FreezeFest III: The Black Hole for New Years!


You get to sleep in on Hole day. After sipping scotch at midnight and a restful sleep, the call went out at 8 AM. The sun was up, offering one of the few sunrises of note, on the trip. The sky was almost clear of clouds. Some big puffy white ones hung somewhat low, and the breeze was stiff and gusty.

After staying up OH SO LATE, we take a leisurely breakfast, before our 10 AM rendezvous with Mr. Black.

The trip had been so warm that I had passed on warm breakfast all but one of the mornings (not counting Tom's pancakes one AM) of the trip. While not a cold morning by any stretch of the imagination, prudence called for something hot, with the cold, cold Black Hole ahead. Hot soups felt good going down the pipe. A different set of gear for this day required a reorganization of the packs, wet suits and drysuits packed, among the waterproof barrels and extra calories... and extra calories... and extra. You get it.

We get ourselves prepped up for the day. A bit of flow had us suiting up right away.

We make the drive over toward the Black Hole trailhead by 10 AM. We stop at the bridge over White Canyon at the 54 mile marker. This old trick works like this. If the canyon, 300 feet below, is dry, you are fine. If it has potholes filled with water, then it is fine also. If it is flowing white or brown water, find something else to do. If it is, as it was this day, flowing BETWEEN placid potholes, then you are in the gray territory. Some other points of reference. The area by the bridge is an area where water comes above ground more than the average stretch in the canyon, so the canyon won't average as wet as you see right here. Wetter in the Hole area, drier through most of the rest of the canyon. A gentle flow at the bridge may not mean flow almost anywhere else that day. It does NOT indicate what is coming down canyon from the myriad of canyons that drain into this system. We contemplate. The weather looks fine over head. Looks like it will stay that way. It did not rain at our camp or where we are, overnight. The uplands draining the canyon has some clouds, but not much and at that altitude, we guess precip will be in the form of flurries, if indeed it does let loose some moisture at all. If it did precip in the uplands last night, it will definitely have been snow. This is a "granddaddy system" and one walks the edge here, at one's own peril.

We arrive. Dave Black arrives minutes later. He has looked in at a few places, up stream and seen conditions like what I have described. We decide to pack and the take a closer look, leaning toward going. The commitment point, in this canyon doesn't come for a while, except in REAL floods. We feel a big flood is not in the cards. We are a group of 4. The first year we were 6, last year 7. The smaller group feels better, with things maybe on the "iffy" side. Go..... We hike down to the canyon floor and what do we see? Water...a lot of water. Tom looks and says.."Gonna be a cold one, boys" Ahhh, yeah. A little bit of flow, maybe 3cfs. Lots of placid pools and trickle between them. The decision to put the suits on then, is made. Awful early, compared with the standard dress up party. Suits would stay on until the climb up, 4 miles down canyon.

A smaller team, a strong team.

Dave finds some quicksand.

The day is warming up nicely. It will top out in the 50's, warmest of the trip, but sunlight will be at a premium, with the low sun angle and the high wall. Ryan continually asks if "it is going to be OK in this flow." I catch him asking each of us separately and also together. An intelligent lad. A psychological aspect to this type of day is that every time you hit a drop or the canyon gets steeper, the flowing water makes more sound. Over your shoulder you look, expecting more flow to be coming down, but no, it is just a loud spot. You have to be careful not to let this into your head. It grinds away at confidence, silently and unnoticed.

Finally the first swims come. In gentle flow, we are off. Tom and I are in drysuits, me for the first time, in exactly one year. Dave and Ryan are in beefy wet suits. Ryan's may be a tad thicker than our hero Dave's. It is tricky in drysuits. What to wear? Too much and you fry and drown in your sweat. Too little and the cold conducts on you. A torture that then leads to hypothermia. Dave and I strike out front, hit the sun and notice no one behind us. Wait. Eat. Wait. Grow concerned. Finally I tell Dave I am headed back, makes more sense for a wet suit clad fellow to do that, to stay warm. It is always guaranteed, that when someone heads back, they meet who they are going after, around the first bend. A law of nature or something. Explanation? Tom had not worn enough clothing and had to open the suit, add layers and close it again, with Ryan's help.

It’s slower, with all that water and soft mud. But we trundle onward.

First Log Jam. Walk under, this time. Photo: Ryan Cornia

Soon we are at the first log jam. It is. 40 feet tall, just like last year, but the opening below is high. 8-10 feet high. On Halloween it was 6 feet high, in May it was closed, the last January 1, you had to crawl in places. Seems that each flood has the potential to change the game. And this has been the year of the flood. In the fall alone, a dozen or so. While I can't imagine that any of these floods matched the one (Sept 03) that set the jams and took out the old one at the end of the Hole swims, something was different. Dave and I have made a tad more than 2 dozen trips through each, in the last 2+ decades. We know the place pretty well. While last year, the jams were added and a spot always wet in our time, was dry for 50 yards, the layout of the place was very much the same. Not this year! No sirree! All of the features within the Hole had changed. 2 falls always there were gone. Three more sprouted near and far to the old ones. New boulders in place.

Ryna Cornia swims the Log Soup.

As we entered the Hole, the big falls was pouring water massively, making an unnerving racket. The famous Clitoris Rock was gone! This sizable boulder may have been spotted 100 yards down canyon. It was replaced by a huge tree trunk. Two new falls, one over a boulder, one over a double log has shown up, near the top. I dove in, climbed the first log and as I was going to drop off the second one, I found my ski pole, strapped around my wrist, stuck in the logs. I was weighted on it. The flow of the falls came smashing in my face. I gulped a little...ummm, not as bad as I thought. I wondered if I was about to become a stuck and semi permanent addition to this new falls and then the pole gave way. Swim......When this long swimmer ended and I rose out of the water, I noted that my pole was snapped clean, one and half feet down from the handle. Ummm. Not much use for it now. Glad it was not sticking out to impale my partners as they reported nothing visible at the drop. With the pole in the pack now, it was destined to be used as a log turning poker, around the campfire. Upon us, rather quickly, came the 2nd log jam. Another dangerous moment. One imprudently log stood on, turned and could have rolled over Tom, who was attempting to climb out of the water. A reminder to be careful and trust NOTHING! It was a spot that looked blocked by the logs. The climb over looked very unstable. Experience had taught me to look low, even into apparent darkness and yup, with care not to disturb hanging logs, lest they collapse on you, and with shuttling logs and packs back, while swimming, in near darkness, we cleared out and under, with inches to spare. The climb out of the "Log Soup" on the back end was vigorous work.

Another section of logs, gently walked on, for although they appear on the ground, they are packed on the surface of deep water, to near their end. At the edges where the packing is not so compact, down I drop. Wrestle with some logs and out into the clear swims of the 2nd half of the Hole section, complete with 2 new falls, caused by big rocks new to these spots. AMAZING! When the long swim section was over, out came food.........cheese, nuts, seeds, jammed and crammed into our mouths, and we are all on the run. Amazing how such simple fare can taste soooo good. This eat and run method, is used all day. An another swim section has a new log jam, but it is high enough to slip under. We all marvel at how much easier and how much debris has been moved out in one short year, but with each flood, a new reality may arrive. Tom considers the canyon still to be an X rated affair. I thought it was kinda R rated, with a reminder that the hazards of moving through this type of terrain is not inherent and must be learned from experience. That and the next flood could turn it X, in a moment. Go in with caution, but experienced folks should consider going (The author claims no responsibility......). It is a special place.

A little sun makes for a tiny bit of relaxation.

We wanted to change. Walking in these suits, both wet and dry, was a pain...but the canyon never released us from the need to swim and wade, so we wore them until the climb out. Dave and I hauled up the hill. Ryan told me where his car key was, as his car was the spotted car, at the top and I took Dave back to his car and he rushed off to his busy life. I sprinted around my car, getting out of my wet and into my dry, locked up and headed back, in Ryan's car, so as not to leave Tom and Ryan waiting. Got back just in time. High five's, all around and great joy, for a wonderful experience.......Then I shared a nagging concern. My car key was not in my pocket. If I had not left it in the door of my car....well....Time to go look.

I circle the car hesitantly... Ryan goes and looks. Ahh, is it a big single key he asks? Ahhh, yeah. Sitting on the passenger seat, behind the locked door. Dope! The car could not be placed more perfectly between 2 small towns on a late afternoon, a Saturday, that happens to be a holiday too. Good one Ram!

I always bring an extra key. Give it to my partner on the trip to cache in his car, even though I had never locked my keys in my car before. Errrr, kinda forgot to this time. Actually didn't forget. Got lazy. Dope!

OK, a plan. Ryan is ready to go home. 5 days of FreezeFest is enough and he wants time to reorganize his life and maybe get in snuggle, with girlfriend. Hard to argue. Tom watched my locked car (No room for him) as Ryan took me to Hite. Almost a ghost town now, it does have a pay phone. It even works sometimes and only disconnects you every minute or so. I do have my calling card number memorized, so hit the phone I did. Wasn't long and I wanted to smash it to bits.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I would get the operator for MCI on and say in fake high spirits, "Have I got one for you to share, around the break table, this afternoon!" They gave me the number for the AAA in Blanding. Got disconnected. Got through..they were no longer in service. Got back on the call card and looked for the AAA 800 #. Got disconnected. Tried again and got it. Called my card and tried to enter the AAA #. Wouldn't work. Operator comes on and asks for the number. I give it. Ahhh, sir (implied), your really stupid. You don't need to use your call card for an 800 #. Yeah, right, thanx. Deadly, 2 ton logs and getting stuck in waterfalls I can deal. This? Dope!

OK. They are coming..or so they say. Back to Tom and my car with all the wonderful, food, gear, beer and shelter visible right thru the window. Tom goes with Ryan, 30 miles back to his car and Ryan is off. Great fun, big guy. Till next time. Tom agrees to come back around 4 hours later if I haven't shown up. He has left, dirty female lingerie on my hood. Claims he found it, staying out of the wind, in a nearby culvert. Left the men's underwear there, he says. Thanx for small favors. They are off and it is quiet, sun dipping lower and just lovely. Nary a car comes by. So lucky I had changed into dry clothes. Could use some more layers, but hey, some quiet time to reflect on what a dope I am. Do you know that a Ram stride takes 4 strides to cover the white dash in the middle of the road and it takes him 16 strides, to cover the distance in between these dashes? Everytime! Bet ya didn't know that. Also, do you know how well cows listen? Strolled 3/4 of a mile over and held court with 2 of them. Absolutely captivated by my monologue. Every now and then they would call me by one of my nicknames, Moo (As in Ramoo). Very polite beasties, but they looked skeptical of my sales pitch.

Not bad really, killing time. I was an old time hitchhiker, so I know how to do nothing. Along comes Ma and Pa Kettle, from Blanding and AAA. Great folks. Offered me the warmth of the cab. Told stories about opening many a car at the 57 mile marker, in years past. Apparently I am not the fist Hole vet to be such a Dope! he jiggles the lock open in 2 minutes. I send my compliments. He seemed genuinely irked that it took him that long. He said "tough one!" OK by me. Cost, you ask? With a preferred (Ouuuu) AAA signature only. No idea what they charged AAA. Don't care either. Time to head back to Tom. I grab some snack, load the drying gear and off I go. Think I am done being a dope yet? Naw! I drive. Tom has a small electrical problem. When he switches off his high beams, his car becomes a Cyclops, with only one headlamp shining. makes it easy to pick him out, coming down the road. Only 9 miles in, on my way to the Sandthrax site, here he comes. I pull over. He swings around behind me. I am touched that he would come for me. I chat a second and head for my car. Plain as can be, in his headlights......Hey, why is the back of my car open? Where is some of my gear? Must not have closed it, in my rush to leave. Back I drive the 9 miles, on the wrong side of the road, with my high beams on. I find the gear, all of it, right where the car climbed up onto the pavement. No damage done!

At last I pull in, cook, eat, clean, drink and hang at the fire with my buddy Tom, laughing easily...mostly at myself. We decide to awake early and sprint back into the Roost. The 3rd Annual January 1, Black Hole has left us all energized and ready for more.