Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Crystal Canyon on newsstands now!

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on June 23, 2009

Crystal Canyon on newsstands now

Crystal Canyon 3CIIIR
6.5 miles
San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation


Crystal Canyon on the San Carlos Apache Reservation took us two attempts to complete. Our first attempt in 2007 with Jen ended just above the technical section of narrows. The technical section of Crystal Canyon features two powerful waterfalls with nothing but a long, narrow and featureless pool separating the two. We stood above the first raging waterfall for a good 45 minutes before calling it quits. We couldn’t see the bolts in the pool below and did not trust that they were actually in place. With no visible natural anchors from our vantage point in or around the pool we did not want to risk getting stuck. Turning around we vowed to be back with more gear.

Almost exactly a year later we were back to Crystal Canyon with Chris and Mark. This time we had extra rope that would have allowed us to descend the entire technical section as a two- part rappel from the anchor at the top of the first waterfall. Rappelling with water pounding in our faces presented a whole new set of challenges we had not yet experienced in canyoneering. The force of the water made me feel no more significant than a rag doll. Rappelling down the first waterfall was slippery and much more difficult than I had expected. I could barely control myself and towards the end of the rappel I lost my footing and swung hard behind the waterfall slamming against the rock. Finally working my way off the rope I swam to a dry ledge in the pool and took a breath. The bolts were in fact in the pool and the second rappel went a whole lot smoother for me and the waterfall was much easier to negotiate.

David’s photograph of Chris from our second trip to Crystal Canyon is on page 5 of the July 2009 issue of Arizona Highways Magazine!


Friends in Little LO Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 19, 2009

Friends in Little LO Canyon
Little LO Canyon, 3BIIIR
5.8 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of Sycamore Canyon


Canyoneering is a social sport. In addition to teamwork being critical to descend a canyon, it brings together people that would not necessarily spend time together or even know each other if it were not for canyoneering. The planning of a weekend descent often begins with two people and before not too long the group mushrooms to include a half dozen or more.

In April of 2008 Laura and I met Chris in a beginners American Canyoneering Association (ACA) class (he was participating in the class as part of his ACA Leaders training). A few days later Laura and I met John in an ACA advanced class. Through these two I have met others including John’s wife Kim and Chris’ friends Pat and Jessica.

Several months after those ACA classes a descent down Little LO Canyon brought a number of these people together for the first time. Little LO is a fun, somewhat challenging Mogollon Rim canyon. It has all the features to make it a worthwhile descent: beautiful scenery, rappels, tricky down climbs, jumps, a tough pot hole escape, strenuous hiking and putrid water. Since then numerous adventures have been shared together. It is crazy to think that I have only known them for just over a year. I guess our rich collective of wilderness adventures has skewed the perception of time, making it feel like we have known each other a lot longer.


The subterranean world of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim, Utah by canyoneering on June 18, 2009

The subterranean world of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River

Buckskin Gulch – Paria River, 2BV
30 miles
Vermillion Cliff Wilderness Area
06/14/09 – 06/15/09


David and I along with John and Kim backpacked the incredible Buckskin Gulch and upper portion of the Paria River.  We drove up late Saturday night getting into camp at the White House trail head around 1am. David and I crashed under the stars as my sleep was disturbed with dreams of midget rattlesnakes (beta we had read suggested that a rare species of midget rattlesnakes lives in Buckskin Gulch). Sunday morning we got a shuttle from Paria Outfitters to the Wire Pass trail head. After about 15-20 minutes of hiking, the narrows in Wire Pass began. Though short, Wire Pass is a fantastic canyon in it’s own right with a couple of down climbs and wavy sandstone walls. Where Wire Pass opens up it converges with Buckskin Gulch. The sandstone is so soft under a large arch at the intersection of Wire Pass and Buckskin that people have carved out Moqui steps to a bench under the arch. Many people have also carved their names and various faux pictographs in the sandstone.

Once in Buckskin the walls extend overhead continuing to grow deeper with every step. The most amazing aspect of Buckskin Gulch is its length. Buckskin is about thirteen miles of subterranean and sometimes dark hiking.  Buckskin is directly under a flight pattern so throughout the day we were constantly hearing airplanes overhead. Although we had dutifully checked the weather many times before leaving, with each airplane rumble our thoughts turned to flash floods. It is easy to start getting paranoid when you are 8 miles in and hundreds of feet from any direct sunlight. Needless to say with some clouds in the sky, a few minutes of the lightest drizzle and one real clap of thunder in the distance we ate our lunch at lightning speed.

Although many people do the entire trip in one day we took our time taking lots of pictures and soaking in the unique scenery. There were a number of places in Buckskin Gulch where the canyon would make a sharp turn so as we approached it would look like a dead end up ahead. Often times these sharp turns would lead into a chocolaty pool of indiscernible depth.

Sunday night we camped along the Paria River about three miles downstream of its confluence with Buckskin. We rested on our small beach sharing with each other what animals and figures we saw in the endless patterns in the 800-foot sandstone walls that surrounded us; the Colorado Plateau version of seeing faces in the clouds. As the light faded in the canyon we cooked our Mountain House meals and relaxed under the massive walls.

Monday morning we hiked to Big Spring further down the Paria encountering knee-deep quicksand and a lot of slippery mud. After filling our water bottles we turned around and made the 12-mile hike back to the White House trail head, taking pleasure in the dried mud crunching under our feet like bubble wrap.


White water on the Upper Salt

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on June 14, 2009
White water on the Upper SaltUpper Salt River – Class III/ Class IV
35 miles
San Carlos Apache Reservation and White Mountain Apache Reservation
02/17/08 – 02/18/08

It is not canyoneering, but there are many characteristics that these sports share, most notably the exploration of canyons. I am not a kayaker or a white water rafter, but the sensations and excitement that I have gotten on the few occasions that I have taken on white water by boat are similar to those when I canyoneer.

My boss, the Director of Photography at the Arizona Republic newspaper called me one day and asked if I would be available to work on my two days off for an out of town assignment. As I started to say no because I had already committed to other plans he cut me off and said, “You might want to hear what the assignment is before you say no.” When I heard that an Arizona Republic writer and myself would have the opportunity to join Canyon Rio, a Flagstaff based river guiding outfit, on a two day, 35 mile trip down the Upper Salt River through a series of Class III and Class IV rapids for a pre-season scouting trip, there was no way that I could say no. The Arizona Republic was doing a story on how the 2008 wet winter was going to make for a banner year of rafting and kayaking along the Salt River.

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©Arizona Republic 2008

The trip was sensational. The rapids were intense. The scenery was magnificent. Our guides couldn’t have been better. It was one of those assignments where you keep saying to yourself  “I can’t believe they are paying me to do this.”  For me the most challenging part of the trip was keeping my two still cameras and video camera dry, yet still thoroughly documenting the experience. Fortunately I was able to achieve both through the use of multiple dry bags and army surplus boxes. When using the equipment on the boat during a stretch of rapids I would use my body to protect the cameras from the full force of the waves that seemed to consume the raft. My cameras survived the trip and I feel I got great coverage in both still photos and video.

Before the trip was over I was planning on buying a kayak, taking classes and completely diving head on into the sport. I had only seriously been into canyoneering for less than a year but had already made an investment into the sport with both time and money. One of the best investments I have ever made by the way (maybe with the exception of the engagement ring I bought for Laura and my college education). With limited days off and resources I have yet to make my next white water trip. However, I know that it is only a matter of time before I get back on the river.


It is not canyoneering, but there are many characteristics that these sports share, most notably the exploration of canyons. I am not a kayaker or a white water rafter, but the sensations and excitement that I have gotten on the few occasions that I have taken on white water by boat are similar to those when I canyoneer.
My boss, the Director of Photography at the Arizona Republic newspaper called me one day and asked if I would be available to work on my two days off for an out of town assignment. As I started to say no because I had already committed to other plans he cut me off and said, “You might want to hear what the assignment is before you say no.” When I heard that an Arizona Republic writer and myself would have the opportunity to join Canyon Rio, a Flagstaff based river guiding outfit, on a two day, 35 mile trip down the Upper Salt River through a series of Class III and Class IV rapids for a pre-season scouting trip, there was no way that I could say no. The Arizona Republic was doing a story on how the 2008 wet winter was going to make for a banner year of rafting and kayaking along the

Apache Trail, our hometown canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on June 12, 2009

Apache Trail, our home town canyon

Apache Trail Canyon, 3B/CII
3.5 miles
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
02/25/08, 04/11/08, 11/28/09


From the front door of our house to the head of Apache Trail Canyon is only 45 minutes. David and I have descended Apache Trail Canyon a number of times and each time is a wholly different experience.

Our first outing to the canyon we did as a hike completely bypassing the small technical section. Mike, David, Pat and I hiked down and through the canyon. There were deep pools of water to avoid but no real flow. One highlight was seeing a humming bird sitting in its tiny nest.

The second time through the canyon was during an ACA (American Canyoneering Association) beginners- class. Having just been through the canyon as a hike about a month earlier David and I were surprised to learn about the technical section! During the class we practiced a meat anchor and a few other techniques that were new to us at the time. There was very little water and the pools we had to avoid a month earlier were non-existent. With the water gone we were able to explore some killer caves created by rock completely covering a portion of the canyon. This class was also where we met Chris and Eric who would soon become awesome and trustworthy canyoneering partners and friends.

Following the ACA class we returned to Apache Trail to run drills to practice our newly acquired skills in ascending.

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Our dads on their first canyoneering trip, in Apache Trail.

Our next full descent of the canyon was the day after Thanksgiving. Every year for the past seven years David and I have hosted Thanksgiving. Both sets of parents and any available siblings usually fly in for the holiday. This past year for a post Thanksgiving adventure we took both of our dads canyoneering through Apache Trail Canyon. Both of our dads are in great shape so we knew physically they would be fine. It is the mental aspect of canyoneering, as in any outdoor sport, that you cannot prepare for. Confidence in the outdoors comes with experience. My father does not have a lot of experience in the outdoors.

It had been raining for the past few days leading up to Thanksgiving but the weather had cleared by Friday. After a short hike to the first rappel David and I knew the canyon was going to be showing us a side we had not seen before. The rappel was through a waterfall into a deep pool that was cold and flowing. David and I had given my dad a quick tutorial on how to rappel and luckily he paid attention. As my dad stepped over the edge of the rappel the rope proved to have too much slack and he swung into the wall. Looking up about 40 feet and seeing my father slam into a rock wall was terrifying. To my father’s credit he never once let go of the rope or panicked. He banged up his elbow pretty bad but was otherwise was no worse for the wear. I think I was much more shaken by the incident then he was. I knew if anything happened to my dad not only would I feel horrible and guilty, my mother and sisters would kill me. I was at my dad’s side the rest of the day. I could tell my dad was exhausted both physically and mentally; he had reached his limit yet we had to press on. I took care of him the best I could with constant words of encouragement and the promise of nachos and beer in nearby Tortilla Flats on the drive home. The remainder of the canyon had numerous down climbs and some long swims. After hiking back up to the rim at the end of the canyon we saw a tarantula and I found another horseshoe for my collection. When all is said and done Apache Trail Canyon with my father was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.


Speed in Sundance Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 10, 2009

Speed in Sundance Canyon

Sundance Canyon, 3BRII
Coconino National Forest – Tributary of West Clear Creek
1.5 miles
06/01/08, 06/09/09

Sundance Canyon, 3BIIR
1.5 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek
06/01/08, 06/09/09


As we update this blog with fresh posts from our collection of past adventures those that are further back in time are harder to chronicle with clarity and energy. With Sundance Canyon bursting with detail and emotion and my first descent of Sundance being over a year ago I knew I would have to descend the canyon again to do it justice through words and images.

A few days earlier I was able to convince Mike and Courtney to join me for a descent. It wasn’t hard as Mike is all about canyons that offer MAXIMUM technical BANG for a MINIMUM of physical exertion BUCK. With Sundance featuring an almost non-existent approach hike to the canyon, multiple rappels with the finale being a 180-foot rappel (most of which is free-hanging) and an easy exit hike, it almost seems that water and rock worked together to design this canyon just for Mike or those like Mike.

The tricky part of the day was that my morning began with a dentist appointment in Phoenix preventing anything remotely close to an early start. Mike and Courtney had to be back home in Phoenix in the early evening for another commitment. Time was of the issue.

We parked our car at the trailhead and began hiking by 11:30 am. We raced down the slope into the canyon and before not too long reached the first rappel. Mike found a way to down climb around the first rappel. We continued the march stopping once to put on double wetsuits before the first significant pool of frigid water. When we reached the second rappel we used a log to shimmy down into the pool below. We skipped the third rappel by down climbing/ sliding/ jumping into another pool. The keeper pothole out of this pool was filled with water and we easily undulated on our bellies to get out. Immediately following was another drop-off of about 20 feet into an even deeper pothole. I initially thought, “I guess now we will have to break out the rope,” but after studying it we determined to go sans rope. Down climbing/ sliding/ jumping in lieu of rappelling can be dangerous for multiple reasons but the three of us are all experienced climbers, particularly Mike. I also enjoy the mental challenge of figuring out a tough down climb. In this case, with long legs extended it was possible to stem until about 10 feet above the water where you had to push off the wall like a frog into the deep pool below.

After Mike and I passed the obstacle I began removing my camera from my dry bag to photograph Courtney tackling the drop off. During this time Courtney communicated to me that she was throwing down the rope bag to make the down climb easier. I affirmatively responded to her but was distracted by setting my aperture and shutter speed. I ignored the fact that our 200-foot rope necessary for the upcoming 180-foot rappel was quickly sinking in the inky black water of unknown depth. Our speed had gotten the better of us and I realized we might have a significant issue. I removed my helmet and dove into the center of the pothole. With arms extended vertically below me, I kicked until I hit the bottom of the pool. Completely blind I used my hands to search the bottom and quickly felt the rope bag. Grabbing it I returned to the surface with major brain freeze. Courtney said my feet were completely under the surface of the water for several seconds. I am 6’3”.

Just below this pool was another short down climb followed by the big rap. At this point we put on our squirrel suits jumped over the edge and sailed down 180 feet to the alcove below. JUST KIDDING. Mike set up the rope and we rappelled like normal people. Words and pictures do not express the magnificence of this rappel. Giant yellow sandstone walls stained with black and green vertical columns surround you on three sides and the gorgeous West Clear Creek completes the 360 degree view as you slowly descend with nothing but air below you. After stripping out of wetsuits and climbing the trail out of West Clear Creek we were back at our vehicle by 2:30 pm.

****Attention to speed should never be placed above attention to safety.****


Autumn in Zion

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on June 5, 2009
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We may have been even more excited for our second trip to Zion National Park than our first. This time we knew the mind boggling beautiful wilderness we would be exploring. An early cold spell had descended upon the southwest changing conditions from mid autumn to early winter canyoneering. Not wanting to waste a day of canyoneering our crew left Phoenix right after work and headed north. Around midnight as we approached the eastern end of the park on Utah State Highway 9 the headlights of John’s Toyota Tundra illuminated the falling snow. It was going to be interesting.

Autumn in Zion

Birch Hollow, 3AIII
7 miles
East of Zion National Park on BLM land

The full range of autumnal colors greeted us as we started Birch Hollow Canyon, along with a fine dusting of snow. The sun was nourishing, but the air was cold. John’s car read in the high 20s as we took off for the canyon. Birch Hollow was bone dry, but certainly not short on action. One rappel followed another. The highlight of the canyon may have been a beautiful 110-foot rappel down polished fluted walls. Birch Hollow ends in the larger Orderville Canyon. A relatively easy hike up Orderville and back to our car was a great way to start the trip.

The Subway

The Left Fork of North Creek, aka “The Subway”, 3BIII
9.5 miles
Zion National Park

The Subway is a famous canyoneering route. What it lacks in tough technical challenges it makes up for in sublime beauty. The Subway is also filled with water; part of which flows from a spring and with temperatures in the 30s this trip was going to be far from a walk in the park. After picking up another member of our team, Justin from the Great White North (who we had only met the day before at the outfitter, Zion Adventure Company) we began navigating across gorgeous slick rock to the entrance of the canyon. After we all suited up in double wetsuits we began the descent. With strong teamwork, using each other as ladders we down climbed all the recommended rappels. Kim fell off one of those human ladders into a pool of water. Her reaction…. Hysterical laughter. More down climbs and swims and we reached “The Subway” a place where the canyon walls form a cylindrical like chamber. After a long but straightforward hike we reached the end of this must do adventure for canyoneers.

Mystery Canyon

Mystery Canyon, 3BIII
7.5 miles
Zion National Park

Mystery is another classic Zion canyoneering adventure. Our trip began with a beautiful and brisk ascent up the Observation Point Trail. The hike afforded us magnificent views of the main canyon of Zion. After 2100 feet of switchbacks we made it to the head of Mystery Canyon. After a sketchy descent into the canyon through towering trees and over frozen ground we were quickly surrounded by soaring sandstone walls. Before not long, the rappels began one right after another. With our team of four geared in at this point and with two ropes we were able to leap frog each other on the rappels and make real good time. Mystery had it all: a heart pounding approach, beautiful narrows, a majestic forest within parts of the canyon, relentless rappels, an enormous rockfall, a long multi-part rappel into a deep mysterious spring and concluding with a sliding rappel into the famous Narrows with an audience of tourists below. This part of the Narrows is less than a mile upstream from the Temple of Sinawava, the final stop on the Zion shuttle and a popular hike among visitors of all ages. As we walked down the Narrows back to the shuttle stop, we received a number of weird looks and questions from hikers as we were clad with wetsuits and harnesses. I even heard a foreign tourist say a bunch of words in language I did not understand and then clearly say, “SCUBA”. I am embarrassed to admit it but we kinda felt like rock stars.


The magic of Havasupai

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 4, 2009
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Havasupai Canyon
Havasupai Indian Reservation, tributary of the Grand Canyon
06/23/07 – 06/25/07, 06/07/08 – 06/09/08

When I think about Havasupai the first word that comes to mind is “magic”. There is nothing I could say about Havasupai that would do the place justice. From the beautiful 10- mile hike into the canyon to the unreal aqua colored water, Havasupai is truly a wonder.

About 450 native Havasu ‘Baaja people live in this remote location where the only form of transportation in and out of the canyon is by foot, horse or helicopter. The US Government created the reservation in 1882. Today the main source of income is tourism.

My first trip into the canyon was with David, Mike and Ira (a first time for us all) in 2007. After the long and dusty hike to the bottom of the canyon the first signs of water were a welcome sight. First we saw green trees, then a stream and a running irrigation ditch, then just past the Supai village there are swimming holes off to the left of the trail. David and I stopped at one of the swimming holes for lunch and a dip while we waited for Mike and Ira to catch up. Those small swimming holes were so pleasant that we talked about how if that was all there was it would have been enough. Little did we know the magnificence that awaited us around the corner. It is hard to describe the feeling I had the first time I saw Havasu Falls. I could not believe my eyes, a powerful 100ft aqua blue waterfall in the middle of the desert!

The one negative thing I can say about Havasupai are the crowds (do NOT get me started on the port-a-potty situation!) so to avoid as many people as possible we walked as far back into the canyon campground as we could and ended up camping just above Mooney Falls. We didn’t bother bringing tents; it was nice to sleep out under the stars.

The second day of our adventure we explored more of the canyon. Climbing down Mooney Falls through blasted out caves and a slippery trail was a freaky experience, I admit I was scared. Once down the 200ft Mooney Falls we headed down stream. Havasupai is like a giant water park with multiple rope swings and amazing travertine pools. We never made it to Beaver Falls. We thought we made it but found out later we had not gone far enough! That is how cool this place is. We turned around at an incredible spot we thought must be Beaver.

Mooney Falls

Our third day in Havasupai we tried to get an early start for the hike back to our car but got distracted at Navajo Falls where someone had set up a zip line across the large pool in front of the waterfall. It was so early in the morning we had the place to ourselves. Hiking out under the brutal summer sun (with Mike refusing to drink water as usual) we were already talking about our next trip back to Havasupai. Ira as it turned out could not wait another year and ended up going back to Havasupai again later that same summer.

Havasupai is one of those places I want to share with everyone so when my friend Christine said she wanted to come visit me from DC and it was going to be in June, I really didn’t give her much of a choice. I was just so excited to share the enchantment I had experienced. I couldn’t imagine anyone not seeing the magic I saw.  So in June 2008, David, Mike, Ira, and myself, along with Christine, were on our way back to Havasupai. On this trip we spent more time exploring Navajo Falls with all its cool grottos on the backside of the waterfall. We also made it to the real Beaver Falls! We unexpectedly ran into our friend Erin as we were entering the campground and hung out with her one night (magic I know!). David, Mike and Ira hiked the entirety of the canyon to the Colorado River while Christine and I spent time relaxing below Mooney Falls catching up.

In August 2008 Havasupai experienced a major flood, if you haven’t seen it check out on the many You Tube videos of Havasu Falls violently running mud brown. The floods have supposedly changed much of the canyon a shame, but that is nature.

On a side note our good friends John and Kim (they are in many of our posts on this blog) met at in the campgrounds at Havasupai and were later married. I love that!


The unexpected in the Blue Range Primitive Area

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on June 3, 2009

Hannah Canyon and Hannah Hot Springs, 2BV
19 miles
Blue Range Primitive Area
05/30/09 – 06/01/09

We had never been to this wilderness before. We knew little of what to expect beyond tidbits of information online, in books and maps. It is the Blue Range Primitive Area in far eastern Arizona and consists of over 174,000 acres of rugged and raw country. The draw was Hannah Hot Springs; an isolated 133-degree hot spring in a narrow canyon in the middle of the Blue Range Primitive Area, 20 miles from the nearest civilization.

The approach began with a 13-mile drive on dirt road from New Mexico. We parked literally on the New Mexico side of its border with Arizona and crossed into our home state with a sign indicating “ENTER ARIZ” on a barbed wire fence. Under stormy but dry skies, four miles of trailless navigation over mesas and through dry washes brought us to the head of Hannah Canyon. We set up camp for the night on top of the rim above the canyon and before nightfall were treated to a massive full rainbow that spanned the entire valley.

The next day we made our made way down Hannah Canyon. After three miles of relatively easy travel the canyon narrowed up and we were faced with a number of down climbs and full on swimmers. There were no rappels but the difficultness of the down climbs was unexpected and was compounded by the fact that we were joined by our 20-pound dog, Briscoe. Assisting Briscoe with the climbs and swims we finally made it to the hot springs.

The hot water was welcome relief after the cold swims, especially for Briscoe, but with temperatures in the upper 80s and the catch basin of the hot springs in the full sun, dunks in the cold pools were necessary between soaks in the hot bath.

Our return route to camp included ascending two different conjoined canyons, one of which featured an amazing section of conglomerate narrows with logs wedged into the walls 25 feet off the ground, demonstrating the power of the flash food. Continuing we climbed up and over a mesa covered in surreal rock before dropping back into Hannah Canyon.

That night in camp a full rainbow resembling the one from the night before appeared in the exact same location as the earlier rainbow. The next morning with a sun bleached cow’s skull we left this new and exciting wilderness.