Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Dead cow soup and the secret of Illusions Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on August 6, 2009

Dead cow soup and the secret of Illusions Canyon

Illusions Canyon, 4BIIIR
5.75 miles


Secrets. I am not sure I believe in them and I don’t completely understand the culture of secrecy that exists in canyoneering. I am not as engaged in the rock climbing community but friends who are both avid climbers and canyoneers say secrecy is not as prevalent in the climbing world. I feel that sharing information that shows how unique, special and beautiful the wilderness is will only educate and inform people who will in turn make decisions, change lifestyles, vote and do whatever else they can to help protect the wilds. I basically feel that keeping canyons a secret does nothing but serve those that are inside of that secret. Others would disagree with my position and would probably have valid points supporting their beliefs.

In the not too distant past I became aware of an unbetaed, secret canyon referred to as Illusions Canyon. I will not reveal how I became aware of this canyon but on this first weekend of August 2009 I became honored and privileged to experience what may be one of the most beautiful, rugged and down right nasty canyon I have ever descended in my short, but intense canyoneering life. Out of respect to the canyoneering pioneers who through a great number of scouting and anchor setting trips, through much sweat, hard work, determination and ingenuity found the route, I will not reveal the location of the canyon (this was their request). Though I do not entirely agree, I respect their position.

In time this route may become public so if it does I will provide some useful information on descending the canyon…

-This canyon is for experienced canyoneers and the physically fit only.

-Do not attempt this canyon in low water conditions. Keepers are extremely prevalent and the water is cold. I wore a shortie wetsuit on a very hot day and would have been much more comfortable in a full body.

-Be prepared for lots of tricky down climbs.

The last keeper of the canyon is especially nasty. It is at the bottom of a long rappel (the second of the two long rappels in the canyon) and you can’t see the pothole from the top. We were warned of its existence so we set the rappel to allow for Eric and I to both rappel down at the same time. We locked off on rope about ten feet above the pothole to analyze the obstacle. The water looked deep and it was about four to five feet from the surface of the water to the lip of the pothole. The exit was close to vertical and featureless. First we attempted a pack toss, but the pothole was so big (about the size of a big 1- car garage) we could not get our bag across. Then we noticed what first looked like a thick log floating in the water. “Maybe we could use that,” we discussed. Then, on closer inspection we noticed it was the hindquarters of a dead cow stewing below the surface. We were not at the point that we were going to use a dead cow as an object to climb out of the pothole. Fortunately, the lip of the pothole had a bomber hand hold. So with my size and Eric’s excellent pothole escape climbing abilities we went for a buddy boost. We dropped in the putrid, black water of indiscernible depth at the same time and swam past the cow. I crammed myself against the escape wall as Eric climbed my body like a ladder. As I was forced down I was able to keep my face above the cow soup. In reality, the cow probably had not been in the water for long as there were hardly any signs of decay in the water, but beware that in the coming weeks and months this pothole could be especially nasty from the rotting carcass. I gave Eric some forceful boosts and he clambered out on the first try using those bomber handholds. If water conditions were another 2 feet lower, a boost could have proven to be extremely difficult. After Eric got out it was just a matter of the rest of using an etrier attached to Eric for escape. All of our activity had moved the cow directly into the swim path for exit. With a long stick we were able to push the cow into the corner as the rest of our party swam across the pothole.