Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

The Year, Part I – The road and a terrifying descent in Behunin Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim, Utah by canyoneering on October 31, 2017

Road Grand Canyon

“We awake at first light to a truck honking its horn.  “We need to get out of here and start the drive while the roads are still frozen!” It is Brian,  “It gets sloppy just ahead!”  We grab our stuff and are off in moments.  We soon encounter the stickiest mud we’ve ever dealt with.  Stopping to try and clean off our tires is futile.  Slowly we continue, fish tailing here and there. With about 10 miles to go to the trailhead the road enters a ponderosa pine forest and things go south very quickly. It takes only minutes for my aging 4×4 Kia Sorento to get trapped into a shin deep rut in this mud.  We spend the next hour and a half rigging up tow ropes to Brian’s truck to retreat the quarter mile we had come into the pine forest. With our tails tucked between our legs we are now heading away from our long awaited canyoneering destination, Climax Canyon, but we are relieved, not to be stranded 80 miles from the nearest paved road. ” – Eric Luth


A year unfolds. Work, family, adventure. Sometimes individual events within a year bridge to each other telling a connected narrative deeper than the individual parts. So it was in 2017. The story begins above with Eric’s tale of the road. I was not there. I was 10 miles away, already three days into the adventure awaiting their arrival. As indicated they never made the rendezvous, but more on that later.  This story will also end on this same road, seven months later. That will also be coming. For now lets get back to Eric.


“The rain starts to come down again, this time a little harder.  I wait patiently just watching it go from a drizzle to a steady shower. I know the only way out is through the canyon now. Pat and I are moving quickly though a narrow hallway with towering cliffs on each side. The rest of our group of five is a little ways ahead. We soon come to a sight that even though it was my first time though this canyon, I knew didn’t belong there.  From hundreds of feet above a falling cascade of water is pouring into our canyon at an alarming rate.  I turn to Pat with a serious glare, “We need to get out of here!”  No response was needed and we fly under and through that waterfall into deeper pools, which are typically bone dry.  Not more than five minutes down canyon we catch up to the rest of the group; wide eyes all around.” – Eric Luth


Behunin Canyon, 3CIIIR (normally 3BIII)
Zion National Park


I was also not present for Eric and Pat’s terrifying moment in the hallway. I was just a few hundred yards ahead, in the front of the pack of our group of five. As I wait for the rest of the group to catch up I’m watching both rain and flows pick up in what should be a near bone dry canyon. “Why the fuck did I get myself into this situation?” I think to myself. I just want the next person in the group to join me so I can stare into their eyes and share this fear and loathing.

It hasn’t started flashing yet but it seems like that beast could be released from its cage at any moment. Just around the corner is high ground that would be just out of the grasp of even the biggest and baddest beasts of them all, but this is still deep in the narrows. Its late in the day, and the thought of an overnight bivouac seems almost as terrifying as the beast itself in these frigid temperatures. I stand on my high ground, the taste of acid in my mouth as I can’t get that thought out of my head  “What did I get myself into?”

Rim Grand Canyon

30 hours earlier – 

We arrive a half hour early to the rendezvous point on the rim of the Big Ditch deep in the wilderness. Alongside me is, Grand Canyon explorer and activist, Rich Rudow. I’ve just finished a 3 day adventure/ reporting trip (that story in Part II) with Rich as I await my companions to begin a 4 day backpacking/ canyoneering adventure. It’s as if Rich is a divorced parent about to hand off their child to their ex for the weekend, except Rich is way more patient than the analogy suggests. I’m starting to getting nervous as I watch the intense Arizona sun slowly turn the frozen dirt road to slop. An hour after the meet up time I say to Rich I don’t think they’re coming. We starting heading out in Rich’s off road capable vehicle to find them and possibly rescue them from the road.

The road is only getting worse and then after 10 miles I see the tire tracks, nearly three feet deep. It must be them, but their vehicles are no where in sight. Another hour and the road begins to improve. Then we see them, waiting, their vehicles caked in mud. Rich makes the exchange and heads his own way. Eric, Brian, Pat, Mark and I discuss an alternative adventure. Zion National Park is just a few hours away and completely on paved roads.


The following day the forecast is not good. The temperatures frigid. Our options in these conditions are extremely limited. Behunin Canyon, a relatively small drainage that is normally bone dry seems to fit the bill. With the forecast suggesting an improvement in the afternoon we get a late start. The approach begins in the rain and turns to snow as we gain elevation, but we haven’t committed ourselves, so we continue. When we get to the saddle above the drainage the precipitation relents and we drop into the drainage. Along the way a massive tree branch falls just feet away from from Mark. Had he been any closer it could have been a lethal strike. Perhaps, a bad omen for the day, but we haven’t committed ourselves, so we continue. When we get down to the drainage it is lightly flowing but the rain and snow have stopped, so we continue. We get to the first rappel, the point of commitment. The rain has not returned as the weather forecast indicated it might do. We continue. An hour later I’m waiting deep down inside dark narrows for both my friends to catch up and the flash flood to begin. 


Once the group joins me on my island of high ground; a mound of sand and dirt covered in trees 20 feet above the canyon floor. Eric and Pat seem especially concerned. Perhaps they saw something the rest of us didn’t. Despite the concern we stay calm and rationally discuss our options. We determine that in these temperatures an overnight bivouac is only a last resort. However, if we are going to make it out before dark then we can’t wait around too much longer.  Unfortunately, for now waiting is our only option to determine if the beast will in fact rear its ugly head. After 15 minutes, the rain settles a little, the canyon still has not flashed and maybe the flows have even subsided just ever so slightly. We have a quick conversation and decide to continue down canyon placing ourselves back in the risk of a flash, but moving closer to our ultimate safety. We are making good time in the obstacles until the final rappel sequence, a two stager right in the flow that will spit us out of this nightmare. I’m the first to go on the first rappel and the last to go on the final rappel. During this time I’m observing the water get bigger and bigger as night is creeping in. Still the beast is a no show and after nearly an hour of dealing with this final sequence we are all out of harms way with less than 20 minutes of light to spare. With this adventure in the rear view mirror I would be lying if I didn’t say I was experiencing an incredible feeling of euphoria and vitality that one doesn’t feel often in this life. Having said that I know that the descent itself was one of irresponsibility and we probably got away with one.

In Part II, an adventure of more responsibility and shining light on darkness.