Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

The Year, Part III – The lightest of days in Diana’s Throne Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 13, 2018

Diana’s Throne Canyon, 3AI
BLM land east of Zion National Park


To keep this train moving before the engine locks up and it never starts again, here is a quick report, of a quick descent from over a year ago. It was however part of the narrative of The Year, that year being 2017, for those keeping track.

After the terrifying descent down Behunin Canyon, the day before the group was looking for something light before heading home. Diana’s Throne Canyon, aka Huntress Slot, aka Elkhart Cliffs Canyon, aka Diana’s Canyon, seemed to fit the bill. It did and with the weather a complete 180 from the day before we got our muscles moving in the canyon lands for a few hours of fun in a charming and novice slot before the long drive home.

Next up a return to Climax (for whenever that may be).



Snow falls in Choprock Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on October 6, 2015

Snow falls in the

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


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

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

Pat squeezes through a narrow swimming hallway.

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

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

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

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

No such thing as silence in Woodchuck & Woody Canyons

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 23, 2014

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

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

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

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


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

Chris gets a hand from Brian out of a keeper.

Woody Canyon, 4BIIR
North Wash area (side drainage of Woodruff Canyon)


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


A small world in Purgatory and Paradiso

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 10, 2013

The crew drops into Purgatory Canyon.

I am in the lead as we emerge from a dark and magnificent section of tight narrows in Paradiso Canyon (our second descent of the day). As we round a bend into the open sun I see other people clustered around the top of a drop going back into the darkness. The unexpectedness of seeing people outside our own party in this pristine and rugged wilderness is almost jarring. Then I recognize several familiar faces.

Earlier that day…

Our group of five is now six as Brian joined us late the night before. Another two canyons on the docket for today, finishing off the four that make up the Dantes’. We survived the depths of hell the day before and find ourselves in Purgatory en route to Paradiso.

Eric raps.

Purgatory Canyon, 3AIII
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


Purgatory is considerably easier than Inferno and Limbo, but still quite pleasant. To be completely honest with you, even with photos, its detail are buried in my sub-conscious. Maybe its because the challenges were comparatively subdued. Perhaps what I recall the most, the beauty of the place aside, is my growing concern that I will have any pants left for the drive home. My first pair has been decimated, rubbed to what doesn’t even resemble pants by Good Day Jim, Inferno and Limbo. My fresh second pair split laterally across a seam on the backside, on a down climb early  in this canyon. Providing fodder for laughter with my canyon partners we make our way through the narrows and interesting rappels, some with tricky starts. (Future parties, please set anchors long enough as these drops could easily be scarred with rope grooves). We emerge. Mark lays down on his belly and slurps up water from a pothole with a Life Straw. The same route as the previous to the top of the system. Third time is still a charm. A quick lunch and into Paradiso.

Mike has to get low to squeeze through a restriction.

Paradiso Canyon, 4AIII
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


True to its name Paradiso is magnificent. We journey through super tight narrows that sometimes require you off the ground and other times to the ground crawling on all fours to pass a restriction. The narrows are sustained with occasional breaks. We are having a blast inside an isolated bubble of excitement and beauty when we emerge from a tight section. Maybe our own giddiness drowned out their voices but as we round a bend without hearing them we see another group.

This is the first time I am meeting Jenny and Ram in person though I have corresponded on an off with both of them over the last several years. Jenny was a part of first descents dating back to the early 1980s, (I was literally still in diapers at the time) including some of the toughest canyons of the Colorado Plateau such as Kaleidoscope, more commonly referred to as Choprock Canyon and Poe Canyon.

I don’t think it would be a mischaracterization to say that many would consider Ram the patriarch of southern Utah canyoneering. Perhaps even more significant than his dozens (maybe hundreds of first descents) during intense 14-21 day canyoneering forays over decades, is the manner with which he has brought the canyoneering community together. Through both the digital world and the one in flesh and blood, Ram has been a foundation in this adventure sport in our corner of the world: innovating techniques, organizing trips and festivals, sharing information, commenting and leading. It was special to finally meet him and even more special to meet him  inside one of the places that he was there to discover in 2005. It’s physical appearance aside, this really is a small world.

Ram shares history with a captive audience.

Our group makes small talk with their group of seven as they negotiate a drop. Also amongst them a skinny pre-teen named Justin. He seems to be handling himself quite well. After they are all down and back into the darkness, we give them space laying on our backs in the sand, soaking in the sun. We can hear them down canyon negotiating a second obstacle. After awhile we drop down and take a peek to what is below. We find stunning beauty. Sandstone fins and waves sculpted by the artist, Father Time, with his assistants, wind and water. Nobody else is capable of such a masterpiece. Not wanting to breath down the necks of Ram’s group we don’t continue down canyon and soak it in. We can’t see them but hear them working an obstacle. For maybe 20 minutes nothing moves but our heads and necks turning to study the beauty. It is not often to just sit in such places for any kind of sustained time.

When we hear their group is through we continue on. A few tricky obstacles await including a deep pothole that has to be traversed while on rappel before the canyon opens up to the final rappel. We catch the second half of their group. More conversation. And then halfway up the exit hike we catch their group again. We casually walk together our groups intermingling, sharing stories and getting to know each other between slick rock domes. Though embarrassed before, by now I am beyond caring that my pants are split wide open. Not far from the trailhead we stop on a flat section of rock with magnificent vistas around. Maybe steered in that direction Ram begins sharing stories of some of the  scariest canyons he knows on the Colorado Plateau. Our group gathers around in a semi-circle listening intently. Some of us may hope to go to these places one day, others want them as nothing more than ghost stories. Daylight is beginning to dwindle and we return to the rim, our camp and their vehicles. Hugs are exchanged before their SUVs disappear over the horizon. We plop down on our chairs feeling pretty satisfied.


Time and space in Dante’s Inferno and Limbo

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 4, 2013

Mike climbs up the slick rock on the hike out.

Durante deli Alighieri, commonly known as Dante, was a master Italian Poet of the middle ages. His Divine Commedy is widely considered one of the greatest works of literature in human history. It is a kind of poetic and fictitous Trip Report of the most epic proportions chronicling Dante’s journey through the three realms of the afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. Like all good TR, the Divine Commedy uses the journey to examine bigger issues including religion, sin, virtue, philosophy and even science.

692 years later and half a world away from the time and place of Dante’s death, the five of us strap on our packs and venture into the complex named after the great poet. Like Dante, lets start with hell or as he called it, Inferno.

Adam (left) down climbs as Mike looks on.

Inferno Canyon, 3AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


The canyon immediately starts steep and slotty, forcing us off the ground from the get go. Eric is in the lead, I’m just behind him. I see the red light of his GoPro blinking as I make my way off the deck in a down angle trajectory to keep parallel with the canyon’s steep pitch. Knowing I’m being recorded I say “I’m trying to smile for you man.” A reader of this blog would know I’m not the biggest fan of high stemming. Yet, I can’t keep from coming back.

Before not too long I settle in. The moves required are not beyond my abilities. The exposure off the deck is mostly within the reasonable 20-25 foot zone. But make no mistake, a misjudgment of how to work your body within the walls at even this modest height could be more than trouble. Knowing this creates a focus that blurs out everything outside of my  immediate reality of time and space. This is why I keep coming back.

We hit the crux, an awkward silo. From a comfortable space for one to fit their body between the opposing walls, it flares out in a silo shape vertically, 25- feet all the way down to the canyon bottom. As you approach gravity wants to take you from the secure perch into the silo depth. I ride it until I get to the edge and with a hair raising move step over emptiness into the comfort of the other side. Reassuring words and advice from partners aside, we are all on our own. One by one we take our turn.

Moving on there is more business. Emerging from the underworld and into the sun the canyon concludes with a rappel before completely opening up.

David stems high in Limbo Canyon.

Limbo Canyon, 4AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


We navigate the slick rock rim exit. It is a route we will become quite familiar with. After a quick lunch in the only available shade we can find, we strap the body armor back on before heading into the first circle of hell, Limbo.

Limbo features a number of drops with non-existent natural anchors. Why no bolts you may be asking? Much canyoneering in the Colorado Plateau, but this area in particular, is part of a no-bolt ethic. The community at large, led by those who first descended these canyons is largely responsible for determining these practices. Maybe not everywhere, but most certainly here I subscribe to this ethic. It has taken eons to create these exquisite places. It is nice to see them in almost the same way they existed before man set foot in them.  (Bolts may not alter that forever but for a very long time). These canyons remain remarkably pristine after hundreds of descents. Besides, with inventive techniques, practices and equipment shared by the community, drops can be negotiated without bolts or viable natural anchors. It may be a little more challenging, but it is possible and a lot more fun.

We utilized it all: SandTrap anchors, meat anchors, captures and spots of our ace in the hole, Adam. In Good Day Jim we got a sense, but in the more challenging canyons of Inferno and Limbo we really got to see his skills. Like Inferno, the canyon comes to another gaping silo. Everyone on there own again. At 6’3″ I have no problems spanning the abyss to the other side. Oh yeah, really feeling it now. More business before a final rappel taking us out.

Back at camp, we settle into our comfy camp chairs taking in the awe inspiring view in the late afternoon sun while sipping cold beer. Night sets in and the air is still. Steaks sizzle on an open campfire. In Inferno, Dante passes through the gates of hell and he sees the inscription, “”Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“, or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I guess that didn’t apply here.

The first day is a Good Day Jim

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 1, 2013

Adam stemming through some pretty narrows.

Good Day Jim Canyon, 3AIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


To start  a qualifier. I was less disciplined this time. As I have in the past, I did not conclude each day (of a multi-day trip) by laying on my stomach my headlamp illuminating the inside of my tent, jotting down notes, musings, details and observations of that day. Even after only two weeks I am afraid that these six exquisite canyons within those four wonderful days are already beginning to meld together. That is a shame because even though four of the six were almost a stone’s throw from each other, they possessed unique qualities and character from each other. The other two (which were only two miles as the crow flies from the four) were also spooning each other. It will take these writings to separate them. Hopefully, I find success. Or maybe it is better if I don’t. Maybe it is better if some experiences stay in my sub-subconscious; stay within this underworld that took eons  to create.

As is our modus operandi to keep a vacation day in the bank, the eight hour drive up to the Colorado Plateau is done almost entirely in the dark. We pull off the pavement. We are only 10 miles away from the north shore of Glen Canyon. It has been described by many as the heart of the Colorado Plateau. We pull off to camp for the night and I step on this earth. The canyon may have been dammed over 50 years ago but I swear I can feel that beating heart. It is going to be a good four days.

Four of us made the pilgrimage from Phoenix, but in the morning there are five tents. Adam of Grand Junction, Colorado, had been corresponding with Eric. None of us have met him. Eric said he sounded extremely competent. At the witching hour of our arrival all we see is a tent. In the morning Adam peers out. We introduce ourselves.

Eric and Adam chilling at camp after a descent of Good Day Jim.

We drive closer to Glen Canyon. Out my car window I can see the Straight Cliffs of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument rise above the sandstone madness of the Waterpocket Fold. Two places I have been before. Connecting the dots.

On this first day a warm-up with a descent of Good Day Jim. Beta suggests it could be the easiest of the lot. The canyon gets going quick. Down climbs, stemming, a few minor keeper potholes, squeezes through beautiful narrows separated by brief open sections. Far from a beginner canyon. I think to my self if this is the easiest canyon we are going to do, well, it could get interesting. The canyon continues for awhile during which time we see that our new addition, Adam, has got skills. He is going high when it is completely unnecessary for nothing more than the challenge. While I am a full body contact, bull in a china shop, he seems to effortlessly and gingerly touch his surroundings through obstacles. Either way, we are all feeling the connection to this place. The canyon ends and we achieve the rim giving us a great bird’s eye view of the complex on the hike back to the car.

Camp is moved to the head of the Dante Canyon Complex, a wind swept mesa overlooking this underworld and Lake Powell beyond. We will be spending the next two days down there. We have been warned that the winds can make this an inhospitable camp. But it is now in the low 70s and the air is barely moving. We can not pass on making this our home for the next few days. With a straight view of Navajo Mountain dominating the southern horizon I have two bars on my phone. I send Laura a text, “We have arrived. Canyon today tough but not too tough. Good day here. Love you.”

– David

A look back on canyoneering Ticaboo Mesa

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on March 29, 2013


Back now several weeks. Gear has been cleaned and put away. Muscles no longer sore. Elbow abrasions almost fully healed. Photos and video exchanged. Just a little time to reflect, organize and present the experience in zeroes and ones. A new place for us and new faces. Four days, six descents and six friends, old and new. This new place wonderful and challenging. Above, a video preview of the trip at large. To follow, four posts taking a closer look. I hope you enjoy.

– David

Adventures in the Swell – Quandry Canyon Direct

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on October 14, 2011

Quandry Canyon Direct,  4BIIIR
approximately 6 miles
San Rafael Swell


My body was a little sore as we headed up the old mining road through a dynamited pass, up over the reef into the drainage that is Quandry Canyon. Native Americans were the first to mine uranium ore in the area using it to make bright colored pastes that they applied to themselves as war paints. Serious prospecting did not begin in the area until the mid twentieth century. Many roads and an air strip were developed and evidence of those mining days are scattered all over the place, including a mid 20th century vehicle we passed on the approach. Mining in the Swell nearly all but ended in the 1960s as the area yielded little marketable uranium ore.

By the time the walls of Quandry narrowed up and the technical section began the soreness had dissipated and I was warmed up and ready to go. The canyon is south facing so we enjoyed the sun nearly the entire day as we jumped in and out of potholes. We continued where we left off with the Squeeze, moving at an aggressive pace. A number of interesting and fun problems presented themselves including a rappel into a deep keeper pothole with a narrow ledge for a lip, right into a second rappel. The lip was so narrow that while standing on top of it you had to lock off on rappel while assisting your partner to get out of the keeper, so to not risk falling down the other side of the pothole. Finding the right balance of too much or too little slack before locking off on rappel took a little trial and error. The Quandry Direct route merged back with the regular route and after taking a lunch break in a sliver of shade we began the hike under a blistering sun towards Ramp Canyon, our route home.

Ramp Canyon was a beautiful technical canyon in its own right and we were challenged with the task of ascending the canyon to regain the reef. After the drainage took many horseshoe turns we bypassed an unclimbable dry fall by climbing up and out of the canyon and then returning to bottom by way of a  chossy 80- foot rappel. The canyon than presented us with a beautiful set of narrows with many magnificent features in the polished sandstone for climbing the drops. The crux was an awkward 5.6 climb/ traverse up and around a chokestone. Mike free soloed the short climb and then provided a belay to the rest of our party. The canyon relented shortly thereafter. From the top of Ramp Canyon an easy walk back to the car provided time to reflect on the last few days of this exciting, challenging and memorable trip.

Check out the video from the entire trip at the bottom of this post.


Into the Fold: Scouting and a mean Happy Dog

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on June 29, 2011

We are just over an hour outside of Phoenix listening to the Door’s “Morrison Hotel” and engrossed in conversation about the unknowns of our upcoming trip, when I look into my rear view mirror and see the red and blues of a DPS Highway Patrol car right on my tail. Befuddled I pull off to the shoulder. I didn’t think I was speeding. “Did you not see the thick smoke coming out of the back of your car?” the patrolman asks in a gruff and agitated voice. “No, officer I didn’t,” I reply. With a little investigating we find that my car is leaking transmission fluid. We check the levels of the transmission fluid and it is empty. “That’s not good,” I say aloud as two thoughts quickly consume my mind, “Will I be spending next week looking for a new car?” and “Are we going to make our charter boat scheduled to pick us up in 15 hours?” Forget the first questions lets just deal with the latter as that boat ride is our access into the Waterpocket Fold. Fast-forward 11 hours, and we arrive in Eric’s car at Halls Crossing Marina along Lake Powell. My car was left behind. The sun is starting to rise as we lay out our sleeping bags. We can hear boaters beginning to rustle in their campsites as they prepare for a long day of fun and sun on Lake Powell. Despite the ungodly hour we down a couple of “celebratory” beers before lying down for a few hours of sleep.

I hold my hat on my head as the boat rips across the choppy lake during the 30- minute ride to Halls Creek Bay. As we approach I follow along on my GPS, which, unbeknownst to me utilizes decade old pre- drought maps when the lake was over 60 feet higher than it is today. This translates to a shorter boat ride and longer hike than we expected. Waving goodbye to our captain was a bit of an eerie feeling, as we know we will be very much stranded in this hostile wilderness for the next four days. With 50 plus pound packs we fight through the heat, jungles of the invasive Tamarisk trees, beaver dams creating quarter mile long ponds, quicksand and biting deer flies as we head up Halls Creek to the confluence of three sister canyons where we set up a base camp. These canyons steeply wind down the hunk of Navajo sandstone that is the Waterpocket Fold terminating in Halls Creek. Between the lack of sleep and morning workout, an afternoon siesta sounds quite appealing but we have to make use of the limited time we have in this place. It is time consuming and expensive to get here.

Eric and I hike up into the Waterpocket Fold to try and locate the entrance into the infamous and mythical Poe Canyon, more recently referred to as Smiling Cricket. The actual descent of Poe would wait for a future trip, but we want to familiarize ourselves with the approach so to not waste any time on that future descent. Negotiating sandstone domes and a number of side drainages we quickly and easily find a near walk in entrance into Poe. We memorize the route and mark the entrance point on our GPS.

Video below was entirely shot by Eric Luth with editing by David Wallace.

Happy Dog Canyon, aka ‘S’ Canyon, 3BVR
approximately 19 miles
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
06/17/11 – 6/20/11


The next day we divide the kitchen sink of technical canyoneering gear between the three of us and begin the long approach to the head of Happy Dog Canyon, originally referred to as ‘S’ Canyon. With the long days this time of year we leisurely stroll out of camp hours later than we should have. This approach is far more complex and lengthy than that of Poe. We knew from previous trip reports that the canyon begins at a large arch. After quickly disposing of the puzzle of the approach to Poe Canyon, doubt begins to sink in as the clock ticks past two hours since the start and still no signs of this arch. I take comfort in the magnificent scenery of Halls Creek, Lake Powell, the Henry Mountains and a Pronghorn that scampers across the slick rock about 100- yards away. We navigate often the only possible way through towers, domes and depressions of rock. As we near the three-hour mark, the all-encompassing Navajo sandstone that we have been traveling abruptly ends. In topography the likes of which I have never seen the terrain continues to rise, but with the end of the sandstone, the head of the canyon immediately takes shape. We make our way down and around into the head of the canyon and find the Happy Dog Arch.

The challenges begin immediately with down climbs in the full blaze of the sun. We ghost the first mandatory rappel. Ghosting is a technique where you leave absolutely no anchor behind after rappelling and has become a style used in these canyons during recent descents. We had decided to utilize ghosting techniques if we thought they were appropriate but were not committed to the discipline. Ghosting can often be used as an alternative to placing bolts into the rock. Though some of the drops in these canyons do have bolts, they are those of the first descents of over 30- years ago and are thus suspect in their integrity. The canyon gets deeper and narrower giving us respite from the sun. The potholes are full of water and do not take a tremendous amount of effort to escape. The canyon gets extremely tight and forces us to alternate between squeezing and stemming high. Because this canyon is nearly unbetaed we took enough gear to deal with a near endless number of technical obstacles. We also took enough rope to rappel drops of up to 200- feet. In the end we took more than what we needed, but when you don’t know you take it. With only three of us to divide the gear our packs are heavy, making the high stemming challenging despite its relatively straightforward nature and lack of intense exposure. With the heat even penetrating the depths of the dark narrows, we are going through water faster than expected and begin rationing. We squeeze past a pillow sized cluster of Daddy Longlegs glimmering in the sun against the dark depths like a puffy cloud against blue skies.

The canyon opens up at a big drop and then returns to tight narrows. I make a poor decision and instead of going high, I elevator drop into the bowels. My pack gets jammed up and I soon realize that the canyon is quickly getting too skinny to continue this course. I attempt to do an about face but my pack is in the way. For nearly an hour I work tirelessly to get up ten feet to a choke stone suspended in the canyon walls. During which time I have to remove nearly every article out of my pack and hand them up to Eric who wedges the gear into pockets in the walls. Eric is eventually able to assist me in reaching the choke stone. I am completely exhausted. In the process some of my gear falls back down into the canyon. Style has completely left the building. Eric elevators down and recovers all of my gear. He then proceeds to high stem back and forth the 25- yards of this section of narrows shuttling gear. Meanwhile I am now making my own way high. As I begin to elevator down to the end of the narrows, my bag, which is dangling between my legs gets jammed in the walls and catches my right leg. Gravity overcomes friction and ever so slowly brings me down to a horizontal state with my leg still caught on my pack. I am entirely stuck. I try to free myself but don’t have the angle. I know that if someone can move my pack I can right myself up and get to the open section less than ten feet away. This will have to wait, as Eric is still busy shuttling gear. In the meantime I will just have to be in this sorry pathetic state that I have gotten myself into. I have enough sense to stay calm. I think whether or not my car will ever drive again and if not what kind of car should I buy. In my heart I would really love a Toyota pick-up truck but it probably makes a lot more sense to buy a hybrid. I look around as Daddy Longlegs scamper over me. This is without question most people’s idea of living hell. A slow ten minutes goes by and Eric negotiates over to me and is in disbelief in the position I have gotten myself into. He pulls my bag out from underneath me and sure enough my body turns 90 degrees and with a little inhaling and squeezing I pop out to the other side.

Darkness is now closing in and we really do not know how much canyon we have left. I am unsure if I can negotiate another section like we just encountered in the dark. We are in a slightly open section with some dry sand and with temperatures being as warm as they are I suggest a bivouac. With some apprehension Pat agrees. Eric will hear nothing of it. He argues that we have no dry clothes and though a bivouac will not be necessarily dangerous it will be extremely unpleasant. “We are eating a hot meal and sleeping in our tents tonight,” he says with total confidence. With that we move on to the next obstacle, a down climb into a deep-water filled pothole. Through a miscommunication Pat tosses one of our two, 200- foot ropes in a rope bag into a pothole so he can better negotiate the down climb. The rope sinks into the depths. I make one half-ass attempt to recover the rope but could not reach the bottom in my exhausted state. Since we have another rope we decide to leave it behind. We just do not have the energy or time to recover it. Another short high stemming section leads to another pool and the canyon than magically opens up with a beautiful slick rock ramp out of the canyon. Hallelujah! 15- minutes later and we are back to Halls Creek and night has completely taken over. Battered and bruised I am already determined to recover my rope and finish the last section of the canyon. Our planned descent of Baboon Laughs, the third of the sister canyons will have to wait.

The sun is up and Pat and Eric seem entirely less determined to finish the lower section of Happy Dog than I am. Eric tells me he will help me recover my rope but that is about the extent of his “to do” list for the day and for now all he wants to do is chill. I would normally argue with him but the extent in which he saved my ass the day before I tone down my attempt in persuading him otherwise. As Pat and Eric lounge around I camp I begin feeling antsy so I hike up the Poe Canyon drainage from the bottom. The canyon is chock full of vegetation including a plethora of hearty Poison Ivy. I guess it was not the right time to be wearing shorts. In less than 45- minutes I reach the base of the alcove that represents the final rappel of the canyon. Upon returning to camp Eric seems to have a little more pep in his step. He gives me a window to talk about descending the final section of Happy Dog and I seize it. Before long we are packing our technical gear and heading back to Happy Dog.

As Pat waits in the open section of canyon where we retreated the night before, Eric and I high stem back up the canyon about 20 yards to the pothole where my rope sank to the bottom. I dive down into the black, semi- putrid water. After three full kicks I reach the bottom and feel nothing but sticks and mud. I suspect the water to be at least 12- feet deep. A second attempt yields the same results. On the third try I dive from a different angle and snatch the rope. Returning to the surface I shout out in victory.

Eric and I continue down canyon past our escape point. The canyon stays wide with three consecutive drops into pools below. The first is down climbable. The second drops around 80- feet, half of which is overhanging. With no available anchors we utilize the SandTrap, a tarp like device that can be covered in sand and used as an anchor for rappels and then allows the user to pull the tarp down, thus ghosting the drop. The third and final drop, a beauty, is even longer into the jungle alcove below. Returning to camp the winds begin to gust. We pack up all of our gear and hike the majority of the distance back to our rendezvous point with our boat charter.

The next morning we wait amongst Tamarisk trees rising from the ever-changing shoreline of Lake Powell. With nothing but the water to protect us from the fierce sun we talk about what we learned from the last few days. I learned some valuable lessons that will make me a smarter canyoneer. Maybe most importantly, share the lead on hard canyons. I was leading the descent of Happy Dog all day and I got sloppy and made a poor decision. The other lesson, which I already knew but was greatly reinforced, is have partners that you trust with your life. It is possible you will be relying on them sometime. Right on time the boat arrived. “How was the trip,” the captain asked. “Good, a little epic!” I said with a smile.

A week later…. The transmission on my car is fixed and was fully covered under warranty. My legs are covered in a poison ivy rash and plans are slowly being made to return to the Fold.

– David

Fun in Headless Hen, a different kind of fun in Raven

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 15, 2011

I was looking forward to Headless and Raven with great anticipation. Why? The challenges these canyons would present would be pushing new ground for the members of “Team Quatro”. Though we have dealt with numerous keepers  in the past and maybe some even more difficult, Headless Hen’s concentration of potholes was the likes of nothing we had seen. Sure we have tasted high stemming in previous descents but nothing in comparison to what we would face in Raven, spending several hours up to fifty feet off the canyon floor. We went in with a full toolkit and an attitude ready for new challenges and experiences.

Headless Hen and Raven are sister canyons but share only the faintest resemblance to each other. Because they are right next to each other requiring the exact same approach and exit and because each one only takes half a day to descend, it is possible to do both in one long day. A giant rock shaped like a hen sans head marked the entrance.

Headless Hen, 4BIIIR
approximately 2.5 miles
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Before the canyon narrowed to the point of commitment, Chris and Eric Luth tested out the Imlay Canyon Gear SandTrap, a tarp like device that can be covered in sand and used as an anchor for rappels and then allows the user to pull the tarp down leaving no traces of the anchor behind. We were very pleased with the results. Quickly the walls came in and we were presented with one keeper pothole after another, some of which were in swimming conditions. We engaged the problems through a combination of buddy boosts and potshot tosses. Potshots, yet another canyoneering specific piece of equipment by Imlay Canyon Gear are small bags that can be filled with either sand or water and then tossed over the lip of a pothole and used as a counterweight to pull yourself up and over the lip of said pothole. The team really found a cohesive groove and we could not have been having more fun under the bright sun with stunning views across the valley to the Straight Cliffs. Some easy high stemming gave us a hint of what was to come later in the day. A fifteen foot jump into a deep pothole was the cherry on the top of this super sweet sundae.

Raven, 3BIIIR
approximately 2.5 miles
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

After swapping the necessary gear we would need for the different set of challenges we would face in Raven and stashing the gear we didn’t need at the confluence of these two canyons, we marched back up the slick rock to the head of Raven. After a short while Raven got tight and forced us high. Using opposing pressure with my back against one wall and my feet against the other I would work my way down canyon. Eons of wind and water have shaped these canyon walls and as can be expected they are not uniform; that is where things get tricky. At times the canyon walls would flair and undulate in silo shapes forcing you to either extend your body or go higher or lower to keep yourself positioned securely between the walls. A slip would be very costly as you would fall until you got jammed between the ever narrowing walls. We came up with word “crumpelstiltskin” to describe it. The teamwork necessary to descend a canyon like Choprock or Headless Hen is not as prevalent in this type of canyoneering. You are really on your own. That is not to say that my partners did not provide much mental support during the descent and on one occasion Mike provided me with a belay for a traverse across one of the aforementioned silos, 30 feet above the floor. Mike and Eric did an outstanding job taking turns leading the descent. For three hours we only touched the ground a handful of times. The intensity of the experience was thick requiring total concentration. The climbing moves though not extremely difficult were harder than I expected and any mistake had serious consequences. Fun never fully entered into the equation. When we emerged out of the final set of narrows the seat of my pants had disintegrated into the canyon walls and my sense of accomplishment was high.

Without pants I walked across the the wind swept plateau on the hike back to camp as the sun set. The rest of the team was several hundred yards behind me, giving me an opportunity to decompress and think about the past week, of Laura and my beautiful four month old son, Wyatt. Navajo Mountain loomed large in the distance becoming darker as night took over. Our time is so insignificant relative to that of this place. It makes you realize the importance of being a part of it, even for a little while.