Normally when driving on a bumpy, dirt road along the rim of a canyon in the darkness of night we are heading home after a long day of canyoneering. Not on this night. On this night our legs were fresh and our wetsuits dry as we headed towards and not away from our adventure. With no moon and the tree canopy blocking the little bit of ambient light from the heavens our visual world was limited to the narrow channel of illumination created from the bouncing headlights. Some sort of cat, presumably a bobcat sprinted across that channel of light and then we saw a magnificent herd of elk including the bull with its giant antler rack. “This is going to be an exciting night,” I thought. As we parked at the head of the canyon, the thermometer in the car read 45 degrees. Headlights were replaced by headlamps as we got our gear situated. At 7:30 pm we began weaving through the forest and into Bear Canyon.
All three of us had descended Bear Canyon before and the consensus was that even though Bear Canyon contains a beautiful section of short Coconino sandstone narrows, it just doesn’t possess enough challenges to make it a truly classic canyoneering descent. As pools and down climbs began to present themselves what I remembered as being unchallenging took on a whole new light in the darkness of night.
As those narrows encapsulated us we took the opportunity to shut off our headlamps and briefly let our eyes adjust. Our pupils could not compensate. Only a thin sliver of stars could be seen overhead and everything else was a complete and total absence of light. The narrows were filled high with unquestionably cold water making for several longer than remembered swims. During night just like day those wonderful narrows ended far too soon, the canyon widened and after another half hour of careful maneuvering we made our way into West Clear Creek. As we passed a vacant campsite we took advantage of a fire pit and pile of wood and made a quick campfire. The fire was nourishing and stimulating both to the body and the eyes. It also made the transition from wetsuits to clothes all the more pleasant. John doused the fire with several helmet-fulls of water from West Clear and we raced up the trail and out of the canyon.
El Capitan Canyon, 3AI
south of Globe
Cold and clouds made for a Cheery-Oh day of canyoneering. Chris, Jessica, David and I descended El Capitan Canyon which parallels Highway 77 south of Globe last winter. For some reason, that is beyond me, David and Jessica decided to talk in British accents for the entire trip. Maybe it was the dreary weather.
El Capitan Canyon has a few rappels a short section of narrows and a really cool rock tunnel that you have to walk through after the second rappel. Once the technical section is over it is an easy hike out on a dirt road back to the car.
Imlay Canyon, 4BVR (Potato Hollow entrance)
15 miles (approximate)
Zion National Park
09/26/09 – 09/27/09
I would be lying to you if I told you that I did not have butterflies in my stomach as Laura, Eric and myself started the 7 hour drive up to Zion National Park to attempt a descent of Imlay Canyon. Like a “tell-tale heart” Laura could not mask her nerves if her innocence depended on it. Even Eric who is cooler than Eli Manning on Sundays talked about his very healthy respect for this one. Our group of three were all first timers for Imlay, a canyon that is so challenging it shares its own chapter in Mr. Jones’ guide book with none other than Heaps (another canyon which none of us have descended). What we did have was fitness, know how, the necessary gear and humble respect, all the ingredients necessary for a safe and successful descent. Regardless, we talked about how most likely everything would not go 100 percent without a hitch and we would deal with situations as they occur, just as we always have.
After getting our permit the following morning behind a man who had been waiting at the backcountry office since midnight, we hopped on the shuttle and began hiking up the West Rim trail from the Grottoes. The strenuousness of the approach of nearly 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain with heavy packs was matched by the intensity of its beauty. Five hours in and we reached Potato Hollow. Before beginning the descent we pumped iron-flavored water out of the nearly dry pond at Potato Hollow sharing it with dozens of thirsty but non-threatening bees.
Initially having trouble finding the anchor for the first rappel, Laura quickly got us on track. As we rigged the rope we all seemed to get a second wind. Rappels 4-6 consisted of a spicy and unexpected multi-pitch including a not quite hanging bolt station into a 170-foot rappel down a beautiful sheer wall baking in the afternoon sun. We handled the multi-pitch with precision, parched throats and hot feet. Once in the cool shadows of Imlay proper a sense of calm and serenity filled the air. Nearly a dozen rappels, a number of down climbs and a great section of really narrow canyon brought us to a flat, sandy spot alongside a water filled pothole. The water in the pothole looked relatively clear and darkness was setting in so we decided to camp for the night even though we had not yet reached the Crossroads.
A night of sipping filtered pothole water, whiskey and rum, filling our bellies with dehydrated pasta, chicken and rice, sharing in good conversation in such a unique setting could not have been a better way for Laura and I celebrate 10 years as a couple (the last four as husband and wife). Getting a relatively decent night’s sleep, we woke at first light. Suiting up in our armor of 7mm wetsuits we headed down canyon. By the time we reached the Crossroads we were warmed up and really finding our rhythm.
David boosts Eric our of a keeper.
Using short ropes Eric and I would leap frog Laura. Any especially difficult obstacles the leader would wait and we would tackle together. Any sequences that consisted of multiple drops consecutively we would make sure to locate the next anchor before pulling the rope. This rule saved our butts several times as we had initially rigged too short a rope to complete a second part of a double drop rappel. About an hour from the Crossroads the canyon got narrow, very dark and keepers emerged. Despite the frigid water our protection of thick neoprene kept us comfortable, allowing us to focus on the obstacles and really absorb just how much fun we were having. At the first big pothole (15 feet from the surface of the water to the lip) instead of hooking we repositioned a log jammed in the canyon bottom. Eric climbed the log and then on to my shoulders. Eric was able to gain some position with his hands on the wall as I shoulder pressed his feet and he clambered atop the lip. We waded through a hallway of wood soup, crawled through a tunnel under a logjam and worked together on down climbs and keepers. We were sweaty and grimy as we reached the end of the first section of extreme narrows in great time and style.
The second section of extreme narrows began right away as the rappels and the keepers returned with ferocity. By now we were pretty aware that water levels were extremely low (although we can’t say for sure as we were all Imlay first timers). Even though the apparent low water levels left for a number of deep keepers, because of these conditions we were able to stand in all of the potholes. This factor combined with my large size and Eric’s light body weight and climbing ability allowed us to boost out of all keepers but one that we had to hook out of. I also wonder if the potholes have recently been filled with sediment. Evidence of this was a number of holes drilled into the pothole walls that seemed ludicrously low to the ground. The canyon ended with a dramatic 130-foot free hanging rappel into the Virgin Narrows. Touching down into the Narrows the unexpected problems we figured we were bound to encounter never came and it felt pretty darn good.