Utah Canyon First Descents, A Memoir
To my mind there are two kinds of canyon explorations, those that are painstakingly developed over time and those that are a gift. Ms Piggy was a gift. Had I the experience to see it, I would have had more appreciation and respect for what we were undertaking. As it was, I stumbled along with the highly qualified group, bewildered by the whirlwind. Star-struck and hesitant, I followed the rest of the crew into a wondrous journey of discovery.
The canyon had been scouted and plans for its exploration had been hatched without my knowledge. While a willing participant, I had little understanding of the implications of our intentions nor the preparations involved in what I was privileged to join. It was not until well after the experience that I became tuned in to the consequence of what we had done, and I began to get a glimpse of the effect it would have on my future.
The canyon itself was moderate with a few interesting downclimbs, interspersed with the occasional rappel. My lasting impression of the day is one of carefree enjoyment. The vicissitudes of canyon exploration would not always allow it to be so. I came out with a feeling of accomplishment but it was the infective accomplishment of the group, the feeling of a job well done, and the joy of helping, rather than the culmination of a project in which I was deeply invested.
John, Bruce and Tom (and someone ahead) in Ms Piggy
On Lake Powell I gained a better understanding of what is involved, and that boosted my confidence and sense of involvement. This time I wasn't just along for the ride. I had still contributed little to the logistics of the operation, but my depth of appreciation for the enormity of the situation had grown. Everything had grown. My love for the desert, which I thought complete, had expanded and blossomed.
I hadn't foreseen my desire to visit places unknown. It had not occurred to me that an unquenchable yearning and heightened experience are the reward for going to places seldom trodden. It dawned on me then that I place considerable value in the fact that I may be one of the few who has passed that way before. The unknown is the facet of canyon exploration that distinguishes it from all other forms of canyoneering and it has an attraction which cannot easily be denied. It would be this allure that would fuel my search in the upcoming years.
Our exploration on Lake Powell that spring was characterized by its variety. No two experiences were remotely alike and that seemed to suit me well. We gained confidence in Driftwood canyon. Fixing ropes and leaving personnel at the drops seemed to be the safest way to push the canyon without pushing in over our heads.
I was awakened and quite shaken the next day when I took a day off and the group went to explore another slot. The canyon had been extensively upclimbed and scouted out from the bottom. The day dawned clear blue, and as I joined on the approach I felt confident in the group's ability to finish out the slot. I returned to our camp without a care in the world. Near dark, with the boat well behind schedule and the fate of our group far from certain, I began a list of rescue gear and a journey of self-discovery. For the first time I was envisioning the catastrophe that would be involved in a significant injury and the scope of a rescue operation in this vast and remote landscape. When the crew had returned safe and sound with a new adventure under their belts, I was relieved but still had a distinct feeling of the significance of my own thoughts.
On the Boat
A few days later we checked out a small slot which looked great on the map but turned out to be a shallow and open crease in the blond Navajo sandstone. That was my first dud. Up to then, my participation in exploring had come after the canyon had been scouted and confirmed as being a worthy technical slot. I had benefited from my partners' experience to such an extent that I wasn't even aware of it. It had seemed to me as if there were slot canyons all over the place, which were just waiting to be found. Now I had a small taste of the disappointment that can be the product of some fairly tough and lengthy labor. I was just beginning to see the truth.
For the remainder of the Powell Trip, we enjoyed some established canyons of very high quality, while also taking the time to engage in a couple more explorations. One slot we looked into was of moderate difficulty for most of its length, until it turned into quite a daunting slot with several unanchorable potholes, dropping into the dark at the end of the canyon. We discussed our options and, for the first time, I observed the dynamics of group indecision, brought on by a myriad of reasons. When we backed out, it was the right thing to do but I was enlightened as to how fear, fatigue, heat, time factors, and all the accumulated concerns, can pile on and easily make a group turn back when they intended to go on through.
Our final exploration of the Trip was successful in every way and left me with a feeling of accomplishment and a load of great memories. For the second time I was out front on unknown terrain, and it seemed a magnificent place to be.
Lake Powell Exploration Team
Big rap in Wife 3
Months later, when I arrived in Capitol Reef, I felt I was more qualified to be there. I suppose that, when you feel and believe that you belong, then you truly belong. I was once again being given the gift of sharing the exploration of a new canyon. Although the fear and risk were in my mind, I was delighted to be again on unknown ground.
Fear and risk mix together with the beauty and wonder to pull me around the next corner into the unknown. The dark sinuous slot ahead sends primal chills up my spine, while at the same time beckoning with a siren song of indescribable beauty and allure. Beyond the primal fear of being trapped in a dark unknown place with spiders, it seems, for me, that trepidation arises from four basic directions. The fear of it becoming incredibly difficult, to the point of near impossibility, is perhaps the least daunting. Of course, the difficulty could lead to injury, which is less easy to ignore. Next is the chance that I could fall to my death, and that is customarily a cause for major concern. Finally, and worst of all, is the possibility that I would watch a friend fall to their death. It doesn't seem like many people get over that kind of experience. Yet the fear of the unknown seems to be one of the predominant attractions of the endeavor. Fear is a funny thing. It can be ignored and pushed aside for a time, but it always seems to creep back to the forefront of consciousness, despite the strongest willpower. At the same time, fear can be the driving force which moves me to seek out these awesome places like a filthy, tattered canyon addict searching for his next score.
Once again, our exploration of the unknown fulfilled its promise and supplied ample doses of the four fears, sprinkled in with an overwhelming feeling of wonder and joy.
Blushing Bride, Inferno, & Chambers
The next month was to be the most formative of my exploring career, but not in the way I would have predicted. The ease of Blushing Bride gave me no indication of the strife and discontent that was to follow. We cruised through the canyon and played around in the Jilted Fork a bit before we met the rest of the group and moved on to our next objectives.
Inferno turned out to be a pivotal experience. When I jumped in and dashed into the front, it never crossed my mind that I was hogging the lead. I just got in canyon focus mode and forged ahead without a second thought. My partners didn't appreciate that I was not giving anyone else a chance to enjoy the point position. Fortunately, they were not shy in telling me of my transgressions, and that allowed me to continue to be a part of the team. That they were able to air their grievances and clear the tension is an indication of the quality and the maturity of my friends. Of course, the point position is the best place to be. It's the "cutting edge" of canyon exploration. The person in front gets the strongest feeling of the unknown and is confronted with new problems to solve at every bend. Everyone deserves a chance to take the lead and I should have known it. Inferno was a challenging slot and none of us was dissatisfied with the canyoneering that we encountered.
We moved on to Chambers a couple of days later, thinking we were trying something new. When we found another group's gear in the canyon it didn't diminish the experience one bit. I don't for a moment believe that we are the first to trod these seldom traveled slots. The area has been occupied for thousands of years, and man has always checked out every nook and cranny of his environment. Why should the slot canyons be any different?
No doubt, the slots are difficult to access but we often find signs that ancient peoples have been there before us. Then there are the cowboys, miners, and other historical visitors to the canyon country. The cowboys are famous for delving into the remote places on the Colorado Plateau and miners always seem to have touched the most forbidding places in search of riches. More recently, river runners and other desert travelers have been poking into the slots for many decades. Finally, there are the modern canyoneers, who are a secretive bunch. Many of the canyons that feel new to us may have been descended by the several groups of highly qualified canyoneers who have been searching out such places for the last thirty years.
But it really doesn't matter if we are the first to be there. It is the first we know of anyone being there, and that is enough.
Tentative start in Chambers
For the next several months, I would spend much time and log many miles in search of an unknown slot canyon. I looked on the maps and satellite images for likely prospects then devised routes of access on decaying dirt roads, disappearing trails, and across harsh open country. The first to be checked were the ones that appeared to have some business but were simply overlooked in the past. Next, were the ones that were less accessible or seemed to be too short to be worthwhile. Eventually, I was reduced to checking the possibilities that were most remote in both location and likelihood of containing a quality slot canyon. To say I toiled would be overstating it, since I love to walk in the desert, but I was finding the search to be quite a disappointment. So I redoubled my efforts and searched further and wider than ever before. I searched the Navajo, the Kayenta, and the Wingate and I came up with nothing.
I wanted to find and scout out a canyon so that I could give it back to the people who are so generous to me. I wanted to make amends for my piggish behavior. I wanted the thrill of researching, locating, and scouting out a fine new addition to the list of slots that are common knowledge. I wasn't finding anything and I began to think that what I wanted was just as selfish as hogging the lead. It was clear to me that the canyons I had previously explored and enjoyed were the product of years and years of desert travel, a keen eye for such things, and the drive to get back and follow through with the possibilities. I had been at it for just a few months, what should I expect?
Drainage after drainage turned out to be nothing more than open canyons, some filled with brush, others containing nothing but sterile sand. Eventually, I became resigned to the fact that I might never find a slot. I could travel through the desert for the rest of my life and not discover anything resembling a technical slot, so I had better enjoy the searching. I would continue with the quest, but I would do it while living in the moment rather than always being disappointed at the end of the day.
Caliente & Bishop
During my searching, I was invited to join in on two other explorations of promising areas. When I arrived, I intended to do some canyons with my friends, but, after the first day of scouting, I felt a strong sense of disinterest. Part of it was I didn't want to relive the strife that had occurred with the team on our last foray. But, more importantly, I was feeling real fear for the first time in my exploring career. During the interim between explorations, I had descended a few of the more difficult canyons that are established, and I had gained a new respect for what I could find in these uncharted crevices. I had seen my partner slip a couple times on ground that would not allow a fall, and I was loath to put myself in the same position again.
We did Caliente Canyon one day, but I had scouted that one from the rim and I was confident that it offered no dangerous climbing. The other slots we scouted looked very fearsome indeed, and I backed out of any further exploration for the duration of the trip. Bishop Canyon was the same thing. I had been in on the initial scouting of the slot and, as a result of what I had seen, I didn't want to go in. Undoubtedly, looking in from the rim is partially responsible for my hesitation. Previously, I had followed on a few and helped scout a few but, after looking into the last couple of canyons, I was more apprehensive than at any other time.
You can go about an exploration in several different ways. We usually scouted the rim of the canyon, finding the escape exits and getting the general feel for the obstacles. Then, we gear up and jump on in. We seldom fix ropes at the drops. Instead we try to spread out a bit and pull the ropes when we're confident that we can proceed to the next exit. The canyons don't always play out as we would like, so we adapt and evolve our style while in canyon. However it works out, someone nearly always scouts from both the rims to see what may be involved, and that may have been my undoing. What I was seeing from the rim was scaring the crap out of me.
Throughout my next Lake Powell trip the trend continued. I was not interested in being involved in explorations, although the opportunity arose on several occasions. With a much diminished pace, the search for the unknown continued. Now my desire to discover something new was tempered with a mellowness that was not evident in the past. My ongoing quest for an unexplored canyon did not consume me as it had before, and my motivation seemed more balanced, if not clear.
Although I had avoided explorations on Lake Powell that spring, when Trachyotomy Canyon came out of the blue, I was completely psyched to go along. This was another exploration that seemed to be a first descent but turned out not to be so. On the first day, we turned back at the Witch's Cauldron and the ascent up our fixed rope strengthened my resolve and invested me in the outcome of our exploit. When we returned the next day and renewed our efforts, it was with a firm intention of completing the task.
I was not entirely surprised to feel my enjoyment of the unknown return, and I thoroughly immersed myself in the moment. It is strange that bailing out would empower me but that certainly was how it felt. I had not used my oft-practiced ascending skills in an actual canyon setting where failure of my technique or anchor would be catastrophic. Regardless of the technique in question, practice and repetition are necessary for confidence and efficiency but, until I had real-time experience, I always felt an unease that I would make errors which I hadn't foreseen. With an ascent of minor proportions, yet very definite consequences, I was now sure I could do the thing correctly when necessary and, with Trachyotomy complete, my desire to continue and expand my search was reinvigorated. I went back to Google-Earth with renewed interest and assembled a new list of possibilities to look into on my upcoming desert trips.
The first possibility that I checked out seemed unlikely from satellite images, but there were a couple of shadow spots that would have to be seen on foot to determine the prospects. It is often the case that you just can't be sure what is there until you arrive on the spot and look for yourself. In any case, this drainage was just a few miles from the road and made a fine hike in unknown territory, regardless of the results.
The first obstacle would be in finding my way through some convoluted country to the rim of the drainage. It turned out that the first spot I looked was a fine place to access the rim by way of a moderately steep fin of sandstone that put me just where I wanted to be. Better yet, when I topped out on the sandstone fin, I found myself looking across a beautiful bowl of domes, which had not seemed likely from down below. A short jaunt to the canyon rim revealed what appeared to be the final drop of the canyon into a pleasant looking alcove at the dead end of a box canyon The slot coming in from above, with walls between 60 and 120 feet in height, appeared to wend its way through a series of sandstone domes.
For a few moments I stood dumbstruck on top of the Navajo domes. It seemed too good to be true. Slowly, it dawned on me and I voiced the thought aloud. "I think I may have found something here." I proceeded to walk both rims of the slot and check for exits along its length. At the same time I would get as many glimpses of the canyon bottom as possible to determine the character of the slot.
The scouting of the slot was incredibly enjoyable in so many ways. The fulfillment of the quest, the realization of a goal, the excitement of discovery, and the anticipation of the descent all mixed together to form a contentment unrivaled in my experience. I spent a few hours looking from the rim, hiking to the head of the canyon, finding exits and delving into the sections which could be safely entered while alone. The canyon contained several sections of shallow narrows which had been sculpted into a long series of small potholes. Some potholes held water and looked as if they would require some interesting work to exit. I formed an idea of the obstacles that would be encountered and made a mental list of necessary gear for the descent. This time the scouting gave me information, bolstering my confidence rather than engendering fear. When we returned the next day, I felt confident that we could make our way through without being trapped.
The approach hike through the wonderland of domes was a delight and I could scarcely believe my good fortune. The canyon began with some sequencing down into the first sculpted pothole and would continue to require various creative anchoring and partner assists for the entire length. The descent itself was quite short but was very engaging in the variety of skills used. The joy with which I moved down the canyon far surpassed the despair I had felt while searching without success. In retrospect, I reaped far more reward than the puny effort I had expended. The searching was difficult and my disappointment great, but the payoff far out-weighed the expenditure of energy. My quest has been fulfilled and my desire to find something new has been rewarded. The wonder of the unknown is alive and well, and the search begins anew.
Woody Complete (photo: Nick Wilkes)
most photos by Dave Pimental, with contributions from Nick, Hank and Tom
John, Bruce and Tom, and Ram ahead in Ms Piggy
John and Ram(?) set an anchor in Ms Piggy
Jason, John and Tom at the second rap in Ms Piggy
Dave watches, Jason raps. Ms Piggy
Ivy, Tim, Benny and Ram, Lake Powell
Group Photo by Bruce Silliman: Ram Dave Tim Ben Josh; Ivy and Ryan (back row)
Bruce slides into a pool, Lake Powell
Wife 3 - Capitol Reef
Penny, Malia and Ashley in Wife 3
Ashley on the big rappel, Wife 3
Malia rappelling, Wesley in belay position, Wife 3
Aaron in Blushing Bride
Steve Ramras and Son, Blushing Bride
Ram and Aaron in Inferno
Guided rappel in Inferno. nice pic Hank
Chambers Exploration crew: Malia, Aaron, Hank, Denise, Tom
Afternoon tea at the drop in point, Chambers
Chambers: checking out the narrow entry
Malia working it in lower Chambers
Hell Hole Canyon
Penny in Hell Hole Canyon
Penny clambering in a Hansen Creek tributary
Penny in Casablanca Canyon
Scouting from above Caliente.
Start of Caliente. Malia goes first.
Malia stretches it out a bit...
Brandt in the lead, peeking around the corner...
Searching for Bishop - out there somewhere
Bishop! A canyon found, for better or worse.
Ram in Trachyotomy
Eric in Trachyotomy
Entering the Cow Farm, Trachy
Results of the Cow Farm, Trachy
Anchor in Trachy
Rappel in Trachy
Penny descends into the darkness
Arch in Trachy
Eric and Penny relaxing after finishing Trachyotomy
Wonderland of Domes
Nick going under an arch to get "full points".
Tom takes a chilly swim
More narrow stuff in Woody
The deed is done! Woody Canyon. November 17, 2007.