Casner Cabin Draw, 3BIII
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Fork of Oak Creek
Stretching from the Grand Canyon to the White Mountains, Arizona is home to the largest continuous Ponderosa Pine stand on the continent. Within this stand hide dozens upon dozens of slot canyons chronicled in this blog. Weakened by drought, insects, climate change and well intentioned but perhaps misguided forest management, over 25 percent of Arizona’s Ponderosa Pines, including the aforementioned stand have been ravaged in the last decade from monster fires including the Rodeo-Chediski and last year’s Wallow Fire. The latter being the largest in state history burning over half a million acres.
Arizona Republic environmental reporter Shaun McKinnon writes about the importance of a long term plan to protect our forests from future wildfires in his June 17, 2012 article, ” Fear of the Next Fire”
” The cost of failure is as steep as the pine- covered canyons at stake: forests that are the irresistible lure for tourists and desert dwellers and home to tens of thousands of people, trees that shelter a diverse array of wildlife and protect an irreplaceable source of water that fills the reservoirs above Phoenix. If the trees die, they may not return for thousands of years, if at all.”
During a recent summer day, this desert dweller, escaped the heat into the iconic Ponderosa Pines for a solo descent of Casner Cabin Draw. With my only company being the towering trees I had plenty of time to think about McKinnon’s article which was published just the day before.
To summarize, for tens of thousands of years the Ponderosa Pines could tolerate the dry conditions and regular fires that stayed low to the ground and prevented the forests from growing too dense. As settlers began arriving in large numbers in the mid 19th century their livestock began grazing the vegetation more aggressively than the native deer and elk, allowing the Ponderosas to fill the void and grow more densely. At the same time the settlers were also suppressing natural lightning fires which also prevent the forests from becoming too dense. This policy continued for generations.
“At that time our understanding was fires were the enemy of the forest, just as wolves and mountain lions were the enemy of the deer herds: No one really realized at the time how important they were as self regulatory mechanism for the ecosystem,”
says Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute of Northern Arizona University, in McKinnon’s article. Before the settlers the forests contained 30 trees per acre while today’s fire protected forests contain up to 1,000 trees per acre. When these dense forests do burn it is so all-consuming and hot that the trees, soil and habitat may never recover. The United States Forest Service working with a private company as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project have thinned sections of super dense Ponderosas in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. According to the White Mountain Stewardship Project these areas did not burn as aggressively during the Wallow Fire and many of these trees survived.
Every year the fires come. It is a nerve racking time. In part this is because I am often spending many days photographing these wildfires on assignment for the Arizona Republic, but it is also stressful because I find myself waiting to see what wilderness will be next. So far the forests that are home to many of the canyons we cherish have been spared.
To read McKinnon’s story and other’s from his series on Arizona’s forests and wildfires click here.
Crack Addict Canyon, 3AIII
approximately 5 miles
Coconino National Forest
“What’s around the next corner,” is one of the more intoxicating aspects of canyoneering. For this reason first descents or perceived first descents (in most cases you can’t know with 100% certainty that you are the first one down) are so exciting and seductive. Almost on par with a first descent is that where you have absolutely no beta on a canyon, but know others have been down before. Such was the case during an early Spring time romp down a Mogollon Rim drainage. We were tipped off by a friend that something was there although he himself had never descended the canyon nor knew a single detail about it. All he knew, directly from those who had actually been down, was where it was and that they called it, Crack Addict.
After nearly getting Kyle’s pick-up stuck in thick mud on the drive up we bedded down on a cool night under Ponderosa Pine trees and bright stars. The following morning, as we finished on foot what we could not continue the night before by vehicle, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for us. Would it be a gem or a stinker, easy or hard, dry or wet? Probably best to be prepared, but not expect too much.
With that what we found was a canyon with nearly a dozen rappels, fine sculpted sandstone walls and nearly devoid of water, except in the frozen form as several giant and compacted snow patches filled the canyon bottom at the base of a few rappels. Webbing existed at several drops but with clear signs of Father Time, as in one case a sapling had grown several feet right through a rappel ring.
Crack Addict is not destined to be a rock star or classic as others in the area, but it is a fine canyon indeed. It far surpassed my tempered expectations. Not knowing only enriched the experience. This does make me stop and think how guide books, online beta, forums and blogs, including this one, effect the experience of others. The truth is there is a lot of good, some bad, black, white and a million shades of gray in between that comes with that communication. In the end we live in an era where communication is easier and more aggressive than ever, nobody is stopping this reality and for the most part that is a good thing. Never the less, it feels good when you get the opportunity to get out and see what’s around that corner of the unknown.
Cove Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
10/15/11 – 10/16/11
Before we get started I have to make mention that this recent descent of Cove Canyon in a remote part of the Grand Canyon National Park would almost certainly not have occurred without the new guidebook, “Grand Canyoneering” by Todd Martin. The book takes a look at over 110 side canyons of the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the majority of which are technical. To say that this book is merely impressive would be a gross understatement. The route descriptions, maps and other relevant information that gives the descents a geologic and technical context are thorough and detailed. The book is also chock full of beautifully printed, informative images. Perhaps even more impressive than the book itself, is the systematic exploration that Todd Martin, his primary partner, Rich Rudow and others involved, accomplished. It is highly probable that a considerable number of these canyon descents were the first time that human beings set foot on that ground.
Though not the deepest canyon in the world, the massive size and scope of the Grand is unparalleled. It is 15 miles at its widest point and 6,000 feet at its deepest. Just walking down from the rim to the river and back to the rim on a well groomed trail is a challenging physical test. Now imagine walking great distances from your car park over uneven and exposed terrain just to locate a side canyon. Once you have reached this canyon you must use a number of technical techniques and gear to reach the Colorado River. Once at the river you are challenged with task of traveling to a place where you have the ability to climb out from the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back to the rim. Armed with complete information from “Grand Canyoneering” or even nuggets of information as I have done on several previous descents of technical side canyons of the Grand Canyon are adventures that require an intense physical commitment and acceptance of suffering.
First descents or completely unbetaed descents are another ballgame, entirely. From a mental standpoint you are faced with the reality that you just don’t know what kinds of of obstacles, technical or otherwise you will face in the canyon. Because of that reality you must take the kitchen sink of technical gear to safely overcome those myriad of unknown obstacles. Todd and Rich were carrying often far more gear than they needed because they just didn’t know. They also probably didn’t know how long exactly a journey to the river and back would take. This means taking some semblance of camping gear and extra food. With the hog on the back, all of their efforts were completed at a frenetic and what some might call, obsessive pace. They spent over 150 days in the Grand Canyon in just 3 years. If you spend that much time in a place in such a short time then you are bound to experience some extreme temperatures, which the Grand can dish up even during the more temperate Spring and Fall seasons. Believe me when I say, having now descended Cove Canyon and a number of others from before the publication of this book, that spending that amount of time in this wilderness in this fashion is almost unimaginable, both physically and mentally. I would like to congratulate Todd and Rich for their discoveries and accomplishments. I think John Wesley Powell in the very least would be interested and might even be proud.
Now on to our descent of Cove Canyon. The adventure began from the remote Tuckup Trailhead nearly 60 miles from the nearest paved road, where the hike began with a pleasant trail traversing along the Esplanade, 3,000 feet above the Colorado River. The Esplanade is an enormous sandstone terrace below the rim that spans much of the length of the Grand Canyon. All too quickly the trail dissipated and we were faced with picking our way through uneven terrain around numerous side drainages and their many respective fingers until reaching the far upper reaches of Cove Canyon.
One can not hike and explore from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the river without getting a first hand lesson in geology. This is even more apparent when you are not traveling a wide, even and fast moving trail and you are forced to slow down and really experience the rock that surrounds you. Todd’s book goes into a straightforward, yet detailed explanation of the geology of the Grand Canyon. To paraphrase, approximately 5 million years ago the region of the Grand Canyon uplifted different horizontal layers of rock in the same even pattern in which they were laid down as sediment. The Colorado River then began to carve out the Grand Canyon with the assistance of the region continuing to uplift. The side canyons were created from violent weather eroding the side drainages revealing the different layers of rock. Venturing down Cove Canyon each of those unique geologic layers exposes themselves as we moved ever so closely to the roar of the river that opened up this geologic history in the first place.
Cove Canyon began in the Supai Sanndstone layer. We were faced with several rappels through the red rock that dates back to nearly 300 million years ago. With the chossy red sandstone behind us the canyon dropped into the Redwall Limestone forming a tight slot, giving us our first respite from the hot sun. Redwall Limestone and its cousin, the Muav Limestone are the rockstar layers when it comes to canyoneering in the Grand Canyon. Their properties form the tightest and most exciting slot sections of the canyons. The Redwall section of Cove Canyon did not disappoint. A magnificent triple drop rappel along a bend brought us to the heart of this section of narrows. A tense moment ensued when initially we had trouble pulling the rope. Through the use of changing angles, moving down canyon and using a jumar to assist in gaining purchase of the rope, we were able to bring that lifeline down. The canyon then opened up filled with large boulders requiring route finding to pick our way through them. With the hog on the back every teeter tottering misstep drained tremendous amounts of energy.
The canyon dropped into several beautiful sets of narrows in the Muav Limestone layer. At this point in the day we began paying closer attention to the time. Whether or not we were going to reach the river before dark began to seem less and less likely. With that we began pushing hard and taking less pictures as we negotiated more rappels through more layers of rock. As the shadows got darker and cooler in hue we could hear the faint sounds of the river. Those sounds got increasingly louder as a subtle draft of chilly air came up from down canyon. Less than half an hour before complete darkness we reached a small sandy beach along the Colorado to bed down for the night.
Shortly after first light we gathered our gear and inflated our packrafts. The small inflatable boats were our mode of transportation downriver to a point where we could hike out of the canyon and back to our vehicle. To say the float was merely exciting would be an understatement as we had to negotiate several major riffles in what basically amounts to a glorified pool toy. Between my 190 pounds of body weight and all of my gear I was more than exceeding the 225 pound limit of the boat that was probably intended to be used only on still water. Still water this was not and floating low in the water, the riffles would splash over and into my boat even though I was hitting them straight on. Several times I had to catch an eddy, get on shore and dump all of the water out of my boat. One of those eddies was so powerful that I had an extremely difficult time escaping its upstream flow and getting into the downstream current with my flimsy, lightweight plastic paddles.
The roar of Lava Falls, one of the biggest and most notorious rapids of the Colorado was the signal to get off the river where a primitive route up a scree slope through the bands of cliffs would allow us to reach the rim over 3,000 feet above. We docked a quarter mile upstream of the rapid, its roar loud and ever present. We could not see it aside from the occasional violent gush of white water flying well above the horizon line of the river. Before the suffer fest out of the bottom of the canyon, we decided to take a look at Lava Falls from a safe perch above the shoreline. Words do not describe the carnage.
The hike out was what we expected: hot, slow, tedious and exhausting. We each found our own pace, spreading out and battling the ascent. We reached the rim in good time before the final 4.5 mile road walk back to our car.
Canyoneering in the Grand is so much more than canyoneering. In fact it is small part of this place that is so big. Even with the assistance of “Grand Canyoneering” the majority of these descents are not for the faint of heart. I look forward to the many adventures I will experience with the knowledge of this book; those many adventures slowly over a long period of time. 150 days of exploration and adventure in just 3 years; not for me, not in this place.
Shamrock Canyon, 3BIIIR
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek
Laura and I had been trying to get out on a canyon together all summer. With a 9- month old at home our opportunities are few and far between. We had planned on going canyoneering in the middle of the summer but the monsoons kept us at home. A second opportunity presented itself as my parents were out visiting. With a favorable forecast we ventured to Shamrock Canyon. It was wonderful getting to spend some alone time with Laura, particularly in such a beautiful setting. This was Laura’s first descent of Shamrock and my second. The canyon was more challenging than my memory served me, which may have had something to do with the fact that water levels were considerably lower than my previous descent. Never the less we made quick work of the down climbs, rappels, wades and pot hole escapes and reached West Clear Creek all too quickly. The only unpleasant moment during the descent came when Laura had an encounter with some sort of Stinging Nettles species. We relaxed for a while along West Clear Creek before the slog back home. During the hike out Laura and I talked about how few times we have descended technical canyons without the company of others. We could only remember of one previous descent, Stone Donkey. Canyoneering is such a social sport that we cherish that shared time with our friends, but today we were glad it was just the two of us.
There are many ways to explore canyons and on a recent August day we ventured between the shear sandstone walls of East Clear Creek. This time our explorations were not by foot and without ropes or harnesses. The objective of the day was to not ascend or descend a canyon but to find some fun and challenging climbing lines from the canyon bottom up those precipitous canyon cliffs. You may be thinking, “Did you not just mention that you left the ropes and harnesses at home.” That is correct. On this adventure we delved into the sport of deep water soloing. Deep water soloing is a discipline of rock climbing where an individual climbs vertical or overhanging walls over deep bodies of water so if the climber falls the water protects them from injury. The sport is most famously practiced on sea walls, cliffs and towers over the ocean at high tide, but we found ourselves climbing above the brown silty waters from monsoon runoff backed up from the dam downstream in the East Clear Creek reservoir.
We placed our inflatable rafts (not much more than pool toys) into the chocolaty waters of the reservoir and paddled upstream past an abundance of graffiti as the canyon walls tightened. After several miles Mike spotted some fun warm up lines so we docked our boats, swam under the blazing sun to the start of the climb. We dove down a few times to make sure the water was deep enough and that there was no debris in the fall zone of this water that had zero visibility. Up we went and after topping out at about 30 feet the only thing to do was hurl ourselves off the cliff and into the water below.
We paddled past a beautiful panel of petroglyphs to other climbing routes. The climbs got progressively more difficult with the hardest moves often being the one out of the water. As the sun began to move lower in the sky we paddled back down stream past a group of young teenagers on top of the cliff. They took turns psyching each other up to make the jump into the water and one by one they made the leap.
West Clear Creek
Coconino National Forest
07/16/11 – 07/17/11
With Wyatt secured on David’s back we hiked down to West Clear Creek. Along the way we crossed paths with a couple of canyoneers heading back to their car after a descent of Sundance. After a joking conversation on the merits of starting kids canyoneering before they are able to verbally complain we continued down the trail. Once reaching the canyon floor we found a perfect spot for lunch and a swim. Briscoe rolled in the sand as Wyatt babbled at the sandstone walls, looked up at the bright blue sky and examined some grass growing by the banks of the creek. We continued up stream boulder hopping and log crossing into the alcove where the final rappel of Sundance touches down.
We camped on the rim not far from the entrance to Shamrock Canyon. As David set up our monster tent Wyatt looked up at the trees and laughed. Before dinner with Wyatt snuggled and sleeping on David’s chest we took a walk through the forest at twilight. With nobody else around we walked in silence occasionally speaking in hushed tones so to not wake Wyatt. The light glowed softly through the the trees as we got back to camp. As night fell both Briscoe and Wyatt were mesmerized at the flickering campfire.
In the morning, after a night that could have been a lot worse, (Wyatt only woke up twice) we took another walk along the desolate forest roads before packing up and driving back to the Valley. It was the perfect first camping trip for Wyatt and a joy to experience Arizona’s rim country with our child for the first time. The best part is knowing how much the future holds.
Babes Hole Spring Canyon, 3BII
approximately 4 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of Sycamore Canyon
The first Mogollon Rim canyon descent of the season is always special. It is more than descending those beautiful Coconino sandstone slots, more than being towered by the magnificent pine trees and more than breathing the crisp mountain air. That first descent represents another season and another year. Our lives change quickly, but outside a rare natural or manmade disaster, little changes year to year in this magical wilderness.
Babes Hole Spring Canyon was an easy and not terribly exciting technical descent, but the canyon was rather pleasant and the day wonderful as I was joined by my old friend and canyon partner John, and a first timer canyoneer and new friend, Steve. With a recent snow fall, the ground was saturated adding to the springs, resulting in a modest but steady flow through the entire canyon and crystal clear pools. A lethargic Bull Snake laid sprawled out on a rock in the narrows below a beautiful fluted rappel. It did not seem terribly interested or bothered as we moved all around trying to find the right angle to pull our rope that got temporarily stuck. Unlike our Bull Snake friend, a Mojave Green Rattlesnake was extremely irritated as we rock hopped past it. Hundreds of butterflies resembled multi-colored snow flurries and silver colored canyon frogs hopped abound.
My heart beat fast as we aggressively hiked up the Little LO Trail out of the canyon bottom. Feeling the burn I stopped to catch my breath. I tilted my head back and was mesmerized by a towering tree that had long past away. Just a few steps behind me Steve stopped and also stared up at the magnificent form above us. He poignantly remarked of the countless organisms that live within the old, dead tree. With that I smiled, took a moment more and continued up the trail.
Big Canyon, 3BIV
approximately 7 miles
11/06/10 – 11/07/10
Beloved Colorado Plateau on the magical Navajo Nation. It is dark and once again we are negotiating dirt roads that seem to intersect for no rhyme or reason. My GPS on its last legs decides to report for duty and comes to the rescue. The adventure certainly starts with the drive.
Great friends on this trip, representing three states, including Tanner, who I grew up with in New Jersey. Tanner is a recent transplant to the West Coast, the best coast. He has never been on rope before, but is in amazing shape and has the attitude. I think he may have picked a good one for the first one. The other vehicle is already at the rim just above the abyss that can’t be seen at this hour. With no trees in this austere environment and having brought in little wood themselves they have got a weak fire going. Not to worry the cavalry has just arrived. Several hours later, one by one we lay down for a little sleep.
At first light we wake to see what could not be seen before. Finding a way into the canyon requires a little searching; along the way primitive structures you probably wouldn’t see anywhere else, a flock of sheep. On the map this looks promising but we just won’t know until we peer over the edge. Almost there now. Yes, a break in the cliffs. Yeah, that’s going to work. Carefully negotiating the boulder-strewn gully allows for passage to the canyon floor.
Once in the canyon bottom it is smooth sailing along sandy terrain until we hit the limestone. The walls begin to narrow as the sandy bottom is replaced by polished limestone. Slowly the canyon reveals only little of what it has in store for us. The first drop is a beauty into a spring fed room. One by one we take our turn over the 70-foot overhanging drop into the pool below. Thanks to the spring feeding the pool, the water is much warmer than expected considering the cold temperatures of the late autumnal air. A number of rappels follow. Each drop features an enormous travertine formation formed over time from the minerals brought up from the spring just up-canyon and deposited as it flows down the drainage. The calcium formations resemble spires from a fortress that would exist in a fictitious world such as “Lord of the Rings”. We take care as we rappel to not damage these otherworldly formations, but these formations are surprisingly solid. The pools at the bottom of each drop take on an aqua blue color from dissolved travertine that can only be described as that of the Caribbean Seas.
Tanner has an enormous smile on his face. He is feeling it. This may be his first canyoneering experience, but this canyon is so unique that it is like the first time for all of us. I look around and everyone has the ear to ear smile.
The roar of the Little Colorado River gets louder and louder as we head further down Big Canyon crossing hanging garden springs and grotto pools, all isolated from the rest of the planet from soaring red wall reaching two thousand feet above us. At the confluence with the Little Color River, the color of the water just doesn’t seem real. We play for a while, even though there isn’t much light left in the day. How could we not?
As we float on our backs down the river towards our camp for the night, I think about my wife, Laura. I wish she were here. Instead she is home, 36- weeks pregnant, hopefully not going into labor. Years down the road I will have to bring her here, along with our yet to be born child. They will need to see this.
Camp is set at dark. Wetsuits and other gear are hung on branches of nearby trees to dry. A fire is set. We are all buzzing from the day. Tomorrow, a suffer fest several thousand feet up an old Hopi route to get out of this intensely special place and up to the world above.
Shinumo Wash, 3BVR
approximately 11 miles
Navajo Nation/ Grand Canyon National Park, tributary Marble Canyon
09/18/10 – 09/19/10
The moon had yet to rise as we headed west on a dusty Navajo dirt road in a maze of roads, some nothing more than two tire tread marks through the desert scrub. Well over an hour after leaving pavement and only because we had a GPS, we arrived at our trail head right at the edge of Shinumo Wash, a deep and wide side canyon of the mighty Grand. As we laid down for the night the moon rose giving us a better sense of the vast country that surrounded us.
We woke with the sun, the heat following just behind. As we organized the last of our gear we knew it would not be long for the heat to completely catch up. We headed down the old Bureau of Reclamation Trail from the 1950s used to transport gear and personnel for a proposed dam site down at the Colorado River. For a side canyon, Shinumo was wide, vast and deep. The trail zig zagged down the steep canyon walls in the blazing sun to the sandy bottom strewn with boulders.
After hours of slogging down the not particularly pleasant canyon bottom surrounded by massive sandstone walls we approached a new layer of rock. As the drainage entered into this limestone layer the canyon narrowed into a beautiful slot and the real fun began. A pattern of either clean fluted rappels or slides of giddy excitement down polished limestone chutes into deep pothole pools of temperate water was the modus operandi of descent for the technical section. In these conditions the potholes were full and easily escapable and each one laid in the bottom of its own individual room before the next drop would take you into an entirely new chamber. Direct sun did not penetrate into the canyon bottom and despite the warm air and relatively warm water I was left with a slight chill through my body as we continuously submerged into and exited pools. Despite the slight shiver we took our time enjoying the rappels, the slides and the enormous insects who made this place home. The silver chambers of the slot had a campfire glow of light reflected from the sandstone walls towering over a thousand feet above us. Another rappel brought us to yet another room and we noticed dozens of footprints in the dried mud. This is the famous “Silver Grotto” a popular side hike from the Colorado River that rafters come up to from the river during their several week long trips through the Grand Canyon. Above this room where we came from, the rafters are stopped dead in their tracks from the drop we had just rappelled down. By now the roar of the river was easily heard and before not too long we reached the banks of the Colorado.
This part of the Grand Canyon like most of it, does not allow an exit up the fortress walls nor does it allow dry passage along its banks. The solution was to use small inflatable boats that we carried in our packs to float down to a section of the canyon where escape was possible. After inflating our pack rafts we launched into the swift current. Riffles splashed water over the boat that placed me only inches above the undulating surface of the river and entirely too soon we reached our camp for the night along a magnificent beach. The sounds of the river was the perfect background noise to a relaxing and enjoyable night of camping.
Despite several hours of unpleasant approach hiking, the previous day was full of beauty, fun, excitement, exploration and relaxation and we had barely paid much of a price for admission. What was the catch? On the exit hike back to our vehicle we found out. A real suffer fest; 5- hours, 2500 feet of elevation gain in complete exposure to the sun with temperatures hovering around 100- degrees. Truth be told I like to suffer a little. I find it cleansing. So for that ride I’ll pay the ticket price every time.
Shamrock Canyon, 3BIIIR
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek
The term “monsoon” comes from the Arabic word “mausim” which means “season” or “wind shift”. In Arizona the monsoon is when during the summer months consistently high temperatures create a large swath of low pressure. This low pressure literally sucks moist air from the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf of Mexico creating high winds and violent thunderstorms throughout the southwestern United States. 2010 has been a wet monsoon for Arizona, filling many of the canyons, particularly those on the Mogollon Rim, to the brim with water.
In late August, John and I headed up to West Clear Creek for a descent of Shamrock Canyon. Despite a favorable forecast, interesting clouds hung low and as we made our way higher up the rim on Arizona State Route 87 we became shrouded in the clouds. Approaching Shamrock the lightest sprinkle added moisture to our already sweaty skin from the humid air as we walked down the steep slopes of saturated soil from the many weeks of rain. Entering the canyon, the clouds parted and blues skies took over as we found ourselves surrounded by velvety and electric green moss covered walls. At the first rappel we dropped down alongside the slightest trickle of water. Further down an interesting and challenging triple drop rappel included a normally deep keeper pothole that was unrecognizable as it was filled to the brim with unusually temperate water. One more rappel and a short slog later and we were at a pleasant beach along West Clear Creek enjoying lunch and watching brook trout and crawdads doing their thing in a crystal clear pool of water.