Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A test in the grandest of places – Tuckup, National, Plan B & Pocket Point Canyons

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on April 25, 2016

Tuckup Canyon 08

An opportunity….

A chance to test myself physically.  Four days, over 40 miles of canyoneering, off trail backpacking and packrafting, in a remote and rugged part of the Grand Canyon. Committing to the adventure somewhat late in the game I realize a little over a month out that I need to get myself in shape. A strict regimen of trail running and climbing to the top of Camelback Mountain with a 50 pound pack follows and rather quickly I’m feeling ready. Perhaps, this is the best shape I’ve been in a long time. I know my three partners will be prepared and planning on hitting the route fast and aggressively. I don’t want them thinking that the Dad of three has gone soft and can no longer keep up. I couldn’t be more excited to put my body and mind in this massive place and see how they hold up.

Tuckup Canyon 03

Tuckup Canyon descent, 2BV and Rocky Point Canyon, 3BIV
Grand Canyon National Park
4/15/16

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On the rim final preparations are made to our packs and feet hit Earth. It won’t get any easier than this as the first few miles are on a moderate downhill grade on the Tuckup Trail, the only official trail we will be walking on until the last day when returning on the same stretch of trail. It has been nearly three years since my last adventure in this remote part of the Grand Canyon, a four day route very similar to this one. The crew is nearly the same. A few lessons have been learned from that trip that was nearly flawless in execution. We hope to repeat the speed and style. With lighter packs and a few of us with some more gray hair, we blast off the trail and into Tuckup Canyon with equally high spirits as when we embarked on that adventure. Eric, Mark and Brian had explored Tuckup Canyon and several of its tributaries on another previous trip. For me this is new ground. I am amazed that we will be descending over two thousand feet on this major canyon all the way to the Colorado River without the need to bring out ropes. It is as if rock and water have partnered over millions of years to create the perfect ramp. Maybe not that perfect as we hit several moderate down climbs upon dropping deeper into the Supai formation. We reach the Redwall limestone and quickly this layer slots up forming stunning narrows. I am giddy with excitement as I pass through a scoured and imposing hallway of vertical white walls like something out of Game of Thrones.

Mark pulls the rope as the crew moves through Rocky Point.

With time in the day and the weather somewhat holding off to its less than stellar forecast, we break out of Tuckup Canyon to gain the Redwall for a technical descent of Rocky Point Canyon, a side canyon of Tuckup. We quickly reach the top of the narrows during which time Eric comes within inches of stepping on a rattlesnake. He is shaken as he should be. A bite here would be catastrophic. As we don wetsuits and harnesses a light sprinkle patters against our helmets and creates water drops in the pool below the first rappel. The rain subsides and we go for it. Several rappels, down climbs and wades make up this short, scenic, exciting and not to challenging descent. We are quickly back in Tuckup Canyon as the rain begins again.

Beautiful light during the float.

Despite the massive reach of the Tuckup Canyon system the rain is light not leaving us overly concerned about the risk of a flash flood. However with every step we continue down canyon we increase the area of accumulated draining water forming a flash food. With every side drainage of Tuckup that we pass that area increases by potentially dozens of square miles. My eyes are most certainly scanning for benches to escape in the event of a flash flood. The rain never amounts to much and we continue to pass sublime narrows as we enter the tiered rock of the Muav limestone formation. The roar of the Colorado River is now in earshot and we reach the sprawling beach at the mouth of Tuckup Canyon. As we inflate our packrafts the rain becomes steadier. We launch into the fast moving water, our destination two miles downstream, the beach at the mouth of National Canyon. I paddle little and let the current take me as I watch the rim of the Redwall a thousand feet above, move across my gaze from right to left in a smooth and continuous motion. Rain falls on my face. Down river, clouds, late afternoon light and rain provide an ethereal quality to the canyon that few get to see and even fewer see while floating on the Colorado River in such a small watercraft. Two miles are covered quickly and we dock on National Beach. As the rain continues we debate whether to camp riverside or look for a shelf in National Canyon to hunker under and stay dry. We explore some less than stellar options and the rain subsides. We set up camp for the night on the soft sand alongside the roar of the Colorado River.

National Canyon 03

National Canyon, 2BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
4/16/16

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The following morning we wake just before sunrise. The weather seems to have moved out. We begin up National Canyon. The mouth of National is massive in size. A highway so to speak but it quickly constricts into Muav narrows even more exquisite than those in Tuckup. Spring fed flow forming small waterfalls greatly adds to the beauty. Some several tough up climbs present themselves and we are strapping our helmets on. We make our way into the Redwall limestone and continue up canyon until reaching a side drainage that we know from Todd Martin’s Grand Canyoneering book will take us to the top of the Redwall. Several tough up climbs require partner assists and chest deep water is frigid sans wetsuits. The narrows are intensely beautiful before the canyon opens up at the point where a super exposed class 3+ climb is the final obstacle to the top of the Redwall.

Mark leads the charge up a super exposed class 3+ climb to get above the Redwall out of the National system.

The several hundred foot climb looks impenetrable but as we get closer we see the route. Unfortunately, the exposure does not lessen as we approach and a fall here would certainly be fatal. My heart beats and my mind is cleared of all but the task at hand. Halfway up one of my shoe laces becomes partially untied. The verticality of the rock makes it impossible for me to bend down and tie the shoe. My concentration is now split between the necessary climbing moves and keeping that shoe on my foot. The grade lessens and the crew reconvenes on top of the Redwall. We are all breathing heavy with eyes wide open.

The exquisiteness of Plan B Canyon.

Plan B Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
4/16/16

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We have been tipped off by Grand Canyon explorer and canyoneering guru Rich Rudrow of the presence of a nearby technical canyon simply known as Plan B Canyon. Rich is responsible for a 100 first descents of technical canyons in the Grand Canyon and is also one of only a dozen or so people to have thru-hiked the entire canyon. Rich has graciously shared some of the beta for this challenging canyon. With only two known previous descents we know we must bring our A game for Plan B. The canyon is indeed challenging and has clearly seen little human presence. We replace all anchors as webbing is severely faded and breaking down for the many awkward start rappels. As we approach the final rappel, an airy 100+ foot rappel over an alcove, we notice the anchor left behind during the previous descents are two knot chocks just near the edge of the drop. The angle of the drop leaves no room for error taking the right direction on rappel and one of the knot chocks seems to come out of place with just the slightest disturbance. To make matters worse the proximity of the knot chocks to the edge makes it nearly impossible to both test it’s effectiveness and back it up with a meat anchor. We are all highly uncomfortable with this anchor. After unsuccessfully searching for nearly an hour for another anchor, we resign to having to use it. We now shift our focus to figure out a way to back the anchor up with meat, but we continue to realize how the angles of everything are going to make that highly ineffective. As we argue and explore possibilities for all but the last man back-up, I notice a deep crack about 30 feet back from the edge. It seems like it could hold webbing and become even more secure if we use smaller rocks stuffed into the crack to keep the webbing in place. Further, the angle and proximity away from the edge allows for the anchor to be tested and backed up for all but the last man. I easily make my case for the anchor and the group breaths a deep sigh of relief that we won’t have to use those terrifying knot chocks.

Plan B Canyon 05

Out of Plan B Canyon we find a suitable place for a camp near a side drainage that we will use to escape back up to above the Redwall layer in the morning. Despite losing time replacing and setting anchors in Plan B Canyon there is still much light left in the day. We spend the afternoon pumping water, snacking on rations and laughing over crude conversation. It’s still light out and I bed down right at the confluence of the tributary. Laying on my side I can look up this canyon and see three layers of rock, the Redwall limestone, Supai formation and Coconino Sandstone before me. Its thousands of vertical feet and represents hundreds of millions of years of erosion. I then turn and lay on my back and watch the blooming ocotillos 600 feet above on the edge of the Redwall swaying in the winds. A few clouds float by. I close my eyes. I am in a really good place.

National Canyon 09

Another pre-sunrise wakeup call as we know this will be the longest and toughest day of the trip. We head up the side drainage and quickly encounter a series of obstacles requiring partner assists and pack hauling. The crux obstacle necessitates a four man, three layer pyramid to reach the top; some real circus shit. We gain the top of the Redwall and begin the long slog around the National System, up to the Esplanade and over to Pocket Point Canyon. It takes more than half the day. It is exhausting and fully sun exposed, but the change of scenery from the subterranean world is welcome affording sweeping views, particularly once we gain the Esplanade.

Pocket Point Canyon 02

Pocketpoint Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
4/17/16

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Finally into Pocket Point Canyon, the heat begins rearing its ugly head as it takes a solid hour to reach the Redwall narrows, where shade and cold water swimmers were waiting. After a stunning and beautiful section of technical canyon in the Redwall, the canyon opens up for another long slog till entering a short section of Temple Butte limestone narrows ending in an alcove rappel. The canyon opens again for a short slog before an exciting rappel sequence through Muav limestone narrows dropping us onto the beach along the Colorado River. We have less than an hour of light left as rope is pulled and packrafts inflated. The last sunlight glows on the rim of the inner gorge as we launch for a short and fast moving float back to the beach at Tuckup Canyon. As we make camp, a near full moon illuminates the entire canyon, keeping some of us awake much of the night. It’s our last night of the adventure.

Tuckup Canyon 10

Tuckup Canyon ascent, 2BV
Grand Canyon National Park
4/18/16

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The final day is rather uneventful aside from the four thousand foot vertical climb from the Colorado River to the rim of the Grand Canyon. We retrace our steps back up Tuckup Canyon. Some of those down climbs with a gravity assist were a lot harder on the way up, requiring partner assists and pack hauls. Upon reaching the Tuckup Trail I am pretty exhausted with still several miles and 1,500 feet of vertical to go. The four of us space out and find our own pace. I’m pushing myself hard but not moving all that fast, feeling the accumulation of the last 76 hours. One foot in front of the other. I reach the rim. I’m ready to be done but also kind of ready for the next one; that next test in this grandest of places. Well, maybe not right now, but hopefully not three years from now either.

-David

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After Four Years Gone, Back to Zion in Kolob Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on July 12, 2013

Laura hip rappels into a beautiful room.

Kolob Canyon, (thru trip to Temple of Siniwava) 3CVR
Zion National Park
06/22/13 – 06/23/13

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David told tales of crows and condors. Of flowing water down tight technical sandstone passages. Of exquisite beauty and never ending narrows. Of an exit hike through much of the Virgin River Narrows. Ever since David got back from his trip down Kolob Canyon in 2009 it had been on my bucket list. At the same time we had been wanting to take our two-and-half-year-old son Wyatt for his first visit to Zion National Park. With David’s parents in Arizona for an extended visit, we loaded up the vehicles, rented a cabin at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort and headed up to the place I love so much that I hadn’t visited in nearly four years.

As Wyatt and I, and my in-laws, Marsha and Lee, settle into our cozy little cabin, David drives down to the visitor’s center to see if we can secure a permit for a descent down Kolob. Due to its location downstream of a dammed reservoir, where water releases can turn the canyon into a death trap, Kolob is one of a few canyons in Zion National Park where permits can not be secured in advance. This was only the second weekend that the park service had been issuing permits for Kolob for the season. That in conjunction with the perfect weather, could make it a popular weekend for the descent. With Brian, Cody and Adam joining us for the technical portion, we are unsure if we can get a permit for five, falling below the park’s daily quota. David returns to the cabin with a smile on his face and a permit in hand.

Early the next morning we unsuccessfully sneak out of the cabin without waking Wyatt up and rendeszvous with Brian, Cody and Adam at the trailhead. After a short hike through dense forest we hit Kolob Creek above the technical section to find the slightest of flow (probably just below 1CFS) despite the Washington County Water District’s scheduled release of 3CFS. Though the boys seem a little disappointed with the flow it makes no difference to me and we suit up above the first drop.

The canyon is as beautiful as David described: relentless obstacles of rappels, down climbs, slides and balancing over logs to negotiate minor drops, all through frigid water in narrows that only get deeper and deeper. I am very happy for my 3mm neoprene hooded vest and 1mm shirt in addition to my 4/3. The technical section ends all too quickly, but I know from what David has described that some of the best parts of this adventure are still to come.

David takes in the canyon walls shortly above the confluence with the Virgin River Narrows.

Shortly below the end of the technical section we reach a 400- foot waterfall from the rim above. At its base is a one-car-garage-sized ice block. The ice is mixed with sandstone sediment. From a low angle it blends in with sandstone walls hundreds of feet above. With Brian, Cody and Adam exiting out the MIA for a day trip and David and I hiking down through the Virgin River Narrows for an overnight, we say our goodbyes before the boys forge ahead.

Between several frigid swims, we pass a deer carcass rotting in the otherwise crystal clear water. The narrows are sustained for miles upon miles as midday moves into late afternoon. We begin to think about a place to camp for the night but we want to get past all those frigid swims so we are not faced with them first thing in the cooler morning. Just when we think we have passed all the swims we are faced with yet another one in a hauntingly dark hallway. The canyon opens a little and we see a flat sandy spot below a tree with plenty of places to hang our soaking gear for the night.  We throw in the towel hoping that last one was in fact the final swimmer.

After a restful night’s sleep where we actually sleep in a little, (at least by backcountry camping standards) we continue to make our way down Lower Kolob. The water has gone fully underground with us getting nothing more than our feet wet. After a few hours we reach the confluence with the Virgin River Narrows.

At Big Spring we stop to refill our water bottles and wonder how long that water has been underground. Has it been 500 years? We marvel to watch that moment as all of that water gushes out of the bottom of those thousands of feet of sandstone. We chuckle to ourselves as we watch a backpacker filter the water right as it comes out of the ground. We continue downstream past hidden gurgling springs, stopping to swim in a hole and hide from all the people in a shallow cave. We emerge and zig-zag past fellow hikers whose numbers grow and grow the closer we get to the Temple of Sinawava.

Lee, Wyatt and David hike in the Narrows.

Back at the cabin we hear all about Wyatt’s adventures with Marsha and Lee around the park. The following day we return to the Temple of Siniwava with Wyatt, Marsha and Lee for a hike a short ways up the Narrows. Wyatt starts in the baby back, but with a pole in hand ends of hiking much of the way himself. Perhaps the next time we descend Kolob Canyon Wyatt will be joining us.

-Laura

Deep in the Big Ditch Day 3 – Olo Canyon

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

Cody in the Temple Butte in Olo Canyon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Condor A9 in Olo.

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

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

-David

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

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

Cody and Eric hike along the rim above Matkat.

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

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

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

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

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

Mark takes in Panameta Canyon.

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

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

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

-David

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

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

Cody wades a pool in the gorgeous Redwall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rafter tackles Upset Rapid in the Colorado River.

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

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

-David

Wyatt’s first overnight backpacking adventure in Aravaipa Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on April 22, 2013

Laura and Wyatt take a break in Aravaipa Canyon.

Aravaipa Canyon
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area
4/7/13 – 4/8/13

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One of Wyatt’s favorite books to read before bed is “Fred and Ted Go Camping”. Fred and Ted pack their car, hike into the woods and have a few adventures/ misadventures along the way. To celebrate David’s birthday we planned two days in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area with our two and a half year old son for his very first overnight backpacking trip. In the weeks leading up, we read that book countless times. While reading we talked about how Mommy, Daddy and Wyatt were going to do those things too.

The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is a 19,410 acre wilderness area on the northern fringe of the Galiuro Mountains featuring a perennial stream that has carved a scenic canyon 11- miles through the Sonoran Desert. Hiking under sycamores, cottonwoods and willows below towering cliffs we cross in and out of the warm, shallow waters as we make our way up canyon.

Thirty pounds of Wyatt sit snuggly in the baby backpack on David’s back. Another 20 pounds of gear is stuffed into the few available pockets of this pack in addition to a daypack filled to the brim with gear and lashed to the back of the larger baby backpack. With David unavailable to carry the majority of food and camping equipment like he normally does my bag weighs more than it ever has.

David and Wyatt explore Deer Creek Canyon, a side canyon of Aravaipa.

The weight on my back aside, seeing Wyatt’s face light up when he spots a frog hop under our feet is almost as gratifying as hearing him say “Good job Daddy” as David ducks under a fallen tree. We stop for lunch between narrow, red rock walls where Wyatt has a chance to put his toes in the river, feel the current, throw some sticks and watch them float away. “More sticks, more sticks,” demands Wyatt.

After lunch we continue up canyon. The gurgling of the river, light wind and rocking, lull him to sleep for 45- minutes. David and I share in conversation in hushed tones. About nine miles from the start we set up camp along the creek under a giant sycamore tree. With Wyatt’s assistance we erect the tent, collect firewood and pump water out of the stream. In the pre-dusk evening we go for a stroll giving Wyatt a chance to do some hiking on his own two feet before eating dinner by campfire. “Like Fred and Ted,” Wyatt says.

What will not go in the record books as the best night of sleep, though it could have been worse, we wake not long after first light and warm up by the campfire. Before breaking down camp we explore the nearby side canyon of Deer Creek. A dozen vultures circle overhead as the walls of the canyon narrow in. “Tunnel,” Wyatt shouts. A few miles up this deep, accordion canyon we break at a natural spring flowing right out of the rock lined with Golden Columbine flowers. We fill our bottles and Wyatt put his lips up to the trickling water, drinking right from the spring. On the way back to camp we spot the sluggish, brightly colored and venomous Gila Monster.

Wyatt feels the dripping water of a spring in Deer Creek.

After breaking down camp we see more wildlife during the hike out. “Monkeys!” Wyatt shouts. The long tails throw him off. Just off the banks of the river is a pack of ten coati mundi. Again Wyatt falls asleep as we make miles only to be woken by 40mph gusts of wind that develop in the afternoon. Wyatt is not pleased, but we trudge on.

One aspect that makes spending time in the wilderness so special is the experience is scaled back to a much simpler form. It is all about what exists before you and what you need to do to safely enjoy these surroundings. All the other noise of everyday life fades away. For a toddler that simplified existence is the everyday. Sharing that with your son is truly special.

Things we did wrong: We forgot coffee. We WAY overpacked clothes for Wyatt. We even brought 2 pairs of shoes yet he was barefoot most of the time.

 Things we think we did right: Talking about the backpacking adventure for a few weeks before the trip so Wyatt would know what to expect.

 -Laura

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Christening “Grand Canyoneering” in Cove Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on November 10, 2011

Cove Canyon, 3BVI
20.6 miles
Grand Canyon National Park
10/15/11 – 10/16/11

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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.

-David

The first adventure of the decade in Punch Bowl Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on January 8, 2010

Punch Bowl Canyon, 3BVR
15 miles (approximate)
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness Area
01/02/10 – 01/03/10

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After seeing some photos of a canyon known as Punchbowl Canyon on a website of a canyoneer who goes by the name the Desert Nomad, John and I started studying maps and comparing them to the photos to determine where the location of the canyon might be. After getting an idea I went out on a brutally long solo-scouting trip and felt extremely confident that I had a location.

Over a month later Eric and I decided to start out a new decade by attempting a descent. Unfortunately we were without John, who decided to hang back because he and his wife, Kim, are expecting their first child within the month. The first day was spent on a strenuous approach, climbing up and over mesas and canyons until we camped on a wind swept mesa above Punch Bowl. As the sun began to set the winds picked up and howled with ferocity, continuing throughout the entire night. I buried myself deep in my down mummy bag and tried my best to fall asleep.

At first light we quickly packed up as the wind took several of my items across the mesa only to be stopped by the claw like fingers of a large cholla cactus. Escaping the viscous winds by descending into Punch Bowl proper we stopped to make hot oatmeal when we reached the first pothole that had clean looking water. Shortly after breakfast we hit our first rappel. Seeing webbing slung around a choke stone only increased our confidence that we were in fact descending Punch Bowl. Immediately the rappels began one after another, interrupted by pools of cold water covered in a layer of velvety fluorescent green algae. One of the pools was covered in strands of algae crisscrossing and bending to create a magnificently intricate design. The potholes were filled to the brim with water but it appeared in dry conditions keepers could exist. Facing a 12-foot drop into a deep pool with no natural anchor opportunities, Eric volunteered to become a meat anchor that I rappelled off of. A meat anchor is when a human being uses his body weight to become an anchor for rappelling. Obviously that person has to find other means to descend the obstacle. For Eric, the means were sliding and jumping the fall into the frigid water.

Despite its difficult access and remoteness, Eric and I were surprised and delighted that a canyon with such a relentless technical quality could be so close as the crow flies to our homes in one of the nations largest metropolitan areas. 9 rappels, plus three additional meat anchor rappels, and probably a half dozen swims brought us to the final dramatic 150-foot plus rappel to a clearly punch bowl shaped pool (I am sure its namesake) at its confluence with another larger canyon.

A four-hour exit hike much of it through the dark brought us back to our car and end of the first adventure of the decade.

-David

Exploration and technical canyon discovery in the Four Peaks Wilderness

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 17, 2009

Blue Tank Canyon, 2BV/ Hells Hip Pocket 3BV
Tonto National Forest – Four Peaks Wilderness
11/22/09, 12/12/09 – 12/14/09

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The system looked promising on topographic maps, but remote. Canyon Lake and the Salt River blocked it to the south. A large road less area (or least roads that are passable) of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area filled with rolling washes, and rugged canyons surrounded it to the west, north and east.  Did a technical canyon exist within? I decided to find out on what would be one of my first real canyon pioneering adventures.

PART 1:

The first leg of the exploration began partially as training for an adventure race I would be participating in several weeks with my friend and one of my canyoneering partners, John. The adventure race included a section of kayaking. John and I thought it would be prudent to do a trial run in a tandem kayak before the race. A perfect opportunity to get some paddle in and allow for penetration into the canyon system from the bottom. Along with Laura in a single kayak, we made our way across a choppy Canyon Lake and up the Salt River into a direct head wind to the bottom of Blue Tank Canyon. Mormon Flat Dam at Canyon Lake has raised the water levels of the Salt River back into Blue Tank Canyon making for a short stretch of paddle surrounded by narrow canyon walls. After stowing our kayaks on dry land, we continued through the narrows by foot. The walls quickly got higher and tighter and transitioned from beige to blue in color revealing the origins of its name and giving us a beautiful stretch of canyon. A 10- foot dry fall was climbed with not too much difficulty. Before not too long the canyon opened up and became less interesting. John, Laura and I slogged up the canyon, negotiating several easy dry falls and passing an area of crystal clear spring fed pools hidden beneath thick vegetation before reaching the confluence of Hells Hip Pocket. With our rental kayaks due back that evening and the long paddle to the Canyon Lake Marina ahead of us, we only ventured a short distance up Blue Tank Canyon past Hells Hip Pocket before heading back down canyon. Even though I was slightly disappointed that during our ascent we were not stopped dead in our tracks by an un-climbable dry fall signaling technical canyon above, I felt confident there still could be something of note in either upper Blue Tank or Hells Hip Pocket. I looked to return to the system from above as soon as possible.

Laura kayaks into Blue Tank Canyon.

PART 2:

Nearly a month later, with 60- pound packs on our backs filled with a full arsenal of canyoneering gear, Eric and I slowly hiked up Trail 84 to set up a base camp and further explore the system from above. Hiking through mine fields of cholla pods and past wild burros we set up camp near a natural spring alongside a bullet ridden aluminum shack in the shadow of Four Peaks. That afternoon we dropped into the far upper reaches of Blue Tank Canyon. The first mile and half of the canyon were chocked with catclaw, prickly pear and other evil desert vegetation, shredding our legs, arms and hands. Eventually the vegetation subsided and the canyon changed character as walls closed in and the canyon got deeper. We were faced with several moderately challenging down climbs and waist deep pools to wade. We continued to the point where John, Laura and I had turned around a month earlier from below. It was confirmed. Blue Tank though challenging and beautiful does not require the use of ropes for a descent. Finding an alternate route back to camp along a high ridge and adjacent canyon we reached our camp several hours after dark. The following day we planned to descend Hells Hip Pocket and exit the system via Blue Tank.

From camp it took several hours of hiking up onto a ridge to reach the upper confines of Hells Hip Pocket. Along the way we saw deer and javelina. Hells Hip Pocket consists of five branches all draining from the same high ridge. We decided to descend via the easternmost branch, which is the one furthest from the confluence with Blue Tank and on the map appeared to be the main drainage. The canyon was moderately interesting and very different in character from Blue Tank. Certain sections were filled with brush but for the most part the hiking was not too unpleasant. We were able to avoid getting wet and rappelling by traversing ledges and moderately difficult down climbing. We did set up one 35- foot rappel off a pinch point down a dry fall. The fall could have been down climbed but appeared sketchy and under a light drizzle we felt rappelling was the safer option. As we slowly passed Hells Hip Pocket’s adjoining branches under the steady and cold drizzle, a slight level of disappointment was setting in that were not going to find anything of note. Then out of nowhere the canyon rounded a bend and dropped into a deep and dark slot. Eric and I were giddy with excitement as we evaluated the drop and looked for a natural anchor.

With no signs of webbing anywhere we decided on a small, but secure boulder above the drop. The rappel was approximately 40- feet. The canyon walls were beautifully tight and convoluted, undulating in weird angles. About 100- feet beyond the first drop, a second longer drop ended in a deep pool. Again there were no signs of webbing anywhere, so we took our time to evaluate the natural anchor options. Using a pinch point on a shelf above the drop, the rappel was exactly 50- feet into a 75- foot swimmer.

After the frigid swim and very short stretch of tight narrows to follow, the canyon opened back up to its former self. We hit the confluence with Blue Tank and began the long and strenuous climb up the canyon, followed by the alternate return route of the previous day. Again we reached camp several hours after dark. Around the campfire we discussed the possibility that we made the first descent. Though I feel it is impossible to make the claim with 100 percent certainty, the canyon’s remoteness and the complete absence of any signs of webbing seemed that ours was in fact a first descent.

The following morning we slept in and lounged around camp before the backpack out on a crisp December Arizona day. For the first time all weekend all four of the Four Peaks were not shrouded behind clouds. A lot of work had gone into the exploration and approach of this remote canyon that only yielded a short section of technical canyon.  I could not have been more thrilled with the discovery and the process, adding a whole new element to the sport.

-David

Diversity of the desert in Aravaipa Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 4, 2009

Aravaipa Canyon
approximately 23 miles
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area
10/5/08 – 10/6/08

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The desert is not a uniform world. Mountains and canyons break the desert up into pockets of diversity that are entirely different from adjacent areas. On the northern end of the Galiuro Mountains, the perennial Aravaipa Creek has carved a canyon of staggering beauty that pushes ones preconceived idea of the desert. My co-worker and friend, Pat Shannahan and I explored Aravaipa Canyon and some of its side canyons on a two-day backpacking trip. Along the way we observed big horn sheep and coatimundis, we rested under giant Cottonwood trees, drank fresh spring water coming right out of the dark red porphyry rock, gazed at the stars and the surreal geologic formations and sloshed our feet through the cool waters of the creek. I will close and let our images speak for this place and our time in it.

-David