Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Wyatt’s first overnight backpacking adventure in Aravaipa Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on April 22, 2013

Laura and Wyatt take a break in Aravaipa Canyon.

Aravaipa Canyon
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area
4/7/13 – 4/8/13


One of Wyatt’s favorite books to read before bed is “Fred and Ted Go Camping”. Fred and Ted pack their car, hike into the woods and have a few adventures/ misadventures along the way. To celebrate David’s birthday we planned two days in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area with our two and a half year old son for his very first overnight backpacking trip. In the weeks leading up, we read that book countless times. While reading we talked about how Mommy, Daddy and Wyatt were going to do those things too.

The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is a 19,410 acre wilderness area on the northern fringe of the Galiuro Mountains featuring a perennial stream that has carved a scenic canyon 11- miles through the Sonoran Desert. Hiking under sycamores, cottonwoods and willows below towering cliffs we cross in and out of the warm, shallow waters as we make our way up canyon.

Thirty pounds of Wyatt sit snuggly in the baby backpack on David’s back. Another 20 pounds of gear is stuffed into the few available pockets of this pack in addition to a daypack filled to the brim with gear and lashed to the back of the larger baby backpack. With David unavailable to carry the majority of food and camping equipment like he normally does my bag weighs more than it ever has.

David and Wyatt explore Deer Creek Canyon, a side canyon of Aravaipa.

The weight on my back aside, seeing Wyatt’s face light up when he spots a frog hop under our feet is almost as gratifying as hearing him say “Good job Daddy” as David ducks under a fallen tree. We stop for lunch between narrow, red rock walls where Wyatt has a chance to put his toes in the river, feel the current, throw some sticks and watch them float away. “More sticks, more sticks,” demands Wyatt.

After lunch we continue up canyon. The gurgling of the river, light wind and rocking, lull him to sleep for 45- minutes. David and I share in conversation in hushed tones. About nine miles from the start we set up camp along the creek under a giant sycamore tree. With Wyatt’s assistance we erect the tent, collect firewood and pump water out of the stream. In the pre-dusk evening we go for a stroll giving Wyatt a chance to do some hiking on his own two feet before eating dinner by campfire. “Like Fred and Ted,” Wyatt says.

What will not go in the record books as the best night of sleep, though it could have been worse, we wake not long after first light and warm up by the campfire. Before breaking down camp we explore the nearby side canyon of Deer Creek. A dozen vultures circle overhead as the walls of the canyon narrow in. “Tunnel,” Wyatt shouts. A few miles up this deep, accordion canyon we break at a natural spring flowing right out of the rock lined with Golden Columbine flowers. We fill our bottles and Wyatt put his lips up to the trickling water, drinking right from the spring. On the way back to camp we spot the sluggish, brightly colored and venomous Gila Monster.

Wyatt feels the dripping water of a spring in Deer Creek.

After breaking down camp we see more wildlife during the hike out. “Monkeys!” Wyatt shouts. The long tails throw him off. Just off the banks of the river is a pack of ten coati mundi. Again Wyatt falls asleep as we make miles only to be woken by 40mph gusts of wind that develop in the afternoon. Wyatt is not pleased, but we trudge on.

One aspect that makes spending time in the wilderness so special is the experience is scaled back to a much simpler form. It is all about what exists before you and what you need to do to safely enjoy these surroundings. All the other noise of everyday life fades away. For a toddler that simplified existence is the everyday. Sharing that with your son is truly special.

Things we did wrong: We forgot coffee. We WAY overpacked clothes for Wyatt. We even brought 2 pairs of shoes yet he was barefoot most of the time.

 Things we think we did right: Talking about the backpacking adventure for a few weeks before the trip so Wyatt would know what to expect.



True to it’s name, Hard Day Harvey

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 15, 2013

Eric works his way across the pool.

Hard Day Harvey Canyon, 3BIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


Unlike the previous mornings I do not wake to feel the glow of the rising sun hit my face. Instead muted light takes over. I unzip my tent to see ominous clouds hovering in nearly all directions. The rest of the crew wakes. It is our final day but the weather is leaving doubt that our planned descent of Hard Day Harvey is going to happen. Some coffee, hot breakfast, a morning fire and things begin to look just a little better. Enough to rally and we are on our way.

We don’t know much about this canyon other than its name and two statements Ram had made about it the day before in Paradiso, “Excellent choice.” and “It has several hard right turns.” Preparing for the skinny stuff we are once again packing light, leaving the wetsuits behind. I hope its not wet. Perhaps breakfast is not sitting quite right or it is the anxiety from the weather but my stomach is churning as we get at it. A quick fast forward a half hour into it and I am in a completely different world than the one I left behind above the rim. What upset stomach? Not here, not now.

Brian working through chest deep water in sideways shuffling narrows.

Physical, sweat drip. Muddy shoes smear, some high moves. Low, turn sideways, breath.

Yeah, its like that for awhile. A slide into a pool. That looks deep. The chocolate waters wont reveal until we are in it. I’ll go first. It gives me more opportunity to document the great reactions of my five compatriots as they hit the icey cold waters, sans wetsuit. Yup, full on swimmer. Its picture time.

The narrows get tighter, darker, muddier and wetter. We are all a little chilled but the physicality of this descent is keeping us away from hypothermia. The light that does penetrate is exquisite. We hit those challenging right turns. The final of the series is the real business. A tight down climb into a small bombay with chest deep water and then the canyon takes a hard 90 degrees. From there it gets really skinny with a chockstone inconveniently placed to really make it challenging. Eric is in the lead. He takes the low route and barely makes the squeeze to the other side. He shouts back instructions. Best to stay high over the pool make the right turn and get above that chokestone. I am up next. With muddy walls I can’t stay high on that right turn and slide into the pool. I squeeze under the chokestone but am unable to pass through a constriction just beyond. I backtrack back into the pool and stem up to get my torso out of the frigid water. Brian comes down to the right turn and from my position I am able to pin his mud caked shoes to the wall so he can make the move up to the chokestone. He lowers me a sling to try and pull me up,  but the angles and space are not there. I try low again. This time I take my helmet off and push it and my backpack in front of me until Eric can grab them from the other side. I then lay down on the ground and wiggle like a snake to get below that super tight constriction to the other side. Brian is now coming through above and his large frame’s progress is impeded by another restriction. It is so skinny he does not have the room to maneuver up and over it. I am able to get in there and push him up enough to get past. This entire sequence exists all within about 20 feet of canyon. The crux is now behind us. A little more business before we hit the confluence with Good Day Jim. One more rappel before the canyon fully releases us.

The hike back to our vehicle is a continuous, convoluted jaunt navigating up and over seemingly endless sandstone cross joints. As those cross joints drop down to our left into the dark depths of Hard Day Harvey they create the character (including those tough right turns) that makes the canyon so challenging to descend. Just to our right are the waters of Lake Powell. At one point we stand on the edge of a cliff that drops at least a 500 sheer feet straight to the water. Though we didn’t try I wouldn’t be surprised if one could throw a rock into the water from here. We snap some photos, and look around at views in all directions. The exertion of the day and beauty of this place has left me filled with a pleasant feeling of fogginess. A motorboat passes just below us; the sound of its engine clearly audible. The hum of the boat fades away and that still beating heart of Glen Canyon is felt and heard. Such an experience to step inside and explore a few of the veins that go directly into this heart; however changed it may be.


A small world in Purgatory and Paradiso

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 10, 2013

The crew drops into Purgatory Canyon.

I am in the lead as we emerge from a dark and magnificent section of tight narrows in Paradiso Canyon (our second descent of the day). As we round a bend into the open sun I see other people clustered around the top of a drop going back into the darkness. The unexpectedness of seeing people outside our own party in this pristine and rugged wilderness is almost jarring. Then I recognize several familiar faces.

Earlier that day…

Our group of five is now six as Brian joined us late the night before. Another two canyons on the docket for today, finishing off the four that make up the Dantes’. We survived the depths of hell the day before and find ourselves in Purgatory en route to Paradiso.

Eric raps.

Purgatory Canyon, 3AIII
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


Purgatory is considerably easier than Inferno and Limbo, but still quite pleasant. To be completely honest with you, even with photos, its detail are buried in my sub-conscious. Maybe its because the challenges were comparatively subdued. Perhaps what I recall the most, the beauty of the place aside, is my growing concern that I will have any pants left for the drive home. My first pair has been decimated, rubbed to what doesn’t even resemble pants by Good Day Jim, Inferno and Limbo. My fresh second pair split laterally across a seam on the backside, on a down climb early  in this canyon. Providing fodder for laughter with my canyon partners we make our way through the narrows and interesting rappels, some with tricky starts. (Future parties, please set anchors long enough as these drops could easily be scarred with rope grooves). We emerge. Mark lays down on his belly and slurps up water from a pothole with a Life Straw. The same route as the previous to the top of the system. Third time is still a charm. A quick lunch and into Paradiso.

Mike has to get low to squeeze through a restriction.

Paradiso Canyon, 4AIII
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


True to its name Paradiso is magnificent. We journey through super tight narrows that sometimes require you off the ground and other times to the ground crawling on all fours to pass a restriction. The narrows are sustained with occasional breaks. We are having a blast inside an isolated bubble of excitement and beauty when we emerge from a tight section. Maybe our own giddiness drowned out their voices but as we round a bend without hearing them we see another group.

This is the first time I am meeting Jenny and Ram in person though I have corresponded on an off with both of them over the last several years. Jenny was a part of first descents dating back to the early 1980s, (I was literally still in diapers at the time) including some of the toughest canyons of the Colorado Plateau such as Kaleidoscope, more commonly referred to as Choprock Canyon and Poe Canyon.

I don’t think it would be a mischaracterization to say that many would consider Ram the patriarch of southern Utah canyoneering. Perhaps even more significant than his dozens (maybe hundreds of first descents) during intense 14-21 day canyoneering forays over decades, is the manner with which he has brought the canyoneering community together. Through both the digital world and the one in flesh and blood, Ram has been a foundation in this adventure sport in our corner of the world: innovating techniques, organizing trips and festivals, sharing information, commenting and leading. It was special to finally meet him and even more special to meet him  inside one of the places that he was there to discover in 2005. It’s physical appearance aside, this really is a small world.

Ram shares history with a captive audience.

Our group makes small talk with their group of seven as they negotiate a drop. Also amongst them a skinny pre-teen named Justin. He seems to be handling himself quite well. After they are all down and back into the darkness, we give them space laying on our backs in the sand, soaking in the sun. We can hear them down canyon negotiating a second obstacle. After awhile we drop down and take a peek to what is below. We find stunning beauty. Sandstone fins and waves sculpted by the artist, Father Time, with his assistants, wind and water. Nobody else is capable of such a masterpiece. Not wanting to breath down the necks of Ram’s group we don’t continue down canyon and soak it in. We can’t see them but hear them working an obstacle. For maybe 20 minutes nothing moves but our heads and necks turning to study the beauty. It is not often to just sit in such places for any kind of sustained time.

When we hear their group is through we continue on. A few tricky obstacles await including a deep pothole that has to be traversed while on rappel before the canyon opens up to the final rappel. We catch the second half of their group. More conversation. And then halfway up the exit hike we catch their group again. We casually walk together our groups intermingling, sharing stories and getting to know each other between slick rock domes. Though embarrassed before, by now I am beyond caring that my pants are split wide open. Not far from the trailhead we stop on a flat section of rock with magnificent vistas around. Maybe steered in that direction Ram begins sharing stories of some of the  scariest canyons he knows on the Colorado Plateau. Our group gathers around in a semi-circle listening intently. Some of us may hope to go to these places one day, others want them as nothing more than ghost stories. Daylight is beginning to dwindle and we return to the rim, our camp and their vehicles. Hugs are exchanged before their SUVs disappear over the horizon. We plop down on our chairs feeling pretty satisfied.


Time and space in Dante’s Inferno and Limbo

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 4, 2013

Mike climbs up the slick rock on the hike out.

Durante deli Alighieri, commonly known as Dante, was a master Italian Poet of the middle ages. His Divine Commedy is widely considered one of the greatest works of literature in human history. It is a kind of poetic and fictitous Trip Report of the most epic proportions chronicling Dante’s journey through the three realms of the afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. Like all good TR, the Divine Commedy uses the journey to examine bigger issues including religion, sin, virtue, philosophy and even science.

692 years later and half a world away from the time and place of Dante’s death, the five of us strap on our packs and venture into the complex named after the great poet. Like Dante, lets start with hell or as he called it, Inferno.

Adam (left) down climbs as Mike looks on.

Inferno Canyon, 3AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


The canyon immediately starts steep and slotty, forcing us off the ground from the get go. Eric is in the lead, I’m just behind him. I see the red light of his GoPro blinking as I make my way off the deck in a down angle trajectory to keep parallel with the canyon’s steep pitch. Knowing I’m being recorded I say “I’m trying to smile for you man.” A reader of this blog would know I’m not the biggest fan of high stemming. Yet, I can’t keep from coming back.

Before not too long I settle in. The moves required are not beyond my abilities. The exposure off the deck is mostly within the reasonable 20-25 foot zone. But make no mistake, a misjudgment of how to work your body within the walls at even this modest height could be more than trouble. Knowing this creates a focus that blurs out everything outside of my  immediate reality of time and space. This is why I keep coming back.

We hit the crux, an awkward silo. From a comfortable space for one to fit their body between the opposing walls, it flares out in a silo shape vertically, 25- feet all the way down to the canyon bottom. As you approach gravity wants to take you from the secure perch into the silo depth. I ride it until I get to the edge and with a hair raising move step over emptiness into the comfort of the other side. Reassuring words and advice from partners aside, we are all on our own. One by one we take our turn.

Moving on there is more business. Emerging from the underworld and into the sun the canyon concludes with a rappel before completely opening up.

David stems high in Limbo Canyon.

Limbo Canyon, 4AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


We navigate the slick rock rim exit. It is a route we will become quite familiar with. After a quick lunch in the only available shade we can find, we strap the body armor back on before heading into the first circle of hell, Limbo.

Limbo features a number of drops with non-existent natural anchors. Why no bolts you may be asking? Much canyoneering in the Colorado Plateau, but this area in particular, is part of a no-bolt ethic. The community at large, led by those who first descended these canyons is largely responsible for determining these practices. Maybe not everywhere, but most certainly here I subscribe to this ethic. It has taken eons to create these exquisite places. It is nice to see them in almost the same way they existed before man set foot in them.  (Bolts may not alter that forever but for a very long time). These canyons remain remarkably pristine after hundreds of descents. Besides, with inventive techniques, practices and equipment shared by the community, drops can be negotiated without bolts or viable natural anchors. It may be a little more challenging, but it is possible and a lot more fun.

We utilized it all: SandTrap anchors, meat anchors, captures and spots of our ace in the hole, Adam. In Good Day Jim we got a sense, but in the more challenging canyons of Inferno and Limbo we really got to see his skills. Like Inferno, the canyon comes to another gaping silo. Everyone on there own again. At 6’3″ I have no problems spanning the abyss to the other side. Oh yeah, really feeling it now. More business before a final rappel taking us out.

Back at camp, we settle into our comfy camp chairs taking in the awe inspiring view in the late afternoon sun while sipping cold beer. Night sets in and the air is still. Steaks sizzle on an open campfire. In Inferno, Dante passes through the gates of hell and he sees the inscription, “”Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“, or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I guess that didn’t apply here.

The first day is a Good Day Jim

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 1, 2013

Adam stemming through some pretty narrows.

Good Day Jim Canyon, 3AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


To start  a qualifier. I was less disciplined this time. As I have in the past, I did not conclude each day (of a multi-day trip) by laying on my stomach my headlamp illuminating the inside of my tent, jotting down notes, musings, details and observations of that day. Even after only two weeks I am afraid that these six exquisite canyons within those four wonderful days are already beginning to meld together. That is a shame because even though four of the six were almost a stone’s throw from each other, they possessed unique qualities and character from each other. The other two (which were only two miles as the crow flies from the four) were also spooning each other. It will take these writings to separate them. Hopefully, I find success. Or maybe it is better if I don’t. Maybe it is better if some experiences stay in my sub-subconscious; stay within this underworld that took eons  to create.

As is our modus operandi to keep a vacation day in the bank, the eight hour drive up to the Colorado Plateau is done almost entirely in the dark. We pull off the pavement. We are only 10 miles away from the north shore of Glen Canyon. It has been described by many as the heart of the Colorado Plateau. We pull off to camp for the night and I step on this earth. The canyon may have been dammed over 50 years ago but I swear I can feel that beating heart. It is going to be a good four days.

Four of us made the pilgrimage from Phoenix, but in the morning there are five tents. Adam of Grand Junction, Colorado, had been corresponding with Eric. None of us have met him. Eric said he sounded extremely competent. At the witching hour of our arrival all we see is a tent. In the morning Adam peers out. We introduce ourselves.

Eric and Adam chilling at camp after a descent of Good Day Jim.

We drive closer to Glen Canyon. Out my car window I can see the Straight Cliffs of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument rise above the sandstone madness of the Waterpocket Fold. Two places I have been before. Connecting the dots.

On this first day a warm-up with a descent of Good Day Jim. Beta suggests it could be the easiest of the lot. The canyon gets going quick. Down climbs, stemming, a few minor keeper potholes, squeezes through beautiful narrows separated by brief open sections. Far from a beginner canyon. I think to my self if this is the easiest canyon we are going to do, well, it could get interesting. The canyon continues for awhile during which time we see that our new addition, Adam, has got skills. He is going high when it is completely unnecessary for nothing more than the challenge. While I am a full body contact, bull in a china shop, he seems to effortlessly and gingerly touch his surroundings through obstacles. Either way, we are all feeling the connection to this place. The canyon ends and we achieve the rim giving us a great bird’s eye view of the complex on the hike back to the car.

Camp is moved to the head of the Dante Canyon Complex, a wind swept mesa overlooking this underworld and Lake Powell beyond. We will be spending the next two days down there. We have been warned that the winds can make this an inhospitable camp. But it is now in the low 70s and the air is barely moving. We can not pass on making this our home for the next few days. With a straight view of Navajo Mountain dominating the southern horizon I have two bars on my phone. I send Laura a text, “We have arrived. Canyon today tough but not too tough. Good day here. Love you.”

– David