Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A test in the grandest of places – Tuckup, National, Plan B & Pocket Point Canyons

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on April 25, 2016

Tuckup Canyon 08

An opportunity….

A chance to test myself physically.  Four days, over 40 miles of canyoneering, off trail backpacking and packrafting, in a remote and rugged part of the Grand Canyon. Committing to the adventure somewhat late in the game I realize a little over a month out that I need to get myself in shape. A strict regimen of trail running and climbing to the top of Camelback Mountain with a 50 pound pack follows and rather quickly I’m feeling ready. Perhaps, this is the best shape I’ve been in a long time. I know my three partners will be prepared and planning on hitting the route fast and aggressively. I don’t want them thinking that the Dad of three has gone soft and can no longer keep up. I couldn’t be more excited to put my body and mind in this massive place and see how they hold up.

Tuckup Canyon 03

Tuckup Canyon descent, 2BV and Rocky Point Canyon, 3BIV
Grand Canyon National Park
4/15/16

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On the rim final preparations are made to our packs and feet hit Earth. It won’t get any easier than this as the first few miles are on a moderate downhill grade on the Tuckup Trail, the only official trail we will be walking on until the last day when returning on the same stretch of trail. It has been nearly three years since my last adventure in this remote part of the Grand Canyon, a four day route very similar to this one. The crew is nearly the same. A few lessons have been learned from that trip that was nearly flawless in execution. We hope to repeat the speed and style. With lighter packs and a few of us with some more gray hair, we blast off the trail and into Tuckup Canyon with equally high spirits as when we embarked on that adventure. Eric, Mark and Brian had explored Tuckup Canyon and several of its tributaries on another previous trip. For me this is new ground. I am amazed that we will be descending over two thousand feet on this major canyon all the way to the Colorado River without the need to bring out ropes. It is as if rock and water have partnered over millions of years to create the perfect ramp. Maybe not that perfect as we hit several moderate down climbs upon dropping deeper into the Supai formation. We reach the Redwall limestone and quickly this layer slots up forming stunning narrows. I am giddy with excitement as I pass through a scoured and imposing hallway of vertical white walls like something out of Game of Thrones.

Mark pulls the rope as the crew moves through Rocky Point.

With time in the day and the weather somewhat holding off to its less than stellar forecast, we break out of Tuckup Canyon to gain the Redwall for a technical descent of Rocky Point Canyon, a side canyon of Tuckup. We quickly reach the top of the narrows during which time Eric comes within inches of stepping on a rattlesnake. He is shaken as he should be. A bite here would be catastrophic. As we don wetsuits and harnesses a light sprinkle patters against our helmets and creates water drops in the pool below the first rappel. The rain subsides and we go for it. Several rappels, down climbs and wades make up this short, scenic, exciting and not to challenging descent. We are quickly back in Tuckup Canyon as the rain begins again.

Beautiful light during the float.

Despite the massive reach of the Tuckup Canyon system the rain is light not leaving us overly concerned about the risk of a flash flood. However with every step we continue down canyon we increase the area of accumulated draining water forming a flash food. With every side drainage of Tuckup that we pass that area increases by potentially dozens of square miles. My eyes are most certainly scanning for benches to escape in the event of a flash flood. The rain never amounts to much and we continue to pass sublime narrows as we enter the tiered rock of the Muav limestone formation. The roar of the Colorado River is now in earshot and we reach the sprawling beach at the mouth of Tuckup Canyon. As we inflate our packrafts the rain becomes steadier. We launch into the fast moving water, our destination two miles downstream, the beach at the mouth of National Canyon. I paddle little and let the current take me as I watch the rim of the Redwall a thousand feet above, move across my gaze from right to left in a smooth and continuous motion. Rain falls on my face. Down river, clouds, late afternoon light and rain provide an ethereal quality to the canyon that few get to see and even fewer see while floating on the Colorado River in such a small watercraft. Two miles are covered quickly and we dock on National Beach. As the rain continues we debate whether to camp riverside or look for a shelf in National Canyon to hunker under and stay dry. We explore some less than stellar options and the rain subsides. We set up camp for the night on the soft sand alongside the roar of the Colorado River.

National Canyon 03

National Canyon, 2BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
4/16/16

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The following morning we wake just before sunrise. The weather seems to have moved out. We begin up National Canyon. The mouth of National is massive in size. A highway so to speak but it quickly constricts into Muav narrows even more exquisite than those in Tuckup. Spring fed flow forming small waterfalls greatly adds to the beauty. Some several tough up climbs present themselves and we are strapping our helmets on. We make our way into the Redwall limestone and continue up canyon until reaching a side drainage that we know from Todd Martin’s Grand Canyoneering book will take us to the top of the Redwall. Several tough up climbs require partner assists and chest deep water is frigid sans wetsuits. The narrows are intensely beautiful before the canyon opens up at the point where a super exposed class 3+ climb is the final obstacle to the top of the Redwall.

Mark leads the charge up a super exposed class 3+ climb to get above the Redwall out of the National system.

The several hundred foot climb looks impenetrable but as we get closer we see the route. Unfortunately, the exposure does not lessen as we approach and a fall here would certainly be fatal. My heart beats and my mind is cleared of all but the task at hand. Halfway up one of my shoe laces becomes partially untied. The verticality of the rock makes it impossible for me to bend down and tie the shoe. My concentration is now split between the necessary climbing moves and keeping that shoe on my foot. The grade lessens and the crew reconvenes on top of the Redwall. We are all breathing heavy with eyes wide open.

The exquisiteness of Plan B Canyon.

Plan B Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
4/16/16

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We have been tipped off by Grand Canyon explorer and canyoneering guru Rich Rudrow of the presence of a nearby technical canyon simply known as Plan B Canyon. Rich is responsible for a 100 first descents of technical canyons in the Grand Canyon and is also one of only a dozen or so people to have thru-hiked the entire canyon. Rich has graciously shared some of the beta for this challenging canyon. With only two known previous descents we know we must bring our A game for Plan B. The canyon is indeed challenging and has clearly seen little human presence. We replace all anchors as webbing is severely faded and breaking down for the many awkward start rappels. As we approach the final rappel, an airy 100+ foot rappel over an alcove, we notice the anchor left behind during the previous descents are two knot chocks just near the edge of the drop. The angle of the drop leaves no room for error taking the right direction on rappel and one of the knot chocks seems to come out of place with just the slightest disturbance. To make matters worse the proximity of the knot chocks to the edge makes it nearly impossible to both test it’s effectiveness and back it up with a meat anchor. We are all highly uncomfortable with this anchor. After unsuccessfully searching for nearly an hour for another anchor, we resign to having to use it. We now shift our focus to figure out a way to back the anchor up with meat, but we continue to realize how the angles of everything are going to make that highly ineffective. As we argue and explore possibilities for all but the last man back-up, I notice a deep crack about 30 feet back from the edge. It seems like it could hold webbing and become even more secure if we use smaller rocks stuffed into the crack to keep the webbing in place. Further, the angle and proximity away from the edge allows for the anchor to be tested and backed up for all but the last man. I easily make my case for the anchor and the group breaths a deep sigh of relief that we won’t have to use those terrifying knot chocks.

Plan B Canyon 05

Out of Plan B Canyon we find a suitable place for a camp near a side drainage that we will use to escape back up to above the Redwall layer in the morning. Despite losing time replacing and setting anchors in Plan B Canyon there is still much light left in the day. We spend the afternoon pumping water, snacking on rations and laughing over crude conversation. It’s still light out and I bed down right at the confluence of the tributary. Laying on my side I can look up this canyon and see three layers of rock, the Redwall limestone, Supai formation and Coconino Sandstone before me. Its thousands of vertical feet and represents hundreds of millions of years of erosion. I then turn and lay on my back and watch the blooming ocotillos 600 feet above on the edge of the Redwall swaying in the winds. A few clouds float by. I close my eyes. I am in a really good place.

National Canyon 09

Another pre-sunrise wakeup call as we know this will be the longest and toughest day of the trip. We head up the side drainage and quickly encounter a series of obstacles requiring partner assists and pack hauling. The crux obstacle necessitates a four man, three layer pyramid to reach the top; some real circus shit. We gain the top of the Redwall and begin the long slog around the National System, up to the Esplanade and over to Pocket Point Canyon. It takes more than half the day. It is exhausting and fully sun exposed, but the change of scenery from the subterranean world is welcome affording sweeping views, particularly once we gain the Esplanade.

Pocket Point Canyon 02

Pocketpoint Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
4/17/16

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Finally into Pocket Point Canyon, the heat begins rearing its ugly head as it takes a solid hour to reach the Redwall narrows, where shade and cold water swimmers were waiting. After a stunning and beautiful section of technical canyon in the Redwall, the canyon opens up for another long slog till entering a short section of Temple Butte limestone narrows ending in an alcove rappel. The canyon opens again for a short slog before an exciting rappel sequence through Muav limestone narrows dropping us onto the beach along the Colorado River. We have less than an hour of light left as rope is pulled and packrafts inflated. The last sunlight glows on the rim of the inner gorge as we launch for a short and fast moving float back to the beach at Tuckup Canyon. As we make camp, a near full moon illuminates the entire canyon, keeping some of us awake much of the night. It’s our last night of the adventure.

Tuckup Canyon 10

Tuckup Canyon ascent, 2BV
Grand Canyon National Park
4/18/16

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The final day is rather uneventful aside from the four thousand foot vertical climb from the Colorado River to the rim of the Grand Canyon. We retrace our steps back up Tuckup Canyon. Some of those down climbs with a gravity assist were a lot harder on the way up, requiring partner assists and pack hauls. Upon reaching the Tuckup Trail I am pretty exhausted with still several miles and 1,500 feet of vertical to go. The four of us space out and find our own pace. I’m pushing myself hard but not moving all that fast, feeling the accumulation of the last 76 hours. One foot in front of the other. I reach the rim. I’m ready to be done but also kind of ready for the next one; that next test in this grandest of places. Well, maybe not right now, but hopefully not three years from now either.

-David

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