Canyon Tales
The Sniff Test
by Tom Jones

Dean Kurtz of Kanab dropped by on Saturday and, of course, handed me an ice cold malt beverage.

“What you doing tomorrow?” he asked.

“A canyon with you,” I responded.

We went off to Rock Canyon, which drops into The Barracks from the south. The drive into it takes about an hour at manic speed, required by the soft sand on the Kane County Highway that heads over that way, near the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park—very soft.

We loaded up and hiked over to the edge, hitting the canyon right where it slotted up. Dean had heard from a ‘reliable source’ that the canyon was all bolted up and had a few interesting drops. We worked down the slabs into the canyon bottom and walked a few feet to the first drop. A couple small potholes guarded the top of the short drop—no bolts in sight. We put our harnesses on and stacked the ropes in the Rope Silos.

A huge log jammed in the slot above us would supply the anchor. We tossed the rope over the log and slid into the first pothole, getting our feet wet. The 2nd pothole was a bit of a larger drop in, but again only ankle deep. I dropped in and hopped out then over the next pothole to the top of the drop. We set the rope and rapped 40’ into a beautiful little beach area.

Downcanyon 100’ was the next drop, maybe 80’ down a twisting V–slot, a single bolt indicating ‘rappel.’ I set the rope and rapped in, but it quickly became clear it could be easily downclimbed—Class 3. Dean dropped the end of the rope to me and did just so.

A little further down was the BIG EVENT. Two bolts anchored a 110’ rappel down a nice wall to a sandy area below a HUGE incut orange wall—very nice. We rapped, bagged the ropes, and took pictures.

We sauntered downcanyon. We picked up some footprints here, so we guessed that there were no more drops and likely we were not that far from the river. We pushed through some thorns then hiked the sandy wash in the hot sun before arriving at a short drop with no obvious anchor. Walk around or rig a rappel? Well, we’re here to canyoneer so I rigged a sling around a handy serviceberry bush in a crack above the drop.

In aid climbing, there is a thing called ‘the sniff test.’ It says, “Trust your instincts.” Give the piece a sniff and, if it stinks, don’t trust it. As I started backing off the edge, I realized I was going to give that little serviceberry bush the benefit of my full weight plus some, as the edge was not amenable to a low–force start. As I backed toward the edge, I got the hackles–up feeling. “Do I really trust that bush?”

Well, the answer was no. I stepped up close to the bush and leaned back pretty good on it. It creaked a bit, but was OK. I stepped a little closer and applied a little more force and ... crunch, the bush broke away from it’s roots—aha! Not good. It MAYBE would have held me and Dean, then again, maybe not.

“Uh, I think we’re going around.”

I was a little perturbed. Yeah, I had almost gone down off that without sufficient testing. Urh, a really foolish way to die, that’s for sure. I left Dean to clean the sling on the bush, figuring I would climb around and bag the rope. I climbed up and around to look for the easy way in but didn’t find it. Up and around, trying to get past a cliffband, I ended up in a nice little slot—Mae Westing in Zion! I pop out into the canyon to find Dean bagging the pull cord which he had used to handline down into the canyon. I went back and bagged the rope.

Then we hiked out to the East Fork, checked out some slots, climbed up the side of the canyon in the hot sun, and hiked up the loose sand road back to the car.

The Sniff Test—if it stinks, don’t use it.

May 1, 2006

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© 2006 Nolan Thomas Jones