Hard Day Harvey Canyon, 3BIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Unlike the previous mornings I do not wake to feel the glow of the rising sun hit my face. Instead muted light takes over. I unzip my tent to see ominous clouds hovering in nearly all directions. The rest of the crew wakes. It is our final day but the weather is leaving doubt that our planned descent of Hard Day Harvey is going to happen. Some coffee, hot breakfast, a morning fire and things begin to look just a little better. Enough to rally and we are on our way.
We don’t know much about this canyon other than its name and two statements Ram had made about it the day before in Paradiso, “Excellent choice.” and “It has several hard right turns.” Preparing for the skinny stuff we are once again packing light, leaving the wetsuits behind. I hope its not wet. Perhaps breakfast is not sitting quite right or it is the anxiety from the weather but my stomach is churning as we get at it. A quick fast forward a half hour into it and I am in a completely different world than the one I left behind above the rim. What upset stomach? Not here, not now.
Physical, sweat drip. Muddy shoes smear, some high moves. Low, turn sideways, breath.
Yeah, its like that for awhile. A slide into a pool. That looks deep. The chocolate waters wont reveal until we are in it. I’ll go first. It gives me more opportunity to document the great reactions of my five compatriots as they hit the icey cold waters, sans wetsuit. Yup, full on swimmer. Its picture time.
The narrows get tighter, darker, muddier and wetter. We are all a little chilled but the physicality of this descent is keeping us away from hypothermia. The light that does penetrate is exquisite. We hit those challenging right turns. The final of the series is the real business. A tight down climb into a small bombay with chest deep water and then the canyon takes a hard 90 degrees. From there it gets really skinny with a chockstone inconveniently placed to really make it challenging. Eric is in the lead. He takes the low route and barely makes the squeeze to the other side. He shouts back instructions. Best to stay high over the pool make the right turn and get above that chokestone. I am up next. With muddy walls I can’t stay high on that right turn and slide into the pool. I squeeze under the chokestone but am unable to pass through a constriction just beyond. I backtrack back into the pool and stem up to get my torso out of the frigid water. Brian comes down to the right turn and from my position I am able to pin his mud caked shoes to the wall so he can make the move up to the chokestone. He lowers me a sling to try and pull me up, but the angles and space are not there. I try low again. This time I take my helmet off and push it and my backpack in front of me until Eric can grab them from the other side. I then lay down on the ground and wiggle like a snake to get below that super tight constriction to the other side. Brian is now coming through above and his large frame’s progress is impeded by another restriction. It is so skinny he does not have the room to maneuver up and over it. I am able to get in there and push him up enough to get past. This entire sequence exists all within about 20 feet of canyon. The crux is now behind us. A little more business before we hit the confluence with Good Day Jim. One more rappel before the canyon fully releases us.
The hike back to our vehicle is a continuous, convoluted jaunt navigating up and over seemingly endless sandstone cross joints. As those cross joints drop down to our left into the dark depths of Hard Day Harvey they create the character (including those tough right turns) that makes the canyon so challenging to descend. Just to our right are the waters of Lake Powell. At one point we stand on the edge of a cliff that drops at least a 500 sheer feet straight to the water. Though we didn’t try I wouldn’t be surprised if one could throw a rock into the water from here. We snap some photos, and look around at views in all directions. The exertion of the day and beauty of this place has left me filled with a pleasant feeling of fogginess. A motorboat passes just below us; the sound of its engine clearly audible. The hum of the boat fades away and that still beating heart of Glen Canyon is felt and heard. Such an experience to step inside and explore a few of the veins that go directly into this heart; however changed it may be.
I am in the lead as we emerge from a dark and magnificent section of tight narrows in Paradiso Canyon (our second descent of the day). As we round a bend into the open sun I see other people clustered around the top of a drop going back into the darkness. The unexpectedness of seeing people outside our own party in this pristine and rugged wilderness is almost jarring. Then I recognize several familiar faces.
Earlier that day…
Our group of five is now six as Brian joined us late the night before. Another two canyons on the docket for today, finishing off the four that make up the Dantes’. We survived the depths of hell the day before and find ourselves in Purgatory en route to Paradiso.
Purgatory Canyon, 3AIII
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Purgatory is considerably easier than Inferno and Limbo, but still quite pleasant. To be completely honest with you, even with photos, its detail are buried in my sub-conscious. Maybe its because the challenges were comparatively subdued. Perhaps what I recall the most, the beauty of the place aside, is my growing concern that I will have any pants left for the drive home. My first pair has been decimated, rubbed to what doesn’t even resemble pants by Good Day Jim, Inferno and Limbo. My fresh second pair split laterally across a seam on the backside, on a down climb early in this canyon. Providing fodder for laughter with my canyon partners we make our way through the narrows and interesting rappels, some with tricky starts. (Future parties, please set anchors long enough as these drops could easily be scarred with rope grooves). We emerge. Mark lays down on his belly and slurps up water from a pothole with a Life Straw. The same route as the previous to the top of the system. Third time is still a charm. A quick lunch and into Paradiso.
Paradiso Canyon, 4AIII
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
True to its name Paradiso is magnificent. We journey through super tight narrows that sometimes require you off the ground and other times to the ground crawling on all fours to pass a restriction. The narrows are sustained with occasional breaks. We are having a blast inside an isolated bubble of excitement and beauty when we emerge from a tight section. Maybe our own giddiness drowned out their voices but as we round a bend without hearing them we see another group.
This is the first time I am meeting Jenny and Ram in person though I have corresponded on an off with both of them over the last several years. Jenny was a part of first descents dating back to the early 1980s, (I was literally still in diapers at the time) including some of the toughest canyons of the Colorado Plateau such as Kaleidoscope, more commonly referred to as Choprock Canyon and Poe Canyon.
I don’t think it would be a mischaracterization to say that many would consider Ram the patriarch of southern Utah canyoneering. Perhaps even more significant than his dozens (maybe hundreds of first descents) during intense 14-21 day canyoneering forays over decades, is the manner with which he has brought the canyoneering community together. Through both the digital world and the one in flesh and blood, Ram has been a foundation in this adventure sport in our corner of the world: innovating techniques, organizing trips and festivals, sharing information, commenting and leading. It was special to finally meet him and even more special to meet him inside one of the places that he was there to discover in 2005. It’s physical appearance aside, this really is a small world.
Our group makes small talk with their group of seven as they negotiate a drop. Also amongst them a skinny pre-teen named Justin. He seems to be handling himself quite well. After they are all down and back into the darkness, we give them space laying on our backs in the sand, soaking in the sun. We can hear them down canyon negotiating a second obstacle. After awhile we drop down and take a peek to what is below. We find stunning beauty. Sandstone fins and waves sculpted by the artist, Father Time, with his assistants, wind and water. Nobody else is capable of such a masterpiece. Not wanting to breath down the necks of Ram’s group we don’t continue down canyon and soak it in. We can’t see them but hear them working an obstacle. For maybe 20 minutes nothing moves but our heads and necks turning to study the beauty. It is not often to just sit in such places for any kind of sustained time.
When we hear their group is through we continue on. A few tricky obstacles await including a deep pothole that has to be traversed while on rappel before the canyon opens up to the final rappel. We catch the second half of their group. More conversation. And then halfway up the exit hike we catch their group again. We casually walk together our groups intermingling, sharing stories and getting to know each other between slick rock domes. Though embarrassed before, by now I am beyond caring that my pants are split wide open. Not far from the trailhead we stop on a flat section of rock with magnificent vistas around. Maybe steered in that direction Ram begins sharing stories of some of the scariest canyons he knows on the Colorado Plateau. Our group gathers around in a semi-circle listening intently. Some of us may hope to go to these places one day, others want them as nothing more than ghost stories. Daylight is beginning to dwindle and we return to the rim, our camp and their vehicles. Hugs are exchanged before their SUVs disappear over the horizon. We plop down on our chairs feeling pretty satisfied.
Durante deli Alighieri, commonly known as Dante, was a master Italian Poet of the middle ages. His Divine Commedy is widely considered one of the greatest works of literature in human history. It is a kind of poetic and fictitous Trip Report of the most epic proportions chronicling Dante’s journey through the three realms of the afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. Like all good TR, the Divine Commedy uses the journey to examine bigger issues including religion, sin, virtue, philosophy and even science.
692 years later and half a world away from the time and place of Dante’s death, the five of us strap on our packs and venture into the complex named after the great poet. Like Dante, lets start with hell or as he called it, Inferno.
Inferno Canyon, 3AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
The canyon immediately starts steep and slotty, forcing us off the ground from the get go. Eric is in the lead, I’m just behind him. I see the red light of his GoPro blinking as I make my way off the deck in a down angle trajectory to keep parallel with the canyon’s steep pitch. Knowing I’m being recorded I say “I’m trying to smile for you man.” A reader of this blog would know I’m not the biggest fan of high stemming. Yet, I can’t keep from coming back.
Before not too long I settle in. The moves required are not beyond my abilities. The exposure off the deck is mostly within the reasonable 20-25 foot zone. But make no mistake, a misjudgment of how to work your body within the walls at even this modest height could be more than trouble. Knowing this creates a focus that blurs out everything outside of my immediate reality of time and space. This is why I keep coming back.
We hit the crux, an awkward silo. From a comfortable space for one to fit their body between the opposing walls, it flares out in a silo shape vertically, 25- feet all the way down to the canyon bottom. As you approach gravity wants to take you from the secure perch into the silo depth. I ride it until I get to the edge and with a hair raising move step over emptiness into the comfort of the other side. Reassuring words and advice from partners aside, we are all on our own. One by one we take our turn.
Moving on there is more business. Emerging from the underworld and into the sun the canyon concludes with a rappel before completely opening up.
Limbo Canyon, 4AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
We navigate the slick rock rim exit. It is a route we will become quite familiar with. After a quick lunch in the only available shade we can find, we strap the body armor back on before heading into the first circle of hell, Limbo.
Limbo features a number of drops with non-existent natural anchors. Why no bolts you may be asking? Much canyoneering in the Colorado Plateau, but this area in particular, is part of a no-bolt ethic. The community at large, led by those who first descended these canyons is largely responsible for determining these practices. Maybe not everywhere, but most certainly here I subscribe to this ethic. It has taken eons to create these exquisite places. It is nice to see them in almost the same way they existed before man set foot in them. (Bolts may not alter that forever but for a very long time). These canyons remain remarkably pristine after hundreds of descents. Besides, with inventive techniques, practices and equipment shared by the community, drops can be negotiated without bolts or viable natural anchors. It may be a little more challenging, but it is possible and a lot more fun.
We utilized it all: SandTrap anchors, meat anchors, captures and spots of our ace in the hole, Adam. In Good Day Jim we got a sense, but in the more challenging canyons of Inferno and Limbo we really got to see his skills. Like Inferno, the canyon comes to another gaping silo. Everyone on there own again. At 6’3″ I have no problems spanning the abyss to the other side. Oh yeah, really feeling it now. More business before a final rappel taking us out.
Back at camp, we settle into our comfy camp chairs taking in the awe inspiring view in the late afternoon sun while sipping cold beer. Night sets in and the air is still. Steaks sizzle on an open campfire. In Inferno, Dante passes through the gates of hell and he sees the inscription, “”Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“, or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I guess that didn’t apply here.
Good Day Jim Canyon, 3AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
To start a qualifier. I was less disciplined this time. As I have in the past, I did not conclude each day (of a multi-day trip) by laying on my stomach my headlamp illuminating the inside of my tent, jotting down notes, musings, details and observations of that day. Even after only two weeks I am afraid that these six exquisite canyons within those four wonderful days are already beginning to meld together. That is a shame because even though four of the six were almost a stone’s throw from each other, they possessed unique qualities and character from each other. The other two (which were only two miles as the crow flies from the four) were also spooning each other. It will take these writings to separate them. Hopefully, I find success. Or maybe it is better if I don’t. Maybe it is better if some experiences stay in my sub-subconscious; stay within this underworld that took eons to create.
As is our modus operandi to keep a vacation day in the bank, the eight hour drive up to the Colorado Plateau is done almost entirely in the dark. We pull off the pavement. We are only 10 miles away from the north shore of Glen Canyon. It has been described by many as the heart of the Colorado Plateau. We pull off to camp for the night and I step on this earth. The canyon may have been dammed over 50 years ago but I swear I can feel that beating heart. It is going to be a good four days.
Four of us made the pilgrimage from Phoenix, but in the morning there are five tents. Adam of Grand Junction, Colorado, had been corresponding with Eric. None of us have met him. Eric said he sounded extremely competent. At the witching hour of our arrival all we see is a tent. In the morning Adam peers out. We introduce ourselves.
We drive closer to Glen Canyon. Out my car window I can see the Straight Cliffs of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument rise above the sandstone madness of the Waterpocket Fold. Two places I have been before. Connecting the dots.
On this first day a warm-up with a descent of Good Day Jim. Beta suggests it could be the easiest of the lot. The canyon gets going quick. Down climbs, stemming, a few minor keeper potholes, squeezes through beautiful narrows separated by brief open sections. Far from a beginner canyon. I think to my self if this is the easiest canyon we are going to do, well, it could get interesting. The canyon continues for awhile during which time we see that our new addition, Adam, has got skills. He is going high when it is completely unnecessary for nothing more than the challenge. While I am a full body contact, bull in a china shop, he seems to effortlessly and gingerly touch his surroundings through obstacles. Either way, we are all feeling the connection to this place. The canyon ends and we achieve the rim giving us a great bird’s eye view of the complex on the hike back to the car.
Camp is moved to the head of the Dante Canyon Complex, a wind swept mesa overlooking this underworld and Lake Powell beyond. We will be spending the next two days down there. We have been warned that the winds can make this an inhospitable camp. But it is now in the low 70s and the air is barely moving. We can not pass on making this our home for the next few days. With a straight view of Navajo Mountain dominating the southern horizon I have two bars on my phone. I send Laura a text, “We have arrived. Canyon today tough but not too tough. Good day here. Love you.”
Back now several weeks. Gear has been cleaned and put away. Muscles no longer sore. Elbow abrasions almost fully healed. Photos and video exchanged. Just a little time to reflect, organize and present the experience in zeroes and ones. A new place for us and new faces. Four days, six descents and six friends, old and new. This new place wonderful and challenging. Above, a video preview of the trip at large. To follow, four posts taking a closer look. I hope you enjoy.
The title of this blog post is somewhat of a misnomer. To me “chillaxing” is not doing a moderately challenging and strenuous half-day technical canyon, followed by backpacking with heavy loads until just before nightfall. All of this in a sunburned landscape with temperatures reaching 90 degrees. It is not Pacific Beach, sipping beer, tossing a frisbee and body surfing, but the sentiment on this day is chill, relaxed and celebratory. Why? The day before we had descended Poe Canyon. Never before had so much anticipation gone into a descent. Never before had I wanted a canyon for so long, but had to wait until my partners and I had enough skills, experience and tools to descend such a canyon. Never before had I been so challenged. Though far from the most physically demanding day I have experienced, Poe dished up obstacles that left me mentally exhausted. The following morning I awake and that descent is behind me; such a difficult and interesting feeling to describe in words.
Laughing Baboon Canyon, aka ‘O’ Canyon, 3BVR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
We came to the remote Waterpocket Fold for Poe Canyon, but we would not have left without spending sometime with Poe’s closest sister, Laughing Baboon Canyon. Up the steep and smooth slick rock we march to a shallow gully baking in the sun, where a multi-stage rappel gives us access into the canyon bottom. Brian aptly coins it “cliffaneering”. In the canyon proper we quickly face some fun and spicy downclimbs. With my elbows, forearms and knees having left skin behind in Poe, I approach the obstacles as gingerly as my body and skills will allow. Further down canyon more downclimbs, a few rappels, several moderately challenging keepers, some refreshing swims, beautifully sculpted narrows and then it is all over rather quickly. The canyon strikes the perfect balance of just enough challenge to keep things interesting while still keeping the mood light to enjoy the scenery, company and decompress from the previous day’s descent.
With the hog back on our backs we hike up along Halls Creek as the deer flies do their best to take our flesh. Though we are moving slower than during the backpack in, I feel light and am enjoying the walk. About an hour before sunset the walls close in marking the start of the Halls Creek Narrows. Instead of bypassing the Narrows as we had during the approach, we venture in. At the first nice campsite we bed down for a relaxing night of camping surrounded by soaring sandstone walls. The following morning we finish the accordion passage through the Narrows and then further on to our vehicle parked atop Halls Mesa. Several hours later I’m sipping cold root beer on a ferry across Lake Powell and I couldn’t feel more content.
Poe Canyon, aka Smiling Cricket Canyon, 4BVX
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Looking upward, I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. It was some thirty or forty feet overhead, and constructed much as the side walls. In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention . It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that in lieu of a scythe he held what at a casual glance I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see on antique clocks. There was something, however, in the appearance of this machine which caused me to regard it more attentively. While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own), I fancied that I saw it in motion. In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. Its sweep was brief, and of course slow. I watched it for some minutes, somewhat in fear but more in wonder.
An excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”
I’m standing in the bottom of a 30- foot deep keeper pothole referred to as the “Pit of Despair” in the middle of Poe Canyon. We have been working this obstacle for nearly four hours and are now moments away from learning if our decisions, time and determination will either have paid off or bring us back to the drawing board. With the clock ticking in this dangerous and remote place a lot is riding on it. I stand ready with my camera to record the moment. Unlike my job as a professional newspaper photojournalist when I often document the best, worst and most critical occasions of individuals lives that have no direct bearing on my own, my fate is critically intertwined into what I am about to photograph. It is an intense, uncomfortable and exhilarating feeling.
Nearly a year earlier…
Just looking at the folds and domes in the slick rock approach up to the entrance of Poe Canyon makes me nervous. On a hot afternoon, Eric and I hike up into this convoluted madness that is the Waterpocket Fold to try and locate the canyon’s entrance. We feel like mountaineers rest stepping up steep, smooth slopes trying to follow the easiest line to the top, except snow and ice are replaced with sandstone and a mountaintop is replaced by a place to drop into a dark abyss. The drop in point is found easier than we expect.
The following day we descend Happy Dog Canyon, Poe’s sister. I get walloped. I write about the descent and my mishaps on this blog. I post a link on the yahoo canyon group to my trip report. A user that had descended Poe sends me this reply, “perhaps this should go without mentioning, but if happy dog whooped you that good, i think poe might deliver a knock-out punch. it’s another order of magnitude more difficult, especially if you can’t defeat the pit of despair and the warthole. the downclimbing is also much more difficult in poe than the dog (even though there is very little stemming). please be careful out there…” It sounds like a fair warning.
I had seen the video, photos and trip reports of this canyon’s immense challenges. I can’t help but wonder how we will stack up to the canyon if the right team of superheroes are assembled. Wait a minute, what’s my superhero ability? Yikes. What I lack in the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound I make up for in organization and planning. A team is assembled by Eric and I for a descent the following year with members who will bring skills to put us in the best position to safely descend the canyon.
It is Memorial Day weekend 2012 as forty mile an hour gusts are blasting us head on as we shuffle through sand on the 11- mile backpack to set up our base camp. We reach camp early in the day and A.J. and Jen from Colorado are already there waiting for us. A.J. will be joining us for the descent down Poe. It will be his second time down the canyon also known as Smiling Cricket. During that descent of four years ago, A.J. and his partners had to spend a somewhat unplanned bivouac above the “Pit of Despair”. We are hoping to approach some of the obstacles differently and do the canyon in one long day. A.J.’s experience both in Poe and his robust canyon resume at large will be invaluable to the expedition. We also have long daylight hours on our side.
We lay on our backs under the shade of a cottonwood tree. Mike sets up a slackline to kill time. We discuss and divvy up all the gear we will need for the descent, all the while being blasted by the wind as sand is forced into every crevice of our bodies. We go to bed before the sun goes down. Surprisingly I sleep well. The sun is nowhere to be seen when we wake and begin the approach.
In pitch darkness the approach is far more complicated than it was a year ago during the scout. An hour in and the Sun comes up. We drop in and begin down canyon. The downclimbs and potholes begin almost immediately. They quickly get more challenging the further down we go. Between A.J. and all of the online content I have consumed on this canyon, I can’t say I don’t know what is ahead, but both what I do and don’t know is a little scary. I burry it and enjoy this place that few have seen before me. As the keepers get more demanding I begin to wonder what it would be like to really not have any idea of what lies around the next corner.
On August 23, 1981, Mike Bogart and Jenny West, made the first descent of Poe Canyon. What they did not have is all of the canyoneering specific designed technical gear and evolved techniques that exist today and most importantly any knowledge of the immense obstacles they would face. What they did have and please excuse the language are some serious balls. In a beautifully written non-fiction story on this first descent West writes,
“As we climb and rappel deeper through the channels of rock and pools we stop discussing the commitment required each time we pull a rappel rope or downclimb a spot that would not be upclimbable. Time and time again we eliminate our escape route out. It is an awareness we share but choose not to speak of. The stunning beauty lures us to linger and take a few photos. But the pull of the unknown is powerful. The taste of adventure and our commitment to it is sweet. We make our bargain with it. It fills us with urgency.”
So on they went and over thirty years later with only a handful of known descents in between, on we went.
Our group of five has found a rhythm and we are moving fast. Brian and I buddy boost Eric up an eight foot keeper. Mike performs a dynamic three steep leap over a pit. I watch his silhouette from the bottom of this ten foot deep pothole through the LCD screen on the back of my digital camera. The obstacles are some of the more challenging most of us have seen, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. They are manageable. The “Pit of Despair” looms in our minds and then we hit it.
We stage in a small room just above the “Pit of Despair”. The plan was use the same technique as several previous groups to get across this pothole that measures 30 feet deep and 30 feet across. A narrow constriction just up canyon of the pothole allows an individual to stem up 10 – 20 feet. From this bird’s perch one can swing a canvas bag known as a Potshot filled with sand across the pit and over a lip on the other side of the pothole. After throwing several of the potshots they would act as a counterweight that an individual could then drop down into the pothole and climb out. We have used this method many times, but never on anything so big. Some of the groups that used this technique before had some character out of comic book that goes by the name “Spidey”. Who will be our superhero?
A.J. steps into the role of the coxswain as we attack the obstacle. Brian takes the first try at the toss, coming up a solid 10- feet short. Eric, A.J. and Mike make subsequent attempts all missing the mark. I know my abilities and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time so I don’t even try. The problem is that there is not a well defined lip on the opposite side of the “Pit of Despair” to allow the bags to properly hang to give a good counterweight. It is more of a gentle downward sloping bench. As a result, the potshots don’t just need to go the 30 feet across the pothole but another 15 feet past it so they can settle down into a more defined notch. Each attempt takes close to ten minutes since the previous: individual stems into position, rope is cleanly coiled, bag is swung back and forth between the legs until it is launched. A miss means everything has to be pulled back up from the depths of the pit and the process repeats itself. From my vantage I can not see if the bags are making it across; I just hear grunts or groans of disappointment. With each miss I feel myself sink a few inches deeper into the canyon.
After nearly a dozen failed attempts we start thinking about Plan B, a dangerous traverse above the pothole using aid climbing techniques and two spread out bolts that Mike Bogart placed during their first descent. A.J. performed the traverse during his descent four years ago, but not before a piece of aid blew out and he fell 20- feet. A.J. has no interest in repeating the feat, but Mike, our climber of the group feels he can make it. The problem is Mike has zero aid climbing experience. Between the first and second moves on aid I can see Mike sketched like I have never seen him before. A.J. sees it too. “The potshots are going to work. We just need to work it more. Get down Mike,” says A.J encouragingly. Mike gladly listens.
From here A.J. comes up with a brilliant plan to give a tight belay to the pot shot tosser. This would allow that individual to go higher off the deck, get closer to the edge of the “Pit of Despair” and really lean into the throw. I serve as the belayer. I am excited to use my superhero strengths as a belayer and contribute to this motley “Avengers” crew. A.J. and Brian alternate attempts and the misses continue, but progress is being made. “Shit, only 3-feet short!” has replaced “Shit, 10- feet short!” as it echoes just slightly off the sandstone walls. With each toss A.J. and Brian make minute adjustments, learning from each other and then A.J. hits it, but just barely. We all shout out in celebration. With that Brian takes the cue to step up his game and hits four out of the next five tosses all of them going well past A.J.’s successful throw.
Eric and I rappel down into the pit, taking care not to get tangled in the rope attached to the potshots and pulling them back over in the process. Upon touchdown I take in the pothole. It is beautiful. The hands of the clock continue to tick as Eric and I straighten and organize the five strands of rope that serve as our ticket out of here. I touch the ropes with delicate fingers as if they are porcelain figurines. Eric gives each rope a gentle test pull and two of the potshots easily come back down into the pit. The other three are solid. Brian goes back into position. It takes him another four attempts to find his rhythm. In the meantime, Eric and I watch his shadow and that of the pendulating rope and bag in a patch of a light on the wall reflected off of the water. Has anyone witnessed this before?
Five potshots are set. Brian has seriously come through. It is now Eric’s turn to see if he can climb these five strands of rope hand over hand up a 30 foot vertical and near featureless wall and most importantly without pulling the potshots back down in the attempt. Eric moves quickly up the wall as the rest of us hoot and holler. As he nears the lip, he begins to struggle. He grasps for progress. I watch it unfold on an LCD screen. Gravity takes over. In an amazing feat Eric finds the perfect balance between using the ropes just enough to control his fall without pulling all of the potshots back over. He splashes down and is breathing heavy. I can tell he is disappointed. I am extremely proud of him for not pulling the bags back over, proving that they are a solid counter weight in the process. Mike drops down in the pit and immediately “batmans” up and out. He raises his arms in victory. We celebrate. Even though it is now non-critical Eric makes a second attempt and nails it. One by one the rest of us follow up, over and out of the “Pit of Despair”. After over five hours from the time we came upon this obstacle we are moving on to the next.
The canyon is not done with us yet with more enlarged keepers, tricky downclimbs and anchor challenges, but the crux is in our rear view mirror. We are all smiles and some yawns after we touchdown on the final rappel in the riparian alcove. We reach camp 13- hours from the time we left it.
We all have different reasons for canyoneering. For me there is not one. Teamwork, camaraderie, seeing how I measure against challenges and experiencing a rugged, raw and seldom seen beauty all play into my decisions to take the inherent risks of descending a canyon like Poe. The key is mitigating those risks by making sure your team is prepared to face what you encounter. With a canyon like Poe, even with all the information that does reside out there in the interweb, it is hard to know how you will stack up until you are out there. For us it was a five hour crux. Any less of a team and things might have gotten pretty hairy. With that I will echo the warning I received a year ago, “please be careful out there…”.
Quandry Canyon Direct, 4BIIIR
approximately 6 miles
San Rafael Swell
My body was a little sore as we headed up the old mining road through a dynamited pass, up over the reef into the drainage that is Quandry Canyon. Native Americans were the first to mine uranium ore in the area using it to make bright colored pastes that they applied to themselves as war paints. Serious prospecting did not begin in the area until the mid twentieth century. Many roads and an air strip were developed and evidence of those mining days are scattered all over the place, including a mid 20th century vehicle we passed on the approach. Mining in the Swell nearly all but ended in the 1960s as the area yielded little marketable uranium ore.
By the time the walls of Quandry narrowed up and the technical section began the soreness had dissipated and I was warmed up and ready to go. The canyon is south facing so we enjoyed the sun nearly the entire day as we jumped in and out of potholes. We continued where we left off with the Squeeze, moving at an aggressive pace. A number of interesting and fun problems presented themselves including a rappel into a deep keeper pothole with a narrow ledge for a lip, right into a second rappel. The lip was so narrow that while standing on top of it you had to lock off on rappel while assisting your partner to get out of the keeper, so to not risk falling down the other side of the pothole. Finding the right balance of too much or too little slack before locking off on rappel took a little trial and error. The Quandry Direct route merged back with the regular route and after taking a lunch break in a sliver of shade we began the hike under a blistering sun towards Ramp Canyon, our route home.
Ramp Canyon was a beautiful technical canyon in its own right and we were challenged with the task of ascending the canyon to regain the reef. After the drainage took many horseshoe turns we bypassed an unclimbable dry fall by climbing up and out of the canyon and then returning to bottom by way of a chossy 80- foot rappel. The canyon than presented us with a beautiful set of narrows with many magnificent features in the polished sandstone for climbing the drops. The crux was an awkward 5.6 climb/ traverse up and around a chokestone. Mike free soloed the short climb and then provided a belay to the rest of our party. The canyon relented shortly thereafter. From the top of Ramp Canyon an easy walk back to the car provided time to reflect on the last few days of this exciting, challenging and memorable trip.
Check out the video from the entire trip at the bottom of this post.
Lower Squeeze Canyon, aka North Fork Seger’s Hole Canyon, 4BIVR
approximately 9 miles
San Rafael Swell
I knew little of what to expect of the canyons and the wilderness we would face in the San Rafael Swell. It was new territory for all the members of our party. I am not sure if it was by design or because I was so darn busy, but I had read virtually no beta or trip reports of the canyons we would face.
We made our way north of Hanksville, past the swell of rock to the west that rises like an impending tsunami about to crash over the plain. It was exciting to see new country. Off of the interstate and into the heart of the San Rafael Swell, I began to get a sense of how big, rugged and remote this place is. Despite the desolate character of this wilderness there was no shortage of people as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) was having their annual round-up in the same area of where we were setting up our base of operations. Finding a suitable campsite was challenging but after some searching and backtracking we found a place to call home.
The following morning began with a pleasant walk down Muddy Creek as we hiked in and and out of the shadows, crossing back and forth across the shallow waters until a well defined use trail lead us out of the canyon and up the Moroni Slope under a scorching sun. After gaining the saddle, some creative route finding was required down through cliff bands and across sandstone fins to reach the canyon bottom somewhere between the middle and lower sections of Squeeze Canyon, also known as the North Fork of Seger’s Hole.
The canyon got going quickly and as we moved at an aggressive pace we could hear voices ahead bouncing off the walls. Looking down a small drop into a pothole we could see two fellow canyoneers, one of whom was writhing around nearly waist deep in quicksand the likes of which I have never seen. It was an interesting way to see a person for the first time that you have never met before. Before long, Eric, from our own group was in the same position as this gentleman, who we would soon learn to be Ken, also known by his online handle, SpineSnaper. Learning from their predicaments, I sprinted across the quicksand so to not give it a chance to take hold of me. Once everybody was on solid ground we made our introductions and some small chit chat before passing Ken and his partner, Jasper.
Evidence throughout the Squueze suggested that the canyon had flashed very recently. The potholes were not tip-top but near full. We moved quickly through the canyon avoiding many rappels by either down climbing, sliding or jumping into the pools below. On most of these drops we would send someone down first on rappel via a meat anchor to check that the pool below was safe for jumping. We ended up completing the entire canyon with just five actual rappels despite reports of up two dozen. Of course we had the conditions of the canyon to thank for this statistic. The potholes may not have been in full “keeper” status but they did require some buddy boosting, beached whale maneuvers and lots of physical exertion to get through. With all of the mud and quicksand we were exhausted by the time we got back to Muddy Creek for the pleasant stroll back to camp.
Upper Stair Canyon, 3AIIR
approximately 6 miles
The drive from Phoenix to the San Rafael Swell is long; further than many other canyoneering destinations of southern Utah, so we thought a pit stop was in order to break up the drive. Our “pit stop” had us leave the highway that parallels North Wash and head up into the slick rock expanse along a dirt road a dozen or so miles until our modest vehicle could go no further.
The next morning following a short approach hike we dropped into the upper reaches of Stair Canyon as the drainage immediately slotted up so tight at the bottom we were forced to go high. With our backs against one wall and our feet against the other we shuffled down the canyon. The exposure was sustained and considerable, up to 40- feet off the deck in some places. Of course if you lost your purchase and fell you would never make it down that far. Crumpelstiltskinned! Despite this sustained exposure, the moves were rather easy and straightforward, but for me they were exciting enough.
I am still not sure what my take is on high stemming canyons, also known as Mae West slots. One moment I am having fun, finding a groove and the next I can’t wait until it is over. All the while my lower back is getting rubbed ever more raw from the sandstone. In some places it seems so easy or natural to down climb to the canyon floor where the walls may be wide enough to fit for passage for a short distance. The desire for that warm blanket of solid ground at your feet can be convincing. Of course, the walls are only going to slot up again so tight that you would be forced to climb back up to a position where you could continue high stemming, wasting valuable energy in the process. Eric saw me eyeing the sirens’ song of the canyon bottom from my perch 40 feet up. “Stay away from the forbidden fruit,” he said. He didn’t have to tell me, I learned my lesson in Happy Dog Canyon.
In the end I value the experience of these Mae West slots and this will undoubtedly not be my last, (but I wouldn’t count on me making a career of it.) First, high stemming is a definitive part of the Colorado Plateau canyoneering experience. By participating in these descents even the easier ones such as Upper Stair Canyon, makes one a more complete canyoneer. The skills also transfer over to other canyon descents where high stemming is not the main course. Even more important, high stemming like perhaps no other discipline of canyoneering, with maybe the exception of multi-pitch big wall rappelling, not only requires but forces you to have total concentration. Your mind is completely devoid of any thoughts except for the task at hand. Not even the slightest mistake is an option, but unlike multi-pitch big wall rappelling, teamwork does not come into play all that much. Conversation is at a minimum. It is just you and the moves that you make with the walls and the space between them.