Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

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.



8 Responses

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  1. Steve Schwartz said, on August 6, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    LAURA: While you guys were in Illusions Canyon your dad and the rest of us were in a much safer environment in the Canaan Valley of WV. The most exciting thing we do (not your dad though), is walk up the ski mountain to the Dolly Sods wilderness at the top of the mountain (well, maybe not a mountain – about 4,000 feet elevation). Dolly Sods is beautiful, but not nearly as lovely as what you guys see. We do get to pick blueberries though. 🙂 Most of our party are much like your sister – afraid of dirt.

    It’s hard to believe you guys can have so much fun and even get paid for it (I assume?).

    I’d have loved it, but the thought really never crossed my mind at your age. Also, I was probably too mercenary to try something so unconventional to make a living.

  2. canyoneering said, on August 18, 2009 at 2:35 am

    This was sent to me as a private email. With this person’s permission I am posting his email anonymously. I think it provides some insight in to why the can has been kept a secret.

    “Although I’m not the person who “discovered” this canyon, I was on the first descent party, and so might be able to shed some light on the reasoning behind the secrecy which may seem like nothing more than ego or other self-serving motives.

    Unlike the rock-climbing world (been climbing avidly since 1992) where secrecy may be desired to keep an area under wraps until the “discoverer” has ascended all the routes there, canyoneering (IMHO) is more like caving where there are frequently natural features which can be easily damaged by frequent traffic – even when being quite careful. I’m sure you noticed this on some of the slick, mossy rappels. The canyon also has quite the population of Arizona Bugbane, a rare plant which although attractive, is not a beautiful wildflower which is subject to trampling (it happens to like to grow in the watercourse). Also, as I am sure you noticed, the canyon is quite technically challenging, and physically demanding – above and beyond many of the other published technical canyons in Arizona. I *think* the goal was to control/limit the traffic through the canyon to those who were known to be highly respectful of its delicate nature, and technical nature. Over
    time it will undoubtedly become common knowledge, hopefully to those who care about it as much as we (you included) do.

    Your consideration is greatly appreciated, however silly (or ineffective) you believe the desire for secrecy to be.

    BTW – The second time I descended this canyon there was a dead bear in the last pool – it was *not* fresh!”

  3. […] his blog called Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places, David Wallace discusses the culture of secrecy. Some participants in the sport are at great pains to conceal the prime locations from the rabble. […]

  4. Pat Hartman said, on September 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Thanks for this interesting article which being able to reference, makes ours more valuable to our readers. We linked to it from this page and if your comments don’t allow web links, it’s The Blog of Kevin Dolgin, September 14.
    Best of all possible regards,
    Pat Hartman
    News Editor, The Blog of Kevin Dolgin

  5. Kane Dog said, on July 3, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    If anyone does not agree with keeping canyons secret just google any great canyon in the SW that has been published and see all the crap posted. Makes me want to vomit. Went down Sunburst Canyon not a week after Todd published his technical canyoneering guide to AZ and picked up a lot of trash left by a previous group. I doubt the canyon had ever been explored prior to Todd.

  6. canyoneering said, on July 3, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Who gets to decide what canyons are kept secret and what canyons are not? No one owns the canyons. They are on our public land.

    Incidentally, I went down Sunburst several months ago which would have been several years after Todd’s book was published and saw no signs of trash whatsoever, unless you consider the webbing used for anchors to be trash. Many concerned canyoneers actually take trash out of the canyon when they see it. Sometimes being informed on what may exist out in the wilds will make people even more responsible.

  7. Kane Dog said, on July 22, 2010 at 2:10 am

    I will agree that the existence of ‘secret’ canyons kept so at the exclusion of those not in the ‘know’ is bullshit. This said I am openly against the publication of certain canyons in guidebooks or on the web. Having explored many of these canyons years before their publication through perusing Google earth and topo maps, and word of mouth, the increased traffic post publication has had a marked effect. Though I often remove unnecessary webbing, as should all canyoneers, the trash that bothers me are the empty water bottles and candy wrappers. Many canyons can handle high traffic, the Jug being an apt example, where frequent flooding scours the human traces, but canyons in wilderness settings, especially those that infrequently flood and contain sensitive vegetation and mosses are least immune. Half of the adventure in the unknown; the mystery of exploring wild areas; guidebooks and high human traffic negate this. Either way, this conversation is now somewhat beside the point for this canyon after RC’s post.

  8. Rasmus @ Canyoning said, on December 6, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I have no comment on the should canyons been kept secret discussion, but I do have to say: Wow! Thats the pictures I was looking for in another post of yours! They show the personal side of canyoning (pressure/strugle) as well as the beauty of the nature… Let me repeat: Wow! Best of luck on future adventures.

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