Saturday, April 1, 2017

West Canyon Beta



The West Canyon Narrows

The West Canyon Narrows is the fabled section of canyon that runs from 36 57' 18" N 111 05' 46" W to the bottom of Lion 36 55' 51" N 111 03' 10" W.  There are few places on this planet that can match the beauty of this canyon.

The Narrows proper are about four miles long.  Getting to them can be more challenging than hiking through them.  If you approach from the lake, you must slog through quicksand for a significant distance before you can hike on solid ground.  The distance between the lake and the Narrows varies greatly depending on the depth of the lake.  As the lake rises, the hike gets shorter.  As the lake drops, the hike gets longer.  As of October 2016, the distance from the water's edge to the bottom of the narrows was about 5 miles.

Hiking to the Narrows overland is also possible, but I strongly recommend against it.  It is an eight mile slog across open desert walking on soft sand.  I don't think there is any question that approaching via boat is the better option.

Hiking through the narrows involves lots of wading and plodding through quicksand. The are a couple of COLD swimmers down long hallways towards the top of the Narrows. So, even in the hottest weather everyone should bring along a wetsuit. It would be a shame to get stopped short because you are too cold to keep going.

I won’t go into fine detail about the Narrows because this set of beta is for advanced canyoneers. The obstacles in the Narrows are easy if you know what you are doing.

You will know that you have arrived at Lion because you will have to swim under some large boulders in order to upclimb into the Cathedral. Most hikers will be stopped by this obstacle.

Please be good steward of West Canyon and leave it better than you found it. If you have to poop, bury it deep, and far away from the spring-fed stream. Use biodegradable wipes. Stay on the trails that exist, pick up any trash that you find, and don’t build cairns. Your hiking permit with have more rules outlined by the Navajo Nation; most noteworthy are the rules that prohibit building fires and consuming alcohol.



Preface to the Technical Canyons that Surround West Canyon

The slot canyons that surround West Canyon are stunningly beautiful.  They are also dynamic and very technically challenging.  If you choose to descend any of them, realize that their difficulty can change dramatically with varying levels of water and sand.  In most of these canyons, you must be prepared to conquer very difficult pothole escapes.  Be prepared to improvise, and be prepared for the unexpected.

The anchoring problems in the following canyons are difficult, and options on how to solve them are limited.  If I state that you need a water anchor in any canyon, and you value your life, then you must bring one.  You could find yourself trapped if you don’t bring one. You could freeze to death before you got rescued. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a clever boy that can create some kind of magical solution that can replace a water anchor.  I’ve seen a dozen or so places in the following canyons where you simply have no other option.

Water anchors are still an experimental tool and have a narrow safety margin. They are significantly more risky than using a SandTrap.  So, as far as ratings go, I give any canyon that involves a possible mandatory water anchor an R rating.

If you don’t have a water anchor, don’t be an asshole and just use a bolt kit instead. Bolting is considered unethical in this area, and would require permission from the Navajo Nation. Bolts would also remove a lot of the charm and challenge from these places. So please be patient. Somebody will start building water anchors eventually. Maybe you can borrow a prototype if you ask around. Please don’t ask me, I don’t own one. If the people that make them decide to sell them, I will post that information publicly.

Hypothermia is a major challenge when these canyons are full, so don't skimp on the neoprene!! Bring a rain jacket to put over your wetsuit while people are working on anchors to prevent evaporative cooling. Also, bring a neoprene beanie to wear under your helmet, you will be glad that you did!

Hiking anywhere on the Navajo reservation requires a hiking permit from the Navajo Nation. Even if you go for a day hike up into West, be sure to purchase a hiking permit. Permit information can be found here:

I have had nothing but wonderful interactions with the Navajo Nation. Plan ahead, apply a few weeks in advance, then wait for your permit in the mail. This has been my recipe for success.



Lion - 36 54' 54" N 111 01' 49" W

aka Upper West Slot Canyon

Lion is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful slot canyon. Luckily, it is also fairly easy. Hike to the top, drop in, then put on your wetsuit at the first sign of water.

Toward the top of the canyon you will likely encounter several easy swimmers. On the RDC side (111 02' 42" W 36 55' 32.5" N) you will encounter a feature that we call the Blimp Hanger. Getting into and out of the hanger can be a little dicey. Don’t hurt yourself trying.

Soon the canyon will tighten up and you will find yourself in a marvelous swirly red slot. You will encounter a 30 foot rappel from two bolts, followed a chain bolted in a pothole, followed a scary single bolt with a handline hanging from it. Before trusting your safety to that final single bolt, take a good look at it first. Sequencing down without using that bolt might be a wise choice.

Next, prepare yourself for one of the best sections of slot in the canyoneering world. You will wade down a hallway that has no equal. The end of the slot is marked by a mind-blowing cathedral. Go under the boulders at the end of the cathedral and you will find yourself in West Canyon. There are bolts above boulders, don’t bother using them.

Rating:  3BIII

Time: We completed this loop in 6 hours at a very slow pace. I recommend taking your time in this canyon and taking some photos.

Rappels: 30 feet from two bolts.

Mandatory Equipment: 60 foot rope, 50 feet of webbing. Standard rappelling gear.

Neoprene: 5/4mm full length suits, booties, gloves, vest, hood or beanie. During one visit in lower Lion, we encountered water that was about 45 degrees with air that was about 30 degrees (unexpected and miserably cold!!). The air temp out of the canyon was about 55 degrees, so the combination of cold water with even colder air was a real surprise. IN A NUTSHELL, DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE HOW COLD THIS CANYON CAN BE, OR YOU COULD DIE.

Please play fair and do not add bolts to this route. Conversely, Lion is considered a trade route, so don’t surprise some unsuspecting boater/canyoneer by removing bolts that currently exist … with the exception of the bolts at the end of the cathedral, those are frivolous and nobody would miss them.



Tiger - 36 55 51" N 111 00' 51" W

The upper half of this route has 20+ drops, which are reminiscent of the South Fork of Maidenwater Canyon. Each drop starts at a large boulder then remains wide down to the floor.  Each of these drops can be downclimbed by the highly skilled. Some of the drops are 30 feet tall and require exposed starts. If your group lacks the required skill, you will need hundreds of feet of webbing to rig the difficult drops so BE SURE to have at least one very good downclimber in your group if you are going to attempt the top half of Tiger.

The beginning of the lower half of Tiger is marked by a short riparian section. If the canyon is full you will soon encounter a lot of cold water. It will be a few hours before you will have a chance to get warm again, so be sure that you are wearing enough neoprene. In addition to a full length wetsuit, neoprene gloves, booties, beanie are recommended. A neoprene vest might be required depending on the conditions.

After the riparian section there is a keeper pothole immediately followed by a spectacular room that contains three natural bridges. This sequence can be very challenging depending on the conditions. Be sure to bring a rope sheathed with webbing so that you do not leave grooves with a water anchor or SandTrap. Also, be aware that you might be forced to swim underneath a natural bridge in order to escape this room. Be ready for the unexpected here, this sequence changes dramatically after each flash flood.

After the bridge room you will encounter a very large pothole. If it is full, then simply swim across. If it is empty, be prepared for a fight. The exit lip is about 11 feet tall and overhung. A partner assist escape will not work here. Bring three Potshots and people that know how to use them.

After the large pothole is a 15 foot rappel that is easily anchored (or downclimbed by the very skilled). The 40 foot rappel into Lion is a few feet downcanyon from this and requires either a SandTrap or water anchor. The water anchor placement is tricky, and the only anchor option if the canyon is full.

Tiger Sneak Route - From our view within the canyon it appeared that you can simply walk in at 36 55' 43" N 111 02' 08" W.  The full loop is a 10+ hour day, and the 20+ downclimbs in the upper part of the canyon are somewhat tedious, so I recommend skipping the top half of Tiger and beginning at the walk-in point which drops you in before the riparian section and the triple bridge room.  Budget 6-7 hours for the Sneak Route of Tiger.

Rating:  4BIV R for the full loop,  4BIII R for the sneak route.

Time: We completed the full 6.7 mile loop of Tiger in 10.25 hours moving at a fast pace. The canyon was in tippy-top full conditions and was extremely cold. The daytime high temperature was about 55 degrees, however, Lion holds cold air very effectively. We estimate that the air temperature in Lion was about 30 degrees, perhaps 10 degrees colder than the water. IN A NUTSHELL, DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE HOW COLD THIS CANYON CAN BE, OR YOU COULD DIE.

Rappels: The rap into the arch room is about 20 feet, but might require 30-50 feet of rope travel. The rap after the big keeper is about 15 feet. The rap into Lion is about 40 feet off of a water anchor or Sandtrap. The bolted rap in Lion is about 30 feet.

Mandatory Equipment: SandTrap, SandTrap pullcord sheathed with webbing, water anchor, Fiddlestick, 3 potshots, 2 X 100 feet of rope, 100 feet of webbing (Much, much more webbing if your group does not have a good downclimber). Having one or two short ropes will help your group move more efficiently, something you will want if you start to get cold.

Neoprene: 5/4mm full length suits, booties, gloves, vest, hood, beanie. 7mm suits if you get cold easily.

Please play fair and do not add bolts to this route. We were able to ghost all of Tiger with moderate effort. There are bolts in Lion, which is considered the only trade route in the area, so don’t surprise some unsuspecting boater/canyoneer by removing bolts that currently exist … with the exception of the bolts at the end of the cathedral, those are frivolous and nobody would miss them.



Leopard - 36 56' 21" N 111 01' 31" W

This route description only details Lower Leopard starting at: 36 56' 20" N 111 03' 20". This set of beta is also incomplete because we explored the canyon when it was completely full. We suspect that the most interesting features of this canyon were hidden by the water. We are certain that there are several very large keeper potholes in this lower section. How difficult are they? It is tough to guess, because we swam over the top of them. We can say that their geometry was significantly worse than any of the other eight canyons we have done in the area. We jumped into a few of them without touching the bottom.

Lower Leopard is a beautiful slot. It has a couple of pothole rooms that boggle the mind- you must downclimb into them before you can see if the exit goes right, or if it goes left. Literally, from the entry side of those potholes it appears that there is no exit at all.

Why might those potholes be a problem? Well, if the canyon were half full, throwing a Potshot across those ‘blind’ potholes would not be possible. Are all of the ‘blind’ potholes keepers? We think there is a high likelihood that they are.

The water in Lower Leopard was extremely cold, a bit colder than the surrounding canyons. There was a lot of swimming required, so go prepared.

About hallway through the canyon you will need to do a 30 foot rappel from a Sandtrap. The pull is difficult, down into a hallway full of water.

The final rappel is 35 feet from a single well-placed bolt into a stunning riparian section. We scouted the route from the bottom and spotted the bolt, so we hoped to pull it. When we arrived at the bolt, we discovered that the drop had VERY difficult geometry. It looked impossible to rig naturally, even with a water anchor. The group that placed that bolt probably had no other choice. Jumping from that perch into the pool below (something that looks possible from below) is not an option because there is a shelf hallway down that gets in the way. In the end, we ended up leaving the bolt. If you discover a clever way to rig this anchor without leaving a groove, especially when the canyon is full, I would love to hear your story.

From the final drop it is a simple 10 minute walk to West through an insanely gorgeous section of narrows.

Rating:  4BII R

Time: This loop took us 2.5 hours moving quickly. I think it would take much longer if the canyon were half-full.

Rappels: 30 feet from a SandTrap, 35 feet from a single bolt.

Mandatory Equipment: SandTrap, SandTrap pullcord sheathed with webbing, 70 feet of rope, standard rappelling gear. If the final bolt gets pulled, then a water anchor is mandatory, and still might not work because the geometry is so bad. It is easy to scout the final drop from the bottom of the canyon to see if the bolt is still in place. Three Potshots and a couple of extra ropes would likely come in handy if water conditions are less than full.

Neoprene: 5/4mm full length suits, booties, gloves, vest, hood, beanie. 7mm suit if you get cold easily.

Please play fair and do not add bolts to this route. If you choose to pull the bolt at the final rappel, something I’m neither for nor against, please be considerate of others that might use this beta by sending me a note. 



Sabertooth - 36 55' 45" N 111 04' 21" W

Sabertooth canyon is completely downclimbable if you are very good at downclimbing.

To get into the canyon, you can probably downclimb right at the head of the slot. We did not do this because it was full of water and we were trying to stay dry. A second option would be to use a fiddlestick off of a bush on the left downcanyon side.

The first section looks intimidating, but it is just contains some mellow R-minus stemming.

In the second section you will encounter some R rated stemming about 25 feet off the deck. The movement is never very difficult.

Soon you will arrive at an AWESOME subway section. Take your time here and take some photos.

The final drop will be a 25 foot rappel for most people. It is downclimbable by the very skilled. If you absolutely must leave webbing, be sure to situate it in a way that does not leave a rope groove, something that should be easy to figure out.

The finish is a simple walk-out into West Canyon.

Rating:  3AII R

Time: We completed this loop in 4 hours in exploration mode (slow and very careful). I would expect to spend about 2.5 hours on this route again.

Rappels: One possible 30 foot rappel at the start. One probable 25 foot rappel at the end.

Mandatory Equipment: Fiddlestick, 1X100 feet of rope, 50 feet of webbing, standard rappelling gear.

Neoprene: None required. You can stay completely dry if you are exceptionally good at stemming.

Please play fair and do not add bolts to this route. We were able to ghost Sabertooth with almost zero effort.



Bobcat - 36 56' 09" N 111 04' 57.5" W 

This canyon is absolutely fantastic. Besides Lion, this was our favorite slot in the upper part of West Canyon.

There are four distinct sections of Bobcat. First a skinny section, then an amazing skinny red slot with fins sticking out of the walls, then a long swim down a wide hallway, then the final sequence. The long wide hallway might be hiding keeper potholes that get exposed during dry conditions.

The first three sections of canyon require no special instructions.  The final sequence requires a 20 foot rappel from a Fiddlestick secured to a tree, then an 80 foot rappel from a water anchor into West.  The final rappel requires expert judgment and technique.  It is NOT place to practice water anchoring skills.

We did this canyon in tippy-top full conditions and it was VERY cold. Do not underestimate how much neoprene you might need in Bobcat.

Skinny Canyon Warning: Bobcat Canyon is not recommended for people over 200 lbs. The second section offers challenges that favor skinny people, and was challenging for everyone when full of water. Upclimbing out of water was required for everyone during our visit. Bring a small pack if possible.

Rating:  4BIII R

Time: We completed this loop in 7 hours in exploration mode (a very slow and cautious pace). Completing the loop in 5 to 6 hours would be a reasonable expectation for our group on a second lap.

Rappels: 10 feet from a water anchor, 20 feet from a Fiddlestick off of a tree, 80 feet off of a water anchor into West Canyon.

Mandatory Equipment: Water anchor, Fiddlestick, SandTrap, SandTrap pullcord sheathed with webbing, 2x100 feet of rope. Just like all of the canyons in the area, an extra rope or two will speed your group along.

Neoprene: 5/4mm full length suits, booties, gloves, vest, hood, beanie. 7mm suit if you get cold easily.

Please play fair and do not add bolts to this route. We were able to ghost Bobcat with moderate effort.



Lynx - 36 56' 50" N 111 03' 55" W

This canyon has a mellow personality and a consistent friendly geometry. The first part of the canyon is full of easy downclimbs and most of the water can be stemmed over. No keeper potholes exist in this canyon.

Just before the final sequence there is a slide into a chest deep pothole that is unavoidable.

The penultimate drop is a 50 foot rappel or a hard downclimb. The final rappel is about 150 feet tall, but requires 180 feet of rope travel because there is a shelf halfway down.

The top of the 180 foot rappel might require you to stand in water for some time while you work on the anchoring situation. If the canyon is full of water, be sure to put your wetsuit on before going down the 50 foot drop.

The 180 foot rappel is difficult to ghost, and even more difficult to leave groove free. The geometry is bad for a water anchor, a SandTrap, or a Fiddlestick. There are chokestones on the way down that lend themselves to sticking a rope. There are bends in the drop that are vulnerable to rope grooves. Don’t get frustrated and lose focus of your priorities at this drop:

Priority #1: Do not leave any rope grooves.

Priority #2: Do not stick a rope.

Priority #3: Ghost, if you can.

We spent 2.5 hours trying to ghost the final drop and did not succeed.  We left an extended sling to prevent grooving. Under dry conditions a SandTrap would probably work well. There is a flake near the top of the 180 foot drop that might work for a Fiddlestick. You get one million bonus points if you can ghost this drop without leaving a mark.

Stand back away from the drop when you pull your rope so that you do not leave any rope grooves.

Rating:  3BIII

Time: We completed this loop in 6.5 hours after a long wandering approach and a heroic effort at the final drop. I would expect this loop to take 4.5 hours during our next visit.

Rappels: 50 feet, 180 feet.

Mandatory Equipment: SandTrap, Fiddlestick, 200 foot rope, 200 foot pullcord, 50 feet of webbing, standard rappelling equipment. Bring an extra 100 foot rope to speed up the final sequence if you have a larger group.

Neoprene: Bring a wetsuit and neoprene booties. You might not need them, but Lynx holds a lot of water and the final sequence takes some time.

This route is easy to conquer with webbing, so please play fair and do not add bolts to this route. 



Cheetah - 36 57’ 04" N 111 04' 36" W

This canyon begins by walking in from the side. The first stretch of canyon is not terribly difficult. We have done this canyon twice. The first time it was mostly dry, the second time it was full of very cold water. So when you go, do not skimp on the neoprene!

Two large keeper potholes must be conquered when the canyon is dry.

When the canyon is dry, it is possible to trap your team in this canyon because anchoring material is scarce. Be wise about farming sand and spreading your team along the final sequence.

When the canyon is wet, a rappel from a water anchor is required.

Rating: 4BIII R

Time: We completed this loop in 6.5 hours at an average pace.

Rappels: Between 2 and 5 rappels are required, depending on the conditions. The tallest rappel is about 50 feet, however 60 feet of rope travel is required.

Mandatory Equipment: Water anchor, SandTrap, Fiddlestick, 2 Potshots, Sandtrap pullcord sheathed with webbing, 2x60 feet of rope. Bring an extra rope or two to speed your group along. If the canyon is dry, a second Sandtrap will help speed your group along.

Neoprene: 5/4mm full length suits, booties, gloves, vest, hood, beanie. 7mm suit if you get cold easily.



Porcupine - 36 57' 27" N 111 04' 48" W

This canyon is beautiful and fun. It is also very technically challenging and might require every trick that you have in your bag. Due to the very tricky nature of the final section, this canyon is recommended for advanced/expert canyoneers only.

We skipped the very top section and entered from the side here: 36 57' 22" N 111 04' 60" W. Soon you will arrive at an 70 foot drop from a large pothole. When we arrived the pothole was completely full which made our water anchor placement very tenuous. If you can’t manage to keep your water anchor from failing at this drop, walk around the south rim of the canyon and enter further down the canyon. There is no shame in giving up on your water anchor at this drop, the geometry is unfavorable and dangerous, and you won’t be missing much of the slot if you bypass this section.

36 57' 12.5" N 111 05' 32" W is a good place to warm up before the REAL action begins.

The remainder of the canyon will require 6-8 rappels depending on the conditions. The final rappel is 60 feet. You could probably do the entire canyon with 2 X 100 foot ropes, however, we brought a 220 foot rope that we used to link potholes and speed up the final section, so we were glad to have it.

There is no doubt in my mind that the difficulty of this canyon will vary considerably as the water level changes, so it is nearly impossible to write a complete and thorough set of beta for Porcupine. Approach this canyon each and every time as if it were an exploration. Be prepared for anything!

There are many serious potholes in the lower section of Porcupine. We used one Fiddlestick, two SandTraps, and two water anchors to get past all of the obstacles. Do not expect to use this same combination of anchors! Again, be prepared for the unexpected!

The use of a water anchor was mandatory in this canyon, so don’t be an idiot and go into this canyon without one. To do so would be suicide.

Rating: 4BIII R

Time: We completed this loop in 9 hours in exploration mode (slow and very cautious pace). 7-8 hours would be a reasonable pace for us the second time through.

Rappels: 6-8 depending on the conditions. The first optional rappel is about 70 feet. The last rappel is about 60 feet.

Mandatory Equipment: Water anchor, Fiddlestick, SandTrap, SandTrap pullcord sheathed with webbing, 2x100 feet of rope. In low water conditions Potshots might be required. I recommend bringing an additional short rope and a long rope as well, 50ft and 200ft would work nicely.

Neoprene: 5/4mm full length suits, booties, gloves, vest, hood, beanie. 7mm suit if you get cold easily.

Please play fair and do not add bolts to this route. We were able to ghost Porcupine with moderate effort.

2018 Update:  Under the water in the photo below lies a 20 foot keeper pothole.  As you can see, the exit lip geometry here is bad, which greatly increases the time and effort to cross when empty.  Other obstacles in this canyon are also more difficult to conquer when the water is low, so add a couple of hours to your estimated time if conditions are dry.





Ocelot - 36 55' 47" N 111 03' 22" W

Ocelot Canyon is short and sweet. If you are in the area and are good at using advanced anchoring techniques, be sure to do this little canyon.

Carefully follow the approach line down into the canyon. If you find yourself downclimbing anything dangerous or difficult, then you are in the wrong spot.

Once in the canyon, you will quickly arrive at a 30 foot rappel. The beginning of the drop pinches and is a slightly awkward. We put a log across the pinch and used a Fiddlestick to conquer that drop. A large rock might have worked there.

Just after the first rappel, the canyon narrows to a pinch.  Everyone will have to go up and over the pinch. The movement is safe and easy.

The final sequence is a two stage rappel from a water anchor. The first half of the drop is about 35 feet, the second half is about 80 feet.  The second stage starts from a very large pothole that would probably be a difficult keeper when it is not completely full. The bottom of the second stage ends in a pool. 130 feet of rope is required to rig this drop.

Optional Addition: Upper Ocelot is a simple walk-though.  It can be done from the bottom or the top.  We ventured through it during our approach hike in 2016. It isn’t bad if you have a few minutes to spare and want to extend the canyon a bit.

Rating: 4BI R

Time: We were able to do this canyon in 2 hours at an average pace. A few of the guys in the group went to the top and did a second lap (literally running) in exactly one hour.

Rappels: 30 feet from a convenient object, 130 feet from a water anchor.

Mandatory Equipment: Water anchor, Fiddlestick, 2x130 of rope. In low water conditions Potshots might be required to get across the pothole on the final drop.

Neoprene: 5/4mm full length suits, booties, gloves, vest, hood, beanie. The person/people manning the water anchor will be in the water a long time, be sure they wear enough neoprene.

Please play fair and do not add bolts to this route. We were able to ghost Ocelot with moderate effort.


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