Letters from the Desert
from Steve Allen

Dear ones all,

1991 was another great year in the canyon country of southern Utah. The year could best be described as a year of variety, starting with a river trip trough the Grand Canyon with a group doing environmental research having to do with the study of bugs and their relationship to the whole Grand Canyon ecosystem. I found myself intimidated by the immense size of the canyon, the power of the river, and the diversity of the area. Although I have spend three years in the canyons now, I was still astonished by the beauty of the Grand Canyon. Awesome is a word often bandied about, but few places, certainly, are as awesome as this. The year ended with two hiking trips into the Grand Canyon with groups of friends, just whetting my appetite for more.

The highlight of the year was a ‘Sheer Terror’ week in southern Utah. We gathered a motley cast of characters from across the country, mostly rock climbers, intent on descending technical slot canyons, those requiring skills beyond the norm. Ropework and teamwork, often needed at times of the intense mental and physical pressure, allowed us to descend several canyons that had never been done before. Chimneying and stemming through miles of tricky narrows, swimming in mercilessly tight slots and in bitterly cold water, and inching along cliff faces often far off the ground were the right combination for our crew of adrenalin junkies. The most interesting aspect of the trip, though, was in the age spread—from 20 to 50. It was gratifying to work with a younger group of climbers and see their zest—and their unbelievable skill—as they came to grips with many of the future–world problems presented by these canyons. A new generation of canyoneers is coming into its own, and, as time passes, they will hopefully use what they have learned from us oldsters and develop new and better techniques and so further the sport.

This fall I had the pleasure of joining one of the southwest’s preeminent canyoneers, Harvey Halpern, for seven weeks in southern Utah, hiking our way through a multitude of canyons. One adventure with Harvey stands out. Our goal was to attempt the probable second integral ascent of Brimstone Gulch, an incredibly tight slot in the Escalante River drainage. You must understand that Harvey, who has hiked extensively in canyon country, has explored remote areas in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, and has faced a thousand perils in the last twenty–five years, has two fears—he is a claustrophobe and an arachnophobe.

Things go well as we ascend the lower, easier sections of the canyon. Occasional small challenges are neatly overcome. The canyon becomes deeper and much narrower; at times we are hard–pressed just to force our bodies through. Harvey pulls out his camera for a picture. I, behind him, see that he has straddled a tarantula as he is adjusting his camera. With an unceremonious shove from me, Harvey lurches forward, not understanding what is happening. When I point out the tarantula, Harvey turns white and quickly scampers upcanyon!

Now, for the rest of the story: at one point the canyon—just a relentless slot—narrows even more, overhangs considerably, and becomes dark and oppressive. This is the first crux of the route—a place where you have to lie down and squeeze through the tiniest of openings. Being on the thin side, I have only moderate problems with this constriction. But Harvey is stouter. He works the move for a half hour trying to get through, but without success. All of Harvey’s struggles are accompanied by the sounds of deep breathing as he tries to control his intense claustrophobia. Seeing that Harvey may not make the move, I mention that a viable alternative is to turn around and go back. Harvey, again white as a sheet and on the edge of panic, gives great weight to this idea, until he remembers that if he does go back he will have to go by the tarantula. Slick as a whistle, Harvey squeezes through the slot!

The canyon ends with a section so narrow that one cannot ascend it at ground level. We climb up for 75 feet; then, for a quarter mile or more, we traverse through a transitional world of dark and light, the slot below a threat to any hastily– or poorly–executed move, the light above our beacon to the top. At long last, we exit the head of the canyon, another great adventure under our belts and a canyon story to be told for a generation to come.

So it goes in canyon country. I will definitely be back for one more year to close out some unfinished projects. Cards and letters are always more than welcome. I think of you all often while hiking through the canyons. This coming year is one for all of us to have fun. I hope you do.




© 1990–2007 Steve Allen