Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
Smiling Cricket
by Ram

My muscles are sore. Knee is swollen. Chin is tender. A bit of fatigue. Yes, the place took it out of me. Spoke with Tom. He tells a similar tale. What is unusual is that it happened the last 5 days of a three–week trip. A time after I hit stride—when nothing phases me. What did this? The Cricket. If it could, it would be smiling ... perhaps chuckling.

But, first, the story of how I got to this place of soreness. Three years ago, someone asked a question on the group. Seemed innocent at the time.

“Has anyone descended that pothole slot next to the Kelsey Butler exit?”

I replied, “Not to my knowledge. Tom and I have looked at it but are scared of keepers and lack of anchors.”

Thought it done with, until this same fella who asked the question posted a trip report of its descent. In this way I was introduced to Jason.

I can’t claim to know him well. We have only done a few things together, but he always makes an impression. A single parent, with full custody, a full time job and when he gets the time to play, often does so with ... Daring? Drive? Recklessness? Innovation? Passion? Deeply held curiosity? Originality? All of the above? Yes ... and more. Perhaps this first trip report showed a fella with a tad too much boldness, but Jason became a bit more cautious with time while not losing his gift of ‘vision’ or his drive.

Jason accompanied me on my first descent of this challenging canyon and we invited him to join us for the exploration of Hog 4 AKA Ms. Piggy. Jason seemed to chaff against the rigid views of several of my friends and peers. Perhaps me too? You know, helmets and such stuff. When did I, this youthful rebel become a part of the establishment? Tick, tick, tick. Sigh!

Fast forward to last winter—not sure what Jason and I were emailing and chatting about. Then the guy wrote about three canyons he rim walked over 10 miles from the nearest road. The canyons looked frightening to him. Did it go X here? Were there any anchors there? I congratulated him on his drive to get so deep. To investigate so thoroughly. To show such caution in the face of such risk. I felt that this ‘thing’ belonged to him. I had not asked where it is. I don’t want to impose but am very intrigued. I proposed that he join us in April, the first time I could go. He said that a chunk of time like that is not in the cards for him. I asked if he minded if I took a group down to explore his canyons and keep it under wraps until I can report back to him and consider what team to assemble for the task. His response was that they are not his canyons but that he would definitely appreciate any findings.

Then I wrote back and ask, “You sure?”

He said, “Yes.”

I thought to myself, there are some places I would like to share with the lad in the future. I will if he is willing.

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Winter slides into spring and we are ready to go take a look. Tom Jones is the anchor man. I do the route finding. Eric Godfrey has the youthful strong back. Brian Hoffman, from my original Choprock, is the climbing gun. It takes all day to get in. This bench is good, this one is bad, and the packs are heavy. In the evening we dodge the poison ivy and go to a wondrous chamber below the next day’s canyon. The next day we go for Happy Dog.

•  Happy Dog  •

The scouting info from Jason is spot on. It doesn’t tell us how inspired his working a way to the canyon head is. One of the hardest, most hidden accesses I have ever seen. Hard to find and steep and scary when you do. An alcove arch tinted orange adds to the ambiance. The canyon will prove to be an -R rated one. Open areas with big raps alternate with tight narrows that force one to stem. When the narrows end, it involves a steep groove that can be slid or downclimbed into a pothole. Water is high so no escapes are needed, but the canyon sparkles. But there is a mystery too. The drops are bolted ... bolted with materials appearing to be about 30 years old. Who? When? Ummmm.

The next day we must choose between the 2 canyons left, for alas we have only 2 days left and one is needed for the 10–mile hike out and drive home. We hem. We haw. And finally pick the closer of the two. They look alike on the map, so we figure there is no difference. We have chosen Baboon Laughs for the day’s fare.It is a bit closer.

•  Baboob Laughs  •

The canyon appears guarded by big walls all the way up. We peer down into the depths and are very intimidated. Potholes when we can see and bottomless depths when we can’t. We are hesitant. Scared? You bet we are! We find the lowest walls and consider our future very carefully. Finally, we descend a steep ridge on rap or hand line and are building an anchor by the 120 foot drop to a midpoint ledge. Brian leans back ... something sticks him in the back. It is one of those 30 year old bolts!! I guess we are at the right place! Suddenly a tension releases. Its been done, this canyon. It is likely bolted. Disappointment and relief spar. We drop in. First 120 feet, then down a gully, then 150 feet to the canyon floor.

The canyon goes straight as an arrow, big walls above. Dry, sandy bottom shows places that could hold water right after storms. Three raps to 50 feet come at intervals. The rock is orange, the mood light. Tom finds and nurses a swallow out of a pothole. Wet suits go on. The canyon then darts left and right. The big walls recede. Potholes!! Many! One after another ... and those old, old bolts at all the right places. Much water, so not many challenging escapes. I think ... What a challenge it would be to do the canyon naturally. I think the old timers that put these bolts in had no benefit of the modern tools and ideas to spare the drill. We continue. This section is beautiful. Soon the canyon releases us and we hike to camp, dry gear, pack up, and do a bit more than half of the hike out that evening to jump start the exit the next day.

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I report back to Jason. Yes, by all means go. Not beginner canyons, but not super hard. Very pretty. Bolted anchors, old and scary, but there. But of course the report is for only two of the three canyons.

A month later, Jason carves out a time slot to head in. He brings a strong climbing partner named Mark. Jason, being Jason, is most intrigued by the undone Smiling Cricket. Of course he is. It looks just like Baboon, the other two are bolted, so logic says ... pretty easy, bolted, go, go, go! From such sensible thinking, epics are sometimes born. The casual start, in accordance to our recorded Baboon times. Then Jason falls ill in the canyon. Not super sick yet, but then the canyon ... the canyon reveals its true nature!! It is a monster!! Potholes! Then the mother of all potholes. Sure, the bolts are present, but this place is crazy difficult. Light fades. A bivouac. Then most of the next day is needed to finish what appears on the map to be a total of less than 2 miles. Potholes!! The eater of time! Sometimes ... the heart of fear! And so it was ... a war. They get out, barely averting a second bivouac and make their way the long way home. Battered, ill, triumphant ... and still without having done Dog and Baboon.

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Jason gets home and tells his tale. Intense. As always is the case, most shake their heads and say, ‘Never.’ Others lick their lips. I guess I fall into the latter and more stupid group.

Others sign up as well. I can only go in late October. Then? With 3–5 hours less daylight for what took others nearly two days? Ummm. Ten sign on in two groups. My group of three will come in three days before and do the other canyons again before the main event. The other seven plan to come in and do Cricket the first day. Meet? Join? Maybe. Leave it open. I plan to get a feel for the neighborhood and present conditions. Who to bring? Tom is back, naturally. I tantalize a few of the sport’s very best with teasers of the stories. Only one can ... and does. Steve Jackson AKA Spiderman. The five–day overnight is planned for the final days of my 21–day trip, with Cricket planned for day number 20. One might get the impression that I was stalling. One might have been right.

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So the day arrives. I join Nick and the Wolf for a crack of dawn Trail Canyon descent, then drive over to meet Tom and Spidey. They are late enough not to know that I was also late. I push hard for a 5th day for the trip and am granted it by my buddies. I want to miss nothing. Tom and I wanted a fourth partner, but alas, one of us has to carry in a rope. The bad news is that it is me. Our packs weigh nearly 50 pounds. Spidey’s pack weighs 20 pounds more. We make camp in fading light after 10 miles of hiking in the afternoon.

The next day is the Dog. Tom found it busier and nicer than he remembered. Spidey thought it good but was wrestling a bad premonition that he should be heading home. Without him, there would be no Cricket. He was also like a race horse that would sprint out if the reins weren’t held in. So anxious was he to get at Cricket. Me? I struggled with the heavier pack. After the better part of a week stemming in Leprechaun packs, I found the extra weight and bulk challenging. I was thrilled that I wasn’t in anything harder than the canyon I was in. Tom too. We called it ‘No Canyon for Old Men’ on this day.

Our substandard performance gave us cause for pause and we made plans to ramp up our game. Spidey still wrestled with desire to get after it and other anxieties. In the early AM we headed for Baboon. Knowing the way, some added intensity, lower water and suddenly we found ourselves through the canyon by late AM. We hiked out into the sun and and left our gear drying in the sun.

We had worked much better as a team. There was more work to be done this day though. We first planned to hike to camp, pack up, and head back to the drying gear. We had then planned to hike up to the canyon rim, set the 180–foot rap that Jason had found and camp up there. While getting us the earliest possible start into the canyon, this would have forced us to do the 1000–foot ascent, back to our sleeping gear, at day’s end—if we could make it out of the canyon. Not an appealing prospect. Truth be told, it was cold at night. The nights were long. The canyons were lower water compared to April but still quite wet. We were in terror of the bivouac prospect. Beyond miserable ... it might have even been dangerous. Spidey suggests and we signed onto the idea of to move camp to the base of the canyon, hike our now drying canyon gear, food and all, up to the rim, set the rap, and return to the base of the canyon—with the plan of repeating our ascent route up to the rim in the pre–dawn, half a day after scouting the route, pick up the gear, and then descend the canyon to our waiting low camp ... If we were lucky. If we were good. If the Canyon Gods allowed.

We established a base camp at the base of Cricket, packed our canyon packs, and explored a complicated route up toward hopefully finding an entry. Ramps, fins and ledges led up to two significant canyon crossings, which luck would have it, were right in the easiest line and appeared to be the only crossings. When we finally got to the rim, after 1½ hours, we spied a weakness a little below the spot Jason had used. Crossing joints, we worked our way, somewhat miraculously, down to a spot where our last man, Spidey, could slide/climb 10 feet into the canyon! Great news and a time saver. We were only 100 yards, perhaps a bit more, from the other entry.

We cached our packs and headed down the hill, landing in camp at the base at 5 PM after a full day’s work. Our other potential partners, who were coming in that day, were planning to camp at the rim, but we had no way to contact them. Looks like they would be on their own. We had heard that the numbers of the other group had dropped from 7 to 3 or 4. And as we relaxed in the afternoon sun and gathered water, they were on the slopes of Cricket. They called down to us. Us, up to them. Tried to let them know of our change of plans, but the words were lost in the distance. They came down to our camp and moved in. It was AJ, Jonas, and their friend Marty. They seemed miffed at our change of plan and having lost some of the hill they had climbed. Felt badly, but plans do change and there was never a firm commitment to join. Spidey and Tom, their intensity at fever pitch after our three–day build up, seemed disappointed at the solitude of our group of three being broken. This I took as not being personally aimed at our new camp mates, but more reflective of the preparations, a very real anxiety and uncertainty about the next day, and its potential for failure or misery. I felt badly for the tension. Hopefully it gets let go by all who were there as it’s just a common byproduct of canyoneering near the edge.

• Smiling Cricket  •

We decided that we would hike up to the rim, hopefully starting at 6 AM, with an eye for being at the canyon by 7:15 AM. AJ and his group decided they would leave a half hour before us because they had to carry packs up. AJ and group decided to take larger packs with some bivy gear. We decided that we would go light and fast and hopefully beat the clock. I slept well compared to most nights before a serious project. The next AM, the other group got out on time. We were 15 minutes late. Following a complex route in the dark, one we traveled 14 hours earlier, was great fun. With night hikes, one must really resist the ‘earlies’ and remain patient. We crested the hill at dawn and showed our traveling mates the entry. They were doing great finding their way in the dark, sight unseen, but I suspect that we could have saved them about 20 minutes with our help. Hope so, anyway, to make up for them dropping off the hill the evening before.

With our packs already packed, we had the advantage of needing less preparation time, so with rapping off of Spidey 25 feet into the canyon and spotting him, we entered the beast at 7:30 AM. There were no sign of footprints. I called ahead to my buddies, using our traditional mantra, on the burly day, “We are in it now!” At just short of a jog, we were off.

We have talked and lived the canyon for days before we went. Spidey for weeks. Our hope and plan is to ‘buy margin,’ time wise, by pushing hard through the place—save time and make distance now. Time to fiddle later when it gets hard. Jason said it was easy early and got hard late. I suspect that it does the same thing as Baboon ... gets hard when the tall walls recede. We know this is hours away. We slide into our roles quickly. We come to a drop into a pothole. Can Spidey climb or be captured going in? Do Tom and I have to rap or not? How hard is the exit? Spidey Matrix moves? Knee, shoulder stands? Pack or sand bag tosses? This is guess work for trained eyes. Miss and it costs time. Then the best way to get others out quickly ... Tom works rope and systems like a champ. One person, any of us, shoots forward to figure out the next hurdle.

A pothole comes. Spidey exits up off of Tom. I offer a knee to Tom. Spidey a hand from above. Tom flies up!! His knee flies up too. Right into my chin!! I fly to the side. I see stars. My teeth were rattled. No blood. This surprises. It is 5 days later and it still is very tender to the touch. If my tongue had been ...well it wasn’t. I am—we all are—reminded that ‘full speed ahead’ has its dangers. Focus. A slide into a swimmer with a natural bridge is noteworthy for its beauty. Keeper after keepers keep coming. We keep going after it. Rushing through such a place? A shame, at a very real level. Concern for time pushes the other direction. But something else is happening. A DEEP joy and bond develops. We are moving hard as a team. Teamwork is its own end and reward. We are loving the big puzzle of a canyon, as we are the pieces moving through the board with creativity and occasional inspiration.

I stand alongside Spidey, in a deep pothole. He eyes the rim and I see a plan form in his mind. He kicks his muddy shoes, low on the wall, to clean them off. Two globs of mud ... only two, fly up ... In a flash, each glob finds one of my open eyes! A miracle shot. The right one would tear for 45 minutes before washing out the last of the mud bath. Just lucky, I guess. Tom and I share a glance as we watch Spidey do his magic. He is born for a place like this. Every hole calls for a different approach. On two occasions, the acoustics in the canyon are just right and we hear our brethren, AJ, Jonas and Marty somewhere up canyon. They sound very close but then are gone.

After a bit less than two hours of concentrated work, I note the canyon walls start to recede. It has escaped no one. The final third of the canyon is ahead, with its reputation for difficulty, exposure, and danger. We slide into a groove, follow it 15 feet, and the bottom drops out. The oval shaped pothole is a deep one. It is the famed one. It is decided that we will take our time here and see if it can be passed naturally. We have bought our time margin. I am in the rear here and do not come forward to peek. This calls for my partners specialities, not mine. I will only make myself nervous. Sandbags come flying back to me. I sit in the pot and follow instruction. Fill half way. Little or no rocks. This proves to be slow work as the sand is mixed with two–inch stones.

The high bypass is commented on by my partners. There is no love in there voices. I wonder what the geometry of the place is like. I will find out soon enough, I’m sure. Spidey stems up about 8 feet. A bag hangs below the feet, coming from his waist. He works the pendulum ... first back, then forward, then back ... The release point must be perfect. I hear it is a long way. The tosses go. They come up short. They empty the bags a bit. A third full? One quarter full? Spidey up high again. I slip out of the pot with my camera. I catch the silhouette of him preparing and then tossing. The bag reaches and slips over a lip, far away. A few efforts with the second bag and it is also over. I have a third bag ready. They say, “Not needed.” I argue for it. Overkill and margin and all. I am out–voted. I give it up. I know my place.

Now I finally come forward. What I see inspires awe ... and fear. The drop is maybe 15 feet to the water. The water that will prove to be a swimmer. It is estimated at 18 feet, at an angle, over to the opposite lip. The pot is perhaps 24 feet wide at its widest. From the water to the downcanyon lip is 18 feet.The angle from water to the lip is maybe an 80 degree angle. Beyond the lip is flat slickrock section going downcanyon for almost 20 feet to the first hidden drop off. The ropes lead to this drop. The sandbags lay below, out of sight. Will they hold? We shall see. Spidey raps off of Tom. Confirms the pot as a cold swimmer. Strokes over to the ropes and starts to pull. The rope and hidden pots give a little. Spidey says, “It’s no good!! They will pull out.” Tom says, “Maybe. Often then need pulled a foot or two to catch.” Spidey tries this and low and behold!!!! The pot shots hold!!

Now all of us mortals would attach some ascending gear and gently jug out. But Spidey is not one of us. He goes to batmanning. Batmanning from underwater? Up an 80 degree wall? For 18 feet out of water and 24 feet all together? You’re kidding, right? No he’s Spidey! Quick as can be, he is up and out. I am in awe! Whoops fly about for a few seconds, then reserve reasserts itself. Business remains. Now Tom comes up with some innovation. He suggests an escape plan for me and Spidey builds it. There are two ropes coming from the downcanyon side. An etrier is attached to each. Each rope is attached to Spidey. One etrier is set at water level. I climb up the 6 feet. Then switch ropes, to the the other etrier, that is set 6 feet up from the water. Up I go. Then the other etrier is brought up the the right level and I switch back and forth from the weighted ropes twice each and voila, I am over the lip. Amazing! Easy! Then the packs are zip–lined over the pot. Finally, Tom anchors off a log, raps in, and stair–steps out. The ropes are coiled. I empty the bags conspicuously near the edge of the pot lip. I hope it is seen as evidence of our solution, for our friends, just a wee bit back upcanyon. The pothole problem, from arrival to moving on, has taken 45 minutes. Before we exit the area, I check out the bypass route up high. It is a frightening prospect. It appears that the second and downcanyon bolt is 25 feet above the rim of the pothole. The climb from bolt 1 to bolt 2 is near vertical. I understand there are 5 chipped hook holes leading up there. Up there where I hope never to go! Ever!

We are pleased with ourselves but aware that other challenges are just a ways downcanyon. We slow our pace and allow the place to soak in a bit more, feeling we have a margin of error not enjoyed earlier in the day. Several more escapes come quickly. A horn or a wart out the side bypasses the most fearsome looking pot yet!. Finally a bit of sun reaches down to us and we lounge and soak it in. Now the canyon starts a ferocious series of drops. Rap after rap. The anchors here inspire no confidence. The natural options are near nil. A grand finale rap lands us in a deep forested alcove. Land of the living revisited. The ropes are bagged a few minutes before Noon, after 4.5 hours in canyon of hard driving focus on the task. Naturally, we are in a jungle now. Poison ivy dodged ... hopefully. Spidey climbs a cliffy ramp and is out. Tom and I know that our shoes don’t stick like Spidey’s. Same brand, you say? Well, yeah, but it doesn’t work the same way for us. How does he do that? A short stroll and we are in camp. The suits and wet gear are laid out for drying on logs in the sun. The foam pads and tarps are stretched out, as are we. We start to eat all our backup rations. Lemon cookies are the valued prize. Exhale. A big one. Smiles. Even bigger ones.

By 3 PM, our gear is dry and packed up and we start our hike out toward the cars, over eleven and a half miles away. Spidey is still spry. I hold a place in the middle and act like I am waiting for Tom. Fact is I am beat up and tired. Finally we free Spidey to head home and hopefully get to church the next day. Tom and I hike almost ⅔ of the way out and camp a final night before exiting up and out the next day. Then the 8–hour drive home. A very satisfying finish.

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This getting out by noon on this supposed monster of a canyon ... I have some things to say about this. It might seem that we dispensed with it easily. This is far from the truth. We cheated. We were not canyoneering—we were Spiderneering. You haven’t heard of it? Well, I’m sure my words are inadequate in providing the image. If I knew how to work the video on my camera, perhaps it would reveal some of it. Tom and I pushed ourselves very hard. We made many contributions to the effort. And we were mostly carried on this fella’s back.

Another aspect of this type of canyon is ... one spot can grind the whole game to a halt. It has happened to each of the other parties at the monster pothole. Sometimes for many, many hours. Conditions were easy for us. Water was low. We had the luxury to set up our clever solutions in dry comfort. The lower water made the holes deeper, but we only had about half a dozen difficult swimming exits. The potential to times that by five is REALLY easy to imagine. And we were chilled in there, in these dry conditions, working as hard as we were. Imagine being slowed substantially while swimming much more. Then being benighted? I shudder. I shiver. We were one unsolved problem away from that. It has happened to talented groups in there already. It is a canyon that will show a different face every time. Usually when a place becomes known, it shrinks a little. Not this one. While my imagined obstacles have been put to rest, the memory of the real ones is sufficient to garner huge respect each time.

The throw that Spidey made from the high–stem over the pothole is estimated at 40–45 feet. Throwing is often one of my jobs. I wonder ... can I do that? What percentage of us can? I would never enter this canyon guessing. I would never enter this canyon without anchor experts. I would never enter this canyon without a strong back. I would never enter this canyon without a super climbing athlete. I would never enter it ‘cold’ either. By cold I mean ... Never with someone who wasn’t an old trusted partner. And just as important, not without a few days of ‘shake down’ together in other canyons nearby, before entering this one. It is quite the commitment too. I hope it is visited infrequently. Be less trouble that way. To get to the canyon head is 12.5 miles, with the last mile a 1,000–foot ascent. Throw in the warm up days ... sounds like a 5–day commitment following my advice.

One final note: the bolts in here are over 25 years old. They are in the watercourse. They are button heads. They were placed by climbers a long time ago. Even if one were to think that replacing all the bolts is a good course of action, it is tricky business. One time a bolt might be a few feet above a swim. The next time over a 20 foot pothole. The place defies easy definition. It is a chameleon ... always with the possibility of giving out a poisonous bite. Still my mind wonders. Done all natural? Complex potshot anchors and creative potshot retrieval. Take an overnight pack. Plan at least 2 days. Wear a drysuit for warmth. Now that would be something.

Finally, thanx and apologies to AJ who found the empty freeze–dried dinners I forgot to locate and pack out. Embarrassing. And many thanks to Jason, who shared the info and found this adventure. And like always, I owe you a good one. And love to my partners who know all the steps and dance so eloquently.

Ram

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