Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
And We Do This for Fun?
by Ram

After four scratchy canyons in two days, the boys were begging for something else. One of those canyons I never seem to get around to is Middle Gravel. Done Upper Gravel. Done Lower Gravel—twice—never the middle. Was supposed to do it as a guest at the Cedar Mesa Rendezvous years ago. Got talked into leading a Cheesebox by new friends. I admit I was intimidated by the Allen book’s reference to the impossible narrows back then, but so many have told me they are casual ... and beautiful. So we tried to make it happen.

The biggest challenge of the week, aside from occasional wicked winds, was the cold first thing in the morning. We awoke to a gray and cold day at Sandthrax. I mean, it was February after all. It is a bit of an expedition to get way out to Gravel and, by the time we got toward the trailhead, packed, fed and full of hot beverages, it was after 11 AM. Tom’s guide says 8–10 hours for Gravel. We are fast and all, but doing the math ... with a slew of folks coming in that night for the next day’s HogFest. Alas, rallying for another Cheesebox seemed prudent.

It had warmed a little but was hardly balmy. We had lots of neoprene so off we went. When we got to the suit–up spot, a steady and deeply chilling wind gave doubt to the wisdom of the venture. We were there. How bad could it be? We dressed to the hilt and ate over 1000 calories. We headed upcanyon to also include the upper narrows AKA the Extension. It only made sense to add a very wet section, with it being February in a wet canyon ... NOT!!! But it is an awfully pretty section.

We stemmed a nasty pothole at the beginning and sent Dave into the lead. It is an old tradition of ours that we let those who haven’t done the canyon before take the lead. They can then experience the canyon sans footprints and solve the problems they encounter without undue influence of those that have gone before ... not to mention looking at the butts of his/her partners. Dave was relegated to braking ice and that it’s rather unkind to your shin had nothing to do with it. Honest! Dave, very strong but diminutive, danced over the top of some frozen potholes. We would hear them creak. Then I would go and would get most of the way across and CRACK!! But I would scurry to the other side before dropping in. I would turn and smile at John and the ice cube filled pool he would have to wade then. Taking pleasure in the discomfort of your friend, especially when you helped create it, is a male version to express how much you love them. He would demand that he go in front of me, he being way lighter than me too. I would step aside. Good manners, right? But I know this canyon well and I would slip by him, with that knowledge, and dance out onto the next ice–coated pool in front of him and CRACK and throw a belly laugh his way. What are friends for? Soon nothing will help us as the darker tighter narrows have the thinnest of layers of ice and we all must swim.

After the first major swim, Chipmunk Pool, we find the canyon way drier than normal and the breeze is blocked. It is so comfortable as to be almost disappointing. But no one is immersing their hands in the no. No one, no how! The downclimbs of Zion Falls and the Spiral Staircase got our attention as always. After the confluence with the East fork, we were back in the swim again. Cold water of fair quality still forced some cold swims and fun climbing. Soon we were out of the main narrows. Three sections of short narrows waited down below, separated by 10–20 minute hikes between them. We came around the first corner and were hit straight on by a bitter 20–mph wind. And things were going so well. Aw well, what to do but hike fast. It was so cold as to be really funny. Tight–jawed laughter rang out. Ate snacks on the run. But our formally dry hands ... they ached with cold. I had kept mine dry all the way through the swims. They were snug in the gloves, but as soon as we started hiking in earnest, to move through the wind, water leaked down the suit and into the gloves soaking them and causing my hands to SCREAM OUT, now wet and painful cold.

We almost welcomed the next narrows sections, short as they are, as a break from the wind. Wrong! While the main narrows had been drier than normal, the lower ones were tippy–top full. Lovely. Laughing again, we swam then braved the wind and swam again. The exit spot, normally a place of decompression and relaxation in the sun, was sprinted past. The good news was that the exit route had the wind at our backs. The climb up warmed our engines and the strongest winds, in the canyon bottom, did not follow us to the rim.

But it was a bit windy at the car at the strip–down place. There is something ridiculous about finding such discomfort, only so one can relish being comfortable again. The guys had a great time in spite of, or was it because of, the cold? Anyway, they were just fine with the tight scratchy and DRY canyons the rest of the week. Dinner at Hite picnic table, sheltered from the wind and soaking in low angled sun ... and then back to camp to meet the weekend warriors coming in to inject us with new energy.


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