Pandora's Box Canyon, BEST Canyon in Capitol Reef
Though Utah's Capitol Reef National Park has a big handful of good canyoneering, Pandora's Box is clearly the BESTest! I hooked up with Ram and Brendan Busch (plus Jonathan Zambella, and Dirk and Nancy Tyler) for a few days out there, and we chose Pandora as the best canyon to show Dirk and Nancy, who had not been on the canyoning program for a couple of years. Ram and I realized we had not been to Pandora's Box for about 5 years. In dry years, it was a staple Dec. 26 start to FreezeFest, but we have not seen a dry December in quite some time. Pandora is intense, and kinda long. It has a substantial approach hike and a monstrous exit hike, so an early start was called for. Normally, Ram's 5:30 wakeup time would be a problem for me, but given we were going to bed at 8 pm on this trip - not so much. It also is rather complex, so I have so far avoided writing a description of it, but have started collecting information to do so sometime in the future. I do have a Tom's Canyon Map available, and Ryan has it on his Average Joe Road Trips website. Pandora is very physical, so we make a point of doing it in cold weather - not a canyon for the summer!
An early start (5 minutes to 6) leads to a headlamp hike along the bench - the goal being to gain "Sunrise Rock" for the sunrise (achieved!)
We soon hiked out to the top of the canyon and suited up. Just downcanyon from a gnarly blocking tree, a ramp leads easily into the canyon, then an easy downclimb leads to a pool! Fun start to the technical part. No wetsuits for us today because this canyon does not hold much water. That first pothole was really, really chilly, but no more than ankle deep. A few feet further on, we found the anchor for the first rappel: a gnarled juniper chunk that we all thought would have washed out long ago - still solid! A couple rappels and "we're in it now!"
I had forgotten just how much I love Pandora's Box. Capitol Reef 's Wingate sandstone canyons have a different flavor than our usual Navajo canyons, making for lots of physical climbing up and over things, lots of skinny narrow spots where I had to work fairly hard to fit. Ram helped me with a helmet-stand in one place. There are a bunch of short, incredibly awkward rappels, which we mostly meat-anchored (all but one) and did some slide-and-catches for the last person, where we could. As usual, we cleaned a bunch of junk webbing off some of the anchors, but generally found the canyon quite clean.
While air temps were a little chilly, the physical nature of the canyon kept us warm. One pool was about waist deep; other than that we got our feet wet (and very, very cold) several times - leading to much stomping of feet.
After five hours of wonderful canyoning, we reached the dramatic finale: a 150-foot rap back to the "land of the living." Lots of crappy webbing here; we removed most and built a better anchor off one of the large chockstones looming overhead.
We rapped down, coiled the ropes and headed up-canyon to find the "shortcut" climb out of the deep canyon. Very difficult to describe - head up the slope of bumps and fins and find your way to the top! Across the mesa top back to sunrise rock. Down the gully, across the bench, back to the cars before dark - WELL before dark. 12 hours car to car. Ram took off for the drive home to Fort Collins. My suggestion to grab dinner at the local pizza shack went over well, and we enjoyed the warmth of being inside with good companions after a fine day well-filled with adventure.