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
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.
North Fork of the Kings River, aka Lower Jump Canyon
Sierra National Forest
This is the canyon. This is the one the whole trip is built around, Lower Jump Canyon. The Interweb loves it, drawing lots of attention as of late. Cali canyoneers keep raving about it. It was only a matter of time before their inland cousins in Utah, Arizona and Colorado started venturing west to check it out. A couple of our friends did just that last season and they fully concurred the hype. Schedules align and we make the 12- hour drive to check it out for ourselves.
Just as we pull out of our water parched campsite to set up the shuttle for Lower Jump so do another group of canyoneers from LA. They are also headed to Lower Jump. We follow just behind their vehicles along a paved road on the banks of the bony Kings River and into the Balch Camp, another town built for the workers running the dams to create hydroelectric power for Southern California. Mike comments how it reminds him of the movie “Chinatown” with Jack Nicholson. I add it to my to watch movie list.
After the shuttle is set and the short approach complete we suit up on the banks of the North Fork of the Kings as it is called on the maps. Just ahead of us are two separate groups of at least six people each, including our campsite neighbors. Just minutes separate each party creating the potential for a real cluster fuck. The wheels in my head are spinning to figure out a way to considerately pass these groups so we are not on top of each other during the 9- hour descent. Fortunately, the wider nature of the canyon allows us to begin sending part of our group down off of meat while sending the rest down on the natural anchor. At the next drop we all jump as the group just ahead of us are rappelling. One party is completely passed. At the following drop we again use the meat technique for everybody but myself. The other group kindly allow me to use their rope to rappel down. We are now entirely out in front. The canyon gets going and we are in it, really feeling this place. Jump after jump, true Class C rappels with the deafening sound of water colliding with plastic helmets and endless swimming ensue. Never have I swam so much in a canyon before. I would be curious as to the total distance we swim on this day, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it approaches a mile. The middle section of the canyon opens wide with a series of especially long pools. The banks of the river are chock full of thick vegetation so a slow mellow back swim under a blazing sun while taking in the granite canyon walls above is clearly the path of least resistance. Ripe blackberries hang over these pools allowing for mid-swim snacks along the way. Despite this tranquil description it is still exhausting.
A lower technical section develops giving us the opportunity and misfortune to core shot a rope between a 150 foot plus and 100 foot plus rappels with nothing but a pool and ledge separating them. We now do not have one piece of rope long enough to complete the rappel. We could tie two ropes together to reach the bottom but the knot would then not allow us to retrieve our rope. After spending ten minutes brainstorming as a group to figure out the best way to tackle the problem we come up with a solution. We tie two ropes together and then perform a rap and lower for all but the last person. Our last man at risk, Mike, then raps over the compromised section of rope which is about 30 feet above a deep pool of water. Mike reaches the bottom with the rope still intact.
More slogging, down climbs through boulder mazes in the gorgeous late afternoon light and a final jump bring us to just above a dam and powerhouse and the end of the canyon. As our top car is retrieved snacks and beers are brought out. We all have that glow and buzz from having just descended a really good canyon. Those two other groups emerge not long after us and they look the same way. No doubt Lower Jump is the real deal.
Big Creek, aka Canyon of the Dammed
Sierra National Forest
According to google maps it is a 10.5 hour drive to Canyon of the Dammed, this first stop on our whirlwind Sierra-Nevada canyoneering tour. We actually picked this canyon because it has a shorter drive time than the pièce de résistance of the trip, Lower Jump Canyon. Leaving Phoenix after a full work day we know we have a nasty drive in store for us. With overheating issues those 10.5 hours become 12 and we pull off to the side of a dirt road to bed down for the night at 4:30 AM, just a few miles from Canyon of the Dammed. Three hours later we are getting our gear together. In an exhausted state I attempt to acclimate to my new surroundings. During those 679 miles we have left the desert and entered into a world of mountains, pine trees and massive granite features.
We set up our lower car shuttle in the town of Big Creek. The town has been built around Southern California Edison’s Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. We park a car not far from the powerhouse that creates hydroelectric power from the drainage that we will be descending. The structure is enormous and is one of 9 powerhouses generating a total capacity of 4 billion kilowatt hours a year, serving 4.3 millions customers in Southern California. It accounts for 12 percent of all hydroelectric power in California. It is fascinating to think we will be traveling through and be surrounded by the water and geography that makes all of that energy possible. We continue our drive through the town of Big Creek, not a person in sight at this early hour. The town appears to exist purely to serve the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. We switchback on a paved road up over two thousand feet to Huntington Lake, a reservoir, also part of the Big Creek Hyrdroelectric Project. In California’s historic drought, the lake is frighteningly low. The lake is at a third of its normal level. Tree stumps from when the lake was created in 1912 are exposed and docks lay in dirt far from the shoreline. Check out this story from the Los Angeles Times with amazing photos showing the retreating Huntingon Lake. I begin to wonder for how much longer will the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project be able to provide electricity to charge all those smartphones and run all those air conditioners. In the more immediate future is there go to be all that much flow for our descent.
We throw on our packs and walk alongside pipes, rails and other various infrastructure, of the hydroelectric project. Much of it appears to have been long decommissioned. As we work our way down a steep slope into the Big Creek drainage we are pleasantly surprised to see it is flowing considerably higher than from what we could see when we parked our bottom car. We now suspect that what we were seeing was after much of the water had been pulled out of the drainage for the powerhouse. Two thousand feet above there is enough water that I am second guessing my decision not to have brought my additional neoprene vest.
We get in it and begin to work the down climbs, rappels and slides. It is a place dominated by granite, way slicker than the sandstone we are more accustomed to. The canyon itself never really tightens but the adventure is exciting just the same and the scenery magnificent as we work our way towards and then past the massive granite feature known as Kerchoff Dome. One rappel is particularly exciting with the line right through the water course. As the descent nears its end we move past more pipes, wires, bridges and a small dam. A few more rappels past this and we can begin to hear the loud hum from the powerhouse. As I change out of my wetsuit studying the imposing quality of the powerhouse I am buzzing from an exciting Class C descent. I can’t help but wonder if the drought could put an end to what I just experienced and make the entire Big Creek Hydroelectric Project irrelevant.