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.
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.