Canyon Tales
Frogs and Coyotes
by Julien Sénamaud

— A rambling USA trip report —

Right, here it comes, after so many requests: the USA trip report of Julien, otherwise known as Kiwifrog. Let it be known that all characters are real even though I wish some had been fictitious, that the opinions expressed are solely from the author, and that you can erase the whole damn thing by pressing ‘delete’ on your keyboard. Warning: this posting has the potential to be long, annoying and boring. Amen.

• The Hard Work •

Don’t you just hate it when, on the way from New Zealand to L.A., you have to stop in French Polynesia because that was the cheapest ticket? Where it’s 30° C (for you unconverted folks, that’s about 73° F) in or out of the water? Where the food is fantastic, the people are beautiful, and speak your own language? Where the customs let you in if you have:
      1 – the right visa/passport
      2 – and the right visa/mastercard/amex

Acutally, I lasted only one day and a night there, mostly due to requirement number 2, but saw that the potential for canyoning there is pretty good, with very steep volcanic mountains, loads of water, and plenty of waterfalls. Anyway, I had a mission, and my mission was to get to the States for 4 weeks of play, er, I mean, work: catching up with Rich, doing as many ACA courses as I could, and bolt the crap out of every canyon I would set my eyes upon. Oops, did I just write that? Must be a slip of my French tongue.

• The Danger Zone •

Canyoning is easy. Driving tired and jet–lagged on a busy Phoenix freeway on the wrong side of the road in a rented car—where the windscreen wiper controls, however hard I try, are definitely NOT the indicators—isn’t easy. Despite the odds, I survived the air–conditioned journey to the campsite near Globe, and made it in time to meet the very motley crew of Rich and his ACA level 1 students: some were from Arizona, some from overseas (Chile, Israel), and some from another solar system (Kansas City). It was pretty much straight into the deep end, with various workshops and tasks reminding me that I was long overdue for a refresher. Knots were tied, untied, and retied. People, especially the ones from NZ, got stuck passing knots. Laughs were had, systems and ‘tools’ were taught, beer was drunk, and good old American food was ingested.

The weather was pretty mild—it was hardly freezing at night—which at some stage encouraged a party of 2 silly canyoners (including myself) to look for some other silly (and belated) canyoners all through the night, in the midst of pleasant vegetation (Arizona cacti) and even more pleasant landscape (cliffs, drops, and the lot). So warm was the weather that we decided, around 3 AM, to call it a night and have a comfortable bivy (wetsuit on the rocks) and a 3–course meal (3 muesli bars). I still suspect this kind of epic is standard part of the ACA rescue training course.

Anyway, some canyoning was done too. Salome Jug, very pretty granite canyon with a few good jumps and slides. Rich had been building up my reputation as a keen jumper, so I had no choice but to try to throw myself off every rock to prove my point. Definitely a canyon to do with a lot of water, as some of the landing pools were a bit on the shallow side! Bend ze knees, as we say. Great scenery, and, for a sun– and warmth–starved Kiwifrog, it was a relief to actually see the sun! Don’t quite know how places like Phoenix can exist, though: 3 million people, 200 golf courses, all that in the middle of the desert, with intense heat and sun! Back home, that paradox was even more obvious when, the other day, I saw the news about the ever–growing fires affecting areas were the courses took place. Not a good time to be a tree or a wooden house out there right now.

• There Is Water in the Desert •

Level 2 started with less people than on level 1. More knots were tied, retied, and untied, less people got stuck passing knots, more laughs were had, more systems and ‘tools’ were taught, more beer was drunk, and more good old American food was ingested with complete disregard for our health.

We all went to Crystal Canyon, a short, beautiful, warm–spring–fed canyon, with a bit of a rap/walk down on the way in, and walk up/jumar up on the way out. As far as canyons go, that was the warmest water I’ve ever dipped my delicate skin in. Managed to get some good jumping done, although there was no way one could jump some of the raps without breaking a few bones. A fair amount of water was present, which turned the place into a warm bubble bath. Even though those 2 canyons were short, they were very beautiful, and no other party was encountered, which was a big bonus for a European canyoner. Interesting fauna too, in and out of the water. I got very accustomed to seeing the fish at the bottom of the pools, but more on that later.

Level 2 was followed by the Canyon Rescue course, taking place near Payson. Back then, forest fires were already gaining ground and we had to improvise the course location on a regular basis to make sure our wetsuits wouldn’t melt on us. 3 days were spent lowering, hauling, and carrying people, and when none of that worked the knives would come out. Great time and good location. Memorable quotes were heard, most notably from Dave from Phoenix (sorry mate, I couldn’t possibly keep this one quiet):

“So, Julien, that rope bag, what was it before it was a rope bag?”

“Well, Dave, I had it custom made.”

“I understand that, but what was it before it was a rope bag?!”

“Er, well, it was a whole lot of nothing, since it was custom made, Dave.”

“Alright, alright, but what was it BEFORE it was a rope bag???!!!”

“Hmmmm. Well, the guys took a sheet of PVC and cut it to my measurements, did this and that, and voila! Rope bag!”


At that stage I was ready to talk about the Genesis and to tell him the truth about babies, but luckily it was time to hang ourselves again. That interlude really convinced me that during that conversation we each thought that the other guy was from another planet.

After the challenges of the Rescue Course it was back to school for the Canyon Leader Exam, with a bit of canyoning thrown in, in the West Clear Creek area near the Mogollon Rim. I hadn’t been in a keeper pool for a long time, so the experience was invigorating, especially in 38° F water. One more reason to do canyons with moving water: the current sweeps you straight into the next waterfall, no worries, no hooking.

• There Are Also Things to Burn
in the Desert •

The aspirant–Canyon–Leaders all went their merry ways, while Rich and I returned to Phoenix for our weekly shower (yes, we do shower separately), before meeting Dave Black in Payson for the Guide Course. By then the fires were blocking everything and everyone, so quite a bit of theory was done. The walk down to Crystal Canyon was so enjoyable (NOT) that it was decided to do it again to escape the heat of our theory classes. And the heat we did escape, as I managed to do 3 deep dives (20–25 feet) in some dark pools to retrieve, in chronological order: an empty rope bag, a rope bag with a rope in it, and my sunglasses. You might doubt my abilities as a canyoner, but you can’t tell me I can’t dive. So here’s my advice:

Always tie both ends of the rope to the rope bag. Never let go of your rope bag, especially if it doesn’t float and you haven’t tied one of the ends of the rope to it (see above). Always use a floating rope bag. Never jump with your sunglasses on your nose, stupid!

The Guide Course was good fun and a very good learning experience, and Dave’s good company proved that there are decent people in Utah, even though you can’t have a keg of beer there (I don’t drink the stuff anyway).

Back to Phoenix for, you guessed it, the shower, and then off to Cedar City. The excuse was to give Rich a hand with his moving to good ol’ Utah. Nice spot, and 1 hour to Zion, which was my next destination. The place sure has changed a lot. The shuttles have taken away the traffic jams, as well as the alpine starts. After getting 245 permits and having a complete personality check by the powers that be, I was finally allowed in the Temple of Canyoning I have been hearing from on the e–group for the last 2 years. Well I had been there before in 1999 actually, but with family and no gear so that doesn’t count.

• Zion is Alright •

I’m not a big fan of solo canyoning, so I went for a walk up Angels Landing to check out the topography of the place. I was quite impressed at the crowds up there, as well as the exposure. Good fun and interesting to see that the park has set up such a thing when you hear of all the liability issues here. Anyway, that was the morning walk, and the afternoon was still full of promises, so I went for a visit of Pine Creek. After trying to follow the guidebook advice on entering the canyon via some ledges, I decided ‘stuff it!’ (in French) and went for the simple and new option of following the stream from the start rather than dicking around. Nice rock, very grippy compared to limestone or volcanic canyons. No wonder some folks view canyons there like rockclimbing routes. Very dry, so no jumps for me this time. Some snakes, a few American death triangles, a couple of funky bolts, and a shitload of slings everywhere.

I never commented on the e–group on the bolt issue in Zion because I had never been in canyons there. All I can say now is that poor bolts, badly placed bolts, and slings have caused damages to the rock like I have never seen it before in the hundreds of canyons I have done in my life. With the right techniques and the right placement, those damages would be minimal. And let’s not kid ourselves with the fact that it could go natural. The place is too close to the road to stop the crowds from going in so there will be bolts. They might as well be good ones. Access is the major cause of bolting, and it looks like a lot of the Zion canyons are fairly accessible. So many people come to Zion for canyoning now that we can’t expect them to know everything, including anchor placement. Nuff said, like Brian Cabe would say.

Did I say Pine Creek is beautiful? Well, it is. I even managed some kind of jump into a pool after the canyon proper so I was happy. On the way out of Pine Creek I met a bunch of Boulder canyoners, some of them lurkers on the e–group and keen fans of Tom’s and Shane’s websites. Sounds like the ‘secret circle of few’ is turning into a ‘well–know square of many,’ as a friend from Phoenix–Cedar City could have said. Scott, Steve, Mark, and Arne didn’t mind a lonely Frenchman joining them on their adventures, so Subway was planned for the next day.

Another sunny, perfect day, like it had been since I left New Zealand. The walk down to Subway is absolutely stunning, with huge expanses of slick rock. Very unlike home. The Subway section itself was cute, but the walk out kind of spoilt the fun. The evening before, we had toyed with the idea of doing the ‘Das Boot’ variation, and in hindsight I wish we had. If I was to do it again I would do that plus the Subway, and then walk back out on the top access walk, rather than walking all the way down and out.

The next day dawned clear, of course, so we headed to Mystery. The walk down into the canyon was a lot of fun, har har har. Probably the most dangerous part of the trip. Once the bullet–dodging game was over, it was time for some canyoning. Man, I wish that canyon had water in the upper section, it would be a crazy succession of big jumps and waterslides. Still fun though, and some nice downclimbs past museum pieces of anchors. I managed to convert my three companions to single strand/biner block/rope bag strategy, which made for smooth travel in the increasing heat. The springs were a welcome sight, and so was the unique jump of the trip. The moment of fame came soon after that, getting the camcorders of the sunburnt hikers working while we rapped into the Narrows. The Narrows, now THAT would be a fun trip to do in very high water, if it was ever allowed.

What to do with the next day? Rest or canyoning? Well, my team was heading back home and the weather looked dodgy, so I decided to go and have a little solo look at Keyhole before heading back to Phoenix myself to catch my plane the next day. However life is what happens when you had other plans, and at the permit booth I just happened to queue in front of Steve Brezovec and Scott Holley. Shrinking planet. This is where the e–group comes handy. I looked a bit silly with my Keyhole permit in the hand when they were asking me to join them in a descent of Upper Telephone and Behunin. How could I have turned that away?

Two hours of brisk walking, and many bad and/or dirty jokes later we were at the top of the mesa, drenched in sweat, and ready to go.

Interlude: I can confirm anything that has been said about the potty humour of the said pair. We navigate in the same murky waters, and I enjoyed it tremendously. End of interlude.

Upper Telephone is a sweet canyon, with a very spectacular start straight off the mesa. Big abseils, some tricky downclimbs, luckily body–belayed by Spiderman Steve, some shiny Long Life (!) Petzl bolts that could be pulled out by hand (who the hell placed those?), some BDC–in–SLC bolts, artistically painted, and some junk—not too much—in a very impressive canyon. Smooth travel with a very competent team well–versed in ‘Euro Canyoning’ (single strand, rope bag, contingency anchors, etc). I felt like in Mystery: some of the drops would be awesome jumps or slides with running water. I really recommend this canyon, even with the walk in. Telling poor jokes on the Angels Landing Trail will turn that hike into a walk in the park. Ask Steve, Scott, or me.

Catching up with our water cache we started down Behunin. Apart from the top section, I agree with Joe Wrona’s comment a while ago: Behunin is not a great canyon. However, if you don’t want to walk back down the Angels Landing Trail it is an OK option. I guess there are other options as well, including BASE jumping if you are in a hurry. Anyway, Behunin looks more like a very wide chimney than a sculpted canyon. Also, it had heaps of webbing at every drop which we added to our collection of trash. The worst was at the last rap, where webbing had been threaded through the chain. I had seen that before at the big rap in Mystery, but it was still puzzling.

After the free–hanging delights of the rap we all felt like running down the track to the road which we did. Back at camp, we realised that we still had a couple of hours ahead of us and that I still had my Keyhole permit. So, off we went for a cute finish to the day. And no, it wasn’t that cold, and I wasn’t even wearing a drysuit like my two friends, just a wetsuit. At least, I didn’t look like two identical garden gnomes. They told me Heaps (or was it Imlay?) is like Keyhole, but much, much longer, so that is definitely something I will want to do next time. At the time, Scott and Steve were talking of doing Imlay and Heaps in one day. Did they succeed? And if yes, when did they run out of jokes?

Oh, I forgot to mention the cigar. Actually, I didn’t mention it because, for once, Steve didn’t have his celebratory cigar with him. Talk of travelling light. I guess it’s one of those Utah rituals to which I haven’t been initiated yet.

That trilogy completed my stay in the US in a great manner, so it was hard to get going and try not to miss my plane the next day in Phoenix. I made it, bleary–eyed and smelly, just to make sure the custom officers would be happy to get rid of me.

‹› ‹› ‹›

A few thanks here, as in any good ceremony:

To the Kansas City team who proved that humour knows no borders. To Eshed, who managed to stay dry even in the wettest canyons, and who is a living proof that you can fall 30 feet on your back with hardly any brain damage. To the other ACA students who coped well with a bit of French arrogance. To Dave Black for being nice to strangers. To Mark, Arne, Steve, and Scott for taking care of a poor lonely canyoner. To Steve and Scott for ... oh well, never mind. You know what I mean.

And, last but not least, to Rich Carlson for all the help and good humour, for doing such a good job with the ACA courses, for teaching me a few things, for showing me the country, and for letting me drive his truck even though I’m a damn foreigner.

We should do that more often, visiting each other’s turf. Take care you all, and no doubt I’ll see some of you again very soon.

July 20, 2002

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© 2002 Julien Sénamaud