Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Into the Fold: Scouting and a mean Happy Dog

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on June 29, 2011

We are just over an hour outside of Phoenix listening to the Door’s “Morrison Hotel” and engrossed in conversation about the unknowns of our upcoming trip, when I look into my rear view mirror and see the red and blues of a DPS Highway Patrol car right on my tail. Befuddled I pull off to the shoulder. I didn’t think I was speeding. “Did you not see the thick smoke coming out of the back of your car?” the patrolman asks in a gruff and agitated voice. “No, officer I didn’t,” I reply. With a little investigating we find that my car is leaking transmission fluid. We check the levels of the transmission fluid and it is empty. “That’s not good,” I say aloud as two thoughts quickly consume my mind, “Will I be spending next week looking for a new car?” and “Are we going to make our charter boat scheduled to pick us up in 15 hours?” Forget the first questions lets just deal with the latter as that boat ride is our access into the Waterpocket Fold. Fast-forward 11 hours, and we arrive in Eric’s car at Halls Crossing Marina along Lake Powell. My car was left behind. The sun is starting to rise as we lay out our sleeping bags. We can hear boaters beginning to rustle in their campsites as they prepare for a long day of fun and sun on Lake Powell. Despite the ungodly hour we down a couple of “celebratory” beers before lying down for a few hours of sleep.

I hold my hat on my head as the boat rips across the choppy lake during the 30- minute ride to Halls Creek Bay. As we approach I follow along on my GPS, which, unbeknownst to me utilizes decade old pre- drought maps when the lake was over 60 feet higher than it is today. This translates to a shorter boat ride and longer hike than we expected. Waving goodbye to our captain was a bit of an eerie feeling, as we know we will be very much stranded in this hostile wilderness for the next four days. With 50 plus pound packs we fight through the heat, jungles of the invasive Tamarisk trees, beaver dams creating quarter mile long ponds, quicksand and biting deer flies as we head up Halls Creek to the confluence of three sister canyons where we set up a base camp. These canyons steeply wind down the hunk of Navajo sandstone that is the Waterpocket Fold terminating in Halls Creek. Between the lack of sleep and morning workout, an afternoon siesta sounds quite appealing but we have to make use of the limited time we have in this place. It is time consuming and expensive to get here.

Eric and I hike up into the Waterpocket Fold to try and locate the entrance into the infamous and mythical Poe Canyon, more recently referred to as Smiling Cricket. The actual descent of Poe would wait for a future trip, but we want to familiarize ourselves with the approach so to not waste any time on that future descent. Negotiating sandstone domes and a number of side drainages we quickly and easily find a near walk in entrance into Poe. We memorize the route and mark the entrance point on our GPS.

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Video below was entirely shot by Eric Luth with editing by David Wallace.

Happy Dog Canyon, aka ‘S’ Canyon, 3BVR
approximately 19 miles
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
06/17/11 – 6/20/11

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The next day we divide the kitchen sink of technical canyoneering gear between the three of us and begin the long approach to the head of Happy Dog Canyon, originally referred to as ‘S’ Canyon. With the long days this time of year we leisurely stroll out of camp hours later than we should have. This approach is far more complex and lengthy than that of Poe. We knew from previous trip reports that the canyon begins at a large arch. After quickly disposing of the puzzle of the approach to Poe Canyon, doubt begins to sink in as the clock ticks past two hours since the start and still no signs of this arch. I take comfort in the magnificent scenery of Halls Creek, Lake Powell, the Henry Mountains and a Pronghorn that scampers across the slick rock about 100- yards away. We navigate often the only possible way through towers, domes and depressions of rock. As we near the three-hour mark, the all-encompassing Navajo sandstone that we have been traveling abruptly ends. In topography the likes of which I have never seen the terrain continues to rise, but with the end of the sandstone, the head of the canyon immediately takes shape. We make our way down and around into the head of the canyon and find the Happy Dog Arch.

The challenges begin immediately with down climbs in the full blaze of the sun. We ghost the first mandatory rappel. Ghosting is a technique where you leave absolutely no anchor behind after rappelling and has become a style used in these canyons during recent descents. We had decided to utilize ghosting techniques if we thought they were appropriate but were not committed to the discipline. Ghosting can often be used as an alternative to placing bolts into the rock. Though some of the drops in these canyons do have bolts, they are those of the first descents of over 30- years ago and are thus suspect in their integrity. The canyon gets deeper and narrower giving us respite from the sun. The potholes are full of water and do not take a tremendous amount of effort to escape. The canyon gets extremely tight and forces us to alternate between squeezing and stemming high. Because this canyon is nearly unbetaed we took enough gear to deal with a near endless number of technical obstacles. We also took enough rope to rappel drops of up to 200- feet. In the end we took more than what we needed, but when you don’t know you take it. With only three of us to divide the gear our packs are heavy, making the high stemming challenging despite its relatively straightforward nature and lack of intense exposure. With the heat even penetrating the depths of the dark narrows, we are going through water faster than expected and begin rationing. We squeeze past a pillow sized cluster of Daddy Longlegs glimmering in the sun against the dark depths like a puffy cloud against blue skies.

The canyon opens up at a big drop and then returns to tight narrows. I make a poor decision and instead of going high, I elevator drop into the bowels. My pack gets jammed up and I soon realize that the canyon is quickly getting too skinny to continue this course. I attempt to do an about face but my pack is in the way. For nearly an hour I work tirelessly to get up ten feet to a choke stone suspended in the canyon walls. During which time I have to remove nearly every article out of my pack and hand them up to Eric who wedges the gear into pockets in the walls. Eric is eventually able to assist me in reaching the choke stone. I am completely exhausted. In the process some of my gear falls back down into the canyon. Style has completely left the building. Eric elevators down and recovers all of my gear. He then proceeds to high stem back and forth the 25- yards of this section of narrows shuttling gear. Meanwhile I am now making my own way high. As I begin to elevator down to the end of the narrows, my bag, which is dangling between my legs gets jammed in the walls and catches my right leg. Gravity overcomes friction and ever so slowly brings me down to a horizontal state with my leg still caught on my pack. I am entirely stuck. I try to free myself but don’t have the angle. I know that if someone can move my pack I can right myself up and get to the open section less than ten feet away. This will have to wait, as Eric is still busy shuttling gear. In the meantime I will just have to be in this sorry pathetic state that I have gotten myself into. I have enough sense to stay calm. I think whether or not my car will ever drive again and if not what kind of car should I buy. In my heart I would really love a Toyota pick-up truck but it probably makes a lot more sense to buy a hybrid. I look around as Daddy Longlegs scamper over me. This is without question most people’s idea of living hell. A slow ten minutes goes by and Eric negotiates over to me and is in disbelief in the position I have gotten myself into. He pulls my bag out from underneath me and sure enough my body turns 90 degrees and with a little inhaling and squeezing I pop out to the other side.

Darkness is now closing in and we really do not know how much canyon we have left. I am unsure if I can negotiate another section like we just encountered in the dark. We are in a slightly open section with some dry sand and with temperatures being as warm as they are I suggest a bivouac. With some apprehension Pat agrees. Eric will hear nothing of it. He argues that we have no dry clothes and though a bivouac will not be necessarily dangerous it will be extremely unpleasant. “We are eating a hot meal and sleeping in our tents tonight,” he says with total confidence. With that we move on to the next obstacle, a down climb into a deep-water filled pothole. Through a miscommunication Pat tosses one of our two, 200- foot ropes in a rope bag into a pothole so he can better negotiate the down climb. The rope sinks into the depths. I make one half-ass attempt to recover the rope but could not reach the bottom in my exhausted state. Since we have another rope we decide to leave it behind. We just do not have the energy or time to recover it. Another short high stemming section leads to another pool and the canyon than magically opens up with a beautiful slick rock ramp out of the canyon. Hallelujah! 15- minutes later and we are back to Halls Creek and night has completely taken over. Battered and bruised I am already determined to recover my rope and finish the last section of the canyon. Our planned descent of Baboon Laughs, the third of the sister canyons will have to wait.

The sun is up and Pat and Eric seem entirely less determined to finish the lower section of Happy Dog than I am. Eric tells me he will help me recover my rope but that is about the extent of his “to do” list for the day and for now all he wants to do is chill. I would normally argue with him but the extent in which he saved my ass the day before I tone down my attempt in persuading him otherwise. As Pat and Eric lounge around I camp I begin feeling antsy so I hike up the Poe Canyon drainage from the bottom. The canyon is chock full of vegetation including a plethora of hearty Poison Ivy. I guess it was not the right time to be wearing shorts. In less than 45- minutes I reach the base of the alcove that represents the final rappel of the canyon. Upon returning to camp Eric seems to have a little more pep in his step. He gives me a window to talk about descending the final section of Happy Dog and I seize it. Before long we are packing our technical gear and heading back to Happy Dog.

As Pat waits in the open section of canyon where we retreated the night before, Eric and I high stem back up the canyon about 20 yards to the pothole where my rope sank to the bottom. I dive down into the black, semi- putrid water. After three full kicks I reach the bottom and feel nothing but sticks and mud. I suspect the water to be at least 12- feet deep. A second attempt yields the same results. On the third try I dive from a different angle and snatch the rope. Returning to the surface I shout out in victory.

Eric and I continue down canyon past our escape point. The canyon stays wide with three consecutive drops into pools below. The first is down climbable. The second drops around 80- feet, half of which is overhanging. With no available anchors we utilize the SandTrap, a tarp like device that can be covered in sand and used as an anchor for rappels and then allows the user to pull the tarp down, thus ghosting the drop. The third and final drop, a beauty, is even longer into the jungle alcove below. Returning to camp the winds begin to gust. We pack up all of our gear and hike the majority of the distance back to our rendezvous point with our boat charter.

The next morning we wait amongst Tamarisk trees rising from the ever-changing shoreline of Lake Powell. With nothing but the water to protect us from the fierce sun we talk about what we learned from the last few days. I learned some valuable lessons that will make me a smarter canyoneer. Maybe most importantly, share the lead on hard canyons. I was leading the descent of Happy Dog all day and I got sloppy and made a poor decision. The other lesson, which I already knew but was greatly reinforced, is have partners that you trust with your life. It is possible you will be relying on them sometime. Right on time the boat arrived. “How was the trip,” the captain asked. “Good, a little epic!” I said with a smile.

A week later…. The transmission on my car is fixed and was fully covered under warranty. My legs are covered in a poison ivy rash and plans are slowly being made to return to the Fold.

– David

A new season in Babes Hole Spring Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 1, 2011

Babes Hole Spring Canyon, 3BII
approximately 4 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of Sycamore Canyon
05/22/11

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The first Mogollon Rim canyon descent of the season is always special. It is more than descending those beautiful Coconino sandstone slots, more than being towered by the magnificent pine trees and more than breathing the crisp mountain air. That first descent represents another season and another year. Our lives change quickly, but outside a rare natural or manmade disaster, little changes year to year in this magical wilderness.

Babes Hole Spring Canyon was an easy and not terribly exciting technical descent, but the canyon was rather pleasant and the day wonderful as I was joined by my old friend and canyon partner John, and a first timer canyoneer and new friend, Steve. With a recent snow fall, the ground was saturated adding to the springs, resulting in a modest but steady flow through the entire canyon and crystal clear pools. A lethargic Bull Snake laid sprawled out on a rock in the narrows below a beautiful fluted rappel. It did not seem terribly interested or bothered as we moved all around trying to find the right angle to pull our rope that got temporarily stuck. Unlike our Bull Snake friend, a Mojave Green Rattlesnake was extremely irritated as we rock hopped past it. Hundreds of butterflies resembled multi-colored snow flurries and silver colored canyon frogs hopped abound.

My heart beat fast as we aggressively hiked up the Little LO Trail out of the canyon bottom. Feeling the burn I stopped to catch my breath. I tilted my head back and was mesmerized by a towering tree that had long past away. Just a few steps behind me Steve stopped and also stared  up at the magnificent form above us. He  poignantly remarked of the countless organisms that live within the old, dead tree. With that I smiled, took a moment more and continued up the trail.

-David