Canyon Tales
by Chris Avery

I’m just another sad, graying, married, 40 plus–year–old father of two in the throes of a raging 2–decade–old midlife crisis, with yet another pathetic confession to make. In some roundabout way, I have this new crush on a washed–up, siliconized, botoxed ex–Baywatch ‘actress.’ Yep, it’s true, I have fallen for Sheena. I called long time mistress Sally Mae and gave her the news. She took it like an aging block of granite. Tell the truth, she’s starting to get ancient. ‘Emily’ was less forgiving; at last check, she’ll be crying a river until the middle of July or so.

She wasn’t expecting me to leave her for a paramour of the same age, just slimmer.

“Why?” she wailed, “That cheap jungle tramp is so skinny she makes the folks on the famous Maidenwater diet look fat. She’s too slender for even those better known Irish tramps, Lep and Shilly, who are pretty skinny themselves, and there are only a few people dumb enough to pair her up with Boss Hogg,”

So everyone’s pretty upset, even though she’s too hot for a summer fling. I had to write up a trip report, not so much to explain as to justify my unpardonable actions.

There are the usual caveats and meanderings involved here. To wit. Trust but verify, or something. There are other names for this place; Ram’s name, Sheena, is my second choice. The other name is better, but Sheena’s not as well known now as she will be in future, and I’ll let others take credit where credit is due.

For a least 200 square miles, between the Henrys to the west and the Bear’s Ears to the east, the rock has been tilted at a slight angle, like Gawd picked up the corner of a pool table somewhere near Dark Canyon and gently slid all of the balls into the southwest pocket at Bullfrog Creek. In North Wash, this means that the canyons cut down the dip of the Jurassic sandstones, so they stay in the Navajo for longer than they otherwise would, if the terrain were flat. This far north and east and the Navajo starts to get thin and soft, not nearly as thick or solid as it is in Zion or Paria country.

This trip was supposed to be a reacquaintance with the Swell, airplanes at the Hidden Splendor airstrip, but then everything ended up SNAFU, and I ended up in a Ford truck at the Sandthrax campsite with steady companion Fred Killmeyer, waiting for the wind to calm, for the thunderheads to blow over, and for various friends, relatives, and de facto relatives to show up from various points on the compass. I have to confess that I was not altogether happy about this. It’s not that I’m too wide for the North Wash skinnies: I know people who weigh less than I do (170–75), and people who are taller than I am (6’3”), but I don’t know anyone taller than me who weighs less than I do. See the problem was, I knew there was no way I was going to get my camera down these canyons.

So the hardened veterans of Tom’s Swellfest trickled into camp on Friday night and the Emperor himself started telling the beguiling tale of the first known descent of Sheena, a story that had been recounted, but somewhat undersold, as far as I can tell, by the various members of that first party. I guess it is a story best told at camp, rain in the steady wind, after a side trip to the mouth of Sandthrax. I had recently read a Ram post that describes Sheena as the School of the Narrow, which I could only partially remember, having no real intentions of ever visiting the place. Something about 4 narrows, each more tight than the next, with some substantial stemming at the Fourth. But after Tom’s story, I somehow know that this is going to be fun. As usual, I had no real idear.

We enter. The trip does not start well, I grab a jug hold to swing into the head of the canyon and my hands are repelled by anti– gravity. Ron H catches me and saves me from a twisted ankle, just like he had saved Greg a minute earlier. Then a short rappel and we are into the least narrow narrows. There is the usual stemming and pushing and grunting, partner assisted downclimbs, grabbing of feet, sitting on heads.

A timely suggestion from Tom, “Use those big feet and heel–toe stem.”

I have made it through 15 minutes of this canyon and I am starting to breathe and sweat and grunt. We come to a place where the water plunges down into a cavern and around a guano–streaked ledge. Ron grabs a disposable handhold and is dumped into the water with a small snake, the rock has caught him just under the helmet, right above the eye. Sheena has landed her third punch of the day. We push packs under rocks and clamber over them. The canyon opens and my hands are sore and my arms are pumped. First escape.

The canyon drops again, around and into a tighter narrows and then, somehow when I am not paying close attention, all of a sudden it gets really deep. Dark. Can’t see my feet. Then it starts to slant. There are two choices, here. No more facing downstream. Face the slant and push off of the wall. The arm and chest workout. Or back to the slant and wiggle sideways, butt, shoulders, back, like an inchworm. Easy on the arms, hard on the back of the shoulders. Slower. Choose wisely, you may not get to change for a while. It opens wider but stays dark and Greg C. starts climbing back out;

“Is this the first narrows or the second?”

Tom can’t remember.

He says, “I bring Ram so he can remember the canyon and I can remember the knots.”

We will ask him, at least several hundred more times, “What’s next.”

He never tells us. Up there, somewhere, is the Grim Crawl of Death. Then it gets really thin. No Grim Crawl, so we aren’t to the skinny. Feels plenty skinny to me. As usual, I have no idear. Sheena has claimed her first reversal of the trip.

Then we come to a nice, open, ledgy alcove that sits above the watercourse, on a gentle bend. The ledge continues on around on the left side of the canyon, for a while. Lunch. This, I think, is the end of the second narrows. The next several hundred yards (was it that far?) are a complete thrill ride. Roller coaster for adults. Last summer, I had gone to Texas to see my brother, eat barbecue and take my kids to Schlitterbahn, the best water park in the world. The park has these tube–style water slides that twist and turn and drop, some of them in the dark. They have nothing on Sheena.

In this, the start of Ram’s third section, Sheena goes on a roller coaster ride of her own. The canyon zigs, ends in a blank wall, then drops out of sight and around a bend, then zigs back, zig, drop, elevator down–shoulder on one wall, feet on the other, hands to brace, turn, zig, elevator down. Ram climbed out here? In the middle of this section, there is a natural bridge with a hole in the bottom. Ron stands in it, up to his head. In between one pothole and the next there is the smallest of openings, down by the feet, spotted—only by the faint glow, a natural bridge that is smaller than my palm. Will be fun to watch it for a while and see how fast it grows. Then there is the Grim Crawl Rappel. Tom Jones elects to crawl, he will be scooting over a ledge system on the right side, over to a chockstone, and down from there. If you have any misgivings about your size, this is the place to stop.

Tom does the crawl and the rappel, then we are off. The canyon starts to tilt, hard to the right, then the left. Push and crawl, then inchworm. Tom Jones is behind, Tom W, Fred, Patty, Ron, and Kellie are ahead. Somewhere in front of us is Mark R. about my size. The pack comes off the shoulder and into the hands, then I just drag it. Stuck over a log. I drop the pack, downclimb, then am just barely able to reach back for the pack. Whew. I have spent a lot of time, over the years, thinking about how and why canyons erode. Now I am in a canyon that is eroding me back. The shoulders are starting to go. When I reach back to grab the pack, there is fine mist of blue fiber on the straps. The skin on my elbows is thinning. The sounds from the others are receding. Then, just in time, the canyon straightens up, weight back on the feet, a few places to push through. Then Mark is waiting for us, the canyon too narrow for him to go on.

I go forward, confident that anyone whose nickname in 9th grade was ‘Bony Ave’ will have an easier time here. And then we are in it good. I push forward, stopped. Take off the helmet, put it in my right hand, pack left. Breathe in. Oops. Now I am stuck, and good. I am stuck so good that even when I push hard I can’t go further. Breathe out. Better. Dip the knees, find a little opening, only a few millimeters wider, and push through. Tom W has chimneyed up about 15 feet. Stuck again. Breathe out, push harder. Behind me, I can hear only Tom Jones’ labored breath, shallow, but furious. It comes closer, then stops.

“Tom, drop a few inches, there, if you can.”

I look like a fencer, turned sideways, narrow target, knees bent, hoping that I won’t have to keep dropping to find the openings. Then, there is just enough of a place to stand. Tom’s breathing rate increases, Mark joins in. At this point, the canyon seems alive. The sound of breath, and folks downcanyon, up on a chockstone where the canyon widens. We all push through, and we are on a chockstone, a few feet above the bottom, with the fourth narrows to go.

Here, our experience differs from Ram’s. Downcanyon, more than, say, 8 feet beyond the chockstone, the canyon is indeed too narrow to descend, about 7–8 inches. Stemmer. But we find that we can drop in just past the chockstone, back down to the water level, and sneak through. At some point, here, Patty asks what she should do with her pack.

Tom W. raised on Letterman, I presume, says, “Just drop it on Ron.”

She does. Oops, there are places where sarcasm is appreciated, and then sometimes it backfires.

Ron H. says, “It’s fine, about half an inch wider than upstream,” but what a half inch it is, and we are to the exit rappels.

The canyon is barely wider here, but there is sort of a chockstone staircase that can be downclimbed and rappelled to the pool that forms on the Kayenta contact. There are the last rappels, two 50–footers, then a traverse on the left side leaves the good climbers dry below their ankles and me soaked to the groin. I have worn holes in my pants pockets and flat spotted the the zipper on my vest. On the walk out, the Navajo Sanstone changes character, from the rounded sensual curves in the slot to straight dihedreals, conchoidal fractures, walls straight up and down like an inner city streetscape, all the way to the Kayenta ledges on street level. Here, too, the canyon is interesting, in an Escalante sort of way. Horsetail and cottonwood–willow, a few pools, black desert varnish on the walls. Soon we are out the crack, next to a pothole slot, to the car. Kellie and Mark and Tom down to Lep. When we get there, there is no sign that Greg has ever been there. We talk about putting together a party to look for him, somewhere, and then on the drive back to Sandthrax I see the plane on the airstrip.

Greg is not missing after all, but Mike has volunteered to take me for a ride in his Cessna 180 to see if we can find him, and even after word reaches us that he’s safe, Mike does not revoke the invitation. This means that, within a few minutes, we are flying over the North Wash canyons about 100 feet above the toplands. Mike is flying the plane like a Nighthawk around a streetlamp, and I am pointing to fault lines and slots and openings and rockfalls. It is a thrill, and there is one thing that might be useful to for explorers. From the plane, it looks like the open ledgy alcove system on the left side, after the second or Dark Narrows, curls around to the right, then drops to a second alcove that is just downstream of the Grim Crawl of Death. It might be possible to fix a rope here, at lunchtime, for anyone above 180 pounds or so, who wants to descend past the Grim Crawl and ascend just before the Narrow Corridor. Just a thought.

That evening, we climbed up Lep after the rain had come through, just as it was soaking the sandstone. Whew, missed it by a few hours, at most.

It’s a strange thing to say, and even more foolhardy to put it in print, but 3 weeks on and I find that I miss the feel of Sheena. The pushing, squeezing, sliding, stemming, scraping, crawling, tugging. Cool rock, cold water, twisted feet, dusty air. Nodules, curves, drops, pinches, slants, just enough that you can’t walk without bracing. The shimmery walls on the exit rappel, natural bridges, light in the Kayenta narrows. I’ll be back. Two weeks ago, I bought a smaller tripod. With the camera turned sideways in the pack, one lens, little film, enough duct tape and foam, it should be possible to sneak her through.

Do you want to go, too?

First, build yourself a ‘Sheenometer.’ Grab a sheet of paper, 8½ inches wide. Put it in your doorway, knob and all. Open the door ½ inch, to 9”. Now, brace the door so it won’t open any more. Try to squeeze through. Now imagine that the doorway is 100 feet wide. Can you push through? If not, you won’t make it through Sheena. Remember, I don’t know anyone taller than I am who weighs less than I do (6’3’’, 175), and I did not have an easy time getting through. I have the clothing to prove it.

I consider myself fortunate to have been joined by Tom, Tom, Ron, Fred, Patty, Kellie, Greg, and Mark. Thanks to all who have shared this place, in bits and pieces. Thanks to whoever built that strip, in the middle of nowhere, so Mike and Nate and Terry and Lin could land there, and to bush planes and good pilots. Thanks to the power of water, sand, and clean, slightly tilted blocks of sandstone.

And, should you have clicked on the link, I think the references to Gena’s ‘video ______’ was entirely coincidental, don’t you?


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© 2007 Chris Avery