Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Into the vastness: Kanab Creek

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on December 26, 2016

Pat looks on while taking a breather as he gets closer to the rim.

It’s been two months since I finally sit down to chronicle this trip. Much has happened since then. A presidential election shocked almost everybody, leaving those both in support and opposed to the President elect, unsure of what to expect. Through the uncertainty, the holiday front moved in, along with cooler weather. Throw on top of that relentless work and the obligations and joys of parenthood and those brisk details of this most recent adventure have fogged. One experience from this trip, however, stays well solidified in my consciousness and that is the notion of vastness. Though far from the first time participating in a multi-day adventure exploring the enormity that is the Grand Canyon, this trip really seemed to showcase that epic and stretched out land at an unparalleled level. Even before our soles touched this Earth it was big. On the drive to the rim, pavement over 30 miles back, we could sense the expanse in the darkness. The road ends on the edge of the rim, nothing but air in front of us. As we roll out our sleeping bags we wonder where the New Mexico and Colorado contingent of our crew are. We were supposed to rendezvous nearly 20 miles ago. They were not at the designated spot. Too much space and darkness to find them so we drove till we could drive no further, hoping they would do the same. I close my eyes looking forward to seeing what I already feel about this space and hoping the rest of the crew shows.

Morning light illuminates the sprawling Kanab Creek system.

First light and a fresh pair of daily use contacts do indeed illuminate the hugeness of this place. Just 30 feet away the world drops into a sprawling complex; a massive multi-tiered canyon stretching for many miles in multiple directions. It is a canyon of epic scale, but it is also nothing more than a single side canyon; one of hundreds of adjoining drainages of the main corridor of the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon. It may be only a side canyon, but it is one of the Grand’s biggest. It is Kanab Creek. A side canyon so big that it has several dozen of it’s own side drainages. Kanab Creek is so extensive in its own right that we can not even see the inner corridor of the Grand Canyon from our current perch. All we see is the Kanab Creek system. Before I have time to really take in the view I can hear a vehicle approaching and within minutes our Colorado and New Mexico contingent arrive. Final packing is completed and we hit the trail to see what is lurking down below in this massive place.

Approaching the massive 350- foot two stage drop to get on top of the Redwall in Kanab Zero.

Kanab Zero, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
10/28/16

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A game of chutes and ladders begins and we try to find a way past several cliff bands to get to the layer that will grant us passage to our side canyon du jour, Kanab Zero. Undulating up and down we slowly traverse further and further away from Kanab Zero. We eventually give up on a walk down past the Coconino cliff band and break out the rope to set up a rappel. Once down to the Esplanade we work our way back to “Zero” and finally into it’s clutches. We approach the edge of the Supai, a last dance with vastness before dropping into the labyrinth of the Kanab Creek system. What ensues is a sphincter puckering 400- foot, two stage rappel. Shortly after hitting terra firma the Redwall closes in and the real fun begins.

Brian working the Redwall narrows in Kanab Zero.

Rope and rappels, pools and swims, rain and sun, all within a world of polished white rock intermittently stained iron red. The scale of the place that we are deep within is becoming a distant memory as these walls are narrow and the views reveal only the beauty right before us. Eventually everything before the here and now fades away as the canyon’s aggressive technical characteristics keep us locked into the current moment and space. “Zero” is rather insignificant on the map; a short stretch before hitting Kanab Creek proper, but in this place distance and time don’t correlate. It’s consecutive rappels, almost all of which are of considerable height are eating up much of the day. Eventually we hear the sounds of  Kanab Creek in the distance. A final drop brings our soles into the flowing water as dusk approaches. A short jaunt downstream and we set up camp on a creekside limestone bench.

Chris is silhouetted on rappel in Whispering Falls Canyon.

Whispering Falls Canyon, (sneak route) 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
10/29/16

Another side canyon of Kanab Creek lurks just around a bend. To descend it we must first gain a level and traverse around to where we can drop in above these technical highlights. This route requires ascending a gully of rotten rock before traversing a narrow and exposed bench 500 feet off the desk. It is sketchy and exciting and then once in Whispering Falls canyon, the kosher fun can begin. Several obstacles present themselves but this half day adventure is all about the final crux rappel, a beauty of a drop down a spring fed chute which whispers “you are here,” over and over again in hushed tones. The whispering waterfall transitions into an exquisite hallway followed by a pool of turquoise water. Not long after and we are back to Kanab Creek and the long haul upstream through massive boulders, a prickly pear forest and numerous pools; a true slogfest through Water and Earth. The soles of Eric’s shoes become a casualty of the conditions and we are many steps into this place. By the time we hit the confluence with Scotty’s Hollow Eric has figured out to work his disabled shoes.

Eric gets a hand on an up climb obstacle during the Scotty's Hollow ascent.

Scotty’s Hollow, (ascent) 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
10/29/16

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In just over 30 hours we have seen and experienced a tremendous landscape both from above and within. We have worked our bodies hard to do so. Now to get out of this place we must push them harder. We quickly realize our ticket out of here will reveal a space of unique and unparalleled beauty, but the up-climb obstacles will require skin, athleticism and teamwork. They are numerous and they seem to get ever more challenging the further up we climb. The walls close in as the water flows down, the combination making the obstacles ever more challenging. I monitor the rim of the Redwall to watch it get lower the higher we climb, 300 feet, 200 feet, actually it might only be 150 feet and so on. Just when I think we are out another obstacle presents itself, until we are out for real. We find a sandstone bench for camp. We are out of the subterranean world and back into the vastness. Our day once again pushed nearly to dusk. We are exhausted and very content. We are treated to a magnificent sunset as the JetBoil is passed around.

Pat traverses a sketchy section on the climb back to the rim.

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From camp we can see our exit out of the Kanab Creek system to the rim above. It is big and imposing, three thousand feet of vertical through multiple sections that seem impassable. We are hoping proximity will reveal the path. First we must escape the Supai, a task in itself. We use a side drainage of Scotty’s. Perhaps a mistake but it does go after several exposed and technical moves. We then must circumvent the system to the route that will take us through the upper layers of the canyon. Once this is accomplished the real vertical attack begins. We find a good use trail that makes progress as efficient as possible. Teamwork is no longer required. It’s just put one foot in front of the other and breath. We find our rhythms and organically break into sub groups or go solo.  As the path disintegrates more chutes and ladders are required through those sections that appeared impassable from below. It is challenging and sketchy but we find our way. Eventually Pat and I top out on the rim. We wait for the others. We say little and I don’t think about much. I am just here sitting on dirt, next to my backpack, right on the edge of the immensity. It feels good.

-David

CLICK ON IMAGE BELOW TO BEGIN GALLERY.

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Too long since canyoneering on the Mogollon Rim – Immaculate Canyon

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

Immaculate 08

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.

Immaculate 13

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.

Immaculate 17

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

 

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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Three close friends in Tatahoysa Wash

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on January 20, 2015

Chris and Eric are silhouetted against the red wall in Tatahoysa Canyon in the Grand Canyon.

Tatahoysa Wash, 3AIV
Grand Canyon National Park
12/14/14 – 12/15/15

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It has been too long since I have gotten into the thick with these two. Geography, injuries and life have gotten in the way. It has been nearly 5 years since just Chris Erwin, Eric Luth and I have been adventuring together. After a vehicle mishap we reach our destination on a frigid December night over 20 miles from pavement on the rim of the grand daddy of them all. Tomorrow morning the three of us will throw on our packs and step over the edge, but tonight we’ve got some drinking to do.

I wake with a hang over not as bad as would be expected. Frost has coated everything. I look to the east of the massive expanse of desert longing for the sun to the pop over the edge. I want the adventure to begin. My partners in crime are still sleeping, so I do what I do – start cleaning camp and packing up to make as much noise as possible. Eric and Chris wake up with not too much resistance. They are also excited for the adventure to get going. Gear is divided, packing completed, a knee brace secured and we are on our way.

The Eminence Break route is a fault that splits Marble Canyon allowing entrance on the south rim. The terrain is steep but fairly easy to negotiate as we make our way through the subsequent layers of geology. Upon reaching the Red Wall Limestone we don our harnesses as the technical canyon, Tatahoysa Wash, begins. As I take out my camera to document the first rappel I realize my camera is not working. I try every in-the-field repair I know which basically amounts to taking out the battery and putting it back in. I soon realize it is not coming back to life on this trip. I quickly commandeer Chris’ camera informing him I will return it when the trip is over. He doesn’t put up a fight.

Steam rises from Chris' rappel device after touching it with his sweaty glove at the bottom of a 150 foot rappel in Tatahoysa Canyon in the Grand Canyon.

Steam rises from Chris’ rappel device after touching it with his sweaty glove at the bottom of a 150 foot rappel in Tatahoysa Wash.

Tatahoysa Wash, is rather pleasant indeed. Near continuous rappels in magnificent indirect light as it cuts its way through the Red Wall and towards the Colorado River. The rappels are rather straightforward despite several of them being over three figures in length. The canyon is also with the exception of one pool that is easily stemmed over, bone dry. This is greatly appreciated on this cold winter day when wetsuits were left behind. We are thoroughly enjoying the canyon and the company. Before a final rappel that appears way higher than it’s actual 150 feet, we reach the river. We find a suitable beach to camp at in eye and ear shot of President Harding rapid. There is still lots of daylight left despite the fact that we are a week away from the Winter Solstice.

We spend the afternoon filtering water, chatting and snacking. Three friends catching up in the most beautiful of places. Night then comes quickly and with it the cold. It is before 7pm and we crawl into a three- person tent. We wake over 12 hours later. The hike out the Eminence Break is strenuous but in the cold air proves not too challenging as those who previously used this route in early Fall. In a few hours we are back at our vehicle. Our vehicle mishap must still be dealt with extending the amount of time these three close friends get to spend together.

A summer full of canyon fun with the family

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim, Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on September 22, 2014

Wyatt clings to David to stay dry in Pine Creek in Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

On this first day of Fall (even though it is sill triple digits here in Phoenix) it seemed like a good time to catalogue all the family fun we had these past four months in various drainages, canyons and lakes that until they were damed were free flowing rivers in canyons. Many hikes and strolls in the desert southwest will make their way into some form of canyons, drainages or washes. They are a dominant feature of this terrain. This summer’s family outings were no exception and it was such a joy to watch Wyatt experience and enjoy this quintessential part of our landscape.

-David

 

Canyon tree frogs in Little LO & the nearby Slide Fire in the W. Fork of Oak Creek

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 2, 2014
Canyon frogs mate in Little LO Canyon.

Canyon frogs mate in Little LO Canyon.

Little LO Canyon, 3BIIIR
Coconino National Forest, tributary of Sycamore Canyon
05/26/13

 

It was just over a year ago on Memorial Day weekend. Tanner, Ron and I were donning wetsuits and harnesses at the start of the technical section of Little LO Canyon when we stumbled upon these two canyon tree frogs mating. Undoubtedly shortly thereafter hundreds of eggs were laid in the pools of Little LO. Two weeks later tadpoles probably hatched and sometime in August they metamorphosed into the next generation of canyon tree frogs. Ten months later a small number of these frogs are very likely alive and could be breeding right now in the intact and pristine habitat of Little LO. Between five and 15 miles away in similar canyons comprised of the same geology and vegetation the canyon tree frogs may not be as lucky.

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The Slide Fire burns near 89A in Oak Creek Canyon on Wednesday morning, May 21, 2014. (Photo by Tom Tingle/ The Arizona Republic)

The Slide Fire burns near 89A in Oak Creek Canyon on Wednesday morning, May 21, 2014. (Photo by Tom Tingle/ The Arizona Republic)

The Slide Fire began on May 20, 2014, near Slide Rock State Park north of Sedona. Southernly winds quickly moved it up into Oak Creek Canyon and then hikers, photographers, adventurers and outdoor lovers watched in horror as it moved into one of the gems of Arizona, the West Fork of Oak Creek. At the time of this post on June 1, 2014, the fire has burned over 21,000 acres and is 90% contained. Residents in Oak Creek Canyon that were forced to evacuate have been let back in their homes, so it appears the fire is very much under control. Firefighters have moved into the mop up phase.

Unlike the unimaginable tragedy of last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 firefighters and destroyed over 100 homes and structures, this fire has caused no major injuries or burned any structures. I do not wish to take away from the primary importance of the lack of human suffering in this event or from the hard work and bravery of our wildland fire firefighters that worked the Slide Fire, but I must say my heart aches to think that such a unique and pristine American habitat has undoubtedly been greatly affected, possibly for a very long time to come. Of course until boots are on the ground it is hard to say the extent of the damage to this habitat. I have heard some reports from firefighters who worked the Slide Fire that said much of the pristine quality of the W. Fork is still intact. They say in many areas the fire was kept at a low intensity preventing it from getting into the canopy of the trees. This is known as a crown fire and essentially obliterates the forest that it burns. If the fire did not crown then it is actually healthy for the habitat in the long run. Needless to say when you look at the map of the Slide Fire on the InciWeb site it doesn’t look promising. I think if you asked most Arizona canyoneers what area they would most not want to burn related to their favorite canyons, this is a worst case scenario. Illusions, Insomnia, Immaculate, Barney Spring, Flintstone, Casner Cabin, Crack Addict in addition to the West Fork and Sterling Canyons that they feed into, are all completely within the boundaries of the Slide Fire.

Flames and smoke rise from the Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon on May 23, 2014. (Photo by Patrick Breen/ The Arizona Republic)

Flames and smoke rise from the Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon on May 23, 2014. (Photo by Patrick Breen/ The Arizona Republic)

Conversations online from the canyoneering community were abundant as we watched the Slide Fire unfold. Remarks ranged from hope when early in the fire the line was being held at the eastern edge of Illusions Canyon to despair as people questioned if the canyons will ever be the same in our lifetime. Along the way were constant updates and various comments. I even saw one individual (I believe half jokingly) hint at forming a canyoneering hotshot crew whose mission would be to defend our beloved canyons. Others wondered how the area will also be impacted from flooding when the monsoons come and the debris that comes with flooding in fire stricken areas changes the canyons’ pristine character. Mostly people were just sad. A close friend of mine and fellow canyoneer said, “This is worse than breaking up with a girlfriend.”

I first experienced the West Fork shortly after moving to Arizona in 2006 and was amazed by its seductive quality. Since then I have been back over a dozen times, often on the hike out after completing a technical descent of one of the side canyons. There is no better way to finish out a day than a tranquil stroll through those soaring red and beige canyon walls as your feet slosh through crystal clear water. I have been in the West Fork during all four seasons. I have been there on assignment for work. I have been there with my parents, my sister, my dog, of course Laura. I have been there with my friends’ baby who at the time was six-months-old. Sadly, my son Wyatt, 3, who although has seen many other special places in Arizona’s backcountry has not experienced the West Fork himself. It could be years before the West Fork is reopened to the public for Wyatt to see for himself and when it does who knows what he will see of this place that I along with many others hold a special connection to.

W. Fork of Oak Creek

W. Fork of Oak Creek

Ultimately fire is part of nature; a raw, rugged and destructive aspect of it, but nature nonetheless. Although I can’t help but wonder how natural is it when fires are started often by man as was the case with the Slide Fire and burn with a greater intensity because of a number of reasons associated with human impact.

When will the area reopen and what will we see when we get there. Only time will tell but nature will continue one way or the other.  Back in Little LO Canyon a year ago, Ron, Tanner and I had a wonderfully pleasant and uneventful descent. I imagine our canyon tree frog friends having such a good time when we ran into them or at least their kin are doing fine in their perfectly suitable habitat; how quickly that can all change.

Below you will see some of my favorite photos of the W. Fork of Oak Creek Canyon system and the nearby Crack Addict Canyon/ Sterling Canyon. We will just have to wait to see what we see when we get back in there. Also check out a slideshow of the Arizona Republic photographers coverage of the Slide Fire by clicking here.

– David

Deep in the Big Ditch Day 4 – Floating down river & ascending 150-Mile Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 4, 2013

Mark floats down the Colorao River.

A different sort of day this one. For starters, it begins by water not land with a nearly five mile float down the Colorado River. After spending three days battling immense and uneven terrain slowly and tediously by foot, heavy loads on back, this portion of the trip represents the sweet reward for our toils. The mighty Colorado does the work as we sit back and seamlessly watch the world from 5000 feet below, sail by. So excited, I inflated my packraft the night before. Besides what would make a better pillow. In the morning I wake to discover my “pillow” is a third deflated. I am unable to locate the slow leak in the nearby pool at the bottom of the trickle waterfall at Olo Canyon. I can only hope the leak is so slow it will not too greatly effect the seaworthiness of my vessel. We walk across the beach, backpacks around one shoulder and packrafts and paddles held in the other hand. Life vests are strapped down and packrafts tempered to the 46 degree temperature of the water for maximum inflation. I clumsily board my little boat, my backpack on my lap, my lanky legs hanging out of the sides. I dig my “spatulas” into the water and sand and away we go.

Being so low in the water you feel every undulation, riffle, current and eddy. Its power remarkable. We keep the boats straight and true through the first set of riffles and the water calms. We can relax as the river takes us like a tracking shot on a camera mounted dolly through this magnificent scenery. A herd of maybe 10 big horn sheep run on the rocky slopes above the banks of the river along with us for nearly a mile.

It is not entirely a free ride even on the calm water. Currents can come out of nowhere and it would not take much to eject us from our tiny and flimsy boats. Taking a swim in the 45 degree water would be very serious. As we hear the approaching Matkatamiba rapid we move closer to the north shore. Just before the rapid (we decided earlier in the trip not to run it after scouting it) we dock in individual pockets between shoreline boulders. We exit our boats and portage around the rapid, reentering the river in the riffles just below. We float by a rafting party breaking camp at the Matkat Hotel. I want to say they look at us with perplexity, but they are too far away and I can’t see beyond their waves. Four and a half miles is over very quickly and we leave the marine world behind to return to that of feet on rock and dirt.

Eric in beautiful narrows and beautiful light.

150-Mile Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/04/13

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A break in the cliffs allows us a layer several hundred feet above the shoreline. At times we use existing bighorn trails, at others we negotiate exposed, chossy and off-camber terrain as we negotiate down river to get into 150- Mile Canyon via a ledge above the Muav Narrows. The ledge is also somewhat precarious forcing us to our bellies in one place to negotiate the narrow ledge maybe a 100- feet above the canyon bottom. Once on solid ground in the bottom of 150- Mile Canyon we begin heading up-canyon for our ticket out of here. The drops that we rappelled on the way down will either be bypassed using shelves above the narrows or we will have to ascend using the rope we left behind.

After a long a bypass hundreds of feet above the narrows below we drop back down to the canyon bottom. At the next dryfall we reach the first set of cord left behind. Instead of leaving a rope at each of the drops, lighter parachute cord was left behind. We attach our rope to the cord and pull the rope into place so we can ascend the drops. To save weight we brought only two sets of ascending gear between the five of us. After the first jug we break into teams to tackle the next three ascents, all of them featuring awkward boulder chokestones at the top that are challenging to get above and around. The jugs are separated by beautiful narrows in shifting light that because of our direction of travel look entirely different than on the way down. The final obstacle out of the Redwall narrows features an exposed but not too difficult 100- foot climb. Shortly after topping out on the rim of the Redwall, I hear Mark who is ahead shout something. I can not make out the words. I then immediately see a Bighorn Sheep sprint right past me right on the edge of the cliff into the narrows.

David free climbs out of the Redwall.

The Bighorn close encounter was one last treat before the three hour, 2000 plus foot slog to the rim above, much of it in the full force of the afternoon sun. The accumulation of the last four days is being felt now. Nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other until you are there. Upon reaching our vehicles Brian, Cody and Mark make preparations to hit the road and try to make it to Kanab before all of the restaurants stop serving  dinner. Eric and I, on the other hand came prepared, having brought food and beer that remarkably is still ice cold in our coolers left behind. Our plans include eating mass quantities of food, washed down with a few brews and then sleeping. Driving can wait until tomorrow. With hugs goodbye, the team separates. Eric and I mosey over to a massive vista of the Grand Canyon landscape below. We marvel at its size. Though we just explored a considerable chunk of this wilderness it is a a mere drop in this truly grand bucket.

-David

Deep in the Big Ditch Day 3 – Olo Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 29, 2013

Cody in the Temple Butte in Olo Canyon.

“What is that noise,” I wonder half  asleep. I begin to wake to full consciousness as the sound of a large animal walking on rocks gets louder. It takes me a few seconds to remember my surroundings and then I realize it is the resident wild burros that call this remote part of the Grand Canyon National Park home. I yell “Go Away.” It gallops away. I try to fall back to sleep to no avail.

We wake around sunrise, quickly break camp and continue to use the burro trail around another arm of the Matkat/ Panameta system. The mornings objective is to reach the Esplanade, the giant terrace above the Supai sandstone formation that spans much of the length of the Grand Canyon. It is several thousand feet above. After gaining the Esplanade we will drop into the next side canyon system to the East, Olo Canyon. In order to break through the fortress of cliff bands to the Esplanade we use the Sinyala Fault, a deep fracture that extends in a northeasterly direction over 17 miles. The fault makes passage possible but we are still forced to haul packs over spicy climbs to gain the sandstone terrace.

Eric raps down the 100- foot drop into the Redwall narrows into Olo Canyon.

Olo Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/03/13

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We stay with the fault down to the rim of the Redwall of the Olo Canyon system and around into the main fork. A large drop is our ticket from the sun baked world above to the cool shadows of the bottom of the Redwall Narrows. Excited to get down there we all want to be the next to rappel. It is finally my turn. The drop is a 100- feet, almost completely free hanging. The rope is a skinny, 8.0 mm. Our packs heavy, probably still close to 45 pounds, even after eating several days worth of rations. It is a formula for a fast rappel that if not rigged for enough friction can get away from you. A third of the way down I think to myself, “That leg loop was not enough, should have gone full z-rig.”  I find myself death gripping the rope with two hands like I never have before. I shout down to Brian below to give the rope a little tug to take a little pressure off my cramping hands. Maybe 30 seconds later and a few spins, ahhh, terra firma.

Eric, Mark and Cody traverse a ledge in the Temple Butte narrows.

The Redwall narrows end quickly. We rock hop in and out of the sun until we reach the Temple Butte Narrows and some fun ledge traverses over emerald green pools of fresh water. The canyon again widens and we find ourselves between a pair of California Condors. As we stop to observe the endangered species, the pair spread their massive near 10- foot wing spans like two sentinels of the canyon. With the naked eye we can see they are tagged. After investigating the photos we identify them as J3 and 49.

California Condor A9 in Olo.

Moving on we enter the spring fed Muav Narrows and its tricky down climb, several awkward rappels and a final sequence of a down climb into a tough traverse to stay dry to the final 45- foot drop to the beach along the Colorado River below. It took considerable time to find a suitable anchor. Mark eventually located an old climber’s piton hidden in a crack and we used that in combination with a nearby knot chock that Brian made as a back-up.

 Camp is set on the beach. We can hear a lovely combination of the trickle of water flowing down the final drop of Olo Canyon into the shallow beach pool and the roar of the Colorado only 100- feet away.  It is now apparent that our aggressive pace is going to allow us to finish the trip a full day early. With that we spend our evening gorging on extra rations. Excited for the float along the river in the morning I inflate my packraft as a plastic spork sticking out of a container of peanut butter is passed around like a bottle of whiskey.

-David

Deep in the Big Ditch Day 2 – Matkatamiba & Panameta Canyons

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 20, 2013

Cody and Eric hike along the rim above Matkat.

There is something very special about waking and then going to bed in remote wilderness. This was going to be one of those days. The former concluded with what was for me an unusual night of wonderfully restful sleep that I almost never experience anywhere but my bed at home. My queen size pillow top replaced by a beach along the Colorado River. The fine sand making an excellent mattress. The sounds of 8000 cubic feet feet per second provided the perfect amount of white noise. Its still dark when we wake. We have a monster day ahead of us, multiple canyons and terrain to cover. We expect to finish after dark.

Cody and Eric hike back into Matkatamiba Canyon from the Colorado River.

Matkatamiba Canyon, 2BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/02/13

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Just upstream of camp lies Matkatamiba Canyon. Shelf walking a few hundred feet above the river to get to Matkat starts the day. We drop into the canyon bottom a short distance above the confluence of the Colorado River. Our journey will take us up into the upper reaches of Matkat Canyon and to the rim above and then down several other adjacent canyons. For now we drop our packs and explore the exquisite striated Muav Limestone Narrows down to the Colorado. A spring feeds a steady flow of crystal clear water through the narrows. With no packs and the horizontal layers of stepped rock to play with, we use fancy footwork and partner assist climbing moves to keep our feet dry. The quick jaunt down to the river also affords us the opportunity to survey Matkat Rapid to determine if we we will want to run it in our pack rafts later in the trip. We unanimously decide that a portage will be prudent. As we head back up to our packs atop the narrows we no longer try to stay dry. With the hogs once again on the back we venture up-canyon making forward progress. The terrain allows for relatively straight forward hiking with several boulder problems, one of which requires partner assists. The scenery impressive and the pace aggressive.

As we emerge from the shadows of Matkat out to the rim above, the midday sun is there to greet us. Its definitely hot but not the scorcher we feared. Through the rugged desert terrain above the Matkat system we make use of relatively well worn trails created by the resident feral burros. The burros are descendants of jacks and jennies dating back over a century that belonged to miners who used them to pack out copper, lead and asbestos. Though the trails are welcomed and save us a lot of time, the burros have wreaked havoc on the natural environment cutting an abundance of deep trails, causing erosion, over eating native grasses and pushing around the bighorn sheep. After not too long we see some of the local trail builders who range in color from brown to blonde.

Mark takes in Panameta Canyon.

Panameta Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/02/13

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We hike around to the head of a major branch of the Matkat system where we drop our camping and other nonessential canyoneering gear as we stage for a technical descent of Panameta Canyon which eventually drains back into the main branch of Matkat. The canyon gets going right away cutting right into the Redwall Limestone. The pools immediately cool me off and before not too long move me just south of comfortable during several swims with nothing but a shorty wetsuit for insulation. (A full body would have been more appropriate but with the high temps I decided I could suck it up to save a little weight in my pack.) We keep moving at a steady pace through the exquisite polished white walls and its continuous obstacles. I don’t really have the opportunity to approach the shivers or early stage hypothermia beyond that.

Once below the Red Wall the canyon widens and we rock hop to the confluence of Matkat. We retrace our steps back up Matkatamiba and around to where we cached our gear. Taking advantage of the magic light that comes at the end of the day I fall behind taking photos in solitude of this seldom seen wilderness. Reaching camp just before sunset after a 13+ hour day we are feeling tired yet well positioned to continue the journey successfully. Tomorrow will be another day of waking and going to bed in the wilderness.

-David

Deep in the Big Ditch Day 1 – Down 150-Mile Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 12, 2013

Cody wades a pool in the gorgeous Redwall.

Often the most interesting stories of adventure are those that contain a little bit of misadventure. A tale of a true epic will really catch people’s attention. This post and the three that will proceed chronicling a four day backpacking and canyoneering journey through a remote section of the Grand Canyon is NOT one of those stories. Our team of five worked together like a well oiled machine, flawlessly tackling a wide array of challenges. I can’t think of a single mishap to report to add a little spice to the tale.

A week before the start it didn’t look like it was going to go so well. At one point the forecast said temperatures could reach triple digit highs in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. With 45- pound packs, tackling three thousand foot climbs, on rugged and uneven off trail terrain, exposed to the full fury of the desert sun, you could say we all had some serious concerns. The dozens of emails exchanged on a private thread would attest to this. Never-the-less, as we took the first steps away from our vehicles and into this massive expanse of wilderness we were filled with excitement and good spirits. Others who had been here before had said that some of the most magnificent side slots of the “Big Ditch” were in store for us. The forecast had improved somewhat. We were in shape. The utmost attention had been paid to packing efficiently. We had been well advised by those who knew this route better than anyone else. We were ready.

Mark hikes on the Tuckup Route to get into 150-Mile Canyon.

150-Mile Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/01/13

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Hiking the Grand Canyon is a lesson in geology. This geology is all about layers. Off trail hiking and canyoneering allows you to slowly descend through these layers en route to the Colorado River.  The nature of canyoneering in particular forces you to become intimate with the rock; being surrounded by it, touching it, sliding on it, evaluating it and gazing at it. The more time you spend in these side canyons the more familiar you become with this geology.

The hike begins on the eastern terminus of the Tuckup Route which quickly takes us through the Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap formation and Coconino Sandstone to the canyon bottom of upper 150- Mile Canyon. Here is a link that shows and explains the layers of the Grand Canyon that can be used as a reference. It should also be noted that this canyon’s name comes from the distance in river miles to Lees Ferry, the starting point for rafters on their journey through the Grand Canyon. With so many side canyons cartographers did not get creative in the naming of all of them. Despite its clinical name, 150- Mile Canyon is anything but ordinary. After a few hours of wash walking through the Supai Formation we reach the Redwall Limestone where the canyon drops down into a narrow slot. Rapping in we are surrounded by beautifully polished white walls. Stained from the red Supai Sandstone above, much of the Redwall Limestone ranges in hue from light pink to amber to scarlet red. The sun filters through the bends of these narrow walls forcing the light to constantly shift in color and quality.

 150-Mile Canyon is not just our route to the Colorado River but will also serve as our means to get out of the bottom of the Big Ditch. On the return trip some of the drops we will be able to bypass by hiking or climbing up shelves above the bottom of the slot, but others we will be forced to ascend rope. Instead of leaving a rope at each of these five drops, lighter parachute cord is left behind. We will then have the ability to fasten our heavier rope to the parachute cord which we will use to pull the rope in place so we can ascend the drops. Thanks to Todd Martin and Rich Rudow for sharing this technique..

A rafter tackles Upset Rapid in the Colorado River.

150- Mile Canyon does not drop elevation quickly. Therefore it takes a long time get below the Redwall Limestone, thus the Redwall Limestone narrows are unusually long and sustained. Eventually we reach the Muav Limestone and its horizontal layering forming pronounced striations. Not as thick as the Redwall Limestone we quickly reach the Colorado River at Upset Rapid just as several rafters tackle the rapid rated at “8” on the 1-10 Colorado River scale.  We hoot and holler as they slam into the massive white waves.

The journey continues on the opposite side of the Colorado River where we will explore three more side canyons. First, we have to cross the mighty river. From Upset Rapid we beach walk, which really means clambering over boulders on sandy sloped terrain along the river to a point where we can cross the river in our pack rafts to a beach on the other side. This will in turn provide a break to a shelf above the river. From here a short, but strenuous walk along the off-camber  shelf above a cliff that drops sheerly several hundred feet into the river, brings us to a break where we can climb down to a flat beach known as the “Matkat Hotel”. Aptly named, the beach serves as our camp for the night and staging area for the next day when we will head up the nearby side canyon of Matkatamiba.

-David