A trip report without pictures is hardly a report at all. The day Mark and I challenged Trachyotomy, preserving life and limb took priority over everything else. Instead of providing the usual visual evidence, I’ll weave you a tale that might satisfy your appetite.
_____________ Trachyotomy _____________
It is strange how some canyons have such a consistent personality. I always expect the next obstacle to be much harder, or much easier, than the previous one. Shenanigans is so very deep and exquisitely sculpted, but on a small human scale we each fight a similar battle the entire way through. Yes, the final narrows stand out slightly, but they aren’t much more dangerous, aren’t that different really, than the rest of the canyon. If we all weighed 120lbs, nobody would even notice the difference.
Trachyotomy fits into this magical mold of varied, yet consistently difficult obstacles. Sandstone features that whittle you down, with a final narrow section that tries to finish you off. In my case, literally.
On November 12, 2013, Mark and I completed Angel Slot in the morning then quickly drove to our afternoon adventure. We departed the Trachyotomy trailhead at 12:24. The time sticks in my memory because many epics start with the line, “We got a late start…”. I knew the canyon would be difficult, and we were acutely aware of the razor-thin margin for error. We only had five hours of remaining daylight, which is considered a fast lap through the canyon.
Mark is an ultra-outdoorsman. He is a great climber, an experienced mountaineer, an experienced canyoneer, and one of the fittest people I have ever met. When hiking he doesn’t seem to notice that he is wearing a pack. At 6’2”, everything is seemingly within his reach. My thirst for adventure is no match for his athleticism; and this became apparent early in the canyon.
After descending into the canyon, we soon arrived at a doughnut-shaped pothole. We partner assisted into, then out of, the awkward obstacle. Mark downclimbed the broad featureless 20 foot exit ramp. It was one the best downclimbs I have ever witnessed –he even touched down without jumping from the ramp.
We elected to bring larger packs in order to carry our wetsuits. The magnitude of this mistake began to become evident when we arrived at the first narrow section.
Mark immediately went to the top of the slot where he felt most comfortable. I tried to stay low but could not fit. I was bruised and battered from doing Alcatraz the day before and was in no mood to fight gravity and sandstone in order to meet Mark at the top of the slot. Alas, my choices were to climb up or go home.
He hoisted my pack up to his perch, then I proceeded to climb. I shared some profanity as I approached an unfamiliar level of high stemming. At this point Mark calmly suggested that we retreat. I politely refused. My energy level was about 50% of “fresh”. Not good, but probably good enough.
Stemming over mini silos at that level was physical and thrilling. Dragging our bulky packs from bunny straps was tedious and draining. We proceeded across the top of the slot, unable to see the bottom. My imagination ran wild. Were we 30 feet of the deck? 60? It only mattered if we fell, and we did not.
We raced downcanyon. We fortified the mid-canyon deadman anchor, then rappelled from it. Soon we were at the final and most difficult section, prepared to battle a famous pothole.
First, a large dry pothole presented itself. It was perhaps 15 feet wide at floor-level. An obvious and easy stemming move went above it, some 20 feet from the floor. An intimidating move, new to me, left me elated once across. At that point the thought of donning my wetsuit had never entered my mind.
Once across, I headed down a narrow slot while catching my first glimpse of the Witch’s Cauldron. It looked relatively benign, about half full of water. I was wedged down in the slot, close to the pothole and in no mood to don my wetsuit. There wasn’t room to maneuver anyway, so I conceded to the fact that I was going to get wet. However, getting wet was a gamble. I looked up at the quickly fading November sun shining on the canyon walls above. It was about 3PM. I knew that the temperature was going to plummet when the sun snuck behind the Henry Mountains. We had to get through the canyon and get dry in under two hours.
Tick, tick, tick.
That was where Mark’s crazy set of skills came in handy. From the top of the slot he lassoed the log across the pothole in just two tries! Brilliant! In a flash, he stemmed down the pothole, then across, pulling himself easily up the rope and out of the pothole. My turn. I tried to match his movement, but fell in the pothole while trying to across, getting soaked from the chest down.
Cold and frustrated, I bulldozed past Mark and headed for the next pool. It looked like a wade, but was actually a swim. I hoisted my pack above my head and swam like hell. The narrowness of the slot grabbed my pack and it stuck between the walls at face level –a spot where I’d hoped to breathe.
I twisted the pack then hurled it forward. More profanity was shared. I erupted from the pool, cold and furious while Mark watched in astonishment. He took a moment and donned a wetsuit jacket. I still refused to put on my wetsuit, fearing that I would slip and fall in the narrow canyon ahead. My energy level was about 20%.
I looked downcanyon and saw a dark, evil, angry section of narrows. Some 60 feet tall and gently tapering toward the bottom, the lowest passable route was about 30 feet from the floor. No wider than my shoulders, the width at the 30 foot level matched the width at the 60 foot level. Passage across the bottom was impossible. Looking down into the taper wasn’t sketchy -it was terrifying. It was an ideal place for the Grim Reaper to grab your ankles and pull you down for good.
My drenched pack felt like a boat anchor. The temperature in the canyon was beginning to drop. I hurled my half-frozen carcass into the looming slot with the intent of charging to the exit. Every inch forward was first a battle with my body, followed by a battle with my pack. I dragged it forward some, then grabbed it and shoved it forward when I could. It stuck between the walls when I wished it wouldn’t and fell loose when I needed relief from its weight. My strength faded quickly and I considered cutting it loose and abandoning it.
I have no idea how long those horrible narrows were, my perception was distorted by cold and adrenalin. I stemmed for a while, perhaps 10 minutes, towards a gentle turn in the canyon. My chicken-wing stemming muscles were toast. The passage was so narrow and featureless, that it rendered my legs nearly useless.
I arrived at the turn in the canyon and peered around, expecting some form of relief. My hopes were crushed in an instant; at least another 50 feet of seemingly impossible canyon loomed ahead. My energy level was now zero and my pack was pulling me downward.
I squared my shoulders upcanyon and… gave up.
It was a horrifying sensation as I began to slide toward the impassible slot below. Miraculously, my hips caught between the walls after only descending a foot! Amazed and thankful, I relaxed every muscle in my body. I hung there, suspended by my pelvis, and weighed my options.
Retreat upcanyon? Impossible. Continue downcanyon? Impossible. Go up and over the top? Not on my best day. I communicated my lack of options to Mark, who was gradually catching up to me.
“Should I go over the top, or stay at your level?”, he asked. Both options were terrible. I couldn’t offer a decisive answer. I told him that I was in real trouble, that I might not be able to get out under my own power. He said he might be able go high and help me if he had to, but at great personal risk that would require a herculean effort. Not necessary. Not yet.
I struggled to suppress the panic at the front of my mind. I focused on a spot two feet in front of me and surged forward. A tsunami of profanity rumbled down the canyon walls.
Keeping my momentum, and my altitude, was one of the most exhausting things I have ever done. My wet clothes were freezing, yet sweat was pouring from underneath my helmet like a faucet. It was time to do
… or die.
The next few moments were some of the most trying of my life. Two feet at I time I battled forward. A nuclear bomb of profanity exploded from my very core as I struggled to find purchase on the walls. Intensely fearful that I might not ever escape, pure adrenaline powered me onward.
Then it was over. The canyon opened into a nice little silo where I collapsed to the ground with my pack. I laid there and hyperventilated for several minutes. Soon Mark emerged. We were elated!
We negotiated the final drop and found our way back to the cars. We’d completed the loop in exactly 5 hours.
Why write such a colorful story about this canyon? Well, in hopes that it will have some impact on your planning should you ever choose to do it.
I believe that the terminal narrows should have an R+ rating, or some way to communicate their higher level of difficulty. I’ve heard of other people getting dangerously trapped in there, and I believe someone could perish in there some day. The geometry of those narrows is more challenging than anything found in Chambers or Shenanigans. And far, FAR more physical than anything found in Middle Leprechaun.
If you go, you MUST choose your partners wisely! Everyone in your group MUST be a skilled canyoneer and in EXCELLENT shape! You MUST bring a tiny pack! Trachyotomy should be your FIRST canyon if doing a multi-canyon day!
If you plan properly, you will likely have a much better experience than we did. You might scoff at my story upon your return, and I sincerely hope you do.
Lastly, I’m very grateful to my partner, Mark, for getting us through there quickly and safely. If I had been the most skilled member of our group, we’d still be in there. Thanks man.