Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Too long since canyoneering on the Mogollon Rim – Immaculate Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on August 22, 2016

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Immaculate Canyon, 3BIII
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Fork of Oak Creek
08/14/16

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It has been too long since experiencing this place between narrow walls. It was October 22, 2012, in fact, when Eric and I made a beautiful autumn descent of Barney Spring Canyon. This was the last time I descended a technical canyon on the Mogollon Rim. Over 8- years ago, in these sandstone slots hidden in this 200- mile long escarpment I fell in love with canyoneering. In 2012, around the same time that I last got on rope on the Mogollon Rim, Mark and Brian made a first descent of a canyon just next door to Barney Spring Canyon. They were in fact searching for a canyon posted by canyon guru Tom Jones called “Obfuscation Canyon”. It was posted with not much more than a few dramatic photos and a “Flagstaff, Arizona” location tag. Brian should have looked up the definition of obfuscation first, but he was on the hunt for canyons in the Flagstaff area. Instead of finding what he was looking for, he found and pioneered a first descent of a canyon that might just be better. Four years later Mark was back for the first time since that first descent, and I was back for my first time in too long in this magical place.

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We begin the descent on a muggy, bug infested, Sunday morning. I am not feeling my best after a late night of too many Red Bull and vodkas while making an extended appearance at friend and fellow canyoneers, Chris Ngo’s party to christen his magnificent new pool. The party adding an hour’s drive was well worth it, but got us in late and starting the canyon a little off kilter as we negotiate thick vegetation making our way into the canyon. The dirty approach is short and the first drop comes in quick. As rope slides through my hands and device, my feet gingerly scamper down the vertical electric green moss covered walls. The magic of this place washes over me and the bugs, humidity and hangover disappear. Challenging rappel situations ensue requiring good technique to avoid sticking ropes and managing multi-pitch. “What a find!” I comment to Mark.

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The canyon relents and we make use of a recently publicized sneak exit that allows us to escape from the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon complex just minutes from the last rappel. It will save us hours and miles not having to circumvent around the entire system. The sneak is dirty and steep. Signs of the 2014 Slide Fire are everywhere with charred trees lined like burnt matchsticks overlooking the rim in all directions. It is slow going but direct and in under an hour we top out on the rim. We move through the remains of trees that stand over a carpet of green growing out of the scorched earth. The burned over area ends and we are back into the shade of the untouched Ponderosa Pines. Hello my old friends. Good to see you again. It is not that I haven’t spent time in the last four years on the Mogollon Rim or in Arizona’s massive Ponderosa Pine forest. To the contrary I have done numerous hikes and camping trips in this magical place in the last four years. For some reason it feels a little different walking under these trees after completing a canyon descent in the hidden slots below these majestic sentinels. Like I said before, it has been too long.

– David

 

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Checkerboard Canyon, a wild gem in an ever busier place

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 8, 2016

The sun comes up during the approach along Dakota Ridge.

Checkerboard Canyon, 3BIV
Zion National Park
June 2016

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First a warning. I let too much time get in the way before sitting down and writing about our late Spring descent of Checkerboard Canyon in Zion National Park, so a detailed cohesive report might be a bit lacking. Though easier than Heaps or Imlay, Checkerboard Canyon has the feel of a rugged, remote and wild canyon far removed from the hordes that descend the jeweled trade routes glimmering on the canyoneering crown of Zion National Park. If you want a detailed report you can easily find one out there but this won’t be it. Included are a few gems that cut through my memory fogged from rearing 3 children, too many hours working outdoors in the hot Arizona sun and too many after work cocktails.

Checkerboard eluded us last Fall when weather made a descent out of the question. I wasn’t going to miss it this time around, but 48 hours away from home was about all the time I had. This includes 14 hours of driving and around 12 hours for the descent itself. Driving solo and trying to make time I let my speed get the better of me and I’m pulled over east of Kanab by the Utah Highway Patrol. The trooper can not be nicer and lets me off with a warning, but not before he asks me about what are my canyoneering plans for the weekend. He tells me he has never descended Checkerboard. Needless to say my weekend could have easily gotten off on a worse foot had it been for a different cop.

Mark in more diagonal walls.

Upon arriving the rest of the crew is already established at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. It is more crowded than I’ve ever seen it.  We awake before sunrise in preparation for the long day. The dozens of other campers still sleeping. The journey begins on the long approach along Dakota Ridge. As expected we have this part of the park all to ourselves. Though only a few miles as the crow flies away from Zion Ponderosa Ranch it feels a world away from the zip-line, swimming pool, ATVs and drunk campers. Ironically, we may have been some of those drunken campers last night but on this morning we are all business as we march efficiently across Dakota Ridge.

After a several hour approach the canyon begins in dramatic fashion and never really lets up. Some rather tough down climbs, tight squeezes, diagonal walls and awkward start rappels which are far more characteristic of points Utah east than normally found in Zion, are rather common in this canyon. Cold water comes in and so do humping frogs. Narrows are sustained and the canyon ends with a unique rappel dumping us just above the confluence with the North Fork of the Virgin River.

The crew at Big Spring on the hike out in the Narrows.

Spring run-off is still a factor and we are able to body kayak down some of the deeper sections of water. The higher flows and the fact that it is late in the day are keeping the crowds out of this normally busy place. We not only have Big Spring to ourselves but don’t see a single other person until we are just upstream of Imlay Rock. Soon as we get downstream of Orderville Junction the crowds explode. It is an international sea of humanity. I have never seen this many people in the Narrows in over half a dozen visits. Though it is wonderful to see so many people from all across the world connecting with this magnificent place it also brings up notions of ‘loving your park to death’. We reach the shuttle stop to find a line of people backed up well over a 100 -yards. The word comes down the line that it will be a 45- minute wait. As we wait I think back on the contrasts of the day. It’s good to know that wild and isolated places still exist in our smaller and more popular national parks. At least for now. It’s been a 100 years. I worry what it will be in another 100. We are on the shuttle in 30- minutes.

– David