Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

The formation of a group in Upper Jump Canyon

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on October 20, 2014

Cody rappels through a three ribboned waterfall.

North Fork of the Kings River, aka Upper Jump Canyon, 3CIII
Sierra National Forest


During the planning phase of the trip there had been discussion of trying to do Upper and Lower Jump Canyons in one day. For clarification it is just one canyon, the North Fork of the Kings River. The canyon is broken up into two sections: Upper Jump and Lower Jump. Upper Jump actually ends right where Lower Jump begins. Though it would most certainly be possible to complete both routes in one long and exhausting day with a small and speedy group it wasn’t for us on this trip. Logistics made sense to do things out of order and hit Upper Jump second.

Before feet touch rock, water, dust and mud, planning and scheming occurs. It is a necessity of canyoneering. Last minute additions join; injuries and exhaustion result in one less. It all creates different groups tackling different drainages. It is a beautiful part of the sport. This is the first time this exact semblance of people has ventured into narrow places.

Mike's head pops up after jumping into water.

Mike’s head pops up after jumping into water.

For me and a few others in the group this will be my last day of this California canyoneering holiday. As I romp through the somewhat unpleasant long start to this canyon I become reflective. Will this exact group ever form again? A snake stretched out on a tree branch hanging right over a pool of water we swim under jolts me out of my own head space. Shortly after this the canyon gets going. A few fun jumps, a gorgeous boulder cave, long hallway swims and some awkward rappels that could become extremely challenging if flows were considerably higher, highlight the technical section. Upper Jump falls flat compared to the down canyon route, but it is still a pleasant half day route.

The spot that began yesterday’s adventure presents itself and we are removing our harnesses and wetsuits. This group of six: Cody, Daisy, Mark, Chris, Mike and myself charge up the mountainside and back to our vehicle. We pose for a group picture, exchange hugs and handshakes and then splinter into sub-groups, heading our separate ways.


The hype is real in Lower Jump Canyon

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on October 13, 2014

Chris and Scott in beautiful light.

North Fork of the Kings River, aka Lower Jump Canyon, 3CIV
Sierra National Forest


This is the canyon. This is the one the whole trip is built around, Lower Jump Canyon. The Interweb loves it, drawing lots of attention as of late. Cali canyoneers keep raving about it. It was only a matter of time before their inland cousins in Utah, Arizona and Colorado started venturing west to check it out. A couple of our friends did just that last season and they fully concurred the hype. Schedules align and we make the 12- hour drive to check it out for ourselves.

Just as we pull out of our water parched campsite to set up the shuttle for Lower Jump so do another group of canyoneers from LA. They are also headed to Lower Jump. We follow just behind their vehicles along a paved road on the banks of the bony Kings River and into the Balch Camp, another town built for the workers running the dams to create hydroelectric power for Southern California. Mike comments how it reminds him of the movie “Chinatown” with Jack Nicholson. I add it to my to watch movie list.

Chris getting air.

After the shuttle is set and the short approach complete we suit up on the banks of the North Fork of the Kings as it is called on the maps. Just ahead of us are two separate groups of at least six people each, including our campsite neighbors. Just minutes separate each party creating the potential for a real cluster fuck. The wheels in my head are spinning to figure out a way to considerately pass these groups so we are not on top of each other during the 9- hour descent. Fortunately, the wider nature of the canyon allows us to begin sending part of our group down off of meat while sending the rest down on the natural anchor. At the next drop we all jump as the group just ahead of us are rappelling. One party is completely passed. At the following drop we again use the meat technique for everybody but myself. The other group kindly allow me to use their rope to rappel down. We are now entirely out in front. The canyon gets going and we are in it, really feeling this place. Jump after jump, true Class C rappels with the deafening sound of water colliding with plastic helmets and endless swimming ensue. Never have I swam so much in a canyon before. I would be curious as to the total distance we swim on this day, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it approaches a mile. The middle section of the canyon opens wide with a series of especially long pools. The banks of the river are chock full of thick vegetation so a slow mellow back swim under a blazing sun while taking in the granite canyon walls above is clearly the path of least resistance. Ripe blackberries hang over these pools allowing for mid-swim snacks along the way. Despite this tranquil description it is still exhausting.

Daisy in the "Rainbow Room".

A lower technical section develops giving us the opportunity and misfortune to core shot a rope between a 150 foot plus and 100 foot plus rappels with nothing but a pool and ledge separating them. We now do not have one piece of rope long enough to complete the rappel. We could tie two ropes together to reach the bottom but the knot would then not allow us to retrieve our rope. After spending ten minutes brainstorming as a group to figure out the best way to tackle the problem we come up with a solution. We tie two ropes together and then perform a rap and lower for all but the last person. Our last man at risk, Mike, then raps over the compromised section of rope which is about 30 feet above a deep pool of water. Mike reaches the bottom with the rope still intact.

More slogging, down climbs through boulder mazes in the gorgeous late afternoon light and a final jump bring us to just above a dam and powerhouse and the end of the canyon. As our top car is retrieved snacks and beers are brought out. We all have that glow and buzz from having just descended a really good canyon. Those two other groups emerge not long after us and they look the same way. No doubt Lower Jump is the real deal.