Confessions of a Human Chockstone - Choprock Canyon
Story by Ryan Foster Lee • Photos by Dan Ransom
Choprock Canyon... The next morning we made an effort to get out of camp by 8AM - but I think we left about 8:15. For me the approach really sucked... my full 5mm wetsuit weighs 6 pounds dry and it was still damp from the day before. On top of that, I was carrying a 100 foot, 8mm rope and 3 liters of water. I think the approach gains about 2000 feet of elevation - basically the equivalent of hiking Angel's Landing, except the gain was very gradual - but by the time we hit the start of the canyon I was whipped.
Early morning, on the climb up to the Choprock Bench. Doug Noel taking in the scenery.
The Chop Crew. From left to right, Ryan, Chris, Penny, Eric, Brandon, Doug, and Dave. (Dan on camera duty.)
I had already drank at least 2 liters of water and needed to refill at the spring found in the Riparian section of Chop. Then to make matters worse, I put my wetsuit on at the first water and then there were really long sections of no water and I overheated really badly, my semi-dry wetsuit felt like a rubber band constricting around my neck and my heart rate redlined... so at every pool I would try to soak - unzipping the suit to let water in. When my suit is fully wet it weighs 10-12 pounds (I weighed it when I got home when I was rinsing it out) and it felt like a suit of armor when walking - my legs felt like they were filled with sand and I was moving slow and feeling really sluggish.
Ryan hits the first swim of the day, after a fun little downclimb.
When we finally got to the Riparian section and came to the spring to refill with water, one of the group mentioned that he was really alarmed at our slow pace and progress and Dave concurred. So already feeling like I was dragging ass behind the group, I became very alarmed and the adrenalin kicked in.
I was still feeling like crap mind you, but I was determined to grind it out. So, I think for the rest of the trip I kept up while being at the back of the group and I felt pressed the rest of the day.
Chris Reeves, rapping into the Riparian Ballroom.
Eric on rappel, the foilage is beautiful through this section.
The happy section beckons…
Brandon over heating from the wetsuit, but still happy in the happy.
More fun in the happy section. Ryan and Dave playing around.
Eric leading the pack out of a small swim in the happy section, and closer to the Grim section. Can’t say enough about the beauty through this section.
Penny making the slide down deeper into Chop. There are a few fun obstacles like this in the happy section, where it’s hard not to crack a smile.
Penny handlining down. Good fun.
Ryan finishes up the last rappel in the happy section of Choprock Canyon.
Superhero Canyoneer, Dave Pimental, leading the troops into the grim section.
Eric on rappel, Brandon waiting to clean up.
The end of the first long swim of the day. Brandon and Eric are still smiling.
Eric in the last stretch of happiness. Simply fantastic canyon through here.
Wait, I thought this was supposed to be grim? Chris enjoying the first dark swim in the grim section.
The happy section was next, and it was truly beautiful - some of the greatest canyon I have seen. When we started to get into the really narrow sections it became much more serious and the water became colder.
I had a bit of a panic in one section where we came to a log that was waist high and the canyon was chest wide. When I say chest wide I mean that when turned sideways, my chest and back are touching the opposite sides of the canyon. As I climbed over I started down too soon and didn't make enough forward progress to clear the log and I became wedged - unable to move down because my leg was stuck behind me on the log and unable to move forward because I was wedged by my chest. Inside my head I was completely panicked and the harder I tried to dislodge myself the more I seemed stuck.
Doug Noel who was behind me was trying to work my toe/foot off the log – to the point where my heel was almost touching my butt. I was praying that once the foot/leg was free I would be able to slide down to a wider section of the slot - something I was absolutely afraid wasn't going to happen... Thoughts ran thru my head on how they might be able to help me, the human chockstone, get unwedged, but nothing came to mind. I felt completely helpless and claustrophobic. If you have seen Kill Bill 2 – the scene in the wood coffin ring any bells?– you know what I was feeling. Thankfully, Doug helped me get the foot loose and it provided enough movement where I could slide free of my impingement. That little moment scared the hell out me!
A typical scene in Choprock Canyon. A small break between long swims in the grim.
Dave making the first grim swim. Only one significant logjam in the first section, which created the “Human Chockstone.”
Temporary relief from the prolonged swimming, and a chance to refuel.
Penny and Eric rounding the corner on the last stretch of the first Grim swim.
Yum. Organic material.
The Grim Reaper.
The name Grim comes from a time where difficult obstacles were much more numerous. A few very real and challenging obstacles remained for our trip, but in general, the name simply doesn’t fit. The place is fantastic.
The grimmest of the grim. Brandon and Dave are out in front, aiders set from a logjam above. Chris is out of the water, Penny negotiates the aiders, and Doug, Eric, and Dan are still in the water.
Shortly after my chockstone moment the canyon opened up for a while to more beautiful open sections that were magical. Then it narrowed again to some of the trademark super tight slots with the belled out under sections. We came to a severely log jammed section with lots of floating debris and tree wedged sections.
At that point the group ground to a halt and I could see Brandon and Dave not being able to swim under or able to climb over a log jam. Finally, Brandon was able to climb out of the water and chimney up (Brandon, in my best Cameron from Ferris Bueller voice – "Brandon - you are my hero"), but Dave was struggling to do the same. I could see that he was very frustrated... and I am pretty sure we were both thinking the exact same thing - "if I am having this much trouble - there is no way Ryan is going to be able to do this."
At that point I was yelling up to him to see if he wanted the aiders we had brought along – to which he said yes - thankfully. Brandon then set the aiders up and we all quickly climbed up and over the jam. I was left thinking there is no way I would do this canyon without having at least one monkey in the group, aiders and a talon or two... at this point it is the darkest and coldest section and I have still yet to get cold – my heart rate has come down a ton but I am still whipped and my suit is too damn heavy and warm.
Brandon negotiates another significant logjam near the end of the canyon.
Eric making the final rappel out of Chockstone Canyon into a beautiful grotto.
After this obstacle the canyon stays tight/narrow but does open up in comparison to the skinny sections - lots of down climbing using what I call the shoulder/thigh slide technique. For me, these areas would be VERY difficult to climb back up once going down and for me maybe even impossible - but in almost all cases the correct choice was to go down. The final rap (90 ft.) finally came and it was a very nice end to a long and very exerting canyon. That said, I never had that feeling like it was never-ending as I expected.
Maybe the feelings of amazement and wonderment squashed those feelings, because that canyon was truly magical and mysterious. Once I got the wetsuit off at the exit of the canyon I felt like a new man, I felt normal again and could keep pace with the group with no problem. On the hike back I stopped to check out some sort of cowboy camp that turned out to be a waste of time and also stopped briefly to check out some pictographs left by Indians, cowboys and hikers. This put me at the back again with Eric who was taking pictures, but we rolled into camp maybe 5-10 minutes behind the rest of the group and it was about 6:15 or 6:30. That put us back in about 10.5 hours - a full 30 minutes before Tom's low end estimate of 11 hours.
As a side bar - this is the first time in ANY canyon where I have not come in at the top end of one of Tom's estimates and to me it is insane that I came in under his low end estimate. For Chop he says 11-14 hours. I attribute this personal land/sea/air record to two things - the first is that the water level was medium (easier) and second, because I was drafting off the rest of the group which mentally pulled me along, rather than hiking at my normal pace... which for Chop was a really good thing.
Penny rappelling the final obstacle, South Fork Choprock Canyon.
Doug, the last one down. What a beautiful ending to a classic canyon.
We camped that night and hiked out early the next morning - I think we hiked out in about 2 hours 15 minutes - again I am terrible with time while on these trips... but the weather could not have been nicer. Well that is it in a nutshell - a serious and amazing canyon to end an amazing trip with really great and amazing people. Choprock Canyon is my new favorite. I could not be more thankful to Dave and Penny for taking me to such great places. On a side note, they each offered to teach me the secret handshake if I carried their pack out from Fence Canyon, but at my age, I would not have survived to use it.