Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

The desert all to myself in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 28, 2014
A selfie in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

A selfie in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon, 3AII
North Wash
03/24/14

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We pull into the Sandthrax campsite just coming back from our descent of Woodchuck and Woody Canyon. As we come around the bend to our cluster of tents I scan for Mike, Cody and Eric. I am hoping they are back and celebrating from their descent of Sandthrax Canyon, an X-rated high stemmer that many say has one of the hardest crux’s of the Colorado Plateau. They are not there. Though we are hoping they would be back we are not alarmed. Brian and I discuss a plan of when we should start looking for them from the rim, with 2- 200 foot ropes in hand in the event we have to send them down a life line. We are still hours away from enacting such a scenario, giving me just enough time for a solo run of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon just above our camp. In 2010 I descended the East and Middle Forks of Leprechaun canyon and am excited to complete the series. Mark, Brian and Chris have no interest in  joining me, which means I’m going solo and is what I was hoping for. Solitude in the desert for a few hours is just what I’m looking for.

Looking down into the upper reaches of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

Looking down into the upper reaches of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

I move quickly on the approach, wanting to return to camp as soon as possible in the event that assistance will be needed for the Sandthrax crew. In little time I’m rigging the first rappel and am in the dark underworld. The solitude and silence is intoxicating. I continue to move quickly, carefully and deliberately, down climbing, stemming and rappelling here and there. I join the main fork of Leprechaun and can hear voices ahead. My private world is no more. I pursue the voices. I reach a section of canyon that I remember from my middle Lep descent in 2010 where boulders fill the canyon bottom. A small tunnel below the boulders allows passage on hands and knees. As I pop out of the rabbit hole of this tunnel I catch those voices. I say “hello.” In the dim light one of the canyoneers recognizes me from this blog. We have even corresponded some via email about canyons and such. Canyoneering is a small world made even smaller by its corresponding virtual world. The woman with him is on her first canyoneering descent ever. She has an ear to ear smile. It is nice to see. We talk for awhile and then I move ahead. In a short time I’m rounding the bend and heading into our camp. From a distance I can see the Sandthrax crew. No rescue required today. There will be plenty to celebrate tonight. It’s going to get loud. It was nice to have the quiet and this desert all to myself even if for just an hour or so.

-David

 

No such thing as silence in Woodchuck & Woody Canyons

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 23, 2014

Chris, Brian and Mark cross the first pool in Woodchuck Canyon.

Woke early on day three and the weather has shifted. The Henrys are shrouded in clouds. The winds pick up. With it sand becomes airborne and is thrown everywhere. Not ideal conditions for canyoneering. Especially not on this day with part of our group planning a descent of Sandthrax, an X-rated high stemmer that many say has one of the hardest crux’s of the Colorado Plateau. Sandthrax is not for me but more on that coming in a post soon. With the inclement weather we scurry around, getting stuff together, watching for the clouds to clear and debating whether to re-think plans. The clouds open a little revealing the mountaintops. We give ourselves a green light, say good luck to our Sandthrax friends without really knowing if they are planning on making a run.

Mark rappels out of the narrows of Woodchuck Canyon as Chris looks on.

Woodchuck Canyon, 3BI
North Wash area (side drainage of Woodruff Canyon)
3/23/14

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As we set up this short shuttle I realize in the chaos of the sandblasted morning I have forgotten my helmet at camp. A careless mistake. Not willing to skip the descent and wait in the car for the others I venture into this sandstone without it. We quickly drop into Woodchuck Canyon, encounter a half dozen or so Valentine’s Day mylar balloons tangled in a prickly pear. I stuff them in my pack knowing I need good karma with no helmet. The canyon slots up. Some fun stemming and down climbing to warm us up on this still raw day. Then a pool. I go in first without a wetsuit. Only waist deep but Im cold again. More stemming and down climbs. Warm. Another wader. Cold. Repeat a few times and then we are spit out via a pretty rappel into the vegetated alcove below. Woodchuck providing a short but sweet appetizer to the main fare of Woody Canyon, where we are heading now.

Chris gets a hand from Brian out of a keeper.

Woody Canyon, 4BIIR
North Wash area (side drainage of Woodruff Canyon)
3/23/14

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More Valentines Day balloons are stuffed into my pack as we stroll up Woodruff Canyon. No doubt they got separated from the rest of the cluster a mile away above Woodchuck. We criss cross the slight flow picking our way through the path of least resistance through the vegetation. A short ways and then up into the domes to gain Woody Canyon. The sun is out in full force as we face the first problem, a last man at risk, partner assist. I provide the meat anchor and then Chris, Brian and Mark provide a capture as I down climb the obstacle. The team work continues from there. I think of Mike, Cody and Eric who are almost certainly off the deck in Sandthrax. They are a team of three and teamwork will come into play somewhat, but so much of their day will be silence, each of them alone on an island, up to 50- feet in the air for hours.  A dozen miles away as the crow flies, the wetsuits come on and we are deep in Woody Canyon, working half full keepers. No such thing as silence here. Communication a must as we problem solve and scheme our way past the obstacles. Alone on a deserted island could not be further from our experience as we crawl over, push and grab each other as a means to follow the path of water, if there were more of it. The four of us are isolated in a single bubble of reality. This is my favorite type of canyoneering. I want it to continue. But it ends too soon. Back in Woodruff canyon we move a herd of cattle over a mile up the now sandy wash, picking up a few more Valentine’s Day balloons. As we ride in the back of Brian’s pick-up to complete the car shuttle I am planning for a quick solo descent of a slot nearby camp. There is still ample light left in the day. I’ll just be sure to grab my helmet before heading out.

-David

Toxic, no. Fun, yes in Constrychnine & Slideanide Canyons

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 17, 2014

Brian raps into Constrychnine.

With more arrivals the previous night our group swells to nine. Today we split into separate groups. One party heads to the skinnies of Shenanigans and Middle Leprechaun, while the rest of us venture to the nearby steep and deep slots in the Poison Springs complex. I know little of these canyons, never before having set foot in these tributaries and barely exploring them online. I’m a blank canvas, with little to no expectations or pre-conceived ideas shaped from someone else’s TR and photos. Regardless, I know they will not disappoint. We are joined by Brian who drove in the previous night from nearby southwestern Colorado. Brian’s been through here before. He recommends we start with Constrychnine, so that’s where we go.

Brian raps in Constrychnine.

Constrychnine Canyon, 3AIIIR
North Wash area
3/22/14

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We walk across sandy hills and washes with no indication that we are so close to the edge of a major canyon system. Abruptly the canyon reveals itself plummeting intensely to its dark bowels between massive tapered walls. It’s scale and steepness is intimidating. We know this is where we are headed and the terrain tickles the nerves as we work our way around to a branch of Constrychnine. We are quickly met with a large rappel. I drop in first, followed by the others. This is followed by an even larger rappel that brings us properly into the tantalizing world below. Deep within this dark chamber are more magnificent rappels, sprinkled with fun and moderately challenging down climbs. Time vanishes in this underworld and we are spit out back into the light. Its name and intimidating first impression aside, Constrychnine is rather benign. The hike back to the rim is direct, exciting and quick while offering outstanding views of the Poison Springs complex at large.

Brian down climbs in Slideanide Canyon.

Slideanide Canyon, 3AIIIR
North Wash area
3/22/14

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The entry rappel is behind us and we encounter the first elevator down climb. I place my body into position and find the right amount of friction from some combination of hands, feet, forearms, elbows and knees and let gravity do the rest. This is almost immediately followed by a similar obstacle. They keep coming, some approaching nearly a 100- feet. Despite their intimidating profile they are negotiated with just a little difficulty here and there. The key is to have confidence in the technique. I think of Mark or who we fondly refer to as Uncle Mark, who by now is squeezing his way through somewhere in either nearby Shennanigans or Middle Lep. He would love this place. You can often hear him shout out to whomever is in front of him while descending a canyon, “Is it an elevator down climb? I love elevator down climbs!” as if in Mark’s mind the person in the lead has some control over the obstacles we encounter. In Slideanide it most certainly would be an elevator down climb. I think eventually Mark would stop asking because he would know. This canyon is his wet dream and I was thoroughly enjoying it too. Anchors are passed over and we down climb nearly everything. We reduce the final sequence to the shortest rappel possible before we are forced to draw out the rope.  We pop out to the relative open world of a canyon maybe 30- feet wide. We take a breather having moved rather aggressively during the entire descent and I place my hands on my derriere. I am amazed to feel an intact seat to my pants. I am, notorious for destroying pants while canyoneering and Slideanide is notorious for shredding seats even for the best of them. I am proud. I’ll be sure to let the others know around the fire. We move out and head back to camp; the toxicity of this place not amounting to much.

-David

Traditions becoming rituals & a Hogfest on Day 1

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 10, 2014

David works his way up a 5th class section to get out of the canyon bottom en route to Hog 2.

When does a tradition practiced year after year becoming a ritual experience? I certainly don’t have the answer and even as I type these words I’m not even sure I fully understand the question I pose, but it does bring up some ideas I wish to express. Our annual Spring canyoneering trip in Southern Utah has mostly certainly become a tradition. The question is through all that is within this tradition, all the sandstone beauty, comfort level pushing, sideways shuffling, abraded elbows, sand everywhere, drunken campfires, indulgent meals, loud conversing, ball busting, constant laughter and the feeling of aaahhhh, is there something more going on? Something even more meaningful?

Mark, (from left) Chris, Mike and Eric hike to the Hog Canyon system.

Hog 1, aka Boss Hog, 3AIIIR
North Wash
3/20/14

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Day one begins with the Hog Canyons. There are four of them, Hogs 1, 2, 3 & 4, all adjacent to each other, meeting into one larger drainage at the bottom of these short, tight and intense slot sections above. Descending all four of them in a day is possible but requires an early start and good time management. We would see how much of it we could bite off but we aren’t exactly getting an early start. As one might expect we begin with Hog 1, aka Boss Hog. Named after the corrupt county commissioner, from the “Dukes of Hazard”, the first of the Hogs is far from an easy canyon and just like dealing with Jefferson Davis can get you into trouble, the other Boss Hog can also prove to upend the unprepared and unexpected. After ever present difficult down climbs and sideways shuffling and a sustained section of high stemming, we reach the end of the technical section with nothing more than a few sandstone scrapes on the elbows.

Eric rappels as Chris and David look on.

Hog 2,  3AIII
North Wash
3/20/14

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After a quick break at the confluence of Hogs 1 & 2 and caching some water, we escape to the sandstone world above via a tough 5th class slab with spotty holds. Others say it goes as high as 5.7. A short but strenuous hike surrounded by Hog slots on both sides and we drop into the top of Hog 2. Boss Hog’s sister to the East has a definite mellower vibe and seems to feature more of an emphasis on rappels versus stemming and down climbing. The canyon does however, end on a challenging down climb into a dark hallway, where Chris lands awkwardly and injures his knee. Fortunately, he is able to walk with a fair amount of discomfort, but his day of canyoneering is over. Mike volunteers to accompany Chris as they walk down the main Hog drainage to the Hog Springs Recreation Area parking lot, easier than climbing back up to our vehicle above the system. Eric, Mark and I repeat the 5th class slab back to the head of Hog 3, aka Razorback.

Eric going high in Hog 3.

Hog 3, aka Razorback, 3AIIIR
North Wash
3/20/14

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Before we drop into Razorback from a high vantage point I can look straight down the pike and see its confluence with the main Hog drainage. Clearly wind and water carved this slot in a nearly straight fashion. As I process this visual information I realize what this canyon will lack in duration it will make up for in intensity. Razorback also has the reputation for being the most challenging of the Hogs. During the planning of the trip at large it was the canyon I was most apprehensive of. On any given day you never know how you are going to respond to the challenges, particularly the down climb/ high stemming heavy canyons of Southern Utah. Some days you feel good. Other days, well… By the start of Hog 3 I know I am feeling good. The climbs and moves are all well within my ability. I am in tune with the rock and not getting bogged down in my own headspace, just reacting and feeling. Speaking of the devil, my back is feeling those textured rocks embedded in the walls that gives the canyon its namesake. Nevertheless connecting to the landscape and the challenges it poses, the canyon is over very quickly and we are fighting our way through the reeds of the main Hog Drainage before climbing  back up the fifth class one more time. Hog Four, aka Miss Piggy will have to wait for another day. Still a real Hogfest.

Eric and Mark work their way through the reeds in the main Hog drainage after completing Hog 3.

It is late in the afternoon by the the time we reach our vehicle. The Henries look beautiful in this light. My first pair of pants are already blown out, a few abrasions dot my the arms and sand already has invaded every crevice of my body. I’m buzzing from three wonderfully challenging and beautiful canyons just completed. I know the first night will be a wild one. Loud, probably. Delicious food and lots of drink, a certainty. It is such an aaahhhh moment that it is totally spiritual. A ritual? I don’t know, but I’ve felt this before and I know the series of actions to get back there.

– David