Canyon Tales
The Search for
Canyon Light

by Mike Dallin

Sometimes, getting there is just half of the adventure.

I began the long drive out from Boulder, Colorado after work the day before. I was to meet Charly and Ram at a campsite near Capitol Reef. They both left several hours before me, and I expected to arrive much later, perhaps after 10:00 p.m. As it turned out, I overshot the hidden turnoff to the campsite and went on an adventurous drive across under–construction dirt roads for 10 miles before I realized my mistake. Thanks to Charly and Ram’s slower pace, I managed to find the campsite just 10 minutes after they arrived.

We woke early the next morning, and drove to a restaurant in Torrey to meet several other canyons groupers: Steve, Scott and Marty. We arrived abysmally early and kept ourselves entertained by stalling the waitress and imagining that any of several groups of families or seniors dining was Steve, Scott and Marty—all three of whom none of us had met in person. Soon enough the real Steve, Scott and Marty arrived, and the usual trip reports, gossip and bullshitting began in earnest. It didn’t end for a few days.

Then we were off. Our plan was to rendezvous at the Egypt trailhead, camp somewhere in Fence Canyon, and descend Neon. So we, now a caravan of four vehicles, raced over Boulder Mountain, across the Grand Staircase Escalante, and eventually the infamous washboarded Hole In The Rock Road. Our raucous group kicked up enough dirt to make any dust storm proud.

And at the turnoff from Hole In The Rock to the Egypt trailhead a bad car moment occurred: after a sudden violent fishtail, chunks of earth spewed from my tire well, followed shortly by chunks of rubber. Yes sir, a blowout. I was last in the caravan, and everyone else had turned off and continued on, blissfully unaware of my predicament. No worries, luckily I had a full tire as a spare—though a little low on air—and shortly I was back in business. I caught up with the group at the head of Egypt 2, where we marveled at my destroyed tire and relief was expressed that nobody had to drive back for me after I disappeared. A few minutes later we were at the Egypt trailhead, where we sorted gear, overloaded ourselves with various heavy ‘treat’ foods and a hefty amount of beer, and began the hike down to Fence. We signed out at the permit registration board, where somebody spray painted ‘boink BLM’ on the regulations sign.

Ah, canyon country!

Ram led the way, and expertly negotiated the small trailless draws and slickrock domes. He brought us down benches, where the trail was a little more defined. We met Dave Black and partners, who were headed out after descending Neon. After a brief chat we wished them well and soon reached the lush oasis of Fence. The trees barely sprouted spring leaves, and the small babbling brook that was our water source added tranquility to the scene. We replaced that tranquility with beer drinking and more bullshitting late into the night. With the warm temperatures, we forwent tents and slept in the open.

•  Neon Canyon  •
Charly O, Marty, Mike D, Ramooski, Scott H, Steve B
April 07, 2002

We were up at first light. We groggily packed, while Steve and company boiled water for coffee. Entirely too late—mostly because of my slow–poke attitude—we headed out.

Just two minutes into our adventure, and we had our first Escalante River crossing. It was knee deep for us tall ones, and waist deep for the short ones. With gear—and in some cases clothing—held high above our heads, we stepped into the outrageously cold water. We would cross the river again before reaching the mouth of Neon, and, on that second crossing, my splashing went a little too far, leaving my clothes drenched.

We woke a young couple camped at the mouth of Neon. After a few minutes of hiking and rude jokes (a common theme for the trip), we reached a steep slope and benches that would allow access to the rim on the north. We finally saw the sun and stopped to apply sunblock. After this point the route was level hiking on well–trodden trail with views into Neon below. We marveled at Neon Dome across the canyon from us.

A few miles down, past what Tom Jones lists as an upper drop in point for Neon, the trail became sparse—only one or two sets of footprints. After some discussion of finding a new route, we opted for Ram’s known route and took a left turn to hike up a side drainage. Below the head of the drainage, we hiked to a small pass in the ridge top then down ledges and benches on the other side. Some were loose, and I broke a large chunk of ledge off during my descent and barely avoided crushing my ankle in the process.

The ledges soon gave way to slickrock. We crossed another drainage, and rested in a ‘sun/shade spot’. We walked on the open slickrock rim up canyon, found a lower 5th class downclimb, and finally reached the floor of one of Neon’s larger tributaries. Our plan was to hike down this side canyon and rendezvous with the main drainage of Neon below. While we rested, Steve and Marty explored a short side canyon, which led back to the rim. They found a downclimb into our side canyon above us and hiked back down to meet us. Charly examined and fixed a leaky water pouch.

After lounging in the sun, it was time to go. We skirted several small potholes, one of which had a natural bridge in it. We downclimbed the first rappel using a nice layback and a controlled slide combination. A little more hiking and we came to another drop, a rappel off of a single bolt. Not knowing the water situation below, we donned our wetsuits—for the most part, simple farmer johns. Charly set the rope length, using his new bright orange experimental Bluewater rope, and we rappelled single–strand.

Below we traveled into a section called Tribourgh Bridges, which contained fabulous narrows, some dark, all well sculpted. We passed many natural bridges, small arches, corners and short downclimbs. A small keeper pothole required boosts and good friction technique to escape. The water level was very low and, while we swam a little, the taller among us got by wading on tiptoe. After more hiking, we reached another short section of narrows, easily bypassed. Ram knew of nobody who had navigated this section of narrows, due to possible keeper potholes at the end. That sounded like a challenge to us, and Steve, Marty and I took the bait. The rest of the group remained at the rim with a rope should we need to escape.

So we downclimbed into the narrows. Near the top was a logjam, and twisted around one of the logs was an ancient piece of webbing. It was obviously slung around the log at one time, well above the narrow section, and a flash flood brought it here—as there was no need to rappel from this point. I removed it, and we pressed on. The narrows tightened dramatically to a few tight squeezes. And looking back, I finally saw it.

The majority of photos in slot canyons have a blue tint to them because there is no direct sunlight shining to the floor. We arrived at this point midday, when the sun blazed down, and it reflected red and orange through the narrows—canyon light, the best time to take pictures. After a few shots and more tight narrows, we came to the first pothole, which Marty managed to climb. Using some slings for leverage, I made my way out. Steve followed sans slings. We downclimbed to a second pothole and managed some mantle/beached–whale maneuvers to escape. Steve climbed out at a different spot, a hard–looking bouldering problem that involved a bit of a dyno. Above that were no footholds to speak of. Scott jumped into the pothole from above and repeated the problem.

Reunited with the rest of the group, we continued down canyon. We passed several inviting side canyons, used by Tom and others as entrance routes. We saw many small logs wedged in the canyon above us. We reached another short section of narrows, with another keeper pothole. There was a bolt above that we could stem to and rappel from, thus skipping the pothole, but we opted to rappel directly into the pothole from a slung chockstone and attempt to escape. We leaned a log against the exit and tossed a pack with slings over the lip to aid climbing. Marty climbed first and stayed behind to help the others out. Beyond the pothole, murky water reflected the sun. A single white feather floated by. We played with a large spider (who was missing a leg) while the others climbed out of the pothole.

Shortly we arrived at the infamous ‘two scoop ice cream’ keeper pothole near the end of the canyon. This large pothole is normally filled with sand, but recent storms scoured it and dropped its level five additional feet, making it hard to escape from. The water was waist to chest deep and completely opaque with mud and silt. We rappelled off of a large slung arch. Ram tossed a trekking pole down, which was subsequently lost in the water and muck beneath, never to be found again. A few logs aided escape, but some of us required a helping hand. After a 150&ndsah;foot walk across slickrock—where somebody scratched ‘mary and john’ in the canyon floor—we reached the often–photographed Golden Cathedral.

The Golden Cathedral will likely always be a controversial place. It is clearly one of the hotspots for the bolt debate. It has been bolted several times, and someone has removed the hangers and pounded the bolt studs until they are unusable every time. We located several such bent studs, along with a web of slings around a large chokestone leading to the edge.

Charly and I rigged a lowering system to set the rope length, but the slings were 1 inch short of the drop, which meant the rope would pinch against the lip while lowering—something to be avoided. In the end, we used the ‘uncoil and toss method’ and rappelled double–strand.

Sometimes hikers will watch rappellers from below. That day no hikers were present, but the first of us down greeted the rest of the group with flashbulbs. Once again, the water was low, perhaps waist deep. After a rest we removed the wetsuits and hiked out. We reached camp exhausted but happy with the day’s excursion.


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© 2002 Mike Dallin