Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Into the vastness: Kanab Creek

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on December 26, 2016

Pat looks on while taking a breather as he gets closer to the rim.

It’s been two months since I finally sit down to chronicle this trip. Much has happened since then. A presidential election shocked almost everybody, leaving those both in support and opposed to the President elect, unsure of what to expect. Through the uncertainty, the holiday front moved in, along with cooler weather. Throw on top of that relentless work and the obligations and joys of parenthood and those brisk details of this most recent adventure have fogged. One experience from this trip, however, stays well solidified in my consciousness and that is the notion of vastness. Though far from the first time participating in a multi-day adventure exploring the enormity that is the Grand Canyon, this trip really seemed to showcase that epic and stretched out land at an unparalleled level. Even before our soles touched this Earth it was big. On the drive to the rim, pavement over 30 miles back, we could sense the expanse in the darkness. The road ends on the edge of the rim, nothing but air in front of us. As we roll out our sleeping bags we wonder where the New Mexico and Colorado contingent of our crew are. We were supposed to rendezvous nearly 20 miles ago. They were not at the designated spot. Too much space and darkness to find them so we drove till we could drive no further, hoping they would do the same. I close my eyes looking forward to seeing what I already feel about this space and hoping the rest of the crew shows.

Morning light illuminates the sprawling Kanab Creek system.

First light and a fresh pair of daily use contacts do indeed illuminate the hugeness of this place. Just 30 feet away the world drops into a sprawling complex; a massive multi-tiered canyon stretching for many miles in multiple directions. It is a canyon of epic scale, but it is also nothing more than a single side canyon; one of hundreds of adjoining drainages of the main corridor of the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon. It may be only a side canyon, but it is one of the Grand’s biggest. It is Kanab Creek. A side canyon so big that it has several dozen of it’s own side drainages. Kanab Creek is so extensive in its own right that we can not even see the inner corridor of the Grand Canyon from our current perch. All we see is the Kanab Creek system. Before I have time to really take in the view I can hear a vehicle approaching and within minutes our Colorado and New Mexico contingent arrive. Final packing is completed and we hit the trail to see what is lurking down below in this massive place.

Approaching the massive 350- foot two stage drop to get on top of the Redwall in Kanab Zero.

Kanab Zero, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
10/28/16

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A game of chutes and ladders begins and we try to find a way past several cliff bands to get to the layer that will grant us passage to our side canyon du jour, Kanab Zero. Undulating up and down we slowly traverse further and further away from Kanab Zero. We eventually give up on a walk down past the Coconino cliff band and break out the rope to set up a rappel. Once down to the Esplanade we work our way back to “Zero” and finally into it’s clutches. We approach the edge of the Supai, a last dance with vastness before dropping into the labyrinth of the Kanab Creek system. What ensues is a sphincter puckering 400- foot, two stage rappel. Shortly after hitting terra firma the Redwall closes in and the real fun begins.

Brian working the Redwall narrows in Kanab Zero.

Rope and rappels, pools and swims, rain and sun, all within a world of polished white rock intermittently stained iron red. The scale of the place that we are deep within is becoming a distant memory as these walls are narrow and the views reveal only the beauty right before us. Eventually everything before the here and now fades away as the canyon’s aggressive technical characteristics keep us locked into the current moment and space. “Zero” is rather insignificant on the map; a short stretch before hitting Kanab Creek proper, but in this place distance and time don’t correlate. It’s consecutive rappels, almost all of which are of considerable height are eating up much of the day. Eventually we hear the sounds of  Kanab Creek in the distance. A final drop brings our soles into the flowing water as dusk approaches. A short jaunt downstream and we set up camp on a creekside limestone bench.

Chris is silhouetted on rappel in Whispering Falls Canyon.

Whispering Falls Canyon, (sneak route) 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
10/29/16

Another side canyon of Kanab Creek lurks just around a bend. To descend it we must first gain a level and traverse around to where we can drop in above these technical highlights. This route requires ascending a gully of rotten rock before traversing a narrow and exposed bench 500 feet off the desk. It is sketchy and exciting and then once in Whispering Falls canyon, the kosher fun can begin. Several obstacles present themselves but this half day adventure is all about the final crux rappel, a beauty of a drop down a spring fed chute which whispers “you are here,” over and over again in hushed tones. The whispering waterfall transitions into an exquisite hallway followed by a pool of turquoise water. Not long after and we are back to Kanab Creek and the long haul upstream through massive boulders, a prickly pear forest and numerous pools; a true slogfest through Water and Earth. The soles of Eric’s shoes become a casualty of the conditions and we are many steps into this place. By the time we hit the confluence with Scotty’s Hollow Eric has figured out to work his disabled shoes.

Eric gets a hand on an up climb obstacle during the Scotty's Hollow ascent.

Scotty’s Hollow, (ascent) 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park
10/29/16

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In just over 30 hours we have seen and experienced a tremendous landscape both from above and within. We have worked our bodies hard to do so. Now to get out of this place we must push them harder. We quickly realize our ticket out of here will reveal a space of unique and unparalleled beauty, but the up-climb obstacles will require skin, athleticism and teamwork. They are numerous and they seem to get ever more challenging the further up we climb. The walls close in as the water flows down, the combination making the obstacles ever more challenging. I monitor the rim of the Redwall to watch it get lower the higher we climb, 300 feet, 200 feet, actually it might only be 150 feet and so on. Just when I think we are out another obstacle presents itself, until we are out for real. We find a sandstone bench for camp. We are out of the subterranean world and back into the vastness. Our day once again pushed nearly to dusk. We are exhausted and very content. We are treated to a magnificent sunset as the JetBoil is passed around.

Pat traverses a sketchy section on the climb back to the rim.

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From camp we can see our exit out of the Kanab Creek system to the rim above. It is big and imposing, three thousand feet of vertical through multiple sections that seem impassable. We are hoping proximity will reveal the path. First we must escape the Supai, a task in itself. We use a side drainage of Scotty’s. Perhaps a mistake but it does go after several exposed and technical moves. We then must circumvent the system to the route that will take us through the upper layers of the canyon. Once this is accomplished the real vertical attack begins. We find a good use trail that makes progress as efficient as possible. Teamwork is no longer required. It’s just put one foot in front of the other and breath. We find our rhythms and organically break into sub groups or go solo.  As the path disintegrates more chutes and ladders are required through those sections that appeared impassable from below. It is challenging and sketchy but we find our way. Eventually Pat and I top out on the rim. We wait for the others. We say little and I don’t think about much. I am just here sitting on dirt, next to my backpack, right on the edge of the immensity. It feels good.

-David

CLICK ON IMAGE BELOW TO BEGIN GALLERY.

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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