Pandora's Box Canyon, Capital Reef, UT
It's my party, and I get to choose the canyon and the company. For this year's TomFest, the sparsely-attended Friday canyon would be Pandora's Box, a wonderful though vigorous canyoneering adventure in Capitol Reef National Park. There have been several rescues in there the last couple years, as novice groups have underestimated the difficulties. (/foreshadowing) It is a long canyon to do at this time of year. The company today would be Alane Urban out from Colorado, Kari Moe and her friend Babbie from Park City, and Lynn and Cassy my adventure partners from Springdale/ZAC. Unfortunately, Cassy was working until 11 (!) so Lynn and Cassy made their appearance at the parking lot / camping area at 4 am. Getting them up at 6:30 for a 7 am departure proved difficult, so our actual start time, on this short pre-winter day, was 7:50. A bit later than the RamPlan calls for. As in many canyons in our repertoire, I'm not so sure I've done Pandora's without the pre-dawn start Mr. Ram insists on, for good reason. And without Mr. Ram.
Off we went in the early morning cold. Light makes the going faster... up to "Sunrise Rock" by 9:06. I took a GPS point at the rock and proceeded across the Juniper/Pinion forested terrain to the head of the South Fork, which we followed down to the bottom, then hooked over to the North Fork, the REAL "P B". Still cold, I meat anchored everyone down, then tiptoed through the pool at the bottom of the first downclimb. Ankle-deep, just enough to get the socks wet and the feet cold. We moved through the opening rappels well, setting up a meat anchor for the intermediate on the 2nd rap, and again for all but the smallest (Cassy) on the third rap. A couple fun downclimbs, a pool avoided with a few quick moves, a skinny section and we are out in the open.
Pandora's has a lot of business! I have been trying to write the beta for it for a couple of years, but tend to get entranced by the doing of it too much to take pictures or notes of another kind. But this first part, I got down. Exit the opening sequence, hike in the wide canyon briefly, then the complex drop. Head left to the canyon wall and downclimb a chimney... The next section is narrows and a short downclimb that leads to the upclimb crux of the day, the Black Slot. My new method here is, after the chimney, to exit the bottom of the canyon by climbing a ramp on the right that leads up past the Black Slot, then head right to the canyon wall and climb down a gully/slot/slab to the South Fork. Walk out to the intersection with the North Fork, find a nice slickrock place in the sun and have lunch.
After lunch, we hike back around and chimney our way up the Black Slot without luggage. A few more downclimbs, and we are back at the intersection gathering our gear. So far we have made good time. Well, good-ish.
We hike downcanyon and... well, you know. Canyon stuff. WINGATE canyon stuff. Turn to the right - hard. Turn to the left - easy! We turned right, climbed over some logs, into a narrow slot... this is where it all mashes together in my mind. Lots of slots. Some skinny, off-the ground stuff, not too high. A couple raps with very awkward rappel anchors. A few threatening puddles that don't amount to much. One high spot with a gaper, that turns out to be easy. Some partner assists. Some resting sections, then it turns right again. A couple very narrow spots where I got kinda concerned. One helmet stand later - no problemo. The group moved along well. Finally, that crazy weird downclimb spot to the "subway" that is always of some concern. Ram cracked his helmet here. I was in the back; there was a small log set up as an anchor in a pothole. Some people rapped off it, which was a bit crazy, as the rap was basically a 4' fall onto the rope, leaving one 3' off the ground. Left was Lynn, Cassy and I. Cassy and I set up a meat anchor and Lynn downclimbed and rapped, not too inelegantly. My turn. Unlike previous times, I did a good job on the downclimb, getting it static all the way to weighting the rope, aided by having Cassy belaying/lowering me. Cassy snuck through the narrows twists of the exit - Lynn and I easily catching her and putting her on the ground.
After than, a short rap to the ledge, then a long rap to the bottom. Icicles! We cut some tat from the anchor and re-rigged a little, but generally the anchors were in good shape on this occasion.
How's the time? - uh, a bit short. We pack up and vamoosh out of there. I was feeling good because... well, because I was feeling good. Usually by this point in Pandora's, I'm pretty worked, but today I was still feeling fresh. We moved at a good pace upcanyon which was good, because it gets late early this time of year! Found the exit after a bit of confusion. I had been concerned that the light dusting of snow from a few days ago might make this exit more challenging. Just a skiff of snow had little effect, but it does tend to obscure foot prints and signs of passage, and makes signs of passage apparent where they are not. I have been up this exit at least twice, though under the powerful route-finding wing of the Ram. With my memory?? I was disheartened to see basically zero signs of passage, even low down where I thought I knew where the route generally was. Once in a while we would find small cairns. I mean, 4" tall cairns. Lots of places looked familiar, though not necessarily from this canyon. We climbed up. Looked right. Explored left. Up one level, back to the right... It got dark. We found passage, but not necessarily where passage had been found before. We found dead ends. We found dangerous things. We found blank walls above. Back left. Up. Back right. Maybe over here... back and forth we made steady progress more by persistence than by other means. Finally, a feeling we were near the top... 20 feet of actual trail trending right to left - now this place I remember, we're at the top.
We take a break. The uncertainty has worn on the energy. It must be late... I pull out the watch - 7:00 pm. WOW! We eat some snacks, drink some water and I pull out the GPS. The terrain across to Sunrise Rock and out escape route is complex, and we are going "against the grain". I point us to Sunrise Rock and we hike out across the landscape. A vast chasm appears below us... we hike to the right to get around the head. A quick glance at the GPS shows us walking directly away from Sunrise Rock... easy to get turned aside on this terrain. We straighten up and head toward SR once again. After a bit, the lights of Torrey come into view. Further trudging, eventually we find our tracks from that morning, and the Rock of the Early Morning Light. A bit of a break, then down the trail. "Will the Patio still be open?" was what kept me going, as eating pizza and drinking beer in a warm place sure seemed like a good idea. We rolled into camp and threw the stuff in the truck, and rolled out of camp. Patio at 9:05. They were washing up and sweeping the floor, and had not quite yet turned the sign around. Good folks them, let us in. "Can you take it to go?" they asked. We negotiated. Pizza, we'll order right now, eat fast. Which we did. Left a big tip.
And it was good!
Postscript: talking with Ryan Cornia the next night, he had explored upper Spring Canyon and gone out that way about two weeks prior, and insisted he built many large cairns. How we missed them???? No idea. But we sure did miss them.