On October 15, 1982, at 9:05 a.m., the two of us parked at the Angels Landing parking lot and proceded to climb to the West Rim. Arrived at Scout Lockout in 1-1/2 hours. The temperature was cool, but the climb is steep. Besides the normal gear (sleeping bag, ect.), we carried a reasonable rack of climbing gear, a 150 ft. and a 165 ft. climbing rope. A wet suit for each of us, one air mattress to float all of our gear through the deep water, that from an aborted trip three weeks earlier I knew to be there. Also, three or four heavy garbage bags each to put inside our packs to keep our gear as dry as possible and to give some degree of floatation to the packs. We worked hard to keep the total weight down to 40 lbs. or less.
It took three hours and 45 minutes from the parking lot to the spring on the West Rim. Rested there and ate lunch. At 2:00 p.m., dropped over the edge, several hundred feet to the right of the first main canyon, west of Behunin Canyon, "a very heavy, awesome-looking canyon". There was some high thin cloud cover and a light wind, temperature approximately 70 degrees. We were running later than I would have liked. (Future trips should probably spend the night on the West Rim, thereby allowing the full day to navigate the upper canyon and reach a camping spot at the "Crossroads" by night fall.)
As soon as we left the West Rim Trail and dropped over the edge, we had to scramble down a steep slope for approximately 100 yards. Moved in a southerly direction until we were able to get around a continuous ledge about 16 feet high, then traversed back to the head of the canyon, scrambled down 30 to 40 feet, where we came upon the first set of rappels. Total of four or five, none over 70 feet high interspersed with chimneys that can be done without aid. We then scrambled down the canyon, about 1/4 mile where it turns to the right, runs along the bottom of a high rock face. The opposite side is some rather steep, slick rock. Moved down against the wall, hands on one side, feet on the other, probably 150 feet long. After this, we fastened a sling to a large rock in the stream bed and rappelled down 60 feet. At this point, we were three hours since leaving the West Rim Trail, but we had covered ground quite rapidly, due to our familiarity with the route. However, this had taken it's toll, and we were both getting tired. There is fairly good water here. A short way further, the canyon turns to the left over about a 40 foot drop (slick, stream bed) ends in large "tub" of water. We climbed up to the left side. Used a small balsom on the edge for an anchor and rappelled approximately 60 feet. Thus, we were able to bypass the water. About 1/8 to 1/4 mile of easy walk-down, then about a dozen pools of water, the deepest being belt high, very cold water. There had been heavy rain in the canyon a week or so before. The sand was more unstable than I had ever seen it. Would not support your weight and when attempting to climb a "rise" of it, it would cave off and run down towards you.
At 5:30, we came to a drop ending in large pools of water. However, we stayed to the left, went up through a narrow crack, and came out on a large slick rock area. Preceded about 60 yards south and rapped off an anchor set in the rock, 90 feet to the bottom of the stream bed. Reached the "Crossroads" at 7:00 p.m., an excellent camp area. The canyon opens up at this point. You can get well up and out of the stream bed. A deceptively beautiful spot, particularly when. considering what is around the bend. Plentiful amounts of drinkable water. It had taken us five hours from the top of the west rim to this spot. We had a pretty good night's rest. Got up early, ate breakfast, and prepared our gear to be as water proof as possible. Broke camp at 9:00 a.m. Crossed the stream to the right, bushwacked for about 100 yards, then dropped into the stream bed. At this point, three drainages come together, and all run to the East, each 90 degrees to the others; thus, the name "crossroads". We came almost immediately to first drop and large pools of water, skirted the first on a ledge to the right, then climbed a steep hill to the left, rock covered with a thin layer of dirt, very steep for the last 25 feet. Went about 80 feet along the top of it then did a 85 foot rappel off a large fir tree on the very edge. The canyon walls starting to close in, about 20 to 30 feet apart, sandy bottom, easy walk down for about 1/4 mile. The canyon then takes a hard left turn and closes to about five feet apart. At this point, we donned our wet suits for the first time, stored our clothes in waterproof bags, and ate some food, knowing it would probably be the last until that evening. Time is 10:15 a.m. What a place! There is nothing subtle about it- it doesn't ease into it, it is mean right from the start. Even with our wet suits, it's cold. Water is black in appearance. If there has not been a recent rain, it smells stagnant and you cannot see where you are walking. One moment I'm in water below my knees, the next step I'm over my head, never touching the bottom. Had on a full pack, and had a difficult time coming to the top.
About 1-1/2 hours into the canyon, we came upon a chimney that climbs the left wall. This could be done with a minimal amount of aid, probably about 120 feet to the first ledge. This is where one other party about two years ago went out and overland, I presume to the rappel at the Upper Emerald Pool. We waded and swam through the dark water with a few rock or sand intervals. However, from the time we started to use the wet suits the water never let up for more than 8 feet or so. There are numerous spots with large roots or the base of large trees that tumbled in the gorge and have been rammed into a spot creating a dam of sorts. ' The trouble is they slowly leak, the water level dropping creating an obstacle on both ends, wet and slippery, six to ten feet tall. Truly difficult spots! I could not help but notice some changes in these obstacles and captive pools from the heavy rain that occurred between the two trips. One spot we had been swimming for about 30 feet turned a slight bend and came upon a mass of bark, limbs, leaves, and trash. The resistance of this thick layer of refuse made it increasingly difficult to push our way through, yet it would not support your weight. Also the water was still over our heads. About the time the adrenalin was really starting to flow, we came upon a large log that still floated, about 20 feet long. We were able to crawl upon it and walk to the end and climb another set of roots.
At approximately 2:20 p.m., reached the spot where three weeks before I had spent two days in "forced meditation" with one Jim Harcourt from Logan, Utah. It took about one hour to retrieve the gear and one rope left at that spot. Pressed on, feeling that we were no more than two hours from where the canyon must start to open up. We had to set several slings and rappel into large pools, canyon still tight at this point.
At about 5:45 p.m., we climbed out of a pool of water as the shadows deepened on the canyon walls and up a bank of debris. We turned the corner and faced not a widening canyon, but a blank wall. I turned and studied the opposite side, then the stunning realization hit me- we were in a hole, a pit with no where to go except up sheer walls which were 200 feet high. 'It was as if some power had placed a huge sandstone dam directly across the canyon. To the layman, it was a geologic impossibility. It was a devastating feeling. We had to fight to overcome oppressive emotions of being in a trap. We built a fire, as it was getting colder and of course we were both saturated. As we tried to warm ourselves we assessed our situation. On the left side of this hole there is a good chimney averaging perhaps three feet wide on about a 70 degree angle. There appeared to be opportunities to place aid in the bottom corners. I went up two pitches, then we lifted everything up. Norm then led by chimneying up a vertical section 25 feet high. By that time, it was dark, but the fire we left burning on the canyon floor flickered in eerie paterns on the black jagged walls. From our position as we climbed the canyon walls, we could no longer see the actual fire, but as it gained new material for its flames, a muted kaleidoscope of light and colors played upon the rugged walls. While we were in no real danger, I felt compelled to watch, almost hypnotized like the small victim of some steadily advancing serpent. It was awesomely beautiful, yet like unto an inferno deep within the earth. A Devil's Hole! We both ended up sleeping between opposing walls that were not as wide as our shoulders, my head on Norm's feet, my feet over the edge. A very long night.
First light the following morning, Norman led up the last pitch, about 40 feet, lots of moss here. It was like being released from prison with the sunshine, grass, and trees. At this point, we assumed we were not far from the end and would finish it overland. A great shock awaited us 100 yards up a low ridge where we found a deep, narrow canyon running from high on the mountain to our left, accross our path, to terminate in the same canyon we had just climbed out of. It ended not more than five feet in front of the downstream side of the dam that had stopped our forward moverment!
After considerable reluctance, we packed our gear and rappelled back into the canyon below the dam. At that point, we were standing approximately 25 feet farther down stream from "the devils hole" on the other side of the dam. Seventeen hours had passed. We put our wet suits back on, and it was the same thing all over again. The canyon closed in again, water pot holes, swimming. However, after about 1-1/2 hours, the canyon started to open up, and we were able to get up on ledges on either side, back and forth across the bottom. Made two rappels 50 to 60 feet high to bypass some large pools with drops in them. At this point, we were finally able to see the end 200 to 300 yards ahead of us- Great Feeling! A good place to camp up on the left side, driftwood nearby for a welcome fire. Time-3:45 p.m. After some rest, we felt it better to wait until the following morning to do the rappel. At this point, we were not more than 30 feet from the edge, overlooking Emerald Pool, but the ledges prevented us from seeing down into the valley. The stream drops into a slot on the left about 25 feet deep. However, we climbed a large flake on the right, probably 35 feet high, rappelled down a slope 40 feet to the base of a large pine tree, on the very edge. The roots are exposed such, that it makes a platform that two people can occupy and set their gear. We set both ropes out that they might be dry in the morning. Went back to our fire, dryed our clothes, etc. and ate what little food was left. Slow getting up the following morning. Packed all gear, discussed procedure, and were in place at the pine tree at about 10:30 a.m. Some of our family had hiked up to the pool and from our footing high above, they looked very very small. We threw both packs and one rope into the pond.
Seemed like they went forever before hitting. I rappelled on two ropes down a full 150 feet to what turned out to be a reasonably good place to stand and could hold three people if necessary. This spot can be recognized from below by a large bush that grows from the crack we were standing in. If you were standing below facing the rock this is to the left of the water course, directly under the afore mentioned pine tree. I added one bolt and hanger to the two already there and put two slings on them. At this point, Norman repelled down and we retrieved our ropes. We were then 315 feet from the talus slope on the westside pool. We had developed a system whereby we could tie our 150 ft. and 165 ft. eleven mill ropes together and retrieve them by pulling a release with a parachute cord of the same length. Norman went off first with everything in place plus the tail of the rope was tied onto the slings as a safety feature. If it worked, without showing any sign of premature release, I would untie the safety side and follow. At 150 feet, he had to set etrias and pass the knot. This was not a problem. However, the parachute cord became badly tangled with the rappel rope from 150 feet down. He had to stand in his etrias in soft-soled shoes and work the two ropes apart. This took almost an hour, and he was exhausted upon reaching the ground. During this time, I had been studying our release mechanism. It seemed to be solid, however, the idea of it was somewhat intimidating for sure. Once Norm was down, and before I untied the safety side, he pulled on the cord, and the release part of the system seemed to function satisfactorily. After the first 10 feet, I was over the edge and never thought again about it.
From this point on, it's all a free rappel. Beautiful feeling! The midway knot looked very close to the ground from where I was. However, it was still 150 feet up. Used the etrias already there to pass the knot. No problems. Another few minutes and it was all over. A good trip, and a great experience!
The time versus distance factor for Heaps Canyon is fairly critical. It would be wise to travel in the late afternoon up to the spring on the West Rim, not only to take advantage of the cooler part of the day, but to be in a position to spend a good part of the following day reaching a camp at the crossroads. While there are a few lesser camp sites above this spot. It is vitally important to be as close to the mouth of the "real canyon" the following morning as possible. Besides it is a beautiful and safe spot to camp.
The next leg of the canyon is critical, time and distance wise. One must get an early start the next morning and move along as rapidly as possible to be able to reach the "devils pit" and climb out the chimney to a decent campsite before dark.. There is no where in this part of the canyon that any safe campsite other than this can be found. However, you should take water up to this spot, as it is a dry site.
An early start the following morning would see you at the mouth of the canyon in position for the rappel in about six hours. We spent three hours on this phase of the trip. However, we did spend approximately 45 minutes untangling the parachute cord. Some will be inclined to question the wisdom of handling a rappel of this magnitude with two ropes that totaled only 315 feet. However, the alternatives are not all that good. The obvious is to have more rope, but each length of rope weighs eight pounds and doubles with prolonged exposure to the water. Plus, any increase in bulk is very costly time and energy wise in the tight confines of the canyon. You could have an associate meet you with additional rope at the pools. However, after dealing with Heaps Canyon on its terms up to this point, to finish in this manner would surely seem to be of questionable style.
Any Increase in a party's size over two or three people will take additional time. After about two hours from the west rim there was standing water available most anywhere. However, both of my trips in Heaps were during a rainy fall. We have never seen a fresh water spring in there.
Equipment and clothes should be very sturdy. Heavy leather boots seem to be a disadvantage. Packs should be as light as possible, but probably more important is that they have as few protuberances (pockets, external frames, etc.) anything that sticks out, snags, or tears. These packs take a terrible beating.
Outside of the experience, stamina, and character of the individuals involved, the next most important items would have to be a wet-suit for each member and keeping the contents of the packs dry, not only for your own comfort, but if they get wet, they become a liability instead of an asset. If they are dry, they float whether a person keeps them on his back or pushes them ahead. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE AMOUNT OF SWIMMING INVOLVED! If the packs are water tight, there is no need for a floatation device (air mattress, etc.). It only gets in the way and slows down the handling of the packs considerably.
Any party must have a reasonable selection of pitons, bolts, and accessories. Great caution should be exercised with any anchors, as rock within the canyon itself is of very poor quality. One or two days' extra rations would be a wise Investment. And of course, the threat of a flash flood is ever present. You will spend at least 1-1/2 days within the narrow part of the canyon. There is nowhere to go quickly enough or high enough to escape the consequences of high water.
There are those in the climbing world that will decry the availability of this much information on a trip of this magnitude. Frankly, I'm not sure who is right. However, we do feel a certain amount of responsibility, knowing that there will be more interest in Heaps Canyon now. Most any self-styled adventurer nowadays, would like to be involved in a trip of this magnitude, particularly those of us, through one limitation or another, cannot go to some distant exotic land. However, once you commit yourself to this canyon, it is not going to turn loose on your timetable. (Meaning not only time, but more particularly physical and mental endurance.) You must be able to finish it, or have the park service pull you out (which they frown on and can be quite expensive). Also, this is not always successful.
My experience with Heaps Canyon, an unsuccessful first attempt and shortly thereafter the first successful descent ever made of the bottom of the canyon with the concluding magnificent rappel at the Upper Emerald Pool, is one of great satisfaction. To have something like that to partake of right in your own backyard, we feel fortunate, indeed.
I give my appreciation to my family for their patience with my obsession, to my climbing partner, Norman Harding, an excellant companion, and to the Park Service for their help to this end.
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