Canyon Tales
Confessions of a
Kiddie Canyoneer

by Buzz Burrell

“But over the past two years, a group of users of this site have moved beyond the little kiddie rap ’n swim canyons (lower Neon, Heaps, Imlay, etc.) and have started acquiring that depth of experience that inevitably leads to a mature view of Colorado Plateau wilderness canyoneering. It is interesting to me that the pro–bolting group tends to be limited to rap ’n swim canyoneers; i.e., those canyoneers with the most limited range of canyoneering experiences; rather than those canyoneers who are actually pushing their own standards.”
                                                    — Joe Wrona

Someone on the Internet was accusing others of being ‘Rap and Swim Kiddie Canyoneers.’ Unlike everything else seen on the Internet, for some unknown reason these words stuck in my mind. Like ... what does this mean? At first I presume this strange label to be the usual pathetic attempt by some hapless soul, who in a blatant attempt to raise his own level of fragile self-esteem, choose the time–honored technique of mindlessly labeling others. I mean, what’s with this guy: does he not rappel or swim? If not, then how does he get down?

But then my thinking shifted ... what if ... what if maybe I could become a ‘rap and swim kiddie canyoneer’ myself?

I decided to make this my goal. Canyoneering is a sport that doesn’t offer a lot of worthy goals. There is no equivalent of Mt Everest to descend, no Nose Route to rappel in a day, no 5.12 canyons to rap onsight ... so in the absence of more meaningful goals, becoming a ‘rap and swim kiddie canyoneer’ became my objective. Being a certified old fart made the ‘kiddie’ part difficult, but this impairment only made the challenge that much loftier. So this spring found me in Zion National Park, the epicenter of North American canyoneering, determined to become a ‘rap and swim kiddie canyoneer.’

The night before our big trip we watch a beautiful sunset from a subdivision overlooking the Park. It’s a great spot. In fact, this precise patch of gravel costs $330,000. Of course, we are not paying anywhere near that, as we are merely sleeping on the ground next to the ‘For Sale’ sign. Sure makes me wonder why anyone would pay $330,000 for this acre, when anyone who wants to can sleep here for free. It’s a very nice spot however, especially before some godawful house gets built which will totally obstruct the otherwise excellent view. I wonder if maybe after a 4,000 square foot ego-villa gets built where our sleeping bags are now; they’ll realize how much they’ve screwed up the place, the price will come way down, and I’ll be able to snap it up for 50 grand or so. Then again, probably not.

We chose a Zion classic for our attempt, a long and technical route that starts way back on the rim and ends down in the main valley. So early are we up, driving in at first light, and then we hike up the trail past Angels Landing. Nice sunrise, good exercise. Hey, this canyoneering stuff is great!

We have no map, no compass, no first aid kit, no water even, as I figure on finding some on the way. I actually had bought a GPS, thinking I should be ‘smart’ about all this, but it still remained within it’s little plastic box, unopened, after a full month of sitting on my desk. It turned out to be way easier to go out dancing after work rather than attempting to read the darn manual.

Nonetheless, we safely arrive at the put–in. So where’s the Entry Rap? Isn’t there supposed to be a sign or something that says, ‘FIRST RAPPEL HERE?’ After scurrying fruitlessly back and forth along the rim for a few minutes, I am resigned to putting a sling around a tree myself. I ease my disappointment by reasoning it’s probably a good idea to tie a knot every once in a while so I don’t forget how to tie knots. I wonder if the previous party included some lunatic who used a macramé knot. I’d like to give him a piece of my mind ... I resolve to go to the Bit and Spur that night and find him ... should be easy to find; I’ll just look for the car with the ‘NADER FOR PRESIDENT’ bumper sticker, and the piles of granola scraps all over the carpet.

We slide down the rope. Sliding down ropes is a big deal in canyoneering. I’m not sure why this is, since its the easiest thing a person could possibly do, but canyoneers make a big deal about sliding down ropes. They call it ‘rappelling’ in order to make it sound more technical. In–the–know people call it ‘rapping,’ which makes it sound even more cool and indicates to the uncool that they know all about it.

I start to wonder what kind of rope I’m using, which I recently discovered is another hot topic of discussion. I bought it only recently, but all I can remember is that it was the skinniest one they had, it didn’t stretch (bouncing upsets my stomach), and, since all they had in stock was green, I had them special–order purple for me. I can’t believe people spend all this time debating the proper way to tie two ropes together (I’ve always just used a knot) and, then, are willing to be seen in public with a green rope. Green just doesn’t go with anything.

Being a subscriber to the Canyons E-List has really addled my brain. Now I’ve become preoccupied with the thought that I don’t know what kind of rappel device I’m using. So instead of enjoying this gorgeous canyon, reading the E-List has got me wondering if this is the best device or if another one might be better. I’ve been rapping for 34 years, on twisted Goldline (still in the garage) to my favorite—single 5.5 mm Gemini cord—and have gone off a 1,000 footer at an adventure race and a 300 footer straight down into a New Zealand cave, and never once have had the slightest problem while rappelling. I once watched my climbing partner do a 150’ rap in Yosemite hand over hand; no device at all and no problem there either. So why do other people get to have all these fun problems to argue about, but not me? Why is my life so boring and other people’s so interesting?

Being a rap and swim kiddie canyoneer turns out to be harder than I expected. After much agonizing thought, I finally conclude the best rap device is the one that’s attached to the rope.

So much for the ‘rap’ part, maybe I’ll do better with the ‘swim’ aspect.

Finally something interesting happened ... my partner was in trouble. Good. We were 1/3 of the way down this canyon, and I was getting worried I wouldn’t have any story to tell when us guys gathered around the campfire, drinking beer, doing whatever it guys are supposed to enjoy doing in these occasions. Not that I’ve been gathered around a campfire anytime in the past 20 years, but you know what I mean.

My partner once soloed the Diamond on Longs Peak, a seven pitches long 5.10 route at 14,000 feet, after riding his bicycle 46 miles from his house to the trailhead, but now he was grunting and struggling like I’d never seen him. Oh-oh, the easy part is over, this canyoneering business was getting serious. He was trying to put on his drysuit.

I slipped mine on, trying to appear as casual as possible, as we all know how important it is to appear casual at desperate moments, particularly in front of male peers. I shouldered the rope and prepared to slosh on downstream. My partner was still struggling with his drysuit. I went over to have a look.

He had managed to pull his leg thru one of the arm holes.

Not only could he not for the life of him pull it back out, but we both could readily note that the arm and leg sleeves for these rental drysuits are of completely contrasting colors, clearly to prevent some bozo from executing this exact maneuver. At this point I should point out that my friend has PhD in Math from Harvard, and is a tenured professor at the University of Colorado. Now he was mired in a predicament that was akin to a Chinese finger puzzle, whereby the harder you pull, the more you are stuck.

Realizing my partner was in truly desperate straights, I finally decided to do the honorable thing and go over and help him. But first I had to take a couple of pictures, which I intend to sell over the Internet for a profit.

With the two of us working at it, soon my partner was out of danger, and we were ready to resume. This incident clearly demonstrates why solo canyoneering is so dangerous.

Drysuits turn what would be a survival event into play day at WaterWorld. We slosh downstream, scramble over logjams, slither down pouroffs, stem across narrows, bob thru deep pools like little kids wearing water wings, and of course, slide down ropes a lot.

We come to a ‘keeper pothole’, which in canyoneering jargon means I can’t just walk out of it. Ah–ha, another problem to solve. I had carefully studied all the different techniques discussed on the E–List, but my own technique seems much easier.

I simply tell my able–to–solo–5.10 partner to jump in there and get to work. Just as he manages to reach the lip of the hole, I grab his foot, hopefully wresting myself out before he is pulled back in. Since this technique can only be employed once, a back–up plan is also needed: I unclip the hook what–ya–ma–call–it (which we borrowed from an expert local climber who made a pile of money and now has way more gear than we do), from my harness (where I read on the E–List that it should be kept), and place it in the little hole in the rock (that somebody else had drilled), and step out of the pothole (that the route description had warned us about).

It comes to me that the original party to descend this canyon had a very, very different experience than I’m having. After some reflection on what it would have been like to make the first descent of this canyon, I realize I don’t have the strength to push the wheelbarrow that holds the balls those guys had.

But that was then, and this is now. We come to the Exit Rappel.

An odd but delightful aspect of canyons is they all seem to have Exit Rappels. And you can always tell when you have arrived: there are numerous solid, well–placed bolts, equalized by a sling. All up–canyon you have been rapping on the crappiest anchors you’ve ever seen, rusty spinners at the edge of black abysses, the sort of junk college drop–outs wouldn’t tolerate at their local climbing area in Bulgaria, but hey, this is canyoneering, and to risk your life for no reason whatsoever is somehow considered honorable or even ethical.

Except at the Exit Rappels, which like I said, are always solid. This is because Exit Raps by definition are always over 150 feet high. It doesn’t actually matter of course, whether you fall 100 feet or 10,000 feet, the result will be pretty much the same; but human nature being what it is, the longer the rappel the better the anchor.

We splash down in the Narrows. Like the astronauts I used to see on TV, we splash back down to earth, complete with all sorts of strange looking gear draped over our bodies, our drysuits clearly resembling the flight suit John Glenn once wore, and as we slosh manfully and confidently thru the current, disdainful that such a tame amount of water could possible phase us canyon veterans. I am convinced everybody is secretly looking at me in awe and wonder.

Instead, I am greeted by tons of screaming little kids playing in the river. They are trailed by parents with incredibly expensive video cameras dangling inches above the water in one hand, a ‘Zion National Park’ carved walking stick in the other hand, while stumbling over slippery rocks wearing flip flops. I like this part.

Indeed, I liked all of it. We’re back in time for a shower, dinner at the B & S (no Nader bumper sticker to be found), and still will make Capital Reef that same night. From the hike–in to the hike–out, and all the amazing tricks in between, being in the canyon was pure delight, pure pleasure, an amazing gift of nature to mankind.

Rapping and swimming ... what could be more fun? I decided that being a ‘rap and swim canyoneer’ is terrific, is absolutely great, and I’m very, very happy to have finally reached my goal and become one. But I still haven’t achieved the ‘kiddie’ part.

Thru the prodigious efforts of people other than ourselves, we were able to traverse some of the world’s most amazing terrain with relative ease. Standing up on the rim, peering down into those black gaping holes, I am still utterly awed, amazed, and intimidated at what we attempt to do. But people have invented some great equipment, others told me how to use it, guidebook authors described where to go, pioneers did all the work putting in anchors, and so all I did was put one foot in front of the other, and slide down the rope about 30 times.

Come to think of it, it was like Disneyland, only better. And I was a kid again.

Hey ... I did it!


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© 2002 Buzz Burrell