Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
The Mud, the Blood,
and the Fear

by Ram

Larry, Roy, Ryan, Tom and I were a couple of days into our trip in remote Escalante. Before the trip, we had run into Rick Green in town. Rick runs a guiding service in town, or should I say, it was running him this year. He was very busy. Nary a day off for himself. We had invited him to join us on this day for a canyon. He loves to guide and the rewards are great, giving people the experiences of their lives and landing on clients Christmas card lists for years. But it has to be frustrating not to be able to get out and spread your wings with a group of experienced partners, every now and again. Rich said that he would be at our camp at 7AM, for the approach. In the pre–dawn darkness, his headlights could be seen 30 minutes from our site. We watched them grow closer in the early morning silence, only broken by the howls of coyotes. Soon we were a group of 6.

Rumor had the canyon as being quite hard but not extreme. The pioneers, many years back, had done the canyon in two days. A friend from Colorado, a canyoneer of exceptional ability, had done the canyon over a few days just the winter before, dropping in lines and exiting and as such, doing the canyon in segments. With October light, our plan to do it all, as a one day push, had some boldness to it.

The approach was wonderful. After making our way down to the main drainage, following the gentle flowing stream, we entered up into a side canyon. The canyon was thick with growth and had but a small path of use. After 20 minutes going up, we exited the canyon and up into a slickrock wonderland. The canyons here, as Larry has said, seem to be the by–product of faulting. No natural erosion pattern we had ever seen would explain these deep and narrow defiles, in the midst of such a small catchment basin, even with all the slickrock. We angled up the mesa slopes, then with Rick and I wanting to be sure, overshot our objective. Swinging back around the backside, we noted a slew of parallel drainages, all but the one being shallow. We found a way back into the drainage and went about padding and fueling up. The approach had taken just under 3 hours.

We started down the shallow V–shaped canyon and in two minutes faced a two tier rap, down through potholes filled with water. No obvious anchors visible. Going back to get the material to build them would burn valuable time, as it was 10 AM already and we only had 9 hours of daylight left for this supposedly Grade IV canyon. But straight ahead and 40 feet forward, the canyon made an abrupt left, on a joint line and dove into the depths. Straight ahead, on the rim, stood a tree, on a ledge, directly above the turn. Making too much sense, not being equipped for a wet start, we retreated up the part we had descended, climbed out the shallow walls and to the tree.

While Ryan scouted the rim, others set the rap and Rick boldly descended into the hole, just a few feet down from the potholes. When asked what he saw, he said it was great, real and real dark. We all dropped in and, around the corner, I spy a seriously narrow and committing canyon. The lighting is gray, the walls are sandy, and we are forced up off the deck immediately. The walls had fairly positive features, in spite of the nearly vertical nature of the canyon. And so it began. Sometimes back and foot on opposite walls, sometimes facing forward, launching off of locked elbows, like on the parallel bars. A hip here, a shoulder there. Slow and go. Early on, we touch down on the ground twice for short walks, before being forced up. Little did we realize, there would be a 3½–hour gap, until some of us would touch down again.

Usually, we would travel at about 60 feet above the canyon floor; this happens to be where we fit in the canyon and where the features were most consistantly found. The right wall had a layer of loose flakes on it, the left was solid, aside from the sand filling all lower angle ledges. The climbing was sustained mid 5th Class traversing. The exposure was not sustained. There would be places where you could imagine catching yourself a dozen feet down—if one were to fall—but, in other areas, the full 60 feet were under foot. You tend to concentrate extra hard in those spots. The features I remember most from the canyon were the dozens of natural bridges that one could see in the canyon bottom. One after another. There were also lots of places where one could imagine being on the canyon floor way below. It often looked wide enough. It was so tempting to go down and take advantage of these openings and experience the bridges and the beauty evident below ... but sure enough, 50 feet further downcanyon, I would note it pinching off down there, and the effort of going up and down would have been exhausting.

Rich had a biner attached to his pack. The biner came loose and fell to the canyon floor. Being the conscientious sort, he climbed down to the bottom. This very strong climber had his hands full getting back up to us. That removed all temptation. Up high we would stay. Occasionally, we would be forced down to the 15–foot high level and these areas were very physical. You literally would be forced to hug and pinch the featureless wall, going around corners. After an hour and a half, we came to the first place where it was possible to escape. From 40 feet up, the angle of the right wall relented, and a big knob allowed for a mantle out. Larry, on point, lead out. It was time for each individual to decide in what way they wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon.

You have to understand—in the type of canyoneering that we were doing, everyone is essentially free–soloing and for hour on end. If someone were to fall, depending on where it happened, the result would be bad injuries to death. There would be precious little any of us could do for the injured party, aside from climbing down to them, address the injuries as best as possible, and keep them company, while a party starts out to get SAR to the rim above. We estimated that would take until the next morning at best. Baaaad scenario. Did I mention that you tend to focus and concentrate pretty hard?

So when 4 members of the party decided that, with the unknown below, the speed of the group, and the nature of the commitment, that they had had enough ‘highballing’ for the day. It was no surprise at all. In that 1.5 hours, we had traveled maybe 3 to 4 tenths of a mile. Everyone had a wonderful time to that point. Rick, in particular, was impressed that each individual assessed, and without ego considerations, what the ‘size of the meal’ they wanted for the day. Some gear went up to the rim. Rope, webbing and pull cord came down to Rick and me, the only two folks who were still ‘hungry’ for more.

Off we went. Trying to loosen up, from the 30 minutes spent in a stem–resting position. I had a foot slip a little, while my arms were safely locked. This sent just a little bit of adrenaline through my system loosening me up again, while Rick gave me a stern warning. I had been out on point, essentially all day. Rick, like the guide he is, suggested we keep it that way when I offered him the front. Rick was in there with no elbow or knee pads. He said he liked to ‘feel’ the points of contact. All 4 points, both elbows and knees were bleeding. He was in full mode now, smiling and chattering, almost in giddy state of joy. What a pleasure. I, not as talented a climber, was forced to keep my exuberance under wraps a bit more, but I was having the time of my life too.

The canyon changed its ambiance. While we still stayed 60 feet up, spying natural bridge after natural bridge, the canyon grew deeper to where it appeared well over 100 feet above us to the rim, maybe 150 feet in some places. This brought the lighting down to pretty low. There would be no escaping for quite awhile, it was obvious. Now being a smaller group, I mostly had to guard against going too fast, in my 2 mm neoprene jacket, to prevent overheating and dehydration. Trying to keep the working pulse under 100.

A good two hours after parting from our partners, we reached an area where the canyon jogged back and forth at 90 degree turns. The sun came in and the walls receded a little, as did the angle of the walls. Those 90 degree turns are a scary commodity. It is where things change in the character of any canyon. Often for the scarier but, this time, it became friendlier. Still, our feet did not touch the ground for another 20 minutes. It was then that I realized that I had hung my pack off of daisy chains, from my waist, for nearly 4 hours without once putting it on.

We ate and moved from shade to sun. Rick explored for exits, mostly because he has so much energy and curiosity, while I refueled. I drank most of the rest of my water, gambling that staying hydrated was smarter than rationing. It is hard to carry enough water, with the small packs and effort of such places. Perhaps the friendlier terrain will allow access to a pothole? Rick did not find a way out, but I imagine one could find an easy rap route into the canyon here. The rest of the canyon was fantastic. It would be worthwhile all by itself. It became a combo of short, off–the–deck climbing between potholes, as the canyon continued its dizzying jogs left and right. The canyon descended more quickly too, cutting downward.

We came to two rappels in the 20–25 foot range. Rick did a great job of fashioning some creative natural anchors, one a gift wrapped rock and another off a natural bridge. A series of steep potholes, with some refreshing and welcome wading, to chest level, led to the final problem ... or so we thought.

Looking out past a tight constriction, out of the pothole, we noted a wide opening with a large pool and a world of vegetation. The classic ‘grand finale’ at the bottom of the Navajo. If we could solve this anchor problem, we would be out. I climbed back up a few potholes, attempting to farm some anchor material. Rick dove down into a small pothole, leading to the constriction. He calls me for help. I return to find him nearly upside down, head down low in the constriction, feet dangling to the sky. I feed him webbing and eventually the rope. He has used a small rock, slung it in the constriction and now, most definitely, needs my help getting out of this comical position he is trapped in. I yank on his legs and hips and he is upright again. Rope in hand, he shimmies up 6 feet, in the top of the narrows, carefully, trying not to pull or put weight on the invisible anchor down below. Clips in and off and down the 30 foot rap, back to the ‘land of the living.’

Then it is my turn, and it suddenly dawns on me that I may have trouble accessing the rope. Indeed. First, I tried to reach in from the angle the anchor was set from; couldn’t get within two feet of it, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to right myself, if I tried much harder. I stood up and put on my thinking cap. I looked down, through the constriction, at the rope just a couple of yards away, and I realized I would not be able to get it. I became scared for the first time that day. I stemmed up the constriction and out toward the drop, to take a look out there. There was a minute, sloping ledge before the drop, but on my word I did not have the nerve to shimmy down—free—to such an insecure and unknown perch, adjacent a 20+foot drop down to Rick.

Gulp! Double Gulp!!

I steeled myself to the task ... and balked again. I suggested that Rick attach the pull cord and try and flick the cord, or tie something heavy to it, and throw it up to me. Finally, Rick thought of and tried something simpler, and it had the merit of working. With me wedged out on the edge of the constriction and the drop before me, he flicked the rope over and over and with my downcanyon leg. I snagged an end on my toes. Ever so gently, I contorted my body forward and my leg up and YES!! I got an end. We repeated the drill with the second end of the rope and I stemmed up 3 feet to give me room to clip in. After more than a little difficulty, I was in. Now the question that begged asking. “Had the anchor shifted during all this horseplay? And, if it were still sound, could I downclimb, on rappel, the 9 feet I was above the anchor, without dislodging it or shocking it?” I attempted to see the anchor through the constriction but to no avail. Gently I eased to the sloping ledge, as if I were unanchored, and slipped over the first few feet of the drop, before weighting the anchor. With Rich spotting from below, I gently slid down to the bottom, with great relief, back into the ‘land of the living.’

Here we decompressed, exchanged congratulations and gave each other a LOW 5, so as not to tempt the gods with hubris. They mocked us anyway. We were 3 tenths of a mile from main stream and familiar ground. It would take us 45 minutes to cross that ground. Please understand, I am no stranger to a good bushwhack. I have had decades of training in the New England spruce and the North Cascades’ slide alder and devils club. This was every bit in that league—a passage in Utah like I have never seen. First of all, the horsetail was so thick, that there was nowhere to put your feet down. Vines ran the length of the ground and up a few feet, grabbing, holding and tripping you to the ground. When you fell to the ground, there was nothing solid to help right yourself. Other brush was 6 feet high and impossible to see through. The ground was one big swamp, with no water course to follow. If you stood still, you started to sink in a muck that threatened to steal the shoes off your feet. It was exhausting work.

For the first time all day, we swapped leads, for following was a little easier. These two fit fellows could not lead for more than 5 minutes, without being totally winded and changing places. Benches off to the side mocked us with the promise of 50 feet of easy travel, but the cost of going the 20 feet sideways was prohibitive. Finally, we spied Larry and Tom, holding sentinel at the canyons end. Gruelingly we made our way through slightly easier ground to their side, arriving soaked from water, muck, and sweat and smeared with vegetation and mud. It had taken 6 hours to cover 1.2 miles of canyon and 3 tenths of a mile of riparian. We were elated.

The hike back to camp went uneventfully, and we arrived to an impromptu celebration—the group, moved by the spirit of the day.

For days afterwards, my thighs and calfs and most of my unprotected skin were as tender as it has ever been, like someone had taken sandpaper to my skin. I can only imagine what it was like for Rick and, for that matter, everyone else. Rick left, for he needed to guide a group early the next AM. I would see him briefly in town on our transition day, and he gave me a strawberry milkshake that tasted awesome. I have not spoken to him since. Receiving a copy of this trip report will be our next contact since then. But some things you just know. I had previously spent part of one day in a canyon with him, when our two groups met. But things are different now. You don’t visit, dance through, and share such a place as this one, together, without things changing. I am betting he feels the same way. A bond has been born and a friend made amongst the sandstone.


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