Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Return to the Fold: A five hour crux in Poe Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on June 1, 2012

Poe Canyon, aka Smiling Cricket Canyon, 4BVX
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


Looking upward, I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. It was some thirty or forty feet overhead, and constructed much as the side walls. In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention . It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that in lieu of a scythe he held what at a casual glance I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see on antique clocks. There was something, however, in the appearance of this machine which caused me to regard it more attentively. While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own), I fancied that I saw it in motion. In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. Its sweep was brief, and of course slow. I watched it for some minutes, somewhat in fear but more in wonder.  

               An excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”


I’m standing in the bottom of a 30- foot deep keeper pothole referred to as the “Pit of Despair” in the middle of Poe Canyon. We have been working this obstacle for nearly four hours and are now moments away from learning if our decisions, time and determination will either have paid off or bring us back to the drawing board. With the clock ticking in this dangerous and remote place a lot is riding on it. I stand ready with my camera to record the moment. Unlike my job as a professional newspaper photojournalist when I often document the best, worst and most critical occasions of individuals lives that have no direct bearing on my own, my fate is critically intertwined into what I am about to photograph. It is an intense, uncomfortable and exhilarating feeling.


Nearly a year earlier…

Just looking at the folds and domes in the slick rock approach up to the entrance of Poe Canyon makes me nervous. On a hot afternoon, Eric and I hike up into this convoluted madness that is the Waterpocket Fold to try and locate the canyon’s entrance. We feel like mountaineers rest stepping up steep, smooth slopes trying to follow the easiest line to the top, except snow and ice are replaced with sandstone and a mountaintop is replaced by a place to drop into a dark abyss. The drop in point is found easier than we expect.

The following day we descend Happy Dog Canyon, Poe’s sister. I get walloped. I write about the descent and my mishaps on this blog. I post a link on the yahoo canyon group to my trip report. A user that had descended Poe sends me this reply, “perhaps this should go without mentioning, but if happy dog whooped you that good, i think poe might deliver a knock-out punch. it’s another order of magnitude more difficult, especially if you can’t defeat the pit of despair and the warthole. the downclimbing is also much more difficult in poe than the dog (even though there is very little stemming). please be careful out there…” It sounds like a fair warning.

I had seen the video, photos and trip reports of this canyon’s immense challenges. I can’t help but wonder how we will stack up to the canyon if the right team of superheroes are assembled. Wait a minute, what’s my superhero ability? Yikes. What I lack in the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound I make up for in organization and planning. A team is assembled by Eric and I for a descent the following year with members who will bring skills to put us in the best position to safely descend the canyon.

It is Memorial Day weekend 2012 as forty mile an hour gusts are blasting us head on as we shuffle through sand on the 11- mile backpack to set up our base camp. We reach camp early in the day and A.J. and Jen from Colorado are already there waiting for us. A.J. will be joining us for the descent down Poe. It will be his second time down the canyon also known as Smiling Cricket. During that descent of four years ago, A.J. and his partners had to spend a somewhat unplanned bivouac above the “Pit of Despair”. We are hoping to approach some of the obstacles differently and do the canyon in one long day. A.J.’s experience both in Poe and his robust canyon resume at large will be invaluable to the expedition. We also have long daylight hours on our side.

We lay on our backs under the shade of a cottonwood tree. Mike sets up a slackline to kill time. We discuss and divvy up all the gear we will need for the descent, all the while being blasted by the wind as sand is forced into every crevice of our bodies. We go to bed before the sun goes down. Surprisingly I sleep well. The sun is nowhere to be seen when we wake and begin the approach.

In pitch darkness the approach is far more complicated than it was a year ago during the scout. An hour in and the Sun comes up. We drop in and begin down canyon. The downclimbs and potholes begin almost immediately. They quickly get more challenging the further down we go. Between A.J. and all of the online content I have consumed on this canyon, I can’t say I don’t know what is ahead, but both what I do and don’t know is a little scary. I burry it and enjoy this place that few have seen before me. As the keepers get more demanding I begin to wonder what it would be like to really not have any idea of what lies around the next corner.

On August 23, 1981, Mike Bogart and Jenny West, made the first descent of Poe Canyon. What they did not have is all of the canyoneering specific designed technical gear and evolved techniques that exist today and most importantly any knowledge of the immense obstacles they would face. What they did have and please excuse the language are some serious balls. In a beautifully written non-fiction story on this first descent West writes,

“As we climb and rappel deeper through the channels of rock and pools we stop discussing the commitment required each time we pull a rappel rope or downclimb a spot that would not be upclimbable. Time and time again we eliminate our escape route out. It is an awareness we share but choose not to speak of. The stunning beauty lures us to linger and take a few photos. But the pull of the unknown is powerful. The taste of adventure and our commitment to it is sweet. We make our bargain with it. It fills us with urgency.”

So on they went and over thirty years later with only a handful of known descents in between, on we went.

Our group of five has found a rhythm and we are moving fast. Brian and I buddy boost Eric up an eight foot keeper. Mike performs a dynamic three steep leap over a pit. I watch his silhouette from the bottom of this ten foot deep pothole through the LCD screen on the back of my digital camera. The obstacles are some of the more challenging most of us have seen, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. They are manageable. The “Pit of Despair” looms in our minds and then we hit it.

Mike performs a dynamic three steep leap from one side of a keeper pothole to the other.

We stage in a small room just above the “Pit of Despair”. The plan was use the same technique as several previous groups to get across this pothole that measures 30 feet deep and 30 feet across. A narrow constriction just up canyon of the pothole allows an individual to stem up 10 – 20 feet. From this bird’s perch one can swing a canvas bag known as a Potshot filled with sand across the pit and over a lip on the other side of the pothole. After throwing several of the potshots they would act as a counterweight that an individual could then drop down into the pothole and climb out. We have used this method many times, but never on anything so big. Some of the groups that used this technique before had some character out of comic book that goes by the name “Spidey”. Who will be our superhero?

A.J. steps into the role of the coxswain as we attack the obstacle. Brian takes the first try at the toss, coming up a solid 10- feet short. Eric, A.J. and Mike make subsequent attempts all missing the mark. I know my abilities and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time so I don’t even try. The problem is that there is not a well defined lip on the opposite side of the “Pit of Despair” to allow the bags to properly hang to give a good counterweight. It is more of a gentle downward sloping bench. As a result, the potshots don’t just need to go the 30 feet across the pothole but another 15 feet past it so they can settle down into a more defined notch. Each attempt takes close to ten minutes since the previous: individual stems into position, rope is cleanly coiled, bag is swung back and forth between the legs until it is launched. A miss means everything has to be pulled back up from the depths of the pit and the process repeats itself. From my vantage I can not see if the bags are making it across; I just hear grunts or groans of disappointment. With each miss I feel myself sink a few inches deeper into the canyon.

After nearly a dozen failed attempts we start thinking about Plan B, a dangerous traverse above the pothole using aid climbing techniques and two spread out bolts that Mike Bogart placed during their first descent. A.J. performed the traverse during his descent four years ago, but not before a piece of aid blew out and he fell 20- feet. A.J. has no interest in repeating the feat, but Mike, our climber of the group feels he can make it. The problem is Mike has zero aid climbing experience. Between the first and second moves on aid I can see Mike sketched like I have never seen him before. A.J. sees it too. “The potshots are going to work. We just need to work it more. Get down Mike,” says A.J encouragingly. Mike gladly listens.

From here A.J. comes up with a brilliant plan to give a tight belay to the pot shot tosser. This would allow that individual to go higher off the deck, get closer to the edge of the “Pit of Despair” and really lean into the throw. I serve as the belayer. I am excited to use my superhero strengths as a belayer and contribute to this motley “Avengers” crew. A.J. and Brian alternate attempts and the misses continue, but progress is being made. “Shit, only 3-feet short!” has replaced “Shit, 10- feet short!” as it echoes just slightly off the sandstone walls. With each toss A.J. and Brian make minute adjustments, learning from each other and then A.J. hits it, but just barely. We all shout out in celebration. With that Brian takes the cue to step up his game and hits four out of the next five tosses all of them going well past A.J.’s successful throw.

Eric organizes the ropes attached to the Pot Shots in the bottom of the “Pit of Despair”.

Eric and I rappel down into the pit, taking care not to get tangled in the rope attached to the potshots and pulling them back over in the process. Upon touchdown I take in the pothole. It is beautiful. The hands of the clock continue to tick as Eric and I straighten and organize the five strands of rope that serve as our ticket out of here. I touch the ropes with delicate fingers as if they are porcelain figurines. Eric gives each rope a gentle test pull and two of the potshots easily come back down into the pit. The other three are solid. Brian goes back into position. It takes him another four attempts to find his rhythm. In the meantime, Eric and I watch his shadow and that of the pendulating rope and bag in a patch of a light on the wall reflected off of the water. Has anyone witnessed this before?

Five potshots are set. Brian has seriously come through. It is now Eric’s turn to see if he can climb these five strands of rope hand over hand up a 30 foot vertical and near featureless wall and most importantly without pulling the potshots back down in the attempt. Eric moves quickly up the wall as the rest of us hoot and holler. As he nears the lip, he begins to struggle. He grasps for progress. I watch it unfold on an LCD screen. Gravity takes over. In an amazing feat Eric finds the perfect balance between using the ropes just enough to control his fall without pulling all of the potshots back over. He splashes down and is breathing heavy. I can tell he is disappointed. I am extremely proud of him for not pulling the bags back over, proving that they are a solid counter weight in the process. Mike drops down in the pit and immediately “batmans” up and out. He raises his arms in victory. We celebrate. Even though it is now non-critical Eric makes a second attempt and nails it. One by one the rest of us follow up, over and out of the “Pit of Despair”. After over five hours from the time we came upon this obstacle we are moving on to the next.

The canyon is not done with us yet with more enlarged keepers, tricky downclimbs and anchor challenges, but the crux is in our rear view mirror.  We are all smiles and some yawns after we touchdown on the final rappel in the riparian alcove. We reach camp 13- hours from the time we left it.

We all have different reasons for canyoneering. For me there is not one. Teamwork, camaraderie, seeing how I measure against challenges and experiencing a rugged, raw and seldom seen beauty all play into my decisions to take the inherent risks of descending a canyon like Poe. The key is mitigating those risks by making sure your team is prepared to face what you encounter. With a canyon like Poe, even with all the information that does reside out there in the interweb, it is hard to know how you will stack up until you are out there. For us it was a five hour crux. Any less of a team and things might have gotten pretty hairy. With that I will echo the warning I received a year ago,  “please be careful out there…”.



Into the Fold: Scouting and a mean Happy Dog

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on June 29, 2011

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– David