Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Deep in the Big Ditch Day 4 – Floating down river & ascending 150-Mile Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 4, 2013

Mark floats down the Colorao River.

A different sort of day this one. For starters, it begins by water not land with a nearly five mile float down the Colorado River. After spending three days battling immense and uneven terrain slowly and tediously by foot, heavy loads on back, this portion of the trip represents the sweet reward for our toils. The mighty Colorado does the work as we sit back and seamlessly watch the world from 5000 feet below, sail by. So excited, I inflated my packraft the night before. Besides what would make a better pillow. In the morning I wake to discover my “pillow” is a third deflated. I am unable to locate the slow leak in the nearby pool at the bottom of the trickle waterfall at Olo Canyon. I can only hope the leak is so slow it will not too greatly effect the seaworthiness of my vessel. We walk across the beach, backpacks around one shoulder and packrafts and paddles held in the other hand. Life vests are strapped down and packrafts tempered to the 46 degree temperature of the water for maximum inflation. I clumsily board my little boat, my backpack on my lap, my lanky legs hanging out of the sides. I dig my “spatulas” into the water and sand and away we go.

Being so low in the water you feel every undulation, riffle, current and eddy. Its power remarkable. We keep the boats straight and true through the first set of riffles and the water calms. We can relax as the river takes us like a tracking shot on a camera mounted dolly through this magnificent scenery. A herd of maybe 10 big horn sheep run on the rocky slopes above the banks of the river along with us for nearly a mile.

It is not entirely a free ride even on the calm water. Currents can come out of nowhere and it would not take much to eject us from our tiny and flimsy boats. Taking a swim in the 45 degree water would be very serious. As we hear the approaching Matkatamiba rapid we move closer to the north shore. Just before the rapid (we decided earlier in the trip not to run it after scouting it) we dock in individual pockets between shoreline boulders. We exit our boats and portage around the rapid, reentering the river in the riffles just below. We float by a rafting party breaking camp at the Matkat Hotel. I want to say they look at us with perplexity, but they are too far away and I can’t see beyond their waves. Four and a half miles is over very quickly and we leave the marine world behind to return to that of feet on rock and dirt.

Eric in beautiful narrows and beautiful light.

150-Mile Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
05/04/13

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A break in the cliffs allows us a layer several hundred feet above the shoreline. At times we use existing bighorn trails, at others we negotiate exposed, chossy and off-camber terrain as we negotiate down river to get into 150- Mile Canyon via a ledge above the Muav Narrows. The ledge is also somewhat precarious forcing us to our bellies in one place to negotiate the narrow ledge maybe a 100- feet above the canyon bottom. Once on solid ground in the bottom of 150- Mile Canyon we begin heading up-canyon for our ticket out of here. The drops that we rappelled on the way down will either be bypassed using shelves above the narrows or we will have to ascend using the rope we left behind.

After a long a bypass hundreds of feet above the narrows below we drop back down to the canyon bottom. At the next dryfall we reach the first set of cord left behind. Instead of leaving a rope at each of the drops, lighter parachute cord was left behind. We attach our rope to the cord and pull the rope into place so we can ascend the drops. To save weight we brought only two sets of ascending gear between the five of us. After the first jug we break into teams to tackle the next three ascents, all of them featuring awkward boulder chokestones at the top that are challenging to get above and around. The jugs are separated by beautiful narrows in shifting light that because of our direction of travel look entirely different than on the way down. The final obstacle out of the Redwall narrows features an exposed but not too difficult 100- foot climb. Shortly after topping out on the rim of the Redwall, I hear Mark who is ahead shout something. I can not make out the words. I then immediately see a Bighorn Sheep sprint right past me right on the edge of the cliff into the narrows.

David free climbs out of the Redwall.

The Bighorn close encounter was one last treat before the three hour, 2000 plus foot slog to the rim above, much of it in the full force of the afternoon sun. The accumulation of the last four days is being felt now. Nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other until you are there. Upon reaching our vehicles Brian, Cody and Mark make preparations to hit the road and try to make it to Kanab before all of the restaurants stop serving  dinner. Eric and I, on the other hand came prepared, having brought food and beer that remarkably is still ice cold in our coolers left behind. Our plans include eating mass quantities of food, washed down with a few brews and then sleeping. Driving can wait until tomorrow. With hugs goodbye, the team separates. Eric and I mosey over to a massive vista of the Grand Canyon landscape below. We marvel at its size. Though we just explored a considerable chunk of this wilderness it is a a mere drop in this truly grand bucket.

-David

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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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Weather turns, castle tours and down Val di Gei & Val Grande inferiore

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on October 24, 2012

The border between Italy and Switzerland has no checkpoint, guard gate or manned security. It is however teaming with activity as tourists mill about taking in the beauty of the alpine landscape at Splügen Pass. After stopping to take in the scenery ourselves we cross into Switzerland and make our way down a dozen or so switchbacks. That afternoon we arrive at our campsite along the banks of the Maggia River, one of the major valleys that makes up the geography of the canton (county) of Ticino. The technical slots we will descend over the course of the next week are side canyons of the Maggia and the other major valleys of the area. For the foreseeable future any kind of technical descent will have to be put on hold as the weather forecast calls for a major low pressure system settling over much of Europe. As the clouds move in, Laura and I go for a walk at dusk along the Maggia River, passing by the largest and most elaborate cairn structures I have ever witnessed.

The following day as the intensity of the rain increases we explore the ancient city of Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino and it’s three castles. The city has been considered a key strategic point connecting Italy with the rest of the continent to the north because of its close proximity to several alpine passes. While the city has been occupied since the early Neolithic Age, possibly up to 7000 years ago, Bellinzona was first fortified in the first century BC on a rocky outcropping in the middle of the city. One of the three castles, Castlegrande, sits at this very site. The other two castles, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro, date back to the 1300s and 1400s, respectively. All three castles were renovated and expanded throughout the middle ages. Much of the construction of the castles that stand today were built by the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century who were trying to defend attacks from the Swiss and the French. In 1499, Louis XII of France captured Bellinzona. Several months later, an armed revolt of local citizens drove the French troops out of the city and seeking protection from the French joined the Swiss Confederation. Bellinzona and the surrounding countryside would remain part of Switzerland through today, but its people would continue to speak Italian and their food, identity and culture would be heavily influenced from their Italian history.

We explore the courtyards, towers and hallways of the castles under an increasingly steady rain. From atop a tower of the Sasso Corbaro, the geographic highest of the three castles we are treated to magnificent vistas of Bellinzona and the surrounding countryside as low lying clouds move in and out of the valley. From atop this vantage point we can see how integrated the castles and other medieval fortified structures are into downtown Bellinzona. Despite this amazing historic and cultural tour I would be lying if I did not admit that the inclement weather was getting me down.

Val di Gei inferiore, V4A4III
Maggia Valley, Ticino, Switzerland
08/31/12

 

Awake at 3am from the sounds of pitter patter on our tent. It is not a happy noise to hear for a trio of canyoneers who have come a long way. I awake cranky from inside my damp sleeping bag. I peer out my tent and though the weather looks far from bright and sunny, it is vastly improved, with even a few patches of blue sky. We decide to check the water flows of the nearby technical descent of Val di Gei inferiore. In our possession we have the guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola, a guide to the best technical descents of Ticino written in English. One of the most helpful aspects of the guidebook are photographs that serve as a checkpoint for what are safe conditions based on the amount of water flow. Too much water flow in these canyons can range from extremely challenging to potentially deadly. These side by side photos of a point at the bottom of the canyon can be used to compare to the current conditions. This helps determine if the water flows are within what an individual would consider acceptable for a safe descent. From a stone bridge spanning the bottom of the canyon we use the photographs and though the flow seem a bit on the high side we decide to go for it.

Passing by a religious shrine in the middle of the forest during the approach the sun pokes through the clouds. We leave the main trail and carefully make our way into the canyon bottom. Armed with the knowledge we learned from Pascal we are ready. We immediately encounter a 40- foot toboggan. Further down canyon the rappels begin. Rappels in high water flow can be extremely challenging and potentially dangerous if not using proper techniques. The bottom of these drops often have dangerous hydraulics that could potentially suck in an unsuspecting individual. It is imperative that the rope is not set long on a rappel. This allows a canyoneer to rappel right off the end of the rope. If the rope is long the canyoneer is forced to tread water to remove the excess rope from one’s descending device and risk getting sucked into the hydraulic. A system of lowering the first rappeler on a contingency anchor is used to ensure that the rope is set to the proper length. In the deafening water, whistles signals are used for communication during this process. A 150- foot rappel in Val di Gei  tests all of these skills as Eric lowers me 25- feet while I am pummeled by falling water. Many obstacles but all too quickly we reach the stone bridge we walked across earlier and the canyon ends. Clad in our wetsuits and with big smiles on our faces we walk through the quaint town of Gordevio to get back to our vehicle.

Val Grande inferiore, V3A4III
Maggia Valley, Ticino, Switzerland
08/31/12

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With plenty of light still in the day and the weather still clear we go for a descent of neighboring Val Grande inferiore. During the approach we pass by a farmer and his teenage daughter repairing a fence on a hillside. They speak no English. We play charades and they are able to communicate with us the remainder of the route to the canyon bottom via a fixed line down a steep slope. Val Grande is even more beautiful than the previous descent, including a triple streamed waterfall rappel, narrow striated walls, lush vegetation and a 100- foot rappel down a narrow chute under an old stone bridge, as a finale.

To celebrate our first descents of Switzerland we have an amazing dinner at a nearby Grotto. Grottoes are simple taverns that serve regional food often on a fixed menu. In other words everyone eats the same thing and it is delicious. Tonight it is aged cheese, green salad, barbecue spare ribs with an Italian seasoning and German Potato Salad. We drink the local Merlot, Ticino’s specialty, from the small vineyards that you can see everywhere: along hillsides, in the courtyards of the castles, in residential yards, alongside churches, in small pockets in downtown Bellinzona, even at our campground. This was also the night we discovered Nocino, a regional liqueur made of unripened walnuts. The after dinner drink would become a fixture for the remainder of our trip. We returned to our campsite full and feeling pretty good.

– David

Wyatt’s first camping trip – West Clear Creek

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on July 18, 2011

West Clear Creek
Coconino National Forest
07/16/11 – 07/17/11

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With Wyatt secured on David’s back we hiked down to West Clear Creek. Along the way we crossed paths with a couple of canyoneers heading back to their car after a descent of Sundance. After a joking conversation on the merits of starting kids canyoneering before they are able to verbally complain we continued down the trail. Once reaching the canyon floor we found a perfect spot for lunch and a swim. Briscoe rolled in the sand as Wyatt babbled at the sandstone walls, looked up at the bright blue sky and examined some grass growing by the banks of the creek. We continued up stream boulder hopping and log crossing into the alcove where the final rappel of Sundance touches down.

We camped on the rim not far from the entrance to Shamrock Canyon. As David set up our monster tent Wyatt looked up at the trees and laughed. Before dinner with Wyatt snuggled and sleeping on David’s chest we took a walk through the forest at twilight. With nobody else around we walked in silence occasionally speaking in hushed tones so to not wake Wyatt. The light glowed softly through the the trees as we got back to camp. As night fell both Briscoe and Wyatt were mesmerized at the flickering campfire.

In the morning, after a night that could have been a lot worse, (Wyatt only woke up twice) we took another walk along the desolate forest roads before packing up and driving back to the Valley. It was the perfect first camping trip for Wyatt and a joy to experience Arizona’s rim country with our child for the first time. The best part is knowing how much the future holds.

– Laura

Into new territory in Shinumo Wash

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on October 4, 2010

Shinumo Wash, 3BVR
approximately 11 miles
Navajo Nation/ Grand Canyon National Park, tributary Marble Canyon
09/18/10 – 09/19/10

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The moon had yet to rise as we headed west on a dusty Navajo dirt road in a maze of roads, some nothing more than two tire tread marks through the desert scrub. Well over an hour after leaving pavement and only because we had a GPS, we arrived at our trail head right at the edge of Shinumo Wash, a deep and wide side canyon of the mighty Grand. As we laid down for the night the moon rose giving us a better sense of the vast country that surrounded us.

We woke with the sun, the heat following just behind. As we organized the last of our gear we knew it would not be long for the heat to completely catch up. We headed down the old Bureau of Reclamation Trail from the 1950s used to transport gear and personnel for a proposed dam site down at the Colorado River. For a side canyon, Shinumo was wide, vast and deep. The trail zig zagged down the steep canyon walls in the blazing sun to the sandy bottom strewn with boulders.

After hours of slogging down the not particularly pleasant canyon bottom surrounded by massive sandstone walls we approached a new layer of rock. As the drainage entered into this limestone layer the canyon narrowed into a beautiful slot and the real fun began. A pattern of either clean fluted rappels or slides of giddy excitement down polished limestone chutes into deep pothole pools of temperate water was the modus operandi of descent for the technical section. In these conditions the potholes were full and easily escapable and each one laid in the bottom of its own individual room before the next drop would take you into an entirely new chamber. Direct sun did not penetrate into the canyon bottom and despite the warm air and relatively warm water I was left with a slight chill through my body as we continuously submerged into and exited pools. Despite the slight shiver we took our time enjoying the rappels, the slides and the enormous insects who made this place home. The silver chambers of the slot had a campfire glow of light reflected from the sandstone walls towering over a thousand feet above us. Another rappel brought us to yet another room and we noticed dozens of footprints in the dried mud. This is the famous “Silver Grotto” a popular side hike from the Colorado River that rafters come up to from the river during their several week long trips through the Grand Canyon. Above this room where we came from, the rafters are stopped dead in their tracks from the drop we had just rappelled down. By now the roar of the river was easily heard and before not too long we reached the banks of the Colorado.

This part of the Grand Canyon like most of it, does not allow an exit up the fortress walls nor does it allow dry passage along its banks. The solution was to use small inflatable boats that we carried in our packs to float down to a section of the canyon where escape was possible. After inflating our pack rafts we launched into the swift current. Riffles splashed water over the boat that placed me only inches above the undulating surface of the river and entirely too soon we reached our camp for the night along a magnificent beach. The sounds of the river was the perfect background noise to a relaxing and enjoyable night of camping.

Despite several hours of unpleasant approach hiking, the previous day was full of beauty, fun, excitement, exploration and relaxation and we had barely paid much of a price for admission. What was the catch? On the exit hike back to our vehicle we found out. A real suffer fest; 5- hours, 2500 feet of elevation gain in complete exposure to the sun with temperatures hovering around 100- degrees. Truth be told I like to suffer a little. I find it cleansing. So for that ride I’ll pay the ticket price every time.

-David

Lower Waterholes Canyon, Part Deux

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on April 29, 2010

Lower Waterholes Canyon, (thru-trip to Colorado River) 4BIIIR
4.1 miles to river, 4 mile pack raft

Navajo Nation, tributary of Glen Canyon
04/25/10 – 04/26/10

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This canyon was calling me to come back. On the previous descent, the route we took avoided the big drop by rappelling down a series of ledges along the side of the alcove.  I feel this is an unsafe way to go. An abundance of loose rock near all of the anchors makes this route extremely dangerous. I was involved in the decision to go this way so the last thing I am doing is finger pointing, but since that descent over a year ago I felt a strong desire to return and do the descent the right way. Further, Laura, Eric and I had recently acquired pack rafts (small inflatable boats that weigh very little and when deflated can fit into a backpack) that we were anxious to put to use. The plan became to descend the canyon via the big drop and camp along the banks of the Colorado. The following day we would pack raft out to Lees Ferry and hitchhike the 35 plus miles back to our car. Okay, let’s go.

With just three people to divide the 700 feet of rope, pack rafts, paddles, personal flotation devices, wetsuits, sleeping bags, food, water, a water filter and a small cooking pot, our packs were bursting. Because of the weight and bulk of our packs it quickly became apparent that hanging our packs was mandatory to avoid flipping upside down while on rappel. A somewhat skinny section of canyon proved to be extremely difficult with all of our cargo. Never the less, we smoothly made our way through the rappels, down climbs, narrows and a Tyrolean Traverse to avoid getting wet in the pothole that had way less water than during the last descent. In fact we probably all could have skirted around the scum filled pool, but after Eric successfully maneuvered to the other side, Laura and I wanted the novelty of zip lining across.

As Eric lead the way on the final rappel before reaching the infamous Big Wall, I watched in horror as his 50- pound pack fell down the nearly 100- foot rappel, while he went to hang it off of his harness. Eric watched in even greater horror with the knowledge that his iPod Touch of 3 years was stored loosely in has pack. Once down at the bottom of the rappel Eric confirmed that his iPod was in fact a casualty, smashed to smithereens, along with a dented flask and cracked paddle.

After regrouping we started towards the beginning of the multi-pitch rappel down the Big Wall. We followed the drainage proper through down climbing a very narrow section of canyon towards a major drop ahead. Upon reaching the drop-off we could not find bolts anywhere. We did an about face and retraced our steps back up the down climbs which was torture with our huge packs through the narrow walls. At this point, Laura spotted the bolts of the start of the multi-pitch along a ledge canyon right above the drainage proper.

The first part of the multi-pitch is a 100- foot rappel down a very narrow crack. Leading the way I chose to hang my pack, which presented problems as it got stuck on the way down. At the bottom of the rappel where the crack was even narrower I spent several minutes getting my leg and pack untangled. Eric chose to keep his pack on for this rappel, which solved some of the problems I experienced, but he was troubled with not being able to turn around and see where he was going.

The second section of the multi-pitch is a short 15- foot rappel to the hanging station that provides the bolts for the 310- foot drop to solid ground. As I set up our rope for this monster, quadruple checking everything, Eric hammered sticks into the crack on the first part of the multi-pitch to help prevent the rope from getting stuck on the pull. Even after doing this, our rope still got stuck and Eric had to stem back up the crack 15 feet to dislodge the rope.

On the 310- foot rappel I chose to rap out of the bag hanging from my harness to avoid getting the rope stuck in the giant crack that goes down nearly the entire wall. This worked great but was a little scary when I would look down and see 300 feet of air below me with only four feet of rope hanging down during the descent. Once down on the ground I waited for Laura to follow with a fireman’s belay at the ready. Before I could make visual contact with her, my heart jumped out of my chest as I saw a dark object falling towards me. A paddle plummeted down and smashed into the rock next to me, cracking the shaft. Unlike her paddle, Laura safely reached the ground, followed by Eric. The multi-pitch took us two- hours, during which time all three of us were completely void of any thoughts except for the tasks at hand, a rarity in our lives today.

After packing up all of our rope I realized that my paddles were gone. I cannot say for sure what happened to them, but I suspect they fell out of my pack when we initially went the wrong way at the top of the multi-pitch. I was forced to drag my pack through the skinny section back up canyon and since I was in the back nobody would have noticed if they fell out. Though accidental, I feel terrible about leaving trash in the canyon. I always make a habit of picking up trash when possible during hiking or canyoneering and vow to increase this to make up for what I left behind. Further I would now have another challenge of getting the four miles down the river to Lees Ferry without paddles.

A few more rappels and mellow hiking brought us to the Colorado River. We enjoyed a magnificent night of stealth camping just off the banks of the river. The follow morning I woke up early and began devising a system of hand paddles that included small pieces of discarded metal I found and neoprene socks wrapped in the aluminum bags from the Mountain House meals that we ate for dinner the night before. After packing up and inflating our rafts we got on the water.

Pretty quickly it became apparent that my Mountain House hands were not going to work, but between the current, lack of wind and hand paddling with just the neoprene socks I was somewhat able to keep up with Laura and Eric. Keep in mind that they were both working with one broken paddle each. Despite our sorry paddle situation, we reached Lees Ferry much faster than expected.

We were able to get back to our vehicle at the top of Waterholes through a combination hitchhike. The first part was from a rafting outfit bus on its way back to Flagstaff after dropping off a group for their put in at Lees Ferry. He drove us to the Highway 89A and Highway 89 intersection. With our thumbs out for a half hour, a friendly and talkative Navajo man named Clifford came to our rescue and dropped us off at our car.

-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

Style in Imlay Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on October 1, 2009

Style in Imlay Canyon

Imlay Canyon, 4BVR (Potato Hollow entrance)
15 miles (approximate)
Zion National Park
09/26/09 – 09/27/09

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I would be lying to you if I told you that I did not have butterflies in my stomach as Laura, Eric and myself started the 7 hour drive up to Zion National Park to attempt a descent of Imlay Canyon. Like a “tell-tale heart” Laura could not mask her nerves if her innocence depended on it. Even Eric who is cooler than Eli Manning on Sundays talked about his very healthy respect for this one. Our group of three were all first timers for Imlay, a canyon that is so challenging it shares its own chapter in Mr. Jones’ guide book with none other than Heaps (another canyon which none of us have descended). What we did have was fitness, know how, the necessary gear and humble respect, all the ingredients necessary for a safe and successful descent. Regardless, we talked about how most likely everything would not go 100 percent without a hitch and we would deal with situations as they occur, just as we always have.

After getting our permit the following morning behind a man who had been waiting at the backcountry office since midnight, we hopped on the shuttle and began hiking up the West Rim trail from the Grottoes. The strenuousness of the approach of nearly 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain with heavy packs was matched by the intensity of its beauty. Five hours in and we reached Potato Hollow. Before beginning the descent we pumped iron-flavored water out of the nearly dry pond at Potato Hollow sharing it with dozens of thirsty but non-threatening bees.

Initially having trouble finding the anchor for the first rappel, Laura quickly got us on track. As we rigged the rope we all seemed to get a second wind. Rappels 4-6 consisted of a spicy and unexpected multi-pitch including a not quite hanging bolt station into a 170-foot rappel down a beautiful sheer wall baking in the afternoon sun. We handled the multi-pitch with precision, parched throats and hot feet. Once in the cool shadows of Imlay proper a sense of calm and serenity filled the air. Nearly a dozen rappels, a number of down climbs and a great section of really narrow canyon brought us to a flat, sandy spot alongside a water filled pothole. The water in the pothole looked relatively clear and darkness was setting in so we decided to camp for the night even though we had not yet reached the Crossroads.

A night of sipping filtered pothole water, whiskey and rum, filling our bellies with dehydrated pasta, chicken and rice, sharing in good conversation in such a unique setting could not have been a better way for Laura and I celebrate 10 years as a couple (the last four as husband and wife). Getting a relatively decent night’s sleep, we woke at first light. Suiting up in our armor of 7mm wetsuits we headed down canyon. By the time we reached the Crossroads we were warmed up and really finding our rhythm.

David boosts Eric our of a keeper.

Using short ropes Eric and I would leap frog Laura. Any especially difficult obstacles the leader would wait and we would tackle together. Any sequences that consisted of multiple drops consecutively we would make sure to locate the next anchor before pulling the rope. This rule saved our butts several times as we had initially rigged too short a rope to complete a second part of a double drop rappel. About an hour from the Crossroads the canyon got narrow, very dark and keepers emerged. Despite the frigid water our protection of thick neoprene kept us comfortable, allowing us to focus on the obstacles and really absorb just how much fun we were having. At the first big pothole (15 feet from the surface of the water to the lip) instead of hooking we repositioned a log jammed in the canyon bottom. Eric climbed the log and then on to my shoulders. Eric was able to gain some position with his hands on the wall as I shoulder pressed his feet and he clambered atop the lip. We waded through a hallway of wood soup, crawled through a tunnel under a logjam and worked together on down climbs and keepers. We were sweaty and grimy as we reached the end of the first section of extreme narrows in great time and style.

The second section of extreme narrows began right away as the rappels and the keepers returned with ferocity. By now we were pretty aware that water levels were extremely low (although we can’t say for sure as we were all Imlay first timers). Even though the apparent low water levels left for a number of deep keepers, because of these conditions we were able to stand in all of the potholes. This factor combined with my large size and Eric’s light body weight and climbing ability allowed us to boost out of all keepers but one that we had to hook out of. I also wonder if the potholes have recently been filled with sediment. Evidence of this was a number of holes drilled into the pothole walls that seemed ludicrously low to the ground. The canyon ended with a dramatic 130-foot free hanging rappel into the Virgin Narrows. Touching down into the Narrows the unexpected problems we figured we were bound to encounter never came and it felt pretty darn good.

-David

The subterranean world of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim, Utah by canyoneering on June 18, 2009

The subterranean world of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River

Buckskin Gulch – Paria River, 2BV
30 miles
Vermillion Cliff Wilderness Area
06/14/09 – 06/15/09

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David and I along with John and Kim backpacked the incredible Buckskin Gulch and upper portion of the Paria River.  We drove up late Saturday night getting into camp at the White House trail head around 1am. David and I crashed under the stars as my sleep was disturbed with dreams of midget rattlesnakes (beta we had read suggested that a rare species of midget rattlesnakes lives in Buckskin Gulch). Sunday morning we got a shuttle from Paria Outfitters to the Wire Pass trail head. After about 15-20 minutes of hiking, the narrows in Wire Pass began. Though short, Wire Pass is a fantastic canyon in it’s own right with a couple of down climbs and wavy sandstone walls. Where Wire Pass opens up it converges with Buckskin Gulch. The sandstone is so soft under a large arch at the intersection of Wire Pass and Buckskin that people have carved out Moqui steps to a bench under the arch. Many people have also carved their names and various faux pictographs in the sandstone.

Once in Buckskin the walls extend overhead continuing to grow deeper with every step. The most amazing aspect of Buckskin Gulch is its length. Buckskin is about thirteen miles of subterranean and sometimes dark hiking.  Buckskin is directly under a flight pattern so throughout the day we were constantly hearing airplanes overhead. Although we had dutifully checked the weather many times before leaving, with each airplane rumble our thoughts turned to flash floods. It is easy to start getting paranoid when you are 8 miles in and hundreds of feet from any direct sunlight. Needless to say with some clouds in the sky, a few minutes of the lightest drizzle and one real clap of thunder in the distance we ate our lunch at lightning speed.

Although many people do the entire trip in one day we took our time taking lots of pictures and soaking in the unique scenery. There were a number of places in Buckskin Gulch where the canyon would make a sharp turn so as we approached it would look like a dead end up ahead. Often times these sharp turns would lead into a chocolaty pool of indiscernible depth.

Sunday night we camped along the Paria River about three miles downstream of its confluence with Buckskin. We rested on our small beach sharing with each other what animals and figures we saw in the endless patterns in the 800-foot sandstone walls that surrounded us; the Colorado Plateau version of seeing faces in the clouds. As the light faded in the canyon we cooked our Mountain House meals and relaxed under the massive walls.

Monday morning we hiked to Big Spring further down the Paria encountering knee-deep quicksand and a lot of slippery mud. After filling our water bottles we turned around and made the 12-mile hike back to the White House trail head, taking pleasure in the dried mud crunching under our feet like bubble wrap.

-Laura