Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Inky pools in Horsetank Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on August 31, 2009

Inky pools in Horsetank Canyon

Horsetank Wash/ Sandrock Canyon Loop, 3BIVR
6 miles
Coconino National Forest


Our trip down Horsetank canyon was wonderfully uneventful on a quiet Monday. Even though the canyon was exciting and quite technical there were no close calls and we didn’t even get lost once!

We were prepared for a canyon filled with cold water and though we weren’t disappointed the water levels appeared to be lower than normal. The water throughout the canyon was so black, it appeared you could dip your hands  into the inky blackness and finger paint on the sandstone walls. The complete opaqueness of every pool in the canyon made it so you never knew if you would be swimming or simply wading through the water. One of the most interesting sections of the canyon consisted of a 35- foot free hanging rappel off of a huge logjam that filled the canyon from wall to wall. From below the logjam looked like an intricate web of roots.

After some tight narrows, numerous wades and swims, several rappels and a lot of down climbing the canyon opened up and we reached the confluence with Sandrock Canyon. As we started to hike up Sandrock, David let out a yelp as he came dangerously close to stepping on a rattlesnake curled up under the vegetation in the canyon bottom. Even though we did not see the rattles since the tail was curled up under itself the snake appeared to have the unmistakable head of a viper. The strange thing was the snake did not move an inch, appear to be at all disturbed, or rattle despite how close David had gotten. We carefully moved past the motionless snake and walked a little ways up canyon for lunch. As we sat for lunch a storm moved in overhead, the skies opened up and we were hit with a steady rain. With little shelter to keep dry we quickly ate our lunch and continued the hike up Sandrock Canyon.

As noted in Todd’s book this canyon should not be attempted unless you have good rock climbing skills or someone in your party is comfortable climbing an exposed face up to 60 feet without protection. Lucky for us Mike and Courtney are excellent climbers, in fact David is not so bad himself…..OK, honestly everyone in the group was a competent rock climber except for me. With a belay I cursed my way up the couple of walls that we had to climb to get out of the canyon.


President Obama, the Taylor Fire and solo in James Canyon

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

President Obama, the Taylor Fire and solo in James Canyon

James Canyon, 3BIII
5.75 miles
Coconino National Forest


Air Force One, the enormous Boeing 747-200B jet that transports the President of the United States landed on the runway of the Grand Canyon National Park Airport. President Obama, the First Lady and their two daughters walked down the retractable stairway and into their Black SUV. From a riser 50 yards from where Air Force One came to a stop I took as many photographs as possible from the instant Air Force One came into view in the horizon to when the Presidential motorcade went out of view on it’s way to the Grand Canyon. After the motorcade was out of sight, a secret service agent and press liaison informed us that the President would be leaving the Grand Canyon to return to Phoenix several hours before the scheduled 4 pm departure. One reporter said he had heard Sasha Obama, 7, and Malia Obama, 10, were tired and just wanted to hang out by the pool at their hotel in Phoenix. I have no idea if this is in fact the reason, but I do know that none of the members of the press were going to complain.

By 2 pm Air Force One was gone, all of my photographs had been filed and sent back to the Arizona Republic photo desk. “Interesting, I have some time to myself,” I thought. “Maybe I can squeeze in a solo descent of James Canyon, which is just south of Flagstaff.” As I headed down to Flagstaff a giant plume of smoke rose vertically southwest of Flagstaff high into the air and turned horizontal in a northeasterly direction. The plume from the wildfire was visible as far north as the town of Valle. After communicating with another Arizona Republic photographer who was already covering the wildfire, I decided to continue with my plan to descend James. By 4pm I was hiking into the canyon.

This was my first solo descent of a technical canyon. Solo canyoneering can be dangerous. Many have heard the story of Aron Ralston’s daring tale of survival in Bluejohn Canyon after a boulder pinned down his arm.

Though somewhat risky I felt well within my range of comfort and safety; I had previously descended James Canyon, the rappels are straightforward, it has no difficult water or pothole obstacles, there are a number of places where escape from the canyon appears possible and my wife was aware of what I was doing. I do have to admit that the solitude and the eerie light from a combination of the late day and smoke from the wildfire many miles away, added a spicy intensity as I rigged my rope for the first rappel.

I flew through the canyon out of necessity and ability. I reached the confluence with Kelly Canyon and Pumphouse Wash in two hours. Opting to climb up to the rim from the confluence as opposed to ascending Kelly Canyon I returned to my vehicle in just over an hour. I had 20 minutes of light to spare.

The following morning I spoke with an employee of the Coconino National Forrest. The fire dubbed, “The Taylor Fire” originated near Turkey Butte in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area on the east rim of Sycamore Canyon. My thoughts immediately turned to the many wonderful canyons that exist in this area. As I publish this blog post (08/22/09) the Taylor Fire is 90% contained but unfortunately has burned over 3500 acres.


History in Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

History in Canyon de Chelly National Monumentt

Canyon de Chelly National Monument
04/01/09 – 04/02/09

Within these canyon walls is the longest continuously inhabited landscape in North America. Beginning with the ancient Basket Makers dating back to over 1,500 years ago to the modern Navajo who still farm and herd sheep in the canyon bottoms in the summer months, Canyon de Chelly has housed generations upon generations upon generations. These walls have seen birth, death, love, family, murder, brutality, spirituality and tradition. They have been the building materials for homes and villages. They have been the canvas for works of art. They have been the arenas for hunting, gathering, herding and farming. A full history within sandstone chasms.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument consists entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land that works in partnership with the National Park Service. The majority of the 84,000 acres within the park boundary is off limits to non-resident Navajo without the company of a designated Navajo guide.

After pressing play on video, press pause & allow a minute for video to load & buffer before viewing. Thanks!
  ©Arizona Republic 2009            

In April of 2009 I was on a travel assignment for the Arizona Republic covering the national parks, monuments and historical sites on the Navajo reservation. While at Canyon de Chelly National Monument I hired hiking guide Ben Henry Jr. to not only see more of the park, but to hear first hand of this history. Ben grew up in the canyon and still farms the bottom. Ben took me down an informal trail across shelves and down sandstone walls as he told me about being a child growing up in the canyon. In the steeper sections we used hand holds and footholds carved out by earlier generations of Navajo. We walked along the canyon bottom as Ben talked about a mixture of the ancient past and his own personal experiences. We stopped to look at ancient Anasazi ruins, Navajo petrolglyphs from hundreds of years ago and a piece of land where Ben’s family still farms. Before we parted ways Ben invited me to meet his family during the farming season.

As I said goodbye to Ben and left Canyon de Chelly National Monument I felt a deep sense of peace. To hear the stories first hand, to walk on that earth and to share the company with someone from this history was a rejuvenating experience.


A Das Boot(in)’ good time!

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 12, 2009


Das Boot/ Subway, 3BIII
10.8 miles
Zion National Park


Das Boot, a canyon as fun to descend as it is to say.

Mike, David and I drove up to Zion late Saturday after work to meet Eric, Eric and Chris for a few days of canyoneering. Bright and early Sunday morning we headed to Das Boot. Our only real trouble of the day was finding the Das Boot entrance point after crossing Russell Gulch. David and Mike went one direction, Chris and Flagstaff Eric another while Phoenix Eric and myself found our own path to the bottom of the canyon. Arriving at the head of the narrows we were excited for a deep, dark and cold day. With full body wetsuits on, although not fully zipped up, we made our way into the slot. The narrows were beautiful and deep, reminiscent of Buckskin Gulch, surrounded by a symphony of sandstone fins. I had read that Das Boot is a good precursor to canyons such as Heaps and Imlay so I was prepared for a mini adventure filled with cold swims, potholes and tough down climbs. As it turned out we had an extremely hot day and very low water levels in the canyon. This made for easier going than any of us expected. The few pot holes we encountered were easily escapable. I am glad I had the wetsuit to cover my legs and for a couple swims although Flagstaff Eric went with no wetsuit at all as he has an unusually high tolerance to the cold.

After eating lunch at the junction with Russell Gulch we continued down the canyon. Having descended the Subway last October in abnormally cold weather, going back and doing it again in the middle of the summer was a real treat. The swims that had sent a shiver to my core and made my fingers tingle were pleasant and inviting in July. The warm water, intense sunlight, sublime beauty, great company and technical ease made the Subway feel like one big canyoneering playground as we took time to crawl through small tunnels in the rock, soak in pools and slide down natural water slides.


Dead cow soup and the secret of Illusions Canyon

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

Dead cow soup and the secret of Illusions Canyon

Illusions Canyon, 4BIIIR
5.75 miles


Secrets. I am not sure I believe in them and I don’t completely understand the culture of secrecy that exists in canyoneering. I am not as engaged in the rock climbing community but friends who are both avid climbers and canyoneers say secrecy is not as prevalent in the climbing world. I feel that sharing information that shows how unique, special and beautiful the wilderness is will only educate and inform people who will in turn make decisions, change lifestyles, vote and do whatever else they can to help protect the wilds. I basically feel that keeping canyons a secret does nothing but serve those that are inside of that secret. Others would disagree with my position and would probably have valid points supporting their beliefs.

In the not too distant past I became aware of an unbetaed, secret canyon referred to as Illusions Canyon. I will not reveal how I became aware of this canyon but on this first weekend of August 2009 I became honored and privileged to experience what may be one of the most beautiful, rugged and down right nasty canyon I have ever descended in my short, but intense canyoneering life. Out of respect to the canyoneering pioneers who through a great number of scouting and anchor setting trips, through much sweat, hard work, determination and ingenuity found the route, I will not reveal the location of the canyon (this was their request). Though I do not entirely agree, I respect their position.

In time this route may become public so if it does I will provide some useful information on descending the canyon…

-This canyon is for experienced canyoneers and the physically fit only.

-Do not attempt this canyon in low water conditions. Keepers are extremely prevalent and the water is cold. I wore a shortie wetsuit on a very hot day and would have been much more comfortable in a full body.

-Be prepared for lots of tricky down climbs.

The last keeper of the canyon is especially nasty. It is at the bottom of a long rappel (the second of the two long rappels in the canyon) and you can’t see the pothole from the top. We were warned of its existence so we set the rappel to allow for Eric and I to both rappel down at the same time. We locked off on rope about ten feet above the pothole to analyze the obstacle. The water looked deep and it was about four to five feet from the surface of the water to the lip of the pothole. The exit was close to vertical and featureless. First we attempted a pack toss, but the pothole was so big (about the size of a big 1- car garage) we could not get our bag across. Then we noticed what first looked like a thick log floating in the water. “Maybe we could use that,” we discussed. Then, on closer inspection we noticed it was the hindquarters of a dead cow stewing below the surface. We were not at the point that we were going to use a dead cow as an object to climb out of the pothole. Fortunately, the lip of the pothole had a bomber hand hold. So with my size and Eric’s excellent pothole escape climbing abilities we went for a buddy boost. We dropped in the putrid, black water of indiscernible depth at the same time and swam past the cow. I crammed myself against the escape wall as Eric climbed my body like a ladder. As I was forced down I was able to keep my face above the cow soup. In reality, the cow probably had not been in the water for long as there were hardly any signs of decay in the water, but beware that in the coming weeks and months this pothole could be especially nasty from the rotting carcass. I gave Eric some forceful boosts and he clambered out on the first try using those bomber handholds. If water conditions were another 2 feet lower, a boost could have proven to be extremely difficult. After Eric got out it was just a matter of the rest of using an etrier attached to Eric for escape. All of our activity had moved the cow directly into the swim path for exit. With a long stick we were able to push the cow into the corner as the rest of our party swam across the pothole.