Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
Escape from Heaps
by Ram

It started as a diversion, on rainy days. It would, years later, evolve into a journey filled with fear, foolishness, laughter, despair. My head spins with the rapidity in which the ‘mood’ changed over a 5–day period. I will try and capture a little of it here.

Most two week Zion trips would invariably have a rainy day or two. We would wake, in the morning, take inventory of the weather and roll over and back to sleep. When we finally arose, we would tossed around the possibilities for the day. We would propose several options for the afternoon, guessing and hoping for that PM clearing. In the mean time, breakfast in town would be followed by a trip to the Visitor Center. I would go up to the backcountry desk and ask the person manning the station, for the Black Book. He/she would give me one of the two black books containing topos of many of the parks technical climbing routes. I would say “No, no, not those” and ask for the 3rd black book, the one with the backcountry routes. This loose leaf binder had many trip reports and route descriptions, some quite old, all very interesting. Reading the book, I found many routes that have become quite popular today, but were rarely done back then. Behunin, The Right Fork, Mt. of the Sun and Mystery Canyon were just a few of these.

My favorite reason for reading the book was to lose myself in the story of the first recorded descent (according to this report, anyway) of Heaps Canyon and the follow up descent. They were titled “The Devil’s Pit” and “In Search of the Devil’s Pit,” respectively. Throughout the 1980s, I would direct uninitiated partners, to a ‘sit down’ journey through these stories. At the time, we were—as a group—very far from the skill set necessary to tackle such a challenging canyon, or so the stories led us to believe. We were thoroughly entertained by the tale of tenuous log jams, frigid 300–yard swims, death trap potholes and dizzying 300–foot rappels, but scariest of all was ‘the Devil’s Pit.’

It was implied, in the story, that the canyon just ended against a blank wall. Seemed impossible and so we speculated about underwater passages and all fashion of unlikely explanations. The original descent team arrived at the Pit in fading light. They found themselves swimming, unable to retreat to dry ground and near panic. A small side canyon offered a possible escape. They set off to climb it, packs tethered by sling. Unable to see enough to negotiate the climb, they emptied their white gas container on a floating driftwood pile and lit it aflame. They then climbed the pitch by fire light, up to a ledge and a cold, wet bivouac. The next day up on top, they went looking for an escape route home. They only were able to go 20 minutes before a side canyon, draining into Heaps proper, forced them, cold and discouraged, to rap back into the wet and grueling wonderland. They negotiated the lower canyon and the big drops at the canyons end, wrote the tale, and headed home. It captured the imagination of the 2nd descenders and they went in search of the Devil’s Pit. They did not find it and had a relatively problem–free descent.

Where had it gone ... this Devil’s Pit?

Friend after friend would read the tale and shake their head in amazement at the ‘hard men’ lighting fires and climbing by them, in desperation. We attached a mythical reverence to the pioneers and to the place. I was comfortable with the fact that experiencing this magical place was not in the cards for me and my pals. I was never going to be skilled enough to go there. It felt OK to have such a place to worship, where us mortals fear to tread.

The years went by. Some youngsters, from an outdoor hiking/scrambling program I ran, came of age. These folks had more skills than their predecessors and soon the skill set needed for Heaps seemed to be on hand. Except for me, of course. But they insisted I come along. I can still pay my way—with instinct, route finding and a sense of timing—but only if they held my hand on the big wall descent.

It was decided. We would give it a whirl.

The group searched for a time everybody could go and the only time we could all make it was in the first week in March. This had me a tad nervous. We have always done off–season wet canyoneering, but for the unknown and mythical Heaps? It seemed a bit much and an added and a dangerous variable. A local fellow I know, who had done the canyon before, assured me that there would be no special difficulties with that time of the year. It was suggested that instep crampons and mandatory dry suits should do the trick. So it was planned—Bix, Vlad, Johnny B, Moe and I—5 souls to go. We would find out, later, that 5 was too many for this canyon. This was one among many logistical errors but onward naively we went.

As it was in the pre–shuttle bus days, we parked at the Grotto on a late afternoon, overnight permit in hand. We hiked up to the West Rim spring. No snow on approach and conditions seemed better than we had the right to expect. We camped at one of the West Rim campsites and had an evening of high spirits. I had trouble sleeping. Not like me, really. But this adventure was a step up in difficulty and I had read that damn story too many times.

The next AM had us up and packed early and off to the Gunsight Canyon, AKA, North Fork Heaps. This route in, the standard back then, is one that I have enjoyed. Some do not. It certainly doesn’t compare with the Phantom Valley approach, but is still has its charms. We left the trail and looped around the east side of the canyon head, avoiding brush and cliffs, and slipped back into the canyon. A rappel off of a block had us into what is the upper canyons main feature—a narrow slot, dropping from ledge or chockstone to ledge or chockstone, down, down, down. So narrow in places that the packs would become wedged while on rappel. Without the heavy packs, we probably could have downclimbed a lot of this section. This was before we figured out how to hang packs and, besides, the packs were a bit larger than what they should have been and would not have lent themselves to hanging them off of our harnesses. Naive mistake #2. Too much gear. Big strong Bix was carrying the 300–foot rope. He named it the pig. Accurate description.

As we were awaiting our turn on the second rap, something happened that has stuck in my mind: Bix, Vlad and I stood, facing down the canyon, and it started to snow. Temperature was in the 40’s and the sky was mostly blue. But like an omen, flurries came down hard from an isolated cloud. I remember that the 3 of us turned our heads just a little to look at each other. We all looked up, then back, toward but not directly at each other. A smile touched the corner of each of our mouths. Not a word exchanged. It stopped and down we went.

After the long series of narrow raps, the canyon opened in an amphitheater. A tough downclimb and a low–angle 100–foot rap led to a flat area. Moe, at 5’1” and lighter than the rest of us, shifted some gear over to us, so that everyone was moving at the same speed. A short rap off a boulder pinch into waist deep water lead to a quicksand section and a 2–stage, big rap of 240 feet back to the canyon floor.

A couple of miles of easy canyon, punctuated by 15–20 foot raps and some waist deep water, led us down to an open slickrock area with lovely potholes, 10 minutes above the Crossroads—a junction of 3 forks, emptying into and creating the main Heaps canyon. We lounged in the afternoon sun, feeling good about ourselves. We looked for a spot we could all camp together and, half way down to Crossroads, was a flat area of sand in the wash that looked comfy. We dropped out packs and hiked down to Crossroads for a peek down canyon. A short drop, off a tree, into a wet section lay beyond, but nothing out of the ordinary. Back to the packs, we set up a very large tarp over the site, ate dinner, and prepared our gear for the next—and we hoped—final day.

In the late afternoon, the sky grew gloomy. I am pretty good at reading the weather, but I was AWOL in my duties, here. The forecast had been real good and I just couldn’t imagine it being that wrong. Not naive, just stupid. After dinner, it went to drizzling. A look skyward showed just a thin layer of clouds. Not much meat to the storm, I thought. Why move our comfortable camp, in waning light, to a safer locale, when the risk was so minimal. Why indeed!

Under the tarp, we chattered with excitement about the next day. The rain became heavier. We threw out ideas for dealing with long swims and big raps ... so excited were we! It started to pour. We went silent. The sound of rain on the tarp dominating. After a period, someone, I can’t remember who, said “Maybe we should move camp?” To do so, would have instantly soaked all of our gear and ourselves. No one answered. Then someone did answer—I won’t say who—and I quote, “I would rather die than move!” This bit of stupid bravado broke the ice. The group descended into laughter that lasted a long while, and a quote was born—one used over the years—to be dusted off and brought out whenever a truly futile gesture was called for.

This, of course, had no effect on the rain, and the edgy feeling came back. With headlamps on, we gathered our shoes and gear together into neat, efficient little piles, as if ... we would be able to gather our stuff should an actual flood come through. Dumb, really dumb. The storm tapered to a steady but not too heavy rain, and everyone went to sleep. Everyone, except me. Already nervous and apprehensive, uncertain that I belonged here, I tossed and turned, listening to the rain and hoping not to get swept away and, if not swept away, hoping to be able to deal with the next day’s challenges. I had just become a new parent. This was my first ‘step out there’ since. I would drift toward sleep and then experience that state between awake and asleep, filled with dream and vision ... The vision would become frightful and I would groan or yell, on my way back to full consciousness. My buddies would start awake and ask “what the matter was” and I would mumble, heart racing, some scenario of doom. I was pleasant company. To their credit, they did not toss me out in the rain, but nor did they get to sleep for long periods in a row, as I wrapped myself in my anxiety over and over again.

The good news ... at 2 AM the rain stopped. The bad news ... it turned to snow. A wet snow. The tarp sagged. Being awake all night, I was the obvious one to keep pushing on the tarp, so the snow would slide off and not collapse the shelter. At 4 AM, the snow stopped, the sky cleared, and the temperature plummeted. The thermometer read 18 degrees at first light. 2 inches of snow lay on the ground.

We got up, snacked for breakfast, and put on our drysuits. The mood was positive, as we prepped for the day. I knew my high spirits were a lie. I was terrified as to what I would find. I have never asked anyone else about this moment, so I don’t know if I was the only one being dishonest. Packs packed, wet shelter crammed in, gear waterproofed, to the degree we knew how back then. The walk down to Crossroads was over a dry wash. I am still amazed and relieved that there was no overnight flow. All of the rocks seemed to have a thin coating of ice. Cause for concern. We wedged our feet between the rocks, rather than use their tops to hop on down. We were in for quite a surprise.

First, a minute from Crossroads, we felt a wave of cold. We were to figure out that the canyon bottom had a type of inversion and that the area around the bottom was 10+ degrees colder than just up the hill. When we arrived at the confluence, we found a world coated in ice. Trees, rock, slickrock, everything. Only a foot wide flow of water in the creek bed had escaped a thorough ice–over. A look down canyon revealed more of the same. It was both beautiful and terrifying. When we stepped on the apparently flat slickrock, we started to slide, like you see a car do during an ice storm on television news. We were unable to check our movement as we slid toward the drop. Scrambling to the side and holding trees, we tried to figure out what to do. The instep crampons we had, all had a big tooth in the center. Walking in them would be like a heel and toe on each side of a see saw. Worse than useless ... dangerous.

To date, I had not had my best performance. From picking a questionable time to be here, to sleeping in a wash during a storm, to keeping my pals up all night. Now I would perform my next act. To my eye, we were stuck. We couldn’t go down, we couldn’t go up, we were just plain stuck. Stay there until spring thaw or someone came for our sorry butts. I descended into a deep despair and hopelessness. I am embarrassed by this, but it is what happened. I sat with my hands on my head, slumped and depressed. My partners, to their credit, were upbeat. Probably trying to counter all my negative vibes. They realized that down canyon was out, but asked over and over, in an almost frantic glee, where we could escape to. I rewarded their optimism with despair and doom. It went like this:

THEM:  Which way out from here?

ME:  There isn’t one.

THEM:  If there was one, what would it be?

ME:  No way, nowhere!

THEM:  But if there was one, where would it be?

ME:  Maybe the Right Fork.

               THE MAP!!! Where is the right fork?

I stroll over, showing off, by pointing it out right away, then returned to my moping station. They are chattering wildly, circling the map. On purpose to get me back in the game? Maybe. Anyway, I ask to see the map and with 4 folks behind me, I look it over ... maybe ... maybe ... just maybe.

I know we can’t head up any of the three drainages. Dryfalls would quickly thwart us. But if we can somehow get into Upper Phantom Valley, we just may make it out. To the northwest, between the Phantom Fork and Gunsight Fork of Heaps, it appears less steep on the back and western side. So a plan is made. Climb up and take a peek. Tackle one problem at a time. Once a plan of action is made, I come out of my funk. I must thank my partners for their persistence and optimism in overcoming the negativity coming off me. It appears that the best line involves climbing 700 vertical feet to the ridge line. I am ready. I point out the line. I start. I notice that no one is following right away. Everyone wanders off in their own direction. When I asked some of them later, why they did this, they talked of needing some private time before the uncertain journey.

As soon as I got out of the valley, I found the sun warm and started to sweat. The climb was mostly Class 3 and 4, with one cliff band of 5.4. I flew up the hill. When I reached the ridge line, I noted that the others had started up, but were still well below. I did not peek over the backside. I sat down on my pack and let the sweat dry. I was too apprehensive to look. Finally, I took a deep breath and peeked. Steep but not too steep for 400 feet, then pretty easy all the way back to the main Phantom drainage. What then? Up canyon on the right was too steep. Further up the drainage, I could sense and feel another narrows and thought it unlikely. I hesitated again. Only one more option. I looked at the left side, up drainage. It looked like it might go, except for one spot climbing out of the drainage. A cliff that ended near a corner, but it was not certain that one could turn the corner. Another review of the whole area and it was apparent, that it was the only possible route. I waited for my friends. Showed them my idea.

We did a 100–foot rap, tree to tree and followed with a low angle 300–foot rap to where it started to flatten out. I was sent off first to go and scout the route. After the rap, it took some weaving and winding to keep it at Class 4, but I arrived at a round pool, between the two Phantom Valley narrows of Heaps Canyon. Up and behind me, the 300–foot rope has snagged on a bush when they tried to retrieve it. I plowed ahead and I mean plowed, as the brush was very thick. The corner I needed to see was 400 vertical feet above. As I approached it, what I saw was not encouraging. A steep forest led up to a cliff. By sinking my toes in, like I was on a steep snowfield, I balanced up the steep duff. When I was a few feet away from the cliff base, I noted that the steep dirt had slumped away from the cliff and had created a knife edge of dirt and moot of sorts between the arete and the base of the cliff. I delicately walked the arete of dirt, out the side, consolidating it gently with each step, full pack on, balancing from a ski pole, on the nearby wall, and, with one big step, turned the corner.

We were going to make it. Would there be problems? Yes, but nothing I could foresee stopping us. I climbed 20 feet up to a flat ledge on the edge of sun and shade, and bellowed across the valley, announcing that the road was plowed. A Loud cheer echoed across the valley and they returned to the task of unsticking the rope. It was 2 PM. We were strung out, on both sides of the valley, in the middle of nowhere and far from home and I hadn’t slept more than a few minutes at a time for 2 ½ days. I lay down and was out in seconds, the weight of uncertainty off my back for the first time in a long while.

An hour and a half later, I awoke to a yell. It was nearby. A comment from down on the dirt arete, questioning my sanity and a few other things. I was in a place I could laugh and I did. Offered to toss a line and reminded them they could all out climb me. Up they came, a tad white in the face and sat on my sleeping ledge. We chattering with excitement. Soon we were on our way. Passed a strange hoodoo. I wondered if any human had ever seen it before. We arrived at the side drainage coming from Incline Dome. When we dropped into the valley, we noted that the inversion was still in effect, as it was much colder down there. We found some water and set up camp. We were not sure how long we would take to get home, so it was decided to start rationing the food.

Among the things I learned that night was that a ramen, with extra spices, with 6 cups of water, split among three people, will fill your belly and fool your mind, but it will not fool your body or keep you warm. We had decided to ration the food but not the spirits. Not a good strategy to stay warm, but a good one to feel good. A lot of laughter ensued. Not sure it was funny, but we thought so. A perilously overhanging tree, right over our sleeping quarters, dubbed the Disco Tree (don’t ask why) was given super powers and kept the kiddies occupied. Had no trouble sleeping, at least until we all awoke in the middle of the night hungry and with cold extremities. I know, we asked for it. But it was universally agreed, it was worth it. More spirits and back to bed. The tension had melted away.

A look at the thermometer the next AM ... could that be right? 9 degrees? No wonder we were cold! Now the fun part. I reach over to my canyon shoes. They looked like they shrunk a little before being petrified. Frozen is one thing, but these things should have been registered as a lethal weapons. So in stocking feet, the neos and shoes are carried a 100 feet to the water hole. Or should I call it ‘Was a water hole?’ It was as frozen as the shoes. Using the shoes as a hammer, I broke the ice, along the edge. Hollow! Just air, where the water had been. Edged out a tad further onto the ice and bang, bang! Eureka! I dip the shoes and socks in the water, below the ice. The hole quickly starts to freeze over. I race over to a log, sit and put the socks and shoes on as quickly as I can, as they start to freeze again. I wrestled hard and long with that last shoe. My fingers were cracked and bleeding from the effort. Once on, my feet throbbed, screamed and protested. I went to doing aerobic dances. This would normally do the trick. It didn’t. Pack thrown together, I point. I say, “That way! See you in an hour” and start up the hill as fast as my lungs and legs will carry me. Soon, I am stripped down to a tee shirt and am pouring sweat. But the feet? They still ache with cold. A while later, in warmer temps, out of the bottom of the valley, I stop and I feel my feet zinging awake, slowly returning to normal. An experience, for sure. The next time I was faced with such a challenge, I had figured out that warming a pot of water to pour on the shoes and socks is a much more civilized approach.

Soon my partners arrived. Moe came first, pointing out that she was in love with this whacko crew and “when is the next trip?” You have to love that. It is about a decade later, as I write this, and she asked that same question this very week. She is signed on for part of this year’s May trip.

We were now in Upper Phantom Valley. Lots of animal tracks about. None were human. The route–finding had us weaving in and out of Gambel Oak forests. Near the pass, we ran out of passage and thrashed through the Oak for a good 5 minutes. A tad sliced and diced, over the top, we did go. The upper part of Right Fork was slabby and a bit steep. At one point, I dropped the pack and descended. It was a challenge to keep the difficulty at 5.0. One had to micro–route–find extensively to do so. A lot of down, over, up, over, down type of route–finding, a few yards at a time. I climbed back up and got my pack and joined my pals, who had set up a rap of 60 feet, to the north of the slabs. Thick brush to the rap, thick brush from the rap. Lovely! Next time, I’ll take the slabs. With a 100 feet of rope or so, one can lower or pull down the pack. Bring a good eye for route–finding though. We barreled down the sandy lower slopes and entered the south fork of Right Fork. What a surprise! The whole drainage is iced over! There is a large ice coated tree going down the small falls we encounter. On with the dry suits. Toss the pack. It breaks through some thin ice. I carefully slide over to the edge of the drop, hugged the log and rode it rapidly down and into the water. A couple of chest–deep wades and we are in the Right Fork proper, just as the canyon turns west. Familiar ground, at long last.

We had only one major concern left. We were almost a day overdue, it was getting to be late afternoon and we were almost 9 miles from a trailhead where we had no car. We did not want anyone coming to look for us. We needed to get out as fast as we could. I was the only one who knew the way out. This was also before the trail was well marked, on the path up the lava cliffs, in that final mile to the road. We could not get there before dark, in any event. It was decided to stick together, rather than have someone race for the trailhead. The rest of the day was spent descending the very lovely sections of this canyon. There was minimal ice. Several long swims, a boulderfield, a grand alcove, some spicy up and down climbs and one rappel, led us over Barrier Falls. The ½ mile section of waterfalls that follows, were exceptionally beautiful. We camped about 2 miles below Double Falls on a nice bench. The evening found us consuming all the rest of our food stuffs. Sort of a poor man’s banquet that tasted grand. A lot of silly laughter, as we reviewed the trip’s events.

The next AM, the 5th day of our 3–day trip, we were up early and hauled down canyon, then up and out toward the Kolob Terrace Road. Four tenths of a mile from the road, at 9 AM, we met a pair of state employed geologists. I saw my opportunity and broke into a bout of storytelling. They laughed in all the right places and announced, that as state employees they would do their part, in support of other government employees and shuttle me and another back to the visitor center, to stop any rescue that may have been planned or was under way. 45 minutes later, I was sprinting up the steps of the old visitor center and who do I meet running down? A backcountry ranger I knew and the fellow who had given us the permit. The serious look melted off his face and his shoulders slumped and real relief showed on his face.

I asked, “It hasn’t started yet, has it?”

“No,” he replied. “We were just leaving.”

Now it was time for the relief to show on my face. We shared a smile. Then he pointed to what little remained of my shorts and suggested that it might be time to change. There were some bemused tourists passing nearby. I couldn’t have cared less. I went, got the car, and retrieved the crew.

Thus ended the trip. Johnny and I would be back, joined by the Melon, less than two months later, for our successful descent of Heaps. A great trip with many memories of its own. We would have a close encounter with a mountain lion, find the canyon tippy–top full of water, breaking dams and starting waterfalls at every pothole, and figured out where the Devil’s Pit must have been—a log jam at a narrows obscuring where the canyon goes—and nervously executed the big wall finish. It would also rain at Crossroads again. No, we were not in the wash. In the ensuing decade, Heaps has seen a huge increase in traffic, from a descent or two a year, to a dozen or two a year, as friends of descenders followed friends of descenders down the canyon. Although the canyon remains a serious proposition, it has lost some of its mystical air though none of its stunning beauty.

It is those trips that go a bit wrong that are filled with the ridiculous and shows you sides of yourself—even ones your not proud of—that endure in the mind’s eye. The Escape from Heaps was one of those trips.


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