Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A magnificent afternoon in Wilber Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 30, 2009

Wilber Canyon, (aka Carcass Canyon) 3BIII
4.2 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek


Wilber Canyon (also known as Carcass Canyon) is one of my favorite canyoneering trips of the West Clear Creek tributaries. This canyon is a perfect escape from the brutal summer heat. Wilber Canyon has a stunning section of winding and wavy narrows along with some beautiful fun rappels.

One of the first real obstacles of the canyon is a climb down an extremely slippery log. Both David and Mike made their way down effortlessly, when it was my turn to shimmy down the log I knew I was in trouble. One minute I was on the log the next I was hugging the tree in mid air. There was really nothing left to do but fall. Oh well, a few scrapes were not going to ruin my afternoon. There is a second log down climb shortly after the first, this one into a nasty thick black pool of water, poor Mike lost his Monster energy drink in the pool and tried his utmost to find it with no luck (I should mention we always carry out trash we find in canyons and we are sorry to add any litter ourselves). Farther down the canyon through the narrows comes a few lovely rappels and a hallway swim. The final rappel ends with a swim that leads you to West Clear Creek.

The hike out of West Clear Creek back to our car was way longer than we expected. We kept thinking that the trail out was right around the corner but it never was; when we finally got to the point where we thought we missed the exit, there it was! I can’t wait to descend Carcass Canyon again this summer.


Stuck rope in Palisades Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on May 28, 2009
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Eric Luth narrates video

Palisades Canyon, 3BIV
13.9 miles
Coronado National Forest – Santa Catalina Mountains

It hadn’t happened yet. I knew eventually it would happen. It made me kind of nervous. How would I handle it? Palisades Canyon was definitely not the canyon that I wanted to deal with the stuck rope scenario, particularly for the first time. Why? 14 miles, 6 consecutive rappels all over 100 feet, flowing water, algae covered rock that is slicker than a greased pig and natural anchor challenges. This canyon is extremely strenuous and technical.  Even with an early start and everything running smoothly we would be lucky to finish before dark.

Canyoneering does not always go according to plan; the unexpected happens and part of what I really like about this sport is the problem solving in dealing with situations as they occur.

The third rappel was a 100-footer from two pitons (spike like objects jammed into cracks used as anchors) on the side of a bowl shaped pool. The edge of the bowl between the pitons and the drop-off had an odd shaped curve to it. The rappel itself was treacherous, straight down the watercourse. The flow was light but provided just enough of that extra element to make things a little more difficult. The invisible algae made the rock so slick that keeping your feet under you while on rappel was almost impossible. The proper technique seemed to be to rappel down on the side of your butt.

After Eric and I rappelled down and began pulling, the rope stopped moving after 15 feet of retrieval. We tried pulling from different directions. Still, no pull. We tried creating a 3:1 mechanical advantage system. Still nothing. A 5:1 mechanical advantage. Still nothing. Running out of options we realized that one of us would have to ascend the rope to make retrieval possible. With three rappels remaining we needed the rope to continue the canyon. There may have been an exit out of the canyon at our current location but it appeared sketchy.

Normally, ascending a stuck rope is not a safe option as the rope could become un-stuck while ascending.  This would result in falling on the attached rope. In our current case however, we were able to climb up 10 feet and retrieve the end of the rappel side of the rope and pull until we knew without a doubt that our block was placed back against the anchor. After achieving this I prepared my jumar and prusik cords and began ascending. With water spraying me in the face I grunted and groaned 100 feet back to the anchor. When I reached the top I shouted out in VICTORY.

Untwisting the rope that had bound up along the curved edge of the bowl above the rappel, we performed a test pull to confirm we would be able to achieve the pull. After success I rappelled down, pulled the rope and we continued the canyon. We lost about an hour and a half.

With only two people and no other problems we made time and reached our car only an hour after sunset.

I wouldn’t say that I was glad the rope got stuck. But dealing with this situation perhaps became the highlight of what would have otherwise been an excellent canyon. The exhilaration of ascending the rope and hence solving what could have become a dire situation was intense. It was a feeling that does not come along often.


Ascending Ladder/ Micro Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on May 27, 2009

Ladder/ Micro Canyon, 3AII
5.4 miles
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness, tributaries of Fish Creek Canyon

Ladder/ Micro Canyon is a two for one canyoneering day trip. David, Chris, Pat, Mike and I rappelled into Ladder Canyon and a hiked up Fish Creek to Micro Canyon.  This is the first canyon we have done that we had to leave our rope at the first and only rappel in order to easily get out later. Micro Canyon is a short beautiful slot we climbed up from the bottom. Back at the bottom of Ladder Canyon our rope awaited us to ascend up and out.


Getting hooked in Christopher Creek Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 22, 2009

Christopher Creek Canyon, 3CII
Tonto National Forest
2.8 miles
08/20/07, 09/09/07, 08/03/08


Christopher Creek Canyon was one of my first technical canyon descents and since then I have traveled down this water filled gorge several times. It is a fun, fairly straightforward swift water canyon that features rappels, water slides, swims and jumps. It is an example of how diverse Arizona’s canyons are. Within 60 miles are a number of other canyons that are completely different in geology, vegetation and water characteristics. What is personally significant about Christopher Creek Canyon is that during my first descent of this canyon was when I realized that canyoneering was more than a sport I was just trying out for a weekend. Following that first descent I began purchasing equipment as if involved in a canyoneering arms race.  I began learning about skills and techniques beyond my most basic rappelling knowledge. I had caught the bug and there was no turning back.


A tight squeeze through Stone Donkey

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on May 19, 2009

Stone Donkey Canyon, 3AV
24 miles
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
05/11/09 – 05/12/09


After a grueling day of Voodoo Canyon, David and I drove (or more accurately I should say David drove and I slept) to Page, Arizona, for the second part of our mini adventure vacation. It felt wonderful to get a good night’s sleep Sunday even if it was in a Motel 6. After a quick breakfast (a McMuffin for David and a personal size cereal from the gas station for me) we had a short drive across the border into Utah to the Hackberry Canyon trailhead. Hackberry Canyon is beautiful with a shallow meandering stream cutting through soaring sandstone walls.

Our initial plan was to hike in 10 miles to the head of Stone Donkey Canyon, but even with a decent night’s sleep I was still way too exhausted and sore from Voodoo. Instead of killing ourselves with mileage we decided to set up camp at mile 4.5 from the trailhead. We got into camp around noon and as soon as the tent was set up it was naptime. I passed out for a couple hours, woke up to eat lunch then promptly fell back to sleep. After waking up from my final nap of the day we took a side hike to Sam Pollock arch. The impressive arch is roughly 100 ft across and 100 ft high. Getting back to camp before dark we made Mac and cheese for dinner and were asleep before 9pm.

From camp it is about 4.5 miles to the head of Stone Donkey Canyon. Dropping into the canyon requires a 200 ft rappel the last 80 of which is overhanging. The crazy thing about a 200 ft rappel is that by the time you reach the bottom your rappel devise is on fire; it is too hot to touch.

Once in Stone Donkey the fun begins. This was the first canyon I have been in that requires walking sideways holding my backpack to the side while squeezing through the tight passage. The interesting thing about being in such a narrow confining space is that I had no desire to really stop and admire my surroundings. Every slight opening was a mental relief. I had the conflicting feelings of having a ton of fun with the need to keep moving to get out of there! From the rappel to the end of the canyon it took David and I less than an hour. After an amazing descent of this slot canyon, David and I hiked back the way we came to our car and then drove back to Phoenix.


Summer time in Voodoo Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 14, 2009

Voodoo Canyon, 3BIII
6.5 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of Secret Canyon

For most Arizonians, particularly those that live in the Phoenix metropolitan area, summer is nothing to be excited about and in many regards I can’t disagree. Along with the fast approaching and apparently early to arrive oppressive triple digit days of Arizona is the anticipation and excitement of summer canyoneering on the Mogollon Rim.

The Mogollon Rim is a 200-mile long escarpment that cuts across north central Arizona to elevations of over 7000 feet above sea level. It represents the southwest edge of the Colorado Plateau. The rim is a magical place that features a maze of sandstone canyons covered in a surprisingly dense forest that somehow still manages to remind you that the desert is not far away. With unusually high temps for May we decided to make a somewhat early descent of a Mogollon Rim canyon, Voodoo Canyon.

In typical fashion the trip started by camping the night before near the start of the hike. Canyon tales over beers around a camp fire in a deep forest many miles from civilization is such an apt way to spend the eve of yet another adventure. Vodoo Canyon did not disappoint.

After getting somewhat turned around on the brushy approach through the forest and neighboring canyons we corrected ourselves and entered our objective. Before not too long the yellow Coconino sandstone walls covered in a thin velvety layer of green moss got higher as the canyon got deeper and narrower. One rappel followed another past remains of giant trees into stagnant pools of cold, somewhat clear water with a rusty tint. This combination of rock, water, light and diverse vegetation, both living and dead created a truly mystical environment.

After the technical section ended we entered Secret Canyon at its confluence with Vodoo. The ascent up the non-technical but equally beautiful Secret Canyon was the start of our return to our car. Several turns into side drainages of Secret Canyon was our planned return route but somewhere in this debris covered maze we made a wrong turn into the wrong corridor, which took several hours to correct. Cut up, grimy, hot and parched we made it back to our vehicle. Summer is here and I couldn’t be more delighted.


Arriving in Zion

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on May 8, 2009
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Zion is unbelievable. The Checkerboard Mesa and Navajo sandstone formations in a rainbow of color greet us as we drive into the park. With a few Arizona canyons under our belt, Mike, Ira, David and I planned our first trip to Zion National Park in Utah. Along the way we also stopped at Horseshoe Bend downstream from Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Arizona. We picked three canyoneering adventures for our first visit, Fat Man’s Misery, Key Hole and Pine Creek.

Fat Man’s Misery, 3BIII
9.5 miles
East of Zion National Park on BLM land


Fat Man’s Misery canyon is misery indeed. Don’t get me wrong, the canyon itself is beautiful and narrow. The misery becomes apparent after the technical section on the hike out. The canyon has a number of fun rappels and a beautiful grotto followed by a natural sulfur spring before coming to the end of the canyon at the East Fork of the Virgin River. We were foolish enough to do the canyon in June (recommended time of year spring and fall) when temperatures were in the high 90s/ 100s. While hiking out of the canyon I was far behind the boys. I was dehydrated and exhausted in general (I later found out I was being referred to as a zombie looking for brains as I hiked/ stumbled/ shuffled along). I think I would have been fine if it wasn’t so darn hot out (no shade anywhere), if I had more water and if we didn’t waste time getting lost and trying to find the trail.

Keyhole Canyon, 3BI
.75 miles
Zion National Park


Our original plan was to do Birch Hollow the day after Fat Man’s Misery but we were all wiped and it was going to be another scorcher so we decided to go a little more low key. We got a permit for Keyhole Canyon also known as Starfish Canyon. Keyhole Canyon takes only a couple hours to descend; it is dark and narrow and like a carnival fun house with rappels, down climbs, twists and turns. There is one crazy long cold swim through a hallway that curves so you cannot see the other end where you come out back on dry land. Keyhole was a great way to start the day. Mike and Ira decided to spend the rest of the afternoon tubing on the Virgin River while David and I chose to hike up the famous Narrows. The hot weather was welcomed in The Narrows as we hiked through the water from the Temple of Sinawava up into Orderville Canyon.

Pine Creek Canyon, 3BII
1.5 miles
Zion National Park


If ever there is a classic canyoneering trip it is Pine Creek. You park and immediately drop into the canyon; it really doesn’t get much better than that for canyoneering logistics. Once you are in the heart of the canyon it is hard to believe that a busy road and many tourists are just above you. While in a deep and dark section of the canyon we were privileged enough to see four Mexican Spotted Owls, 3 of which were owlets. The owls, perched high above us on logs jammed between the canyon walls, bobbed their heads and watched us as we watched them. The most amazing part of the canyon is the rappel into the Great Cathedral. It is one of those rappels where you just have to stop midway down and appreciate your surroundings. The final rappel is 100ft, partially free hanging into a shallow spring pool. After hiking out of the canyon back to the road below the tunnel we needed to hitch hike back to our car. Mike was our designated hitch- hiker as David, Ira and I waited by the side of the road for Mike to catch a ride. After about 20 or 30 minutes with RVs, minivans and sports cars blowing by Mike, David decided to put his thumb out…. and of course the first car driving by picked him up no problem. Driving home that evening we were already talking about planning our next trip to Zion.


Near epic in Waterholes Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 8, 2009

Lower Waterholes Canyon, (thru-trip to Colorado River) 4BIIIR
4.1 miles
Navajo Nation, tributary of Glen Canyon


The number of phone calls, texts and emails in the planning for our full descent of Waterholes Canyon to the Colorado River, blew past a dozen on its way to losing count. A full descent of Waterholes Canyon is serious business and can be a logistical nightmare.

The reason for this is the canyon involves a 400- foot sheer vertical drop to the alcove below, known among some as the “Big Rap” and the fact that the canyon ends at the Colorado River miles upstream and on the opposite of Lees Ferry (the starting point for rafters of the Colorado River). Thus this canyon requires the use of some sort of boat to get from the bottom of Waterholes Canyon to Lees Ferry. Fortunately, Eric had a large inflatable river raft and a small kayak. Our solution was this: the day before we used the rafting company, Colorado River Discovery to shuttle Eric, his raft and kayak to the bottom of Waterholes Canyon. Eric then stowed his raft safely on shore and kayaked back to Lees Ferry. The following day the raft would be waiting for us at the end of the canyon. That is of course if we survived the “Big Rap”.

Waterholes is a beautiful Colorado Plateau slot canyon with sandstone fins creating a natural tunnel of art. While soaking in the beauty, negotiating tricky rappels, down climbs and squeezes, the thought of the Big Rap was always in the back of my mind. The first difficult technical challenge came when we tried to avoid getting wet in a pothole filled with cold green sludge. Mike took one for the team getting wet while crossing the pothole and then with my assistance set up a tension line over the pothole. With this line everyone else on our team crossed above the pothole and avoided the slime below.

Shortly after the pothole we hit the top of the alcove and the Big Rap. With a 325- foot rope and hundreds of feet of other rope we had options on how to make the descent of this sequence. During a survey we spotted bolts on a series of ledges on the side of the alcove. We had heard about this potential route. After exploring this area more closely a group decision was made to attempt this descent as opposed to the more traditional descent straight down the watercourse.

Five hours later we reached solid ground on the canyon floor. The route took us down three rappels off of ledges with exposed traverses and belayed down climbs through loose rock to bolts that were partially hidden in a buildup of sediment. We suspect this route had not been previously used in a decade or more. Later we talked about how we felt like we had gone back in time resurrecting the route. Everyone in our group got through the sequence without major incidents, but this was during five stressful hours. Fortunately the bolts appeared relatively solid and we had a bolt kit if necessary. I feel a responsibility to say that I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS ROUTE.

Just before sunset we reached the Colorado and Eric rowed us to Lees Ferry below the massive cliffs and darkening sky. The mood was celebratory with an intense feeling of having just experienced a near epic adventure.


**** To see a video produced by Mike Schennum of our descent down Waterholes, along with a hike to the Wave and a trip through the Egypt 2 and 3 slots from the same weekend go to the post “The Egypts – Not for those who weigh more than 200 pounds”.

Scenic Bear Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 7, 2009

Bear Canyon 3BII
2.8 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek


Bear Canyon is short and sweet with amazing narrows. After about a half hour hike to get to the narrow section the canyon walls close in and create beautiful waves in the stone. A couple rappels and a little bit of swimming and next thing know you are out of the canyon and in West Clear Creek.


Winter canyoneering in Black Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 6, 2009

Black Canyon, 3CIVR
12.5 miles
Prescott National Forest, drainage of Mingus Mountain


I am not really sure why we wanted to go canyoneering at elevation (5,000-6,000 feet) in the middle of February. We certainly didn’t come up with the idea. In fact, the photos we had seen of previous canyoneers rappelling 100 plus feet down a frozen waterfall was probably what planted the seed in Chris and I to follow in their footsteps. It looked just too gnarly not to try ourselves. Our experience lived up to the hype we had created in our minds. The flow was aggressive, the upper rappel was partially frozen and even with six millimeters of neoprene covering my body the water slowly drained the life out of me. This trip would also make my list of top five most strenuous day hikes and I believe the cold water’s draining properties was the leading contributor to placing this trip on that prestigious list.