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.
Illusions Canyon, 4BIIIR
The first and last time I descended Illusions Canyon, the intensity of my involvement in canyoneering was drastically scaling back as I was over four months pregnant. David was a nervous wreck as he watched me crawl, slide and wiggle through the dark chambers of Illusions. Two plus years later and I am entrenched in being the mother of an energetic toddler, so I don’t get out in the canyons all that often (our European canyoneering adventure, aside). These days, to get to share a descent with David takes some serious planning ahead. To make a trip through Illusions Canyon possible, David and I timed it for when my Dad (or Gramps as Wyatt calls him) was visiting over the summer. We rented a small cabin, for Wyatt, David and myself, and a private yurt for my father at the Flagstaff Nordic Center. For those that don’t know a yurt is a small portable tent like structure with a wooden frame. Their origins date back a thousand years to Central Asia.
We arrived at the Flagstaff Nordic Center the afternoon before our descent down Illusions. My father, Wyatt, David and I went for a peaceful walk through the ponderosa pines before cooking dinner over an open campfire. Waking long before sunrise David and I quickly got dressed and knocked on the front door of my father’s yurt waking him from his slumber. After he tiptoed into our cabin where Wyatt was still sleeping we drove to meet Eric, Brian and Cheryl at the trailhead for Illusions Canyon.
The day began with a great workout during the hike up to to the top of rim. The trail was steep but pleasant with good conversation that goes along with the excitement and anticipation of such a special canyon. The canyon was just as fun, magical and beautiful as I had remembered. Perhaps even more so this time around as the extremely wet monsoon season provided us with a light but steady flow of water through the entire canyon. The walls were glowing in electric green covered in mosses, ferns and other vegetation. The monsoon was present on this day too. Just minutes after our group of five completed the final rappel of the canyon and exited the narrows the skies darkened and opened in a torrential downpour. Flashes of white light and booming blasts just over head accompanied the sheets of rain. Our timing could not have been closer or more perfect depending on how you look at it. It was an intense storm that we would not have wanted to experience in Illusions’ long narrows, just behind us. In the lower, wide portion of the canyon the danger of being caught in a flash flood no longer posed a risk and we were able to enjoy this raw power of nature during the hike out.
Well over 12- hours from the time we left my Dad and Wyatt, we were back at the Flagstaff Nordic Center and we found them hanging out between the yurt and cabin. My Dad had survived spending the day with his 18- month old grandson alone in the Northern Arizona woods. He looked just as exhausted and satisfied with his day as David and I were with ours.
For information about the Flagstaff Nordic Center click here.
Barney Spring Canyon, 4BIVR
Coconino National Forest
Fall is a special time. As a child it represents the start of a new year of challenges and experiences. Growing up in the northeastern United Sates, autumn would peak in an explosion of colors. As an adult that feeling of newness that comes around in September and October has faded somewhat and living in the midst of urban sprawl in the heart of the Sonoran Desert you don’t see much in the way of Autumnal colors.
Eric had been lobbying for a descent of Barney Spring Canyon for a while. It is a classic Mogollon Rim canyon that wasn’t yet part of his resume. I had descended the canyon with Laura shortly after I had begun canyoneering five summers ago. My recollection is that it was the first canyon descent during which time I was thinking this is really intense from both a physical and technical perspective. I also remember it being a long day, but despite my photographs its aesthetic qualities had left little impression on my memory.
Timing for a descent has finally lined up. Eric and I are driving along the washboard road deep into the forest in the late afternoon sun. The previous day we had descended Garden Creek in the Grand Canyon. Our legs are feeling that 4,000 feet of vertical. My belly is fully of wings and my head a little cloudy from beer after spending much of the day resting in a Flagstaff sports bar and watching football. As the road crosses a drainage and its numerous deciduous trees amongst the surrounding pines I am struck by the intense Fall colors.
As temperatures plummet after the sun goes down we huddle around the fire. We awake well before the return of the sun and begin hiking from our camp in the dark. A descent of Barney is normally completed by hiking down the West Fork of Oak Creek at its confluence with Barney followed by a long car shuttle. Our plan is to skip the car shuttle by hiking up the West Fork until we can find a place to escape the canyon and then navigate across the rim back to our vehicle. We know it is going to be a very long and exhausting day.
The sun is up but it is still brisk as we drop into the upper reaches of Barney. The foliage is magnificent. Reds, yellows and oranges are abundant. I say it is peak. Eric says maybe just past. The canyon narrows. We are surround by muted beige sandstone covered in a thin layer of vibrant green moss with a canopy of technicolor above us. It is spectacular.
The canyon is still challenging with its numerous awkward- start rappels but my experience in the last four plus years have dulled the edges of intensity I experienced the last time. Eric leads the way and we are down-climbing obstacles I would have never thought possible during the first descent. The monster keeper pothole that gave us so much trouble the last time is almost full and Eric beach whales out on his own out and then assists me to the lip. From our perch atop the final rappel we peer over a thick canopy of vibrant and saturated yellows. It is a visual experience that will leave a lasting impression.
A short brushy walk and we reach the confluence of the West Fork of Oak Creek. More colors. We spend the next six hours hiking, trudging, rock hopping, climbing up West Fork. We do the best we can to stay dry but some of the narrows do not cooperate. In the upper reaches of the West Fork the canyon branches into multiple arms. We take a branch whose terrain we are unfamiliar with but will put us closer to our vehicle. We hope to not be stopped in our tracks by a dryfall before we can escape the canyon bottom for the rim. A minor gamble but we are confident. We are faced with several spicy climbs including one over a deep keeper filled with icy cold water that if we both fell into would be a mouse trap of the most dire circumstances. As we climb further up this canyon arm the walls begin to recede and we make our break. Upon reaching the rim as we navigate through the Ponderosa Pines back to our vehicle I am completely exhausted, satisfied and connected to this autumnal experience.
Val d’Iragna intermedio & inferiore, V4A4IV
Riviera, Ticino, Switzerland
The accumulation of physical activity is starting to be felt. Laura wants a day off from canyoneering. The weather looks good and Eric and I want to take advantage to descend Val d’Iragna intermedio and inferiore. Laura is happy for some alone time. Starting from the Curzútt Hostel she begins a walk up into the Alpine. Eric and I head down the hill from the Curzútt and then drive past vineyard lined streets to the quaint town of Iragna. We park along the Iragna River that cuts through the middle of the town as we get our gear together. Directions to the start of the canyon are vague. On the edge of the town a local tending to his yard outside his stone home asks us “canyoning?” in a heavy accent and with a friendly smile. We nod yes. He points us in the right way and we climb. We drop down into the canyon and suit up. Meanwhile for Laura…
Solitude is a gift that I no longer take for granted. Alone with my thoughts. Stopping to sit in the forest. Visiting an ancient church. Eating my lunch on a bench carved from a large pine tree. One step in front of another I follow red and white blazes along a meandering and steep path above the Valle di Sementina leading me closer to the tree line. I walk up the mountain through small villages, past wandering cows and under hang gliders drifting silently above me. I see few people. I fill my Nalgene from a spigot tapped into mountainside. I continue my walk. At the treeline I can see down the sharp valley to villages that populate the hillsides above the urban center of Bellinzona. I circle back to the Curzútt as it starts to sprinkle.
Back in Val d’Iragna, clean water, jumps, toboggans, small and big rappels. The canyon is tight and challenging. Anchors are tough to get to. Water flows are lighter than they could be making these obstacles more manageable. The canyon ends at a swimming hole in the middle of town.
On the way back to the Curzutt we stop for groceries and drink beer in the parking lot. No brown bags here. It begins to rain. Clutching our groceries we hike back up the hill to the Curzútt in a downpour. Laura is in the room reading a book under her sleeping bag. I realize I have forgotten the linguini in the car. I hike back down to retrieve it. What goes down down must come up in this scenario. It is still raining and I am drenched with linguini in hand. No worries with a hot shower waiting for me. Eric makes dinner in the windowsill of our quarters as we drink local Merlot.
Just another day.
Osogna Nala inferiore, V4A4II
Riviera, Ticino, Switzerland
After sleeping in we check out of the Curzútt having spent three comfortable nights there. We hike down the hill. This time I realize I have forgotten the key in my pocket. Urgh! I jog back up to return it. What goes up must come down this time. A little extra work out before a descent of Osogna Nala inferiore. We drive up the Riviera to the village of Osogna and park alongside a cemetery on the edge of town. The hike begins as we switchback around the ivory white Santa Maria del Castello church. Climbing up the hillside blasts of dynamite in the granite mine on the other side of the Riviera vibrate the entire valley. Again directions are vague. We get entirely off route. As we try to right ourselves we must also pay attention to not lose our footing on the steep hillsides covered in slippery vegetation that can quickly turn into a vertical face. On this terrain it would not take much to begin a death slide into the canyon below. The ink from my Xerox copied beta from our guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola, has smeared and bled from the drips of my profuse sweat. After much searching and backtracking we find our way into the canyon bottom. The canyon cloaks the sounds and vibrations from the mining blasts across the valley. The gorge is dark, beautiful and narrow. The rock walls are polished and colorful. The water is emerald green. The rappels are intense and challenging. By now we are entirely comfortable with our whistle systems for communication and contingency anchors for these challenging water rappels. The canyon ends with a jump into a deep pool. On the edges of the swimming hole locals sun themselves on large, flat rocks. We feel good as I imagine they do too.
We are just over an hour outside of Phoenix listening to the Door’s “Morrison Hotel” and engrossed in conversation about the unknowns of our upcoming trip, when I look into my rear view mirror and see the red and blues of a DPS Highway Patrol car right on my tail. Befuddled I pull off to the shoulder. I didn’t think I was speeding. “Did you not see the thick smoke coming out of the back of your car?” the patrolman asks in a gruff and agitated voice. “No, officer I didn’t,” I reply. With a little investigating we find that my car is leaking transmission fluid. We check the levels of the transmission fluid and it is empty. “That’s not good,” I say aloud as two thoughts quickly consume my mind, “Will I be spending next week looking for a new car?” and “Are we going to make our charter boat scheduled to pick us up in 15 hours?” Forget the first questions lets just deal with the latter as that boat ride is our access into the Waterpocket Fold. Fast-forward 11 hours, and we arrive in Eric’s car at Halls Crossing Marina along Lake Powell. My car was left behind. The sun is starting to rise as we lay out our sleeping bags. We can hear boaters beginning to rustle in their campsites as they prepare for a long day of fun and sun on Lake Powell. Despite the ungodly hour we down a couple of “celebratory” beers before lying down for a few hours of sleep.
I hold my hat on my head as the boat rips across the choppy lake during the 30- minute ride to Halls Creek Bay. As we approach I follow along on my GPS, which, unbeknownst to me utilizes decade old pre- drought maps when the lake was over 60 feet higher than it is today. This translates to a shorter boat ride and longer hike than we expected. Waving goodbye to our captain was a bit of an eerie feeling, as we know we will be very much stranded in this hostile wilderness for the next four days. With 50 plus pound packs we fight through the heat, jungles of the invasive Tamarisk trees, beaver dams creating quarter mile long ponds, quicksand and biting deer flies as we head up Halls Creek to the confluence of three sister canyons where we set up a base camp. These canyons steeply wind down the hunk of Navajo sandstone that is the Waterpocket Fold terminating in Halls Creek. Between the lack of sleep and morning workout, an afternoon siesta sounds quite appealing but we have to make use of the limited time we have in this place. It is time consuming and expensive to get here.
Eric and I hike up into the Waterpocket Fold to try and locate the entrance into the infamous and mythical Poe Canyon, more recently referred to as Smiling Cricket. The actual descent of Poe would wait for a future trip, but we want to familiarize ourselves with the approach so to not waste any time on that future descent. Negotiating sandstone domes and a number of side drainages we quickly and easily find a near walk in entrance into Poe. We memorize the route and mark the entrance point on our GPS.
Video below was entirely shot by Eric Luth with editing by David Wallace.
Happy Dog Canyon, aka ‘S’ Canyon, 3BVR
approximately 19 miles
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
06/17/11 – 6/20/11
The next day we divide the kitchen sink of technical canyoneering gear between the three of us and begin the long approach to the head of Happy Dog Canyon, originally referred to as ‘S’ Canyon. With the long days this time of year we leisurely stroll out of camp hours later than we should have. This approach is far more complex and lengthy than that of Poe. We knew from previous trip reports that the canyon begins at a large arch. After quickly disposing of the puzzle of the approach to Poe Canyon, doubt begins to sink in as the clock ticks past two hours since the start and still no signs of this arch. I take comfort in the magnificent scenery of Halls Creek, Lake Powell, the Henry Mountains and a Pronghorn that scampers across the slick rock about 100- yards away. We navigate often the only possible way through towers, domes and depressions of rock. As we near the three-hour mark, the all-encompassing Navajo sandstone that we have been traveling abruptly ends. In topography the likes of which I have never seen the terrain continues to rise, but with the end of the sandstone, the head of the canyon immediately takes shape. We make our way down and around into the head of the canyon and find the Happy Dog Arch.
The challenges begin immediately with down climbs in the full blaze of the sun. We ghost the first mandatory rappel. Ghosting is a technique where you leave absolutely no anchor behind after rappelling and has become a style used in these canyons during recent descents. We had decided to utilize ghosting techniques if we thought they were appropriate but were not committed to the discipline. Ghosting can often be used as an alternative to placing bolts into the rock. Though some of the drops in these canyons do have bolts, they are those of the first descents of over 30- years ago and are thus suspect in their integrity. The canyon gets deeper and narrower giving us respite from the sun. The potholes are full of water and do not take a tremendous amount of effort to escape. The canyon gets extremely tight and forces us to alternate between squeezing and stemming high. Because this canyon is nearly unbetaed we took enough gear to deal with a near endless number of technical obstacles. We also took enough rope to rappel drops of up to 200- feet. In the end we took more than what we needed, but when you don’t know you take it. With only three of us to divide the gear our packs are heavy, making the high stemming challenging despite its relatively straightforward nature and lack of intense exposure. With the heat even penetrating the depths of the dark narrows, we are going through water faster than expected and begin rationing. We squeeze past a pillow sized cluster of Daddy Longlegs glimmering in the sun against the dark depths like a puffy cloud against blue skies.
The canyon opens up at a big drop and then returns to tight narrows. I make a poor decision and instead of going high, I elevator drop into the bowels. My pack gets jammed up and I soon realize that the canyon is quickly getting too skinny to continue this course. I attempt to do an about face but my pack is in the way. For nearly an hour I work tirelessly to get up ten feet to a choke stone suspended in the canyon walls. During which time I have to remove nearly every article out of my pack and hand them up to Eric who wedges the gear into pockets in the walls. Eric is eventually able to assist me in reaching the choke stone. I am completely exhausted. In the process some of my gear falls back down into the canyon. Style has completely left the building. Eric elevators down and recovers all of my gear. He then proceeds to high stem back and forth the 25- yards of this section of narrows shuttling gear. Meanwhile I am now making my own way high. As I begin to elevator down to the end of the narrows, my bag, which is dangling between my legs gets jammed in the walls and catches my right leg. Gravity overcomes friction and ever so slowly brings me down to a horizontal state with my leg still caught on my pack. I am entirely stuck. I try to free myself but don’t have the angle. I know that if someone can move my pack I can right myself up and get to the open section less than ten feet away. This will have to wait, as Eric is still busy shuttling gear. In the meantime I will just have to be in this sorry pathetic state that I have gotten myself into. I have enough sense to stay calm. I think whether or not my car will ever drive again and if not what kind of car should I buy. In my heart I would really love a Toyota pick-up truck but it probably makes a lot more sense to buy a hybrid. I look around as Daddy Longlegs scamper over me. This is without question most people’s idea of living hell. A slow ten minutes goes by and Eric negotiates over to me and is in disbelief in the position I have gotten myself into. He pulls my bag out from underneath me and sure enough my body turns 90 degrees and with a little inhaling and squeezing I pop out to the other side.
Darkness is now closing in and we really do not know how much canyon we have left. I am unsure if I can negotiate another section like we just encountered in the dark. We are in a slightly open section with some dry sand and with temperatures being as warm as they are I suggest a bivouac. With some apprehension Pat agrees. Eric will hear nothing of it. He argues that we have no dry clothes and though a bivouac will not be necessarily dangerous it will be extremely unpleasant. “We are eating a hot meal and sleeping in our tents tonight,” he says with total confidence. With that we move on to the next obstacle, a down climb into a deep-water filled pothole. Through a miscommunication Pat tosses one of our two, 200- foot ropes in a rope bag into a pothole so he can better negotiate the down climb. The rope sinks into the depths. I make one half-ass attempt to recover the rope but could not reach the bottom in my exhausted state. Since we have another rope we decide to leave it behind. We just do not have the energy or time to recover it. Another short high stemming section leads to another pool and the canyon than magically opens up with a beautiful slick rock ramp out of the canyon. Hallelujah! 15- minutes later and we are back to Halls Creek and night has completely taken over. Battered and bruised I am already determined to recover my rope and finish the last section of the canyon. Our planned descent of Baboon Laughs, the third of the sister canyons will have to wait.
The sun is up and Pat and Eric seem entirely less determined to finish the lower section of Happy Dog than I am. Eric tells me he will help me recover my rope but that is about the extent of his “to do” list for the day and for now all he wants to do is chill. I would normally argue with him but the extent in which he saved my ass the day before I tone down my attempt in persuading him otherwise. As Pat and Eric lounge around I camp I begin feeling antsy so I hike up the Poe Canyon drainage from the bottom. The canyon is chock full of vegetation including a plethora of hearty Poison Ivy. I guess it was not the right time to be wearing shorts. In less than 45- minutes I reach the base of the alcove that represents the final rappel of the canyon. Upon returning to camp Eric seems to have a little more pep in his step. He gives me a window to talk about descending the final section of Happy Dog and I seize it. Before long we are packing our technical gear and heading back to Happy Dog.
As Pat waits in the open section of canyon where we retreated the night before, Eric and I high stem back up the canyon about 20 yards to the pothole where my rope sank to the bottom. I dive down into the black, semi- putrid water. After three full kicks I reach the bottom and feel nothing but sticks and mud. I suspect the water to be at least 12- feet deep. A second attempt yields the same results. On the third try I dive from a different angle and snatch the rope. Returning to the surface I shout out in victory.
Eric and I continue down canyon past our escape point. The canyon stays wide with three consecutive drops into pools below. The first is down climbable. The second drops around 80- feet, half of which is overhanging. With no available anchors we utilize the SandTrap, a tarp like device that can be covered in sand and used as an anchor for rappels and then allows the user to pull the tarp down, thus ghosting the drop. The third and final drop, a beauty, is even longer into the jungle alcove below. Returning to camp the winds begin to gust. We pack up all of our gear and hike the majority of the distance back to our rendezvous point with our boat charter.
The next morning we wait amongst Tamarisk trees rising from the ever-changing shoreline of Lake Powell. With nothing but the water to protect us from the fierce sun we talk about what we learned from the last few days. I learned some valuable lessons that will make me a smarter canyoneer. Maybe most importantly, share the lead on hard canyons. I was leading the descent of Happy Dog all day and I got sloppy and made a poor decision. The other lesson, which I already knew but was greatly reinforced, is have partners that you trust with your life. It is possible you will be relying on them sometime. Right on time the boat arrived. “How was the trip,” the captain asked. “Good, a little epic!” I said with a smile.
A week later…. The transmission on my car is fixed and was fully covered under warranty. My legs are covered in a poison ivy rash and plans are slowly being made to return to the Fold.
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.
Choprock Canyon (South Fork), 4BVR
approximately 11 miles
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
This place has history. Several kinds. That related to geology dates back hundreds of millions of years. Fast forward until only 1500 years ago and the first humans settled the area. It was not until the late 19th century that the first white settlers set foot in this wilderness. Though they probably did not explore much if any of the side drainage of the Escalante River that would later be called Choprock Canyon, Jacob Hamblin did travel the entire length of the Escalante River in 1871. He was resupplying the second John Wesley Powell expedition along the Colorado River. They did not not even know where they were, thinking they were traveling the Dirty Devil River, which is further to the east.
Then, there is the ultra recent history of recreational adventurers. Using innovative techniques, ropes, wetsuits and other gear this group began exploring the numerous slots that slice up the desert plateaus. In the early 1980s the first known descent was made of the South Fork of Choprock Canyon. There was something special about the nature of Kaleidoscope Canyon as it was dubbed during those early descents. It’s relentless nature and its beauty. It would become a popular descent, but because of its difficultness, not too popular. This recent history specific to this canyon would become tragic when in 2005, two young canyoneers died when probably in a hypothermic state from inadequate wetsuit protection these individuals were unable to deal with the obstacles the canyon presented. A few years after these unfortunate events I became interested in canyoneering and quickly became aware of Chopslot, yet another of its monikers.
Moving on to our own personal history, perhaps getting a little too late of a start in the morning, we exited the Escalante River bottom by way of a spicy slick rock scramble. Several hours of navigation across the martian landscape brought us to the bottom of the South Fork of Choprock Canyon. Along the way I diced up my hand on the jagged edges of a hunk of limestone. After suiting up in some serious neoprene the canyon did not take long to get going. A beauty of a rappel brought us into the “Riparian Ballroom” as it is called and the start of the “Riparian Section”. True to its name signs of vegetation were everywhere, but because of our early season descent the abundance of flora was still in its winter’s slumber. I was glad to not have to worry about the supposed plethora of poison ivy that makes this place home. The canyon got tighter, deeper and narrower and the winter’s bones of this jungle subsided where the appropriately termed “Happy Section” began. I say appropriate because if you looked at our faces, smiles were abound as we made our way through the spring fed golden corridor. We were faced with some tough swims and down climbs, but never too tough.
After a little over an hour of this happiness the canyon abruptly changed in character. It got dark and ominous and a difficult down climb through a very tight squeeze brought us to a nasty log jam. With that was the start of the “Grim Section” and I think all four members of our team would agree when I say the real fun began. With total communication and teamwork we worked the obstacles. When one member would get a little chilled after a hundred yard swim, another member would shed his extra 2mm neoprene jacket and pass it on to that member. This section was relentless with a barrage of obstacles.
We hit the crux, the infamous log jam where those two young men perished. Eric Luth lead the charge swimming under the first log jam disappearing into the darkness. (Above photo at left.) We could hear him shout, “We are going to have to go over this second log jam. I am going to need helping getting over this.” I jumped in. First we tried a buddy boost right at the jam. It was too skinny. We backed up where I was able to get Eric up into a position where he could secure himself in the canyon walls from a stemming position. From there Eric dropped an etrier and I squeezed and climbed the ladder like an awkward baboon putting intense pressure on his groin in the process. From there Chris and Eric Leifer swam to us and I dropped a second etrier to help distribute the weight when they climbed up to join us. (Above photo at right shot from atop one of the log jams we had to go over.) After creating a brigade of bodies we passed the packs down canyon as we stemmed up and over the remaining log jams. Following the crux, the canyon relented little with more high stems, swims so narrow your arm movement was limited and spicy elevator drops. Finally, with only an hour of light left in the day we reached the final rappel back to the land of the living.
Heaps Canyon via Phantom Valley, 4BVR
approximately 11.5 miles
Zion National Park
07/24/10 – 07/25/10
The first rappel into Phantom Valley, a sloppy, rock strewn 60- footer was behind us when the clouds really started moving. We had seen some weather in the distance from our elevated vantage point during the muggy, 6.5- mile approach hike along the West Rim Trail, but it didn’t seem bad enough to abort, so we continued. After the 60- foot rappel we made our way down the precarious ridge heading closer towards Phantom Valley and our objective, Heaps Canyon. The clouds were building in height, size and darkness. I could see Eric and Mike, who were ahead of Chris and I, making their way across the appropriately termed “fin of death”, a knife edge ridge of crumbling rock, about 50- feet long, several feet wide and with drops off of 200- feet on either side. By the time Chris and I reached the “fin of death” we were being sand blasted by gusts of wind ripping across the ridge. The sand stuck to the perspiration on my body as Chris and I both quickly and carefully crab walked with 45- pound packs across the fin. A few drops of rain began to fall as I felt a kitchen table sized slab of rock atop the edge teeter like a seesaw. Across and at the edge of the ridge, the four of us were in a precarious position as by now lightning flashed and thunder roared. We had to get off this ridge. We quickly rigged the 200- foot rappel off the tree and made our way down. I was the last to rappel and the time between the flashes of light and the claps of the thunder were getting shorter as I waited my turn to get off of this vulnerable position.
Once we were all down the rain increased in intensity. We decided not to pull our rope figuring if we had to we could escape by ascending the 200- footer, retrace our steps up the ridge and one of us could probably climb up the first 60-foot drop. It was not an ideal option, but if the weather really took a turn for the worst it was something. For over two hours we sat in the rain, scanning the horizon for an improvement and discussing our options. Mike sat with a compactor bag over his head to stay dry. Our discussions began leaning us towards ascending once the weather improved. By the time that had happened we had run out of water and were exhausted. It now seemed prudent to hike down to the valley floor, find water, rest for the night and ascend out the next morning. Reaching the first substantial pothole of water that we could pump, the clouds parted and sunshine illuminated the valley. We had another healthy discussion and with some apprehension we decided to continue the descent. Eric and I hiked back up to our rope to pull it, as Mike and Chris went down to find a suitable place to set up camp. By now it was too late in the day to make it to the Crossroads (our planned camp) before dark. After pulling the rope we caught up to Mike and Chris, who had set up camp right at the deep dark entrance to the Phantom Valley narrows; a very eerie and special place to bed down for the night.
We woke to the beeping of Mike’s watch an hour before sunrise, anxious to get an early start realizing we would have to cover more ground than anticipated. There was little light as Mike, Chris and I dropped into the cavernous narrows. Eric was minutes behind us getting the last of his stuff together, when we heard, “FUCK!” echo on the canyon walls. When he caught up to us he didn’t seem happy about the fact that the zipper on his 7mm wetsuit had completely busted, making it impossible for him to seal up the neoprene around his body. Initially concerned about the predicament we soon realized that 7mm suits were perhaps overkill in this water that just wasn’t that cold. Maybe not cold, but there was a lot of it. Finally we were in a rhythm; down climbs, rappels, swims and jumps. This is what we came for. We engaged a keeper, a flaring off-width. Mike and Eric jumped in. Eric’s boosts, Mike’s excellent climbing skills and ridiculous grunts got him to the top.
The canyon opened up to a beautiful hallway and then dropped into more narrows. We were moving fast now, saturated in water and fun. We were trying to catch a group of eight that Chris and Mike had seen briefly seen the day before when they went ahead to set up camp. We would later find out they were descending Heaps for a bachelor party. Shortly into the “Terminal Narrows” we could hear them just ahead of us. After a little commotion we made a clean pass on the bachelor party. The narrows were now filled to the brim with a steady flow cascading down the drops. Initially we attributed it to the 12 people in the canyon displacing water, but the deeper we got into the “Terminal Narrows” it seemed apparent that the canyon was flowing on its own from the recent monsoon rains. The conditions allowed us to slide and jump many of the anchor ready drops. Reaching a 12- foot drop, Eric and Chris had some reservations about down climbing a stem that flared out and then narrowed again making a reverse hourglass shape. I was feeling confident and felt like pushing myself. As I down climbed past the stem and into the flared out section, I lost control and my foot clipped the narrower section of wall before hitting the water. I immediately knew I had injured myself. I composed myself, shouted out to everyone else not to attempt the down climb and rap it (as if they needed to be told) and began testing my foot. The injury did not seem to be too be bad as I could walk without much of a limp or too much discomfort. Realizing I had dodged a major bullet I was upset at myself as we continued down canyon.
The narrows relented and we reached a large flat rock above a narrow chute that channeled the water down and over a 450- drop to the Emerald Pools. We stripped out of our wetsuits and took a much-deserved break. This spot marked the start of the multi-pitch rappel down the big wall and out of the canyon. The multi pitch consists of three rappels, the final a magnificent 290- foot free hanging drop from a tiny slanted ledge called the “Birds Perch”. From this spot tourists who hike up to visit the Emerald Pools look like ants. On this day the normally green pools were turned brown from the run off. I was completely surrounded by big air as I slowly made my way down alongside the cascading waterfall. The further down the wall the waterfall became more of a cloud like mist. We completed the multi-pitch with total precision. I was the first to sequence down the multi-pitch. When I reached the ground I received a round of applause from the tourists. Standing around waiting for my partners to join me on solid ground gave my ankle plenty of time to swell and stiffen. What was not bothering me before in the canyon with the constant activity was now extremely uncomfortable. By the time everyone was down and we bagged the 700 feet of rope involved in the final rappel I moved with a serious hobble in my stride as we made our way down the mile and a half path to Zion Lodge .
A few days later we would find out about the flash floods on that Saturday in Spry, Lodge and Pine Creek Canyons that had occurred when we were caught in the same weather getting into Phantom Valley. Three canyoneers were seriously injured in Spry Canyon from the flash floods, as all three were swept over a 40- foot fall and two of the men were swept over a second 60- foot fall. The incident was a chilling reminder of the very real dangers of flash floods. I do not regret our decision to continue our descent after being caught in this weather. I say this because much thought, discussion and deliberation went into this decision. With glorious weather the following day, the battle with Heaps did not end as we were faced with equipment failure, passing a large group and a minor injury, in addition to the challenges of the canyon itself.
Insomnia Canyon, 4BIIIR
This is a blog post about a canyon that is both rugged and delicate. It has beauty and challenges both on a grand and small scale. Like others, it is a special place in the Mogollon Rim where rock, water, vegetation and air have come together. I am lucky to have connected to it. Those who have done it before call it Insomnia. Those who do it in the future need to treat it with respect and care.
Voodoo Canyon, 3BIII
Coconino National Forest – tributary of Secret Canyon
At the last minute I decided to join Eric, Kyle and Bird for a romp down Voodoo Canyon. For Bird, who was visiting from Omaha, Neb., it would be his first time canyoneering and rappelling. Not an easy first canyon. For me it would be my second descent down Voodoo, a canyon as beautiful, exciting and fulfilling the second time around, with fun rappels and down climbs and a magical quality of light completely unique to the space found between these sandstone walls. I really enjoy the report from that first descent, so check it out and below you will find some pics from the most recent trip.