Don't Do It! Escalante X Canyons


Less for the thrill and more for the fun, the Xcalante canyons have been calling me all winter. I watched the film “Gorging” and sweated through a portion of a man shuffling, sweating, scraping, and screaming through DDI. I don’t know what personality type looks at that and thinks “Huh.. I wanna do that..” but here I am.. With a particular weakness for trials of strength. And I love stemming. And a good downclimb or two. Silos and stretching? I wouldn’t use the word “love”..  

The A-team was set: TreC and her sidekick Luke bluugnome, Mark Burnham, the Johnest of Deiners, and Ms. Cassy Brown and myself. What also inspired me from “Gorging” was the presence of a video camera. I loaded up my sony with a single lens and hoped I would be comfortable enough to use it.. 


It was still winter in the ‘sclante, so a ripe start time of 0830 wasn’t to be countered. The sleepy hollow drainage met us with freezing water and thick foliage, but trudging up the maze of slickrock domes had us throwing off fleece quite quickly. Every single time I look at a canyon from the rim, I get a pit of doubt in my stomach. It’s so narrow. Oh it’s down there. I can’t even see. Gosh it’s deep. On the approach you get to look right up DDI. That didn’t help either. We traversed more domes to the drop-in: a thin tree looking down at the belly of the beast. Luke and John were to check out a side fork of the canyon and meet us at the confluence, leaving the four of us to fend for our lives in the upper portion.   


My camera tells me we dropped in around 1100. Rappel to a stem. Get moving. 


Arm-width walls indented with body-sized scoops made for secure movement, and star-fishing proved efficient. 10 feet up.. 20 feet.. 30 feet.. Mom I’m fine!!! Similar to rock climbing, you don’t think about falling really until you feel like you’re going to fall. Same here. With the natural movement and friendly rock features, the ground didn’t seem like a daunting reminder. I’m 5’ 1.75” (the .75 very important.. The rest is attitude..) and was back-to-feet-ing the long corridors near the beginning. Then the resurrection moss showed up on the walls as we descended. The canyon makes a sharp right turn and I swivel around to capture Tre star-fishing towards me. Definitely one of the more beautiful canyons I’ve seen.  


Higher movements bring us to a point where we can’t even see the ground. The convoluted walls crisscross each other below in a way that blocks out the depths. Welp. 10 feet vs. 60 feet is just time in the air. Then our group bunches up. What’s going on?! Oh.. Silo.. Mark goes straight through, Cass goes low to a ledge feature and Tre and I follow. Phew. Not bad. The thrutching ensued on the climb back up. That became a serious trend.  

The canyon began to widen again as we reached an emergency exit RDC. I caught my back between two scoops, my feet at the apex of one. Unable to move, I shuffled my toes and wiggled my torso, not convinced that any lateral movement was going to be helpful, “Umm, I think I have to go down.” I stepped a foot below the other and released the pressure against my back, cheese-grating down the iron concretions. Sand blew into my face but I couldn’t blink. My partners froze on either side of me. If high stemming is hard enough, I can only imagine it’s more terrifying to watch someone else do it. I would fall ten of me if I blew this, and was reminded of my height as I put the most amount of pressure my toes have yet to have on them, simply to maintain contact with both walls as I continued to skootch down. Stupid sport. How did I find myself moving a quarter-mile an hour, sideways, over a uniquely carved ditch. I actually despise being terrified, and having an over-active imagination does not help in these situations. I felt the small of my back press harder into the wall, and my feet found some perfect notches. I sighed in relief. My partners did too. 


Sandy walls, moss, slanty walls, the canyon became a bit more serious. Another silo.. But then we heard John and Luke! Woo! And then our second rappel! Phew. Wait.. Water? FrEeZiNg water??! Mandatory swims??! I’d take stemming over that any day. I had a wetsuit jacket (aka a lifesaver) and was mighty happy for it. The final rappel sequence had us waiting in water while staring out into the poison-ivy-filled sunny spot. The anchor is a small slung chockstone wedged down a crease that leads to the final drop. My 5’ 1.75” stature could reach the webbing just barely. Out in the sun, we clutched to the walls like lizards before the jungle thwack. That’s the one characteristic of the canyon that everyone mentions. “Stemming.. Sure. Silos.. Ya. But THE JUNGLE!” Imagine a sea of flattened horsetail reeds (looks like thin bamboo) intermixed with poison ivy stems, fallen trees, and a bog lurking underneath. Now walk through it. What’s that? You can’t, you say? I agree. It’s more like controlled falling the whole way. Perhaps the canyon itself in a way also feels like controlled falling. But with more style. At least it warms ya up.  


For a good time, I definitely wouldn’t hike in from the bottom. In any event, the beauty and movement in DDI was worth getting my X on, and like every canyon I do, it only makes my canyon-to-do list longer, as there were even canyons along the approach that I have my eyes on..