Table of Contents

Editorial ---

Features ---
The Grim Swim

Hole Sweet Hole

Alternative Anchoring

Wet Canyons
of Colorado

Gear ---
Beyond Helmets
and Harnesses

Technique ---
Double Coil

Book Reviews ---
Kelsey Plateau, 4th ed.

Van Tilburg & Annerino

History ---
The Black Book


News and Safety




Canyon Hiking Guide to the
Colorado Plateau  
4th Edition
by Michael R. Kelsey
Review by Brian Cabe

The scenic grandeur of the Colorado Plateau: a soul enriching experience. Vast, so many beautiful locations, difficult to grasp in its enormity. Powerful and gripping, sweeping majesty, yet infinitely detailed and intimately personal. The possibilities are endless, limitless... to decide where to go, what to do and where to start?

I moved to Utah for the recreational opportunities. Climbing and skiing the Wasatch was the immediate draw. I'd heard of Utah's national parks and watched plenty of Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner cartoons but hadn't really thought about exploring the desert. Soon, forays to the south of Salt Lake City revealed the splendor of the desert and I was hooked. I wanted information on the area, and, being a guidebook fanatic, I sought out sources of information on the Utah desert. Discovering the newly published "Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau", I sampled many of the locations listed. My dog-eared and well-thumbed copy acquired a desert aroma (ok, it smells like wet rope) which I sample from my bookshelf, conjuring up those pleasant desert memories.

In between then and now, a 4th edition has appeared. Gone are the hikes in New Mexico but the book still contains descriptions of a whopping 118 adventures. The introduction has evolved from a scant two pages to 10. The hikes are adequately described and offer a wealth of useful planning and route information. That said, I heartily recommend the guidebook. At $14.95, it's a bargain!

OK, let's get the bad part out of the way
While I recommend the guidebook, there are some shortcomings that I think merit some discussion.

General Comments
Being a native Utah-an, the author has hiked extensively in the areas he describes. However, in the "Author's Experience" section of each hike, one learns that he may not have completed a route and/or gives information based solely on word of mouth or a route that "may" be possible. Several route descriptions are misleading and some have erroneous information passed on possibly from word of mouth or poor note taking. Many options for hikes are listed and some based on information that the author, admittedly, hasn't verified. I don't understand the need to do this when the main hike is adequately described. In many of these cases, Kelsey lays out the hike cheese but doesn't give enough useful information for the casual hiker to avoid a potential mousetrap. For some hikes like Orderville Canyon in Zion, misuse of the guide's sketchy information has resulted in folks requiring a rescue. For others, like the Black Box, there has been an estimated 70 rescues and several fatalities. While its hard for me to blame a guidebook author for folks who require a rescue, I can empathize with land managers and SAR folks who see this guidebook, or any guidebook that provides information on difficult to access areas, as a constant headache.

Brian Cabe rapping in Behunin
Brian Cabe hiking down Behunin Canyon, Zion National Park.
Technical canyoneering routes should, perhaps, be outside the scope of a "hiking guide". The 4th edition of this book shows a trend toward more technical and risky adventures reflected by the list of "Best Hikes". These technical adventures require rope use and assume that the casual user will have appropriate skills. Inclusion of these technical routes will be a siren call to especially Utah youth groups, who are often ill prepared and looking to test their mettle.

Instead of strongly advocating a hand's off approach to visiting ruins, virtually every picture of Kelsey amongst ancient ruins in this book shows him touching them (and even descending into a Kiva!) including a cover shot.

Listing both in description (hike #80 and 81) and then as "Best Hikes" (ranked as 2 and 3 on this list) adventures that are currently closed and on the Navajo reservation is another mistake. Would have been better to not list these at all as closed hikes do not need this type of publicity.

Inconsistent difficulty ratings exist between some of the hikes. Stating that some hikes are easy, ie Behunin, is going to cause trouble. For example, cautions have been added to the popular Black Box hikes which require nowhere near the high angle rope work as Behunin. Big mistake.

Comments concerning the Introduction
In the section titled, "Best Times to Travel and Hike - Weather and Climate" the author says to "take precautions" when heading for slot canyons. Besides mentioning to "tune in on local radio stations for the latest weather forecasts", the author fails to give a few suggestions as to what those precautions might be. Information on standard or safe water flow, typical pot hole levels, upstream drainage fields and their effect on flash floods should be included in this section. A listing of CFS (available as there are many gage locations where this is measured either upstream or downstream) for the stream flows at each hike description, where applicable, could be very useful in deciding which hikes are unsafe or potentially lethal in high flow.

Wading through potholes in Imlay
Potholes in canyons usually require treatment before drinking. Pothole soup in Imlay. foto: Brian Cabe
"Drinking Water". The author rambles here providing some poor information. Suggesting that "Lake Foul", er, Lake Powell is potable without treatment is misguided. Less space could have been used to provide much more accurate and conservative information. Almost funny, in a sad way, that the author muses about the BLM and Park Service warning hikers about surface water out of fear of lawsuits and then he suggests drinking water directly from clear potholes. Giardia isn't the only surface water pathogen of concern but the only one singled out for mention. With travel to over 200 countries, I'll bet the author has acquired immunity to drinking tainted water!

"Respect the land". Hard to believe, but, there is no mention of crypobiotic soil, its fragility and role in desert ecosystems. Overall, there is just a small amount of space in the introduction relegated to environmental issues especially treading softly and the development of social trails on poor soil types. Group size is also not discussed, which is perhaps no surprise since the book is published in Utah, which has a preponderance of scout and youth groups.

"Equipment for Rappelling". Ugh. Fixed anchors, especially bolts, are a hot button topic with regard to canyons in the Colorado Plateau. Kelsey unfortunately overemphasizes bolt use. The author casually advocates carrying a bolt kit or an electric drill. He does not mention or consider that some canyons have been done without bolts and perhaps folks should evaluate their skills before they commit to an adventure they may not be able to pull off without altering the environment. In addition, some regions prohibit placement of fixed anchors (for example the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area which includes Neon Canyon). Alternatives to placing bolts are not thoroughly addressed and along with the information about bolting, perhaps should be outside the scope of a "hiking" guidebook.

poorly placed bolt
 Poor training in bolt placement yields dangerous 'anchors' like this.
"You can get longer or bigger ones and a lot cheaper at any hardware store". The information provided for bolting is very poor and indicates a real lack of savvy. The casual, uninformed reader may unfortunately take this to heart resulting in placement of bolt "time bombs" or the perpetuation of weak, unusable and potentially lethal anchors. Most casual hikers do not have the skills necessary to judge the relative safety and robustness of a fixed anchor. The author has been rumored to use an electric drill (instead of the more commonly used hand drill or rotary impact hammer) and as a result has left poor and unusable anchors as evidence of a lack of prowess. Poorly provided information on bolts and bolting will, no doubt, result in excessive use of fixed anchors and resultant cleanup work. Hopefully no one will be injured or worse.

Minor rants:
Many hikes do not list the pertinent 7.5 minute maps.

Information is presented in a funky format. Compressed and somewhat confusing but space efficient. Font size is somewhat of an eye test. Hike information is spread out between the different sub headings for each listing and is somewhat difficult to follow.

Use of metric system is commendable but unpractical since all the reference maps are in English units. This has to be nice for foreign visitors, though.

Older "water" hikes still reference the somewhat archaic method of using an air mattress to float a backpack through water holes. The more recently added water hikes mention using a drybag inside a backpack. An update to the older hikes would be nice.

"Best Hikes" titles don't exactly match the "Table of Contents" or the hike title page making cross-referencing somewhat confusing.

Ahhh, whew, glad that's over. Onto the good stuff:
This guidebook is in a class by itself. A great overview of the Colorado Plateau and a great source of information on many areas and hikes not covered by any other guidebook. The sheer magnitude of research and information provided is incredible. For some of us working stiffs, there's enough hikes in this guidebook to last a lifetime.

Wading and swimming in Fry Canyon
Swimming through the White Canyon area's Fry Canyon, one of the gems popularized by Kelsey. foto: Brian Cabe
By mentioning that "eco freaks" may have removed bolts in technical canyons, will actually cause some folks to give more than casual thought to descending without being prepared. Also helpful is mentioning that several folks have been rescued and have perished on these hikes.

Addition of warnings and cautions in this edition is a big improvement over the first edition.

Photo's (spelled "foto"!) are generally well done. Especially considering most were set up and shot solo by Kelsey. Tips on photography are well thought out and very useful for especially the slot canyon neophyte.

"Further Reading" list is chock full of great titles especially the list of available guidebooks. However, a few notable Colorado Plateau classics that are missing come to mind. Abbey's "Desert Solitaire", Crampton's "Standing up Country", Zwinger's "Wind in the Rocks", and Katie Lee's excellent tome, "All My Rivers are Gone" to name some of my favorites.

His grammar, spelling, and unprofessional editing give the book a funky feel that makes it a more entertaining read than antiseptic guidebooks. His views are somewhat skewed (bias against park authorities, eco freaks, environmental fanatics, use of bolts, etc), but probably does a fair job of speaking to a typical Utah audience. The lack of "slickness" is a bonus.

"Commentary", concerning a group who held Kelsey responsible for their misadventure, is an interesting spin. Written from the heart, the author does his best to tell his side of the story. I've always used this guide as a means to get a general sense of a place and some route information. Some folks have blamed Kelsey for their misadventures. Useful and scintillating observations.

"Warning: Don't Blame Me!" With a title containing the largest and boldest font size in the book, this is a helpful reminder to folks to take responsibility for their own actions. Good stuff. I heartily agree.

Titillation, maybe bad, maybe good, depends on your point of view
For better or worse, Kelsey highlights sensitive ruin, petroglyph and pictograph locations and what some folks hoped would remain "secret" spots. Some of these places are truly stunning and information on their location was previously available only by word of mouth IF one knew the right people. Some are risky hiking: narrow slots with difficult down climbing in remote areas. From my selfish point of view, having this information available to ME is just fine. But - now I can't find a place to park. When I first visited Little Wild Horse Canyon in the San Rafael Swell, it was a quiet, lonely place. Now, the BLM has enlarged a parking area to accommodate the crowds and only mid week in the off season, one might find some solitude. Some folks argue that this guidebook has caused much environmental damage due to the influx of folks and their social trails and impacts. The flip side is that many folks (myself included) have become strong advocates for preservation of our wild lands and muscle-powered recreation on the Colorado Plateau. I'll bet a high percentage of SUWA members own this guidebook!

Kelsey guidebooks generate passionate feelings around the ol' campfire. Sure, Steve Allen's guidebooks are more thoroughly researched and their information is paint-by-numbers exact. Kelsey's books are more suggestive and of a travelogue nature leaving this reader with more of a feeling of adventure.

Potholes in Kolob Creek
Wading potholes in Kolob Creek.
foto: Brian Cabe
On a more personal note
A friend was driving in the San Rafael Swell. He unexpectedly ran into an ongoing SAR operation and was approached by one of the local deputies. Upon learning he was from Salt Lake City and spotting Kelsey's guidebook on the dash, he was asked to leave the area. This interesting encounter is indicative of the mighty strong feelings this guidebook has generated.

So, have I ever been lost or in trouble due to using this guidebook? Hmmmm. My first two attempts to hike the Black Hole in White Canyon were aborted due to moving water and pending rain. My third attempt was as the leader (by default!) of a group of seven casual hikers. Giggling and having a great time, we successfully negotiated the Black Hole and just needed to finish the hike to the rim. Well, I sort of missed the exit canyon. Spotting a cairn and a slight social trail, I cut up toward the rim too early. Stubbornly trying to finish the route, the whole group followed and we ended up in treacherous terrain. Several people got discouraged and some tears were shed. "No big deal", I thought, "let's just turn around and backtrack". But - folks had gotten scared and doubt had crept into the group. We found the exit canyon but the technical nature of this route was a surprise. With a rope, we belayed the spooky section and arrived safely back at the highway. Everyone's mental state returned to bliss but I had a chance to ponder the risk. What if someone had been hurt (or worse?). How prepared to deal with an emergency were we? How had I screwed up? Was it really MY fault? I never blamed the guidebook or the author in the least, but in the back of my mind, had the exit description been better described, our trip would have been much better. I learned some valuable lessons. So we were never really lost, just "mis-oriented"!

My only personal encounter with Kelsey was at the Zion National Park visitor center. He was very excited to discuss technical canyoneering routes in the park. He quickly jotted down my name for future information but then I mentioned that I thought, "perhaps the inclusion of technical canyoneering routes in a hiking guide might be somewhat inappropriate". He looked me straight in the eye and said, "oh, you're one of those". I tried to explain my comment but soon he was out the door, bursting with energy to take on yet another adventure. Owning over a dozen of his guidebooks, I'm sure I'll pick up the next one to come along.

So there you have it: my opinion on Kelsey's famous (or infamous!) "Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau". Enough reading already, let's get out there and do some hiking...

An interesting article on Mr. Kelsey can be found at Backpacker Magazine.

Brian Cabe in yet another mysterious slot canyon
Brian Cabe is an accomplished climber and canyoneer. He currently pines for the good ol' days in Montanee from Salt Lake City, Utah.

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