Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

‘Consumed by Wilderness’ in the South Fork of Alder Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on March 11, 2014

The crew (from left, Chris, Brian, Cody and David.

South Fork of Alder Canyon, 3B/CIV
Mazatzal Wilderness Area


It is 4:30 AM as I type these first words. I was just woken from my phone ringing on my nightstand. I looked at who the call was from; a subject from a documentary project I am working on the Navajo reservation. Despite the hour, I had been waiting for his call for a few days so I answered. He could tell I sounded tired. “Oh shoot man I forgot you guys are an hour behind.” For the vast majority of the country the clocks had just changed for daylight savings time. Arizona does not observe daylight savings time, except on the Navajo Nation. So where Milton was calling from it was a much more reasonable 5:15 AM. Sheep herders, they start early.

Truth is I had been tossing and turning all night. No reason really, just one of those nights. I actually had just gone back to bed after spending an hour reading Craig Childs’ “Soul of Nowhere.” As I was slowly slipping back into sleep before my ringtone jolted me up permanently, I kept thinking back on a passage in his book. In it Childs describes how ever since he was young he dreamed of being completely consumed by wilderness. “As a child I often imagined jumping from an airplane with a parachute, aiming for the most delirious-looking place, an area that would swallow me.” He continues, “I stared at the plaster-textured ceiling of my bedroom and imagined the cluttered little shapes to be mountains wall to wall, thousands of miles of wilderness, and me on my way in, floating in my bed as I fell.” And this is the line that really stuck with me, “I somehow knew as a child that within isolation and ruggedness was a way of accessing the unexpected from the world.”

And so it was on a recent adventure through a little explored canyon in the Mazaztal Wilderness Area. Brian and I had discussed a descent of this canyon for years. We knew of only one previous descent and had little information. But with just three days left in 2013, schedules lined up and the right group of strong hikers coalesced. We were dirt bagging it the night before at the trailhead to get a pre-sunrise start on a day that we anticipated could be up to 14- hours.

Chris hikes on the approach.

It’s very dark. No moon and cold. We start hiking briskly, almost immediately up into these rugged mountains. Breath is visible but within minutes coldness is a thing of the past. Light behind the Sierra Anchas begins slowly but picks up speed. Headlamps go away and we are making progress. The sun is up now.  A few hours later we leave the trail and pick our way through a mix of small pines and chaparral on a steep slope. We gain the crest and head into a bowl blanketed in snow. This area was untouched by the Willow Fire of 2004 that devastated much of the area leaving behind a Ponderosa Pine forest I have never before seen in these mountains. The snow gets deeper. We posthole to above our ankles as we head towards the upper reaches of the South Fork of Alder Creek. Direct sun is hidden and still covered in sweat from the 3500 foot climb we are chilled to the bone as our feet crunch into the crusty snow. We cross the creek and head for sunlight in the south facing walls. As we slip into our wetsuits and fashion our harnesses we survey the canyon below. The walls are covered in deep snow. The creek is flowing under a thick crust of translucent ice. It looks cold and treacherous.

Drops present themselves. We examine. The ice looks precarious and fragile with large open holes to the churning water below. At this point the canyon has not completely closed in allowing us to bypass along the steep snow covered walls adjacent to the drainage proper. Not exactly providing warm fuzzies of safe passage, but the lesser of two evils. Nearly every step requires both hands to be thrusted into the snow. With nothing but thin garden gloves to protect my hands from rock and vegetation my hands quickly go numb, but not that numb that I don’t distinctly feel my palm as it is pierced by the end of an Agave plant hidden beneath the snow.

We continue to avoid the drops in the main watercourse. Brian coins it “bypassaneering”. The canyon levels. The snow and ice subside and we begin to wonder if this canyon will be a dud, as least as far as a technical descent is concerned. Either way I am still surrounded by seldom seen wilderness. Ultimately that is what I came for. We trudge on for awhile. We are presented with an uneventful 100- foot drop. Bypassaneering is not an option this time. Further down another more interesting drop. And then an unexpected sequence of two rappels, a swim and another rappel, all through exquisite geology. More trudging until we hit the confluence with the North Fork of Alder. We look upstream to another potential route. There is a major drop, although it does look like it can be bypassed. I am almost certain this is the mysterious drainage I descended when I got lost in 2007.

A long slog and we are out. Back to our vehicles well before darkness sets in. Despite finishing hours under the time we anticipated it was still a tremendous amount of work for little technical canyon (although parts of this technical canyon were among the most magnificent in the range). Back to Craig Childs in “Soul of Nowhere”, “It wasn’t heroism or glory that I hoped to find in these  places. Rather , it was the odor of rain, it was encountering an animal alone in heavy woods, or the moment in trackless country when I realize that I am utterly lost and suddenly there is no separation between me and the ground beneath me.” On this day I had this in full.

– David