Friday, April 24, 2015

Spencer Canyon

The weather was not cooperating. Our team was getting restless. We only had a few hours until sunset. So on April 24th, 2015, Tyler, Sadie, Tony, Makena (Tony's daughter), Steph and I packed our wetsuits and splashed through Spencer Canyon. This was Sadie's first canyoneering adventure.

The descent into the canyon was unimpressive. But soon the canyon took a hard right turn into a very narrow slot. Steph threw a rock in and ker-PLOOSH, yes, there was some deep water in there.

We donned our wetsuits and headed in. We had to stem over a pool that looked deep. I doubted that Makena could make it across since she is only 3'7". Amazingly, she did a hands-feet fully stretched out stem and bravely made it all of the way across! A veteran move! Very nice!

The next pool was chest deep for the adults, so Tyler heroically carried Makena across. But he hates cold water, so hilarity ensued.

This was a fine choice for a half-day adventure. Our car-to-car time was 5 hours, trying to move quickly with 2 brand new canyoneers.

Huh? Is that the slot?

It sure is!

Looking down into the slot. Unknown amounts of water are always exciting.

Sadie on rappel.

Makena on rappel.

Tyler, Makena and Tony.

One last pool, a swimmer for all.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Llewellyn Gulch

On April 22nd, 2015, Tony, Makena, Steph and I explored Llewellyn Gulch. We did the bottom half of the Middle Fork, climbed up and out of the canyon at the Main/South junction, then descended the South Fork. This was Makena’s first canyon.

Overall, it was a pretty nice canyon system. Certainly a good place to practice downclimbing. Our car-to-car time was 6.5 hours due to some pretty mediocre navigation.


Tidbits of Beta:

The bottom section of the Middle Fork has several fun downclimbs, the tallest being 25 feet through a rabbit hole.

The South Fork has several fun downclimbs and one rappel of 30 feet down a chute. The rappel can be downclimbed by the skilled, but it is very dusty and smooth. It seems just a hair too steep to safely employ a handline.

The bottom section of Llewellyn Gulch has a couple of easy downclimbs.

All sections are worthy of helmets.

The exit we used is located here: 37 14’18” 110 56’ 54”

This exit requires a challenging 3rd class traverse (about 10 feet from the canyon floor) followed by an exposed 4th class upclimb around a small arch (about 200 feet from the canyon floor). Those that have problems with exposure will certainly want a belay on one or both of these sections.

There are several exits upcanyon from this exit if you find the exposure too daunting, or if you want to leave the canyon earlier.

We set up a shuttle for this route. Doing this will save you 1.6 miles of slog down a dusty road.

Now time for a story about a toenail:

During the two days before Llewellyn Gulch Steph and I hiked for a total of 19 hours. While hiking, I happened to stub my toe a couple of times.

Then during the Llewellyn Gulch hike I stubbed my toe a couple of more times. Typical appendage abuse for that kind of mileage. I thought nothing of it.

When we got back to camp I took my boots off and put on my flip-flops. My toes were a little sore, but nothing out of the ordinary.

As I was sorting gear in my flip-flops I side-stepped, one foot across the other. As I made this move the back of my left flip-flop caught the front of my right big toenail and pulled it upright, perpendicular, away from my toe!

I fell to the ground screaming, as copious amounts of toenail fluid escaped from the inner workings of my big toe. Blinding pain. Steph, Tony and Makena watched as I writhed in the sand.

I gathered myself and looked at my toe. Most of the heavy duty connective tissue held the nail to my toe. This was bad. Cutting this stuff would hurt. I’ve removed a dozen toenails before and know the routine.

Tony sat next to me on a log, saying nothing, but holding a Leatherman. The pliars on this tool were ready to go.

Makena walked away from the scene, saying, “I don’t need to see this…” She picked up a shovel, walked 30 feet away, then started digging a hole. A way to distract herself. A coping skill, perhaps.

Steph grabbed a knife for me. I tried to cut the nail off, but it was far too painful. It became obvious what we needed to do…

Tony offered me a drink of whisky. Just like in the Old West.

I declined.

I laid on my back in the sand while Steph pinned down my leg. I covered my face with both of my arms. Then Tony pulled out my big toenail with the pliars. And we all laughed hysterically. Our coping skill, perhaps.

After my surgery we bandaged my toe and held a short ceremony for my toenail. We buried it in the hole that Makena dug during the procedure. If you look closely you will see the toenail on top of the dirt pile.

So, the next time you are near Lewellyn Gulch, remember a piece of me is buried there. Pour out a little whisky if you feel compelled.

The End.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Big Tony


It was transcendent.

It was divine. 

Big Tony was a place that redefined canyoneering greatness in my mind. On April 21st, 2015, Steph and I mustered the courage to tackle this beast.

The approach hike was long but thrilling. Looking into the canyon put knots in my stomach. Such terrible geometry. Perfectly parallel walls, top to bottom.

I was happy to skip the upper reaches of Big Tony. Peering down from the top was like peeking into Hell itself. My hat is off to those who have done the X section - you guys have brass balls that couldn’t be carried in a wheelbarrow.

Even though we skipped the top of the canyon, our day was like fighting Mike Tyson for 10 rounds. Mentally and physically exhausting. This canyon makes you earn every inch of forward progress and tested every trick we had in the bag. It was not a place to learn, it was a place to prove what we knew.

Rounds 1-4: The Pothole Fork starts out with a semi-keeper/keeper combo. Then you get a bunch more of those. Going over was an option. Getting hurt going over was not an option, so we fought through them at ground level.

Steph smiles after rappelling around an arch/pothole combo. 
If you looked through the hole in the arch you'd see a 15 foot deep pothole.

One Sandtrap, then another. Then the second Sandtrap gets stuck. We fight with it for an hour. We get out a couple of slings and Steph bravely ascends the rope to retrieve the Trap. Ascending is something we have never done. We never stick ropes. Disaster averted. Far too many calories burned at one little drop.

Steph ascending the stuck rope with two slings.

Steph says some very bad words when she gets to the top of the rope. She tells me that there is a sling through an arch on a wall. We walked right past it, fixated on obvious Sandtrap placement before us. Less tunnel vision, next time.

We drop into Big Tony and were stunned. Walls so tall and perfectly vertical that no camera could do justice. Most canyons look small and silly in comparison.

Rounds 5-9: A rap through a rabbit hole. Then a rap down an awkward 50 footer that tries to eat your rope. The sun seems to move quickly across the sky when you are in such a place...

We head downcanyon and peer into a tall and very serious looking slot, pitch black at the bottom. Is it a foot wide down there? Too dark to tell. We can see three chokestones that are pinned high above the canyon floor.

...This must be where the famed dark tunnel starts, in the bottom of this slot. But it sure doesn’t look like a tunnel down there…

We put on headlamps. Steph raps down to the first chokestone and peers down. She says that is looks too tight for her to make it to the floor. She weighs 60lbs less than me, so I don’t like my chances either.

I rap down and share the first chokestone with her. We are about 20 feet from the floor of the canyon. It looks really narrow below. Maybe 5 inches wide. Not good. We look downcanyon at a second chokestone that is about 30 feet from the ground. And contemplate the third chokestone beyond, about 35 feet from the ground. All options down to the canyon floor look terrible.

I stem over Steph and make my way to the second chokestone. I throw her a rope as a belay (mostly psychological), then she begins to work beneath the chokestones. Too narrow. She retreats to the first chokestone and has cries for a moment. I don’t judge. This obstacle is very serious. She must go first because I can help from above. If we trade jobs then we might get trapped. We both know it, so no discussion needed. I wait patiently on the second chokestone.

She gathers herself and stems underneath the second chokestone on belay. All options look bad. She keeps going downcanyon, underneath me, then up to the top of the third chokestone. All options below still look bad. A mess of rope connects us, tangled around the second and third chokestones.

She continues going downcanyon, now very high from the canyon floor, around a gentle bend to the right. Just out of sight the canyon widens and she spots the route to the floor. She unclips from the rope and climbs down. The biggest chimney she has ever done.

This section of canyon is intensely scenic. But we were working HARD. Only time for one photo (below).

Up an over a boulder pile then down a very narrow slot... into The Darkness. That is what we call it anyway.

Round 10: The Darkness is stunning. Very tight for about a hundred feet. It must have been terrifying for the first party through. Then it opens like a subway and we fly down the canyon for perhaps 200 more feet in the pitch black. Any photo taken here would be a pathetic representation of the actual experience. The camera stays in the pack.

Soon we hit a large muddy pool in a bombay, cold water about waist deep. The pinch ahead is not passable for Steph, therefore it is not passable for anyone. She waits in the pinch and lets her feet dry. I upclimb out of the bombay. Not easy with wet and muddy feet. Got it on the first try! HAD to get it on the first try. After 10 heavyweight rounds I’m out of gas. I help Steph out of the pinch then we finish the canyon.

Now that we know all of the tricks, the next lap through will be easy in comparison.

Big smile after getting through the part that worried me the most. Pinch below, bombay in the background.

Special thanks to Ram and John Diener for sharing their knowledge of this canyon.

Special thanks to Brian Bassett for sharing the conditions of this canyon. It was a brilliant stroke of luck that he did this canyon just a couple of days before us. Leaving the wetsuits in the truck was a real treat.

Our car-to-car time was 10.5 hours. Next time should take us 8 hours.

Random thoughts:

I’ve been told that entering this canyon via Kelsey’s Pothole Fork is “an unfortunate way to go.” This is nonsense. The Pothole Fork is very good, better than Headless Hen, and just as difficult.

What was this day like compared to other canyons? Imagine doing the Factory Butte approach for The Squeeze, followed by a descent of Headless Hen, followed by a descent of Trachyotomy, followed by a 1 hour bushwhack down Sleepy Hollow, then a 1.5 hour uphill hike back to Chimney Rock.

If you ever choose to try the Pothole Fork, consider the water level carefully. Full to the brim would be easy, nearly dry is more difficult, but ¾ full would put the water level above 6ft in several potholes, making things VERY difficult. If the sand in this fork gets washed out, even more difficult.

Many of the anchor problems in the Pothole Fork can be quickly overcome with a Fiddlestick (the only canyon I’ve repeatedly thought about the utility of this tool). But I don’t want to die in the Pothole Fork using a Fiddlestick, so I’ll just bring 100ft of webbing next time.

A shift in sand level or debris in the dark hallway could easily make it impassable. Does this ever happen? I don’t know. Could one go over the top?? I’d guess yes, but Christ, what is up there? How high would that be?

It is shocking that anyone has taken a MeetUp Group through this place. This is a dangerous canyon suited for skilled teammates that know each other well.

Below is a map that clears up the names of these canyons.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Egypt 1.5

On April 20th, 2015, Steph and I took a quick lap through Egypt 1.5. The last time we descended a technical canyon together was 18 months ago, so this was a real treat for both of us. Egypt 1.5 has a lot more meat on the bone than we expected. A 35 foot chimney and 2 rappels got us warmed up. We then got creative with 5 or 6 partner assists. The last 50 feet of canyon are very tight, which was a fun way to finish. Our car-to-car time was a very leisurely 3 hours.

We celebrated our epic victory with a couple of ice cold beers then headed for the top of the canyon. During our not-so-precise exit we encountered a 5.7 upclimb; the last 15 feet of vertical before reaching the top. This upclimb proved to be quite the challenge while trying to hold our beers. Using some very clever sequencing, we shuttled the beers up the climb and made our way safely back to the cars. A shining example of beautiful teamwork to finish a fine day of canyoneering.

Big West Fork of Red Breaks Canyon

On April 20th, 2015, Steph and I ventured through the Big West Fork of Red Breaks Canyon.

This spectacular canyon contains about a dozen fun dowclimbs. We did not wear helmets (though we should have) because we thought this was a walk-through canyon.

I've read several crappy versions of beta on this route. Most of them recommend going up the canyon. I guess that would be fun if you were really into bouldering. However, we saw a lot of blood on the walls/floor at the top of the slot. Probably from somebody going up. Probably not donated by somebody that was into bouldering.

I even read some beta that recommends doing a loop from Harris Wash. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T DO IT THAT WAY. Talk about a hellish soft sand slog...

So we spent a little time devising an enjoyable route, and had an AWESOME time descending this canyon form the top-down. Our car-to-car time was a very slow 5 hours, on account that my wife had not done a single downclimb in over a year. We could do it again today in 3.5 hours.