Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Deep in the Big Ditch Day 3 – Olo Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 29, 2013

Cody in the Temple Butte in Olo Canyon.

“What is that noise,” I wonder half  asleep. I begin to wake to full consciousness as the sound of a large animal walking on rocks gets louder. It takes me a few seconds to remember my surroundings and then I realize it is the resident wild burros that call this remote part of the Grand Canyon National Park home. I yell “Go Away.” It gallops away. I try to fall back to sleep to no avail.

We wake around sunrise, quickly break camp and continue to use the burro trail around another arm of the Matkat/ Panameta system. The mornings objective is to reach the Esplanade, the giant terrace above the Supai sandstone formation that spans much of the length of the Grand Canyon. It is several thousand feet above. After gaining the Esplanade we will drop into the next side canyon system to the East, Olo Canyon. In order to break through the fortress of cliff bands to the Esplanade we use the Sinyala Fault, a deep fracture that extends in a northeasterly direction over 17 miles. The fault makes passage possible but we are still forced to haul packs over spicy climbs to gain the sandstone terrace.

Eric raps down the 100- foot drop into the Redwall narrows into Olo Canyon.

Olo Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/03/13

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We stay with the fault down to the rim of the Redwall of the Olo Canyon system and around into the main fork. A large drop is our ticket from the sun baked world above to the cool shadows of the bottom of the Redwall Narrows. Excited to get down there we all want to be the next to rappel. It is finally my turn. The drop is a 100- feet, almost completely free hanging. The rope is a skinny, 8.0 mm. Our packs heavy, probably still close to 45 pounds, even after eating several days worth of rations. It is a formula for a fast rappel that if not rigged for enough friction can get away from you. A third of the way down I think to myself, “That leg loop was not enough, should have gone full z-rig.”  I find myself death gripping the rope with two hands like I never have before. I shout down to Brian below to give the rope a little tug to take a little pressure off my cramping hands. Maybe 30 seconds later and a few spins, ahhh, terra firma.

Eric, Mark and Cody traverse a ledge in the Temple Butte narrows.

The Redwall narrows end quickly. We rock hop in and out of the sun until we reach the Temple Butte Narrows and some fun ledge traverses over emerald green pools of fresh water. The canyon again widens and we find ourselves between a pair of California Condors. As we stop to observe the endangered species, the pair spread their massive near 10- foot wing spans like two sentinels of the canyon. With the naked eye we can see they are tagged. After investigating the photos we identify them as J3 and 49.

California Condor A9 in Olo.

Moving on we enter the spring fed Muav Narrows and its tricky down climb, several awkward rappels and a final sequence of a down climb into a tough traverse to stay dry to the final 45- foot drop to the beach along the Colorado River below. It took considerable time to find a suitable anchor. Mark eventually located an old climber’s piton hidden in a crack and we used that in combination with a nearby knot chock that Brian made as a back-up.

 Camp is set on the beach. We can hear a lovely combination of the trickle of water flowing down the final drop of Olo Canyon into the shallow beach pool and the roar of the Colorado only 100- feet away.  It is now apparent that our aggressive pace is going to allow us to finish the trip a full day early. With that we spend our evening gorging on extra rations. Excited for the float along the river in the morning I inflate my packraft as a plastic spork sticking out of a container of peanut butter is passed around like a bottle of whiskey.

-David

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Deep in the Big Ditch Day 2 – Matkatamiba & Panameta Canyons

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 20, 2013

Cody and Eric hike along the rim above Matkat.

There is something very special about waking and then going to bed in remote wilderness. This was going to be one of those days. The former concluded with what was for me an unusual night of wonderfully restful sleep that I almost never experience anywhere but my bed at home. My queen size pillow top replaced by a beach along the Colorado River. The fine sand making an excellent mattress. The sounds of 8000 cubic feet feet per second provided the perfect amount of white noise. Its still dark when we wake. We have a monster day ahead of us, multiple canyons and terrain to cover. We expect to finish after dark.

Cody and Eric hike back into Matkatamiba Canyon from the Colorado River.

Matkatamiba Canyon, 2BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/02/13

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Just upstream of camp lies Matkatamiba Canyon. Shelf walking a few hundred feet above the river to get to Matkat starts the day. We drop into the canyon bottom a short distance above the confluence of the Colorado River. Our journey will take us up into the upper reaches of Matkat Canyon and to the rim above and then down several other adjacent canyons. For now we drop our packs and explore the exquisite striated Muav Limestone Narrows down to the Colorado. A spring feeds a steady flow of crystal clear water through the narrows. With no packs and the horizontal layers of stepped rock to play with, we use fancy footwork and partner assist climbing moves to keep our feet dry. The quick jaunt down to the river also affords us the opportunity to survey Matkat Rapid to determine if we we will want to run it in our pack rafts later in the trip. We unanimously decide that a portage will be prudent. As we head back up to our packs atop the narrows we no longer try to stay dry. With the hogs once again on the back we venture up-canyon making forward progress. The terrain allows for relatively straight forward hiking with several boulder problems, one of which requires partner assists. The scenery impressive and the pace aggressive.

As we emerge from the shadows of Matkat out to the rim above, the midday sun is there to greet us. Its definitely hot but not the scorcher we feared. Through the rugged desert terrain above the Matkat system we make use of relatively well worn trails created by the resident feral burros. The burros are descendants of jacks and jennies dating back over a century that belonged to miners who used them to pack out copper, lead and asbestos. Though the trails are welcomed and save us a lot of time, the burros have wreaked havoc on the natural environment cutting an abundance of deep trails, causing erosion, over eating native grasses and pushing around the bighorn sheep. After not too long we see some of the local trail builders who range in color from brown to blonde.

Mark takes in Panameta Canyon.

Panameta Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/02/13

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We hike around to the head of a major branch of the Matkat system where we drop our camping and other nonessential canyoneering gear as we stage for a technical descent of Panameta Canyon which eventually drains back into the main branch of Matkat. The canyon gets going right away cutting right into the Redwall Limestone. The pools immediately cool me off and before not too long move me just south of comfortable during several swims with nothing but a shorty wetsuit for insulation. (A full body would have been more appropriate but with the high temps I decided I could suck it up to save a little weight in my pack.) We keep moving at a steady pace through the exquisite polished white walls and its continuous obstacles. I don’t really have the opportunity to approach the shivers or early stage hypothermia beyond that.

Once below the Red Wall the canyon widens and we rock hop to the confluence of Matkat. We retrace our steps back up Matkatamiba and around to where we cached our gear. Taking advantage of the magic light that comes at the end of the day I fall behind taking photos in solitude of this seldom seen wilderness. Reaching camp just before sunset after a 13+ hour day we are feeling tired yet well positioned to continue the journey successfully. Tomorrow will be another day of waking and going to bed in the wilderness.

-David

Deep in the Big Ditch Day 1 – Down 150-Mile Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 12, 2013

Cody wades a pool in the gorgeous Redwall.

Often the most interesting stories of adventure are those that contain a little bit of misadventure. A tale of a true epic will really catch people’s attention. This post and the three that will proceed chronicling a four day backpacking and canyoneering journey through a remote section of the Grand Canyon is NOT one of those stories. Our team of five worked together like a well oiled machine, flawlessly tackling a wide array of challenges. I can’t think of a single mishap to report to add a little spice to the tale.

A week before the start it didn’t look like it was going to go so well. At one point the forecast said temperatures could reach triple digit highs in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. With 45- pound packs, tackling three thousand foot climbs, on rugged and uneven off trail terrain, exposed to the full fury of the desert sun, you could say we all had some serious concerns. The dozens of emails exchanged on a private thread would attest to this. Never-the-less, as we took the first steps away from our vehicles and into this massive expanse of wilderness we were filled with excitement and good spirits. Others who had been here before had said that some of the most magnificent side slots of the “Big Ditch” were in store for us. The forecast had improved somewhat. We were in shape. The utmost attention had been paid to packing efficiently. We had been well advised by those who knew this route better than anyone else. We were ready.

Mark hikes on the Tuckup Route to get into 150-Mile Canyon.

150-Mile Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/01/13

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Hiking the Grand Canyon is a lesson in geology. This geology is all about layers. Off trail hiking and canyoneering allows you to slowly descend through these layers en route to the Colorado River.  The nature of canyoneering in particular forces you to become intimate with the rock; being surrounded by it, touching it, sliding on it, evaluating it and gazing at it. The more time you spend in these side canyons the more familiar you become with this geology.

The hike begins on the eastern terminus of the Tuckup Route which quickly takes us through the Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap formation and Coconino Sandstone to the canyon bottom of upper 150- Mile Canyon. Here is a link that shows and explains the layers of the Grand Canyon that can be used as a reference. It should also be noted that this canyon’s name comes from the distance in river miles to Lees Ferry, the starting point for rafters on their journey through the Grand Canyon. With so many side canyons cartographers did not get creative in the naming of all of them. Despite its clinical name, 150- Mile Canyon is anything but ordinary. After a few hours of wash walking through the Supai Formation we reach the Redwall Limestone where the canyon drops down into a narrow slot. Rapping in we are surrounded by beautifully polished white walls. Stained from the red Supai Sandstone above, much of the Redwall Limestone ranges in hue from light pink to amber to scarlet red. The sun filters through the bends of these narrow walls forcing the light to constantly shift in color and quality.

 150-Mile Canyon is not just our route to the Colorado River but will also serve as our means to get out of the bottom of the Big Ditch. On the return trip some of the drops we will be able to bypass by hiking or climbing up shelves above the bottom of the slot, but others we will be forced to ascend rope. Instead of leaving a rope at each of these five drops, lighter parachute cord is left behind. We will then have the ability to fasten our heavier rope to the parachute cord which we will use to pull the rope in place so we can ascend the drops. Thanks to Todd Martin and Rich Rudow for sharing this technique..

A rafter tackles Upset Rapid in the Colorado River.

150- Mile Canyon does not drop elevation quickly. Therefore it takes a long time get below the Redwall Limestone, thus the Redwall Limestone narrows are unusually long and sustained. Eventually we reach the Muav Limestone and its horizontal layering forming pronounced striations. Not as thick as the Redwall Limestone we quickly reach the Colorado River at Upset Rapid just as several rafters tackle the rapid rated at “8” on the 1-10 Colorado River scale.  We hoot and holler as they slam into the massive white waves.

The journey continues on the opposite side of the Colorado River where we will explore three more side canyons. First, we have to cross the mighty river. From Upset Rapid we beach walk, which really means clambering over boulders on sandy sloped terrain along the river to a point where we can cross the river in our pack rafts to a beach on the other side. This will in turn provide a break to a shelf above the river. From here a short, but strenuous walk along the off-camber  shelf above a cliff that drops sheerly several hundred feet into the river, brings us to a break where we can climb down to a flat beach known as the “Matkat Hotel”. Aptly named, the beach serves as our camp for the night and staging area for the next day when we will head up the nearby side canyon of Matkatamiba.

-David