Letters from the Desert
from Steve Allen

Dear ones all,

Yikes! It’s 1993 already and I’m just now getting around to my yearly letter! 1992 was a wonderful and productive year in canyon country, starting with a trip to Baja California. Canyonmeister Ginger Harmon and I spent five weeks exploring the rugged interior ranges, concentrating on technical slots and palm–lined canyons. If you were to ask exactly where we went, I’d answer that I really don’t know. It may be an indictment against guidebook writers (Ginger has also written a guide) that we never did really figure out where we were. But in Baja it doesn’t matter—there’s water to the east and there’s water to the west and the adventures are in between.

Utah fun came in large doses this year. Paul Micalec and I joined forces for a five–day–long descent of the south fork of Choprock Canyon in the Escalante. Just finding a route through the Circle Cliffs to the top of the canyon and carrying a 90lb. loads that included six ropes and endless climbing paraphernalia was difficult enough. The canyon itself is certainly one of the great slots, similar to the Black Hole of White Canyon, but infinitely longer and more complex. The canyon changes from a wide tree–lined gorge in its upper end to a relentless and at times brutal 300–foot–deep slot at its mouth. The intervening miles contain a myriad of challenges—from rappelling down waterfalls to swimming through foot–wide pools in bitter–cold water. We thought we were pretty tough, with our modern gear and high–tech clothing, until we descended a wall in the most challenging section of the canyon that was festooned with Moqui steps, evidence that the Anasazi had explored the canyon a thousand years or more ago. It is one of the few canyons I would not care to repeat—at least until time fades the memories a bit.

In December I was again joined by Ginger. This time our goal was to explore the slot canyons of the Dirty Devil River gorge. Winter in the canyons can be quite an experience. Snow on slickrock ... is slick. And those cool deep potholes so welcome in the summer become major challenges in below–freezing weather.

Although we managed to descend a dozen or more canyons, one canyon in particular stands out. We named it the Mind Bender Fork of the North Fork of Robbers Roost Canyon. The upper part of the canyon goes smoothly, Ginger and I swapping leads as we work downcanyon. Claustrophobically–tight narrows are interspersed with vertical challenges—the occasional rappel, the 50–foot–tall bombay chimney (the father down you go the wider the chimney gets), the sheer wall with few holds.

By the time we reach the crux section of the canyon, we have been enveloped by a blizzard, the snow whipping up the canyon, stinging our eyes and freezing our hands. The crux is truly a mind–bender, the narrow slot giving way to an abrupt drop over the 150–foot–tall mouth of a cave. We spend an hour rigging our ropes. With no secure anchor points, we end up burying a sling in the sandy bottom of a large pothole and attach the rope to it. I go first, carefully sliding out of the slot and into a vertical void, the floor of the canyon invisible in the swirl of snow. Will the rope be long enough? That question is answered when half–way down; the rope is long enough, but the present trajectory will take me through the limbs of an oak tree and into a large pothole. Not good! With some gentle swinging I manage to hit a dry landing zone. Ginger takes her time lowering packs over the drop. From below I can see that the brunt of the storm has descended on her. The rock is now plastered with rime ice and, precariously perched on the edge of the abyss, every move on her part must be carefully executed. A mistake could mean the ultimate splat. At long last I see Ginger’s legs emerge from the slot; then she is slowing spinning down the rope, afraid a sudden jerk will dislodge it from its precarious anchor in the sand. There are no further impediments below. The Mind–Bender Fork is a done deal.

And again, so it goes in canyon country. Sierra Club, Four Corners School, and private trips keep me busy, as do more writing projects. Keep me posted on you doings and make plans to come down and visit. Cards and letters are always welcome!

Take care,



© 1990–2007 Steve Allen