Canyon Tales
Reflections on Canyoneering
by Joe Wrona

Re: Safety

A lot of what you are saying rings true. I think part of the problem, at least on the Colorado Plateau, is that desert canyoneering has been going on a long time, but everyone figured it was just ‘advanced’ hiking and focused on the adventure and wilderness aspects of the trips. Then, a couple of years ago, the concept of ‘sport canyoneering’ emerged and people with a completely different mindset began descending desert canyons. This new group was made up not so much of wilderness trekkers/adventurers who enjoyed the sublime, but rather people who were looking for a more intense, immediate ‘Indiana Jones’ type of adventure. This new group of canyoneers was very excited by the immediacy of adventure that so many of the Colorado Plateau slots provided, and I think also perhaps by the illusion that they were pioneering routes; and a literal goldrush has occurred with people heading out into the desert to be ‘first’ or ‘best.’

The excitement is really great, but the haste is tragic. Descending sandstone slots with bolts and rap gear is not very difficult—a person can pick up the skills to handle 90% of what is out there in a weekend. So an awful lot of folks are altering existing routes with no depth of experience. Moreover, because canyoneering is inherently more private than climbing, peer pressure is tough to apply, and, when it is done (like spraying a bit about hauling garbage out of trade route canyons), it is hard to gather a consensus.

After Kelsey issued his guide with photos and descriptions of some of the easy ‘sport canyoneering’ routes in Zion Park, novice canyoneers began hitting those slots in droves, oftentimes without the benefit of a more seasoned canyoneer. These new sport canyoneers then adopted the ‘style’ that they learned from the visual record that exists in permanently marred canyons like Mystery and Pine. When this new wave of sport canyoneers began to search for bigger, more remote, or slightly more difficult slots to descend, they brought that style learned in Mystery/Pine, etc. with them. And, sure enough, the sublime canyons of the Colorado Plateau are now being changed into Mystery or Pine Creek ‘sport routes’ at an alarming rate.

The San Raphael slots, which used to be truly great places to have a wilderness adventure, are getting creamed. The big slots in Zion are getting blasted into submission. The bolt wars have now moved into Escalante, the D.D., and the Powell north side. If the pace of this goldrush to alter canyons continues, we will lose most of the choice slots on the Plateau within five years. I can’t stop it, and the generation of canyoneers that preceeded me can’t stop it. It is up to guys like Rich and Jonathon and those others who have the energy to organize and educate to protect the wilderness quality of Colorado Plateau canyons.

I say all this knowing full well that most readers will roll their eyes or respond with petty pecadillos. But believe me, the experience of going through a slot year after year without seeing any permanent changes, the experience of sometimes taking a year or two to figure out how to get thru a slot without changing it, the experience of checking out someone else’s tip and still having to figure out the details is priceless. You guys are the guardians of the treasure chest that contains all those priceless experiences. Be patient and clean and urge your peers to do the same. I know that you will enjoy it if you try it and your ethics will pay dividends to you for the rest of your lives.

Anyway, Tom, thanks for reminding me that open–minded dialogue is the way to open minds.

Joe Wrona
June 23, 2000

Re: Canyoneer

I think the term canyoneer originated as a label for those boatmen/women who had floated the Grand Canyon. I guess that definition no longer applies.

Does anybody out there see any distinction between the concept of canyoneering and the concept of canyoning? I guess I view canyoning as the technical art of descending vertical waterchutes, ravines, etc., very much the kind of thing that Rich Carlson and his crew are educating about. Canyoneering has always meant to me the act of exploring desert canyons, seeking wilderness through canyon hiking, etc.

Canyoneering adventures oftentimes involve canyoning techniques, but not necessarily so (the Subway 20 years ago was a soft canyoneering hike with no canyoning skills needed). Likewise, lots of canyoning descents (like the stuff in the Kern trench) are not canyoneering trips.

Those folks who head up Orderville Canyon in drysuits and watershoes and problem solve the 3rd class obstacles along the way are canyoneering, but not necessarily canyoning. I think the same is true for folks who climb through Peekaboo, Spooky, Brimstone, and the hundreds of other scramble slots that run across the Plateau.

Joe Wrona
July 15, 2000

Re: Ropes

Everybody has their own preference for rope, and there is no single ‘right’ rope to use. Ropes don’t break from dead weight, they sever from being chopped or sawn through. Therefore, far more important than the diameter of your rope is your ability to descend SMOOTHLY and with no lateral movement of the rope over any sharp surface. Extend your anchor systems over sharp edges, or use buffers to soften edges (like your shirt or shorts or a piece of leather that you have brought along for that purpose).

Also, if you are pioneering and there is a possibility that someone may have to conduct belayed climbing, be aware that static line can and will injure or kill you even in very short fall situations (like 8 feet). It is not the fall that kills you, it is the sudden STOP that does it. This is not an issue in the trade route slot country of Zion and the San Raphael; but it is worth bearing in mind if you are pioneering routes in harder areas.

The downside to fall–rated climbing rope is that some folks have a hard time keeping their descents smooth and the resulting ‘bounce’ can chop or saw through a mantle pretty quickly. Hence, static line is a good choice for basic ‘rap ’n swim’ canyons like Heaps, Imlay, West, Neon, etc.

As for static line, I’ve used 7mm lots of time, and on exploratory trips on the Colorado Plateau I usually take one or two 165’ lengths of 7mm, two tiblocs, a swami, 25’ of 1/2” tubular with a couple of rap rings, and two 3mm cordelletes. This gear has never held me back, although I have retreated for other reasons!

Having said that, I wouldn’t take responsibility for forcing someone else to rely exlcusively on 7mm descent ropes on a trip, and it is definitely a mistake to send novices down on 7mm line. Neophytes spend too much time dicking around while on a weighted rope, and they tend to engage in a lot of lateral movement while descending. Same is true for ascending. On a trip about a year ago, one of my partners (who had hundreds of wilderness slot descents to his credit but no jugging experience) was struggling during a 125’ free hanging jug of an 11mm climbing rope out of Clearwater Canyon in the Cataract Canyon area. His spinning ascent rotated the mantle of the rope around a sharp edge and severed the mantle (We had him on a TR for that very reason).

The new ropes with double tough mantles make very good slot ropes for this very reason. Dry ropes are nice too. Aramid 8mm is a pretty good product.

If you are just trying to obtain basic perlon static cord, you can pick it up in whatever length you desire from your local outdoor shop. If you go this route, watch for when your rope mantle starts to waltz off the ends of your lines. It can migrate several feet in one trip, so keep cutting it off and resealing your ends.

Most Escalante canyons go with a single 150’ line (or less); if you take two lines you are stylin’. A good Escalante Wingate rig is to have one 150’ and one 50’. Use the shorty for most of the drops and as a handline if anyone is struggling with the minor obstacles that pop up from time to time. Take 100’ or so of webbing (brown or grey is nice!) and some rap rings to rig your anchors.

Oh yeah, it is not a good idea to mix your canyoneering ropes with your active climbing ropes. Too much goop gets into a slot rope to trust it to a sport that contemplates high energy falls.

Anyway, that is probably enough spray for now.

Joe Wrona
September 17, 2000

Re: Hammers  & Heaps

Heaps is one of the better adventure canyons in Utah and some of us do it once (or twice) every year. No need to take a hammer or bolts. The route is overprotected as is. I encourage you to take a lot of supertape or 1” tubular to re–rig the anchors. There are a bunch. Also, a 25’ length of 9mm perlon (or something like that) makes a very nice four–point equalized cordellette for the final rap.

PLEASE don’t tie new rigging without chopping the old stuff first. This is particularly important at the final rap station. Folks apparently get nervous at that spot and start draping everything they’ve got on the four bolt anchors; chains, biners, pulleys, cold shuts, single bolt tie–offs, pass thru loops, etc. Chop all that stuff and make one nice big cordellette that equalizes all four points.

A single day descent (car–to–car) takes 12–14 hours if you are MOVING fast and efficiently and someone in your party knows the route. If you are going thru for the first time and are being considerate (i.e., chopping the old stuff and rigging new), it will take two full days to do the trip.

If you don’t want to lug a 300’ line thru the slot, you can always stash it in the boulders at the base of the last drop before you start your trip. The first man down can then tie the 300’ line onto the hanging knotted rope and the upstairs guys can then pull it up and run it through the anchor system. This system is used every year in Heaps and it works well so long as 1st man doesn’t get wigged passing thru knots in wide country.

Heaps is very nice when it is running. Bo Beck and I did a single–day descent a couple of years ago the day after a good rainstorm and the high volume flow of water made the chokepoints much quicker to descend. Nice waterfall at the end as well. But when Steve Allen and I did it last year as a two–day descent, we took a surprise overnight rainstorm at the crossroads and no real flow lasted thru the morning of the next day. If you are doing it during a dry time, be wary of dead deer, etc. in the pools.

I hope that you will carry out your feces from the crossroads on down. The little parks that break up the slot are getting hammered.

Don’t get so pre–occupied with the final drop that you overlook the beta on how to initiate the exit from Heaps. The 2nd to last rappel (getting down to the final station) can be spooky for someone who hasn’t done it before (the last rap station is stuffed in a bombay flare and it doesn’t look real inviting from above). If your party is bigger than two people, work out your timing beforehand so that you don’t have more than two people in the final rap station at a time.

Anyway, I hope this helps you get psyched to hike this very lovely canyon.

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Something I forgot to mention in my last spray on Heaps. There is a notch at the lip of the last rappel platform (about 10’ below your feet when you are standing at the rap) that will snag your rope when you try to yard on it at the bottom. The trick I learned from Bo (and Bo knows Heaps!) is to take something to stuff in the notch. A 12” square cut from an old ensolite mat and folded in half works good, but I imagine a variety of items would do the trick. Also, I may be stating the obvious but if you are rapping down a 300’ single that is being held in place by tied 165’s (the most common way to do the Big Heapster), position your 300 single knot below that nasty little notch before you start down. (I have no idea if this last statement makes sense to a reader—sorry.) These precautions will help you to avoid having to engage in otherwise horrendous yarding of your lines at the bottom. By the way, if you use gray, black, or green ensolite rather than blue, the tourons can’t see it from below.

Joe Wrona
November 27, 2000

Re: Shoes

For the last 14 months I have been reading the many, many posts about gear on this site. There seems to be a lot of energy devoted to debating the finer points of canyoneering equipment (if there is such a thing as canyoneering equipment).

I have noticed over the years that canyoneering resembles backpacking, climbing, and other outdoor disciplines a great deal when it comes to gear. By this I mean that an initiate usually goes on his/her first few trips with very little specialized gear. After experiencing the elation of a newfound form of adventure, these new converts metamorphose into enthusiasts and become pre–occupied with gear. The endless discussions of equipment that inevitably follow are not only an attempt to expedite the process of obtaining depth of experience, but I guess that they rekindle that flame that was lit the first time down a slot.

The enthusiast will, of course, go on to learn that gear is, for the most part, a distraction. We all have garages full of eights, racks, and stops that we went through before figuring out that less is more; thousands of feet of different kinds of sand filled rope stacked in a corner from our efforts to deny the fact that it really is all the same; wetsuits, drysuits and fuzzy rubber suits—none of which provide the freedom that a pair of standup shorts and a tank top give—all this discarded gear laying there in silent testament to our oxymoronic attempts to get closer to the heart of our discipline by insulating ourselves from it through layers of equipment.

The ultimate joy of canyoneering is to adventure without gear. Sure, rope, harness, and a Mae West bunny are required for some of the tougher descents on the Colorado Plateau, but rarely is anything more needed.

It is my hope that people who venture into the canyons will continue to gravitate towards the ascetic canyoneering experience. This discipline requires very little in the way of specialized gear; indeed, the recent thread on ‘canyoneering shoes’ seems completely superfluous. The most experienced canyoneers in this country use nothing more than trail runners and light hiking shoes.

Joe Wrona
Aug 1, 2001

Re: Mae West Bunny

A Mae West bunny is a standard piece of equipment in tougher canyons. It is used to hang your pack when working through chimney/squeeze chimney sections of tight slot canyons.

Some of my colleagues use an aider’s daisy chain as their Mae West bunny, although I use a piece of spectra. In tough canyons, your pack can get spun around hundreds of times before you have a chance to unclip or unwind it, and a daisy tends to corkscrew and shrink more than a single strand cord after mega–rotations. It is a bit of a problem when your bunny is sucking your pack into your footspace during an R or X–rated chimney problem.

Anyway, that’s the reality.

Joe Wrona
Aug 1, 2001

Re: Hooking out of Potholes

Wish I could take credit. Here’s the real story. We had one guy down in the hole and I was working with another guy on the upcanyon lip. Two more guys were hanging out at the tail end of the approach pool helping out with rigging issues. From my position on the lip I hear Tom Talboys murmur a wishful thought about ‘maybe somehow’ throwing open drybags over the shelf and trying to get ’em full of water from the shallow pool. Then I hear Matt Moore, who was with Tom, softly say, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea.” These two guys then dropped the subject!!!! Since I was getting tired of coiling rope, throwing sandbags, and bitching at my partner in the hole, I started lobbying the backbenchers’ idea to the rest of our team. Next thing you know, we had a whole group of noodleheads standing around scratching their heads trying to put the ‘teabag’ idea to use.

Here’s the hilarious part. We eventually got the bags into the 12” deep pool on the far side, but it was so shallow we had a hell of a time teabagging water into the bags. After about 30 minutes of this, our partner Steve Allen shows up from downcanyon (he came up from a boat at the end of day to check on our progress). I told him not to help, so he stood over our bags laughing at us for probably another hour while we worked on our teabagging technique. We ultimately modified our approach and threw half–unzipped daypacks over and let those bags soak up water. Our final counterweight was two drybags and two open daypacks, each on its own line.

By the way, here’s an excellent technique for getting into holes WITHOUT USING BOLTS!!! Take along several empty giant dromedary bags. When you come to a complicated entry, fill the bags with water and use them as your counterweight. Last man flips the squirt nozzle and you pull the bags and rope after the bags drain. (Keep pressure on the rope after you get off and it will empty the bottles.) This is the ‘Chinese water torture’ anchor system and was created by Master Po himself.

Joe Wrona
July 17, 2003

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