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).



The desert all to myself in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 28, 2014
A selfie in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

A selfie in the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon, 3AII
North Wash


We pull into the Sandthrax campsite just coming back from our descent of Woodchuck and Woody Canyon. As we come around the bend to our cluster of tents I scan for Mike, Cody and Eric. I am hoping they are back and celebrating from their descent of Sandthrax Canyon, an X-rated high stemmer that many say has one of the hardest crux’s of the Colorado Plateau. They are not there. Though we are hoping they would be back we are not alarmed. Brian and I discuss a plan of when we should start looking for them from the rim, with 2- 200 foot ropes in hand in the event we have to send them down a life line. We are still hours away from enacting such a scenario, giving me just enough time for a solo run of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon just above our camp. In 2010 I descended the East and Middle Forks of Leprechaun canyon and am excited to complete the series. Mark, Brian and Chris have no interest in  joining me, which means I’m going solo and is what I was hoping for. Solitude in the desert for a few hours is just what I’m looking for.

Looking down into the upper reaches of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

Looking down into the upper reaches of the West Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.

I move quickly on the approach, wanting to return to camp as soon as possible in the event that assistance will be needed for the Sandthrax crew. In little time I’m rigging the first rappel and am in the dark underworld. The solitude and silence is intoxicating. I continue to move quickly, carefully and deliberately, down climbing, stemming and rappelling here and there. I join the main fork of Leprechaun and can hear voices ahead. My private world is no more. I pursue the voices. I reach a section of canyon that I remember from my middle Lep descent in 2010 where boulders fill the canyon bottom. A small tunnel below the boulders allows passage on hands and knees. As I pop out of the rabbit hole of this tunnel I catch those voices. I say “hello.” In the dim light one of the canyoneers recognizes me from this blog. We have even corresponded some via email about canyons and such. Canyoneering is a small world made even smaller by its corresponding virtual world. The woman with him is on her first canyoneering descent ever. She has an ear to ear smile. It is nice to see. We talk for awhile and then I move ahead. In a short time I’m rounding the bend and heading into our camp. From a distance I can see the Sandthrax crew. No rescue required today. There will be plenty to celebrate tonight. It’s going to get loud. It was nice to have the quiet and this desert all to myself even if for just an hour or so.



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.


True to it’s name, Hard Day Harvey

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 15, 2013

Eric works his way across the pool.

Hard Day Harvey Canyon, 3BIIIR
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


Unlike the previous mornings I do not wake to feel the glow of the rising sun hit my face. Instead muted light takes over. I unzip my tent to see ominous clouds hovering in nearly all directions. The rest of the crew wakes. It is our final day but the weather is leaving doubt that our planned descent of Hard Day Harvey is going to happen. Some coffee, hot breakfast, a morning fire and things begin to look just a little better. Enough to rally and we are on our way.

We don’t know much about this canyon other than its name and two statements Ram had made about it the day before in Paradiso, “Excellent choice.” and “It has several hard right turns.” Preparing for the skinny stuff we are once again packing light, leaving the wetsuits behind. I hope its not wet. Perhaps breakfast is not sitting quite right or it is the anxiety from the weather but my stomach is churning as we get at it. A quick fast forward a half hour into it and I am in a completely different world than the one I left behind above the rim. What upset stomach? Not here, not now.

Brian working through chest deep water in sideways shuffling narrows.

Physical, sweat drip. Muddy shoes smear, some high moves. Low, turn sideways, breath.

Yeah, its like that for awhile. A slide into a pool. That looks deep. The chocolate waters wont reveal until we are in it. I’ll go first. It gives me more opportunity to document the great reactions of my five compatriots as they hit the icey cold waters, sans wetsuit. Yup, full on swimmer. Its picture time.

The narrows get tighter, darker, muddier and wetter. We are all a little chilled but the physicality of this descent is keeping us away from hypothermia. The light that does penetrate is exquisite. We hit those challenging right turns. The final of the series is the real business. A tight down climb into a small bombay with chest deep water and then the canyon takes a hard 90 degrees. From there it gets really skinny with a chockstone inconveniently placed to really make it challenging. Eric is in the lead. He takes the low route and barely makes the squeeze to the other side. He shouts back instructions. Best to stay high over the pool make the right turn and get above that chokestone. I am up next. With muddy walls I can’t stay high on that right turn and slide into the pool. I squeeze under the chokestone but am unable to pass through a constriction just beyond. I backtrack back into the pool and stem up to get my torso out of the frigid water. Brian comes down to the right turn and from my position I am able to pin his mud caked shoes to the wall so he can make the move up to the chokestone. He lowers me a sling to try and pull me up,  but the angles and space are not there. I try low again. This time I take my helmet off and push it and my backpack in front of me until Eric can grab them from the other side. I then lay down on the ground and wiggle like a snake to get below that super tight constriction to the other side. Brian is now coming through above and his large frame’s progress is impeded by another restriction. It is so skinny he does not have the room to maneuver up and over it. I am able to get in there and push him up enough to get past. This entire sequence exists all within about 20 feet of canyon. The crux is now behind us. A little more business before we hit the confluence with Good Day Jim. One more rappel before the canyon fully releases us.

The hike back to our vehicle is a continuous, convoluted jaunt navigating up and over seemingly endless sandstone cross joints. As those cross joints drop down to our left into the dark depths of Hard Day Harvey they create the character (including those tough right turns) that makes the canyon so challenging to descend. Just to our right are the waters of Lake Powell. At one point we stand on the edge of a cliff that drops at least a 500 sheer feet straight to the water. Though we didn’t try I wouldn’t be surprised if one could throw a rock into the water from here. We snap some photos, and look around at views in all directions. The exertion of the day and beauty of this place has left me filled with a pleasant feeling of fogginess. A motorboat passes just below us; the sound of its engine clearly audible. The hum of the boat fades away and that still beating heart of Glen Canyon is felt and heard. Such an experience to step inside and explore a few of the veins that go directly into this heart; however changed it may be.


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

Gramps, yurts and a flowing Illusions Canyon

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

Illusions Canyon, 4BIIIR
5.75 miles


The first and last time I descended Illusions Canyon, the intensity of my involvement in canyoneering was drastically scaling back as I was over four months pregnant. David was a nervous wreck as he watched me crawl, slide and wiggle through the dark chambers of Illusions. Two plus years later and I am entrenched in being the mother of an energetic toddler, so I don’t get out in the canyons all that often (our European canyoneering adventure, aside). These days, to get to share a descent with David takes some serious planning ahead. To make a trip through Illusions Canyon possible, David and I timed it for when my Dad (or Gramps as Wyatt calls him) was visiting over the summer. We rented a small cabin, for Wyatt, David and myself, and a private yurt for my father at the Flagstaff Nordic Center. For those that don’t know a yurt is a small portable tent like structure with a wooden frame. Their origins date back a thousand years to Central Asia.

We arrived at the Flagstaff Nordic Center the afternoon before our descent down Illusions. My father, Wyatt, David and I went for a peaceful walk through the ponderosa pines before cooking dinner over an open campfire. Waking long before sunrise David and I quickly got dressed and knocked on the front door of my father’s yurt waking him from his slumber. After he tiptoed into our cabin where Wyatt was still sleeping we drove to meet Eric, Brian and Cheryl at the trailhead for Illusions Canyon.

The day began with a great workout during the hike up to to the top of rim. The trail was steep but pleasant with good conversation that goes along with the excitement and anticipation of such a special canyon. The canyon was just as fun, magical and beautiful as I had remembered. Perhaps even more so this time around as the extremely wet monsoon season provided us with a light but steady flow of water through the entire canyon. The walls were glowing in electric green covered in mosses, ferns and other vegetation. The monsoon was present on this day too. Just minutes after our group of five completed the final rappel of the canyon and exited the narrows the skies darkened and opened in a torrential downpour. Flashes of white light and booming blasts just over head accompanied the sheets of rain. Our timing could not have been closer or more perfect depending on how you look at it. It was an intense storm that we would not have wanted to experience in Illusions’ long narrows, just behind us. In the lower, wide portion of the canyon the danger of being caught in a flash flood no longer posed a risk and we were able to enjoy this raw power of nature during the hike out.

Wyatt and Gramps in front of their yurt at the Nordic Center.

Well over 12- hours from the time we left my Dad and Wyatt, we were back at the Flagstaff Nordic Center and we found them hanging out between the yurt and cabin. My Dad had survived spending the day with his 18- month old grandson alone in the Northern Arizona woods. He looked just as exhausted and satisfied with his day as David and I were with ours.


For information about the Flagstaff Nordic Center click here.

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.


Memorable down Pontirone Lesgiüna inferiore & at Brissago Island

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on November 12, 2012

Pontirone Lesgiüna inferiore, V4A3III
Valle di Blenio, Ticino, Switzerland


We are staying at the Curzútt, a hostel in the middle of a hamlet that dates back over 800- years. Buildings hundreds of years old still stand today. The hostel has been restored consistently with this architectural history as layers of stone have been chiseled and perfectly placed with a minimal use of mortar. The settlement is over 1300 feet above the valley floor. The final quarter mile and 500- feet of vertical must be covered either by foot or cable car. Our day begins with this walk down the steep switchback path to our car.

We drive up into the Blenio Valley for today’s adventure, a technical descent of Pontirone Lesgiüna inferiore. Where the road crosses the bottom of the drainage we peek into the canyon to check the water levels. It looks like big flows. We hike up through a chestnut tree forest. We leave the woods behind and descend into the canyon bottom down a steep and exposed slope. A fixed hand line assists in one particularly spicy section.

We suit up having to shout to be heard over the deafening noise of the cascading water. Below the first rappel, the canyon narrows into a dark abyss. It is a big waterfall. From our guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola, we know it is 140- feet. The anchor off to one side of the canyon wall keeps us just outside the reach of the main flow, but close enough for us to feel its raw power. Eric perfectly describes it as the “dragon’s breath”. Having experienced well over a 1000 rappels this one is memorable. From here the beauty of the canyon takes off, narrow polished silver walls and emerald green water. Thanks to its skinniness, the technical obstacles keep pace with its stunning aesthetics. This canyon is far narrower than any of our previous European descents. It’s tightness more closely resembles the canyons of Zion National Park or the Mogollon Rim of Arizona. Throw into the mix what could have been 50 CFS of water. It is a recipe for powerful hydraulics at the bottom of the numerous drops we encounter. These hydraulics require that rope lengths are set short or that jumping replaces rappelling to ensure we are not sucked into these whirlpools. A fixed traverse line assists in getting us to a safer launching zone for a jump. Another drop is negotiated by down climbing and crossing underneath the water flow that shoots out horizontally in a jet stream. More jumps and rappels require the utmost attention to detail on rope work. After a final 50- yard swim through a narrow hallway of churning water the canyon ends under two bridges. We are buzzing from this truly special descent.

With plenty of day left we drive back down the Riviera, past Bellinzona and Locarno to the small town of Brissago on the shore of the massive Lake Maggiore, where we take the next ferry to Brissago Island. The six acre island in the middle of Lake Maggiore surrounded by the Italian and Swiss Alps is home to a stunning open air botanical garden. Ticino’s warm sunny climate allows sub-tropical plants to thrive on the island. The garden houses 1700 plant species from around the world including, lotus blossoms, giant sequoias, bald cypresses, perennial banana plants, bamboo and eucalyptus trees. We spend the afternoon wandering between every corner and pocket of the island exploring the diverse vegetation and rocky beaches to the backdrop of this massive lake and towering mountains beyond. A ferry back to the mainland, beer and pizza for dinner and the hike back up to the Curzútt Hostel close out the day.