Monday, March 20, 2006


Backpacking Adventure in Northern Arizona

The weather forecast for the first weekend of our trip to Northern Arizona was looking grim. The plan was to descend some infrequently descended technical (requiring ropes, and other specialized gear to descend) slot canyons in a very remote but breathtakingly beautiful location. We would hike in on Saturday, try to scout an exit from the canyon on Sunday, and then descend the canyon Monday. After that we would spend another day scouting exits from two more canyons and descend them also. Nat had been to the area before and was serving as a guide of sorts. Friday came and we watched the weather closely hoping for a change in the forecasted snow. Unfortunately nothing changed so after discussing options we decided to postpone the drive down by one day. This would make us lose one of our scouting days, but we felt like we had enough information to at least descend part of the canyons. The scouting was mainly just to allow us to travel further down canyon than what the information we had would allow.

Saturday came around and off we went. The weather in Salt Lake was ok, but as we got to about the middle of the state the snow started falling. As the road climbed up over a couple passes the snow got deeper and the driving slower. There was basically between one and four inches of snow on the road all the way to the Utah/Arizona border. We had had enough for tonight and opted to get a hotel then get up early and finish the rest of the drive the next day.

The next day we woke up to light snow and promising roads. Off we went, but as we got closer to our destination the snow started falling harder. At one point there were about eight inches of snow on the dirt road, luckily the terrain was fairly flat and our 4wd was handling the snow nicely. Finally the snow dropped to only about 4 inches on the roads, but now the road was getting rougher, with more and more ups and downs through washes and shallow canyons. After getting the 4-runner stuck twice and nearly slipping off the road, we thought it prudent to give up on making it all the way to the trailhead and pulled over about a mile short of the normal start point.

The hike in was an amazing trek across a snow covered winter wonderland. The trail was snowy but luckily easy to discern. The views of slickrock in the distance were amazing. Much of the distant slickrock was at just low enough of an elevation that it was not covered in snow, while the terrain we were walking on was. After dropping into a big canyon the snow started to fall harder. It was cold and blowing and all of us were starting to question our choice to come out here in such extreme conditions. Finally the sky cleared, the snow stopped, and we made it to the point where it was time to leave the trail.

After leaving the main trail we followed a deep twisting canyon with towering sandstone cliffs on each side. Nat knew of a route up a thirty foot cliff to the head of the first canyon on our list. Luckily the route up the cliff was snow free and safe to climb, so up we went and then traversed the tops of slicrock domes to a nice sandy campsite. The area was surrounded by some of the tallest, most impressive sandstone cliffs I’ve seen, making the setting absolutely spectacular.

The sky cleared and the night was cold, but the sun coming up the next morning promised better weather for the rest of the week. We climbed out of our tents, gathered our gear, and headed out to find an exit from tomorrows slot canyon we were going to descend. The canyon had a deep narrow slot for the first couple miles, but was long and difficult to exit below that. Our hope was to find a spot along the rim after the slot to fix a rope that we could “jug” (climb using the help of specialized equipment) back up to the rim. The terrain around the canyon was incredibly beautiful but very complex to navigate. Luckily Nat had been to the area before and knew some of the routes. We followed him around two slickrock domes and onto a long flat plateau. At the end of the plateau is where things got difficult. The rest of the hiking was along rock with side canyons dropping into the canyon we planned to descend tomorrow. We would have to find a safe spot to drop into each side canyon and then climb out the other end. Some canyons were shallow, some were deep. We were able to find entrances and exits fairly easily for most side canyons but about a half mile from the point we hoped to drop a rope, we ran into a big deep side canyon that didn’t yield entrances or exits easily. We scouted up and down along the rim, finding routes that would almost make it, but nothing looked safe without fixing ropes (we wanted to save all our ropes for the canyons). Finally after nearly giving up we found a side canyon dropping into the main canyon only 20 yards from the head of this side canyon we were trying to cross. We dropped down the side canyon and noted this as a possible exit. We traversed around some potholes (round holes cut into the sandstone by powerful floods) and headed up the side canyon to try and find a spot to climb out the other side. We were very fortunate to find an exit very near where the side canyon and main canyon met. It was an easy, probably 5.4‘ish climb out with very little exposure.

From there it was more route finding to the spot that we hoped to fix a rope. After reaching the end, we found that the canyon was much deeper than we expected from looking at the topo map. The rope wouldn’t reach the bottom and it just didn’t look like a good idea to exit at that point, so off we went back the way we came to try and see if there were any other exits a little further up.

After scouting the main canyon some more, we found a spot that you could climb down to a 30 foot cliff that dropped near the bottom of the main canyon. This looked like a prime spot to exit so we fixed a 30 foot rope here and left it so we could “jug” out here the next day.

Day three found us waking up from another cold night, but we were all excited to finally get to the business of the trip, descending the first of the three canyons. We didn’t know a whole lot about them, only that they were wet and deep, and that the longest rappel was around 70 feet. We loaded our gear and started heading down the canyon. The beginning was pretty mellow, basically just a walk down a beautiful canyon until we reached a series of drops. It was March and the air temperature around this time of morning was probably about 40 degrees. The water didn’t look too enticing so we opted to delay getting wet for a bit by traversing some steep slickrock to a side canyon that dropped in below the series of drops. Unfortunantly for us, at the bottom of this side canyon was a pool of water that was dark enough we couldn’t tell how deep it was, so we decided to throw on our wetsuits and prepare to get wet.

This first pool ended up being only about knee deep so we continued down canyon getting quite warm in our wetsuits without wading through any water for about another half mile.

Finally after hiking through the canyon, it began to slot up. The canyon constricted and twisted through a short beautiful slot and then into a large 50 foot long pool of water. Nat dropped in first, then Peter, then me. As I jumped into the pool and began to swim to the other end, the water took my breath away. It had to be just above freezing, it felt like thousands of knives poking my body. After hitting the water the beauty of the canyon didn’t matter, all you cared about was getting to the other side and into the sun. After this first pool we all agreed that was one of the coldest swims we had ever done in a canyon, and the cool air temps didn’t do a lot to warm us back up. If we only knew how many similar swims were still to come!

When wearing a wetsuit, the best way to keep warm is to keep moving. The neoprene stores water and warms it from your body heat, this acts as an insulator to help keep you warm. The more you move and work, the more heat your body puts off, and the warmer you get. We all found ourselves walking briskly, waving arms, etc… to keep ourselves from shivering. After a short open section the canyon slotted up again for a short period, dropped into a 30 to 80 foot long pool that we had to swim and then repeated this about 10 or 15 times.

We were not expecting this much water, and were starting to really get cold, luckily we would get breaks of sun every now and then and the earth was slowly warming as it transitioned from morning to afternoon.

After the long series of pools we came to a “V” shaped slot. It was narrow at the bottom but opened wide enough that the sun reached the bottom in many spots. There was a lot of wading up to our waists, but luckily we got a break from the swims for a bit. After this section there were some more large pools and a very nice deep narrow slot before we reached the side canyon we had descended the day before.

This was our first chance to exit the canyon. We were still cold but luckily it was now near noon and the sun was doing a good job of warming us. We warmed up and decided to trek on, the rope we had placed was only about a quarter mile down canyon so on we went.

At this point the canyon got much more serious. It became a deep, very narrow slot. There was no sun and it took us an hour and a half to travel the next quarter mile. We had tight sections to squeeze through, steep difficult drops we had to navigate, and many pools to wade and swim. Luckily with the serious nature of this section we were working hard to climb over and around obstacles keeping us somewhat warm when outside the frigid water.

Soon we came to about a twenty foot drop above a beautiful natural bridge. We set up an anchor and rappelled down into what canyoneers call a “keeper” pothole. This is basically a hole cut into the sandstone by flood waters that is so deep it’s impossible to climb out of on your own, it will “keep” you unless you have a plan to get out.

Peter went in first, then Nat. Peter tried to climb out with Nat’s help but wasn’t able to. Nat, the most skilled climber in the group, used Peter’s knee and then shoulder to get out. Then I dropped in and let Peter use my knee and shoulder and with help from Nat above he got out. Getting me out was a little trickier since I didn’t have a knee or shoulder to stand on. Nat pulled out the rope, hung it into the pothole and then hooked it to himself. I tried climbing up the rope with just my hands, but that was much too difficult, so we attached a rope ladder of sorts to the rope and I used it to climb out to safety.

Shortly after exiting the “keeper” we navigated through some more deep amazingly beautiful narrows to the area where our rope was left. There was still more canyon beyond this point, and we had considered rappelling down three more drops and then “jugging” back up our ropes to this point, but after so many bone chilling swims our bodies were not up to the task of dropping into that frigid water again. We soaked up as much sun as we could and ate some lunch, then changed out of our wetsuits and jugged up the rope and hiked back to camp.

That night I dreaded the thought of doing two more of these incredibly cold canyons. Although today’s canyon was an amazing adventure, there were points that the cold water was just too much. If it weren’t for our wetsuits we would have probably died from hypothermia, and even with our wetsuits it was not comfortable, the water was just too cold and high temps only in the 50’s didn’t help warm things up. I go down these canyons because of the fun I have in them, some of the cold times in the canyon were borderline not fun anymore.

Morning came and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the next day’s canyon. Luckily my companions felt the same way, we all decided that it is not the time of year to be descending canyons with so much water and we needed to save them for a warmer time of year. I was very pleased to hear I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, so that day we opted for a much more mellow, but amazingly beautiful day hike along fins and domes, surrounded by 1000+ foot cliffs. We found a beautiful alcove with a 30 foot waterfall into a pool and the weather was perfect for this type of thing. The next day we packed up and headed back to the car. From there we drove halfway home, camped, and then descended a much drier canyon just north of Lake Powell before heading back to civilization.
All in all it was an incredible trip, I can only imagine what surprises hide in the two canyons we did not descend and I can’t wait to get back to the area in warmer conditions to see what we missed!


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