Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

The Year, Part II – A threat to the Grand Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim, Uncategorized by canyoneering on December 19, 2017


The forecast has looked awful all week. This is never a good thing when heading into the canyon lands. You may have gotten a sense of this when reading my last postbut for this excursion it was for an entirely different reason than the fear of a flash flood. Despite the forecast, I am joined by Grand Canyon explorer Rich Rudow into the remote western part of the Grand Canyon on an Arizona Republic/ reporting trip to visually document the hundreds of helicopter flights per day that leave from Las Vegas. They offer tourists a chance to fly into the canyon along the Colorado River and get back to the slot machines in a matter of hours. With the rain and wind however in the forecast would the Las Vegas tourists choose to see Penn and Teller instead? Would the tour operators even still fly? For me it’s a long way to travel to document what the activists are calling “Good Morning Vietnam” if all the helicopters are grounded.

Grand Canyon Helicopter

After a 10- hour drive, followed by an all day off trail hike, dropping nearly 5,000 vertical feet through multiple layers of geology I hear my first helicopter. Clouds fill the sky but the ground remains dry.  We reach the river and set up camp. Helicopters buzz over head around every 15 minutes. Rich comments that the volume is down. He thinks because of the weather. Until now the skies have stayed dry but halfway through my chicken and dumplings Mountain House the weather begins.

Grand Canyon Helicopter

The rains come in heavy and quickly. We haven’t seen a helicopter in 20 minutes and I assume the popular sunset tours have been cancelled because of the storm. Just then I can hear the drone of rotors approaching. A pair fly directly over the river and land on the opposing bank a quarter mile upstream. As I’m being hammered by rain I shoot stills and video of the helicopters. Night begins to close in and the helicopters remain grounded. Red and white lights flashing on their tails can be made out through the thick atmosphere. “I think they’ve found themselves fucked out there,” Rich comments besides me. He elaborates, they are not supposed to be here after dark but the weather may be preventing them from getting out. The winds bring them good fortune and they die down slightly as do the rains. Just before full dark they take off and head back to the lights of Sin City.

Grand Canyon Helicopter

We retire to Rich’s tents and go horizontal. While sharing in the pleasant chit chat of adventures past I notice a warm glow illuminating the walls of the tent. I race outside to see the most amazing Grand Canyon sunset I’ve ever seen. The light show of the Fountains of Bellagio have got nothing on this.

Grand Canyon Helicopter

The following morning, less than an hour after sunrise the noise can be heard before they can be seen. Its a striking juxtaposition to this wild and remote place. Then they start coming one after another and that pristine essence is shattered. Rich and I spend the better part of the day walking along the river documenting chopper after chopper. Some claim it is the busiest helicopter corridor in the world. Though I can’t verify this it wouldn’t surprise me. Long after losing count on the actual number, Rich and I begin the long trek back to the rim. The following morning I have a rendezvous with friends for another nearby adventure. The rain didn’t stop the helicopters, but as you may already know it will stop this one, only creating a different one.


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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.



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


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

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


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.


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.



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


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


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


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


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


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


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.






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


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.



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


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.


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


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.


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


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.