Canyon Tales
Snakes and Ladders
in Big Tony

by Mark Rosen

•  Part I  •

We were having a training camp for scout canyon leaders and taking about 20 boys through Micro Death Hollow, Calf Creek, Egypt 2, and Egypt 3. As a bonus to those leading the groups, Jeff and I planned a little trip down Big Tony the day before the event was to start. A lot of people sensed that doing Big Tony was the real plum here, and I had an overwhelming number of requests to join the group. I kept saying, “No,” but at one point I still had twelve people going down. As the date approached we had more and more people drop out. One of the group, who was there to help the BSA leadership better understand this sport of canyoneering, knew about the dropouts and asked Jeff if he could bring his climbing buddy. Jeff told him, “No.” About two days later I get a phone call explaining that he knew of the dropouts and Jeff had told him no but could he please bring his friend. He stated that his friend is a bit heavy but in good shape and climbs reasonably well. I expressed my reservations. He persisted and I eventually agreed that the new person could come as long as he takes responsibility for him, helps him, and exits with him if necessary.

Everyone showed up the night before at the trailhead where we camped. The next morning we were off at first light. The friend was a nice guy, maybe not in such good shape but a nice guy. On the approach hike he struggled to keep up. We get to the head of the canyon and he rests. I place him right between his friend and Jeff and we start the canyon. Nice Guy is supposed to be a climber but his skill set doesn’t seem to transfer to canyoneering. Last time I did this canyon I was the weakest member of the team and the canyon just kind of flew by. Now it’s like dragging an anchor. One can’t get into any kind of rhythm with all this waiting. After a little upclimb Nice Guy is exhausted. Nice Guy is having difficulty figuring this all out. Even with two guys helping him Nice Guy has to rest after every move. He may have been advertised as a climber but I’m not so sure.

I’ve done canyons with a fair number of climbers from the Canyons Group and I find them very skilled—they use good technique, they make tight canyons look easy. I often just enjoy watching the grace which many of them do canyons. Nice Guy is painful to watch. He is taking forever to go a few yards. Last time I did this canyon it seemed like we quickly reached the rockfall where one can exit. At every corner I’m looking for the climb–out spot. Are we there yet? Time has really started to drag. I start to ponder about how I’m going to break it to Nice Guy that he needs to call it a day at the exit coming up. He is endangering not only himself but also the group. When he finally arrives we help him up and out of the canyon and he collapses once safety is reached. I needn’t have worried, Nice Guy is done. Another member of the group who isn’t particularly enamored with the physical nature of the canyon volunteers to accompany him in the retreat. They took their time and had lots of rests on the way back eventually reaching the cars a little over an hour before the rest of us.

I relate this story not to put down a fellow canyoneer or to give any an impression that I am better than I am, but in the hope that the reader can learn something from it. I get requests to take people canyoneering regularly. Even though it isn’t my nature to turn people down, I do have a limited number of days that I can be out and the groups can only be so large before numbers become a problem. One of my areas of weakness is the scout leaders. I figure if someone is going to spend their time taking boys down canyons, I can spend time trying to train them to do it perhaps better and more safely. Even though I had talked to Nice Guy’s friend—warning him about the physical nature of this kind of canyon and also referencing Kelsey’s new book etc.—the friend that I talked with discounted everything that I had to say. The physical nature of the experience pushed him to the limit and made a big impression on him. I talked with them later and found out that even with everything Jeff and I had told them, they had really expected it to be kind of like Pine Creek!

Skinny canyons are a different beast. I have often said that the difference between PG and XX can be four inches. If I can do a silo comfortably, that’s PG. If I have to stretch a couple of inches, that’s an R. If I have to push it to my maximum maybe just three inches more than the PG, that’s an X. Add any more and I’m out. There is much more to it than that in reality. This canyon is an easy R and I was questioning even that rating if one bypasses the X section until I watched Nice Guy do it. Now I must admit that it probably is an R. The off–the–deck nature increases the penalty points for a small mistake and the remoteness of the canyon makes self–rescue mandatory. While those in Escalante would do what they could, there are no rescue teams in the Escalante like there are in Zion.

•  Part II  •

From about the time I was about two until I was six I lived in Eugene, Oregon. I remember prowling the steams and storm drainage system for snakes. It was fun to catch them and they seemed harmless. I don’t know what happened but somewhere along the line I lost my love for chasing snakes and then began to fear them. I’ve seen the damage that a pit viper can do to an extremity. It isn’t pretty. I don’t chase, catch, or pester snakes and hope that they won’t act aggressively toward me. I must admit that I have worried about what to do if I came across one in the crux of a canyon. What would I do if I reached up and placed my hand someplace and heard a rattle? I feared it. Not an intellectual fear but a deep–down primal fear.

At the exit/bypass I considered the alternatives carefully. I had bypassed the X section before and I really wanted to see it. Do I lead the group down the unknown and perhaps regret it or do I take the safe way around? With a little regret the rest of us climbed back in the canyon on the other side of the X section and headed down. It was now a very pleasant experience. It was a lot of fun and a good workout. We made good time through another narrow/climbing section and then under some rock fall and to the first rappel. Then it is down into the center of the earth. I lost my lead spot at the rap but soon regained it as Jeff wasn’t sure to rap or just plunge down canyon. The canyon gets skinny and dark. Not just a little dark but permeating blackness. The headlamps come out as it gets as dark as any cave I’ve been in. Now you can walk on the bottom but it’s dark and tight. Then all of a sudden there it was, slithering around and blocking forward progress. The markings were ominous and it was large. Later, the consensus we arrived at was that it was about 3.5 feet long. It appeared to be well–fed as it was not skinny. I tried to remain calm and look for rattles but I couldn’t detect any. Was it because they weren’t there or was I just not close enough to see them?

My heart was pounding, my palms sweating and my eyes straining as I announced, “There is a snake up there.”

The first response was, “I don’t see any snake.”

How could they not see this snake? It wasn’t exactly a tiny thing and it was weaving a bit. It was obviously aware of our presence. Where there was one there could be two or more. I started to search as far as my headlamp could penetrate the blackness, but I only saw one. After contemplating the situation, I started to push my back against one wall and my feet and knees against the other. Slowly I started to climb upward. The walls were slick and damp. As I got higher those behind me got their first view of the serpent.

“Kill the snake!”

“Throw your pack on it and jump on it!”

“That thing’s a monster!”

The pack was on a daisy chain. I brought it up to me, but it was hard to hold up and go up at the same time. I slowly bridged up and over, being very sure that I was plenty high, as it coiled and uncoiled undulating back and forth. It was definitely aroused. What would you think if you were just chasing a nice frog in the dark and all of a sudden 7 bright headlamps come beaming at you each attached to a monster? I had passed over the snake, downcanyon enough to be safe, and then, as I hit a slimy spot, the pack I was wrestling with slipped. Down it fell until, with a snap, its vertical fall was broken by the daisy chain and it swung back and forth. That’s when all pandemonium broke loose and a lot of things happened at once.

With me and the pack downcanyon the snake leapt upcanyon. We had no idea that Cory could move so fast. The speed of his retreat was as frightening as the snake. Jeff, the manly man, started to squeal and Blake scampered up. Others behind added to the chaos. Jeff tried to go up, but Blake, who had gotten there first, was blocking the path. Cory, who is perhaps the best climber in our group, went up over and was standing beside me in what seemed like a second but I’m sure it must have taken at least four or five times that long.

Now if we had been really good and kindly souls, you would have thought that those who were safely downcanyon would have great empathy for the poor folk in the path of the serpent. Oh no! Once safety had been achieved attention was turned to merciless goading of our brothers above. Most had managed a high spot quickly enough, but poor Jeff had his way blocked by Blake. In the terror of the moment he had somehow managed to get turned around; he had climbed up and tried to wedge himself in while facing upcanyon with his rear hanging down. It was wet and slick in there and wider at the bottom than the top, so he was slowly slipping down to the beast. In Jeff’s precarious situation, he couldn’t see the snake and had to rely on his friends for the play–by–play of the snake’s progress. And we, being his friends and considering his delicate situation, told him of the snake’s position in the kindest and most sensitive way.

From downcanyon we were encouraging the snake’s upcanyon progress with an occasional well–placed pebble. Someone pointed out that Jeff’s rear would be protected by the thick neoprene Bell shorts. Well, except for the areas where Jeff had rubbed holes through them. The serpent had come to rest right under Jeff, who was sweating like crazy and expending all kinds of energy trying to maintain his height above as gravity pulled inexorably downward—and down he slipped little by little. There were squeals and screams of panic from the manly man and raucous laughter from the other six as we enjoyed ourselves at Jeff’s expense. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, and with Jeff only about 18 inches above it, the snake cleared Jeff and headed upcanyon.

Jeff has since informed me that the noises that came out of his mouth were Anasazi for “Come here snake and I’ll ring your neck.” That may be true. I don’t speak the Ancestral Puebloan tongue, but some communications seem to transcend a specific language. It seemed to those present that the squeals we heard were a petition for help from a higher power, any higher power, and perhaps even his mother. Surely, after all he had suffered, with sweat dripping profusely and appearing just glad to be alive, Jeff would be kind to those behind him. Not a chance Bro. He was brutal to those behind who still had to deal with the snake. After all, this was a guy trip. Each participant got a chance to deal with the ridicule. Many of us were laughing so hard it was impossible to participate in the humiliation of our comrades. It was by far the funniest experience that I have ever had in a canyon.

We enjoyed our dark cavern more once the snake had cleared, as we and it had survived the encounter relatively unscathed. Someone then suggested that we turn off all the lights and go down in the darkness. Ram had us do this last time I was in this section and it is a remarkable experience. One stumbles along by feel in the blackness. My only thought was “Are you out of your minds?” I’m leading, we just came across one snake and I’m not about to step on another in the darkness. I went ahead and checked out the way with my headlamp and let them follow in the darkness without fear of stepping on some reptile.

Pretty soon there was light at the end and we were walking in water. The passage narrows at the bottom and everyone goes high. It is hard to climb up. I misjudged, went in a little too far, and really struggled to make the climb. It turns out that just three feet further upcanyon there were more features to help the upclimb. It is up, over the water, and out of the canyon to freedom. One last rappel and then down Sleepy Hollow to Coyote Gulch.

I’m just glad our encounter wasn’t with a skunk.


 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2008 Mark Rosen