Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

On edge in Englestead Hollow

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on July 30, 2009

Englestead Hollow/ Orderville Canyon, (thru trip to Temple of Siniwava) 4BIVR
8.5 miles
Zion National Park


A few nights before leaving for Zion I had a dream about the 300 foot- rappel in Engelstead. In that dream my sister Ellen was with us on the trip. (A note about Ellen; she is a marathon runner not an outdoorswoman. Her motto in life is “Maximum Comfort”. A day at the beach is too dirty for her. She has not and probably never will go canyoneering.) In the dream I was extremely worried about her. It would be her first time canyoneering and I kept telling her she did not have to rappel if she didn’t want to. She looked at me and told me she was confident in her skills, trusted the equipment and was ready for the challenge. I on the other hand was terrified and chose to stay in camp and clean up a picnic table. Waking up from the dream I knew my subconscious was playing two roles at once. I was both Ellen and myself. I was confident and scared; ready for a mental challenge and wishing I could just stay home.

It is no secret I have a slight fear of heights. The night before Engelstead after a long day of canyoneering through Das Boot and the Subway I was talking to Phoenix Eric and warned him the morning of the big rap he might see me cry. I was just kidding about crying but the truth is I knew I was going to be on edge the next morning, literally and figuratively.

After a late start and some trouble finding the head of the canyon we finally made it to the 300- footer. Chris rapped down first followed by a very eager Flagstaff Eric. I was third to go over the edge. While waiting my turn I laid down, closed my eyes and worked on my yoga breathing. With super high friction on my double eight I backed off the ledge. In the end my experience on the rappel turned out to be more of a physical challenge than a mental one. Rappelling with such high friction I was forced to push the rope through my devise the whole way down. I concentrated on my progress moving down the rope and the wall in front of me. I did not look up or down or take in the scenery. By the time I made it to the canyon floor I was sweating, tired, proud and safe.

With Phoenix Eric, Mike and David safely down the rappel all that was left to do was pull the rope. With all of our focus on descending safely we failed to perform a test pull to ensure we could successfully retrieve the rope. A BIG MISTAKE. Now the trouble began. The rope did not budge. We sent waves up the rope; we pulled from every direction and used jumars for advantage to no avail. All of our rope for completing the canyon was tied up and we needed it to continue the descent. As a last resort David volunteered to ascend the rope. It was a tense 45 minutes watching David ascend 300 feet. I was not interested in chatting with anyone. My eyes were glued to my husband creeping farther and farther off the ground. When David made it safely back up to the rim I let myself take a breath. When he safely rappelled back down with the rope recovered I felt an enormous sense of relief. Drenched in sweat David told us the pull rope was getting stuck in a small notch that was perpendicular to the canyon rim.

Attempt to pull the rope to no avail.

After the rope incident I was as emotionally worn, as David was physically tired. Talking to Mike we both agreed that it was hard to get back in the spirit of things. I had to force myself to stop and appreciate my surroundings, but once I was able to do that my canyoneering rhythm came back to life. Englestead proved to be a test with a few awkward rappels and difficult down climbs.

Nearing the end of the canyon our group experienced another heart stopper. While on top of one of the last rappels there was a thundering clap in the sky. We moved as quickly and safely as possible through the final narrows coming out in Orderville. The weather became a major concern. At this point our group split on what course of action should be taken. Several felt we should immediately go up Orderville, which would be the fastest way out of the canyon and would avoid the more narrow sections lower down in Orderville but leave us many miles from our car on the rim. Others felt we should seek high ground, wait to see what happens and then descend Orderville as planned. This is when our group got a little bit chaotic. Hastily we decided to go up canyon as the clouds got darker, the thunder continued and a few sprinkles could be felt. At one point several in our group investigated ascending a side gully to exit Orderville. This proved fruitless and as quickly as the bad weather rolled in, it subsided. With some opposition we decided to turn around and head down Orderville as planned. In retrospect, I feel the best course of action would have been to seek high ground and wait in which case we would have saved time and energy. However, in the moment of the inclement weather I feel both options held valued weight.

Lower Orderville was extraordinarily beautiful with tight narrows, elegant sandstone fins, an abundance of small springs, clear pools and vegetation. We reached the Narrows, the tourists, and the shuttle and then unfortunately the excruciating drive home to the “Dirty Bird.” It was 4:30 am by the time my head hit the pillow and I fell into a dreamless sleep.


(Props to Phoenix Eric and Chris for going back the next morning to the top of the 300- foot rappel to recover our 325- foot rope.)

The simple things in X-Pine Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on July 21, 2009

The simple things in X-Pine Canyon

X-Pine Canyon, 3BII
3.5 mile
Coconino West Clear Creek, tributary of West Clear Creek


Back in 2001 I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican-California border to the Washington-Canadian over a 4 ½ month period of time. One of the most wonderful aspects of the journey was its simplicity: walking, making miles, eating, drinking and sleeping; living in nature and enjoying its beauty. Though requiring a deeper skill set, canyoneering can also provide the simple pleasures.

A descent of X-Pine Canyon and a slog along West Clear Creek provided a bounty of the simple pleasures. After a drive along an intensely rough dirt road and a very easy approach hike we were in the bottom of the canyon. Several rappels and down climbs, a nice section of narrows through the trees and before not too long I could hear the sounds of Chris, Flagstaff Eric and Pat cliff jumping into West Clear Creek as Phoenix Eric, Laura and I cleaned up the rope from the final rappel, which incidentally had a very awkward overhanging start where you could easily flip upside down if you aren’t careful. When we caught up to the rest of the group at West Clear Creek we found an amazing swimming hole with several jumping points from up to 20 feet high.

Sun and warm water. Swimming, jumping and water bouldering. Lunch and conversation. Chris lost his camouflaged, sun brimmed hat that has seen three continents, in the bottom of the pool on one of his jumps. The once crystal clear water turned cloudy from our activity hid the location of the hat. Discussion on how to recover the hat, dives into the depths told us nothing but where the hat was not. Our society is faced with war, economic meltdown, foreclosures, state budget crisis and rising unemployment. As a newspaper photojournalist I see the lives of the people affected by these realities on a regular basis. On this day we were dealing with recovering a hat in the bottom of a swimming hole. Chris pointed down from the a boulder above, “I think I see it right there between those two rocks.” I dove down about 10 feet, grabbed the hat and returned to the surface with arm extended, hat in hand to add for dramatic effect.

Continuing down West Clear Creek Eric caught some crawdads, filleted them and we ate them raw; quality as good as the nine dollar sashimi in Phoenix. Some long swims, tricky travel over the algae covered rocks in the bottom of the creek, a good climb out of the canyon and the day was over all too soon.


R2R2R of the Grand Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on July 17, 2009


R2R2R of the Grand Canyon
47 miles, 11,000 feet elevation gain
Grand Canyon National Park

It is not the world’s deepest canyon, but there are no others on this planet that match it’s sheer enormity. 47 miles, 10,500 feet elevation gain. In one day crossing this grand chasm from rim to rim, turning around and retracing your steps to begin where you started. It is the rim to rim-to-rim challenge or R2R2R, as many know it.

With the moon hidden behind the horizon I began descending the Bright Angel Trail at 4 am with almost no natural light. The spotlight of my LED headlamp illuminated the trail as I weaved around iced over puddles and a few patches of snow. Finding my jogging pace I could see my breath in the 20-degree weather as I made my way down the switchbacks. Light began to fill the sky around the same time that I could begin to hear the roar of the Colorado River. As day began to take over night I realized my first blunder was forgetting to apply or pack any sun block. Such a minor mistake could be both detrimental to the success of the challenge and to my safety on such an extreme physical adventure. Fortunately just before I reached the bridge spanning the Colorado River I ran into a German backpacker who gave me a healthy portion of sun block.

9.6 miles and 2.5 hours into my journey I took a quick break near Phantom Ranch and continued jogging up the North Kaibab trail. As the trail began to climb out of the bottom of the canyon my mostly jogging some walking combination began to pendulum.

After reaching the Roaring Springs Trail junction I broke out my iPod; which supplied much needed mental energy for the tough switchback climbing ahead. To the sounds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium I found a powerful walking stride. The jogging had ended long ago but I found my rhythm and was making good time. I spotted a group of backpackers 3 or 4 switchbacks above me and played a mind game to catch them as quickly as possible. Blowing past them, I continued power walking under the Supai Tunnel through patches of snow until I reached the North Rim at 7 hours elapsed time. I took a quick break on the rim that was covered in deep snow and then began heading back down the canyon.

My plan was find a slow and steady jog all the way to the Colorado, but after about a mile I realized that was not going to happen. My legs and feet just didn’t feel like they had it in them so I resorted to walking. The further down I got the more my feet and lower legs became a bother. I took about ten minutes soaking my lower extremities in the icy cold waters of Bright Angel Creek, which was a tremendous help. Reaching Phantom Ranch at 12 hours elapsed time I was exhausted. My feet though not blistered felt like hamburger. My legs were weak and my stomach was beginning to ache. I knew the climb up the south rim was going to be the hardest physical thing I had ever done.

I felt like I was crawling even though I was walking. With constipation cramps from too many energy bars my stomach got worse. Before I reached the Indian Gardens Camp it got dark. The final three miles were excruciating. With no moon I was unable to monitor my progress as the canyon walls, the rim and the dark sky blended into a plain of blackness. Dust mixed with tiny particles of dried mule manure filled the air and coated my nasal passages and the back of my throat. I just kept on taking another step.

After 17 hours I reached the South Rim and my car in the parking lot. A short drive took me to my hotel room in Tusayan. When I placed my key card in the door a red light blinked before me. I tried several times to no avail. My room could not have been any further from the lobby in this large hotel. I remember the slow excruciating hobble to the lobby and back to my room as the hardest part of the journey. It would be another four days till my walking completely returned to normal.

I am not sure that I would call this challenge fun and I probably would only do it again with a partner, but it was without question the most testing physical exercise I have ever performed. It took Mother Nature six millions years to create a feature who’s size and scope can not be appreciated through words or images; how could crossing it and back in one day not be worth it!

I did not bring a camera on this hike. The lead image of this post from a previous visit to the Grand Canyon.

A bunch of dudes in Meadow Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on July 15, 2009

A bunch of dudes in Meadow Canyon

Meadow Canyon, 3BIII
9 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek


Sweaty dudes. It felt like a whole lot of dudes in Meadow Canyon on Sunday. Normally when David and I go canyoneering it is a group of about four and there is a good chance I will not be the only girl. Sunday was not one of those days. David and I drove up to Meadow Canyon in the morning to meet up with Chris, Pat, two Erics and Mark who was a welcome last minute addition; six sweaty dudes total. Seven people makes for a big group canyoneering but if ever there is a canyon for a larger group it is Meadow.

Meadow Canyon is a nice technical canyon with a few rappels and down climbs before opening up into West Clear Creek. Even with a group of seven we moved quickly through the smoke filled canyon from a distant controlled burn under a light drizzle. Our efficiency was in large part because we used a rigging technique to allow two people to rappel at the same time.

Though Meadow Canyon is pleasant enough, the highlight of the trip is the trek along West Clear Creek. After a quick break at the confluence of Meadow Canyon and West Clear Creek we continued upstream. Despite the difficulty of walking along the creek from underwater rocks and boulders covered in green algae that makes every step a spastic challenge, travel along the Creek was especially pleasant in the hot unusually muggy air. We ate lunch by the beautiful hanging garden spring along the creek. The lush delicate waterfall was tranquil and seductively beautiful. Trudging on up West Clear Creek we finally came to the White Box (although we mistakenly thought a previous long swim was the White Box, which we named the Faux Box). The White Box is a hallway of deep water filled narrows. The swim was so long I had to alternate between floating on my back and using my pack like a kickboard.

An easy hike out of the canyon brought us back to our car. With sweaty hugs goodbye to the all the dudes, David and I headed back to the oppressive heat of July in Phoenix.


Sliding through Parker Creek Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on July 11, 2009

Sliding through Parker Creek Canyon

Parker Creek Canyon, 3B/C/I/III
1.7 – 4.2 miles
Tonto National Forest- Sierra Ancha Wilderness
10/01/07, 04/15/08


David and I have descended Parker Creek Canyon twice. Once with Mike as a strenuous through trip with a car shuttle, the second time during an American Canyoneering Association (ACA) class. The ACA class opted for the Cadillac exit instead of descending the entire canyon.

Parker Creek Canyon is a quartzite canyon with a handful of rappels, down climbs and waterslides. Parker Creek Canyon can be done almost year round although depending on when you descend the canyon the conditions can be drastically different ranging from nothing but stagnant pools in blazing hot conditions to winter and early spring conditions of intense water flow.

With moss covered stonewalls, waterfalls and beautiful scenery of Roosevelt Lake below the trip makes for a fun adventure.


The crow and the condor in Kolob Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on July 1, 2009

The Crow and the Condor in Kolob Canyon

Kolob Canyon, (thru trip to Temple Siniwava) 3CVR
16.5 miles
Zion National Park
06/28/09 – 06/29/09


I am a planning kind of person. I like to put my toe in the water before stepping in the pool. In canyoneering that is a good thing. For a canyon like Kolob, with the wild card of extremely cold swift water cascading down a deep gorge that drops 700 feet in a 1/3 of a mile planning is an especially good thing.

Canyoneering is a dynamic sport that allows participants to explore such extreme wilderness you can’t plan for everything. The unexpected is where I believe the true treasures exist. This could bring me to “Crow and the Condor” but about that later in the post.

Our journey began with nine hours of driving, including a two-hour traffic stand still on the edge of the megalopolis that seemed to not want us to escape. Reaching the outskirts of Zion our few hours of rest under the stars were marred by the roar of a semi’s diesel engine continuously running to allow its inhabitant a comfortable night of air conditioned sleep. The next morning entailed waiting in line at the permit office, a shuttle to the trailhead and a bit of cross- country navigation that finally brought us to the canyon.

The Washington County Water Conservancy District (WCWCD) said they would be releasing 3 CFS, (water released from the dam at the Kolob Reservoir is responsible for the near constant flow in the canyon) but after a crude test we determined that the actual CFS just above the technical section to be somewhere at a maximum of 2 CFS. WARNING – It absolutely cannot be assumed that there will be less CFS in the technical section of Kolob Canyon than that of what the WCWCD is releasing. It is just as likely that the opposite could be true. Needless to say conditions were going to be easier than what we were expecting. Easier, but still challenging with the constant pattern of rappel, wet disconnect, swim and pull over a series of 11 rappels. All too soon the technical section was over and we were stripping out of our 7mms and enjoying our lunch.

A short stroll down canyon brought us to the bottom of a 400- foot spring fed waterfall; a magical surprise that I had completely skimmed over during my research of the trip that had focused on the technical section.


After about an hour of boulder hopping, hand line assisted down climbs, wading and swimming I was in the lead hiking with my head down when I was completely startled by an enormous bird sitting on the canyon floor. As the bird grunted and hopped/ flew onto a shelf about 60 feet away, Chris who was right behind me said, “That is a California Condor.” According to the National Parks Conservation Association there are roughly 160 California Condors that exist in the wild. Stunned we stood and watched as the massive bird observed us, but the moment did not last long because suddenly a shower of small rocks began falling upon us from hundreds of feet above. We immediately began running back up canyon but not before watching one rock nearly clip the wing of the condor and another coming from what I estimate to be within 15 feet of hitting Eric. The shocking event was over as fast as it started but we were spooked. What aligned to allow us to witness two such rare sights of nature at the exact same time?

After waiting several minutes to ensure safe passage, we continued hiking. As we approached, the condor flew down canyon several hundred feet beyond view. Minutes later we were back in its presence but this time it was joined by a crow that cawed at the larger bird. We passed the pair but before not too long watched as the condor was chased by the ensuing crow through the slotted corridor 30 feet above. We were treated one more time at the confluence with Oak Creek Canyon, the crow still harassing the condor. As we headed down Lower Kolob Canyon the crow and the condor headed up Oak Creek Canyon out of sight.

We bivouacked that night near the MIA exit absorbing all that had occurred during the day. The following day included a number of cold swims, one hand line assisted drop into an icy cold pool and slogging challenges before reaching the confluence with the North Fork of the Virgin River, known as the Narrows. It is pretty amazing when the exit hike for your technical canyon descent includes the best part of one of most famous and utterly stunning hikes of the southwestern United States. We took in all the beauty; Big Spring, the deep dark narrows, Imlay boulder, Orderville junction and Mystery Falls before reaching the Temple Siniwava.

Chris later spoke with the Zion National Park wildlife manager who was very excited about our condor spot. The wildlife manager told Chris that there are a number of tagged condors in the park and believe the one we saw was a juvenile non-tagged condor that could very possibly be the offspring of two tagged condors; wonderful and exciting news for all.