Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
Bypass My Ass
by Ram

This is a story of a FULL day in the Grand Canyon in February 2009.

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For many years February had been a time to stay home. It was a time to catch up on work, have more time with the family, and generally get out of shape. The choice not to go to Utah, at that time, was also based on the often cold weather. We occasionally would go back to North Wash in February and, to be honest, we were bored with the place by then. A third trip to North Wash in one winter is just too much. But no where else in Utah, aside from Moab, was really in condition.

With the passing of the years, I started to get greedier and again entertained February trips. I am not getting any younger and we are dead for a long time. So what to do? I heard about Death Valley canyons from friends doing explorations out there. So, I went for a 10–day trip in 2008 and it was good; temperatures in the 70s with lovely breezes. But it was perhaps not good enough to go every year. What else could be plugged into, perhaps, a 3–year location rotation? I speak with Rich Rudow, and a February trip to the Marble Canyon area in 2009 is hatched. Invitations went out to many people. Most came on the weekends. Dedicated folks signed on for midweek. The schedule filled to span 3 weekends. And thus was born a 17–day trip to the Upper Grand Canyon. It wasn’t as warm as Death Valley but better than frosty Utah.

One problem arose. On Christmas Day, before the February trip, I was in Arches with my son Aaron and late in the day I slipped on an almost flat bit of snow–covered slickrock and crashed down on my knee. I thought it was nothing more than a bad bruise and hobbled through the FreezeFest New Year’s winter canyon rendezvous. I decided to rest the 5 weeks until the Marble Canyon trip. Improvement in the knee was slow if not entirely in my imagination. Was it an indulgence of wishful thinking? Perhaps so.

So I arrived in Northern Arizona, at the corral at the top of Soap Creek, to a gathering of souls from six states. We were ready for fun and games over the coming weeks. I knew I would need to compensate for my weak right knee and so I came up with the brilliant idea to take all uphill steps with my left leg. I thought this was the equivalent of running a boat with a prop without a blade. Within two days I was twisted up into a corkscrew of back spasms. Lying down or getting up had become a ten minute ordeal of pain. To add to the agony, all my leg muscles were sore beyond comprehension from weeks of no exercise.

The trip started with an overnight exploration of canyon 36.7. It was a wonderful canyon and remains one of my favorites in the area. I figured out soon enough, that I would be slow—that I would lack confidence on uneven ground and be slow to near stopping on talus with a pack on. And I would compensate for these disadvantages by not stopping for as long as everyone else thus staying on task. Even with all the tricks, I was a twisted mess. On the 4th day, I took the day off. Those that know me know how rare that is and also know how bad of shape I must have been in. Rich and Todd Martin went off to explore a bypass route in a canyon called Tanner. If an incredibly intense snowstorm had not hit these fellows right at the crux of the bypass, forcing then to abandon the day, there would be no story for me to be writing now. More on that later.

I would spend the next days hobbling through the canyons, determined to work past the physical issues challenging me. There was a dead period later in that week. The only time that everyone was gone. Many in the group came and went a few times during the long trip, but this was the only time I was to be alone. I was also crippled. Our campsite was a wonderful place for vistas as the clouds played tricks with the peaks and the sunrises and sunsets both were colorful and varied. But the wind blew often and sometimes hard. It blew so hard as to bend the poles on Tom’s huge Festive Party Tent. Tom was generous to leave the tent for me, but I found myself alone, in a tent with wind bent poles, with the material flapping down hard on my face and body, unable to move. And to add insult to injury, the next day was my birthday. A lonely prospect.

Ah, but to the rescue came Tom Jones, who drove the 3 hours or so down to keep me company. We even hobbled through Sevenmile Canyon. Thanks, Tom. Your company meant a lot to me. More gatherings of people, canyons every day. A few more overnights. We even did the Badger/Jackass traverse with groups going each direction and using the same boats to cross the river above Badger Rapid. The back spasms eased a bit, but the knee was flopping about and unpredictably sending sharp pain with random movements. It wasn’t getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better. And it took all my concentration to move about. Was it worth it? It did take a bit of the fun out of it, but the adventures were both amazing and beautiful and the people were wonderful. I hung in there.

On the 14th day of the trip, our group was scheduled to return to the canyon that Rich and Todd had been snowed out on. This time we were scheduled to do a long day trip off a long car shuttle—the descent of Tanner Wash, the packraft to Rider Canyon, and an ascent out of that canyon. Tom decided to take the day off and his running the car shuttle saved many hours. On board was Todd Martin, Rich Rudow, Sonny Lawrence, Hank Moon, Arizona Aaron Locander, and myself. To our knowledge, this was a potential first descent and almost certainly the first loop involving the 2 canyons.

We got up predawn, drove to the innocuous wash crossing the road, and headed down in first light. Tanner is on the Navajo reservation near many homes. Rich had worked the necessary permits, but we slipped in as low key and politely as we could. After an hour plus down the boring sandy wash, I came around the corner and stopped in my tracks. I saw something—a place from my youth. A place like a few others I had seen elsewhere, even though I had never been here before. It washed over me like an old friend. I limped on over and soaked it in. This was the place youth go, to be away from the peering eyes of adults, and just to share with their contemporaries&madsh;a place where they make up and enforce their own rules; where they hang out and invent games, discuss dreams, experiment with all kinds of experiences; where friendship bonds grow strong enough to last a lifetime. There were ghosts here and I could sense them. More than one generation of young men had found refuge here. There was graffiti on the ledges, but not an obscene amount. My eyes ran over the central spot of this ‘hang out’ and I saw where people had been sitting for years. The good and better seats, vied for among their tribe, I could almost hear long gone conversations, whispering in the wind. My partners had left. I needed to try and catch up. I left this ‘Fortress of Solitude’ for people I would never meet, with a glance back and a smile.

Catching up would have been a chore but for the dozens and dozens of balls of every imaginable kind laying about in the wash. My buddies were kicking the footballs, basketballs, tennis ball, soccer balls, beach balls of dozen different varieties. They were kicking them downcanyon. There is no need to chase your errant kick, another ball would be just a few feet away in front of you on your route. After a time, the balls thinned and the game ended.

Soon we came to some grand slickrock ledges on the edge of some drops in the newly exposed Coconino Sandstone and the group stopped. Todd was going to explore the bypass of the narrows section that was starting here. He had read about it and wanted to do it for the guide he was planning to write. The options were discussed. Should we descent the slot or join Todd? Normally, I almost always side on descending the slot proper. We are not rimmoneers after all. But I was hobbled and I thought it would be better for Todd not to have to wait so long as anchors would have to be built and that is a time consuming process. Also, we still had a big day ahead of us. I cast the last vote for the bypass. There were questions I should have asked that I didn’t. I assume the bypass to be a short, 10–15 minute trip around the few visible dryfalls and back into the canyon bottom. As it turns out, I was very wrong.

We followed a faint path of use, traversed slope after slope of loose talus. I quickly fell behind. I noted that the narrows below the drop looked beautiful. I regret my choice and almost immediately want to change course. But everyone is gone. I went as fast as I dare, but fall further behind. Sonny and Rich are just a 100 yards ahead and I try to catch them. I could not close the distance. All the while I spy this beautiful unexplored slot below. WHAT WAS I THINKING??!! I have regret mingled with frustration and it creates a brew of anger. I am royally pissed off! COME BACK HERE AND LETS DO THE SLOT! THIS SLOPE IS BS!! So I wind myself up and up and then ramped up some more. After over an hour, Rich and Sonny stopped and I came up upon them. I am determined not to take out my frustration on them. I fail at this as I provided a first class rendition of whining! Waaa, waaa, call the wambulance!

What I saw ahead of me, the reason my friends have stopped, was insane and much worse than what we had done already. I could see a quarter mile or so further, a cone of debris descending over a cliff series offering the only way down, past the cliff on the way to convoluted and complex gullies leading to the canyon floor. But, but, but to get there seemed impossible. Loosely packed and incredibly steep slopes were between us and the cone passing over the cliff. We would have to ascend 100s of vertical feet on the worst kind of gully slope imaginable to bypass the impossible slope right ahead of us! BYPASS MY A**! This route was the nastiest one I can ever recall and my mood deteriorated even further. I noted Hank even further up and wondered what he was doing up there? Oh that. A perfect addition to this sh***y slope! Waaaa, waaaa. My knee ached and flopped around on the slope. I had enough pain killer in me to shut my liver down.

After topping the ‘Gully from Hell,’ I chased my friends down the slope trying not to clock them with rocks. Hank came along and offered help. I reached a spot where there was a 6–foot drop and then it would become easier. The other option was to climb up a bit and down horrible looking country. I throw my pack and jump one–legged. Boom!! Drenched in sweat, I limped into the flat wash as the canyon layer Hermit Shale finally added some color and aesthetic to the descent. Some stopped for a bit providing me a chance to get ahead. They quickly caught me. The walking was easy, at last and my mood brightened. I swore that I would never see that BYPASS MY A** again!

We entered the Supai layer, which is normally a delight. So it was this time too. I struggled to get off the short little drops and to keep up, but we were in beauty now which was a great compensation. Soon pools of water blocked the way. Some managed to climb hard and past all these obstacles. I settled in and changed into my wetsuit. After all I have carried it this far and yada yada yada more excuses for not being able to make the climbing moves. Others changed into neoprene as well. Hank found a little toy Indian. We could hear the Colorado River ahead in the distance. We dropped down into lovely pools and climbed ledges till we saw the end of the canyon up ahead.

I saw Todd and Aaron at the drop. It had been my assumption, from observation, that side canyons carry out much rock, gravel, and dirt over the course of time. They create a fan of debris, narrow the water course in the main channel of the Colorado River, and create the famed rapids of the river. I deduced that it also should provide a nice, dry, wide, and easy place to rap out of the side canyon, into the main river gorge. I peeked over the final drop and see the river raging straight below in a not so minor rapid! My jaw drops. My good knee buckles. Profanity whispered. WHAT NOW?? I see these fellas scrambling around, big exited grins on their faces, setting the anchor, getting into wet suits, and blowing up their packrafts.

I asked, “What the HELL do you have in mind here!!”

With continued excitement they told me they planned to rap down the 40–foot drop—with a packraft in one hand, pack on the back—lay the boat into the water in this rapid, somehow get into the boat while still on rappel, get off rappel, and ride the rapid. I state my opinion of this.

I replied, “Rap into a RAPID? MY A**!!! I’m going back to the BYPASS MY A**!!!”

I swore, just 2 hours back, that I would never go to that awful bypass again in my life ... and now I was leaning ... heavily ... toward going right back up it NOW. Alignment!! I must find some alignment!! I sought out Hank upon his arrival and explained the insanity being contemplated. He shruged sympathetically and said the whole thing is new to him. Was EVERYONE frickin’ nuts here?? That’s the Colorado River down there, not some Mickey Mouse stream!!!

I watched Arizona Aaron rap down, athletically land in his boat, and row like the devil over to a rock island!! That looked HARD to do! Todd was next. Rapping with a boat? It looked more insane than it sounded. Aaron was ready to toss a rope. Todd struggled a bit, but landed in his boat and the current grabbed him. Aaron tossed the rope and Todd caught the rope. But the strength of the current yanked the rope out of Todd’s hands ... and he was gone, flying down the rapid. In no time, he was a little speck in the distance. We would not see him again for five and a half hours.

Todd being swept away did nothing for my confidence as I bit my lip and considered the hated ‘BYPASS MY A**’ once again. At this point, we set up a zip line to zip the packs down to Aaron. Sonny set his pack on the line with a carabiner and sent her down. Part way down, the carabiner opened and the pack falls off. Kaboom! Luckily, it fell into a small but intensely active whirlpool room at the very bottom of Tanner Wash. The water from the Colorado River entered this room, and I looked down at Sonny’s pack making a rotation every few seconds around this room, swirling in the white water washer, looking, for all intents and purposes, like a toilet that has just been flushed. If it had fallen into the river, it would have been swept away. If it had slipped out of this whirlpool room, it would have been swept away. TO ACTION! Sonny rapped down off of me into the water, got the pack, got his boat, got in, somehow escaped the whirlpool maelstrom out the door and into the rapid, caught the line thrown by Aaron and made it over to the rock island. Now my confidence was skyrocketing further ... not!

Now it was my turn. I rappelled holding a 4 foot long boat but I couldn’t attach the boat— too awkward. I couldn’t drop the boat either. One would be stranded in the gorge. A two foot by one foot eddy existed at the bottom of the rap on the edge of the rapid against the wall. The boat was bigger than the eddy but I thought, maybe, just maybe, I could land the boat and get in without disaster striking. I was successful, although I think I forgot to breathe. Aaron hit me with the rescue rope. We both pulled and I am safely on the rock bar. Hank descended, then flipped, managed to hold onto the boat with one hand and the rescue rope with the other, kept his head above water, all while riding the rapid, and then was pulled into the rock island. He remained so calm. I was a wreck! Rich went last, made it without incident and pulled the rope from his boat. That was different. Pulling ropes while in a pool toy, in a rapid of the Colorado River! Happens every day!

Next we gathered up our gear and the group, sans Todd who was who knows where downriver. We prepared to reenter the rapid to ride it to its end, two hundred yards further downriver. WE ARE IN IT NOW!! I decided to position myself right behind Arizona Aaron and drafted behind him, attempting to mimic his every move. This worked. I think his close proximity offered comfort too. Now through the rapid, I headed to shore to empty the nearly full and swamped packraft and continue on. Here came the next stresser! The exit off the river was on the right at the mouth of Rider Canyon. Just, and I mean just, a few feet beyond was the start of swift water into one mighty rapid. Get caught in there and you may die. Get caught in there and your gear is gone. Get caught in there and live, then you are likely past your exit canyon, with it unknown whether you can find a way back toward the exit. Heck, the sound of the rapid was enough to give me a heart attack! I didn’t know how these rafts would react to this monster river, all I knew was that I was going to hug the right wall like nobody’s business. Success—I made shore.

It was now 6 PM with daylight fading. Up Rider Canyon a few miles, there is a barely marked excuse for a route out of the canyon. At least that will have been how it would look in the dark. I was the slowest and I figured if I didn’t find the junction to the side canyon in daylight, I would not find it at all. So I hauled out of my suit, deflated my raft, moved as fast as I could, and started off up the canyon first. The canyon was beautiful—wide and round sandstone plazas, with 5–foot step–ups that are undercut. Before the knee injury, a two–step dyno move would get me up these steps, no problem. Now, with only one good wheel, I struggled and was pitiful. The slowness of problem solving helped Sonny catch up to me. He thankfully, and with my gratitude, assisted me up the series of steps. As darkness descended, we found the cairn marking the exit and started up the steep slope, choosing not to wait for those behind us. We counted on Rich to guide the others to the correct exit.

The faint trailgoing straight up was easier for me than much of the other types of hiking we had been doing. There was no twist or torque on the knee going straight up and I almost felt like myself. Most of the way up, there was\ a huge zigzag on the route that somehow I missed and ended up climbing straight up and over. I noted that our partners are coming up from below by the specks of light from their headlamps. He tried to use the last bits of light to get back on the route, rather than turning the head lamps on and losing the view beyond the small beams of artificial light. The slope was now loose and very steep, a fall potentially fatal. We were forced to traverse while climbing and this was not good for my swollen, aching knee. I stopped and suddenly felt my feet frozen to the steep, loose earth. Sonny, with his usual high spirits in place, climbed up through a gap I felt was insane. But a few minutes later, he called down that he had found the route again through the gap. I whispered words of thanks and climbed up to salvation.

Another 15 minutes of trail by headlamp and we came suddenly upon the car. It was 9:30 at night. We were into the 17th hour of our 19–mile journey. We were at least 3 hours late and I knew that Tom, our shuttle driver, would not be happy. The idea came to me instantly. On Tom’s and my adventures and explorations in Glen Canyon, many a time we would arrive back at the boat, many hours late, to the annoyance of our boat driver, Ivy. When I opened the door, I saw the look on Tom’s face. It was not his happy face. As if it was my fault! I addressed him as Ivy right away, and told him the tale of the day. Having called him Ivy, reminding him of times we made that man wait for us, he broke into a smile and all was forgiven. I looked into the back seat and there was Todd.

I said, “Hi Todd, how was your day?”

I had been worried about him. He was fine.

It took about 40 minutes to drive back to the campsite. By the time we got there, I could barely get out of the front seat of the car. Every muscle was tight and sore and my knee wobbled. We had 3 more days to canyoneer, including a full descent of Waterholes, before heading home. During this long trip, Tim Heying gave me an elastic knee brace, my first. It seemed to help a lot. I went to the doctor, upon return home and a torn meniscus was the diagnosis. I got an industrial strength brace and wore it almost every adventure day for the next year. Over the next three years, I used it less and less, until today, when I wear it only once every 8 or 10 days out. I’m am about 90% back to what I was before the injury.

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With the normal retrospection that follows most trips, I am struck by how cantankerous I can become with my not being able to keep up. The discomfort added to my mood and, perhaps, worst of all was not being able to move like I was accustomed to moving. I was a liability and yet my partners treated me with kindness and patience. I did not return the favor. I couldn’t help but think that someday my physical ability will diminish and eventually abandon me. If I don’t manage to transition through those natural changes with a little more grace, I will make my world much smaller as no one wants to be subjected to another person’s frustrations and rantings. Yes, it is a worthy goal to age with more style and consideration toward others. If I fail in this goal, I would not blame friends choosing to BYPASS MY A** by not inviting me along. That having been said, I wish to thank my friends for a day full of living—a day ripe with memories and images. With time whittling away negative memories and clarifying the wonder of the experience, I would not choose to BYPASS any part of the experience.


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