Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
FREEZEFEST XV — 2016–2017
Holy Water
by Ram

It was that time again. For seven straight Christmases, we had sought that sweet spot. The place where beauty is overwhelming and the concentration needed to deal with the danger that is inherent in winter canyoneering. First comes the 11–hour drive out. Timing the trip mostly between storms, I encounter only three whiteouts. This worked, in spite of briefly dozing while driving. YIKES! There was snow on the ground from my home in north central Colorado all the way to Hurricane, Utah. Then came the gathering of the tribe the night before. The real trick is to pick the right canyon to suit conditions. Some of this is guess work, some scouting, and some application of experience. In other words, more guess work. This year would prove more challenging than most years and bring to the fore the ability to adapt to circumstances.

Zion permits limited us to six souls and the ‘usual suspects’ would say yes. So when I found myself recruiting folks, it was a first. Tom Jones would be in Montreal, following his heart. Jonathan had tickets for the family in Switzerland. A check in with the BluuGnome had Luke with a commitment. So with three spots open, I opened the address book and scaned prospects for (word removed) the day of the year people are least likely to be available. The nucleus is Tim Hoover, Tre–C Kwan, and myself. Then Jonathan informed me that his trip has been rescheduled for January. He was in. Wes Grove signed on and came up from Flagstaff. Other folks, who said yes, eventually said no. We were five to go.

But go where? Years ago, I did a wonderful Engelstead/Orderville in February. This topped the list. Alternatives considered were Observation Canyon, Behunin Canyon, and Jacob Canyon. We would end up in none of them. First off , the snows fell heavy on the 24th above the valley. The snow totals up near Lava Point went from 36 to 63 inches of snow in the 24 hours into Christmas Day. Access to Engelstead or retrieval of the vehicle became dubious in deep snow. Observation Canyon has traverses, on steep ground, with fresh snow. That fell from the dance card. So did Jacob as ascent of Lady Mt. seemed unwise. This left Behunin.

The choice of Behunin, a canyon I don’t normally rate high, is FULL of challenges under snowy conditions. A VERY serious proposition and I am very excited to see the canyon dressed in its finest. Then we note that that Behunin permit is no longer available. WHAT? It was two hours ago! Someone take them? Park close the canyons? Not sure but it looks like you have to get the permit a certain amount of hours before the day you plan. Could have gotten it before, but not now ... at 8:30 PM Christmas Eve, we did not have a plan and barely an idea. Jonathan suggests a canyon that he has guided 100 times and two of our party did years ago. We decide on Water Canyon. It turns out to be anything BUT a consolation prize.

In the darkness of Christmas morning, with a sketchy forecast, we drove from Springdale down to Hurricane and all the way to Hildale/Colorado City. As we approached the canyon, we saw that the area has gotten more snow than the Zion area. Ut oh! Would we even be able to get to the trailhead? I followed closely behind Jonathan on the Canyon road, making fresh track through eight inches of snow. We manage to make the parking lot without getting stuck. Every foot I travel this day will be in a place I have never been—a new place on the planet, for me.

Jonathan broke trail, Wes on his heels. Tim followed closely. I was in the rear chasing Tre–C. It snowed. Then snowed harder—the world blanketed in deeper snow. With each uphill, the snow was growing even deeper. A wonderland it was. The access trail along the canyon lay close to the drainage up on steep slopes. I wam sure the exposure was real when dry, but in these conditions, it felt like full–on alpine conditions. A slip or a snow slope collapse could be your last ride. Caution was taken with each step. Time passed as we climbed higher. Jonathan knew the place and ascertained that entering at the top of the mid–canyon section was what the time and conditions allowed for.

We pounded out platforms in deep snow, so that we could change into dry– and wetsuits according to preference. It was snowing hard. The wind reached us on our little perch. It was freezing and we were in various states of undress. This was quite crazy. Only self–deprecating laughter would do. I mean, it was hilariously stupid. Harnesses on and we did something for the first, but not the last, time on this day. We did full belays out to every anchor. In fact, even with extra ropes, we did each rappel as a group one–at–a–time. On the rap into the canyon, looses spin drift avalanched on us. Under dry conditions, it is my understanding, that escapes are easy and plentiful. Not today! Our tracks from approach disappeared quickly and lateral escape was desperate looking. We were in it now!

At the entry and for the next few hours, we plowed through snow estimated at up to 26 inches deep, with drifting often a foot deeper. We avoided water for a drop or two. We would do 9 raps altogether. We were thankful for Jonathan, for he knows where the anchors are. They were buried in deep snow and without him, I wondered how we would have managed to find them. The snow was piled up horizontally toward the edges of drops ... except the ground, 2–3 foot below, slopes down and over the edge before the surface snow ends. Without the belays, approaching edges would have been reckless. Soon the water and swimming would be unavoidable.

I have done my share of winter water canyons, ice breaking, log soup, and all manner of it. On this day I experienced something new—slush water. No surface ice to break—was that because the canyon still had a slow flow? Water was a bit brown too—mixed in sand? Makes icing over slower to occur? Regardless, 1–2 feet down from the surface, the water would best be called slush. Sort of like plowing through deep oatmeal. As you moved into it, it would pile up in front of you and become like cement hardening. I found my only way through, especially on point, was to use my hands, fingers webbed as much as possible and push the sludge down 3 feet, to where it dissolved, to some degree. This was slow, cold, tedious work with numb hands resulting. One time, alone on a swim, I moved two feet–a–minute across a 12–foot swim in a narrow corridor, finishing out of breath. More often than not, a partner offering a rope, aided the swimmer out of the hole they were in. A reminder to thank my friends who did most of this work during the day.

Our efforts kept our core warm, but extremities would go numb and then get warm again. Warm teas and soups, rich in calories, kept the engines going ... but we could feel that there was a limit to this type of exposure. Some of our ropes ended up uniformly coated in ice and were no longer easy to control speed on. We had almost a rope per person. We envisioned setting up multiple drops, at the same time. But the extra rope ended up having a different use. As ropes froze, new ones came out for use. Reserve ropes became a hedge against a new danger not considered at days start—slick and frozen rope. Our packs became much heavier, coated in ice balls. Carabiner gates began to ice over and became harder to open. There was never a feeling that we were in over our heads or of conditions worsening to the point of real trouble. Just these observations, as reminders, that little things add up and there is a tipping point, somewhere out there.

The final 100–foot rap was done. An awkward one, with a dripping ice shower, along with self–created snow avalanches and a deep crack to try to avoid going too far into it. We started our hike down, amazed that our tracks from just a few hours earlier were gone and the route taken was barely discernible at all. Arriving at the cars, we saw a truck off the road, almost in the ditch, blocking the road home. His pals pulled him out. One of our vehicles would not start ... fuel line? Gas gauge malfunction? Gas was gotten at the Border Store, which was remarkably found open on Christmas Day. Gas cans bought and filled. The drive back to Tim and Susan’s went quickly after the two–hour delay.

Nine of us feasted on a variety of tasty dishes. There was no reason to tell lies. The reality was quite engaging enough. Everyone who went was enchanted by the experience. Another view into the unexpected and beautiful, requiring our full attention. Safe to say, all want back again a year from now. By morning, everyone scattered to the winds. Wes and I headed to FreezeFest. His father, Chris, joined us the next afternoon for a short canyon, the fest’s first. At the fest, many would comment on how dry and snow–free the event was. Wes and I would smile. We knew where the real FreezeFest was to be found this year. I was enthralled by our Christmas tradition, once again. A mind’s eye, filled with images and new lessons. A real blessing. Lucky am I.


Tales of FreezeFest:
Perfect Beginning • Ram
Escape from Canyon X • Tom Jones
FreezeFest II • Ram
Logjams in the Black Hole • Ram
Fixed Ropes in the Black Hole • Dave Black
Joining the Shenanigans Club • Ryan Cornia
FreezeFest III • Ram
Cheese on Ice • Ram
FreezeFest IX (short film) • Dan Ransom  
Crystal Kaleidoscope • Ram
Christmas in Imlay • Ram
A Left Fork Christmas • Ram
Call of the Wild • Ram
Mysterious Christmas • Ram
Holy Water • Ram
A Christmas Heaps • Tom Jones

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