Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Peak foliage in Barney Spring Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on December 31, 2012

Beautiful fall colors in a pool in Barney Spring Canyon.

Barney Spring Canyon, 4BIVR
Coconino National Forest


Fall is a special time. As a child it represents the start of a new year of challenges and experiences. Growing up in the northeastern United Sates, autumn would peak in an explosion of colors. As an adult that feeling of newness that comes around in September and October has faded somewhat and living in the midst of urban sprawl in the heart of the Sonoran Desert you don’t see much in the way of Autumnal colors.

Eric had been lobbying for a descent of Barney Spring Canyon for a while. It is a classic Mogollon Rim canyon that wasn’t yet part of his resume. I had descended the canyon with Laura shortly after I had begun canyoneering five summers ago. My recollection is that it was the first canyon descent during which time I was thinking this is really intense from both a physical and technical perspective. I also remember it being a long day, but despite my photographs its aesthetic qualities had left little impression on my memory.

Timing for a descent has finally lined up. Eric and I are driving along the washboard road deep into the forest in the late afternoon sun. The previous day we had descended Garden Creek in the Grand Canyon. Our legs are feeling that 4,000 feet of vertical. My belly is fully of wings and my head a little cloudy from beer  after spending much of the day resting in a Flagstaff sports bar and watching football. As the road crosses a drainage and its numerous deciduous trees amongst the surrounding pines I am struck by the intense Fall colors.

As temperatures plummet after the sun goes down we huddle around the fire. We awake well before the return of the sun and begin hiking from our camp in the dark. A descent of Barney is normally completed by hiking down the West Fork of Oak Creek at its confluence with Barney followed by a long car shuttle. Our plan is to skip the car shuttle by hiking up the West Fork until we can find a place to escape the canyon and then navigate across the rim back to our vehicle. We know it is going to be a very long and exhausting day.

Surrounded by stunning foliage on the final rappel.

The sun is up but it is still brisk as we drop into the upper reaches of Barney. The foliage is magnificent. Reds, yellows and oranges are abundant. I say it is peak. Eric says maybe just past. The canyon narrows. We are surround by muted beige sandstone covered in a thin layer of vibrant green moss with a canopy of technicolor above us. It is spectacular.

The canyon is still challenging with its numerous awkward- start rappels but my experience in the last four plus years have dulled the edges of intensity I experienced the last time. Eric leads the way and we are down-climbing obstacles I would have never thought possible during the first descent. The monster keeper pothole that gave us so much trouble the last time is almost full and Eric beach whales out on his own out and then assists me to the lip. From our perch atop the final rappel we peer over a thick canopy of vibrant and saturated yellows. It is a visual experience that will leave a lasting impression.

A short brushy walk and we reach the confluence of the West Fork of Oak Creek. More colors. We spend the next six hours hiking, trudging, rock hopping, climbing  up West Fork. We do the best we can to stay dry but some of the narrows do not cooperate. In the upper reaches of the West Fork the canyon branches into multiple arms. We take a branch whose terrain we are unfamiliar with but will put us closer to our vehicle. We hope to not be stopped in our tracks by a dryfall before we can escape the canyon bottom for the rim. A minor gamble but we are confident. We are faced with several spicy climbs including one over a deep keeper filled with icy cold water that if we both fell into would be a mouse trap of the most dire circumstances. As we climb further up this canyon arm the walls begin to recede and we make our break. Upon reaching the rim as we navigate through the Ponderosa Pines back to our vehicle I am completely exhausted, satisfied and connected to this autumnal experience.


Garden Creek Canyon, ‘Hidden in plain sight’

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on December 24, 2012

David on rappel.

Garden Creek Canyon, 4CIV
13.5 miles
Grand Canyon National Park


It is a beautiful, crisp autumn day. The kind that is just perfect for hiking. We are only four of what could be close to a thousand people on the Bright Angel Trail, snaking down 4380 feet from Grand Canyon Village on top of the south rim to the Colorado River. Not far above the river and right off the trail, Garden Creek plunges into the Vishnu Schist layer, forming a magnificent technical canyon. “Garden Creek Canyon is a hidden gem located in close proximity to the most popular trail in the Grand Canyon National Park,” says Todd Martin, who included it in his guidebook, Grand Canyoneering. “It’s surprising that more people haven’t discovered it.”

As we munch on some snacks, throw on a few extra layers, pull up our harnesses and strap on our helmets before delving into this ‘hidden gem’ we are passed by maybe a dozen hikers on their way down to the river. For the next several hours our  paths will deviate. The canyon begins with several fun down climbs. The flow is not overwhelming but enough to disrupt verbal communication which immediately adds an extra level of excitement. The big drops follow, including a two stage rappel down a sloping 400- foot waterfall into an open section before dropping into a narrow slot again. Several more rappels and spicy down climbs follow in the temperate water that never pools. The canyon ends the same way it started; right off the Bright Angel Trail, de-harnessing, snacking and hydrating as dozens of hikers pass by. Now all that is left is to join the parade for a seven mile plus, 4,000 foot plus climb back to the rim.

– David


Two tries for a complete Robber’s Roost Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 17, 2012

The sun hits the side of the mountain behind a Saguaro.

Robber’s Roost Canyon, 3AII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
11/26/12, 12/10/12


With family in town for Thanksgiving, (free babysitting) Laura and I sneak away for the better part of a day for an adventure hike with some canyoneering in the Superstition Mountains. We begin the hike early in the morning on the Carney Springs Trail. During the ascent we pass by one of the largest multi-armed Saguaro Cactus I have ever seen. James Madison could have been President of the United States when this Saguaro sprouted from the ground as some of the majestic cacti can be as old as 200 years. Ascending on we reach the ridgeline and head off the Carney Springs Trail into the lunar landscape of hoodoos and other bizarre rock formations. Our goal is to find the Robber’s Roost, a sort of slot canyon between a series of rock formations. The cavity between these hoodoos actually drains water into a larger drainage below. I don’t know exactly where the Robber’s Roost is, only the larger drainage that it feeds into. Laura and I take a round about way getting over to this drainage as the terrain is other wordly and difficult to navigate. Upon reaching the drainage proper we get our harnesses and helmets on thinking we are about to enter the Robber’s Roost and its few rappels. A short while after heading down, something just doesn’t feel right. The canyon begins to get wider and brushier and we are leaving the rock formations behind. After a while I turn, survey the rocks above and recognize the final pour off from the Robber’s Roost formation well above us from photographs I had previously seen. We have completely missed it. There is no chance Laura and I are going to trudge back up through the thick brush to get into the Roost proper. It will have to be saved for the next trip. We know we still have a 250- foot rappel down the bottom part of this drainage. After more bushwhacking we reach the rappel. The vertical drop cuts right through the cliff in a scenic alcove. Following the rappel Laura and I have to fight through a fortress of catclaw to get back to the Carney Springs Trail. Back on the trail as our hot feet trudge on the rocky terrain, I already am planning on returning to descend into the Robber’s Roost proper.  My mind being what it is and all.

Laura on the final 250- foot rappel.

A few weeks later…

Venturing back out alone I park at the Peralta Trailhead well before first light. My plan is to hike over to and up the Carney Springs Trail, find the Roost, do a complete descent of it into that other drainage, ascend that drainage and then navigate across Dacite Mesa to Fremont Saddle and down the Peralta Trail. This will allow me to leave my 320- foot rope at home avoiding  that 250- foot rappel and all of that horrible catclaw at the bottom of that rappel. The sunrise lights up the hoodoos above the Carney Springs Trail in a glow of fire red. After a little searching I find the Robber’s Roost. I am not really sure what the history of the Robber’s Roost is. Despite some research in books and on the web I found nothing. The entire area is steeped in legends of treasure hunters. Carney Springs is named after Peter and Thomas Carney who mined the area for copper in the early twentieth century. With these riches it is not hard to imagine thieves to follow. Dropping into the “slot” between the hoodoos I can see how this would make a great hideout. Though in its current conditions it is bone dry evidence suggest that water runs through after a little rain. Graffiti carved in the walls dates back 75- years. It makes me wonder how long does it take for graffiti to stop being vandalism and become history. I down climb the first two drops and rappel the 80- foot pour off that I had spotted from below on the previous trip. The entire descent takes 15- minutes. I then hike up that drainage and navigate quickly through the hoodoos along the Dacite Mesa to Fremont Saddle and down the Peralta Trail. I am back home before lunch.


Bailey Canyon & Beach, in the same day

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on December 10, 2012


Bailey Canyon, 3AIII
3 miles
Angeles National Forest – San Gabriel Mountains


Like many Arizonians, every year Laura and I make an annual summer trip to San Diego. It is not only a chance to escape the heat and soak in the beautiful southern California coast, but an opportunity to spend quality time with one of my closest childhood friends, Tanner, who has made San Diego home. Tanner has made a number of trips to Arizona, during which time I have introduced him to canyoneering and we have shared in several descents. During this San Diego vacay I thought it would be fun to take a day off from the beach and drive up to the San Gabriel Mountains for some southern California canyoneering.

We leave early to beat the LA rush and arrive in the front rage of the San Gabriels entirely shrouded in fog. As we climb up into the mountains and the sun rises higher into the sky, the fog burns off making for some dramatic views. By the time we reach the start of the canyon, the fog is long gone, the sun is out in full force and we are excited to escape into the shadows of the canyon walls and begin the descent.

The canyon is bone dry and chock full of vegetation. Fortunately we are wearing long pants and these southern California plants are far more friendly than those in Arizona. Despite the canyon’s mellow attitude, it features a number of down climbs and up to a dozen rappels, including a long 110- foot drop, giving Tanner lots of opportunity to practice his canyoneering skills.

The day is light and fun with lots of humor, the kind of laughter you can only share with someone that you grew up with. The only tense moments come from a swarm of bees hanging out at the bottom of a drop searching for water and a rattlesnake soaking in the sun on a ledge part way down a rappel. Fortunately for us, the bees and the rattlesnake mean us no harm and allow us safe passage. We finish the adventure and return to our car early in the day allowing us to once again avoid rush hour. Arriving back in San Diego I Immediately walk out to the beach to join Laura and Wyatt already playing in the sand and ocean. You can’t do that after a day of canyoneering in Arizona.

– David

Last day – Val Lodrino intermedio & inferiore

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on December 4, 2012

Val Lodrino intermedio & inferiore, V5A5IV
Riviera, Ticino, Switzerland


Two days earlier…

After descending Val d’Iragna, Eric and I stop by it’s next door neighbor to check out the level of water flow at the bottom of Val Lodrino. Lodrino is a big drainage and does not have a hydroelectric dam controlling its flow. It exists in its natural state. Before we could see the water we could hear its power. Those sounds create an immediate emotional response of anxiety and wonder. When we see the final waterfall we compare it to the photographs in our guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola. They are in fact high, very high. The recent rain has not yet run its course through Lodrino. Eric and I have serious doubts if descending this canyon and all of its technical challenges is in the cards for us at these levels. Back at the parking lot we run into nearly a dozen canyoneers who are sleeping on the black top under the bright sun. They look like they are right out of a Red Bull commercial. We speak with the one guy who is awake, filming his friends snoozing with a GoPro camera. They are Brits who reside in Switzerland. They have just come down Lodrino. We ask about the flows. “Flows are good,” says the man with a sizable scar across his face. He then qualifies, “It could get dicey if you don’t jump everything.” Referring to the dangers of rappelling and hydraulics in big flow. With only a few days left before returning to the States a descent of Lodrino now seems unlikely.

Pascal, who took us down Val Bodengo II and III just across the border in Italy, told us that above all else do not miss an opportunity to descend Lodrino. Luca and Anna Nizzola describe it this way, “This is the most beautiful and majestic canyon in Ticino, listed as the one of the most famous routes in Europe.”

One day earlier…

Not wanting to give up on the possibility of a descent, we return to the checkpoint of Lodrino. Water levels are perhaps slightly lower but still high. The following day would be our last chance. After some discussion we green light it.

We are not alone at the staging area at a cemetery on the outskirts of the small village of Lodrino. A half dozen other groups are getting ready. Some appear to be guided. Others are canyoneering teams wearing matching clothes. Group by group they slam the sliding doors of their vans adorned with what appears to be sponsorship signage as they are shuttled to near the top of the route. No matching jump suits or car shuttles for us. We attack the mountainside on an easy to follow trail through a dark forest. When we stop to catch our breath we get magnificent views through the trees of the Riviera valley below illuminated in the morning sun. We can see the side canyons of Cresciano Boggera and Osogna Nala across the Riviera that we descended earlier in the week.

At the start of Val Lodrino intermedio we suit up. I am both nervous and excited. We say goodbye to Laura who decides to sit this one out. The first obstacle is a fairly straightforward jump over a powerful hydraulic. Eric jumps first without his pack. I toss his bag from above but not far enough to get past the hydraulic. It gets sucked in. After I jump down to join Eric with my bag on, I realize the potential seriousness of my mistake. Eric dives into the hydraulic, fishes out his bag and then has to swim like hell to get out. I breathe a sigh of relief when he and his bag come through. It would not be the last of our hiccups of the day. Moving on we encounter a few more jumps and slides before reaching a powerful 160-foot waterfall rappel. At the bottom I can see Laura waving from atop a bridge that spans the canyon hundreds of feet above. She is very small. From here the canyon gets hauntingly deep and dark. We encounter a half dozen obstacles before a surprising long section of river walking. The canyon then narrows again into the famous Val Lodrino inferiore.

The power of the water has seemed to eliminate all hard angles in the rock. The deep saturated bluish-green of the water throws a cool cast on the tubular space that exists between the silver, polished rock. The obstacles are continuous and challenging. We are feeling a deep connectivity to this rock, water and space and the moves required to fluidly achieve the obstacles. Eric and I alternate leading. The intensity of the flow requires total concentration. I am  existing in a deeply spiritual place.

Eric wades in Val Lodrino inferiore.

We reach a 20- foot drop that requires either a traverse along a ledge before jumping in the pool below or a rappel in a very tight channel where all of the water is funneled. We opt to rappel. I watch Eric as he makes his way down while being pounded by the current. Half way down his upper body disappears into the white water. I can still see his legs below him but he has stopped descending. He appears to be struggling. I am unsure of what to do. He is not signaling for me to lower him but I wonder if he is unable to to locate his whistle as the waterfall is blowing him up. My mind is racing. After what seems like minutes, but was probably no more than 30 seconds I see Eric’s red backpack come flying out of the current and disappear into the canyon below. I then watch Eric make his way down the remainder of the rappel. Not wanting to follow in his footsteps I pull up the rope, bag it, make the traverse along the ledge and jump into the pool below. I swim down canyon between narrow walls to Eric standing over a 150- foot waterfall with a concerned look on his face. When I stand right next to him (which is required to verbally communicate in the deafening roar of the water) he tells me that his bag got swept over the 150- foot waterfall after he had to remove it off his back after becoming pinned by the current on the previous rappel. We now have a potential problem as one of our two ropes is in Eric’s bag somewhere down canyon. With my rope we can rappel down the 150- foot drop, but without the second rope we will not be able to pull and recover our rope after the rappel. If Eric’s bag got swept down a second drop where a rope will be necessary than we will be lampooned in the canyon. Eric seems confident that it is relatively flat at the bottom of the drop and with a little luck that red bag will be waiting for us in the pool below. With my nerves getting the better of me I am not so sure.

Our plan… I will rappel down, search for Eric’s bag, after hopefully finding the bag, attach the rope bag to our rappel rope, signal four whistle blasts letting Eric know he can haul the rope bag up. I make my way down the rappel scanning below from the bird’s eye view for anything red against all of the grays and blues. Suddenly, with 30-feet to go it dawns on me that I better stop and check to make sure that there is enough rope below. When I stop there is only three feet of rope below my right hand. Yikes, kind of a close call. I whistle signal to Eric to lower me the rest of the way. Upon touch down I aggressively begin searching. I make a quick look left and right of the tennis court sized pool and see nothing. I then venture downstream 50 meters and realize there is no chance that the bag got swept down a second drop. This is a relief and it is just a matter of sniffing her out. Not finding the bag I return to the pool for a more thorough examination. I swim along the entire shoreline, in some places fighting against the current, systematically searching every nook and cranny. In the final corner I find the bag amongst driftwood hidden in a crevice. I am elated. I swim back to the rappel rope, attach the rope bag and then signal four whistle blasts between heavy breaths. Eric spends the next 20 minutes hauling the saturated 220- foot rope back back up against the current of the powerful 150- foot waterfall. A few more rappels including one that drops through a massive granite arch concludes the canyon. We are exhausted and all smiles as we reunite with Laura waiting for us at the bottom.

In the morning we will fly out of Milan’s Malpensa International Airport but we don’t want this adventure to end. Before the two hour drive to Milan, we stop in downtown Bellinzona to attend the Grape Harvest Festival. The town square is filled with several thousand people eating regional cuisine, drinking the local Merlot and reveling in the festivities. The centerpiece is a stage set up along the steps of the church with traditional music, dance and costume. A row of five, 6- foot long wooden horns known as Alphorns herald the celebration. It starts to get dark and we realize it is our time to say goodbye. These nearly two weeks were over in a blink of an eye. It was an adventure that tantalized all of our senses. We left full with experiences and memories, leaving nothing behind and feeling very fortunate.