Illusions Canyon, 4BIIIR
The first and last time I descended Illusions Canyon, the intensity of my involvement in canyoneering was drastically scaling back as I was over four months pregnant. David was a nervous wreck as he watched me crawl, slide and wiggle through the dark chambers of Illusions. Two plus years later and I am entrenched in being the mother of an energetic toddler, so I don’t get out in the canyons all that often (our European canyoneering adventure, aside). These days, to get to share a descent with David takes some serious planning ahead. To make a trip through Illusions Canyon possible, David and I timed it for when my Dad (or Gramps as Wyatt calls him) was visiting over the summer. We rented a small cabin, for Wyatt, David and myself, and a private yurt for my father at the Flagstaff Nordic Center. For those that don’t know a yurt is a small portable tent like structure with a wooden frame. Their origins date back a thousand years to Central Asia.
We arrived at the Flagstaff Nordic Center the afternoon before our descent down Illusions. My father, Wyatt, David and I went for a peaceful walk through the ponderosa pines before cooking dinner over an open campfire. Waking long before sunrise David and I quickly got dressed and knocked on the front door of my father’s yurt waking him from his slumber. After he tiptoed into our cabin where Wyatt was still sleeping we drove to meet Eric, Brian and Cheryl at the trailhead for Illusions Canyon.
The day began with a great workout during the hike up to to the top of rim. The trail was steep but pleasant with good conversation that goes along with the excitement and anticipation of such a special canyon. The canyon was just as fun, magical and beautiful as I had remembered. Perhaps even more so this time around as the extremely wet monsoon season provided us with a light but steady flow of water through the entire canyon. The walls were glowing in electric green covered in mosses, ferns and other vegetation. The monsoon was present on this day too. Just minutes after our group of five completed the final rappel of the canyon and exited the narrows the skies darkened and opened in a torrential downpour. Flashes of white light and booming blasts just over head accompanied the sheets of rain. Our timing could not have been closer or more perfect depending on how you look at it. It was an intense storm that we would not have wanted to experience in Illusions’ long narrows, just behind us. In the lower, wide portion of the canyon the danger of being caught in a flash flood no longer posed a risk and we were able to enjoy this raw power of nature during the hike out.
Well over 12- hours from the time we left my Dad and Wyatt, we were back at the Flagstaff Nordic Center and we found them hanging out between the yurt and cabin. My Dad had survived spending the day with his 18- month old grandson alone in the Northern Arizona woods. He looked just as exhausted and satisfied with his day as David and I were with ours.
For information about the Flagstaff Nordic Center click here.
Barney Spring Canyon, 4BIVR
Coconino National Forest
Fall is a special time. As a child it represents the start of a new year of challenges and experiences. Growing up in the northeastern United Sates, autumn would peak in an explosion of colors. As an adult that feeling of newness that comes around in September and October has faded somewhat and living in the midst of urban sprawl in the heart of the Sonoran Desert you don’t see much in the way of Autumnal colors.
Eric had been lobbying for a descent of Barney Spring Canyon for a while. It is a classic Mogollon Rim canyon that wasn’t yet part of his resume. I had descended the canyon with Laura shortly after I had begun canyoneering five summers ago. My recollection is that it was the first canyon descent during which time I was thinking this is really intense from both a physical and technical perspective. I also remember it being a long day, but despite my photographs its aesthetic qualities had left little impression on my memory.
Timing for a descent has finally lined up. Eric and I are driving along the washboard road deep into the forest in the late afternoon sun. The previous day we had descended Garden Creek in the Grand Canyon. Our legs are feeling that 4,000 feet of vertical. My belly is fully of wings and my head a little cloudy from beer after spending much of the day resting in a Flagstaff sports bar and watching football. As the road crosses a drainage and its numerous deciduous trees amongst the surrounding pines I am struck by the intense Fall colors.
As temperatures plummet after the sun goes down we huddle around the fire. We awake well before the return of the sun and begin hiking from our camp in the dark. A descent of Barney is normally completed by hiking down the West Fork of Oak Creek at its confluence with Barney followed by a long car shuttle. Our plan is to skip the car shuttle by hiking up the West Fork until we can find a place to escape the canyon and then navigate across the rim back to our vehicle. We know it is going to be a very long and exhausting day.
The sun is up but it is still brisk as we drop into the upper reaches of Barney. The foliage is magnificent. Reds, yellows and oranges are abundant. I say it is peak. Eric says maybe just past. The canyon narrows. We are surround by muted beige sandstone covered in a thin layer of vibrant green moss with a canopy of technicolor above us. It is spectacular.
The canyon is still challenging with its numerous awkward- start rappels but my experience in the last four plus years have dulled the edges of intensity I experienced the last time. Eric leads the way and we are down-climbing obstacles I would have never thought possible during the first descent. The monster keeper pothole that gave us so much trouble the last time is almost full and Eric beach whales out on his own out and then assists me to the lip. From our perch atop the final rappel we peer over a thick canopy of vibrant and saturated yellows. It is a visual experience that will leave a lasting impression.
A short brushy walk and we reach the confluence of the West Fork of Oak Creek. More colors. We spend the next six hours hiking, trudging, rock hopping, climbing up West Fork. We do the best we can to stay dry but some of the narrows do not cooperate. In the upper reaches of the West Fork the canyon branches into multiple arms. We take a branch whose terrain we are unfamiliar with but will put us closer to our vehicle. We hope to not be stopped in our tracks by a dryfall before we can escape the canyon bottom for the rim. A minor gamble but we are confident. We are faced with several spicy climbs including one over a deep keeper filled with icy cold water that if we both fell into would be a mouse trap of the most dire circumstances. As we climb further up this canyon arm the walls begin to recede and we make our break. Upon reaching the rim as we navigate through the Ponderosa Pines back to our vehicle I am completely exhausted, satisfied and connected to this autumnal experience.
Garden Creek Canyon, 4CIV
Grand Canyon National Park
It is a beautiful, crisp autumn day. The kind that is just perfect for hiking. We are only four of what could be close to a thousand people on the Bright Angel Trail, snaking down 4380 feet from Grand Canyon Village on top of the south rim to the Colorado River. Not far above the river and right off the trail, Garden Creek plunges into the Vishnu Schist layer, forming a magnificent technical canyon. “Garden Creek Canyon is a hidden gem located in close proximity to the most popular trail in the Grand Canyon National Park,” says Todd Martin, who included it in his guidebook, Grand Canyoneering. “It’s surprising that more people haven’t discovered it.”
As we munch on some snacks, throw on a few extra layers, pull up our harnesses and strap on our helmets before delving into this ‘hidden gem’ we are passed by maybe a dozen hikers on their way down to the river. For the next several hours our paths will deviate. The canyon begins with several fun down climbs. The flow is not overwhelming but enough to disrupt verbal communication which immediately adds an extra level of excitement. The big drops follow, including a two stage rappel down a sloping 400- foot waterfall into an open section before dropping into a narrow slot again. Several more rappels and spicy down climbs follow in the temperate water that never pools. The canyon ends the same way it started; right off the Bright Angel Trail, de-harnessing, snacking and hydrating as dozens of hikers pass by. Now all that is left is to join the parade for a seven mile plus, 4,000 foot plus climb back to the rim.
Casner Cabin Draw, 3BIII
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Fork of Oak Creek
Stretching from the Grand Canyon to the White Mountains, Arizona is home to the largest continuous Ponderosa Pine stand on the continent. Within this stand hide dozens upon dozens of slot canyons chronicled in this blog. Weakened by drought, insects, climate change and well intentioned but perhaps misguided forest management, over 25 percent of Arizona’s Ponderosa Pines, including the aforementioned stand have been ravaged in the last decade from monster fires including the Rodeo-Chediski and last year’s Wallow Fire. The latter being the largest in state history burning over half a million acres.
Arizona Republic environmental reporter Shaun McKinnon writes about the importance of a long term plan to protect our forests from future wildfires in his June 17, 2012 article, ” Fear of the Next Fire”
” The cost of failure is as steep as the pine- covered canyons at stake: forests that are the irresistible lure for tourists and desert dwellers and home to tens of thousands of people, trees that shelter a diverse array of wildlife and protect an irreplaceable source of water that fills the reservoirs above Phoenix. If the trees die, they may not return for thousands of years, if at all.”
During a recent summer day, this desert dweller, escaped the heat into the iconic Ponderosa Pines for a solo descent of Casner Cabin Draw. With my only company being the towering trees I had plenty of time to think about McKinnon’s article which was published just the day before.
To summarize, for tens of thousands of years the Ponderosa Pines could tolerate the dry conditions and regular fires that stayed low to the ground and prevented the forests from growing too dense. As settlers began arriving in large numbers in the mid 19th century their livestock began grazing the vegetation more aggressively than the native deer and elk, allowing the Ponderosas to fill the void and grow more densely. At the same time the settlers were also suppressing natural lightning fires which also prevent the forests from becoming too dense. This policy continued for generations.
“At that time our understanding was fires were the enemy of the forest, just as wolves and mountain lions were the enemy of the deer herds: No one really realized at the time how important they were as self regulatory mechanism for the ecosystem,”
says Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute of Northern Arizona University, in McKinnon’s article. Before the settlers the forests contained 30 trees per acre while today’s fire protected forests contain up to 1,000 trees per acre. When these dense forests do burn it is so all-consuming and hot that the trees, soil and habitat may never recover. The United States Forest Service working with a private company as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project have thinned sections of super dense Ponderosas in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. According to the White Mountain Stewardship Project these areas did not burn as aggressively during the Wallow Fire and many of these trees survived.
Every year the fires come. It is a nerve racking time. In part this is because I am often spending many days photographing these wildfires on assignment for the Arizona Republic, but it is also stressful because I find myself waiting to see what wilderness will be next. So far the forests that are home to many of the canyons we cherish have been spared.
To read McKinnon’s story and other’s from his series on Arizona’s forests and wildfires click here.
Crack Addict Canyon, 3AIII
approximately 5 miles
Coconino National Forest
“What’s around the next corner,” is one of the more intoxicating aspects of canyoneering. For this reason first descents or perceived first descents (in most cases you can’t know with 100% certainty that you are the first one down) are so exciting and seductive. Almost on par with a first descent is that where you have absolutely no beta on a canyon, but know others have been down before. Such was the case during an early Spring time romp down a Mogollon Rim drainage. We were tipped off by a friend that something was there although he himself had never descended the canyon nor knew a single detail about it. All he knew, directly from those who had actually been down, was where it was and that they called it, Crack Addict.
After nearly getting Kyle’s pick-up stuck in thick mud on the drive up we bedded down on a cool night under Ponderosa Pine trees and bright stars. The following morning, as we finished on foot what we could not continue the night before by vehicle, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for us. Would it be a gem or a stinker, easy or hard, dry or wet? Probably best to be prepared, but not expect too much.
With that what we found was a canyon with nearly a dozen rappels, fine sculpted sandstone walls and nearly devoid of water, except in the frozen form as several giant and compacted snow patches filled the canyon bottom at the base of a few rappels. Webbing existed at several drops but with clear signs of Father Time, as in one case a sapling had grown several feet right through a rappel ring.
Crack Addict is not destined to be a rock star or classic as others in the area, but it is a fine canyon indeed. It far surpassed my tempered expectations. Not knowing only enriched the experience. This does make me stop and think how guide books, online beta, forums and blogs, including this one, effect the experience of others. The truth is there is a lot of good, some bad, black, white and a million shades of gray in between that comes with that communication. In the end we live in an era where communication is easier and more aggressive than ever, nobody is stopping this reality and for the most part that is a good thing. Never the less, it feels good when you get the opportunity to get out and see what’s around that corner of the unknown.
Cove Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
10/15/11 – 10/16/11
Before we get started I have to make mention that this recent descent of Cove Canyon in a remote part of the Grand Canyon National Park would almost certainly not have occurred without the new guidebook, “Grand Canyoneering” by Todd Martin. The book takes a look at over 110 side canyons of the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the majority of which are technical. To say that this book is merely impressive would be a gross understatement. The route descriptions, maps and other relevant information that gives the descents a geologic and technical context are thorough and detailed. The book is also chock full of beautifully printed, informative images. Perhaps even more impressive than the book itself, is the systematic exploration that Todd Martin, his primary partner, Rich Rudow and others involved, accomplished. It is highly probable that a considerable number of these canyon descents were the first time that human beings set foot on that ground.
Though not the deepest canyon in the world, the massive size and scope of the Grand is unparalleled. It is 15 miles at its widest point and 6,000 feet at its deepest. Just walking down from the rim to the river and back to the rim on a well groomed trail is a challenging physical test. Now imagine walking great distances from your car park over uneven and exposed terrain just to locate a side canyon. Once you have reached this canyon you must use a number of technical techniques and gear to reach the Colorado River. Once at the river you are challenged with task of traveling to a place where you have the ability to climb out from the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back to the rim. Armed with complete information from “Grand Canyoneering” or even nuggets of information as I have done on several previous descents of technical side canyons of the Grand Canyon are adventures that require an intense physical commitment and acceptance of suffering.
First descents or completely unbetaed descents are another ballgame, entirely. From a mental standpoint you are faced with the reality that you just don’t know what kinds of of obstacles, technical or otherwise you will face in the canyon. Because of that reality you must take the kitchen sink of technical gear to safely overcome those myriad of unknown obstacles. Todd and Rich were carrying often far more gear than they needed because they just didn’t know. They also probably didn’t know how long exactly a journey to the river and back would take. This means taking some semblance of camping gear and extra food. With the hog on the back, all of their efforts were completed at a frenetic and what some might call, obsessive pace. They spent over 150 days in the Grand Canyon in just 3 years. If you spend that much time in a place in such a short time then you are bound to experience some extreme temperatures, which the Grand can dish up even during the more temperate Spring and Fall seasons. Believe me when I say, having now descended Cove Canyon and a number of others from before the publication of this book, that spending that amount of time in this wilderness in this fashion is almost unimaginable, both physically and mentally. I would like to congratulate Todd and Rich for their discoveries and accomplishments. I think John Wesley Powell in the very least would be interested and might even be proud.
Now on to our descent of Cove Canyon. The adventure began from the remote Tuckup Trailhead nearly 60 miles from the nearest paved road, where the hike began with a pleasant trail traversing along the Esplanade, 3,000 feet above the Colorado River. The Esplanade is an enormous sandstone terrace below the rim that spans much of the length of the Grand Canyon. All too quickly the trail dissipated and we were faced with picking our way through uneven terrain around numerous side drainages and their many respective fingers until reaching the far upper reaches of Cove Canyon.
One can not hike and explore from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the river without getting a first hand lesson in geology. This is even more apparent when you are not traveling a wide, even and fast moving trail and you are forced to slow down and really experience the rock that surrounds you. Todd’s book goes into a straightforward, yet detailed explanation of the geology of the Grand Canyon. To paraphrase, approximately 5 million years ago the region of the Grand Canyon uplifted different horizontal layers of rock in the same even pattern in which they were laid down as sediment. The Colorado River then began to carve out the Grand Canyon with the assistance of the region continuing to uplift. The side canyons were created from violent weather eroding the side drainages revealing the different layers of rock. Venturing down Cove Canyon each of those unique geologic layers exposes themselves as we moved ever so closely to the roar of the river that opened up this geologic history in the first place.
Cove Canyon began in the Supai Sanndstone layer. We were faced with several rappels through the red rock that dates back to nearly 300 million years ago. With the chossy red sandstone behind us the canyon dropped into the Redwall Limestone forming a tight slot, giving us our first respite from the hot sun. Redwall Limestone and its cousin, the Muav Limestone are the rockstar layers when it comes to canyoneering in the Grand Canyon. Their properties form the tightest and most exciting slot sections of the canyons. The Redwall section of Cove Canyon did not disappoint. A magnificent triple drop rappel along a bend brought us to the heart of this section of narrows. A tense moment ensued when initially we had trouble pulling the rope. Through the use of changing angles, moving down canyon and using a jumar to assist in gaining purchase of the rope, we were able to bring that lifeline down. The canyon then opened up filled with large boulders requiring route finding to pick our way through them. With the hog on the back every teeter tottering misstep drained tremendous amounts of energy.
The canyon dropped into several beautiful sets of narrows in the Muav Limestone layer. At this point in the day we began paying closer attention to the time. Whether or not we were going to reach the river before dark began to seem less and less likely. With that we began pushing hard and taking less pictures as we negotiated more rappels through more layers of rock. As the shadows got darker and cooler in hue we could hear the faint sounds of the river. Those sounds got increasingly louder as a subtle draft of chilly air came up from down canyon. Less than half an hour before complete darkness we reached a small sandy beach along the Colorado to bed down for the night.
Shortly after first light we gathered our gear and inflated our packrafts. The small inflatable boats were our mode of transportation downriver to a point where we could hike out of the canyon and back to our vehicle. To say the float was merely exciting would be an understatement as we had to negotiate several major riffles in what basically amounts to a glorified pool toy. Between my 190 pounds of body weight and all of my gear I was more than exceeding the 225 pound limit of the boat that was probably intended to be used only on still water. Still water this was not and floating low in the water, the riffles would splash over and into my boat even though I was hitting them straight on. Several times I had to catch an eddy, get on shore and dump all of the water out of my boat. One of those eddies was so powerful that I had an extremely difficult time escaping its upstream flow and getting into the downstream current with my flimsy, lightweight plastic paddles.
The roar of Lava Falls, one of the biggest and most notorious rapids of the Colorado was the signal to get off the river where a primitive route up a scree slope through the bands of cliffs would allow us to reach the rim over 3,000 feet above. We docked a quarter mile upstream of the rapid, its roar loud and ever present. We could not see it aside from the occasional violent gush of white water flying well above the horizon line of the river. Before the suffer fest out of the bottom of the canyon, we decided to take a look at Lava Falls from a safe perch above the shoreline. Words do not describe the carnage.
The hike out was what we expected: hot, slow, tedious and exhausting. We each found our own pace, spreading out and battling the ascent. We reached the rim in good time before the final 4.5 mile road walk back to our car.
Canyoneering in the Grand is so much more than canyoneering. In fact it is small part of this place that is so big. Even with the assistance of “Grand Canyoneering” the majority of these descents are not for the faint of heart. I look forward to the many adventures I will experience with the knowledge of this book; those many adventures slowly over a long period of time. 150 days of exploration and adventure in just 3 years; not for me, not in this place.
Shamrock Canyon, 3BIIIR
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek
Laura and I had been trying to get out on a canyon together all summer. With a 9- month old at home our opportunities are few and far between. We had planned on going canyoneering in the middle of the summer but the monsoons kept us at home. A second opportunity presented itself as my parents were out visiting. With a favorable forecast we ventured to Shamrock Canyon. It was wonderful getting to spend some alone time with Laura, particularly in such a beautiful setting. This was Laura’s first descent of Shamrock and my second. The canyon was more challenging than my memory served me, which may have had something to do with the fact that water levels were considerably lower than my previous descent. Never the less we made quick work of the down climbs, rappels, wades and pot hole escapes and reached West Clear Creek all too quickly. The only unpleasant moment during the descent came when Laura had an encounter with some sort of Stinging Nettles species. We relaxed for a while along West Clear Creek before the slog back home. During the hike out Laura and I talked about how few times we have descended technical canyons without the company of others. We could only remember of one previous descent, Stone Donkey. Canyoneering is such a social sport that we cherish that shared time with our friends, but today we were glad it was just the two of us.
There are many ways to explore canyons and on a recent August day we ventured between the shear sandstone walls of East Clear Creek. This time our explorations were not by foot and without ropes or harnesses. The objective of the day was to not ascend or descend a canyon but to find some fun and challenging climbing lines from the canyon bottom up those precipitous canyon cliffs. You may be thinking, “Did you not just mention that you left the ropes and harnesses at home.” That is correct. On this adventure we delved into the sport of deep water soloing. Deep water soloing is a discipline of rock climbing where an individual climbs vertical or overhanging walls over deep bodies of water so if the climber falls the water protects them from injury. The sport is most famously practiced on sea walls, cliffs and towers over the ocean at high tide, but we found ourselves climbing above the brown silty waters from monsoon runoff backed up from the dam downstream in the East Clear Creek reservoir.
We placed our inflatable rafts (not much more than pool toys) into the chocolaty waters of the reservoir and paddled upstream past an abundance of graffiti as the canyon walls tightened. After several miles Mike spotted some fun warm up lines so we docked our boats, swam under the blazing sun to the start of the climb. We dove down a few times to make sure the water was deep enough and that there was no debris in the fall zone of this water that had zero visibility. Up we went and after topping out at about 30 feet the only thing to do was hurl ourselves off the cliff and into the water below.
We paddled past a beautiful panel of petroglyphs to other climbing routes. The climbs got progressively more difficult with the hardest moves often being the one out of the water. As the sun began to move lower in the sky we paddled back down stream past a group of young teenagers on top of the cliff. They took turns psyching each other up to make the jump into the water and one by one they made the leap.
West Clear Creek
Coconino National Forest
07/16/11 – 07/17/11
With Wyatt secured on David’s back we hiked down to West Clear Creek. Along the way we crossed paths with a couple of canyoneers heading back to their car after a descent of Sundance. After a joking conversation on the merits of starting kids canyoneering before they are able to verbally complain we continued down the trail. Once reaching the canyon floor we found a perfect spot for lunch and a swim. Briscoe rolled in the sand as Wyatt babbled at the sandstone walls, looked up at the bright blue sky and examined some grass growing by the banks of the creek. We continued up stream boulder hopping and log crossing into the alcove where the final rappel of Sundance touches down.
We camped on the rim not far from the entrance to Shamrock Canyon. As David set up our monster tent Wyatt looked up at the trees and laughed. Before dinner with Wyatt snuggled and sleeping on David’s chest we took a walk through the forest at twilight. With nobody else around we walked in silence occasionally speaking in hushed tones so to not wake Wyatt. The light glowed softly through the the trees as we got back to camp. As night fell both Briscoe and Wyatt were mesmerized at the flickering campfire.
In the morning, after a night that could have been a lot worse, (Wyatt only woke up twice) we took another walk along the desolate forest roads before packing up and driving back to the Valley. It was the perfect first camping trip for Wyatt and a joy to experience Arizona’s rim country with our child for the first time. The best part is knowing how much the future holds.
Babes Hole Spring Canyon, 3BII
approximately 4 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of Sycamore Canyon
The first Mogollon Rim canyon descent of the season is always special. It is more than descending those beautiful Coconino sandstone slots, more than being towered by the magnificent pine trees and more than breathing the crisp mountain air. That first descent represents another season and another year. Our lives change quickly, but outside a rare natural or manmade disaster, little changes year to year in this magical wilderness.
Babes Hole Spring Canyon was an easy and not terribly exciting technical descent, but the canyon was rather pleasant and the day wonderful as I was joined by my old friend and canyon partner John, and a first timer canyoneer and new friend, Steve. With a recent snow fall, the ground was saturated adding to the springs, resulting in a modest but steady flow through the entire canyon and crystal clear pools. A lethargic Bull Snake laid sprawled out on a rock in the narrows below a beautiful fluted rappel. It did not seem terribly interested or bothered as we moved all around trying to find the right angle to pull our rope that got temporarily stuck. Unlike our Bull Snake friend, a Mojave Green Rattlesnake was extremely irritated as we rock hopped past it. Hundreds of butterflies resembled multi-colored snow flurries and silver colored canyon frogs hopped abound.
My heart beat fast as we aggressively hiked up the Little LO Trail out of the canyon bottom. Feeling the burn I stopped to catch my breath. I tilted my head back and was mesmerized by a towering tree that had long past away. Just a few steps behind me Steve stopped and also stared up at the magnificent form above us. He poignantly remarked of the countless organisms that live within the old, dead tree. With that I smiled, took a moment more and continued up the trail.