Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A find in Avocado Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on August 31, 2010

Avocado Canyon, 3AIII
5.5 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek


We were not sure what we find, but it was fairly obvious on the map. Unlike other side canyons of West Clear Creek that are betaed this one had neither information nor word of a previous descent. With this we thought we would take a peek. What we found was a pleasant wilderness canyon with three clean and sculpted rappels the longest of which was approximately 120-feet. All three raps took natural anchors. Despite the tremendous amount of recent rain saturating the forest, the canyon held nothing more than a few pools of waist deep water. There were no signs of a previous descent or any human presence. I would doubt we were the first to descend the canyon but it felt like we were and that feeling added a very real excitement to the trip. Once reaching West Clear Creek, which was more, overgrown with green vegetation than I ever seen it, we stopped for lunch on a rocky beach where we enjoyed a meaty avocado.


A battle with Heaps

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 2, 2010

Heaps Canyon via Phantom Valley, 4BVR
approximately 11.5 miles
Zion National Park
07/24/10 – 07/25/10


The first rappel into Phantom Valley, a sloppy, rock strewn 60- footer was behind us when the clouds really started moving. We had seen some weather in the distance from our elevated vantage point during the muggy, 6.5- mile approach hike along the West Rim Trail, but it didn’t seem bad enough to abort, so we continued. After the 60- foot rappel we made our way down the precarious ridge heading closer towards Phantom Valley and our objective, Heaps Canyon. The clouds were building in height, size and darkness. I could see Eric and Mike, who were ahead of Chris and I, making their way across the appropriately termed “fin of death”, a knife edge ridge of crumbling rock, about 50- feet long, several feet wide and with drops off of 200- feet on either side. By the time Chris and I reached the “fin of death” we were being sand blasted by gusts of wind ripping across the ridge. The sand stuck to the perspiration on my body as Chris and I both quickly and carefully crab walked with 45- pound packs across the fin. A few drops of rain began to fall as I felt a kitchen table sized slab of rock atop the edge teeter like a seesaw. Across and at the edge of the ridge, the four of us were in a precarious position as by now lightning flashed and thunder roared. We had to get off this ridge. We quickly rigged the 200- foot rappel off the tree and made our way down. I was the last to rappel and the time between the flashes of light and the claps of the thunder were getting shorter as I waited my turn to get off of this vulnerable position.

Once we were all down the rain increased in intensity. We decided not to pull our rope figuring if we had to we could escape by ascending the 200- footer, retrace our steps up the ridge and one of us could probably climb up the first 60-foot drop. It was not an ideal option, but if the weather really took a turn for the worst it was something. For over two hours we sat in the rain, scanning the horizon for an improvement and discussing our options. Mike sat with a compactor bag over his head to stay dry. Our discussions began leaning us towards ascending once the weather improved. By the time that had happened we had run out of water and were exhausted. It now seemed prudent to hike down to the valley floor, find water, rest for the night and ascend out the next morning. Reaching the first substantial pothole of water that we could pump, the clouds parted and sunshine illuminated the valley. We had another healthy discussion and with some apprehension we decided to continue the descent. Eric and I hiked back up to our rope to pull it, as Mike and Chris went down to find a suitable place to set up camp. By now it was too late in the day to make it to the Crossroads (our planned camp) before dark. After pulling the rope we caught up to Mike and Chris, who had set up camp right at the deep dark entrance to the Phantom Valley narrows; a very eerie and special place to bed down for the night.


We woke to the beeping of Mike’s watch an hour before sunrise, anxious to get an early start realizing we would have to cover more ground than anticipated. There was little light as Mike, Chris and I dropped into the cavernous narrows. Eric was minutes behind us getting the last of his stuff together, when we heard, “FUCK!” echo on the canyon walls. When he caught up to us he didn’t seem happy about the fact that the zipper on his 7mm wetsuit had completely busted, making it impossible for him to seal up the neoprene around his body. Initially concerned about the predicament we soon realized that 7mm suits were perhaps overkill in this water that just wasn’t that cold. Maybe not cold, but there was a lot of it. Finally we were in a rhythm; down climbs, rappels, swims and jumps. This is what we came for. We engaged a keeper, a flaring off-width. Mike and Eric jumped in. Eric’s boosts, Mike’s excellent climbing skills and ridiculous grunts got him to the top.

The canyon opened up to a beautiful hallway and then dropped into more narrows. We were moving fast now, saturated in water and fun. We were trying to catch a group of eight that Chris and Mike had seen briefly seen the day before when they went ahead to set up camp. We would later find out they were descending Heaps for a bachelor party. Shortly into the “Terminal Narrows” we could hear them just ahead of us. After a little commotion we made a clean pass on the bachelor party. The narrows were now filled to the brim with a steady flow cascading down the drops. Initially we attributed it to the 12 people in the canyon displacing water, but the deeper we got into the “Terminal Narrows” it seemed apparent that the canyon was flowing on its own from the recent monsoon rains. The conditions allowed us to slide and jump many of the anchor ready drops. Reaching a 12- foot drop, Eric and Chris had some reservations about down climbing a stem that flared out and then narrowed again making a reverse hourglass shape. I was feeling confident and felt like pushing myself. As I down climbed past the stem and into the flared out section, I lost control and my foot clipped the narrower section of wall before hitting the water. I immediately knew I had injured myself. I composed myself, shouted out to everyone else not to attempt the down climb and rap it (as if they needed to be told) and began testing my foot. The injury did not seem to be too be bad as I could walk without much of a limp or too much discomfort. Realizing I had dodged a major bullet I was upset at myself as we continued down canyon.

The narrows relented and we reached a large flat rock above a narrow chute that channeled the water down and over a 450- drop to the Emerald Pools. We stripped out of our wetsuits and took a much-deserved break. This spot marked the start of the multi-pitch rappel down the big wall and out of the canyon. The multi pitch consists of three rappels, the final a magnificent 290- foot free hanging drop from a tiny slanted ledge called the “Birds Perch”. From this spot tourists who hike up to visit the Emerald Pools look like ants. On this day the normally green pools were turned brown from the run off. I was completely surrounded by big air as I slowly made my way down alongside the cascading waterfall. The further down the wall the waterfall became more of a cloud like mist. We completed the multi-pitch with total precision. I was the first to sequence down the multi-pitch. When I reached the ground I received a round of applause from the tourists.  Standing around waiting for my partners to join me on solid ground gave my ankle plenty of time to swell and stiffen. What was not bothering me before in the canyon with the constant activity was now extremely uncomfortable. By the time everyone was down and we bagged the 700 feet of rope involved in the final rappel I moved with a serious hobble in my stride as we made our way down the mile and a half path to Zion Lodge .

A few days later we would find out about the flash floods on that Saturday in Spry, Lodge and Pine Creek Canyons that had occurred when we were caught in the same weather getting into Phantom Valley. Three canyoneers were seriously injured in Spry Canyon from the flash floods, as all three were swept over a 40- foot fall and two of the men were swept over a second 60- foot fall. The incident was a chilling reminder of the very real dangers of flash floods. I do not regret our decision to continue our descent after being caught in this weather. I say this because much thought, discussion and deliberation went into this decision. With glorious weather the following day, the battle with Heaps did not end as we were faced with equipment failure, passing a large group and a minor injury, in addition to the challenges of the canyon itself.