Canyon Tales
A Hardest Day
a Favorite Canyon
by Jason Kaplan

• One of the Hardest Days
in My Entire Life •

After doing Big Tony, I was having a little bit of anxiety, wondering if I would hold up for the trip or if I would fold like a little girl. The original plan was to do DDI the following day. We started mulling it over and it made more sense to do PINTAC next if there was any chance of knocking off all of the canyons that were planned, or, more should I say, the important ones (PINTAC, Long Branch of Sleepy Hollow, and Scorpion West). Unfortunately, I already knew I was going to miss Scorpion West because of time constraints.

I personally felt that I didn’t want to have to do both XX slots back–to–back, and the others felt they didn’t want to deal with 3 XX slots back–to–back. So it was decided that, unless RAM shot the idea down, then we were going to do PINTAC the following day.

From that point on, I became very nervous as I was exhausted already from Big Tony. I think I felt just as I had before the first time Eric Harvey, Steve Crisp, and I had done Sandthrax. Very unsure of what was to come or if I could hang. I think the fact that I was so far from home and so far out on bad roads was getting to my head a bit. Also, that I didn’t realize how involved these canyons really were; the approaches and exits are no cake walk as far as effort are concerned.

It’s not like Sandthrax where you show up and your only like a ½ mile from the top. No; no, my friends. You drop down at least 500’ into a creek bed, then your approach starts from there (generally downstream then up and out the other side). Once you finish your canyon and you hike back up the creek bed, you get to climb back out (sandy grueling uphill at the top).

It wasn’t only the mile or so of hard high–stemming ahead of us, it was the long approach and trek back on top of all of this that was really pushing the envelope for me. Considering Tony was the easiest of the X canyons and closest of them all; and I was already feeling kind of worked (during and after), it’s easy to understand my butterflies.

The other issue was that we had to get an early start (sunrise hiking basically) and I was whooped. I went to bed wondering what I was going to do, unsure of how I would react when the morning rolled around. I sure didn’t want to let the opportunity pass me by, but I was tired, sore, and scared. The morning went something along these lines:

Knock, Knock. “Hey man, it’s time to get up,” Aaron informs.

“Oh, man, ugh ... damn it!”

“You coming?”

“UGH ... I don’t know ... What do you think, based on how I did yesterday. Will I hold up???”

“Uh, I don’t know man (as I’ve not been), probably. Soooooo ...”

“Uh, alright, I’m on board.”

It was a rough start, sorry ‘bout being a pain in the ass, Aaron. So I wake up, get dressed, and stuff my face as much as I can as I know I will need the calories today! This as after all to be the longest approach of the entire trip. I also tried to hydrate decently.

We were off hiking with the sunrise and, as was the nature of the whole trip I would periodically have to stop and dump sand out of my shoes. We continue down the creek for a while until we spot the climb up to the head. We climb out and hike on nice ridges on domes until we arrive at our planned cache of food and water. Aaron rounded up the stuff we wanted to cache and took it down. There is a break between the upper and middle section of PINTAC which allowed us to do that.

Next thing I know, we’re off again and hiking around a good size formation (I think it’s called the Great Ridge). Once we skirt it around the left to the backside, we arrive at the head of the canyon which promptly gets to business. We walk around a downclimb into a pothole and maybe 100–200’ downcanyon to a low–angle slab which allows us to walk down into it onto flat ground. We take this opportunity to suit up as we know it’s time, it’s obvious when you look downcanyon that the fun has already begun. Off we go, moving through strenuous sections with steep walls covered in sand and a lack of useable features—oh and some rotten rock thrown in for good measure.

We carefully move through the worst of it (the rotten bit) and down we go (1st 100 yards or less)! On the ground already! Not for long, though, as just around the bend it forces us back up—and, I mean, literally we are climbing. This was to be the nature of the majority of the canyon. It had lots of downs and ups and a surprising amount of ground to stand on. The rests sure came with a price though which was mostly paid for with lots of energy and muscle expenditure going back up.

At one point, we had acknowledged at least 5 serious climbs, but I’d guess it was more like 10 by the time it was said and done. I don’t think any of them were harder then 5.9 or maybe even 5.8??? But they sure took lots of work and were very long and unprotected for the majority. I’m sure they could be harder for some people as different people do things different ways (body proportions and having a realistic body image play a big role too).

The canyon had 3 stemming sections with a little bit of open riparian features near the bottom. The upper 2 are for sure the real deal, X–rated goodness (WTF is XX anyway, I thought X was fall and be seriously injured/dead). Both are very physical and scary as the walls are unfriendly to travel (steep walls, very little to work with most of the time, sand and exploding moki balls, rotten stretches, silos, etc.). Oh, and don’t let me downplay the exposure—it is rarely fleeting especially with all of the climbing.

I was getting pretty worked because I wore fleece pants under my shorty and jeans, thus overheating and dehydrating. Also I carried a trout in there and less snacks because of it and, alas, found no time or place to enjoy it until the end. The problem was that there is still a section of R–rated stemming after all of this madness! The stemming in this section is mostly a lot lower but still a lot of work. I definitely felt like I was near ‘hitting the wall’ and I wanted it to be over. My partners coaxed me to eat but I didn’t feel I could digest anything. And if I could, it was a loss of energy diverted to doing so. Luckily for me, Stevee B forced some water and power shots down me (thank you a ton). We powered through it and it was essentially over!

There were some really pretty stretches in the middle section. We were fortunate to, at least, have some good light through the day. There was lots of fluted, convoluted, sculpted stone through out the narrow bottoms of most of the canyon. Also a bit of moss graced the walls adding color. Occasionally, you could shuffle along the floor, but only when it was obviously worth it as you were climbing enough already.

If that didn’t make it worth it already, the open section is gorgeous, with beautiful streaked ampetheaters and sheer walls. Also a very unique (to me) cathedral subway with awesome carved out old erosion patterns down the walls and floor. It also had great colors (moss and salt or calcium deposits perhaps) and spots where the land had slid from above and piled up. Gorgeous!

We come to a rappel and find no anchor. Then we realize the watercourse takes you through poison ivy, and we look up on the bench to the right where we find a cairn deadman anchor. We dismantle it, replace the webbing, then reassemble it and rap diagonally to avoid the ivy with a meat anchor (me) and last man at risk (me). Eventually there is another drop with no anchor and, after a fair bit of effort, we find a way to avoid it and all of the poison ivy that seems to thrive all around it. This involved a bushwhack up against the wall on the left (LDC) and down the precarious hillside once the ivy relents.

Then we arrive at the final rappel and find no anchor, this time it was really swept out. We work down to the lip and find a small pothole and build an equalized deadman cairn anchor after a bit of rock hauling from a little ways upcanyon. I go first then Aaron (on meat), and then Stevee B takes the last–man–at–risk position as he had the privilege of building it and wanted the honor.

We marched back out like zombies taking a short break to share a trout. I don’t think there was too much time messing around, but I could be wrong. The canyon took us 4.5 hours of stemming and 11 hours total car–to–car. BIG DAY!!! I took the next day off while Aaron, Landon, RAM, and Jenny explored a new find. Stevee hiked them in but otherwise also took the day off. We enjoyed the afternoon in Escalante.

I was sure glad to have that off day ...

June 1, 2010

• My Favorite Canyon Yet •

After resting in Escalante, Steve and I went back to check on the others. They hadn’t come back down the 4x4 trail to where Jenny’s car was parked but it was still light so they had some time. As dusk started to set in, I started getting concerned, and I acted as I would like others to act if I was in the same situation. I’m sure it was a bit annoying as I approached Steve with the questions ...

“So ... uh ... what time do we start to get concerned? What is the possible severity? What do we do?”

I, of course, am the nervous ninny, new kid on the block. I was erring on the side of over–preparedness, and over–analyzing what ifs. Steve was way more calm, cool, and relaxed than I was, which provided a much needed balance. Mostly, I’m trying not to be caught with my pants down in a time of need.

We mull things over and decide to take both cars back out the 4x4 trail to the trailhead. That way we can have anything we need to react to the situation at hand. At that point we would chill out there for a bit with our headlights on to aid in their trip back to the cars. I don’t think either of us wanted to try to find our way down there in the dark to try to find them who knows where, and I for one was really relieved when I saw headlights coming down the road. Luckily this was not long after we got down the road so we didn’t have to deal with the worst of the road, which was the other part I was dreading.

We all meet up back at the junction at the Hole–in–the–Rock road and say our goodbyes. This was, after all, Ram and Jenny’s last day on the trip and we were sad to see them leave. At the same time, it was getting late and we had another huge day ahead of us, so we hightailed it back to camp. We made plans for the following day to get up early and tried to refuel. I had eaten a lot already trying to resupply the calories I had drained in PINTAC, but I figured the more the merrier as I needed to stock up for the punishment ahead. I also tried to hydrate really well ahead of time. I think I was better prepared for this than I was for PINTAC. PINTAC was semi–fly–by–the–seat–of–my–pants–style in comparison; I felt well–prepared and confident going into Long Branch (not to say there was no anxiety).

The morning rolls around and, this time, I’m nowhere near as reluctant to get started. This time, it’s more like, “Alright, sounds good!” We mosey down the road to the trailhead and we are off. The departure time is close to the same as for PINTAC, I think. I head down first as I tend to be slow, not to mention I have to dump sand regularly. We are moving at a quick pace and I find myself jogging to keep up from time to time! Before long, we are headed up Sleepy Hollow trying to find our climb–out onto the rim to the right. We end up finding the spot that lets us up without much trouble and we are walking on the rim. As was a trend on this trip, we left a cache of water, food, and wetsuits between the middle and lower stretch. This was lowered with our 130’ rope (which we needed for the lower section but nothing else) in Aaron’s Kolob pack.

Walking the middle stretch, after dropping the cache, was intimidating as all you could see was steep, sheer walls leading into black doom as far as I was concerned. Staring at the beast seemed to make my confidence wane. I had to keep making remarks about it to make sure I wasn’t just being a wuss, prying for comments from my companions. I was thinking, “You know I could maybe skip a stretch. Maybe I’ll just wait at the break in between the two X sections and do the lower half ... NO!!! That would be BS,” I tell myself. “You’ve come all this way, you’re just driving home tomorrow. It doesn’t matter how much this thing beats you up as afterward it’s all over.”

We leave another cache of food, water, and packs (mine and Landon’s) at the break between the upper and middle section. We hydrate pretty well, and we head up along the rim to the head of the canyon. The upper stretch really isn’t looking any friendlier, and I continue to make remarks of that nature.

At this point, I think I had another bit of anxiety set in, and I was like, “Well, if it’s too gnarly you can always bail at the 1st break.” To be quite honest I don’t think this mentality died until I was at least midway through the upper section. I really had to get over self–doubt and come to grips with the fact that I came too far. Not to mention, I had stuff cached in the lower stretch that I didn’t want to make someone else carry out. Obviously, I couldn’t live with myself if I had come this far just to chicken out when I am just getting what I am asking for.

Eventually, we arrive at the head of the canyon and we suit up. This time I forgo the fleece, as I’ve left it cached down in the lower section. We start down a wide stem/friction slide downclimb and the stemming begins, at first low as we pass through some wider openings that are like mini silo/pothole–type deals. There was some water in the bottom so we all tried to keep our feet dry, and I think we all managed that task. I believe that, not long after this, we encountered the first and, really, only serious upclimb. I think a little walking preceded this section and what happened was the canyon pinched in front of us.

The problem was that the bottom of the climb started on a boulder with wide walls, the floor dropping below before pinching (a little bombay–like). At about mid–chest height the walls pinched. So you stand on the rock (which probably was once attached to the lower part of the wall on the left), lock off the upper body with arms out to the sides, and reach up on tip–toes on one leg. The trick is that you need to get your knee up high enough to make progress—all of this while trying to be gingerly—as I was worried that the wall would blow out on me making the lip of the overhanging left wall that much higher, or worse ... (I’m talking huge, rotted, hollow sounding blockage).

The only other option was to try to walk back, kind of under the death block, and try to progress up the overhanging off–width or squeeze chimney that starts above your waist. This spot probably scared me more then anything else all day, as it seemed to have an uncontrollable risk factor. Like, if the huge block came off and squished your ass, you don’t get much say in that.

I’m pretty sure that from this point on it was the real deal X–rated business until just before the break. It was very similar to PINTAC in the respect that it was very physical and unfriendly for the most part. Lots of steep, sandy, featureless, high and wide stretches had to be overcome. I was feeling really on point this day, and I feel like I ended up being up front for a decent portion of this section. We come to a drop that plays well to partner assists and Steve is down first giving me a thigh belay as I come down.

After I pass under a beautiful arch/natural bridge, I work down another little downclimb. I cleverly leaned/fell into the wall to my left, which allowed me to turn and put my back on the wall and go down on shoulder blades and toes. Shortly thereafter, I come to what appears to be the keeper pothole that signifies the end of the upper section. This looked to be the complete package at first, with a tall exit and a mylar balloon. I work closer and, upon inspection, I notice a hole in the lower right side of the pothole ...

Turns out I found the key to make the pothole a wade in the park. I go down first after taking my jeans and pads off, and I find the water is less then nip’–deep, more like waist deep. I venture over towards the semi–camouflage natural bridge and duck under after taking a moment to really cool off and soak up some coolant in my shorty wetsuit. Shortly after a couple smaller drier potholes, we arrive at the break, refuel, and take about a ½–hour break. The upper stretch took us right around an hour, so it seemed we were moving well. We didn’t want to stop for too long so we could keep our rhythm and good timing on the ball. We also didn’t want to get over confident and caught with our pants down. After all, the report we heard on the middle section was 4.5 hours without touching the ground–no salvage, no respite for the tired. 4 hours of complete concentration was to be expected, every bit of progress to be hard–earned.

For the most part the middle lived up to every bit of its hype. It had very sustained exposure and hard progress. As was the case in PINTAC, there was plenty of rotten rock to go around. Also there were plenty of wide sections to navigate, but not really any show–stopper silos or anything too serious that I can recall. There was a fair bit of down–and–up, but generally not to the ground which meant less lengthy, less draining climbs back up.

I was really in my groove up front, out on point, and, apparently, I was a little hard to keep up with (ah and how the tables have turned). I spent a lot, perhaps the most time, up front this day but tried not to be too greedy hogging the honor by letting others have the spot if they wanted it. We tried to pace ourselves saying we’ll take a break around x minutes when we get to a decent spot (pods to sit in or ½ decent ledges to sit and refuel). It seemed to help keep the energy going by keeping the supply of fuel on tap. I however find myself pushing a little bit further often, “I’m just looking for the next good rest,” I state.

The whole canyon so far has been beautiful, every bit of it worth seeing again. The shapes, textures, colors, and variety are amazing. I’m taken aback as I never conceived that an X–rated stemmer could be so varied and beautiful. We are generally stemming at a height where the walls are straighter, wider, smoother, more parallel, and less featured. Seems we have learned that it’s generally easier to stay high and deal with the exposure than it is to fight it and go down whenever possible. It seemed there are ample opportunities to go down lower and work the tighter, more aesthetic, sculpted, and convoluted walls. However, often it’s not worth it as you pay by climbing back out. But I do recall occasionally doing so (I recall seeing the ground from time to time but not often getting down to it).

Eventually, I come to another down–and–up section and I notice lots of moss, in fact, I think probably the largest concentration thus far in this canyon. It’s a beautiful emerald green chamber and, without thinking, I shout out, “The Green Room!!! Is it???” I’m a little surprised that we’ve arrived here this soon, but I continue on as high as possible to avoid the moss as much as I can—especially since you have to climb back up and out very shortly after climbing down into it, and the climb back up the moss has a reputation of being hard/slippery. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the moss I encountered on the climb back up and out seemed to grip like dry AstroTurf. Maybe I was just really on my game. Who knows?

At this point the only real worry left in my head is the silo that was reported as scary and crossed with a horizontal belay, but supposedly not too hard. I can’t say for sure that I ever really acknowledged this spot, however there was one spot I didn’t feel like going down to cross this silo and did it in a full bridge. There were plenty of other spots that it could have been though, as there are lots of deep, steep, wide sections with big penalty points. For some reason, I get the feeling that wasn’t the only time I did that, but it’s the only one that really stood out exceptionally.

Sometime around this period, we checked the clock and we were approaching 2 hours in the middle section. No one wanted to count chickens before eggs hatched, but I half–joked saying, “Another 2.5 hours to go still huh boys?” (based on the report). Also something was mentioned about maybe we’ll be done in 2.5 hours total, which I believe we could almost all agree would most likely be the case at that point in time.

Sure as hell, after all the unrelenting hard work and exposure, we reached the final rap and we were in the open section 2.5 hours after starting the middle section. We only had to do the one rap at the end after replacing about 25’ of webbing. We continue on to find Aaron’s pack had landed in the worst possible spot in this stretch of canyon—completely surrounded by poison ivy but, somehow, miraculously not on it. Sorry for being a lazy F’er guys ... Not much of a team–player–move as my shit was in there too, not to mention the rope we needed to get out. I guess maybe I felt less compelled because I didn’t really need any of that stuff besides the rope, but that still doesn’t make up for it. I’ll admit it was kind of an a–hole move, and I’m going to attempt to pass the blame on my fatigue from racing along in the lead ... Weak, I know ...

After retrieving the bag everyone else gets their wetsuits on, and we lounge out for a while as we’ve earned it a bit. However I’m very anxious to get moving through these potholes, so much so that I hardly eat or hydrate and don’t feel compelled to put on my fleece (maybe I was kind of tired it seems). Eventually, I grow impatient and get through the first couple on my own, passing the first high on the left wall instead of risking what looked to be a nice, safe, semi short jump. I would often lower myself with my pack and daisy as a counterweight hand line into the hole, then swim, wade, and beached–whale out the backside. On one of them, I tried to do a pack–toss to aid in getting out, but the pack just got in my way.

I come to a nice place to stop in the sun and wait for the others to get moving. I’m just dying to get a move on so, once Landon is ready, I take off through the next couple in the same fashion. I manage to work through all the potholes and downclimbs on my own and, next thing I know, I’m at the final drop and only real keeper of the whole canyon, in my honest opinion. I wait for the rope to arrive and then head off down into the hole that seemed totally avoidable. The anchor is a perfectly located natural bridge–type deal. I get cocky and say, “You call this a keeper???” right as I come close to even with the opposing lip. It didn’t look too bad, but my depth perception was off from this vantage point.

The plan was to toss my pack with my webbing over the opposing lip and down the final drop to assist in climbing back out should I fail to do so on my own. I tie off my belay and give the pack a couple girly tosses. I get made fun of and make a manly throw clear over the lip. I then proceed into the hole. I find it impossible to climb back out so I fold and go for the webbing/pack counterweight. I end up hauling the sucker all the way back up onto the lip!


In hindsight, I could have gone down into the hole and filled my empty water bottles with pothole water for weight, then climbed back up the rope with the belay device attached, pulling up slack and tying off at the lip again, with my pack down in the hole with webbing attached. I would then pull it back up, toss it with the needed added weight, and hopefully succeed. Also my webbing wasn’t long enough and came taut before the pack touched down.

Anyway, Aaron came down to my rescue and boosted me up in his hands. It wasn’t enough, so I step up onto his shoulder. I then desperately fight to jump off and stem up and out after an extended stand and problem solving effort. I almost peeled shortly after getting off of his shoulder begging for ‘a little boost.’ Luckily he complied and I fought hard and made it—just barely! I waited and helped him out and we re-rigged the ropes so I could go all the way down (we still had to tie the 2 ropes together). I’m on the ground before long and, next thing I know, we are all down! It’s a done deal! Hell yea!


We’ve made good time (even though we wasted 2 hours in the easy bottom section) and feel like relaxing a little. But Steve insists, “Car–to–car time is important too. We can still shoot for 10 hours if we don’t mess around too much,” he says. I feel semi–reluctant as I’m sure we all do, but we understand and comply fully after a little breather. We arrived back at the car with a time of 9 hours 51 minutes car–to–car!

This was a hell of a canyon, I was glad to finally have an on day. I feel this was perhaps my favorite canyon yet to date—I’m sure I’ll be back.

June 3, 2010

Tales of Long Branch & PINTAC:
  PINTAC • Nat Smale
  Long Branch • Nat Smale
  A Hardest Day & a Favorite Canyon • Jason Kaplan
  PINTAC in 1996 Letter • Steve Allen
  PINTAC in 1997 Letter • Steve Allen

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2010 Jason Kaplan