A chance to test myself physically. Four days, over 40 miles of canyoneering, off trail backpacking and packrafting, in a remote and rugged part of the Grand Canyon. Committing to the adventure somewhat late in the game I realize a little over a month out that I need to get myself in shape. A strict regimen of trail running and climbing to the top of Camelback Mountain with a 50 pound pack follows and rather quickly I’m feeling ready. Perhaps, this is the best shape I’ve been in a long time. I know my three partners will be prepared and planning on hitting the route fast and aggressively. I don’t want them thinking that the Dad of three has gone soft and can no longer keep up. I couldn’t be more excited to put my body and mind in this massive place and see how they hold up.
Tuckup Canyon descent, 2BV and Rocky Point Canyon, 3BIV
Grand Canyon National Park
On the rim final preparations are made to our packs and feet hit Earth. It won’t get any easier than this as the first few miles are on a moderate downhill grade on the Tuckup Trail, the only official trail we will be walking on until the last day when returning on the same stretch of trail. It has been nearly three years since my last adventure in this remote part of the Grand Canyon, a four day route very similar to this one. The crew is nearly the same. A few lessons have been learned from that trip that was nearly flawless in execution. We hope to repeat the speed and style. With lighter packs and a few of us with some more gray hair, we blast off the trail and into Tuckup Canyon with equally high spirits as when we embarked on that adventure. Eric, Mark and Brian had explored Tuckup Canyon and several of its tributaries on another previous trip. For me this is new ground. I am amazed that we will be descending over two thousand feet on this major canyon all the way to the Colorado River without the need to bring out ropes. It is as if rock and water have partnered over millions of years to create the perfect ramp. Maybe not that perfect as we hit several moderate down climbs upon dropping deeper into the Supai formation. We reach the Redwall limestone and quickly this layer slots up forming stunning narrows. I am giddy with excitement as I pass through a scoured and imposing hallway of vertical white walls like something out of Game of Thrones.
With time in the day and the weather somewhat holding off to its less than stellar forecast, we break out of Tuckup Canyon to gain the Redwall for a technical descent of Rocky Point Canyon, a side canyon of Tuckup. We quickly reach the top of the narrows during which time Eric comes within inches of stepping on a rattlesnake. He is shaken as he should be. A bite here would be catastrophic. As we don wetsuits and harnesses a light sprinkle patters against our helmets and creates water drops in the pool below the first rappel. The rain subsides and we go for it. Several rappels, down climbs and wades make up this short, scenic, exciting and not to challenging descent. We are quickly back in Tuckup Canyon as the rain begins again.
Despite the massive reach of the Tuckup Canyon system the rain is light not leaving us overly concerned about the risk of a flash flood. However with every step we continue down canyon we increase the area of accumulated draining water forming a flash food. With every side drainage of Tuckup that we pass that area increases by potentially dozens of square miles. My eyes are most certainly scanning for benches to escape in the event of a flash flood. The rain never amounts to much and we continue to pass sublime narrows as we enter the tiered rock of the Muav limestone formation. The roar of the Colorado River is now in earshot and we reach the sprawling beach at the mouth of Tuckup Canyon. As we inflate our packrafts the rain becomes steadier. We launch into the fast moving water, our destination two miles downstream, the beach at the mouth of National Canyon. I paddle little and let the current take me as I watch the rim of the Redwall a thousand feet above, move across my gaze from right to left in a smooth and continuous motion. Rain falls on my face. Down river, clouds, late afternoon light and rain provide an ethereal quality to the canyon that few get to see and even fewer see while floating on the Colorado River in such a small watercraft. Two miles are covered quickly and we dock on National Beach. As the rain continues we debate whether to camp riverside or look for a shelf in National Canyon to hunker under and stay dry. We explore some less than stellar options and the rain subsides. We set up camp for the night on the soft sand alongside the roar of the Colorado River.
National Canyon, 2BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
The following morning we wake just before sunrise. The weather seems to have moved out. We begin up National Canyon. The mouth of National is massive in size. A highway so to speak but it quickly constricts into Muav narrows even more exquisite than those in Tuckup. Spring fed flow forming small waterfalls greatly adds to the beauty. Some several tough up climbs present themselves and we are strapping our helmets on. We make our way into the Redwall limestone and continue up canyon until reaching a side drainage that we know from Todd Martin’s Grand Canyoneering book will take us to the top of the Redwall. Several tough up climbs require partner assists and chest deep water is frigid sans wetsuits. The narrows are intensely beautiful before the canyon opens up at the point where a super exposed class 3+ climb is the final obstacle to the top of the Redwall.
The several hundred foot climb looks impenetrable but as we get closer we see the route. Unfortunately, the exposure does not lessen as we approach and a fall here would certainly be fatal. My heart beats and my mind is cleared of all but the task at hand. Halfway up one of my shoe laces becomes partially untied. The verticality of the rock makes it impossible for me to bend down and tie the shoe. My concentration is now split between the necessary climbing moves and keeping that shoe on my foot. The grade lessens and the crew reconvenes on top of the Redwall. We are all breathing heavy with eyes wide open.
Plan B Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
We have been tipped off by Grand Canyon explorer and canyoneering guru Rich Rudrow of the presence of a nearby technical canyon simply known as Plan B Canyon. Rich is responsible for a 100 first descents of technical canyons in the Grand Canyon and is also one of only a dozen or so people to have thru-hiked the entire canyon. Rich has graciously shared some of the beta for this challenging canyon. With only two known previous descents we know we must bring our A game for Plan B. The canyon is indeed challenging and has clearly seen little human presence. We replace all anchors as webbing is severely faded and breaking down for the many awkward start rappels. As we approach the final rappel, an airy 100+ foot rappel over an alcove, we notice the anchor left behind during the previous descents are two knot chocks just near the edge of the drop. The angle of the drop leaves no room for error taking the right direction on rappel and one of the knot chocks seems to come out of place with just the slightest disturbance. To make matters worse the proximity of the knot chocks to the edge makes it nearly impossible to both test it’s effectiveness and back it up with a meat anchor. We are all highly uncomfortable with this anchor. After unsuccessfully searching for nearly an hour for another anchor, we resign to having to use it. We now shift our focus to figure out a way to back the anchor up with meat, but we continue to realize how the angles of everything are going to make that highly ineffective. As we argue and explore possibilities for all but the last man back-up, I notice a deep crack about 30 feet back from the edge. It seems like it could hold webbing and become even more secure if we use smaller rocks stuffed into the crack to keep the webbing in place. Further, the angle and proximity away from the edge allows for the anchor to be tested and backed up for all but the last man. I easily make my case for the anchor and the group breaths a deep sigh of relief that we won’t have to use those terrifying knot chocks.
Out of Plan B Canyon we find a suitable place for a camp near a side drainage that we will use to escape back up to above the Redwall layer in the morning. Despite losing time replacing and setting anchors in Plan B Canyon there is still much light left in the day. We spend the afternoon pumping water, snacking on rations and laughing over crude conversation. It’s still light out and I bed down right at the confluence of the tributary. Laying on my side I can look up this canyon and see three layers of rock, the Redwall limestone, Supai formation and Coconino Sandstone before me. Its thousands of vertical feet and represents hundreds of millions of years of erosion. I then turn and lay on my back and watch the blooming ocotillos 600 feet above on the edge of the Redwall swaying in the winds. A few clouds float by. I close my eyes. I am in a really good place.
Another pre-sunrise wakeup call as we know this will be the longest and toughest day of the trip. We head up the side drainage and quickly encounter a series of obstacles requiring partner assists and pack hauling. The crux obstacle necessitates a four man, three layer pyramid to reach the top; some real circus shit. We gain the top of the Redwall and begin the long slog around the National System, up to the Esplanade and over to Pocket Point Canyon. It takes more than half the day. It is exhausting and fully sun exposed, but the change of scenery from the subterranean world is welcome affording sweeping views, particularly once we gain the Esplanade.
Pocketpoint Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
Finally into Pocket Point Canyon, the heat begins rearing its ugly head as it takes a solid hour to reach the Redwall narrows, where shade and cold water swimmers were waiting. After a stunning and beautiful section of technical canyon in the Redwall, the canyon opens up for another long slog till entering a short section of Temple Butte limestone narrows ending in an alcove rappel. The canyon opens again for a short slog before an exciting rappel sequence through Muav limestone narrows dropping us onto the beach along the Colorado River. We have less than an hour of light left as rope is pulled and packrafts inflated. The last sunlight glows on the rim of the inner gorge as we launch for a short and fast moving float back to the beach at Tuckup Canyon. As we make camp, a near full moon illuminates the entire canyon, keeping some of us awake much of the night. It’s our last night of the adventure.
Tuckup Canyon ascent, 2BV
Grand Canyon National Park
The final day is rather uneventful aside from the four thousand foot vertical climb from the Colorado River to the rim of the Grand Canyon. We retrace our steps back up Tuckup Canyon. Some of those down climbs with a gravity assist were a lot harder on the way up, requiring partner assists and pack hauls. Upon reaching the Tuckup Trail I am pretty exhausted with still several miles and 1,500 feet of vertical to go. The four of us space out and find our own pace. I’m pushing myself hard but not moving all that fast, feeling the accumulation of the last 76 hours. One foot in front of the other. I reach the rim. I’m ready to be done but also kind of ready for the next one; that next test in this grandest of places. Well, maybe not right now, but hopefully not three years from now either.
A year ago things were different and we knew changes were coming. To celebrate these changes, Laura and I journeyed to Hawaii’s Big Island for what could be called a ‘babymoon”. Such an appropriate place to celebrate the coming of two new lives to our family in a land that geologically speaking is in its infancy. The Big Island is less than half a million years old. To put that in perspective the earliest lines in the human genus evolved nearly three million years ago. What Hawaii Island lacks in age it makes up for in contrast and depth. It is surprising that a land that is so young can be so full of complexities. Laura and I looked to explore this land of contrasts, in addition to some second trimester relaxation for Laura.
Deserts, rain forests, beaches, mountains, grasslands, lava fields and one of the the most active volcanos in the world define this landscape. It is also a land of hundreds of canyons. The majority of them draining the abundant rains that fall on the northeastern slopes of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on planet Earth (that is if you measure it from its base at over 19,000 feet below sea level.) Three years earlier, my good friend and fellow canyoneering adventurer, Eric Leifer, moved to the Big Island and was the first to explore many of these drainages. After several days of hiking, beaching, snorkeling and exploring, we hook up with Eric for several days of Big Island canyoneering.
Waikaumalo Creek, 3CIII
Big Island, Hawaii
It is good to see my old friend. I am excited to see what he has been exploring for the last few years; the same amount of time since we have seen each the other and shared in a descent. Not far from the ocean we drop Eric’s jeep along a nondescript park on the banks of Waikaumalo Creek. We begin hiking up a road and after not long are picked up by a local who drives us to the drop in spot. Creekside we don shortie wetsuits despite the warm Pacific Ocean air. The adventure begins. The canyon gets going immediately. After several rappels another fork of equal significance joins our own forming a staggeringly beautiful double waterfall room. Just downstream of this we are presented with what should be the next rappel, a 60- footer between a two ribbon waterfall. This, however, is the big jump Eric had been preparing me for. It will tie my record for my highest jump with a 60- foot plunge I did in Devil’s Canyon in the Superstition Mountains. That jump wasn’t all that pleasant when impacting the surface of the water. I am nervous but I don’t waste anytime. With a little guidance from Eric I line it up and hock my body over the edge, skipping the obligatory “1,2,3.” It seems to take awhile to hit the water but when I do I land it perfectly making for a much more comfortable landing than my previous jump of this height. As we continue downstream I marvel at the fact that a little over half a million years ago none of this existed. What did exist was a seemingly endless ocean punctuated by gases beginning to bubble to the surface from what would create this magical land. The waterfalls continue, some we rappel and some we jump. As the drainage begins to lose it’s intensity we rock hop back to that park. Wetsuits come off with grass between my toes and the smell of the ocean not too far away.
Kilau Creek, 3BIII
Big Island, Hawaii
On day two Laura and Eric’s friend, Kathryn, join us for a descent of Kilau Creek. We drop into the drainage with considerable less flow than the day’s previous. The first drop comes quickly. Laura hops on rope rappelling for three. Undoubtedly she is the first pregnant woman with twins to descend this route and probably the first to canyoneer on the Big Island, period. The flow dissipates and the route loses some of its luster but the vegetation is exquisite. A 115- foot fluted drywall covered in some of this luscious vegetation brings us to an arched tunnel under a long abandoned road. Through the tunnel the ocean is in both eye and earshot. It reminds me of Grand Canyoneering bringing us ever closer to the roar of the Colorado River, except this body of water is infinitely larger, more powerful and complex than any other previous confluence. If followed long enough every single canyoneering descent I have ever been a part of would end up in the Pacific Ocean (the exception being the handful of descents I have done in Europe). This descent literally ends where the powerful waves of the Pacific crash onto the final boulders of Kilau Creek on a rocky beach. Stealth rubber meets salt water for the first time while canyoneering. I shimmy up a nearby Palm tree to pull down some coconuts. Passing around fresh coconut milk as we stare into the endless water will remain one of my more special moments in the canyonlands.
Skeleton Cave Canyon, 3AIII
Tonto National Forest – Four Peaks Wilderness
I type these words on the last day of 2015. Tomorrow a New Year. But for now forced nostalgia. For me it was an unprecedented year. Unique, special, intense, exhausting, gratifying are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe it. Below is a look back on the many blessings I experienced and also what I survived.
As you can see #11 states “Still experiencing 7 technical canyon descents w/ great friends despite everything.” To some it may seem out of place or trivial with the others on the list. They would be wrong. Canyoneering is a critical part of my life. The sport allows me to experience the rawness and beauty of nature, push myself physically and mentally and bond with friends in a way I can’t duplicate in other ways. Despite what was otherwise a crazy year I feel very fortunate for having experienced those canyons. Skeleton Cave Canyon was one of those seven descents. It was not a particularly special canyon. It was however an opportunity to experience wilderness and friendship in the best and truest of terms. It is the summation of camping the night before and the pleasantries that go with it, required navigation, being in rugged beauty, transportation via foot, paddles and rope and most importantly sharing it with the friends alongside you, that makes it so special and important.
My “Blessed with…” list probably could not have been much better, but my “Survived…” list, no doubt, could have been much worse. Or one could not survive at all. Such was the case for 75 Apache Indians who in 1872 were brutally shot and killed with their backs to a cave by General George Crook and the 5th Cavalry. The cave is really more of an alcove and marks the start of the descent of Skeleton Cave Canyon. The bones of the Apaches are long gone, although we did see holes in the walls that we believe could be bullet holes from the massacre. For more about the Skeleton Cave massacre click here.
It must have been frightening hidden in a rugged alcove a 1,000 feet above the Salt River knowing the cavalry is literally coming for you, but not for rescue. Did nostalgia or reflection of the past enter their minds amid the crisis? For me (not in crisis) I like reflection at the end of the year, even if its forced. It is a big exhalation before looking forward to many blessings and canyons in 2016, hopefully just with more sleep.
Choprock Canyon (South Fork), 4BVR
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Water and time. It is these two main ingredients that create the canyons of the Colorado Plateau. During those tens of thousands of years weather patterns have shifted. There have been drier and wetter times, warmer and cooler times. Throughout most of the world we are seeing unprecedented warming trends. Also the Western United States has entered its second decade of drought. Much of the scientific community pins the burning of fossil fuels as the primary contributor to climate change. Others feel this is just the pendulum swinging as it always has throughout time immemorial. Either way, what is indisputable, is that the combination of the drought and the warming trends is impacting our water supply in the Southwestern United States and other places throughout the world. I spent much of 2015 reporting on how these water shortages are playing out; traveling to Peru, Bolivia, Colorado and the Navajo Nation.
With all that traveling, moving into a new house and becoming a Dad to twins, there wasn’t a lot of time for canyoneering. When my friends started planning a canyoneering excursion in the Escalante and I noticed that the dates were lining up just before the start of a 10-day reporting trip in the Colorado Rockies, I seized on the opportunity to squeeze in a descent on the drive up to Colorado.
On a cold, overcast Spring day we begin the long approach to Choprock Canyon. I am thrilled to be revisiting this canyon, one of my favorite descents of the Colorado Plateau. The group moves fast and we quickly depose of the long approach, the “Riparian Section” and “Happy Section”. Upon entering the infamous “Grim Section” we find water levels slightly lower than the previous descent. Just low enough that we can squeeze under the crux logjams as opposed to climbing up and over like we did the last time. As we work our way deeper into the relentless “Grim Section”, snow flurries float down in the narrow dark slot. It is eerie and beautiful. The flakes fall intermittently for several hours until the final rappel bringing us back into the land of the living. On the long hike back to the Egypt Bench the snow comes down hard. It might actually be graupel at this point. As I trudge through minimal visibility in these winter conditions, I wonder if the white stuff is going to keep me prisoner of the Egypt Bench and prevent me from beginning my 10-day reporting trip on how the reduced snowpack in the Colorado Rockies is affecting the Colorado River. Work is supposed to begin tomorrow.
The following morning I make my way out on the muddy roads, back to pavement and on to Colorado. Ironically the next three weeks would see unusually wet and cold conditions throughout the Colorado Plateau and Colorado Rockies, leaving much needed snow in the mountains. What was a dismally dry winter charged the Colorado River from this late season snow. It made my job as a visual journalist to document drought in this region, challenging. But that’s the thing with climate change, human caused or otherwise; it is about long term patterns not short term weather. Meanwhile our water supply gets ever more precarious and the canyons continue to change. Where will it all be 10,000 years from now?
Too see a video I produced from my reporting in Colorado click here.
It has been six and a half months since I have posted on this blog. Though I have ventured into the canyon lands during this time, my energy and attention has been elsewhere. Professional opportunities have taken me on assignment to the Colorado Rockies, the Cordillera Blanca mountains of Peru, and the slums of La Paz, Bolivia, for long stretches of time. I have moved into a new home and most significant of all, Laura and I experienced the birth of our twins, Samuel and Molly Wallace. They are now four weeks old. I didn’t sleep much last night and officially return to work tomorrow. It seemed like a good time to dust off some memories fogged in twin infant induced exhaustion and begin archiving those handful of descents of the last six months. I may need to rely on the photographs here because despite this strong coffee’s best efforts I am pretty dam tired.
Parallel Play Canyon, 3CIII
Tonto National Forest
A large group with some of the regulars and new faces on a crisp winter Arizona day. It’s full sun on an invigorating hike up a lovely trail through a grassland covered mountain face to reach the necessary elevation; leaving plenty of time to get to know those new faces. We drop into the canyon…. wait…. You know what, I don’t have enough recollection to write about this trip with any clarity or meaning in my current state of mind. Here’s the summary… Another beautiful slice of Arizona tucked away in its rugged landscape. A great group of guys and conversation. A dark, cold and invigorating technical section before a tedious but not too lengthy rock hop back to our vehicles. A stop on the drive home at a desert watering hole for barbecue, beer and catching the fourth quarter of the Packers blowing it in the NFC Championship game, sending the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLIX. Yes, this trip was a long time ago. NFL Week 1 is a little over a month away.
Tatahoysa Wash, 3AIV
Grand Canyon National Park
12/14/14 – 12/15/15
It has been too long since I have gotten into the thick with these two. Geography, injuries and life have gotten in the way. It has been nearly 5 years since just Chris Erwin, Eric Luth and I have been adventuring together. After a vehicle mishap we reach our destination on a frigid December night over 20 miles from pavement on the rim of the grand daddy of them all. Tomorrow morning the three of us will throw on our packs and step over the edge, but tonight we’ve got some drinking to do.
I wake with a hang over not as bad as would be expected. Frost has coated everything. I look to the east of the massive expanse of desert longing for the sun to the pop over the edge. I want the adventure to begin. My partners in crime are still sleeping, so I do what I do – start cleaning camp and packing up to make as much noise as possible. Eric and Chris wake up with not too much resistance. They are also excited for the adventure to get going. Gear is divided, packing completed, a knee brace secured and we are on our way.
The Eminence Break route is a fault that splits Marble Canyon allowing entrance on the south rim. The terrain is steep but fairly easy to negotiate as we make our way through the subsequent layers of geology. Upon reaching the Red Wall Limestone we don our harnesses as the technical canyon, Tatahoysa Wash, begins. As I take out my camera to document the first rappel I realize my camera is not working. I try every in-the-field repair I know which basically amounts to taking out the battery and putting it back in. I soon realize it is not coming back to life on this trip. I quickly commandeer Chris’ camera informing him I will return it when the trip is over. He doesn’t put up a fight.
Tatahoysa Wash, is rather pleasant indeed. Near continuous rappels in magnificent indirect light as it cuts its way through the Red Wall and towards the Colorado River. The rappels are rather straightforward despite several of them being over three figures in length. The canyon is also with the exception of one pool that is easily stemmed over, bone dry. This is greatly appreciated on this cold winter day when wetsuits were left behind. We are thoroughly enjoying the canyon and the company. Before a final rappel that appears way higher than it’s actual 150 feet, we reach the river. We find a suitable beach to camp at in eye and ear shot of President Harding rapid. There is still lots of daylight left despite the fact that we are a week away from the Winter Solstice.
We spend the afternoon filtering water, chatting and snacking. Three friends catching up in the most beautiful of places. Night then comes quickly and with it the cold. It is before 7pm and we crawl into a three- person tent. We wake over 12 hours later. The hike out the Eminence Break is strenuous but in the cold air proves not too challenging as those who previously used this route in early Fall. In a few hours we are back at our vehicle. Our vehicle mishap must still be dealt with extending the amount of time these three close friends get to spend together.
Seven years in the sport. This year ventured into new canyons in familiar ground and went out to all together new territory. From Colorado Plateau skinnies to Class C gems to family outings in narrow places it was a wonderful year.
Pick Axe Canyon, 3AII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
After nine years of living in the Valley of the Sun I am still amazed at just how close this metropolitan sprawl sits on the edge of truly rugged wilderness. A recent Wednesday in the middle of a week off for the Thanksgiving holiday, provided a visceral reminder of how it’s just 35 minutes to get from strip malls and Starbucks to rugged canyons and soaring mesas.
After Chris puts in a half day of work we rendezvouse at a gas station on the edge of the sprawl and drive deeper into the desert. It is a new canyon for both Chris and I, known as Pick Axe Canyon that features a 240- foot rappel and a packraft along Canyon Lake to complete the loop. The short adventure begins on a well defined trail that must have been created well before canyoneers began visiting this nondescript drainage; perhaps for mining. We quickly reach the drainage and hike to its edge. A bend of Canyon Lake, can be seen in the distance as it slithers through the canyon walls glowing in the late November light. An 80- foot free hanger gets us in proper. The drainage takes the shape of more of a gully coming off of the mesa above, than a canyon cutting through the desert. I comment that we should call this gullyneering as opposed to canyoneering. Never-the-less, the travel is scenic and the brush not all that thick as we make our way closer to Canyon Lake. Just before the big rappel, the drainage even tightens into some narrows of sort. With just two of the us the 240-rappel is negotiated quickly and we are inflating our rafts as a power boat speeds by.
The paddle could not be anymore pleasant in the late afternoon light and all too quickly we are deflating out boats and stowing them back into our packs. Chris and I power walk up the road to get the heart rate going and in no time we are back at our vehicle. As we sip on our craft beers I bask in the good fortune to live in a city that is this close to this. Of course these wild places don’t exist this close to urban centers and stay that way by accident. It is the hard work of our fellow man that have protected these places for myself and future generations.
Check out a project I worked on for the Arizona Republic about wilderness in Arizona on this 50 year anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson by clicking here.
Full Right Fork via the Hammerhead, 3BV
Zion National Park
10/4/14 – 10/5/14
I am rappelling down a 250-foot sandstone cliff at the headwall of a canyon. As I slowly make my way down I am scanning below for the next anchor. I know I will need another anchor to reach into the canyon bottom referred to as “The Hammerhead”. I am not seeing any webbing and am getting close to running out of rope. I am still almost a hundred feet above terra firma. I spot a massive pine tree that will work as an anchor but it is off the line of the rappel and will require a bit of effort to get to. I reach the tree growing out of the tiniest of platforms on the near vertical wall. There is no preexisting anchor around the tree and our webbing is inconveniently with Laura and Chris above. I take my personal anchor and wrap around a smaller tree (more of a bush really) just next to the large pine tree and clip back into the personal anchor to provide some security in this space. Laura gets on rope, rappels down and negotiates the features of the cliff face to reach me. She clips into my personal anchor before we set up the legitimate anchor around the tree. Every facet of life has completely faded away except this place, these challenges and these people.
Anytime Laura and I get out in a canyon together it is special. They are times when the stresses of life and our life together melt away and we just experience the canyon on it’s terms. For this occasion I wanted to select a venue that has a special place in our hearts, one that has been there since we began canyoneering six years ago. That place is Zion National Park. The Right Fork of North Creek had been high on my “to do” list for a long time. I was really excited that we were both going to be experiencing the canyon for the first time together. Just a few days before we were about to embark on the trip, life almost got in the way but everything lined up and after a seven hour drive Laura, Chris and I, dirtbag it not far outside the park for a few hours of sleep before waking up early to get our permit at the Zion National Park Visitors Center. A pleasant morning hike along the West Rim trailhead and a short bushwack up and over a ridge brings us to the top of the headwall of the Hammerhead.
Laura and I are now clipped into a true anchor and Chris make his way to join our world. We pull our rope and re-rig our life line to the sweet shaded coolness of the canyon bottom below. The Hammerhead itself, an upper fork of our ultimate destination the Right Fork of North Creek is an exciting technical descent in itself with a handful or rappels and spicy down climbs through some tight sandstone narrows before reaching the Right Fork. After several hours of slogging in the Right Fork, the walls begin to move in and the vegetation subsides. At first down climbs and potholes can be avoided and then they can’t. This is where the real fun begins.
The canyon tightens to a subterranean world completely cut off from that above. It is already late in the day so little light penetrates down below. Continous pothole obstacles and down climbs ensue. Its relentless nature is reminiscent of the narrows of Imlay and Heaps, but on a much friendlier scale. After way longer than expected the narrows relent and the slogging continues. The clock is now ticking as it is getting later in the day and we are still not really sure how much further we have to the Grand Alcove and our destination for the night. Before that we know we must negotiate something referred to as the “Infamous Black Pool”. A thousand feet above I see the rim illuminated in a glow that only the just before sunset light can create. We hit the Black Pool and quickly swim and wade through the obstacle. Not long after that we hear the flow of fresh water and reach the Grand Alcove. Ten minutes later and it is pitch black. We make camp and bed down for the night.
We wake to a crisp morning, pack up our gear and debate whether or not to put on our wetsuits. We decide against it and suffer through a cold wade in the bottom of the Grand Alcove. We continue the hike down stream through a series of tiered waterfalls spread out over nearly a mile. A long slog seems to never end before we reach the Kolob Terrace Road in the heart of the scars of the 2006 Kolob Fire. Our only vehicle is 15 miles of road and 3000 feet above. A hitchhike is a must. Chris lays down in the shade of a tree as Laura and I stick thumbs up on the shoulder of Kolob Terrace Road. A half dozen cars pass us during the course of 15 minutes. In one of them a women in the passenger seat mouths ‘I’m sorry” as the vehicle speeds by. I start having premature doubts, but Laura tells me to relax. Just then a pick-up stops and takes us to just within a mile and half of our vehicle. After a long drive home during which time we reflect on this multi-faceted adventure Laura and I return to the same stresses in our lives, but feeling recharged and fortunate to be able to have this time and experience together.
North Fork of the Kings River, aka Upper Jump Canyon, 3CIII
Sierra National Forest
During the planning phase of the trip there had been discussion of trying to do Upper and Lower Jump Canyons in one day. For clarification it is just one canyon, the North Fork of the Kings River. The canyon is broken up into two sections: Upper Jump and Lower Jump. Upper Jump actually ends right where Lower Jump begins. Though it would most certainly be possible to complete both routes in one long and exhausting day with a small and speedy group it wasn’t for us on this trip. Logistics made sense to do things out of order and hit Upper Jump second.
Before feet touch rock, water, dust and mud, planning and scheming occurs. It is a necessity of canyoneering. Last minute additions join; injuries and exhaustion result in one less. It all creates different groups tackling different drainages. It is a beautiful part of the sport. This is the first time this exact semblance of people has ventured into narrow places.
For me and a few others in the group this will be my last day of this California canyoneering holiday. As I romp through the somewhat unpleasant long start to this canyon I become reflective. Will this exact group ever form again? A snake stretched out on a tree branch hanging right over a pool of water we swim under jolts me out of my own head space. Shortly after this the canyon gets going. A few fun jumps, a gorgeous boulder cave, long hallway swims and some awkward rappels that could become extremely challenging if flows were considerably higher, highlight the technical section. Upper Jump falls flat compared to the down canyon route, but it is still a pleasant half day route.
The spot that began yesterday’s adventure presents itself and we are removing our harnesses and wetsuits. This group of six: Cody, Daisy, Mark, Chris, Mike and myself charge up the mountainside and back to our vehicle. We pose for a group picture, exchange hugs and handshakes and then splinter into sub-groups, heading our separate ways.