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.”
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.
Pontirone Lesgiüna inferiore, V4A3III
Valle di Blenio, Ticino, Switzerland
We are staying at the Curzútt, a hostel in the middle of a hamlet that dates back over 800- years. Buildings hundreds of years old still stand today. The hostel has been restored consistently with this architectural history as layers of stone have been chiseled and perfectly placed with a minimal use of mortar. The settlement is over 1300 feet above the valley floor. The final quarter mile and 500- feet of vertical must be covered either by foot or cable car. Our day begins with this walk down the steep switchback path to our car.
We drive up into the Blenio Valley for today’s adventure, a technical descent of Pontirone Lesgiüna inferiore. Where the road crosses the bottom of the drainage we peek into the canyon to check the water levels. It looks like big flows. We hike up through a chestnut tree forest. We leave the woods behind and descend into the canyon bottom down a steep and exposed slope. A fixed hand line assists in one particularly spicy section.
We suit up having to shout to be heard over the deafening noise of the cascading water. Below the first rappel, the canyon narrows into a dark abyss. It is a big waterfall. From our guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola, we know it is 140- feet. The anchor off to one side of the canyon wall keeps us just outside the reach of the main flow, but close enough for us to feel its raw power. Eric perfectly describes it as the “dragon’s breath”. Having experienced well over a 1000 rappels this one is memorable. From here the beauty of the canyon takes off, narrow polished silver walls and emerald green water. Thanks to its skinniness, the technical obstacles keep pace with its stunning aesthetics. This canyon is far narrower than any of our previous European descents. It’s tightness more closely resembles the canyons of Zion National Park or the Mogollon Rim of Arizona. Throw into the mix what could have been 50 CFS of water. It is a recipe for powerful hydraulics at the bottom of the numerous drops we encounter. These hydraulics require that rope lengths are set short or that jumping replaces rappelling to ensure we are not sucked into these whirlpools. A fixed traverse line assists in getting us to a safer launching zone for a jump. Another drop is negotiated by down climbing and crossing underneath the water flow that shoots out horizontally in a jet stream. More jumps and rappels require the utmost attention to detail on rope work. After a final 50- yard swim through a narrow hallway of churning water the canyon ends under two bridges. We are buzzing from this truly special descent.
With plenty of day left we drive back down the Riviera, past Bellinzona and Locarno to the small town of Brissago on the shore of the massive Lake Maggiore, where we take the next ferry to Brissago Island. The six acre island in the middle of Lake Maggiore surrounded by the Italian and Swiss Alps is home to a stunning open air botanical garden. Ticino’s warm sunny climate allows sub-tropical plants to thrive on the island. The garden houses 1700 plant species from around the world including, lotus blossoms, giant sequoias, bald cypresses, perennial banana plants, bamboo and eucalyptus trees. We spend the afternoon wandering between every corner and pocket of the island exploring the diverse vegetation and rocky beaches to the backdrop of this massive lake and towering mountains beyond. A ferry back to the mainland, beer and pizza for dinner and the hike back up to the Curzútt Hostel close out the day.
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…”.
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.
Coyote Guch, Peek-A-Boo Slot Canyon & Spooky Slot Canyon, 2BII
approximately 5 miles
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
We woke the morning following our Choprock descent completely worked. We broke camp and despite the healthy amount of food, canned beer and whiskey consumed, our packs were still way too heavy. The three plus mile hike back to the car was no labor of love, to use the cliche.
We hopped in the vehicles and moved on to Chimney Rock, which would serve as our base of operations for the next few days. During the hour drive the stiffness really set in and I started to realize that our plan of doing Raven slot that afternoon and Big Tony the following day was a bit over zealous, at least for me. For those that don’t know, both Raven and Big Tony are slots so narrow at the bottom that the canyoneer must wedge his or her body in the canyon walls up to 50- feet above the floor where the canyon is slightly wider to make passage down the canyon possible. This technique known as high stemming is both mentally and physically demanding and dangerous if a slip or mistake is made. I just did not think I had enough in the tank to do it safely. After a “Team Quatro” meeting we decided to take it down a notch and explore the Dry Forks of Coyote Gulch and then do a Headless Hen and Raven combo tomorrow. Big Tony would have to wait for a future trip.
We leisurely set up a beautiful primitive camp a stone’s throw from Chimney Rock and then drove to the trailhead for the dry forks of Coyote Gulch. It was nice to be free of ropes, wetsuits, helmets and dry bags as we explored these tight and not so easy canyons for three to four hours that afternoon. I am not sure this would be most people’s definition of a “rest day”, but it was certainly toned down enough for us to recharge our batteries for the intensity about to come.