Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A tough day in Waterslides Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on May 18, 2012

Waterslides Canyon, 3B/CIII
approximately 5 miles
Sierra Ancha Wilderness Area
04/01/12, 04/15/12


This was a really tough day out in the canyon lands and not in a good way. I think I could easily say it was my worst day ever in canyoneering. I had just done Waterslides Canyon with John several weeks before. We had a wonderful day enjoying the magnificent scenery, unparalleled water slides and meeting a group of new canyoneers at the trail head. John and I spent a portion of the descent with these great group of guys. It is always fun to meet some new local canyoneers. They were also extremely gracious in shuttling us back to our vehicle saving us from a long nasty hike back to our car.

Steve Schwartz has been a longtime reader of this blog. He is a friend of Laura’s father and an avid hiker, covering a lot of ground in the Shenandoahs. Steve became our most faithful reader and commenter. Through the blog he became a friend of mine. It was just a matter of time before Steve decided to fly out to Arizona to try canyoneering for himself. I planned a two day canyoneering trip where we would do Waterslides Canyon on the first day, followed by Salome Jug on the second. We dubbed it “Schwartz Fest”. Steve was really excited, as were Laura and I.

On top of the first rappel we gave Steve a tutorial of what he needed to know. Steve had been on rappel before but I can’t say he had all that much experience. I rappelled first, followed by Steve as I gave him a fireman’s bely on the 25- foot drop. Everything went very smoothly. The second rappel came up right after the first. The anchor was a knot block in an angled crack. We inspected it and it looked good. Again, I rappelled first, followed by Steve on a fireman’s belay on this 10-12 foot drop. As I watched Steve come down with a belay ready I watched in horror as the anchor gave way and Steve fell backwards. My instincts instantly kicked in and I bear hugged Steve in an attempt to break his fall as he slammed into me with incredible force. The blow knocked me over and Steve careened off of me onto the rocky ground. I immediately started asking Steve if he was ok. After we confirmed that he could feel everything and nothing initially seemed to be broken I moved Steve into a more comfortable position. He was complaining of a stiff neck and a slight numbness in his head. I was concerned about a concussion. Steve had definitely hit his head after he bounced off of me and hit the ground. Only a half mile from the car, we could have hauled Steve up that last rappel, lead climbed the first and then hauled him up that rappel and gotten him back to the car, but Steve wanted to continue. After resting for awhile and continuing to question Steve on his condition, Steve felt confident to continue.

To say that Laura and I were very shaken would have been a gross understatement. What is normally one of the most fun canyons around, was far from it on this day. Laura and I could just not get in that playful mood after what had happened. Never the less, Steve made his way down the rest of the canyon at a normal pace. He even yelled out a hoot on the water slides with a big grin on his face. I know that he was in a fair amount of discomfort from the fall and was not enjoying it at the level that I would hope for him. Through tremendous resolve Steve got out completely on his own.

For days after the incident Laura and I felt wholly awful about what had happened. Steve was our responsibility. Simultaneously we were so grateful that Steve walked away with no significant injuries and was able to finish the canyon on his own two feet. I shudder to think what would have been if I were not standing in the position I was so I was able to break Steve’s fall or if he was not wearing a helmet. Looking back on the incident I think what happened was that the knot block might not have been placed far enough back in the crack and I did not adjust that before I rappelled. Because I rappelled straight down from the anchor and at a very low angle to the wall the block held. Steve, being a novice rappeller, was up higher and not in a direct line when he started down and the anchor gave way. None of it was his fault. It was ours for perhaps not placing the knot block properly and not checking more closely as Steve began his rappel. In well over a hundred technical descents and thousands of rappels this was my first blown anchor. It is something I will do everything I can to insure that it never happens again. Though I may face some criticism by sharing this story I hope others can learn from what happened here. They may not be as lucky as we were. Steve was anxious to share his story on the blog. Below the video, which features footage from both descents is a report in Steve’s words.

– David

“First the reader needs to understand that I am a complete novice at canyoneering – never did it before (though I have certainly hiked and backpacked numerous difficult trails in the Shenandoahs and nearby hills in the northeastern US). What I knew about canyoneering I learned from the adventures of David, Laura and their friends on this web site. It looked like great fun and adventure, and so I was elated when David and Laura graciously volunteered to take me.

I was not disappointed, the rappels were exciting, the waterslides breathtaking, and the scenery magnificent. We were typically in a 20-30 foot wide canyon with walls extending up hundreds of feet on either side.  There’s only one way out – to continue downstream.  Downstream consists of maybe ten rappels (each one being maybe 10 – 50 feet high), maybe 8 breathtaking waterslides (also 10 – 25 foot drops), pools at the bottom of the waterslides (very cold, clear water), and plenty of walking.  Most of the walking was over large round, smooth river rocks that are ankle-twisters waiting to happen.  If you’re in good physical condition, and not afraid of heights or claustrophobic, then you’re a candidate for canyoneering.  You won’t find this type of beauty and solitude in many other places.

The first rappel went smoothly. It was on the second rappel that disaster struck. The rope on which you descend is attached to a metal ring on the webbing.  David was the first one down – no problem.  I was second.  I had just started down the rope when the webbing pulled loose, off the top of the rock anchor around which it was looped. I plunged 10 feet, bouncing off David who tried to break my fall, and then to the ground below.  Somewhere on the way down I hit my head on a rock.  Fortunately my helmet cushioned the blow. When the “dust cleared” I was flat on my back with three sets of very concerned eyes watching me, and checking my level of consciousness.  I knew that my neck was badly wrenched, but all the other body parts appeared to function per specification.  It was only ½ hour or so later that my back and legs began to feel the trauma, and gradually became weaker and more painful.

Understand that we were at least 20 miles from any effective form of communication with the rest of humanity.  We did not see another soul on the trail all day (unless you count cows).

Would I do this again?  YOU BET!  Should my schedule bring me back to the Phoenix area, and assuming that David and Laura ever want to see me again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.  I think that they had more nightmares about this adventure than I did. In fact the only way to escape the pain for the first week after the calamity was to sleep, which I was able to do just fine. In any case there were no broken bones, but it took a full week until I began to feel human again.” – Steve Schwartz

A professional canyoneer for the day in Parker Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on May 2, 2012

Parker Creek Canyon, 3BII
approximately 2 miles
Tonto National Forest- Sierra Ancha Wilderness


Canyoneering has always just been a hobby, a hobby of deep passion, but never any form of livelihood. That all changed, for just one day. I am a full time staff photographer for the Arizona Republic for a profession. For a number of reasons, I have never had all that much interest in pushing to have my canyoneering photographs published in the Arizona Republic. Recently, however, 12 News whose operations are integrated with that of the Arizona Republic, asked if I would mind producing a short video on canyoneering for a new series they are producing called “Explore Arizona”. With that, fellow Arizona Republic staff photographer, Michael Schennum, one of my primary weekend warrior canyoneering partners, and I produced a video on canyoneering in Parker Canyon. I normally use a high end point and shoot camera with a water proof housing to document my adventures. But for this descent we wanted to get real high end quality HD video so we used our professional Canon EOS 1D Mark IV DSLR cameras which we also shoot video with. The challenge became keeping our cameras dry in the canyon. We kept our cameras in canyon kegs filled with towels. We succeeded in getting some great footage and keeping the cameras from getting destroyed in all of that water. It was a lot of work, that took a lot of time (we spent six hours on the descent that would normally take Mike and I less than three hours). It was pretty awesome getting paid to go canyoneering, even if just for a day.

 – David
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