The Original FreezeFest Story
Text by Steve Ramras, captions by Tom Jones.
Found out the wife and kids planned a Florida in-law trip for Christmas through the New Year's. I was invited (as always) but several managers were on vacation till the 30th (Whew! Close!). Umm. Sit at home in an empty house? Nah! Boy, for years, I stated that the problem with winter is the short days, not the cold. Start a trip 10 days after the solstice? Break in the New Years in Utah? Well... why not? Next, find partners. Send out word to the usual suspects. Lots of nibbles from Utah, but no commitments at first. Then our man of leisure, Mr. Tom Jones declares himself game. What to do? I suggest a New Year's Day Black Hole. Why mess around, after all? It is short, has a high degree of eloquence, commits us to water before common sense sinks in, and it has massive stunt value.
I, like several other folks I imagine, had wondered for a long time... does the Hole freeze solid in winter? Open water? A nightmare of thin, break through ice? Inquiring wackos want to know! Well, if it's break-through ice, how to deal it? If it's ice-covered, but of unknown thickness, maybe a rope for the group and act as if we are on a glacier, worried about crevasses. Yank out those who drop into the Hole? Nice theory. The 60m rope will go along, with the harnesses.
Throw the idea Dave Black's way. Seems he can't resist a stunt either. Signs on. We all agree to meet at 57 mile marker at noon on the 1st, ready to go. And don't forget the headlamps!
Back in Colorado, the seeds I planted have borne fruit. 2 suckers, ah, I mean friends have jumped on board. Who your partners are and group chemistry are most important when conditions are most challenging. Allow me to introduce Mitch, who I met some 4 years ago on a canyon trip. He is diminutive in size, but huge of heart. Always steady, he has the feel of the type of fellow who you would want at your side if things got rough. A skilled climber with unflappable calm, you can't help but feel safer just having him near. Ryan is a mountain of a man. At 6'5" and 250 LBS, he dwarfs normal human proportions. As big as his size is the almost child-like joy he takes in everything around him. The smile is contagious. The cackle of a laughter, a lovely habit. Finds the "fun" in everything. The three of us leave from Colorado at 11AM on December 31st. We arrive and camp under a large overhang SE of Hanksville. We spend the 4 hours until midnight, chatting, sipping, slurping, laughing and storytelling. A toast to bring in 2003. A nice way to begin. Perfect in fact. To bed by 12:30AM. The next day saw a 7AM start in the chill. Temps were in the teens. They would be in the teens, each of the 6 nights we would spend out under the stars. Did I mention the stars? Wow! With our Black Hole appointment still 5 hours away, off to Shillelagh we went.
I had hiked up this canyon in the fall of 1980. Back then, with afternoon sunlight fading, I saw a slab of rock become completely occupied by hundreds of small, black spiders. All of them keeping the same 3 inches apart from each other, soaking the last warmth from the rock. When we would take a step, they would scatter out of our way. Saw this one other time, in Canyonlands, in 1976, when Jane and I were far from our shoes, but that's another story. Up the Left Fork we went. Found a way up to the bench between the 2 forks and found a way down, near the nose, then descended to the bottom and back to the car. 11:30AM. Better drive fast.
We arrive at 11:56. Dave Black and his friend Sharon arrive at 11:58 and Tom makes it at exactly Noon. I like these folks! Then Tom jumps out of the car in a hot pink wet suit, adorned with various tacky sunglasses for designs. My friends look at him. At each other. At me. Who is this guy? Got a picture for extortion purposes. Gonna be an interesting week!
Dave informs us they are off to do Leprechaun. Thought you were Holing with us, I say. He looks at Sharon, looks at me. Sort of shrugs the shoulders. Mentions cold and cold water. Who am I to argue with someone who is making sense. That doesn't stop me from my somewhat subtle outline of how wonderful our day's plan is. The eloquence, the silliness, the mystery. Sharon perks up. Dave says he will do whatever she would like. Wait, they say, they lack the gear. Ah, but Ram reaches into his duffles and the wet gear for a small army appears. A sigh of resignation from Dave and we are a group of 6 sick puppies.
Aside from the patches of snow and the massive difference in temperature from sun to shadow, conditions felt a lot like the many March Black Holes I have done before. Cold, but not extreme. When we approached the area around the Hole proper, thin sheets of ice covered some pools. Umm, getting interesting. Finally, the Hole. NO ice. Water level is normal, but more sand and gravel on the bottom of potholes, shortens the length of the swims. Some dry suits, some wet suits, some combos. Everyone is comfortable. Out the back end and more ice on the surface. Nice props for pictures, but no big deal. Proof in the pudding is that the feet don't ache in the neos. Out before dark and we say our good byes to Dave and Sharon. The nucleus of 4 for the trip is formed and off to Sandthrax campsite for the first of 4 nights.
The first evening, many of the patterns of the coming nights were formed. Arrive in the dark. Shed the days dry and wet clothes and hang them in the trees or in plastic bags. Put on layer upon layer of clothes. Lay out the bedding. Find wood, start the fire. Cook and eat the meals and consume very large amounts of spirits. Ahhhh, calories!
Tom introduced his theme for his coming best seller. "101 ways to cook and eat mashed potatoes". Beans, rice, tuna, parmesan cheese, amino soy sauce and different spices, in different proportions, gave the nightly meal an illusion of variety. Hunger helped.
After clean up, we would settle around the fire for another 3-4 hours until 10:30-Midnight and bed time. Tom erected the Festive Party Tent, which served for some cooking, a wind break, a daytime storage unit, and sleeping back-up for bad weather and/or high wind, which never came. Tom also had a table, which spent the whole week open on its side as a wind break for the 5-10 MPH breeze which frequently blew. We had fun in each others' company.
The morning found our suits, socks, and shoes so frozen solid that some states would require us to register them as lethal weapons. Out came the stoves to warm water to pour on the shoes and socks before they could be put on. Sounds rough. Not too bad, really. Very, very silly. Cooked up soups and whatever else we could stuff in our mouths, then out and on our way to Shimrock.
Tom was the only one who had been before, and he rated it as "Worthy of an annual visit." High praise.
The sun was up and we experienced, for the first but not the last time, that wonderful white winter light and the intense shadows that the low winter sun casts. Warm in the sun, very cold in the shade. Great stuff. Mitch and Tom scurried about in the canyon bottom. We tried to follow. How does a giant like Ryan handle a canyon so narrow? With smiles, squeezes, stems, laughter, and the biggest drops of sweat I have ever seen. I liked being behind him. For one thing, my fear of narrow places (see The Beast) is well known, so I cowered behind his massive frame, comforted by knowing if he could get through, so could I. He and I landed 20+ feet off the deck in two places for some lateral stemming. The hard grunt, to find your way up to a spot wide enough for your body. The shredded gear. The hard stemming. Once I found the lead and found the canyons narrowest spot. First a squeeze through then a second tighter... then panic and withdrawal. Yes, Ryan, that look on my face was the reflection of the Beast! Up, over, and down again. Normally a half day, but with the time of year, Shimrock filled most of the day and brought many a smile. Back to the site for night.
Black Hole was a stunt, Shimrock made it a trip, and the 3rd night out gave it length. An exploration on Day 3 would give it substance. This was working. With systems down, it was becoming quite comfortable actually.
The next day had us finishing a canyon I had started 6-7 years earlier. This is Shane's super dooper secret canyon and he would descend it with Hank the next day. The third party who had been working on it was Mike Dallin and Dianne Barrow. They had visited the canyon twice in December. Trudged through ice and snow, swam full potholes and entered all this sans beta. Bold! It was their footprints in the snow and sand of the upper and lower canyon that we followed. They have requested no info on the canyon so they could have it unfold for them as a surprise. I hope they get to finish it before it becomes popular.
The Ramster walking the rim of *secret canyon* (Secret Canyon)
Slickrock and Snow, wonderful! (Secret Canyon)
A little chilly, getting started. (Secret Canyon)
Sequencing Ryan down - he gets to go first. (Secret Canyon)
Mitch sneaking through the canyon. (Secret Canyon)
Mitch n Ram in the Secret Canyon (Secret Canyon)
The next morning Dave Black showed up at the campsite at 8AM. He had a cold and another engagement, so off he went. When I looked at each of us in our group, the thought crossed my mind that we looked like a dirty, smelly, homeless brood in a train yard, waiting for the express. I wondered if we scared him off or just grossed him out. Anyway, the Cheesebox we had considered was replaced by another exploration. Shane and Hank showed up a half an hour later. They were dressed in clean fleece and looked like they were modeling for a catalogue or some such thing. They also kept their distance. We could not even persuade them to stay for a beer that evening. The pull of indoor Hanksville is strong in January, I guess. Off they went on theirs and off we went on ours.
Getting ready for another day in the canyons (Secret Canyon)
Beautiful slickrock domes, followed by lovely narrows, followed by deeper, then deeper narrows and suddenly we were in deep. Visions of Sandthrax descended. Even Mitch was forced off the deck for long periods. 3 PM found us wet, in our wet suits, with the sun descending, skies clouding up, temps dropping rapidly, and a very physical and daunting section ahead of indeterminate length. Ahh. Not sure about this. 15 hour nights? Wonder if a wet suit will freeze with you in it, in a bivy?
Slickrock Domes. (Secret Canyon)
Miles and miles of slickrock domes. (Secret Canyon)
The happy trio, equipped and hardy for a bit of extreme winter canyoneering. (Secret Canyon)
Inches and inches of slickrock. (Secret Canyon)
Secret canyon far below. (Secret Canyon)
Grandfather Juniper (Secret Canyon)
Inches and inches of rock. (Secret Canyon)
Ryan downclimbing the starting slot of secret canyon 2. (Secret Canyon)
Starts to get narrow. Kind of a pain when you are loaded for bear. (Secret Canyon)
Rather not find out, thank you. Mitch and I tried down canyon a bit. Can you visualize full partner assist? I stem a pothole, he climbs over me. I run out of gas on a 5.9-10 chimney and he climbs above and offers a hand. The pack is used to extend reach on lowering down. Ski poles pulled on for ascents. Grunt, sweat, dry mouth and a touch of fear. Back we go to our partners. Ryan literally lifts us out of a swimming pothole and up a 10 foot dryfall. Impressive! The sky is gray now, and a gusty wind whips through our soaked wet suits. Time for "Our Man Tom" to shine. Tom reminds me of a cartoon character who was a favorite of mine growing up (dating myself now!). A cat of great resources and imagination, named "Felix the Cat". The song for the toon went as such: "When he gets himself in fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks." The cat would take his carpetbag suitcase and transform it into whatever was needed to escape whatever peril he was in. For not the first time on the trip, Tom reached into his bag. This time the Happy Hooker, hooking flakes, combined with Ryan assist, ancient moki steps, and bold climbing led the way out. Nice one, Tom. Seemed that the canyon had about 1/5 left. Saw it open then close up again, from above. Something for the spring, after the fellow who pointed it out to me gets to do it.
That night found us in our usual routine, except, there was no conversation to speak of. Just slack jaws, sore, exhausted bodies and a great feel for a hard days work. No sense of failure at all, just respect for the place and our judgment. After falling asleep in my chair and almost pitching into the fire, this old timer and Tom led the way to bed.
A dawn wake-up saw us break camp. We bumped into Hank and Shane, in Hanksville, on their way to exploring Lucky Charms and doing other assorted semi-legal activities, no doubt. We were headed into the Swell and Music Canyon. The stop in at the gas station was the 1st time we had been indoors in 112 hours. We made the 2 1/2 hour drive.
The usual gear explosion at the start. (Secret Canyon)
The roads in the Swell were fine and we parked at the trailhead. We made the rather long approach, got to the technical section, fixed ropes for our return and scrambled down to the river. The creek was mostly frozen.
Three Canyoneers, one wide open wash. The start. (Secret Canyon)
The Ramster, dancing down the canyon. (Secret Canyon)
Mitch and Ryan, which is taller? (Secret Canyon)
Downclimbing in Music Canyon. (Secret Canyon)
Ryan and Mitch downclimbing in Music Canyon. (Secret Canyon)
Ryan holding down the exit from Music Canyon to Muddy Creek. (Secret Canyon)
Yeah! Let's go this way. Looking down Muddy Creek and The Chute. (Secret Canyon)
Heading off down Muddy Creek, for the arduous hike and wade to Hidden Splendor. (Secret Canyon)
The usual muddy banks were dry and the temperature down in the bottom was quite chilly. We found the ascent back up Music to be sporting and a great deal of fun.
Mitch preparing for the pool-hop, climbing up Musicke Canyon. (Secret Canyon)
Climbing up a drop in Musicke Canyon. (Secret Canyon)
In the final 2 miles back to the car, rain, wind, and snow buffeted us. Our biggest concern was the roads becoming impassable. Upon return to the vehicles, we found the roads dusted with snow, but just fine. In fading light, with ominous clouds approaching, we scurried for the interstate and the drive to Moab. We found the Moab Brewery mostly empty, but after 5 days in isolation with these fine fellows, I couldn't take my eyes off of these interesting looking people that inhabit the indoors. After a return to decadence in the form of a standard American burger and beers, we found our way to another plot of ground, dug around the woods for wood, and had our standard long stay by the fire.
At dawn, the next day, into Arches National Park we went.
Three Gossips and an Arch.
We parked at a view area off the Windows section, packed, and started up for a climb of Elephant Butte. The Butte has a long tradition of being our "get-away-day" climb. After the long drive home, we could always look back and call the travel day, an "Elephant Butte Day." Feels better! The climb usually takes but 2 1/2 hours, involves a couple rappels, one on ascent, a second one on descent, and a multitude of short, low 5th class climbing problems with minor exposure. A convoluted and unlikely route, it leads to the high point in Arches.
The Ramster, ready for another day in the desert. (Secret Canyon)
The Desert, ready for another day of us! (Secret Canyon)
Snowy slabs and sunny slabs - we seem to be in the snow!
Working our way up a snowy corner. This one's EZ!
On this day, the northern flanks, which make up the first half of the climb and many of the route's most difficult problems, had snow patches on anything that could be remotely considered a ledge. Furthermore, ice from the freezing and thawing, surrounded the snow like the crust around a pizza pie. Pack throws, partner assists, Ryan yanking and a particularly bold lead by Mitch had us to the rap.
This was crux #1. Thanks to Mitch for some bold and elegant climbing.
Mitch at the sunny rappel ledge.
The rest of the route was in view and the standard way was out of condition. After a short loss of momentum and motivation, Tom descended and found that our alternative route was feasible and on to the top we went. Read the register and, with sadness, started the trip's last descent. A slide down a snowy slope and ledge and a final rap ended the problems.
Bolts for the ascent rappel. Interesting homemade hangers. Why so many?
Our buddy Jim Stiles in the summit register.
Ram and Ryan enjoying a fine summit.
A wonderful summit. Looking north to the Windows section, La Sals in the distance.
Looking north to the Windows section, La Sals in the distance.
Downclimbing Elephant Butte.
Final Rappel on the route.
Mitch on rappel, a couple of times.
Back to the car and a good bye to Tom. Thanks and until next time, Mr. Jones. The Butte took nearly 5 hours, nearly twice the normal time. The drive home was uneventful. The trip reminded me again that it's the company, above all else, that makes a trip. Nice weather, harrowing epics, new discoveries are all big parts, but this groups complimentary skills, high spirits and fun loving attitudes, that leaves the best and most lasting memories. Thanks, guys!
Six days into the new year and six days out operating. The Perfect Beginning.