Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Lower Waterholes Canyon, Part Deux

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on April 29, 2010

Lower Waterholes Canyon, (thru-trip to Colorado River) 4BIIIR
4.1 miles to river, 4 mile pack raft

Navajo Nation, tributary of Glen Canyon
04/25/10 – 04/26/10


This canyon was calling me to come back. On the previous descent, the route we took avoided the big drop by rappelling down a series of ledges along the side of the alcove.  I feel this is an unsafe way to go. An abundance of loose rock near all of the anchors makes this route extremely dangerous. I was involved in the decision to go this way so the last thing I am doing is finger pointing, but since that descent over a year ago I felt a strong desire to return and do the descent the right way. Further, Laura, Eric and I had recently acquired pack rafts (small inflatable boats that weigh very little and when deflated can fit into a backpack) that we were anxious to put to use. The plan became to descend the canyon via the big drop and camp along the banks of the Colorado. The following day we would pack raft out to Lees Ferry and hitchhike the 35 plus miles back to our car. Okay, let’s go.

With just three people to divide the 700 feet of rope, pack rafts, paddles, personal flotation devices, wetsuits, sleeping bags, food, water, a water filter and a small cooking pot, our packs were bursting. Because of the weight and bulk of our packs it quickly became apparent that hanging our packs was mandatory to avoid flipping upside down while on rappel. A somewhat skinny section of canyon proved to be extremely difficult with all of our cargo. Never the less, we smoothly made our way through the rappels, down climbs, narrows and a Tyrolean Traverse to avoid getting wet in the pothole that had way less water than during the last descent. In fact we probably all could have skirted around the scum filled pool, but after Eric successfully maneuvered to the other side, Laura and I wanted the novelty of zip lining across.

As Eric lead the way on the final rappel before reaching the infamous Big Wall, I watched in horror as his 50- pound pack fell down the nearly 100- foot rappel, while he went to hang it off of his harness. Eric watched in even greater horror with the knowledge that his iPod Touch of 3 years was stored loosely in has pack. Once down at the bottom of the rappel Eric confirmed that his iPod was in fact a casualty, smashed to smithereens, along with a dented flask and cracked paddle.

After regrouping we started towards the beginning of the multi-pitch rappel down the Big Wall. We followed the drainage proper through down climbing a very narrow section of canyon towards a major drop ahead. Upon reaching the drop-off we could not find bolts anywhere. We did an about face and retraced our steps back up the down climbs which was torture with our huge packs through the narrow walls. At this point, Laura spotted the bolts of the start of the multi-pitch along a ledge canyon right above the drainage proper.

The first part of the multi-pitch is a 100- foot rappel down a very narrow crack. Leading the way I chose to hang my pack, which presented problems as it got stuck on the way down. At the bottom of the rappel where the crack was even narrower I spent several minutes getting my leg and pack untangled. Eric chose to keep his pack on for this rappel, which solved some of the problems I experienced, but he was troubled with not being able to turn around and see where he was going.

The second section of the multi-pitch is a short 15- foot rappel to the hanging station that provides the bolts for the 310- foot drop to solid ground. As I set up our rope for this monster, quadruple checking everything, Eric hammered sticks into the crack on the first part of the multi-pitch to help prevent the rope from getting stuck on the pull. Even after doing this, our rope still got stuck and Eric had to stem back up the crack 15 feet to dislodge the rope.

On the 310- foot rappel I chose to rap out of the bag hanging from my harness to avoid getting the rope stuck in the giant crack that goes down nearly the entire wall. This worked great but was a little scary when I would look down and see 300 feet of air below me with only four feet of rope hanging down during the descent. Once down on the ground I waited for Laura to follow with a fireman’s belay at the ready. Before I could make visual contact with her, my heart jumped out of my chest as I saw a dark object falling towards me. A paddle plummeted down and smashed into the rock next to me, cracking the shaft. Unlike her paddle, Laura safely reached the ground, followed by Eric. The multi-pitch took us two- hours, during which time all three of us were completely void of any thoughts except for the tasks at hand, a rarity in our lives today.

After packing up all of our rope I realized that my paddles were gone. I cannot say for sure what happened to them, but I suspect they fell out of my pack when we initially went the wrong way at the top of the multi-pitch. I was forced to drag my pack through the skinny section back up canyon and since I was in the back nobody would have noticed if they fell out. Though accidental, I feel terrible about leaving trash in the canyon. I always make a habit of picking up trash when possible during hiking or canyoneering and vow to increase this to make up for what I left behind. Further I would now have another challenge of getting the four miles down the river to Lees Ferry without paddles.

A few more rappels and mellow hiking brought us to the Colorado River. We enjoyed a magnificent night of stealth camping just off the banks of the river. The follow morning I woke up early and began devising a system of hand paddles that included small pieces of discarded metal I found and neoprene socks wrapped in the aluminum bags from the Mountain House meals that we ate for dinner the night before. After packing up and inflating our rafts we got on the water.

Pretty quickly it became apparent that my Mountain House hands were not going to work, but between the current, lack of wind and hand paddling with just the neoprene socks I was somewhat able to keep up with Laura and Eric. Keep in mind that they were both working with one broken paddle each. Despite our sorry paddle situation, we reached Lees Ferry much faster than expected.

We were able to get back to our vehicle at the top of Waterholes through a combination hitchhike. The first part was from a rafting outfit bus on its way back to Flagstaff after dropping off a group for their put in at Lees Ferry. He drove us to the Highway 89A and Highway 89 intersection. With our thumbs out for a half hour, a friendly and talkative Navajo man named Clifford came to our rescue and dropped us off at our car.


Ruins in Devils Chasm

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on April 19, 2010

Devils Chasm
approximately 4 miles
Tonto National Forest – Sierra Ancha Wilderness

Devils Chasm is a rugged canyon hike in the Sierra Ancha Mountains culminating at well-preserved ruins high in the cliffs above the canyon floor. The canyon hike began in the cool shaded forest. David, Briscoe and I followed a flowing stream past many small waterfalls as we steadily walked up canyon. I think the prettiest portion of the hike was through a slick rock bowl with clear inviting pools and waterfalls.

Climbing up to the ruins from the canyon floor proved to be the most difficult part of the day. The route took us up a very steep scree slop of loose rock, dust and dirt where solid footing seemed none existent. With our feet constantly slipping, the two steps forward one step back seemed to be the pattern of progression to our objective. About half way up the scramble the ruins came into view on top of a protected cliff in an alcove above.

The dwellings were well worth the unpleasant scramble. The ruins consisted of multiple rooms, doorways and windows. The walls and the ceiling structural beams made of wood were still preserved and intact. It appeared the structure consisted of multiple levels. According to the sign along the road before the trailhead, “They were built between 1280 and 1350 AD by Indians known presently as the ‘Salado’. Why they chose to utilize this challenging environmental zone is not yet fully understood.” After relaxing in the structure and very carefully and thoroughly exploring it, we made our way back down the scree slope. Going down was much easier and way more fun then going up. David and Briscoe went first with David sliding on his feet and butt while Briscoe was body surfing on his back all the way down.

Because the location of these ruins are identified in a number of sources it is important that visitors explore them with the utmost in sensitivity and care.


Mind and body games in Shenanigans

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 14, 2010

Main fork of Butler Canyon, aka Shenanigans Canyon, 3BIIIR
4.25 miles
North Wash


The main fork of Butler Canyon, more commonly referred to as Shenanigans was a canyon that Eric and I had been discussing for quite some time. From what we had read we knew that the canyon would be extremely challenging with super tight narrows (at times only 10 inches wide), tricky down climbs, an exposed crawling traverse (known as the “grim crawl of death”), high stemming and a precarious rappel sequence. It was the following line in Michael Kelsey’s, Technical Slot Canyon Guide to the Colorado Plateau that simultaneously scared and excited the jeepers out of us, “Then comes the really tight part that we had to back out of. Nat Smale and this writer are both slender, but someone even more skinny might make it through – but not many are skinnier than we!” These are very accomplished canyoneers who did not complete the canyon and turned around. We were hoping to make it all the way through. It is important to understand that at the time Kelsey and Smale attempted their descent very few had successfully completed the canyon and even fewer if any had written about it. Since then the canyon has been fully descended numerous times and documented. Canyoneering, particularly of the ultra skinny slot is a battle of the mind, perhaps even more than that of the body. Knowing that others have completed a route before you makes it infinitely easier than that of a first descent or perceived first descent.

We had a last minute addition to our team in a gentleman named Scott, from Idaho, who we had only met the day before at the Sandthrax Camp. Scott was on a solo canyoneering trip in North Wash and seemed more than competent. When we told him that we were going to attempt Shenanigans his eyes lit up. With that we invited him to join us and he gladly accepted. Scott later told us that he was short on canyoneering partners and thus often flew solo. This and because of Shenanigans’ difficulty, he thought it was one of those canyons he would read about but never descend himself. We were really glad to have him with us.

The first section of Shenanigans featured a number of difficult down climbs and one shallow pool. Following the climbs the canyon narrowed into an extremely skinny hallway. If sideways shuffling in a foot wide crack in the earth was not difficult enough, the hallway went from perpendicular to a slanted corridor, forcing you to lean back against one of the walls as you undulated your way through. This was followed by the “grim crawl of the death”, a 40- foot belly traverse on a narrow ledge above a 30- foot vertical drop off to the canyon bottom.

Continuing down canyon we crawled though an arch, past sculpted walls and through shafts of light illuminating the particles of sand falling down from the world above. The canyon then narrowed into the skinniest slot I have ever been in. In several places I could not turn my head and had to inhale to reduce the width of my chest cavity. Eric lead the way and outweighing him by 40 pounds and having 9 inches of height on him, he said to me to at one point, “This part is really skinny you are going to have a really hard time with this.” Funny enough this spot was not the tightest squeeze for me. Because our height differential means our chest cavities are at varying heights what was harder for Eric was not necessarily a tighter squeeze for me. Not wanting to stop and get stuck like a vehicle on a muddy road we kept moving until the canyon briefly opened after over a hundred yards.

The canyon then narrowed again and this time we chose to stem 30 feet above the canyon floor, not out of necessity but for practice for future descents where high stemming is mandatory. I have to admit that I did struggle both mentally and physically with the high stemming, but willed my way through with advice and encouragement from my partners.

A final rappel sequence off of chockstones wedged in the slot above our heads that almost appeared to be floating, brought us to a pool below that we ever so carefully traversed around to stay dry. The canyon then opened up for good and we made our way back to the car and the Sandthrax Camp.

Later that afternoon we strolled into the bottom of the cavernous opening of nearby Sandthrax Canyon, a descent so difficult that I would not attempt it without much more experience and practice in this discipline of canyoneering. We did not get very far into the bottom as it narrowed to such a skinny crack that passage did not seem possible. Sandthrax is one of those canyons where high stemming is mandatory for a descent.

Shenanigans would prove to be my last descent of this Spring break adventure. The following morning we were going to attempt a quick romp down Fry Canyon in Cedar Mesa on the way home, but rain stopped us before dropping into the slot. Not wanting to push our luck we decided to stay safe and save it for next time.


Entry to North Wash

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 12, 2010

This place has become legendary in the canyoneering world, particularly in more recent years. It is a land where giant hunks of sandstone dominate the landscape and the narrowest of canyons wind through this surreal world. After reading countless tales and trip reports of those previous, we were finally here. Waking up in the Sandthrax camp (home to a well attended, annual winter canyoneering festival known as Freeze Fest) we were in ground zero for many of the classic canyons of this area. This allowed us to keep the car parked, literally start and end two canyons in one day and take lunch all from camp. We were blasted by wind and sand as we climbed the sandstone mass to the head of a system consisting of three branches, each a separate technical descent of varying difficulty. After a few wrong turns we dropped into the easternmost and easiest of the three branches, known as Leprechaun Canyon.

East fork of Leprechaun Canyon, 3AII
approximately 3.5 miles
North Wash


To enjoy the skinny nature of these canyons we took minimal gear. With 8mm ropes and webbing harnesses we began the descent of short rappels and tougher down climbs as sand rained down on us from above. For the easiest branch of the East Fork packed plenty of fun and excitement with no shortage of stunning and narrow sculpted walls. Before not too long the east fork joined the main and west forks in a beautiful corridor where only a single shaft of light illuminated the hallway of otherwise total darkness. Less than a half hour later we were sitting on our camping chairs, kicking off our sweaty and sandy canyoneering shoes and enjoying lunch.

Middle Fork of Leprechaun Canyon, aka Shimrock Canyon, 3AIII
approximately 4 miles
North Wash


After an hour lunch, Eric and I decided to go for a second descent in one day, attempting the next fork over from Leprechaun, known as Shimrock. Shimrock would prove to be narrower with much more challenging down climbs than its sister to the east. With the navigation issues behind us, we climbed to the head and dropped into Shimrock in great time. The first part of the canyon featured very challenging down climbs that required a range of physical effort and mental problem solving to descend. Great fun. As the climbs eased up the canyon got skinny, way skinny. Sideways shuffling was a must and I even had to take deep inhalations between heavy breaths to reduce the size of my chest cavity on a few occasions to make passage possible. We found our rhythm in an excited state as more raining sand stuck to the sweat on our exposed skin. My clothes did not fare quite as well as I did as we made our way back to camp for the second time on our first canyoneering day in North Wash.


Tales from the Crypto – Cheesebox Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 9, 2010

Cheesebox Canyon, 3BIII
approximately 6 miles
Cedar Mesa


Adjacent to Gravel Canyon, Cheesebox Canyon is another tributary of White Canyon. Like an impenetrable fortress, descending into Cheesebox Canyon proved to be difficult not because the canyon was hard to find but because the bottom was surrounded by multiple layers of vertical Cedar Mesa sandstone. Through trial and error, beta from Tom Jones and a few lonely cairns, we eventually reached the canyon floor. The narrows and abundance of water began almost immediately as if we were starting right where we left off with Gravel. On a number of occasions passage required squirming on our bellies under boulders. Though overall shorter than Gravel Canyon, the narrows and swims were exquisite and relented only for brief intervals. The exit required more route finding through the wedding cake of rock. Using existing paths, slick rock and micro drainages we did our best to avoid stepping directly on the abundance of cryptobiotic soil as a single footprint can destroy years of cryptobiotic growth.

Returning to our camp with still plenty of daylight, we enjoyed some hard earned afternoon beers, broke down the Cedar Mesa campsite and packed the car. We journeyed north through the land of mega mesas, crossed Lake Powell and began part two of this epic spring break journey.


Tales from the Crypto – Gravel Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 8, 2010

Gravel Canyon, 3BIV
approximately 8 miles
Cedar Mesa


So about that title, “Tales from the Crypto”, what does it mean? Crypto refers to cryptobiotic soil, which is a crust like layer of soil formed by a cluster of living organisms such as algae, cyanobacteria and fungi. The organisms within the soil release a material that binds the soil particles together into the crust like material. This soil is prevalent in arid regions such as the Colorado Plateau. To see a photo of cryptobiotic soil during our trip in Cedar Mesa click here. Living in and exploring the southwest, I have seen my fair share of cryptobiotic soil but never to the size and scope as in Cedar Mesa. This was just one of the many wonders we found while exploring Gravel and Cheesebox Canyons in this awe inspiring wilderness.

As we approached Gravel Canyon from the car park it was cold and I guess that would make sense as it was early in the AM and we were at over 6600 feet above sea level. We quickly descended through a series of side canyons negotiating through a fair amount of snow. The narrows and the water began. The former tight and beautifully sculpted. The latter cold and crystal clear. Though never too technically difficult, for several hours the canyon barely relented presenting us with fun down climbs, boulders to climb over and under and lots of long swims. The scenery was magnificent, way beyond what I was expecting.

When the narrows finally did relent, Eric and I climbed and traversed the multi tiers of cream-colored Cedar Mesa sandstone to two separate sets of Anasazi ruins built into the canyon walls that we had spotted from the narrows below. The exposed and strenuous climb to reach the ruins made experiencing them up close all the more rewarding. In addition to walking alongside a series of well-preserved structures we saw pottery shards and partially fossilized corn cobs. It was beyond amazing to stand in this place and think back to the time where people actually lived and raised their families in this very place.

Returning to the canyon bottom, Eric and I moved quickly to try and catch up to Chris who had gone ahead. The canyon dropped sharply into another set of narrows filled with water. The sun was now at the highest point in the sky and direct light was penetrating into the bottom of the abyss, illuminating the sparkling pool below. Very inviting. Having worked up a serious sweat climbing to the ruins with 7mm wetsuits half on our bodies, I foolishly chose not to fully zip back up my armor before climbing down into the narrows. Soon as my body submerged into the freezing water I knew I had made a serious mistake. Halfway through this long swim I felt my muscles tighten and my body constrict. I was certainly going into shock. Eric swam alongside me while yelling at me to keep moving. The moment we could stand he helped me get fully into my suit and zipped me up as I immediately peed into the fully enclosed neoprene and instantly felt the life return to my body.

After catching up to Chris we found our exit, a beautiful side canyon, which formed into a narrow slot before we climbed out onto the rim above. The long rim walk back to the car was through the most expansive, crustiest and largest cryptobotic soil I have ever seen. We reached the car just before sunset, fully exhausted and inspired; quite the way to start the trip.


On the road again

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 6, 2010

The Mittens, Monument Valley

Just on the heels of our canyoneering trip to the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument I found myself making the long trek back to Southern Utah just several weeks later. This time with a slightly different crew and delving into new territory exploring canyons in Cedar Mesa and North Wash.

You may have noticed that my good friend and canyoneering partner, Chris has been absent in canyon trips of recent. Chris who has been a regular fixture on this blog moved to LA in the summer of 2009 where he has been going for his Masters in Economics at Cal State Fullerton. In fact the last time I saw Chris was at the end of that crazy day when we descended Englestead Hollow. Anyhow, Chris was on spring break and instead of heading to Lake Havasu like he normally does, (just kidding) Eric and I jumped at the chance to spend some time with the college boy in quite simply the best way there is to spend time.

After I picked Chris up at Sky Harbor the night before we rendezvoused at Eric’s in the AM to pack the car, deja’vu. The miles north blew by as the three of us caught up and before we knew it we were getting deeper and deeper into our beloved Colorado Plateau. We made a quick side trip to the Monument Valley Tribal Park visitor’s center where we were afforded stunning views of  “the Mittens” and Eric added to his magnet collection.

Chris (left) and Eric take in the Valley of the Gods from the Moki Dugway.

Further north we crossed the San Juan River and climbed the Moki Dugway out of the Valley of the Gods. The Moki Dugway, also spelled Mokee and Moqui was a road built in the late 1950s by a mining company to transport the uranium ore from Cedar Mesa down into the valley. This stretch of road was new for all three of us and unexpected. As we approached the edge of the Valley of the Gods towards the steep mesa on the paved two-lane highway I was wondering where the road was going to go. As we got closer I could see the pavement turn to well graded gravel and steeply switchback up the near vertical cliffside. Halfway up we pulled off to the side of one of these hairpin turns and took in the tortured rock that extended as far as the eye could see.

Gaining the mesa our surroundings changed dramatically, as the sparse landscape was now covered in shrubs and juniper trees. Around this time we began noticing the adjacent dirt roads to the highway appeared to consist of a sloppy, clay like mud consistency. This was concerning as our destination consisted of traveling on one of these roads. The deeper we got into Cedar Mesa the more spectacular it became as were surrounded by giant mesas colored white, red and green from snow, earth and vegetation, respectively. Canyons dropped abound and before not too long we turned off the highway onto a dirt road and crossed White Canyon, a significant canyon that drains Cedar Mesa directly into Lake Powell. The road was surprisingly dry and in good condition and we reached our campsite without too much trouble.


Climbing & canyon rescue practice between canyoneering trips

Posted in Uncategorized by canyoneering on April 2, 2010

Pinnacle Peak Park

On the weekend between two significant Utah canyoneering trips, we decided to leave the wetsuits at home, not fill the gas tanks all the way and head to nearby Pinnacle Peak Park for some climbing and canyon rescue practice. John, Eric and myself worked on haul systems and converting a static rappel block into a lowering system. These would be used for a person either stuck or injured on rappel or if not enough rope was deployed to reach the ground. After successfully working these systems on the ground we worked them with one of us actually on rappel off the ground. It was great practice and we squeezed in a few climbs as well, including a difficult 5.10 crack climb.