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In the tradition of the all the end of the year lists you may be seeing in websites, newspapers, magazines and television, we have put together a video montage of our favorite 2009 “Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places” photos. It was an amazing year exploring canyons: from the epic to the relaxed, from the classic route to the first descent, from swift water to sideway squeezes. We worked hard, learned news skills, made new friends and had a blast along the way. A new year is here and we can’t wait to experience what lies ahead in the canyon lands.
-Laura & David
The West Fork of Oak Creek
Coconino National Forest
The West Fork of Oak Creek canyon is an intense and sublime place that can be explored during a perfectly mellow day hike. In the summer the hike provides shade and a cool escape from the Valley. In the fall you can see the brilliance of the foliage and in the winter it is a slippery trounce through the snow and ice. I imagine in Spring this place also provides a contrasting and unique wilderness experience but I have yet to trek through during this time of time year.
The West Fork of Oak Creek is always a welcome sight after a long day of technical canyoneering as a number of technical canyons drain into it (Barney Spring & Flintstone). The creek meanders through boulders and red rock. Along the way it carves narrow channels, sharp pools and tiny waterfalls. Look up and you can see precarious rock formations perched 500 feet overhead. The warm toned sandstone walls are stained black and pink and yellow from wind and water.
Most recently David and I took his parents and sister hiking while they were in town visiting from the East Coast for Thanksgiving (click here and here for previous adventures with David’s family). With each stream crossing Sarah and Marsha gained confidence in their footing and after 26 times back and forth across the creek they were pros with dry feet. By the way, David’s feet were the only ones that were wet.
The West Fork is a photographer’s paradise, In addition to the big picture I like to focus on the abstract with my photography. A lichen-covered tree caught my eye with its interesting natural texture. A boulder covered in snow in the middle of the creek caught David’s. This place is vast and detailed, intense and mellow. A place we always enjoy whether just out for a relaxed walk or the end of an intense day of canyoneering.
South rim, Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is a spectacular sight to behold. I have had a chance to visit the park on a number of occasions since living in Arizona. Each time I visit the canyon I have my breath taken away by its beauty and grandeur. I have always wanted to see the canyon covered in snow. This week I got my wish. I tagged along with David while he was working on a travel story for the Arizona Republic. We drove up Monday and while David was shooting I went for a walk along the Rim Trail. The weather was cold but pleasant and there was some snow on the canyon but it was not exactly how I had envisioned the grand snow covered canyon. The Grand Canyon got several inches overnight as we slept. Tuesday morning we woke to a picture perfect postcard better than I could have imagined. The powder white snow decorated the trees along the rim and wispy clouds hovered throughout the canyon. While David finished his travel assignment I walked around the south rim and took about a million pictures. Standing in one place the canyon would change before my eyes, as clouds would blow in and out, blue sky peaking through then abruptly disappearing.
Blue Tank Canyon, 2BV/ Hells Hip Pocket 3BV
Tonto National Forest – Four Peaks Wilderness
11/22/09, 12/12/09 – 12/14/09
The system looked promising on topographic maps, but remote. Canyon Lake and the Salt River blocked it to the south. A large road less area (or least roads that are passable) of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area filled with rolling washes, and rugged canyons surrounded it to the west, north and east. Did a technical canyon exist within? I decided to find out on what would be one of my first real canyon pioneering adventures.
The first leg of the exploration began partially as training for an adventure race I would be participating in several weeks with my friend and one of my canyoneering partners, John. The adventure race included a section of kayaking. John and I thought it would be prudent to do a trial run in a tandem kayak before the race. A perfect opportunity to get some paddle in and allow for penetration into the canyon system from the bottom. Along with Laura in a single kayak, we made our way across a choppy Canyon Lake and up the Salt River into a direct head wind to the bottom of Blue Tank Canyon. Mormon Flat Dam at Canyon Lake has raised the water levels of the Salt River back into Blue Tank Canyon making for a short stretch of paddle surrounded by narrow canyon walls. After stowing our kayaks on dry land, we continued through the narrows by foot. The walls quickly got higher and tighter and transitioned from beige to blue in color revealing the origins of its name and giving us a beautiful stretch of canyon. A 10- foot dry fall was climbed with not too much difficulty. Before not too long the canyon opened up and became less interesting. John, Laura and I slogged up the canyon, negotiating several easy dry falls and passing an area of crystal clear spring fed pools hidden beneath thick vegetation before reaching the confluence of Hells Hip Pocket. With our rental kayaks due back that evening and the long paddle to the Canyon Lake Marina ahead of us, we only ventured a short distance up Blue Tank Canyon past Hells Hip Pocket before heading back down canyon. Even though I was slightly disappointed that during our ascent we were not stopped dead in our tracks by an un-climbable dry fall signaling technical canyon above, I felt confident there still could be something of note in either upper Blue Tank or Hells Hip Pocket. I looked to return to the system from above as soon as possible.
Laura kayaks into Blue Tank Canyon.
Nearly a month later, with 60- pound packs on our backs filled with a full arsenal of canyoneering gear, Eric and I slowly hiked up Trail 84 to set up a base camp and further explore the system from above. Hiking through mine fields of cholla pods and past wild burros we set up camp near a natural spring alongside a bullet ridden aluminum shack in the shadow of Four Peaks. That afternoon we dropped into the far upper reaches of Blue Tank Canyon. The first mile and half of the canyon were chocked with catclaw, prickly pear and other evil desert vegetation, shredding our legs, arms and hands. Eventually the vegetation subsided and the canyon changed character as walls closed in and the canyon got deeper. We were faced with several moderately challenging down climbs and waist deep pools to wade. We continued to the point where John, Laura and I had turned around a month earlier from below. It was confirmed. Blue Tank though challenging and beautiful does not require the use of ropes for a descent. Finding an alternate route back to camp along a high ridge and adjacent canyon we reached our camp several hours after dark. The following day we planned to descend Hells Hip Pocket and exit the system via Blue Tank.
From camp it took several hours of hiking up onto a ridge to reach the upper confines of Hells Hip Pocket. Along the way we saw deer and javelina. Hells Hip Pocket consists of five branches all draining from the same high ridge. We decided to descend via the easternmost branch, which is the one furthest from the confluence with Blue Tank and on the map appeared to be the main drainage. The canyon was moderately interesting and very different in character from Blue Tank. Certain sections were filled with brush but for the most part the hiking was not too unpleasant. We were able to avoid getting wet and rappelling by traversing ledges and moderately difficult down climbing. We did set up one 35- foot rappel off a pinch point down a dry fall. The fall could have been down climbed but appeared sketchy and under a light drizzle we felt rappelling was the safer option. As we slowly passed Hells Hip Pocket’s adjoining branches under the steady and cold drizzle, a slight level of disappointment was setting in that were not going to find anything of note. Then out of nowhere the canyon rounded a bend and dropped into a deep and dark slot. Eric and I were giddy with excitement as we evaluated the drop and looked for a natural anchor.
With no signs of webbing anywhere we decided on a small, but secure boulder above the drop. The rappel was approximately 40- feet. The canyon walls were beautifully tight and convoluted, undulating in weird angles. About 100- feet beyond the first drop, a second longer drop ended in a deep pool. Again there were no signs of webbing anywhere, so we took our time to evaluate the natural anchor options. Using a pinch point on a shelf above the drop, the rappel was exactly 50- feet into a 75- foot swimmer.
After the frigid swim and very short stretch of tight narrows to follow, the canyon opened back up to its former self. We hit the confluence with Blue Tank and began the long and strenuous climb up the canyon, followed by the alternate return route of the previous day. Again we reached camp several hours after dark. Around the campfire we discussed the possibility that we made the first descent. Though I feel it is impossible to make the claim with 100 percent certainty, the canyon’s remoteness and the complete absence of any signs of webbing seemed that ours was in fact a first descent.
The following morning we slept in and lounged around camp before the backpack out on a crisp December Arizona day. For the first time all weekend all four of the Four Peaks were not shrouded behind clouds. A lot of work had gone into the exploration and approach of this remote canyon that only yielded a short section of technical canyon. I could not have been more thrilled with the discovery and the process, adding a whole new element to the sport.
approximately 23 miles
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area
10/5/08 – 10/6/08
The desert is not a uniform world. Mountains and canyons break the desert up into pockets of diversity that are entirely different from adjacent areas. On the northern end of the Galiuro Mountains, the perennial Aravaipa Creek has carved a canyon of staggering beauty that pushes ones preconceived idea of the desert. My co-worker and friend, Pat Shannahan and I explored Aravaipa Canyon and some of its side canyons on a two-day backpacking trip. Along the way we observed big horn sheep and coatimundis, we rested under giant Cottonwood trees, drank fresh spring water coming right out of the dark red porphyry rock, gazed at the stars and the surreal geologic formations and sloshed our feet through the cool waters of the creek. I will close and let our images speak for this place and our time in it.