Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

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

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

Road Grand Canyon

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

Behunin01

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.

Behunin02

“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

Behunin03

Behunin Canyon, 3CIIIR (normally 3BIII)
Zion National Park
3/25/17

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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.

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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. 

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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.

-David

CLICK ON IMAGE BELOW TO BEGIN GALLERY.

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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

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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
10/25/16

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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.

CLICK ON IMAGE BELOW TO BEGIN GALLERY.

Checkerboard Canyon, a wild gem in an ever busier place

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 8, 2016

The sun comes up during the approach along Dakota Ridge.

Checkerboard Canyon, 3BIV
Zion National Park
June 2016

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First a warning. I let too much time get in the way before sitting down and writing about our late Spring descent of Checkerboard Canyon in Zion National Park, so a detailed cohesive report might be a bit lacking. Though easier than Heaps or Imlay, Checkerboard Canyon has the feel of a rugged, remote and wild canyon far removed from the hordes that descend the jeweled trade routes glimmering on the canyoneering crown of Zion National Park. If you want a detailed report you can easily find one out there but this won’t be it. Included are a few gems that cut through my memory fogged from rearing 3 children, too many hours working outdoors in the hot Arizona sun and too many after work cocktails.

Checkerboard eluded us last Fall when weather made a descent out of the question. I wasn’t going to miss it this time around, but 48 hours away from home was about all the time I had. This includes 14 hours of driving and around 12 hours for the descent itself. Driving solo and trying to make time I let my speed get the better of me and I’m pulled over east of Kanab by the Utah Highway Patrol. The trooper can not be nicer and lets me off with a warning, but not before he asks me about what are my canyoneering plans for the weekend. He tells me he has never descended Checkerboard. Needless to say my weekend could have easily gotten off on a worse foot had it been for a different cop.

Mark in more diagonal walls.

Upon arriving the rest of the crew is already established at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. It is more crowded than I’ve ever seen it.  We awake before sunrise in preparation for the long day. The dozens of other campers still sleeping. The journey begins on the long approach along Dakota Ridge. As expected we have this part of the park all to ourselves. Though only a few miles as the crow flies away from Zion Ponderosa Ranch it feels a world away from the zip-line, swimming pool, ATVs and drunk campers. Ironically, we may have been some of those drunken campers last night but on this morning we are all business as we march efficiently across Dakota Ridge.

After a several hour approach the canyon begins in dramatic fashion and never really lets up. Some rather tough down climbs, tight squeezes, diagonal walls and awkward start rappels which are far more characteristic of points Utah east than normally found in Zion, are rather common in this canyon. Cold water comes in and so do humping frogs. Narrows are sustained and the canyon ends with a unique rappel dumping us just above the confluence with the North Fork of the Virgin River.

The crew at Big Spring on the hike out in the Narrows.

Spring run-off is still a factor and we are able to body kayak down some of the deeper sections of water. The higher flows and the fact that it is late in the day are keeping the crowds out of this normally busy place. We not only have Big Spring to ourselves but don’t see a single other person until we are just upstream of Imlay Rock. Soon as we get downstream of Orderville Junction the crowds explode. It is an international sea of humanity. I have never seen this many people in the Narrows in over half a dozen visits. Though it is wonderful to see so many people from all across the world connecting with this magnificent place it also brings up notions of ‘loving your park to death’. We reach the shuttle stop to find a line of people backed up well over a 100 -yards. The word comes down the line that it will be a 45- minute wait. As we wait I think back on the contrasts of the day. It’s good to know that wild and isolated places still exist in our smaller and more popular national parks. At least for now. It’s been a 100 years. I worry what it will be in another 100. We are on the shuttle in 30- minutes.

– David

Snow falls in Choprock Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on October 6, 2015

Snow falls in the

Choprock Canyon (South Fork), 4BVR
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
4/16/15

 

Water and time. It is these two main ingredients that create the canyons of the Colorado Plateau. During those tens of thousands of years weather patterns have shifted. There have been drier and wetter times, warmer and cooler times. Throughout most of the world we are seeing unprecedented warming trends. Also the Western United States has entered its second decade of drought. Much of the scientific community pins the burning of fossil fuels as the primary contributor to climate change. Others feel this is just the pendulum swinging as it always has throughout time immemorial. Either way, what is indisputable, is that the combination of the drought and the warming trends is impacting our water supply in the Southwestern United States and other places throughout the world. I spent much of 2015 reporting on how these water shortages are playing out; traveling to Peru, Bolivia, Colorado and the Navajo Nation.

With all that traveling, moving into a new house and becoming a Dad to twins, there wasn’t a lot of time for canyoneering. When my friends started planning a canyoneering excursion in the Escalante and I noticed that the dates were lining up just before the start of a 10-day reporting trip in the Colorado Rockies, I seized on the opportunity to squeeze in a descent on the drive up to Colorado.

Pat squeezes through a narrow swimming hallway.

On a cold, overcast Spring day we begin the long approach to Choprock Canyon. I am thrilled to be revisiting this canyon, one of my favorite descents of the Colorado Plateau. The group moves fast and we quickly depose of the long approach, the “Riparian Section” and “Happy Section”. Upon entering the infamous “Grim Section” we find water levels slightly lower than the previous descent. Just low enough that we can squeeze under the crux logjams as opposed to climbing up and over like we did the last time. As we work our way deeper into the relentless “Grim Section”, snow flurries float down in the narrow dark slot. It is eerie and beautiful. The flakes fall intermittently for several hours until the final rappel bringing us back into the land of the living. On the long hike back to the Egypt Bench the snow comes down hard. It might actually be graupel at this point. As I trudge through minimal visibility in these winter conditions, I wonder if the white stuff is going to keep me prisoner of the Egypt Bench and prevent me from beginning my 10-day reporting trip on how the reduced snowpack in the Colorado Rockies is affecting the Colorado River. Work is supposed to begin tomorrow.

... and strengthens on the hike out (although this might actually be graupel).

The following morning I make my way out on the muddy roads, back to pavement and on to Colorado. Ironically the next three weeks would see unusually wet and cold conditions throughout the Colorado Plateau and Colorado Rockies, leaving much needed snow in the mountains. What was a dismally dry winter charged the Colorado River from this late season snow. It made my job as a visual journalist to document drought in this region, challenging. But that’s the thing with climate change, human caused or otherwise; it is about long term patterns not short term weather. Meanwhile our water supply gets ever more precarious and the canyons continue to change. Where will it all be 10,000 years from now?

Too see a video I produced from my reporting in Colorado click here.

A multifaceted adventure in the Full Right Fork of North Creek

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on November 17, 2014

Chris rappels as David looks over Double Falls. It should be called Quadruple Falls.

Full Right Fork via the Hammerhead, 3BV
Zion National Park
10/4/14 –  10/5/14

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I am rappelling down a 250-foot sandstone cliff at the headwall of a canyon. As I slowly make my way down I am scanning below for the next anchor. I know I will need another anchor to reach into the canyon bottom referred to as “The Hammerhead”. I am not seeing any webbing and am getting close to running out of rope. I am still almost a hundred feet above terra firma. I spot a massive pine tree that will work as an anchor but it is off the line of the rappel and will require a bit of effort to get to. I reach the tree growing out of the tiniest of platforms on the near vertical wall. There is no preexisting anchor around the tree and our webbing is inconveniently with Laura and Chris above. I take my personal anchor and wrap around a smaller tree (more of a bush really) just next to the large pine tree and clip back into the personal anchor to provide some security in this space. Laura gets on rope, rappels down and negotiates the features of the cliff face to reach me. She clips into my personal anchor before we set up the legitimate anchor around the tree. Every facet of life has completely faded away except this place, these challenges and these people.

Anytime Laura and I get out in a canyon together it is special. They are times when the stresses of life and our life together melt away and we just experience the canyon on it’s terms.  For this occasion I wanted to select a venue that has a special place in our hearts, one that has been there since we began canyoneering six years ago. That place is Zion National Park. The Right Fork of North Creek had been high on my “to do” list for a long time. I was really excited that we were both going to be experiencing the canyon for the first time together. Just a few days before we were about to embark on the trip, life almost got in the way but everything lined up and after a seven hour drive Laura, Chris and I, dirtbag it not far outside the park for a few hours of sleep before waking up early to get our permit at the Zion National Park Visitors Center. A pleasant morning hike along the West Rim trailhead and a short bushwack up and over a ridge brings us to the top of the headwall of the Hammerhead.

Laura rappels in the narrows.

Laura rappels in the narrows.

Laura and I are now clipped into a true anchor and Chris make his way to join our world. We pull our rope and re-rig our life line to the sweet shaded coolness of the canyon bottom below. The Hammerhead itself, an upper fork of our ultimate destination the Right Fork of North Creek is an exciting technical descent in itself with a handful or rappels and spicy down climbs through some tight sandstone narrows before reaching the Right Fork. After several hours of slogging in the Right Fork, the walls begin to move in and the vegetation subsides. At first down climbs and potholes can be avoided and then they can’t. This is where the real fun begins.

The canyon tightens to a subterranean world completely cut off from that above. It is already late in the day so little light penetrates down below. Continous pothole obstacles and down climbs ensue. Its relentless nature is reminiscent of the narrows of Imlay and Heaps, but on a much friendlier scale. After way longer than expected the narrows relent and the slogging continues. The clock is now ticking as it is getting later in the day and we are still not really sure how much further we have to the Grand Alcove and our destination for the night. Before that we know we must negotiate something referred to as the “Infamous Black Pool”. A thousand feet above I see the rim illuminated in a glow that only the just before sunset light can create. We hit the Black Pool and quickly swim and wade through the obstacle. Not long after that we hear the flow of fresh water and reach the Grand Alcove. Ten minutes later and it is pitch black. We make camp and bed down for the night.

David wades through a shallow section of the infamous Black Pool.

David wades through a shallow section of the infamous Black Pool.

We wake to a crisp morning, pack up our gear and debate whether or not to put on our wetsuits. We decide against it and suffer through a cold wade in the bottom of the Grand Alcove. We continue the hike down stream through a series of tiered waterfalls spread out over nearly a mile. A long slog seems to never end before we reach the Kolob Terrace Road in the heart of the scars of the 2006 Kolob Fire. Our only vehicle is 15 miles of road and 3000 feet above. A hitchhike is a must.  Chris lays down in the shade of a tree as Laura and I stick thumbs up on the shoulder of Kolob Terrace Road. A half dozen cars pass us during the course of 15 minutes. In one of them a women in the passenger seat mouths ‘I’m sorry” as the vehicle speeds by. I start having premature doubts, but Laura tells me to relax. Just then a pick-up stops and takes us to just within a mile and half of our vehicle. After a long drive home during which time we reflect on this multi-faceted adventure Laura and I return to the same stresses in our lives, but feeling recharged and fortunate to be able to have this time and experience together.

-David

A quick stop to Morocco Canyon before heading home

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on May 19, 2014

David tosses the rope while setting up for the first rappel of the canyon.

Morocco Canyon, 3BI
North Wash
03/25/14

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Tents need to be broken down and it is 503 miles of driving from this Desert of Ahhhs to my home,  also in the desert, although one entirely different. Mike and I get an early jump and decide to squeeze in one last quick descent about five miles into the drive. Morocco Canyon fits the bill perfectly. Not a whole lot to report really. The approach is 20- minutes, beautiful and requiring the right line to make it through. The canyon itself is varied, simultaneously easy and exciting. A few waders chilling us on this early morning before the sun’s remedy. In under two hours we are back to the car snaking on slick rock before the 498 miles left of the drive. Another Spring trip is one for the books.

-David

A guest report in Sandthrax Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on May 1, 2014

Cody and Eric up high in Sandthrax.

For years I have heard Mike and Eric talking about a desire to descend Sandthrax Canyon. They were smart about it. They didn’t just rush into it. They worked their way up, starting with easier high-stemmer canyons. I joined them on these descents. It became clear that I was not going to graduate to that next level of an “X-Rated” high stemmer canyon like Sandthrax. No doubt, my skills were not at their level, but even more importantly I didn’t seem to enjoy the high stemming style of canyoneering as much as Mike and Eric. I would continue to descend these canyons to a moderately challenging level (R-Rating) such as Raven, Inferno, Limbo, Happy Dog, Stair, and the Hogs, but wasn’t interested in taking the risks required in a canyon like Sandthrax relative to what I got out of it. Maybe one day this will change, but for now, it was a canyon I would respectfully leave alone. This is the first ever post on this blog, of a canyon that has not been descended by either myself or Laura. Through all of their anticipation, planning and discussion and after descending Sandthrax Canyon safely, joining in their celebration, I felt somewhat part of the experience, even though I wasn’t there. For this reason, I wanted Mike to share his experience on this blog. Below is his trip report.

-David

Mike crosses the major silo.

Sandthrax Canyon, 4AIIIX
North Wash
03/24/14

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“The summit isn’t the end all. Its about this experience, its about having this partnership with your buddy, going on this wild adventure, and not knowing what’s going to happen. Also, not bringing the mountain down to your level and rising to the occasion.”

– Climber Hayden Kennedy on his decision to chop the bolts of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia.

Passing by Sandthrax Campground on past canyoneering trips I would usually say, “We should do Sandthrax,” to my partner, Eric as we drove by. We frequently made up excuses; not having the right gear, the right practice, the right experience. This year we finally ran out of excuses. I was climbing really strong, and Eric was in great shape, canyoneering regularly. Both of us had done high stemming canyons so we kind of knew what to expect. As we finalized our plans and strategy, including borrowing two #6 cams from climbing partners, we added Cody at the last minute to our team.

We arrived in North Wash in mid-march with really great weather, it had been a mild winter after all. After doing the Hog Springs canyons on the first day, I felt pretty good. The canyons had great friction, and most of it was skinny and clean straight forward stemming. However, the next day in one of the Poison Spring Canyons I had let go of the rappel rope for the last couple of feet (a weird habit I had developed in the last couple of years) and landed on a pointed rock. My foot bent forward, and twisted. I ended up hobbling out of the canyon, and back at camp put it on RICE.

By the next morning my ankle felt pretty good, but the weather had turned. We woke to wind with clouds moving in. After hanging out at camp for hours, we felt the weather was starting to turn for the better. We walked to the head of Sandthrax under a light drizzle. Never-the-less, we got to the start, and immediately began down climbing. We quickly arrived at the first rappel, but instead of a sling around a chockstone, we found a shiny 3/8” bolt. After the rappel we got in stemming position, Cody in front, Eric second and me last. I was going pretty slowly, I had slipped on a down climb into the canyon, and was feeling kind of shaky. After stemming a bit we came to the nose up climb. It looked like a strenuous squeeze chimney up climb to me, but Cody face climbed it further up canyon with a stem to a back wall. He made it look easy, so I followed, but Eric opted for the more secure chimney. It was all stemming past that, which was pretty enjoyable. The walls had features and nubs that made for pretty secure footholds. We soon realized that the major worry was gear falling out of our packs. They were getting really damaged from the canyon, and a hole could send all of our stuff into a black hole. Eric’s pack was shredded from past trips, so he clipped everything in his bag together.

Mike shows off his #6 cams before putting them to use at the crux.

We continued and came to the first major obstacle. It was a climb up that looked like to me like an off-width that turned into a chimney. You could bypass the off-width, but would have to cross a silo to do so. We chose to drop down and do the off-width. I took the lead, since I had the most climbing experience. Jamming my left foot into the crack and my right leg knee barred outside I scooted my way up. It was strenuous; it definitely felt like real rock climbing. I kept moving and finally made it to some chockstones that I could stand on. We decided I would bring all the backpacks up on the rope. I started hauling as fast as I could, but still they became stuck right below me. I cursed Eric’s bag, which was the culprit. I down climbed to the bags, freed them one by one, and then climbed back up.

Right after this we came to the silo. It was really exposed and looked to be hands on one side, feet on the other, looking straight down while you stemmed it. A shiny bolt with rings, right above the original piton, protected this. After creating a mess with personal anchors, slings and backpacks on the single bolt, we reorganized and I was itching to climb. I stemmed down, back to feet, and switched over so my left foot was on the left wall and right foot on the right wall. As I walked forward I switched again so my feet were on one wall and my hands were on the other, with me looking face down. I quickly realized that this was totally unnecessary. I could easily do the splits and cross the silo. As I switched around, I heard something ping-pong down, and saw my Nalgene careen into the dark hole in the silo. In my eagerness to climb I had forgot to close my bag, and was lucky to only lose my water and not that crucial #6 cam. Across the silo, which although exposed was really easy, there was a second 3/8 bolt, with a rap ring on it. I tied the rope to it, and Eric and Cody created a safety line. Eric, being shorter, used the line, and then Cody came across with a belay. It was more for mental confidence for Cody, for if he fell, he would take a wild swing through the canyon and probably hit his head.

We came to the crux. I had originally wondered how I would belay from the top, but saw that there was a bolt above the off-width, with 5 or 6 links of chain hanging from it. We took a break and ate, and pulled out the gear. Eric and I had practiced aid climbing two weeks before at the local crag, so I felt somewhat confident. I attached one etrier to each #6 cam. Then I used personal anchors to attach the cams to myself. I started aiding, taking my time. Slowly I arrived at the top. After stepping up, then backing down, and repeating that a few times, I realized I would have to stick my foot in the top rung of the etrier and stand up. When I tried to do this my foot would swing unsteadily into the crack. I finally placed an arm bar into the crack and stood up trusting that I wouldn’t get spit out. I made it close enough to the chain, grabbed it, and walked heel toe sideways to a safe spot. I fixed a rope and Eric and Cody bat manned up. While they were doing that I noticed someone had bolted a cold shut higher up, above the chain. “Why would someone do that?” I thought.

(From left) Mike, Eric and Cody, all smiles with Sandthrax behind them.

After more stemming we came to the next rappel. There was a hueco, with slings around it, but it was backed up with a drilled piton below it. Also there was a long fixed rope hanging from it. I made a quick decision to clean it up by chopping the sling from the hueco. I took the rappel ring, which was a heavy-duty steel kind, and also took a locking biner from the piton. Cody produced a quick link and we attached it to the piton. I collected the rope and put it in my pack.

As we neared the finish we could see a long green rope trailing down the canyon. We came to a bolt that was screwed into the rock with webbing around it. A hex was tightened on a cordelette. We weren’t sure why it was there, the climbing at that point was very easy. I unscrewed the hex and took it, along with the cordelette and a heavy-duty quick link. Eric stemmed down canyon, collecting rope as he went. We came to the final elevator, which I was happy to see, because at this point I was pretty tired. After high-fives and a group photo we walked back to camp with plenty of daylight. Cody even did another canyon right after, a  solo no less!

In all we took out 265’ of rope, as well as miscellaneous hardware. The new bolts didn’t really make the canyon all that much easier or safer, but it did take some of the adventure out of it. Because they were there in a few situations we used it, but I still wish they weren’t. Evaluating and creating natural anchors, crossing the easy silo on a piton, aiding out of the off width into the chimney without the chains, its exciting, it’s the reason we go out into the desert. We canyoneer for the adventure, and when the experience becomes watered down, then what are we doing out there? This sport has risk, its inherent, but we take what we feel is acceptable risk. The hard parts of Sandthrax are still hard and still dangerous, despite the impression that the hardware makes it more accessible for more people. Its not. Sandthrax is a great canyon, an amazing canyon, but it deserves respect.

-Mike

The desert all to myself in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 28, 2014
A selfie in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

A selfie in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon, 3AII
North Wash
03/24/14

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We pull into the Sandthrax campsite just coming back from our descent of Woodchuck and Woody Canyon. As we come around the bend to our cluster of tents I scan for Mike, Cody and Eric. I am hoping they are back and celebrating from their descent of Sandthrax Canyon, an X-rated high stemmer that many say has one of the hardest crux’s of the Colorado Plateau. They are not there. Though we are hoping they would be back we are not alarmed. Brian and I discuss a plan of when we should start looking for them from the rim, with 2- 200 foot ropes in hand in the event we have to send them down a life line. We are still hours away from enacting such a scenario, giving me just enough time for a solo run of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon just above our camp. In 2010 I descended the East and Middle Forks of Leprechaun canyon and am excited to complete the series. Mark, Brian and Chris have no interest in  joining me, which means I’m going solo and is what I was hoping for. Solitude in the desert for a few hours is just what I’m looking for.

Looking down into the upper reaches of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

Looking down into the upper reaches of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

I move quickly on the approach, wanting to return to camp as soon as possible in the event that assistance will be needed for the Sandthrax crew. In little time I’m rigging the first rappel and am in the dark underworld. The solitude and silence is intoxicating. I continue to move quickly, carefully and deliberately, down climbing, stemming and rappelling here and there. I join the main fork of Leprechaun and can hear voices ahead. My private world is no more. I pursue the voices. I reach a section of canyon that I remember from my middle Lep descent in 2010 where boulders fill the canyon bottom. A small tunnel below the boulders allows passage on hands and knees. As I pop out of the rabbit hole of this tunnel I catch those voices. I say “hello.” In the dim light one of the canyoneers recognizes me from this blog. We have even corresponded some via email about canyons and such. Canyoneering is a small world made even smaller by its corresponding virtual world. The woman with him is on her first canyoneering descent ever. She has an ear to ear smile. It is nice to see. We talk for awhile and then I move ahead. In a short time I’m rounding the bend and heading into our camp. From a distance I can see the Sandthrax crew. No rescue required today. There will be plenty to celebrate tonight. It’s going to get loud. It was nice to have the quiet and this desert all to myself even if for just an hour or so.

-David

 

No such thing as silence in Woodchuck & Woody Canyons

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 23, 2014

Chris, Brian and Mark cross the first pool in Woodchuck Canyon.

Woke early on day three and the weather has shifted. The Henrys are shrouded in clouds. The winds pick up. With it sand becomes airborne and is thrown everywhere. Not ideal conditions for canyoneering. Especially not on this day with part of our group planning a descent of Sandthrax, an X-rated high stemmer that many say has one of the hardest crux’s of the Colorado Plateau. Sandthrax is not for me but more on that coming in a post soon. With the inclement weather we scurry around, getting stuff together, watching for the clouds to clear and debating whether to re-think plans. The clouds open a little revealing the mountaintops. We give ourselves a green light, say good luck to our Sandthrax friends without really knowing if they are planning on making a run.

Mark rappels out of the narrows of Woodchuck Canyon as Chris looks on.

Woodchuck Canyon, 3BI
North Wash area (side drainage of Woodruff Canyon)
3/23/14

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As we set up this short shuttle I realize in the chaos of the sandblasted morning I have forgotten my helmet at camp. A careless mistake. Not willing to skip the descent and wait in the car for the others I venture into this sandstone without it. We quickly drop into Woodchuck Canyon, encounter a half dozen or so Valentine’s Day mylar balloons tangled in a prickly pear. I stuff them in my pack knowing I need good karma with no helmet. The canyon slots up. Some fun stemming and down climbing to warm us up on this still raw day. Then a pool. I go in first without a wetsuit. Only waist deep but Im cold again. More stemming and down climbs. Warm. Another wader. Cold. Repeat a few times and then we are spit out via a pretty rappel into the vegetated alcove below. Woodchuck providing a short but sweet appetizer to the main fare of Woody Canyon, where we are heading now.

Chris gets a hand from Brian out of a keeper.

Woody Canyon, 4BIIR
North Wash area (side drainage of Woodruff Canyon)
3/23/14

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More Valentines Day balloons are stuffed into my pack as we stroll up Woodruff Canyon. No doubt they got separated from the rest of the cluster a mile away above Woodchuck. We criss cross the slight flow picking our way through the path of least resistance through the vegetation. A short ways and then up into the domes to gain Woody Canyon. The sun is out in full force as we face the first problem, a last man at risk, partner assist. I provide the meat anchor and then Chris, Brian and Mark provide a capture as I down climb the obstacle. The team work continues from there. I think of Mike, Cody and Eric who are almost certainly off the deck in Sandthrax. They are a team of three and teamwork will come into play somewhat, but so much of their day will be silence, each of them alone on an island, up to 50- feet in the air for hours.  A dozen miles away as the crow flies, the wetsuits come on and we are deep in Woody Canyon, working half full keepers. No such thing as silence here. Communication a must as we problem solve and scheme our way past the obstacles. Alone on a deserted island could not be further from our experience as we crawl over, push and grab each other as a means to follow the path of water, if there were more of it. The four of us are isolated in a single bubble of reality. This is my favorite type of canyoneering. I want it to continue. But it ends too soon. Back in Woodruff canyon we move a herd of cattle over a mile up the now sandy wash, picking up a few more Valentine’s Day balloons. As we ride in the back of Brian’s pick-up to complete the car shuttle I am planning for a quick solo descent of a slot nearby camp. There is still ample light left in the day. I’ll just be sure to grab my helmet before heading out.

-David

Toxic, no. Fun, yes in Constrychnine & Slideanide Canyons

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 17, 2014

Brian raps into Constrychnine.

With more arrivals the previous night our group swells to nine. Today we split into separate groups. One party heads to the skinnies of Shenanigans and Middle Leprechaun, while the rest of us venture to the nearby steep and deep slots in the Poison Springs complex. I know little of these canyons, never before having set foot in these tributaries and barely exploring them online. I’m a blank canvas, with little to no expectations or pre-conceived ideas shaped from someone else’s TR and photos. Regardless, I know they will not disappoint. We are joined by Brian who drove in the previous night from nearby southwestern Colorado. Brian’s been through here before. He recommends we start with Constrychnine, so that’s where we go.

Brian raps in Constrychnine.

Constrychnine Canyon, 3AIIIR
North Wash area
3/22/14

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We walk across sandy hills and washes with no indication that we are so close to the edge of a major canyon system. Abruptly the canyon reveals itself plummeting intensely to its dark bowels between massive tapered walls. It’s scale and steepness is intimidating. We know this is where we are headed and the terrain tickles the nerves as we work our way around to a branch of Constrychnine. We are quickly met with a large rappel. I drop in first, followed by the others. This is followed by an even larger rappel that brings us properly into the tantalizing world below. Deep within this dark chamber are more magnificent rappels, sprinkled with fun and moderately challenging down climbs. Time vanishes in this underworld and we are spit out back into the light. Its name and intimidating first impression aside, Constrychnine is rather benign. The hike back to the rim is direct, exciting and quick while offering outstanding views of the Poison Springs complex at large.

Brian down climbs in Slideanide Canyon.

Slideanide Canyon, 3AIIIR
North Wash area
3/22/14

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The entry rappel is behind us and we encounter the first elevator down climb. I place my body into position and find the right amount of friction from some combination of hands, feet, forearms, elbows and knees and let gravity do the rest. This is almost immediately followed by a similar obstacle. They keep coming, some approaching nearly a 100- feet. Despite their intimidating profile they are negotiated with just a little difficulty here and there. The key is to have confidence in the technique. I think of Mark or who we fondly refer to as Uncle Mark, who by now is squeezing his way through somewhere in either nearby Shennanigans or Middle Lep. He would love this place. You can often hear him shout out to whomever is in front of him while descending a canyon, “Is it an elevator down climb? I love elevator down climbs!” as if in Mark’s mind the person in the lead has some control over the obstacles we encounter. In Slideanide it most certainly would be an elevator down climb. I think eventually Mark would stop asking because he would know. This canyon is his wet dream and I was thoroughly enjoying it too. Anchors are passed over and we down climb nearly everything. We reduce the final sequence to the shortest rappel possible before we are forced to draw out the rope.  We pop out to the relative open world of a canyon maybe 30- feet wide. We take a breather having moved rather aggressively during the entire descent and I place my hands on my derriere. I am amazed to feel an intact seat to my pants. I am, notorious for destroying pants while canyoneering and Slideanide is notorious for shredding seats even for the best of them. I am proud. I’ll be sure to let the others know around the fire. We move out and head back to camp; the toxicity of this place not amounting to much.

-David