Lake Powell Canyoneering: A Close-Call Overnight on a Canyon Exploration
(All photos this Rave by Roylnn Serati.)
It got narrow... really, really narrow.
I peered into the gloom and did not like what I saw, but my poor, tired brain had no idea what to make of it.
Ram asked, "How's it look?"
"Not good." I replied, "Let me go look a little closer."
I stepped high off the boulder into a kneebar, and frogged up 10 feet to where the canyon was 24 inches wide. I wormed my way forward to take a look at the next obstacle. The narrows themselves were bad enough, the canyon extended upward 80 or 100 feet, widening slightly but with no obvious ledges or shelves to make for easier chimneying. The parallel walls meant that at any level, traversing would be tenuous and strenuous. I traversed to the edge of the first silo and looked down.
Interrupting the terrible parallelness of the slot, silos were the real problem. They are a pothole extended upward, a circular widening of the canyon. How wide? This first one was maybe 4 feet wide, narrow enough to bridge over, but dropped about 20 feet below me. There are two ways to deal with Silos: Plan A is to carefully stem over them, Plan B is to climb down into them, then UP the other side, if possible.
Looking into the silo was giving me vertigo. The upcanyon side of the slot overhung the silo, so I was looking straight down 20 feet to the rounded bottom, and I felt it was trying to suck me in. I hastily retreated. I considered climbing up another 10 feet and bridging across the silo, but my worn-out back muscles and the fall I had taken 20 minutes earlier in a previous silo, miraculously unscathed, had me spooked. I chimneyed and slid back to the entrance to the slot.
Ram looked at me expectantly. "And?"
"It's really narrow, and there's silos. I could probably get over the first one, but it just gets worse downcanyon."
He looked concerned, as in more concerned than he already was, what with Doug's sprained ankle, fifteen minutes of daylight left in an unknown canyon, and everyone cold and fatigued.
"Go take a look," I said.
They did. Ram, Roylnn and Doug placed their packs on the rock and climbed into the slot, climbing higher than I had. Roy and Doug, our best climbers, crossed the first silo and started to press onward. Doug went high, really high, and stretched across the second silo. Roy balked.
"This is NOT safe." She said.
Doug looked ahead. "The next one's worse." They came back.
We climbed back to a little wide spot in the canyon, about 30 feet upcanyon, and dropped our packs.
"Well, what are our options?" Ram tossed out.
We all looked at each other, fatigue dominating our faces. Usually such a request would generate animated discussion; now we were too tired to say anything. No option looked good.
"Maybe we can climb out here," I suggested, eyeing a slabby corner that looked just possible. "Give me a boost."
A knee and shoulder were offered to surmount the first five feet, to where some holds were available. A lower-angle section offered five feet of easy climbing, then it steepened up. I went up one move, then back down. Too steep for me! I worked my way back down, then slid to the ground. Roy gave it a try, getting quite a bit higher. Then Doug went up, and went way scary high, about 30 feet up, to the base of the "headwall", where it was obviously impossible.
Well, that wasn't going to work, maybe we should try the slot again? We ditched the packs, taking the rope and a few slings, and tried again, getting to about the same place. Not good. We returned to the opening. I climbed up the slab, and started trying to chip a hold out with my pocket knife, which was impressively ineffective. Doug and Roy headed back upcanyon with the rope, hoping to push past the "Tom-Fall" silo, but soon came back. It was getting dark, and a light rain had begun to fall.
I'd like to say the day had started out cheery and bright, but really, all the signs of an epic were there. This was our first day of a weeklong Glen Canyon boat trip, and we were anxious to get something in, rather than just set up camp, in this case only a half-hour from the marina. Our buddy with the boat was an hour late, as usual, and the weather was gray and threatening. Ram had a fork he wanted to check out. Didn't look like much on the map, though the bottom, where the side canyon joins the main canyon, was visited on a previous trip and seemed pretty cool. Might be good, likely to be mellow. A good one to go take a look at.
Hank had gotten only three hours sleep, so he stayed at camp and settled in. Phillip came along in the boat, but since it was raining lightly as we picked a place for the boat to land, was not psyched to join us and begged off. We hopped off the boat where the slickrock allowed access to the headland above and started hiking. A stiff wind and modest drizzle motivated us to hike fast. After an hour, the drizzle stopped and we arrived at the top of canyon. What a nice and modest canyon it was up top, forming a big, shallow basin in the Navajo Sandstone. We dropped into the canyon and started down the slickrock, glad to be out in the wilds again, after a long winter in the city.
Ram leading the way, well above Lake Powell
The canyon took its time getting going, and we walked around several short narrows sections, rather than change into our wetsuits and get wet. An hour of hiking, and the narrows started looking good. We found a place in the sun, had a little lunch, changed into our wetsuits, and drybagged the clothing we were wearing. Let The Fun Begin!
The first section looked good as Ram and Roy slid into a thigh-deep pothole. Doug was next and slid in, then stumbled. "Ouch, that hurt! Watch that spot there - hidden rock".
I appreciated the warning, and slid in carefully, a few feet further down. We climbed our way through a short, easy narrows section, Doug being careful with his right leg. After ten minutes, it was clear that Doug had really hurt himself, not something you could just walk off. The cold water probably helped, and the climbing sections were not too bad, but on just regular walking, Doug could not put much weight on his right ankle, and moved slowly.
One thing I can say: Doug is no whiner. He comes from a caving background, and with hindsight, I can see how, if you hurt yourself in a cave, you gotta just cowboy up and get yourself out of there. So he did. Cowboy up, I mean. Climbing back out the way we had come in was an option, but it seemed like it would take six hours to go back up, cross over, and down the other side to sit on the shore, waiting for our boatman to figure out where we were, right at dusk. It seemed wiser to keep descending this friendly-looking canyon and make it out to where we were expected, even if after dark. We split up the heaviest things in Doug's pack, and continued onward.
The canyon alternated easy, slickrock hiking with short narrows sections that were fun, a little bit physical and a little bit wet. It felt so good to be getting out again, flexing winter-stiffened muscles. We worked our way slowly downcanyon, Doug making the best time he could. One nice looking narrows, we hiked around and dropped our packs, and came back to help Doug around the narrows, then played through it without the packs on.
Our noonish start was not a good thing, and our pace was slow. It was getting on late-thirty and we were hoping the canyon would end soon, when it started getting harder. This was a good sign, indicating that we should be near the end, where we expected maybe a 100-foot rappel into the main fork. In the canyon, it is so hard to tell, you just peer ahead... does the canyon end there? We struggled through a section of narrows and pools that required climbing over a bunch of too-narrow slots, then sliding down the other side. The packs seemed heavy, and were beating us up, though we didn't really have that much gear. And we knew it was getting late. The good news is that in the technical sections, Doug was moving as well as anyone, certainly better than me.
Looking back, there were plenty of warning signs that the canyon was stiffening up, but we were tired, thought we were near the end, and the canyon had been so friendly. Some more climbing narrows and waist-deep pools, and the canyon entered a tighter, taller narrows. I remember thinking 'Oh good, this must be the final section'. Famous last thoughts.
The canyon got narrow, and we chimneyed up high to get over. A silo interrupted the narrows, and Ram stretched over it. I was next and started across, but realized I was facing the wrong way to get back into the slot. I backed up a few feet, then my feet unexpectedly cut loose, and I was falling... It happened so fast! I landed on a flat spot, not even landing hard. Fifteen feet straight down to the only flat spot around, a bridge with two, twisty, ankle-snapping holes on either side. Whoa, lucky.
"You Okay?" Doug was right beside me when I fell.
"Yeah, didn't even hit hard. Be careful up there, face the other way."
Doug made it look easy, even though he's a few inches shorter than me. Roy was not too psyched to do the stretch across, instead downclimbing into the silo with me spotting.
The next section was really strenuous - short pools alternating with tight narrows. Ram and Doug ferried the packs forward, relieving us of the burden. One section was a narrow squeeze where I thought I would fit fairly easily, but I was wrong. I took off my helmet and handed it to Ram, then carefully figured out the only path I could push my body through this narrow slot, complicated by my feet being 12" off the ground. For a moment, I thought I was stuck, and was going to slip down where I would be stuck forever, but a little extra chest compression and I slid through. That was close! Ram could read the fear on my face, and tossed me my helmet. "Think I'll go high," he said. He did.
A couple moves later, we slid down into a chest-deep pool, turned sideways through some narrows, then climbed out on a sand slope to a little wide spot in the canyon. We were hoping to see a widening, maybe a drop. Instead, it got narrow; really, really narrow. It was now full dark, and the rain had picked up. Looks like we were staying here, in this little wide spot. A sturdy bush dominated the high ground in the center, implying the canyon did not flood enough to wash away the bush. I thought some rocks further downstream would also be above any flow. The light rain was unsettling and cold, but we knew that the many potholes in the canyon would have to fill up before it would start to flow. This mild, female (as the Navajo call it) rain was unlikely to actually fill the canyon and start a flow. We pulled out our headlamps and inspected our small kingdom.
Not much to inspect, really. It was about 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, steep on one side, with a flake and a handcrack that in an earlier day and in real rock might have spurred my interest as a rock climber, but now only looked scary. On the other side was the slabby corner we had tried to climb out. An unpleasant wind was blowing down the canyon and we were weary, very weary. The normally cheery Ram looked at me with no cheer in his eyes.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"We're Fu**ed." I stated softly, eschewing the usual Utah euphemisms.
"Yeah," he said and turned away, looking for the best place to bed down.
There was nothing to do but bed down, and try to make the best of it.
Ram found a place upcanyon, where a 2-foot jog in the canyon wall provided a little bit of cover from the up-canyon wind. We pulled the foam pads out of the packs, and I changed into my dry clothes, making my wetsuit available as a sleeping pad. Ram lay down against the wall, and I snuggled up against him, then Roy against me, with Doug stuck out on the outside, in the wind. Doug became the champ as he pulled a space emergency bag out of his pack. Go Doug! We spread it out across our torsos, where it covered about 3-1/2 of us. We packed in tight for warmth.
Warmth was more important than comfort. I had to leave my helmet on because my warm hat was soaking wet. Snuggled in tight, we could share full-body shivers much like people share yawns. Roy would do a full body shake, then I would, then Ram, back to me, back to Roy. The rain stopped and the wind slowed, and for twenty minutes Ram snored softly while I tried not to do the full-body shake and wake him up. I know I nodded off for a few minutes here and there.
After a couple of hours, it started getting colder and no one was sleeping. This led to our first pee-break, an interesting artifact of our sleeping arrangement. If one person got up to pee, we all got cold and might as well get up and pee too. So we did. I was the only person NOT in a wetsuit, thus my pee-break was much easier than the others. The break was also a chance to stretch, jog in place, grab a sip of water, etc. We grabbed a few more objects to use as pillows and bolsters, then reassembled our sardine arrangement.
An hour later, it began to rain, lightly at first, then a little harder. We pulled the blanky over our heads to keep the raindrops from pinging our eyes and face, and creating a humid, warm space. Unfortunately, when Ram pulled it up to cover his face, it revealed an inch of my derriere to the rain, so I would gently pull it back about an inch, Ram would pull it back, etc. Every now and then, the rain would build up on our foil blanky, and run off the edge into the small of my back, at which point I would tug it pretty good, and Ram would get a puddle in the face.
With the rain going, we were getting colder, and the full-body shivers came faster and faster. Then the rain slacked off and we got a few minutes sleep. Then the rain picked up again, and a few minutes later started coming down hard. Uh oh. I thought about the huge collection basin we were sitting at the bottom of, and all the half-empty potholes that had to fill up before the flood could reach us. In the light rain, I was not too worried, but with this heavier, male rain, uh... I glanced out from under the blanky and saw a flash of lightening - not a good sign. After a few minutes of hard rain, the sound in the canyon changed completely. I shone my light over to the slabby corner we had tried climbing up, and a small waterfall was tumbling down it, crashing into the canyon. Even a worse sign!
We huddled under the blanky, willing the rain to stop. Didn't work.
Doug suddenly jumped up. "I'm in a puddle", he cried.
The slabby corner waterfall was going so good that it was flowing both downcanyon, as expected, and upcanyon toward our boudoir. At the same time, the pool just upcanyon from us was rising rapidly. We all hopped up and within a few seconds, water was swirling around our feet, as we snatched at the foam pieces, my wetsuit and the various waterbottles and bags we had used as pillows. We retreated to the high point with the bush on it.
This is where Roy was totally the champ. I was resigned to standing on the bush in the rain until the canyon filled with water and swept us away, but apparently Roy's survival instinct was a little better than mine.
"Help me with this rope," she said, putting the rope in my hands. "Let's flip it up over this flake."
We gave it four or five tries, but it was not working. Roy put her harness on. "Here, give me a boost!"
The rising water added urgency to her request. We boosted her up, knee, clasped hands, shoulder, then pushing her feet up high, so she could reach the large, but very crumbly holds 8 feet off the ground. Which she did, then quickly climbed a few feet to tuck in behind the large but not-very-sturdy-looking flake. We tossed her up the rope and she wrapped it around the flake twice, securing it as a "knotless"-style anchor. Doug threw his harness on, Roy put him on a tight belay, and he quickly joined Roy at the top flake. Harder was getting Ram up; with only one person (me) to boost, it was harder getting him up to the holds. Being non-technical, Ram did not think of actually tying in and being belayed, just bat-manning up the rope to get to the good holds, and then slipping in behind the flake.
Ram leading the way, into a narrow slot.
A turn in the canyon, Doug taking the high road.
Which left me on the ground. Now, you might think I was selfless and valiant to be last. You would be mistaken. I may be generous, selfless, etc in normal life (debatable), but in a survival situation, hypothermic, wet, cold, completely tired and scared, I know who is number one in MY universe - ME! So it was entirely on purpose that I was last, thus saving myself from the embarrassment of demonstrating my lack of climbing skills and allowing me, instead, do what I do best: use technology. I had some mini-ascenders, and climbing the rope looked so much better than trying to rock climb using holds. I made sure all our packs and gear was on top of the bush, fixed my ascending rig to the rope, and jugged 8 feet to the base of the flake and Ram's foot.
The good news was that the flake was tucked under a little overhang, protecting us from the rain. The bad news is that with Roy and Doug standing atop the flake, Doug had to handjam the crack just above them to hold in balance, for an hour. There was a waterfall a few feet to the side of our flake, and as the rain intensified, the flow increased until the waterfall was just a foot from Doug's position, splashing him with cold water.
Since I was in the most exposed position, they handed me down the blanky, which I wrapped around my shoulders. Hanging in my harness and in one foot-loop, I shifted weight back onto a foothold to the side, until both legs were cramping up and shivering. Finally, I put both feet into the foot-loop, hung on my harness and leaned my helmet against the rock, dozing off occasionally as the others carried on a conversation so they would not fall asleep. Every time Roy or Doug shifted position, I could feel the flake flex with the change in forces... not comforting.
The canyon below us was flowing, but the bush with our gear on it was doing just fine. After an hour, the rain relented, our two waterfalls subsided and the intensity was relaxed. Those guys chatted; I napped. I thought about jugging down to our gear, throwing everything in packs and securing it, but was too numb to actually act on these bright ideas.
An hour later, the rain came back again, and our two waterfalls crashed around us again, and the flow in the canyon came back up. Not enough to kayak, but still. A bit later, Ram says "There goes your keg!"
My headlamp showed my white Canyon Keg floating away. I had left it on a rock a few inches lower than the bush, and it had survived until now. It stuck in an eddy about 10 feet downcanyon, then swept over a rock and disappeared. Ya know, even with a nice camera in there, it didn't bother me too much. I was just praying for the rain to stop.
Eventually, it did. We hung out on the flake until the flow in the canyon subsided and the stars came out, promising an end to the rain. I down-jugged to find there was enough dry ground for us to all sit against the wall, our feet on the bush. The others came down, and we set up a sitting-sardines arrangement. It was cold. The two people on the inside were fairly warm, but the two on the outside were always cold. I switched with Ram a couple times on our end, tolerating being on the outside as long as possible, until the shivers were almost continuous, then switching back. Doug got the worst of it, sticking it out on the outside for most of the night. Even when we tucked him into the middle, I added insult to injury by falling asleep while on the outside, huddled against him.
As often happens, the night finally ended. It got light, but it did not warm up. We huddled for another hour or so, but it became clear the sunlight we could see on the wall above would not make it down to us. We pulled out the bit of food we had left and shared it around. Ram and Doug took the rope and headed up-canyon, intent on getting past the "Tom-fall silo" and getting to a place they could climb out. I'm sure glad they were "psyched" to do that, because I definitely was not. Especially since the start from our little oasis meant swimming across a short pool. Brrrr.
Roy and I stretched for a bit, then huddled up again with the blanky around us. Talked a little. Were basically numb. We got up and did stuff, like getting the gear into the packs, or trotting in place, but did not have much energy. We were just talking about how long we should give them before we, too, would have to swim that pool and head up-canyon, when Ram appeared above us in the sun, big smile on his face. Wa-hoo! I was so relieved.
We hauled the packs and jugged up the rope to the sunlight. After a night of shivering, it felt so good. We traipsed across the slickrock a couple hundred yards to the end of the canyon, then spent an hour figuring out a way to get down to the main canyon. Another hour of hiking got us to the edge of Lake Powell, our friend Hank, hot food for breakfast, and a boat to drive out to the channel to call off the rescue 45 minutes after it had been started.
Obviously, we made mistakes. Starting in the rain, pushing forward after Doug hurt his ankle, descending an unknown canyon without scouting... all these seem like the obvious mistake, but they are not. We had a strong team and were arrogant about it, and got slapped around pretty good. But really, our big mistake was NOT to discuss and consider exiting the canyon when it started stiffening up, and going overland to the end. It was certainly possible. I know for me, I was "smelling the barn"—thinking that the end had to be just around the corner. I was too tired and fatigue makes me stupid; I did not really even consider escaping at any of several places we could have, and coming back another day. We were resourceful and lucky. Yes, we got trapped in a place that did not fully flood, with a flake available for avoiding the flood. I think if we did not have a good place to hang out, we would have continued upcanyon, and who knows what the result would have been. I'd like to thank my teammates for saving our collective derrieres, staying calm, and being wonderfully warm all night long. It was a night to remember.