Return to the Fold: A five hour crux in Poe Canyon
Poe Canyon, aka Smiling Cricket Canyon, 4BVX
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Looking upward, I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. It was some thirty or forty feet overhead, and constructed much as the side walls. In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention . It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that in lieu of a scythe he held what at a casual glance I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see on antique clocks. There was something, however, in the appearance of this machine which caused me to regard it more attentively. While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own), I fancied that I saw it in motion. In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. Its sweep was brief, and of course slow. I watched it for some minutes, somewhat in fear but more in wonder.
An excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”
I’m standing in the bottom of a 30- foot deep keeper pothole referred to as the “Pit of Despair” in the middle of Poe Canyon. We have been working this obstacle for nearly four hours and are now moments away from learning if our decisions, time and determination will either have paid off or bring us back to the drawing board. With the clock ticking in this dangerous and remote place a lot is riding on it. I stand ready with my camera to record the moment. Unlike my job as a professional newspaper photojournalist when I often document the best, worst and most critical occasions of individuals lives that have no direct bearing on my own, my fate is critically intertwined into what I am about to photograph. It is an intense, uncomfortable and exhilarating feeling.
Nearly a year earlier…
Just looking at the folds and domes in the slick rock approach up to the entrance of Poe Canyon makes me nervous. On a hot afternoon, Eric and I hike up into this convoluted madness that is the Waterpocket Fold to try and locate the canyon’s entrance. We feel like mountaineers rest stepping up steep, smooth slopes trying to follow the easiest line to the top, except snow and ice are replaced with sandstone and a mountaintop is replaced by a place to drop into a dark abyss. The drop in point is found easier than we expect.
The following day we descend Happy Dog Canyon, Poe’s sister. I get walloped. I write about the descent and my mishaps on this blog. I post a link on the yahoo canyon group to my trip report. A user that had descended Poe sends me this reply, “perhaps this should go without mentioning, but if happy dog whooped you that good, i think poe might deliver a knock-out punch. it’s another order of magnitude more difficult, especially if you can’t defeat the pit of despair and the warthole. the downclimbing is also much more difficult in poe than the dog (even though there is very little stemming). please be careful out there…” It sounds like a fair warning.
I had seen the video, photos and trip reports of this canyon’s immense challenges. I can’t help but wonder how we will stack up to the canyon if the right team of superheroes are assembled. Wait a minute, what’s my superhero ability? Yikes. What I lack in the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound I make up for in organization and planning. A team is assembled by Eric and I for a descent the following year with members who will bring skills to put us in the best position to safely descend the canyon.
It is Memorial Day weekend 2012 as forty mile an hour gusts are blasting us head on as we shuffle through sand on the 11- mile backpack to set up our base camp. We reach camp early in the day and A.J. and Jen from Colorado are already there waiting for us. A.J. will be joining us for the descent down Poe. It will be his second time down the canyon also known as Smiling Cricket. During that descent of four years ago, A.J. and his partners had to spend a somewhat unplanned bivouac above the “Pit of Despair”. We are hoping to approach some of the obstacles differently and do the canyon in one long day. A.J.’s experience both in Poe and his robust canyon resume at large will be invaluable to the expedition. We also have long daylight hours on our side.
We lay on our backs under the shade of a cottonwood tree. Mike sets up a slackline to kill time. We discuss and divvy up all the gear we will need for the descent, all the while being blasted by the wind as sand is forced into every crevice of our bodies. We go to bed before the sun goes down. Surprisingly I sleep well. The sun is nowhere to be seen when we wake and begin the approach.
In pitch darkness the approach is far more complicated than it was a year ago during the scout. An hour in and the Sun comes up. We drop in and begin down canyon. The downclimbs and potholes begin almost immediately. They quickly get more challenging the further down we go. Between A.J. and all of the online content I have consumed on this canyon, I can’t say I don’t know what is ahead, but both what I do and don’t know is a little scary. I burry it and enjoy this place that few have seen before me. As the keepers get more demanding I begin to wonder what it would be like to really not have any idea of what lies around the next corner.
On August 23, 1981, Mike Bogart and Jenny West, made the first descent of Poe Canyon. What they did not have is all of the canyoneering specific designed technical gear and evolved techniques that exist today and most importantly any knowledge of the immense obstacles they would face. What they did have and please excuse the language are some serious balls. In a beautifully written non-fiction story on this first descent West writes,
“As we climb and rappel deeper through the channels of rock and pools we stop discussing the commitment required each time we pull a rappel rope or downclimb a spot that would not be upclimbable. Time and time again we eliminate our escape route out. It is an awareness we share but choose not to speak of. The stunning beauty lures us to linger and take a few photos. But the pull of the unknown is powerful. The taste of adventure and our commitment to it is sweet. We make our bargain with it. It fills us with urgency.”
So on they went and over thirty years later with only a handful of known descents in between, on we went.
Our group of five has found a rhythm and we are moving fast. Brian and I buddy boost Eric up an eight foot keeper. Mike performs a dynamic three steep leap over a pit. I watch his silhouette from the bottom of this ten foot deep pothole through the LCD screen on the back of my digital camera. The obstacles are some of the more challenging most of us have seen, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. They are manageable. The “Pit of Despair” looms in our minds and then we hit it.
We stage in a small room just above the “Pit of Despair”. The plan was use the same technique as several previous groups to get across this pothole that measures 30 feet deep and 30 feet across. A narrow constriction just up canyon of the pothole allows an individual to stem up 10 – 20 feet. From this bird’s perch one can swing a canvas bag known as a Potshot filled with sand across the pit and over a lip on the other side of the pothole. After throwing several of the potshots they would act as a counterweight that an individual could then drop down into the pothole and climb out. We have used this method many times, but never on anything so big. Some of the groups that used this technique before had some character out of comic book that goes by the name “Spidey”. Who will be our superhero?
A.J. steps into the role of the coxswain as we attack the obstacle. Brian takes the first try at the toss, coming up a solid 10- feet short. Eric, A.J. and Mike make subsequent attempts all missing the mark. I know my abilities and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time so I don’t even try. The problem is that there is not a well defined lip on the opposite side of the “Pit of Despair” to allow the bags to properly hang to give a good counterweight. It is more of a gentle downward sloping bench. As a result, the potshots don’t just need to go the 30 feet across the pothole but another 15 feet past it so they can settle down into a more defined notch. Each attempt takes close to ten minutes since the previous: individual stems into position, rope is cleanly coiled, bag is swung back and forth between the legs until it is launched. A miss means everything has to be pulled back up from the depths of the pit and the process repeats itself. From my vantage I can not see if the bags are making it across; I just hear grunts or groans of disappointment. With each miss I feel myself sink a few inches deeper into the canyon.
After nearly a dozen failed attempts we start thinking about Plan B, a dangerous traverse above the pothole using aid climbing techniques and two spread out bolts that Mike Bogart placed during their first descent. A.J. performed the traverse during his descent four years ago, but not before a piece of aid blew out and he fell 20- feet. A.J. has no interest in repeating the feat, but Mike, our climber of the group feels he can make it. The problem is Mike has zero aid climbing experience. Between the first and second moves on aid I can see Mike sketched like I have never seen him before. A.J. sees it too. “The potshots are going to work. We just need to work it more. Get down Mike,” says A.J encouragingly. Mike gladly listens.
From here A.J. comes up with a brilliant plan to give a tight belay to the pot shot tosser. This would allow that individual to go higher off the deck, get closer to the edge of the “Pit of Despair” and really lean into the throw. I serve as the belayer. I am excited to use my superhero strengths as a belayer and contribute to this motley “Avengers” crew. A.J. and Brian alternate attempts and the misses continue, but progress is being made. “Shit, only 3-feet short!” has replaced “Shit, 10- feet short!” as it echoes just slightly off the sandstone walls. With each toss A.J. and Brian make minute adjustments, learning from each other and then A.J. hits it, but just barely. We all shout out in celebration. With that Brian takes the cue to step up his game and hits four out of the next five tosses all of them going well past A.J.’s successful throw.
Eric and I rappel down into the pit, taking care not to get tangled in the rope attached to the potshots and pulling them back over in the process. Upon touchdown I take in the pothole. It is beautiful. The hands of the clock continue to tick as Eric and I straighten and organize the five strands of rope that serve as our ticket out of here. I touch the ropes with delicate fingers as if they are porcelain figurines. Eric gives each rope a gentle test pull and two of the potshots easily come back down into the pit. The other three are solid. Brian goes back into position. It takes him another four attempts to find his rhythm. In the meantime, Eric and I watch his shadow and that of the pendulating rope and bag in a patch of a light on the wall reflected off of the water. Has anyone witnessed this before?
Five potshots are set. Brian has seriously come through. It is now Eric’s turn to see if he can climb these five strands of rope hand over hand up a 30 foot vertical and near featureless wall and most importantly without pulling the potshots back down in the attempt. Eric moves quickly up the wall as the rest of us hoot and holler. As he nears the lip, he begins to struggle. He grasps for progress. I watch it unfold on an LCD screen. Gravity takes over. In an amazing feat Eric finds the perfect balance between using the ropes just enough to control his fall without pulling all of the potshots back over. He splashes down and is breathing heavy. I can tell he is disappointed. I am extremely proud of him for not pulling the bags back over, proving that they are a solid counter weight in the process. Mike drops down in the pit and immediately “batmans” up and out. He raises his arms in victory. We celebrate. Even though it is now non-critical Eric makes a second attempt and nails it. One by one the rest of us follow up, over and out of the “Pit of Despair”. After over five hours from the time we came upon this obstacle we are moving on to the next.
The canyon is not done with us yet with more enlarged keepers, tricky downclimbs and anchor challenges, but the crux is in our rear view mirror. We are all smiles and some yawns after we touchdown on the final rappel in the riparian alcove. We reach camp 13- hours from the time we left it.
We all have different reasons for canyoneering. For me there is not one. Teamwork, camaraderie, seeing how I measure against challenges and experiencing a rugged, raw and seldom seen beauty all play into my decisions to take the inherent risks of descending a canyon like Poe. The key is mitigating those risks by making sure your team is prepared to face what you encounter. With a canyon like Poe, even with all the information that does reside out there in the interweb, it is hard to know how you will stack up until you are out there. For us it was a five hour crux. Any less of a team and things might have gotten pretty hairy. With that I will echo the warning I received a year ago, “please be careful out there…”.