Monday, February 12, 2007


Canyoneering in… January?

Four in the morning came much too quickly but my body swelled with excitement for what lay ahead. Our original group of seven had trimmed down to four and we were now on our way to canyon country for some winter slots. The four hour drive to North Wash, a wide desert canyon snaking its way to Lake Powell, went by quickly as some slept in the back of the vehicle and I entertained Reed, the driver, with conversation to make sure he stayed alert at such an early hour. Before long we were pulling into the trailhead for our first canyon of the day, Boss Hog, which we would soon find out was only a warm up for the adventure yet to come!

The temperatures in Salt Lake had been frigid so the highs in the upper thirties forecasted for the area we were now in sounded balmy compared to what we were dealing with back home. The outside temperature gauge in the X-terra, read eighteen degrees as the sun hid behind morning clouds. We stepped out to munch down some breakfast only to be greeted by a light breeze that chilled to the bones. We all looked at each other, hoping we made a wise decision to head down to Southern Utah in winter. I reassured myself that the weather will warm up and once we get moving our bodies will too.

After a quick breakfast we were off to the canyons head, magnificent views of miles and miles of desert were afforded us on the march in. Looking directly below us on our left a deep winding crack cut itself into the orange, solid sandstone. A feeling of excitement came over us at the thought of what lay ahead. A short cliff band separated the Carmel Formation we were walking on and the Navajo Sandstone containing the slot we wanted to descend. We soon found a break in the cliff and scrambled our way onto the rock of which we would become very intimate with for the next few hours.

The slot began as a shallow “V” in the rock, cut by accumulated rain water from the storms that reach the area, but soon started to deepen and head downward… steeply! The canyon consisted of constant downclimbing, (just like what rock climbers do, only we go down instead of up) squeezing, and stemming (placing your back on one wall and feet on the other then scooting sideways above the canyon bottom). It wasn’t long before we were scrambling through a beautifully crafted sculpture, carved by time and the raging waters that thunder through this slender space. A piece of webbing stuck out from under a rock used to anchor adventurous canyoneers using their ropes to assist them down this drop. The drop was short however and we felt we could use the foot and handholds on the way down to handle this drop without the rope. We assembled as a team offering outstretched hands for help from the top, and spots from the bottom to make sure everyone climbed down the drop safely. The dynamics of our group were extraordinary which would prove very useful later in the day.

The rest of the canyon was fantastic as it relentlessly dropped deeper and deeper through the sandstone. There were sections of slanted narrows where walking was… uncomfortable. There were extremely tight sections that we opted to stay high above, sometimes thirty or more feet from the bottom. The canyon was magnificent and the company, as good as anyone could ask for!

We exited the canyon to bursting sun rays and radiant blue skies, a big difference from the Hazy, frigid city we had come from. The canyon was challenging, but somewhat short so we still had plenty of time to climb the loose gulley back to the car, eat some lunch, and head to a second adventure.

As we congregated at our vehicle and fixed up our various lunches considering where to go next, the group looked to me to help decide how to maximize our time. I have done the most canyons in the area, and it was fairly new to the others so I had to make a decision. I offered a few suggestions and was asked what the best of the options were. Of our feasible options I offered up Trail Canyon as being the best… but we would probably run into a few unavoidable pools of water (remember this is January). The water was no more than about waist deep last time I descended the canyon, but you never know how full they could be this time.

Leaving rational thinking behind, we chose to do Trail Canyon. It was only a few miles from where we were and we decided to take our chances with the possible pools of water.

The hike to Trail went along slickrock domes and towers, with the typical grand vistas that are about as common in Canyon Country as Pigeons in New York City. We found an easy way into the head of the canyon and soon it was down to business.

Like Boss Hog, a small “V” shaped crack started winding its way downward through the soft, yielding sandstone as it slowly deepened. Soon the canyon took a sharp turn to the left and dropped steeply as it did. A large pile of rocks lay just above the drop with a piece of webbing sticking out. This time we opted to use the rope to help us down, a somewhat time consuming, but much safer way to manage a big drop.

As we continued forward, beautifully formed “ice pools” were spotted throughout the canyon. Fortunately they were ice pools, not pools of water. Our luck however would soon run out as the canyon dropped suddenly into a deep, extremely narrow chamber floored with, you guessed it, a winter canyoneers worst enemy… water. The dark pool didn’t look deep, but no one liked the thought of getting wet if we didn’t have to so we all opted to forcefully jam ourselves between the two foot wide slot and shimmy sideways above the water, relying on the friction between our bodies and the frosty walls to keep us dry.

After clambering over more similar pools in similar narrow sections the canyon soon dropped into a five inch wide slit, with an open, subway tunnel like section directly above. We climbed up to one of the ledges and to the edge of a fifteen foot drop into a HUGE pool of… you guessed it again, wet, brown, freezing water. Reed and I looked at each other in horror, this didn’t look good. I was wearing a wetsuit, but Mike and Reed were just in fleece and sweatpants… what do we do? There is a system of ledges on the left that we consider using to avoid the water, but it would be an extremely difficult dangerous traverse with no way to protect ourselves from the possible fall. Since I had the wetsuit, I volunteered myself to test the waters depth… which from the size of the pool was probably going to be over my head.

I carefully slid down the skinny crack that lead to the pool, dreading what lie in front of me. As I inched closer to what I thought was a thin film of ice on top of the pool, I noticed the ice was thicker than what we had previously encountered in the canyon… actually it looked about three or four inches thick!

“It’s frozen solid!” I reported to reed above.

“Yea, but I’m sure it won’t hold your weight.”

I inspected the giant ice block up and down while still holding my body an inch or two above the ice, trying to figure out the best way to approach crossing this beast. I slowly inched myself down and plop, the ice held strong… for now. My mind raced as I tried to decide how to increase my chances of staying on top of the ice rather than drop below it. Along the edges, the pool looked shallowest, but the ice over there also looked at its thinnest. I hated the thought of traversing through the middle of the pool, as it would easily be over my head, and could mean big trouble if I fell in, but it looked like the safest bet.

Slowly I inched my way across and my heart would jump at every crack and snapping sound the ice would make. Slowly… slowly… I moved to the safety of the sand at the other end. I looked back to a hopeful Reed after seeing me make it across safely. There was still uncertainty in his eyes though, as he is a slightly huskier fellow than I and the cracking and snapping noises did not provide him any comfort.

Soon Reed slid down the narrow slot and was standing on the sheet of ice. He, obviously knowing more about traveling along ice, opted to get down on his stomach and slide across the pool making an effort to distribute his weight more evenly rather than putting it all on one foot with each step, as I did it. Next across was Chuck, and finally Mike. Cheers of excitement came from all of us as what we thought would be a stressful experience of swimming through an icy pool turned into a highlight of the trip. Maybe next time we should bring our ice skates.

Our cheers of excitement soon faded however as another deep, uninviting pool lay in front of us, this one with only a very thin layer of ice on top. There would be no more ice skating today. In I went, the water shockingly cold and up to about my waist. The ice was too thin to hold my weight, but thick enough to impede progress through the pool. I would have to place my hand on top then press with all my weight to break off a chunk large enough for me to walk a few steps then break off more.

This continued to be the ritual as another waist deep pool was followed by one that was near neck deep… and the water never got any warmer.

Soon we came to what, for the smaller guys, was the canyons crux. While squeezing through yet another tight section of narrows, a sudden constriction blocked passage along the ground. For about twenty feet, the canyon walls twisted and curved only about four or five inches wide near where a persons legs would have to fit. Bending knees and walking through would prove extremely difficult. The best way to tackle the problem is by climbing up, where the canyon widens, and then stemming over. This was no problem the last time I was in the canyon, but a mixture between the work we had already done in Boss Hog and the cold water we had been wading, my arms and legs did not have the strength they had last time I was here. Footholds on the water polished rock were non-existent and the climb relied completely on friction and strength. Reed attempted to give me a boost, but it was hopeless, I was going to have to muster the strength to do it on my own. It wasn’t pretty, and I passed through the crux lower than I would have liked, but luckily I’m not too big of a guy and was able to make it through without getting stuck. Mike and monkey man, Chuck had been stemming behind us and stayed high, dropping a sling to assist Reed on the climb up.

It was this point that I started second guessing our choice of canyon. There was yet another extremely narrow section coming up that was much longer than this. I BARELY fit through it last time and I was concerned about Mike and Reed getting past it. I knew that there is a route going up and over, but I did not know how high and how difficult the climb up was. We encountered another pool or two and before we knew it we were at the section I had been dreading.

The canyon constricted suddenly to only about a foot wide, and only eight or nine inches in one spot. The tight narrows were consistent for probably 100 feet or more. Mike started the arduous climb from the canyon floor, to about thirty feet up where the walls were far enough apart to comfortably stem over the narrows. Reed was exhausted and was not excited about tackling the climb ahead of him.

Chuck and I started squeezing packs through the bottom of the canyon so that Mike and Reed could do the climb without the extra weight.

“Forget it, I’m going through the bottom,” Reed called from up canyon as he started the squeeze.

“Yea… you can probably make it,” Chuck answered back. Then we hit a constriction so tight Chuck and I questioned if we would get through or not.

“Never mind… go back, you’re not getting through the bottom,” Chuck warned “Maybe if you got flat on the ground and we pulled you, but even then it would probably be useless.”

Frustrated, Reed turned back and started the grunt up. The stem was high and difficult, at one point Mike and Reed were near forty to fifty feet off the bottom of the canyon. They were both cold and tired, legs shaking and arms weak but they stayed focused on the goal, getting over the constriction and back to the warmth of the car. Feet forward, then the back, as the two rhythmically moved toward the end of the slot until their feet were finally safely on the ground.

After the short trip back to the car we all changed into dry clothes (well… Reed and mike had to resort to chillin in their BVD’s since they didn’t have extra pants to change into), warmed up by the heater, and started the drive back to Salt Lake. All in all it was a great day in two awesome canyons. Trail really pushed us considering how much the cold affected our fatigue level but teamwork was the name of the game and we all made it through with giant grins on our faces the entire drive home.

Winter is a quiet time down in Canyon Country, solitude and comfortable daytime temperatures are common, but the nights can be bitter cold and the potholes freezing. Many canyons that are too hot in summer are perfect in winter, but be prepared for the unexpected and short daylight hours.

Here are a couple bonus videos:

Great trip report and pictures! What a fine day out.

Josh Rymer is a looker. He single?
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?