides. The lower section is particularly exciting as the canyon bottom narrows into less than a body width, intensifying the flow. It is every bit as much a rock star as Laura, Eric, Kyle and Mark described. The canyon ends just on the other side of Frye Mesa Reservoir from where our vehicle is parked. Brian and I wade into the reservoir and swim the less than quarter mile across. It is the first time the exit from a descent is via swimming instead of on foot, completing what I would also characterize as an instant classic. If only every Wednesday could be spent this way.


Canyon tree frogs in Little LO & the nearby Slide Fire in the W. Fork of Oak Creek

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim, Uncategorized by canyoneering on June 2, 2014
Canyon frogs mate in Little LO Canyon.

Canyon frogs mate in Little LO Canyon.

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 burns near 89A in Oak Creek Canyon on Wednesday morning, May 21, 2014. (Photo by Tom Tingle/ The Arizona Republic)

The Slide Fire burns near 89A in Oak Creek Canyon on Wednesday morning, May 21, 2014. (Photo by Tom Tingle/ The Arizona Republic)

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.

Flames and smoke rise from the Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon on May 23, 2014. (Photo by Patrick Breen/ The Arizona Republic)

Flames and smoke rise from the Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon on May 23, 2014. (Photo by Patrick Breen/ The Arizona Republic)

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.

W. Fork of Oak Creek

W. Fork of Oak Creek

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.

- David

A quick stop to Morocco Canyon before heading home

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on May 19, 2014

David tosses the rope while setting up for the first rappel of the canyon.

Morocco Canyon, 3BI
North Wash


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.


A guest report in Sandthrax Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on May 1, 2014

Cody and Eric up high in Sandthrax.

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.


Mike crosses the major silo.

Sandthrax Canyon, 4AIIIX
North Wash


“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.

Mike shows off his #6 cams before putting them to use at the crux.

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.

(From left) Mike, Eric and Cody, all smiles with Sandthrax behind them.

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.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers