Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Odds and ends in Blue Pools and Boulderfest Canyons

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona, Utah by canyoneering on January 25, 2017

Seth on the pack raft across Canyon Lake to do Boulderfest Canyon.

Canyoneering can be intense, multi-day and on occasion can quickly become epic. Other times it just is a way to relax and spend a portion of the day with a litter of water and some rope and relaxing in some narrow places. These types of adventures don’t leave behind much to say about them but they still enrich your soul. With 2016 faded into history and the arrival of 2017 I thought it would be a good time to dust off some odds and ends of two half day adventures of the past year, where not much happened. That was what was so nice about them.

Blue Pool Canyon

Blue Pool Canyon 3AI
Lake Powell area
June 2016


After an intense all day adventure descending Checkerboard Canyon in Zion National Park the day before all I had in store for this day was the seven hour drive back to Phoenix. To break up the drive I decided for a quick solo descent down Blue Pool Canyon. I had spotted this slot while driving over it on U.S. Route 89 en route to other canyoneering adventures in southern Utah. It had always looked enticing at 60mph so for the first time instead of driving over it I pull off into a sandy parking area, gear up and head under the bridge. A few easy drops, a few photos and a little bit of walking and the slot opens up. I navigate my way out of the canyon into the sandstone world above and back to the highway, enjoying the quiet, solitude and exercise before the remainder of my drive home.  

Seth silhouetted after a rappel.

Boulderfest Canyon 3AII
Superstition Wilderness Area


When one of my closest childhood friends was in town visiting, as the host I was charged with the task of filling our days with activities; being the camp director so to speak. Like Blue Pool Canyon, Boulderfest Canyon, had always been on my mind from the dozens of times I would look at it while driving past Canyon Lake en route to other adventures. I knew a descent would take no more than 2/3 of a day with driving, the weather was agreeable and I thought Seth would get a kick out of the packraft across the lake, assuming we did get killed by a powerboat driving over us. The packraft was unremarkable under a hot Autumn Arizona sun. It did requires some muscle to make it across but we got there. Even more challenging was deflating out boats with no flat shoreline. Up and over a saddle and down the other side and we were in Boulderfest. You could see the lake for the entire descent. Seth faced his fear, managed the rappels and down climbs and rather quickly we were re-inflating our boats for the float home, or at least back to our vehicles. Seth and I were back home, showered and in time for a 7pm dinner reservation.


Virtual Reality in Punchbowl Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on January 16, 2017
David holds the two GoPro Virtual Reality rig while planning out a shot in Punchbowl Canyon.

David holds the two GoPro Virtual Reality rig while planning out a shot in Punchbowl Canyon.



Punchbowl Canyon, 3BIV
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness Area


“This fuc*ing camera!,” I mutter to myself as  I’m fumbling with two modified GoPro cameras on a rig so their backs are butted against each other and the lenses face 180 degrees apart. Once I get the shot I want laid out and get both cameras recording, I begin floundering with my two sets of lavalier microphones connected to an audio recorder via a wireless receiver. I am deep in a cold, wet slot canyon in the Superstition Mountains of central Arizona. I clap my hands several times loudly to sync the two GoPro cameras and audio recordings. I then yell “Action!” at the top of my lungs. Moments later Eric comes down a 120- foot rappel into a narrow hallway above me, as down canyon, Mike, Laura and Susan make their way across a frigid slimy pool of water. I stand somewhere in the middle watching all the action. The cameras record it all between narrow walls. This my first foray into 360 degree Virtual Reality video. A few months earlier several USA Today video producers asked if I could shoot a Virtual Reality video for them on canyoneering. Always eager to play and learn new technology and even more so, to get paid to go canyoneering, I jumped on the opportunity. After assembling a crew and picking a date we are out on the trailhead on a cold December morning. It was a canyon that our group of six had all done and were familiar with. In the past a descent of this canyon had taken as little as six hours. I knew today would take much longer.

A frame grab from the 360 degree Virtual Reality video in Punchbowl Canyon.

A frame grab from the 360 degree Virtual Reality video in Punchbowl Canyon.

As the day progresses and shots are produced it becomes clear that battery life becomes my most precious commodity. As I push blinking battery bar indicators to their fullest I do my best to dot every “i” and cross every “t” while trying to record compelling 360 degree footage of this stunning, rugged and challenging desert slot. The hardest part of shooting VR is 360 degrees means everything around, above and below you is part of the footage. Making choices of what to include and what not to include becomes much more challenging than with traditional videography and photography. Combine this with the aforementioned clunky operation of the equipment in this hostile environment and let’s just say it wasn’t that typical day of canyoneering. Four hours past when we would have been to our vehicles on a normal descent  and night is not far around the corner, but the last rappel is still at least an hour away. In the end we make that final rappel and much needed closing shot just before dusk. My crew was extremely patient despite the seemingly excessive production and time in these raw conditions. Kudos and much thanks to them. So without further chronicling let me present to you the finished video piece below. Since virtual reality video is a relatively new medium I have included a list of tips to help you better enjoy the experience.


  • The canyoneering segment starts at the 1 minute 38 second mark.
  • It doesn’t work on the Safari web browser on either desktop or mobile. I suggest Chrome on desktop or the YouTube app on your phone.
  • You need good bandwidth or the resolution will not be good and will make for a nauseating viewing experience.
  • The best way to view is with your phone and a Virtual Reality headset but since most people don’t have headsets I still think with your phone is better than desktop so you can move the phone around and see full 360 degrees. On desktop use your mouse to navigate around 360 degrees.
  • You really have to navigate around to see everything that is going on. You may have to watch the video more than once to do that. Try using a swivel office chair.
  • I didn’t have anything to do with the title which I think is a little misleading and happens to be the same as Todd Martin’s book on canyoneering in the Grand Canyon.

Check out USA Today’s VR Youtube channel VRtually There.

The distant memory of winter in the desert – Upper Romero Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on May 24, 2016

Upper Romero Canyon 07

Palisades Canyon, 3CIII
Coronado National Forest – Santa Catalina Mountains



Dreaded words here in the Valley of the Sun. It has hit triple digits, fire season has begun and winter in the desert is beginning to feel like a distant memory.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was predicting the winter of 2016 to be the strongest El Nino in 18 years dumping abundant and much needed rain in drought stricken California and the southwestern United States. Abundant water in the desert is something special when it happens. Unfortunately, the El Nino never delivered as only a few winter storms materialized leaving far less snow in Arizona’s mountains and canyon country than what many were hoping for. No doubt water managers are looking back on the last six months with disappointment. And they aren’t the only ones. Canyoneers were hoping for a robust winter and spring season of Class C descents. It never really happened. But for me and my partners timing did strike as within a week of the most productive and wide spread storm of the season we descended Upper Romero Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains outside of Tucson.

Upper Romero Canyon 11

The hike begins from Catalina State Park in that juxtaposed combination of brisk air and intense sun that helps define winter in the desert. We climb higher into the Santa Catalina Mountains. The roar of fast moving water can be heard distantly below in multiple places. The desert is alive and we are venturing to a place where we will become surrounded by that intense and fleeting energy. The nearly five mile hike and two thousand feet of elevation gain not only gets my heart moving but gives my mind time and space to absorb what I know will be a special opportunity.

Upper Romero Canyon 12

Into that energy we go and for the others who have been here before they quickly note the way higher flows. Negotiating down climbs, rope and rappels while being pounded by all that water requires focus. The swims feature hydraulics which also require attention to detail. It’s a wild and exciting ride that is experienced by all five senses encapsulated in a bubble of adrenaline: the deafening thunder of water pounding helmets, the taste and smell of agitated water in the desert, the glow of sunlight bouncing off the not so blank canvas of polished white granite and cold water surrounding every square inch of my flesh. I am alive and taking advantage of this time, place and all of this water; in just the same way the desert is. Fast forward four months and it’s all just a distant memory. Again, for both me and the desert.


A weekend away in the Jug and Campaign Creek

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on May 10, 2016

New Years Eve, reflections, including Skeleton Cave Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 31, 2015

Sunrise on the approach.

Skeleton Cave Canyon, 3AIII
Tonto National Forest – Four Peaks Wilderness


I type these words on the last day of 2015. Tomorrow a New Year. But for now forced nostalgia. For me it was an unprecedented year. Unique, special, intense, exhausting, gratifying are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe it. Below is a look back on the many blessings I experienced and also what I survived.


As you can see #11 states “Still experiencing 7 technical canyon descents w/ great friends despite everything.” To some it may seem out of place or trivial with the others on the list. They would be wrong. Canyoneering is a critical part of my life. The sport allows me to experience the rawness and beauty of nature, push myself physically and mentally and bond with friends in a way I can’t duplicate in other ways. Despite what was otherwise a crazy year I feel very fortunate for having experienced those canyons. Skeleton Cave Canyon was one of those seven descents. It was not a particularly special canyon. It was however an opportunity to experience wilderness and friendship in the best and truest of terms. It is the summation of camping the night before and the pleasantries that go with it, required navigation, being in rugged beauty, transportation via foot, paddles and rope and most importantly sharing it with the friends alongside you, that makes it so special and important.

Mark climbs to the Skeleton Cave and the start of the descent.

My “Blessed with…” list probably could not have been much better, but my “Survived…” list, no doubt, could have been much worse. Or one could not survive at all. Such was the case for 75 Apache Indians who in 1872 were brutally shot and killed with their backs to a cave by General George Crook and the 5th Cavalry. The cave is really more of an alcove and marks the start of the descent of Skeleton Cave Canyon. The bones of the Apaches are long gone, although we did see holes in the walls that we believe could be bullet holes from the massacre. For more about the Skeleton Cave massacre click here. 

Mark points to what could be a bullet hole from the Skeleton Cave Massacre of 1872.

Mark points to what could be a bullet hole from the Skeleton Cave Massacre of 1872.

It must have been frightening hidden in a rugged alcove a 1,000 feet above the Salt River knowing the cavalry is literally coming for you, but not for rescue. Did nostalgia or reflection of the past enter their minds amid the crisis? For me (not in crisis) I like reflection at the end of the year, even if its forced. It is a big exhalation before looking forward to many blessings and canyons in 2016, hopefully just with more sleep.

Dusting off Parallel Play Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on August 4, 2015

Brian on the approach hike to Parallel Play Canyon.

It has been six and a half months since I have posted on this blog. Though I have ventured into the canyon lands during this time, my energy and attention has been elsewhere. Professional opportunities have taken me on assignment to the Colorado Rockies, the Cordillera Blanca mountains of Peru, and the slums of La Paz, Bolivia, for long stretches of time. I have moved into a new home and most significant of all, Laura and I experienced the birth of our twins, Samuel and Molly Wallace. They are now four weeks old. I didn’t sleep much last night and officially return to work tomorrow. It seemed like a good time to dust off some memories fogged in twin infant induced exhaustion and begin archiving those handful of descents of the last six months. I may need to rely on the photographs here because despite this strong coffee’s best efforts I am pretty dam tired.

The crew bags rope and gets ready to move on after the big drop.

Parallel Play Canyon, 3CIII
Tonto National Forest


A large group with some of the regulars and new faces on a crisp winter Arizona day. It’s full sun on an invigorating hike up a lovely trail through a grassland covered mountain face to reach the necessary elevation; leaving plenty of time to get to know those new faces. We drop into the canyon…. wait….  You know what, I don’t have enough recollection to write about this trip with any clarity or meaning in my current state of mind. Here’s the summary… Another beautiful slice of Arizona tucked away in its rugged landscape. A great group of guys and conversation. A dark, cold and invigorating technical section before a tedious but not too lengthy rock hop back to our vehicles. A stop on the drive home at a desert watering hole for barbecue, beer and catching the fourth quarter of the Packers blowing it in the NFC Championship game, sending the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLIX. Yes, this trip was a long time ago. NFL Week 1 is a little over a month away.


Pick Axe Canyon, 35- minutes from strip malls and Starbucks

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 10, 2014

Chris moves through the short narrows of Pick Axe Canyon.

Pick Axe Canyon, 3AII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness


After nine years of living in the Valley of the Sun I am still amazed at just how close this metropolitan sprawl sits on the edge of truly rugged wilderness. A recent Wednesday in the middle of a week off for the Thanksgiving holiday, provided a visceral reminder of how it’s just 35 minutes to get from strip malls and Starbucks to rugged canyons and soaring mesas.

After Chris puts in a half day of work we rendezvouse at a gas station on the edge of the sprawl and drive deeper into the desert. It is a new canyon for both Chris and I, known as Pick Axe Canyon that features a 240- foot rappel and a packraft along Canyon Lake to complete the loop. The short adventure begins on a well defined trail that must have been created well before canyoneers began visiting this nondescript drainage; perhaps for mining. We quickly reach the drainage and hike to its edge. A bend of Canyon Lake, can be seen in the distance as it slithers through the canyon walls glowing in the late November light. An 80- foot free hanger gets us in proper. The drainage takes the shape of more of a gully coming off of the mesa above, than a canyon cutting through the desert. I comment that we should call this gullyneering as opposed to canyoneering. Never-the-less, the travel is scenic and the brush not all that thick as we make our way closer to Canyon Lake. Just before the big rappel, the drainage even tightens into some narrows of sort. With just two of the us the 240-rappel is negotiated quickly and we are inflating our rafts as a power boat speeds by.

Chris pack rafting on Canyon Lake.

Chris pack rafting on Canyon Lake.

The paddle could not be anymore pleasant in the late afternoon light and all too quickly we are deflating out boats and stowing them back into our packs. Chris and I power walk up the road to get the heart rate going and in no time we are back at our vehicle. As we sip on our craft beers I bask in the good fortune to live in a city that is this close to this. Of course these wild places don’t exist this close to urban centers and stay that way by accident. It is the hard work of our fellow man that have protected these places for myself and future generations.

– David

Check out a project I worked on for the Arizona Republic about wilderness in Arizona on this 50 year anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson by clicking here.

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.



Too good to pass up in Frye Mesa Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on August 25, 2014

Katie swims during David's trip.

Frye Mesa Canyon, aka S’mores Canyon, 3CII
Coronado National Forest – Pinaleno Mountains
04/26/14, 04/30/14

Laura was able to get away for the day and join the crew for a run down a new Class C canyon we had become aware of, Frye Mesa Canyon, also referred to as S’mores Canyon. I met Laura, Eric, Kyle and Mark for dinner after they finished their run. They were still buzzing describing it as an “instant classic”. As I listened to their canyon tales from the day, the wheels began turning in my head to try and figure out how I could sneak in a descent before summer temps and diminishing snowmelt would make the canyon less desirable. With an extremely busy schedule, a working mom and a 3 year old to boot, I could only find one day where it would even be possible. That day was smack in the middle of my upcoming work week. Now I just needed to get the day off from work and find some partners that can also take a day off from work on a Wednesday just four days in advance. Miraculously I was able to do both and without telling the boss I suddenly got a cold! While rush hour traffic was heading west on the US60 into downtown Phoenix, Brian, Katie and I head east as we make our way to the Pinaleno Mountains.

Mark rappels during Laura's trip.

Its a dusty and windy day as we make our way up an old jeep road to the head of the canyon. We are quickly able to see several waterfalls from the approach that in a short time we will be rappelling down. We know we are in for a fun day. Upon arrival about 2 cubic feet per second flow through a corridor of polished off white granite with blemishes of beiges and blues, providing the backdrop for a number of exciting rappels, down climbs and slides. The lower section is particularly exciting as the canyon bottom narrows into less than a body width, intensifying the flow. It is every bit as much a rock star as Laura, Eric, Kyle and Mark described. The canyon ends just on the other side of Frye Mesa Reservoir from where our vehicle is parked. Brian and I wade into the reservoir and swim the less than quarter mile across. It is the first time the exit from a descent is via swimming instead of on foot, completing what I would also characterize as an instant classic. If only every Wednesday could be spent this way.


‘Consumed by Wilderness’ in the South Fork of Alder Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on March 11, 2014

The crew (from left, Chris, Brian, Cody and David.

South Fork of Alder Canyon, 3B/CIV
Mazatzal Wilderness Area


It is 4:30 AM as I type these first words. I was just woken from my phone ringing on my nightstand. I looked at who the call was from; a subject from a documentary project I am working on the Navajo reservation. Despite the hour, I had been waiting for his call for a few days so I answered. He could tell I sounded tired. “Oh shoot man I forgot you guys are an hour behind.” For the vast majority of the country the clocks had just changed for daylight savings time. Arizona does not observe daylight savings time, except on the Navajo Nation. So where Milton was calling from it was a much more reasonable 5:15 AM. Sheep herders, they start early.

Truth is I had been tossing and turning all night. No reason really, just one of those nights. I actually had just gone back to bed after spending an hour reading Craig Childs’ “Soul of Nowhere.” As I was slowly slipping back into sleep before my ringtone jolted me up permanently, I kept thinking back on a passage in his book. In it Childs describes how ever since he was young he dreamed of being completely consumed by wilderness. “As a child I often imagined jumping from an airplane with a parachute, aiming for the most delirious-looking place, an area that would swallow me.” He continues, “I stared at the plaster-textured ceiling of my bedroom and imagined the cluttered little shapes to be mountains wall to wall, thousands of miles of wilderness, and me on my way in, floating in my bed as I fell.” And this is the line that really stuck with me, “I somehow knew as a child that within isolation and ruggedness was a way of accessing the unexpected from the world.”

And so it was on a recent adventure through a little explored canyon in the Mazaztal Wilderness Area. Brian and I had discussed a descent of this canyon for years. We knew of only one previous descent and had little information. But with just three days left in 2013, schedules lined up and the right group of strong hikers coalesced. We were dirt bagging it the night before at the trailhead to get a pre-sunrise start on a day that we anticipated could be up to 14- hours.

Chris hikes on the approach.

It’s very dark. No moon and cold. We start hiking briskly, almost immediately up into these rugged mountains. Breath is visible but within minutes coldness is a thing of the past. Light behind the Sierra Anchas begins slowly but picks up speed. Headlamps go away and we are making progress. The sun is up now.  A few hours later we leave the trail and pick our way through a mix of small pines and chaparral on a steep slope. We gain the crest and head into a bowl blanketed in snow. This area was untouched by the Willow Fire of 2004 that devastated much of the area leaving behind a Ponderosa Pine forest I have never before seen in these mountains. The snow gets deeper. We posthole to above our ankles as we head towards the upper reaches of the South Fork of Alder Creek. Direct sun is hidden and still covered in sweat from the 3500 foot climb we are chilled to the bone as our feet crunch into the crusty snow. We cross the creek and head for sunlight in the south facing walls. As we slip into our wetsuits and fashion our harnesses we survey the canyon below. The walls are covered in deep snow. The creek is flowing under a thick crust of translucent ice. It looks cold and treacherous.

Drops present themselves. We examine. The ice looks precarious and fragile with large open holes to the churning water below. At this point the canyon has not completely closed in allowing us to bypass along the steep snow covered walls adjacent to the drainage proper. Not exactly providing warm fuzzies of safe passage, but the lesser of two evils. Nearly every step requires both hands to be thrusted into the snow. With nothing but thin garden gloves to protect my hands from rock and vegetation my hands quickly go numb, but not that numb that I don’t distinctly feel my palm as it is pierced by the end of an Agave plant hidden beneath the snow.

We continue to avoid the drops in the main watercourse. Brian coins it “bypassaneering”. The canyon levels. The snow and ice subside and we begin to wonder if this canyon will be a dud, as least as far as a technical descent is concerned. Either way I am still surrounded by seldom seen wilderness. Ultimately that is what I came for. We trudge on for awhile. We are presented with an uneventful 100- foot drop. Bypassaneering is not an option this time. Further down another more interesting drop. And then an unexpected sequence of two rappels, a swim and another rappel, all through exquisite geology. More trudging until we hit the confluence with the North Fork of Alder. We look upstream to another potential route. There is a major drop, although it does look like it can be bypassed. I am almost certain this is the mysterious drainage I descended when I got lost in 2007.

A long slog and we are out. Back to our vehicles well before darkness sets in. Despite finishing hours under the time we anticipated it was still a tremendous amount of work for little technical canyon (although parts of this technical canyon were among the most magnificent in the range). Back to Craig Childs in “Soul of Nowhere”, “It wasn’t heroism or glory that I hoped to find in these  places. Rather , it was the odor of rain, it was encountering an animal alone in heavy woods, or the moment in trackless country when I realize that I am utterly lost and suddenly there is no separation between me and the ground beneath me.” On this day I had this in full.

– David