Canyon Tales
by Scott Patterson

I first gained an interest in the canyon in 1995 when Steve Allen, a well known hard–core canyoneer (who wrote three books on canyoneering), published a page on the upper section of the canyon. He said that to descend the canyon there is “much bouldering—short, hard moves ... class 5 climbing ... the route is a tad hairy at times; no beginners.” It sounded all right, but that’s not what attracted me to the canyon. I knew it was a really spectacular area scenery–wise too, but it was a sentence near the end of the trip report that caught my attention:

“After a long stretch of easy narrows, there is a beautiful set of deep potholes you cannot descend.”

It was that phrase that attracted us to the canyon. (We have also speculated that often when Steve Allen says something is impossible, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been there.)

In the national parks, for example, we had come to learn that, to pick the best trips, you find the most knowledgeable ranger out there, strike up a conversation, and asked him/her if there is any where in the park that is impossible to get to. If they say yes, then our response is always the same. “Sounds cool. Will you give us a permit?”

There was a second reason I wanted to do the canyon. Michael Kelsey, the author of several local guidebooks, as well as the  Climbers and Hikers Guide to the World Mountains, had been doing some really difficult canyons for quite a while and placing bolts in them. He had often said similar canyons were impossible without bolting them up, so I invited him along so he could see how we have done such ‘impossible’ canyons without bolting them up. So not only did we want to do a canyon that was called impossible, but we wanted to do it completely clean and without placing a bolt and degrading the incredibly pristine conditions the canyons in the area were in.

We met Michael late Friday night with Bob Jansen and Mike Kempt. After a restless night of sleep with very high winds and blowing sand, we started down the canyon. Everything went well through the first half. A few short 5th–class downclimbs, a few rappels, some swims, standard canyoneering stuff. We reached the ‘impossible section’ with out any difficulty.

The impossible section is where the going got real interesting. There were six potholes right in a row that must be negotiated. We rappelled in to the ‘impossible section’ and downclimbed through several potholes. One of the pools was a little difficult to climb out of. We had to swim several of the potholes. The impossible didn’t seem that difficult yet. After a short distance, we reached another section of the canyon with five huge potholes, which we negotiated without any problem. This section of potholes had several 5th–class downclimbs and much swimming.

We continued down canyon until reaching another set of potholes. We looked around for several possibilities of a natural anchor. This was the kind of obstacle several people call impossible without bolting them all up. Not so. After much searching, we found a walnut-sized chockstone jammed in a crack. This would do. There was a rather nasty obstacle; a hanging ‘keeper pothole’ right at the lip of what appeared to be a huge drop (we couldn’t see over the lip).

This was the crux of the canyon.

We had do a hairy traverse around a deep, but not very wide pothole, taking care not to fall in (which would leave anyone who fell in trapped in a over–your–head pool with vertical or overhanging 20–foot high walls on all sides!!). Immediately after the deep ‘keeper pothole’ there was a 80-85–foot drop into another ‘keeper pothole.’ This was certainly the crux and it was a real bear of an obstacle.

After rappelling the 80-85–foot drop into the pothole, we swam across and climbed out the other side. The climb out can be difficult, especially if the water is at such a level where you have to start the climb by treading water! This is where a life jacket came in handy. Teamwork and helping each other out of the pothole was usually required. We took a deep breath.

The last technical obstacle was just beyond. There were a few swims including one 100 feet long before reaching a chockstone, which forms a 10–foot drop. After rappelling off the drop, we continued downcanyon until we could exit to the rim on the right (south) side. The ‘impossible section’ was a done deal, and we did the canyon without messing it all up with a bunch of bolts. It was now just a very long hike back to the vehicles.

It was a good day.


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© 2004 Scott Patterson