Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Cooler times in Quartz Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on June 11, 2013


Quartz Canyon via Peters Canyon , 3AIII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness


Summertime in Phoenix is a combination of hibernating indoors, traveling to higher elevations for outdoor activities and lounging in our community pool like water buffalo. As I type these words temperatures outside are near 110 degrees. Sitting in front of my laptop in a dark room under a whizzing fan to the sounds of the hum of our air conditioner it is nice to look back several months to when our Sonoran Desert was not so roasting hot.

Spring time in the Superstition Mountain is a beautiful time. The drainages are often flowing, the rocky terrain covered in grass and the desert wildflowers blooming. All were present on this day for a descent of Quartz Canyon. It was a rather warm day. The desert letting us know that summer is just around the corner.

Laura and I are joined by Brian K. who I only just recently met through another friend. Brian has a great energy and passion for the wilderness and we are excited to be sharing the day with him. As we set foot on the trail we almost immediately encounter a plethora of varied wildflowers. 2013 shaped up to be a banner year for wildflowers and this trip gave us a great show. Tortilla Creek is flowing nicely as is Peters Canyon. A scenic narrow section in Peters reveals some nice swimming holes for the return trip. A brutal bushwhack out of Peters to gain the ridge above Quartz Canyon is far from pleasant but does afford some stunning views of the wilderness. We also encounter, for Laura and I the never before seen Desert Mariposa Lily, stunning.

Good and hot now we drop into Quartz Canyon. Not much to this canyon outside of two interesting enough rappels with a trickle of water to cool us down. After the second rappel we explore a nearby alcove cave. Firewood covered in what appears to be maybe decades worth of dust is piled inside the cave. We rejoin Peters Canyon. Taking advantage of those swimming holes we cool off during the hike out. This would be our last Sonoran Desert outing until cooler times return. With a new season it just means a different part of the Southwest landscape to explore and hopefully with the right mindset those cooler times will be here before we know it.


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


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.


Deep in the Big Ditch Day 3 – Olo Canyon

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

Cody in the Temple Butte in Olo Canyon.

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

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

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

Olo Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park


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

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

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

California Condor A9 in Olo.

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

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


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

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

Cody and Eric hike along the rim above Matkat.

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

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

Matkatamiba Canyon, 2BVI
Grand Canyon National Park


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

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

Mark takes in Panameta Canyon.

Panameta Canyon, 3BVI
Grand Canyon National Park


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

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


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


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.



Peak foliage in Barney Spring Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on December 31, 2012

Beautiful fall colors in a pool in Barney Spring Canyon.

Barney Spring Canyon, 4BIVR
Coconino National Forest


Fall is a special time. As a child it represents the start of a new year of challenges and experiences. Growing up in the northeastern United Sates, autumn would peak in an explosion of colors. As an adult that feeling of newness that comes around in September and October has faded somewhat and living in the midst of urban sprawl in the heart of the Sonoran Desert you don’t see much in the way of Autumnal colors.

Eric had been lobbying for a descent of Barney Spring Canyon for a while. It is a classic Mogollon Rim canyon that wasn’t yet part of his resume. I had descended the canyon with Laura shortly after I had begun canyoneering five summers ago. My recollection is that it was the first canyon descent during which time I was thinking this is really intense from both a physical and technical perspective. I also remember it being a long day, but despite my photographs its aesthetic qualities had left little impression on my memory.

Timing for a descent has finally lined up. Eric and I are driving along the washboard road deep into the forest in the late afternoon sun. The previous day we had descended Garden Creek in the Grand Canyon. Our legs are feeling that 4,000 feet of vertical. My belly is fully of wings and my head a little cloudy from beer  after spending much of the day resting in a Flagstaff sports bar and watching football. As the road crosses a drainage and its numerous deciduous trees amongst the surrounding pines I am struck by the intense Fall colors.

As temperatures plummet after the sun goes down we huddle around the fire. We awake well before the return of the sun and begin hiking from our camp in the dark. A descent of Barney is normally completed by hiking down the West Fork of Oak Creek at its confluence with Barney followed by a long car shuttle. Our plan is to skip the car shuttle by hiking up the West Fork until we can find a place to escape the canyon and then navigate across the rim back to our vehicle. We know it is going to be a very long and exhausting day.

Surrounded by stunning foliage on the final rappel.

The sun is up but it is still brisk as we drop into the upper reaches of Barney. The foliage is magnificent. Reds, yellows and oranges are abundant. I say it is peak. Eric says maybe just past. The canyon narrows. We are surround by muted beige sandstone covered in a thin layer of vibrant green moss with a canopy of technicolor above us. It is spectacular.

The canyon is still challenging with its numerous awkward- start rappels but my experience in the last four plus years have dulled the edges of intensity I experienced the last time. Eric leads the way and we are down-climbing obstacles I would have never thought possible during the first descent. The monster keeper pothole that gave us so much trouble the last time is almost full and Eric beach whales out on his own out and then assists me to the lip. From our perch atop the final rappel we peer over a thick canopy of vibrant and saturated yellows. It is a visual experience that will leave a lasting impression.

A short brushy walk and we reach the confluence of the West Fork of Oak Creek. More colors. We spend the next six hours hiking, trudging, rock hopping, climbing  up West Fork. We do the best we can to stay dry but some of the narrows do not cooperate. In the upper reaches of the West Fork the canyon branches into multiple arms. We take a branch whose terrain we are unfamiliar with but will put us closer to our vehicle. We hope to not be stopped in our tracks by a dryfall before we can escape the canyon bottom for the rim. A minor gamble but we are confident. We are faced with several spicy climbs including one over a deep keeper filled with icy cold water that if we both fell into would be a mouse trap of the most dire circumstances. As we climb further up this canyon arm the walls begin to recede and we make our break. Upon reaching the rim as we navigate through the Ponderosa Pines back to our vehicle I am completely exhausted, satisfied and connected to this autumnal experience.


Garden Creek Canyon, ‘Hidden in plain sight’

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on December 24, 2012

David on rappel.

Garden Creek Canyon, 4CIV
13.5 miles
Grand Canyon National Park


It is a beautiful, crisp autumn day. The kind that is just perfect for hiking. We are only four of what could be close to a thousand people on the Bright Angel Trail, snaking down 4380 feet from Grand Canyon Village on top of the south rim to the Colorado River. Not far above the river and right off the trail, Garden Creek plunges into the Vishnu Schist layer, forming a magnificent technical canyon. “Garden Creek Canyon is a hidden gem located in close proximity to the most popular trail in the Grand Canyon National Park,” says Todd Martin, who included it in his guidebook, Grand Canyoneering. “It’s surprising that more people haven’t discovered it.”

As we munch on some snacks, throw on a few extra layers, pull up our harnesses and strap on our helmets before delving into this ‘hidden gem’ we are passed by maybe a dozen hikers on their way down to the river. For the next several hours our  paths will deviate. The canyon begins with several fun down climbs. The flow is not overwhelming but enough to disrupt verbal communication which immediately adds an extra level of excitement. The big drops follow, including a two stage rappel down a sloping 400- foot waterfall into an open section before dropping into a narrow slot again. Several more rappels and spicy down climbs follow in the temperate water that never pools. The canyon ends the same way it started; right off the Bright Angel Trail, de-harnessing, snacking and hydrating as dozens of hikers pass by. Now all that is left is to join the parade for a seven mile plus, 4,000 foot plus climb back to the rim.

– David


Two tries for a complete Robber’s Roost Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 17, 2012

The sun hits the side of the mountain behind a Saguaro.

Robber’s Roost Canyon, 3AII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
11/26/12, 12/10/12


With family in town for Thanksgiving, (free babysitting) Laura and I sneak away for the better part of a day for an adventure hike with some canyoneering in the Superstition Mountains. We begin the hike early in the morning on the Carney Springs Trail. During the ascent we pass by one of the largest multi-armed Saguaro Cactus I have ever seen. James Madison could have been President of the United States when this Saguaro sprouted from the ground as some of the majestic cacti can be as old as 200 years. Ascending on we reach the ridgeline and head off the Carney Springs Trail into the lunar landscape of hoodoos and other bizarre rock formations. Our goal is to find the Robber’s Roost, a sort of slot canyon between a series of rock formations. The cavity between these hoodoos actually drains water into a larger drainage below. I don’t know exactly where the Robber’s Roost is, only the larger drainage that it feeds into. Laura and I take a round about way getting over to this drainage as the terrain is other wordly and difficult to navigate. Upon reaching the drainage proper we get our harnesses and helmets on thinking we are about to enter the Robber’s Roost and its few rappels. A short while after heading down, something just doesn’t feel right. The canyon begins to get wider and brushier and we are leaving the rock formations behind. After a while I turn, survey the rocks above and recognize the final pour off from the Robber’s Roost formation well above us from photographs I had previously seen. We have completely missed it. There is no chance Laura and I are going to trudge back up through the thick brush to get into the Roost proper. It will have to be saved for the next trip. We know we still have a 250- foot rappel down the bottom part of this drainage. After more bushwhacking we reach the rappel. The vertical drop cuts right through the cliff in a scenic alcove. Following the rappel Laura and I have to fight through a fortress of catclaw to get back to the Carney Springs Trail. Back on the trail as our hot feet trudge on the rocky terrain, I already am planning on returning to descend into the Robber’s Roost proper.  My mind being what it is and all.

Laura on the final 250- foot rappel.

A few weeks later…

Venturing back out alone I park at the Peralta Trailhead well before first light. My plan is to hike over to and up the Carney Springs Trail, find the Roost, do a complete descent of it into that other drainage, ascend that drainage and then navigate across Dacite Mesa to Fremont Saddle and down the Peralta Trail. This will allow me to leave my 320- foot rope at home avoiding  that 250- foot rappel and all of that horrible catclaw at the bottom of that rappel. The sunrise lights up the hoodoos above the Carney Springs Trail in a glow of fire red. After a little searching I find the Robber’s Roost. I am not really sure what the history of the Robber’s Roost is. Despite some research in books and on the web I found nothing. The entire area is steeped in legends of treasure hunters. Carney Springs is named after Peter and Thomas Carney who mined the area for copper in the early twentieth century. With these riches it is not hard to imagine thieves to follow. Dropping into the “slot” between the hoodoos I can see how this would make a great hideout. Though in its current conditions it is bone dry evidence suggest that water runs through after a little rain. Graffiti carved in the walls dates back 75- years. It makes me wonder how long does it take for graffiti to stop being vandalism and become history. I down climb the first two drops and rappel the 80- foot pour off that I had spotted from below on the previous trip. The entire descent takes 15- minutes. I then hike up that drainage and navigate quickly through the hoodoos along the Dacite Mesa to Fremont Saddle and down the Peralta Trail. I am back home before lunch.


Out of the valleys and up into the Alps

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on November 5, 2012

Pizzo Campo Tencia
Lepontine Alps, Ticino, Switzerland
09/02/12 – 09/03/12


We awake on a chilly morning in a campground high up in the Valle Leventina, not far from the trailhead for a two day trek taking us out of the valleys and high up into the Lepontine Alps. Before the trek we warm our bones at the campground restaurant with espresso and freshly baked pastries. The hike begins in a verdant field past cows creating a symphony with their cowbells. The sun is finally out in full force. The air is crisp and vibrant. The blues and greens saturated. We head into the forest and pass religious shrines and a Swiss cowboy. The Val Piumogna, the main canyon that drains the area comes in from below. There is so much water down there it appears un-runnable as a technical descent. The trail takes us past a small village and more cows. Everything is fresh and earthy. Even the cow manure doesn’t smell bad. The trail climbs higher as white ribbons of water dance down the mountainsides in all directions. We arrive above the tree line into an Alpine world of babbling streams, powerful waterfalls, mellow meadows, near vertical grass covered slopes, rock towers and snow covered mountains.

After a short while we can see the Capanna Campo Tencia in the distance. Originally built in 1912 and owned by the Swiss Alpine Club this hut features several bedrooms with dozens of of cots, a bathroom, common area, dining room and a kitchen staffed with a chef that serves up the most delicious regional cuisine. We arrive at the Capanna Campo Tencia, 8.5 miles and over three thousand feet of elevation gain from the trailhead. Breathtaking views are 360 degrees. We meet Franco, the hut master. He is an elite alpine mountaineer having been part of expeditions from the Himalayas to Patagonia. He is short, slight of build, is bald and has a mustache. He whistles the same catchy tune over and over again while preparing food in the kitchen with his partner, Nami. The quiet, small Nepalese man has shared many alpine adventures with Franco during the course of their 20- year friendship. Photos of Franco and Nami atop of some of the most challenging peaks from around the world hang throughout the hut. Nami spends his summers in Switzerland working with Franco at the Capanna Campo Tencia. We are lucky to have them as hosts, especially for their culinary skills.

Franco gives us some suggestions of hikes in the area. With his advice that afternoon we walk to the Lago di Morghirolo, just below the ridge line that separates the Valle Maggia (the same one we were canyoneering earlier in the week) and Valle Leventina (an upper branch valley of the Riveiera where we were canyoneering the previous day). Our high altitude position gives us a great perspective of the geography of Ticino and the earth and water that feeds the canyons below. Eric and I take a short and frigid dip in the lake. Laura and I head back to the hut where we rest in our bunk beds and stare out of the panoramic windows. That evening with Franco and Nami in the kitchen, dinner is very special: minestrone soup, fresh salad, braised rosemary beef and pollenta with gravy. We share the dining room with several other small parties of hikers. Two young Swiss Dads wanted to get a quick hike and a tasty meal in before picking up their kids from school. I have to excuse myself several times during the dinner to run outside to the deck to photograph the glowing mountains at sunset.

After an early morning breakfast we venture out to tackle the summit of Pizzo Campo Tencia, the highest peak of the area at 3,072 meters (10,079 ft). Franco assures us the climb is non-technical that requires just a little use of the hands for some of the more tricky spots. The trail switchbacks through jagged rocks and climbs up steep slopes of grass that one would never be able to gain traction on were in not for the path. We climb higher with great views of the Capanna Campo Tencia below. We reach a tiny glacial lake at the bottom of a small glacier clinging to what remains of its life. Nami would later tell us that in the 20- years he has been summering at the Capanna Campo Tencia it has been frightening how much the glacier has diminished. We climb an exposed ridge and then skirt above the edge of the glacier to a rock strewn face that takes us to another ridge which takes us to the summit. Tibetan prayer flags and giant cairns adorn the summit. After a short break we carefully and slowly make our way back down to the  Capanna Campo Tencia. We say goodbye to Nami and Franco, gather our belongings and head back down the trail to our vehicle. We take a slightly different variation of the end of the hike walking through the larger mountain village of Dalpe as opposed to skirting around it. The trail ends in an alleyway between two buildings in Dalpe with what otherwise appears to be a road sign thats says “Capana Campo Tencia – 3.5 ore” referring to a three and a half hour walk to the hut. Hiking is definitively more part of the culture here.


For information and reservations for the Capana Campo Tencia click here.


A mystery not really solved in Rock Creek Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on April 8, 2012

Rock Creek Canyon, 3B/CIV
approximately 9 miles
Mazatzal Wilderness Area


In the fall of 2007 I went out for a solo hike in the Mazatzal Wilderness Area. The plan was to loop together several trails for an all day adventure. After crossing over the crest of the mountains I lost the trail as it had all but disappeared after the Willow Fire of 2004 had burned much of the area. Instead of turning around and retracing my steps to find the trail, I decided to forge on and head into a canyon that I knew would drain easterly in the direction of my vehicle. Initially, the decision seemed to work as I was able to make progress, losing elevation and heading east. Here and there things did get a little hairy as steep drop offs into pools blocked my way. However at each of these drop offs slanted layered rock at 45 degree angles provided enough purchase to make negotiation down these pour offs possible. Just for a little context, at this time I only had a few technical canyon descents under my belt. I had no harness or rope with me. I did not know what drainage I was in and Laura, back home, certainly would have no idea exactly where I was, as I had gone off course from my planned hike. I remember processing this last bit of information at the time and knowing that the stakes were high. In other words, take a fall and get injured and you are in big trouble.

I carefully proceeded, safely down climbing the obstacles and wading through the pools until I hit what I remember to be a 100- foot vertical drop. I instantly knew I could not continue down the canyon bottom. Fortunately, I only had to ascend back up the canyon a short ways where I found a way to climb out of the canyon bottom and around the drop off. I continued down the drainage and darkness set in when I hit the remnants of an old jeep road. With no headlamp and GPS I knew traveling cross country was out of the question, so I decided to follow the road in the direction of the lights I could see from cars traveling on the Beeline Highway many miles away. Three hours later, having run out of water long ago I reached a restaurant along the side of the highway that had already closed for the night. I looked inside the window of the establishment and could see a woman counting the register with nobody else inside. I banged on the window and yelled that I had gotten lost on a hike and needed water. She looked at me with a frightened look on her face and said “I’m sorry. I can’t let you in but there is a spicket in the back.” Good enough for me. I walked around back, got on all fours and slurped the metallic tasting water till I got my full. Even though I now knew where I was, I still had hours of more walking along forest roads back to my car. With a few bars on my cell phone, I threw up the white flag, called Laura and asked her to come pick me up and take me to my car.

Laura down climbs the slanted, layered rock as I had in the canyon of 2007.

In the all the excitement of the epic and with much of it occurring in the dark I was never able to say with certainty what drainage I had descended. Years later as I began to hear of individuals descending many of the canyons of the Mazatzal Mountains and having begun to descend some myself, I figured it would just be a matter of time before I ran into my old friend. As Eric, Laura and I planned a descent of Rock Creek Canyon and I studied the map, I thought it was likely that this was the one.

It was great being out with Laura and Eric for an all-day wilderness style canyoneering adventure. It is the same group that will be taking the adventure across the pond later in the year, so we had plenty to discuss. As we drove west on a bumpy dirt road I felt like it all looked familiar. Of course the familiarity was a memory from over four years ago on a moonless night with no headlamp in a dehydrated state.

As we hiked into the mountains through catclaw and burned areas of the Willow Fire, again it all felt familiar. After a long approach we reached the first drop in Rock Creek Canyon. Further down the drainage that same geologic formation of slanted, layered rock cut down the side of the canyon appeared. Just as I had used it to down climb the drops in the canyon in 2007 we were able to negotiate this canyon in a similar way, but by now, I knew this was not the same canyon.

After realizing this was not that place, there wasn’t much left to do but enjoy the rugged scenery, fine company and two distinct sets of technical sections the canyon dished up. Though the mystery will remain unsolved, venturing deep into this territory, I now have a solid idea of where I was. Confirmation will have to wait for another day.

– David