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.
Headdress Canyon, aka Geronimo’s Ravine, 3CII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
Our corner of the world had just been hit with several hard, consecutive winter storms. Laura and I were planning on getting out to take advantage. An abundance of water in the desert doesn’t happen often and doesn’t linger. At the last minute something came up for Laura so the adventure would also include solitude.
I parked not far from Tortilla Flat, the remnants of a stagecoach from the start of the 20th century when they were building a road for construction of Roosevelt Dam. Today, Tortilla Flat is a restaurant, saloon and gift shop, popular with out of town visitors. The sound of snows birds laughing and talking along the old porch of Tortilla Flat would be the last human sounds I would hear except for my own heavy breathing for the next several hours.
The adventure began with a steep climb out of the Tortilla Creek valley, requiring some navigating to pass through several layers of cliff bands. Every drainage and micro drainage across the terrain was flowing. Along the way I passed my first arch. Reaching a high point I could see LaBarge Canyon that even from this considerable distance away and height above was flowing with incredible ferocity. To my left was my point of destination, Geronimo’s Ravine, given the name Headdress Canyon, by those that made the recent first descent and shared the beta. This canyon had a more reasonable flow for negotiation. Once in the drainage I spotted my second arch of the day. Shortly after I reached the first rappel, a 30- foot drop into a pool. Utilizing the existing, inventive natural anchor I made my way down. This was followed by: a fun down climb, narrows, a third arch and the nicest of the day, an optional rappel I down climbed and then the final rappel, a beauty of a 65- footer down a fluted alcove. From below I took in that robust arch I had spotted just above, this time framed by the alcove walls. Below, more narrows before the canyon opened up. Now negotiating catclaw and other unpleasant vegetation I spotted the final and fourth arch of the day before reaching the road.
The canyon was extremely scenic and pleasant particularly in these flowing conditions. Though quite easy, when descending a canyon solo, particularly one you have not done before, even the easiest of canyons take on an aura of excitement with higher stakes. I returned to my car and voices with mid-west accents in under three hours from the time I left them. Perhaps the most challenging feat of the day was changing out of my wetsuit and into dry clothes in a sedan with all of those tourists around.
Robber’s Roost Canyon, 3AII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
With family in town for Thanksgiving, (free babysitting) Laura and I sneak away for the better part of a day for an adventure hike with some canyoneering in the Superstition Mountains. We begin the hike early in the morning on the Carney Springs Trail. During the ascent we pass by one of the largest multi-armed Saguaro Cactus I have ever seen. James Madison could have been President of the United States when this Saguaro sprouted from the ground as some of the majestic cacti can be as old as 200 years. Ascending on we reach the ridgeline and head off the Carney Springs Trail into the lunar landscape of hoodoos and other bizarre rock formations. Our goal is to find the Robber’s Roost, a sort of slot canyon between a series of rock formations. The cavity between these hoodoos actually drains water into a larger drainage below. I don’t know exactly where the Robber’s Roost is, only the larger drainage that it feeds into. Laura and I take a round about way getting over to this drainage as the terrain is other wordly and difficult to navigate. Upon reaching the drainage proper we get our harnesses and helmets on thinking we are about to enter the Robber’s Roost and its few rappels. A short while after heading down, something just doesn’t feel right. The canyon begins to get wider and brushier and we are leaving the rock formations behind. After a while I turn, survey the rocks above and recognize the final pour off from the Robber’s Roost formation well above us from photographs I had previously seen. We have completely missed it. There is no chance Laura and I are going to trudge back up through the thick brush to get into the Roost proper. It will have to be saved for the next trip. We know we still have a 250- foot rappel down the bottom part of this drainage. After more bushwhacking we reach the rappel. The vertical drop cuts right through the cliff in a scenic alcove. Following the rappel Laura and I have to fight through a fortress of catclaw to get back to the Carney Springs Trail. Back on the trail as our hot feet trudge on the rocky terrain, I already am planning on returning to descend into the Robber’s Roost proper. My mind being what it is and all.
A few weeks later…
Venturing back out alone I park at the Peralta Trailhead well before first light. My plan is to hike over to and up the Carney Springs Trail, find the Roost, do a complete descent of it into that other drainage, ascend that drainage and then navigate across Dacite Mesa to Fremont Saddle and down the Peralta Trail. This will allow me to leave my 320- foot rope at home avoiding that 250- foot rappel and all of that horrible catclaw at the bottom of that rappel. The sunrise lights up the hoodoos above the Carney Springs Trail in a glow of fire red. After a little searching I find the Robber’s Roost. I am not really sure what the history of the Robber’s Roost is. Despite some research in books and on the web I found nothing. The entire area is steeped in legends of treasure hunters. Carney Springs is named after Peter and Thomas Carney who mined the area for copper in the early twentieth century. With these riches it is not hard to imagine thieves to follow. Dropping into the “slot” between the hoodoos I can see how this would make a great hideout. Though in its current conditions it is bone dry evidence suggest that water runs through after a little rain. Graffiti carved in the walls dates back 75- years. It makes me wonder how long does it take for graffiti to stop being vandalism and become history. I down climb the first two drops and rappel the 80- foot pour off that I had spotted from below on the previous trip. The entire descent takes 15- minutes. I then hike up that drainage and navigate quickly through the hoodoos along the Dacite Mesa to Fremont Saddle and down the Peralta Trail. I am back home before lunch.
Waterslides Canyon, 3B/CIII
approximately 5 miles
Sierra Ancha Wilderness Area
This was a really tough day out in the canyon lands and not in a good way. I think I could easily say it was my worst day ever in canyoneering. I had just done Waterslides Canyon with John several weeks before. We had a wonderful day enjoying the magnificent scenery, unparalleled water slides and meeting a group of new canyoneers at the trail head. John and I spent a portion of the descent with these great group of guys. It is always fun to meet some new local canyoneers. They were also extremely gracious in shuttling us back to our vehicle saving us from a long nasty hike back to our car.
Steve Schwartz has been a longtime reader of this blog. He is a friend of Laura’s father and an avid hiker, covering a lot of ground in the Shenandoahs. Steve became our most faithful reader and commenter. Through the blog he became a friend of mine. It was just a matter of time before Steve decided to fly out to Arizona to try canyoneering for himself. I planned a two day canyoneering trip where we would do Waterslides Canyon on the first day, followed by Salome Jug on the second. We dubbed it “Schwartz Fest”. Steve was really excited, as were Laura and I.
On top of the first rappel we gave Steve a tutorial of what he needed to know. Steve had been on rappel before but I can’t say he had all that much experience. I rappelled first, followed by Steve as I gave him a fireman’s bely on the 25- foot drop. Everything went very smoothly. The second rappel came up right after the first. The anchor was a knot block in an angled crack. We inspected it and it looked good. Again, I rappelled first, followed by Steve on a fireman’s belay on this 10-12 foot drop. As I watched Steve come down with a belay ready I watched in horror as the anchor gave way and Steve fell backwards. My instincts instantly kicked in and I bear hugged Steve in an attempt to break his fall as he slammed into me with incredible force. The blow knocked me over and Steve careened off of me onto the rocky ground. I immediately started asking Steve if he was ok. After we confirmed that he could feel everything and nothing initially seemed to be broken I moved Steve into a more comfortable position. He was complaining of a stiff neck and a slight numbness in his head. I was concerned about a concussion. Steve had definitely hit his head after he bounced off of me and hit the ground. Only a half mile from the car, we could have hauled Steve up that last rappel, lead climbed the first and then hauled him up that rappel and gotten him back to the car, but Steve wanted to continue. After resting for awhile and continuing to question Steve on his condition, Steve felt confident to continue.
To say that Laura and I were very shaken would have been a gross understatement. What is normally one of the most fun canyons around, was far from it on this day. Laura and I could just not get in that playful mood after what had happened. Never the less, Steve made his way down the rest of the canyon at a normal pace. He even yelled out a hoot on the water slides with a big grin on his face. I know that he was in a fair amount of discomfort from the fall and was not enjoying it at the level that I would hope for him. Through tremendous resolve Steve got out completely on his own.
For days after the incident Laura and I felt wholly awful about what had happened. Steve was our responsibility. Simultaneously we were so grateful that Steve walked away with no significant injuries and was able to finish the canyon on his own two feet. I shudder to think what would have been if I were not standing in the position I was so I was able to break Steve’s fall or if he was not wearing a helmet. Looking back on the incident I think what happened was that the knot block might not have been placed far enough back in the crack and I did not adjust that before I rappelled. Because I rappelled straight down from the anchor and at a very low angle to the wall the block held. Steve, being a novice rappeller, was up higher and not in a direct line when he started down and the anchor gave way. None of it was his fault. It was ours for perhaps not placing the knot block properly and not checking more closely as Steve began his rappel. In well over a hundred technical descents and thousands of rappels this was my first blown anchor. It is something I will do everything I can to insure that it never happens again. Though I may face some criticism by sharing this story I hope others can learn from what happened here. They may not be as lucky as we were. Steve was anxious to share his story on the blog. Below the video, which features footage from both descents is a report in Steve’s words.
“First the reader needs to understand that I am a complete novice at canyoneering – never did it before (though I have certainly hiked and backpacked numerous difficult trails in the Shenandoahs and nearby hills in the northeastern US). What I knew about canyoneering I learned from the adventures of David, Laura and their friends on this web site. It looked like great fun and adventure, and so I was elated when David and Laura graciously volunteered to take me.
I was not disappointed, the rappels were exciting, the waterslides breathtaking, and the scenery magnificent. We were typically in a 20-30 foot wide canyon with walls extending up hundreds of feet on either side. There’s only one way out – to continue downstream. Downstream consists of maybe ten rappels (each one being maybe 10 – 50 feet high), maybe 8 breathtaking waterslides (also 10 – 25 foot drops), pools at the bottom of the waterslides (very cold, clear water), and plenty of walking. Most of the walking was over large round, smooth river rocks that are ankle-twisters waiting to happen. If you’re in good physical condition, and not afraid of heights or claustrophobic, then you’re a candidate for canyoneering. You won’t find this type of beauty and solitude in many other places.
The first rappel went smoothly. It was on the second rappel that disaster struck. The rope on which you descend is attached to a metal ring on the webbing. David was the first one down – no problem. I was second. I had just started down the rope when the webbing pulled loose, off the top of the rock anchor around which it was looped. I plunged 10 feet, bouncing off David who tried to break my fall, and then to the ground below. Somewhere on the way down I hit my head on a rock. Fortunately my helmet cushioned the blow. When the “dust cleared” I was flat on my back with three sets of very concerned eyes watching me, and checking my level of consciousness. I knew that my neck was badly wrenched, but all the other body parts appeared to function per specification. It was only ½ hour or so later that my back and legs began to feel the trauma, and gradually became weaker and more painful.
Understand that we were at least 20 miles from any effective form of communication with the rest of humanity. We did not see another soul on the trail all day (unless you count cows).
Would I do this again? YOU BET! Should my schedule bring me back to the Phoenix area, and assuming that David and Laura ever want to see me again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I think that they had more nightmares about this adventure than I did. In fact the only way to escape the pain for the first week after the calamity was to sleep, which I was able to do just fine. In any case there were no broken bones, but it took a full week until I began to feel human again.” - Steve Schwartz
Parker Creek Canyon, 3BII
approximately 2 miles
Tonto National Forest- Sierra Ancha Wilderness
Canyoneering has always just been a hobby, a hobby of deep passion, but never any form of livelihood. That all changed, for just one day. I am a full time staff photographer for the Arizona Republic for a profession. For a number of reasons, I have never had all that much interest in pushing to have my canyoneering photographs published in the Arizona Republic. Recently, however, 12 News whose operations are integrated with that of the Arizona Republic, asked if I would mind producing a short video on canyoneering for a new series they are producing called “Explore Arizona”. With that, fellow Arizona Republic staff photographer, Michael Schennum, one of my primary weekend warrior canyoneering partners, and I produced a video on canyoneering in Parker Canyon. I normally use a high end point and shoot camera with a water proof housing to document my adventures. But for this descent we wanted to get real high end quality HD video so we used our professional Canon EOS 1D Mark IV DSLR cameras which we also shoot video with. The challenge became keeping our cameras dry in the canyon. We kept our cameras in canyon kegs filled with towels. We succeeded in getting some great footage and keeping the cameras from getting destroyed in all of that water. It was a lot of work, that took a lot of time (we spent six hours on the descent that would normally take Mike and I less than three hours). It was pretty awesome getting paid to go canyoneering, even if just for a day.
Rock Creek Canyon, 3B/CIV
approximately 9 miles
Mazatzal Wilderness Area
In the fall of 2007 I went out for a solo hike in the Mazatzal Wilderness Area. The plan was to loop together several trails for an all day adventure. After crossing over the crest of the mountains I lost the trail as it had all but disappeared after the Willow Fire of 2004 had burned much of the area. Instead of turning around and retracing my steps to find the trail, I decided to forge on and head into a canyon that I knew would drain easterly in the direction of my vehicle. Initially, the decision seemed to work as I was able to make progress, losing elevation and heading east. Here and there things did get a little hairy as steep drop offs into pools blocked my way. However at each of these drop offs slanted layered rock at 45 degree angles provided enough purchase to make negotiation down these pour offs possible. Just for a little context, at this time I only had a few technical canyon descents under my belt. I had no harness or rope with me. I did not know what drainage I was in and Laura, back home, certainly would have no idea exactly where I was, as I had gone off course from my planned hike. I remember processing this last bit of information at the time and knowing that the stakes were high. In other words, take a fall and get injured and you are in big trouble.
I carefully proceeded, safely down climbing the obstacles and wading through the pools until I hit what I remember to be a 100- foot vertical drop. I instantly knew I could not continue down the canyon bottom. Fortunately, I only had to ascend back up the canyon a short ways where I found a way to climb out of the canyon bottom and around the drop off. I continued down the drainage and darkness set in when I hit the remnants of an old jeep road. With no headlamp and GPS I knew traveling cross country was out of the question, so I decided to follow the road in the direction of the lights I could see from cars traveling on the Beeline Highway many miles away. Three hours later, having run out of water long ago I reached a restaurant along the side of the highway that had already closed for the night. I looked inside the window of the establishment and could see a woman counting the register with nobody else inside. I banged on the window and yelled that I had gotten lost on a hike and needed water. She looked at me with a frightened look on her face and said “I’m sorry. I can’t let you in but there is a spicket in the back.” Good enough for me. I walked around back, got on all fours and slurped the metallic tasting water till I got my full. Even though I now knew where I was, I still had hours of more walking along forest roads back to my car. With a few bars on my cell phone, I threw up the white flag, called Laura and asked her to come pick me up and take me to my car.
In the all the excitement of the epic and with much of it occurring in the dark I was never able to say with certainty what drainage I had descended. Years later as I began to hear of individuals descending many of the canyons of the Mazatzal Mountains and having begun to descend some myself, I figured it would just be a matter of time before I ran into my old friend. As Eric, Laura and I planned a descent of Rock Creek Canyon and I studied the map, I thought it was likely that this was the one.
It was great being out with Laura and Eric for an all-day wilderness style canyoneering adventure. It is the same group that will be taking the adventure across the pond later in the year, so we had plenty to discuss. As we drove west on a bumpy dirt road I felt like it all looked familiar. Of course the familiarity was a memory from over four years ago on a moonless night with no headlamp in a dehydrated state.
As we hiked into the mountains through catclaw and burned areas of the Willow Fire, again it all felt familiar. After a long approach we reached the first drop in Rock Creek Canyon. Further down the drainage that same geologic formation of slanted, layered rock cut down the side of the canyon appeared. Just as I had used it to down climb the drops in the canyon in 2007 we were able to negotiate this canyon in a similar way, but by now, I knew this was not the same canyon.
After realizing this was not that place, there wasn’t much left to do but enjoy the rugged scenery, fine company and two distinct sets of technical sections the canyon dished up. Though the mystery will remain unsolved, venturing deep into this territory, I now have a solid idea of where I was. Confirmation will have to wait for another day.
Hose Canyon, 3BII
approximately 1.5 miles
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
There was nothing extraordinarily spectacular about this canyon, so close to my home in the Phoenix metropolitan area. There it sat, probably rarely visited, tucked away just off a heavily traveled thorough fare until not too long ago some of the local Phoenix canyoneers found it and generously shared it with others through the online community. Kind of last minute on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, we went to see what it was all about. Just before the canyon dropped into the technical section we heard voices behind us. Quickly, none other than Rich Rudrow and Todd Martin came around the corner. With the short and sweet technical section ahead, we merged into a singular group through the rappels, down climbs and continued on together during the pleasant hike out of the canyon and back to our vehicle under the glorious winter Arizona sunshine. There may not be too many other places in this country where one can drive 45 minutes from a major metropolitan area, descend a newly publicized canyon and make it back home for lunch. Lucky to live in such a place.
Big Kahuna Canyon, 3B/CIII
approximately 5 miles
Mazatzal Wilderness Area
Not a whole lot to say. Just a really pleasant descent down a canyon tucked in the Mazatzals. Big Kahuna follows a creek as it meanders through boulders and plummets down a few waterfalls before meeting up with Barnhardt canyon. Access could not be easier as the canyon crosses the Barnhardt trail making both the approach and exit cake. Not to be left out for the day David, Wyatt and Briscoe accompanied Susan, Mike, Eric and myself to the base of the 2-stage waterfall rappel and Big Kahuna’s namesake. It was a beautiful Arizona day without a cloud in the sky and it was fun to finally do a canyon with Susan.
Parker Creek Canyon, 3BII
approximately 2 miles
Tonto National Forest- Sierra Ancha Wilderness
It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving in Arizona without a family canyoneering adventure. The Sunday after Thanksgiving my sister Abby, David and David’s dad, Lee, headed to the Sierra Ancha Mountains for a descent of Parker Canyon. It is fun to be able to share canyoneering with our family. It is also the best way to show off what a rugged and beautiful state David and I live in to the east coasters. I was a little worried about the cold when we encountered ice covered pools at the start of the canyon. Fortunately, it was the only ice we saw that day although the water was still frigid despite our multiple layers of neoprene. The canyon was as good as ever with spectacular scenery and just enough challenge to keep things both fun and spicy, even for the noobs. By far what made the day so special was spending time with my sister. Walking back to the car along the sun drenched rim with Roosevelt Lake sparkling at our backs, the dark abyss of Parker to one side and the towering Sierra Anchas to the other, was the perfect setting for Abby and I to banter like only sisters can.
Shake Tree Canyon, 3B/CIII
approximately 5 miles
Mazatzal Wilderness Area
It is hard to believe after all these years and all of these canyons I have never done a descent without David. Shake Tree was going to the be the first, well at least sort of. David, our five- month old son, Wyatt, and our Boston Terrier, Briscoe did accompany Mike, Kyle and Eric during the several mile hike from the trailhead to the start of the technical section. Once we got there, Briscoe cooled off in the crystal clear pools and I fed Wyatt and changed his diaper in a shady spot by the creek. After kissing his chubby little cheeks, we said our goodbyes. David strapped Wyatt back into the Bjorn (a baby carrier) and lead Briscoe out of the canyon, down the trail and back to the car. The rest of us continued down Shake Tree, a canyon with flowing waterfalls, water slides, a big rappel and some lovely scenery. It was a perfect day and as the boys got farther in front of me on the hike out it was nice to have the desert all to myself.