Canyon Tales
Old Ramblings
by Mike Bogart

I am new to the canyoneering community. I am not new to canyoneering. I starting my canyon travels in the mid 1970s, principally with Dennis Turville and Jenny West (Hall, at the time) along with some others. I did not always behave in an environmentally friendly way towards the canyons. I did not report any of my descents. This is an explanation of how I began exploring canyons.

•  Evolving Sport  •

First, I would like to comment on what I see happening today in the canyon world from an historical perspective. I have nothing new to add by way of techniques, ‘best practices,’ ethics, routes, or present ideology.

Canyoneering has significantly evolved since the 70s and, I think, in a good way. Mostly due to individuals and associations concerned about the impacts of what has become a popular sport. It has not always been so. There are now government restrictions, self imposed ‘best practices,’ and unwritten rules. Regulated access is becoming more common. For some reason, that I don’t quite understand, there was a gap in the progress of canyoneering from when I started in the 70s until the 90s when it got more popular. I don’t think my silence had any effect then and doesn’t now. I believe that there is no justification to assert that what WASN’T SAID affected what WASN’T DONE. The reason for the hiatus might be that no one thought to do it. Simple. It was a stretch of the imagination back then and still is now, at least for the uninitiated. There are reasons why canyoneering evolved into what it is today and why it took its own pace getting here ... and they have nothing to do with a few secretive misfit adventurers. It is because the sport is a dangerous, intricate, equipment intensive, highly specialized, physically demanding, mentally confounding, multifaceted, committing sport that is difficult to master and fraught with perils and pitfalls. It has matured at its own pace, much like mountaineering did in the early 20th century. Modern canyoneers are better equipped, more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, more resourceful, more environmentally respectful, equally courageous, more open, and have greater ambition. That being said ...

My canyon history, among other things, involves two key points: (1) a pact I made with Dennis early on and (2) a personal choice I made in the late 80s to pursue a different life (retire from canyons). My arrangement with Dennis was straightforward: Neither of us would divulge any canyon information without the other’s consent. Period. He kept his promise. I kept mine. I deceived myself with the pretense that it was for the protection of the canyons. The canyons don’t need my protection. Unknown to me there were revolutionary and beneficial changes happening during my ‘absence.’ Some years ago I exchanged my information, my trip logs (written beta, as is my quirky habit), with Dennis and he posted them on the internet and began talking about his own experiences. Our secrecy was a result of our pact and being true to our word. Silence was easy for me, being out of the game, but was harder for Dennis still being active. Jenny was not so constrained by our misbegotten notions and she shared her experiences, to the benefit of many and indignation of a few. Such are my thoughts.

•  Consequently  •

Modern canyon travelers (canyoneers) may (or may not) want to know what sparked a small group of individuals to venture into the unknown far before it was popular. Were we crazy? Were we adrenalin junkies? Were we suicidal? Were we JPN (Just Plain Nuts)? Were we canyon engineers? Were we selfish? Were we secretive? Were we visionaries? or Were we merely curiosity seekers? The partial answer to all these questions is “HELL, YES!” The reasons for our secrecy are not those ascribed to us by revisionist historians that suggest smugness and elitism were our main driving forces in canyon exploration ... absolutely not. The reasons for my secrecy were absolutely not smugness and elitism. My main driving force in canyon exploration was, and still is, pure adventure. It was real, authentic and satisfying. I wanted to know what was out there, explore. Dennis and I also had a different perspective of vertical space. Most rope technicians had a unidirectional view, but we thought it went both ways, up and down (and sometimes sideways).

•  My Vertical Perspective  •

Climbing is the sport most closely aligned with canyoneering. At the time I got started in the canyons, there were thousands of climbers and mountaineers with elaborate history, techniques, glamour, controversy, magazines, institutions, safe practices and guidelines. Canyoneering had nothing; Nada, Zip, Zero, Zilch Point Shit. The list of what canyoneering DIDN’T HAVE was as long as what climbing DID HAVE. It was filled with lots of NOs and UNs: No history, No skill sets, No specific canyon equipment, No techniques, No recognition, No admiring disciples, No accomplishments, No information (beta), No nothing. It was Unheard, Unthought, Unknown, Unfounded, Unclear, Unheralded, Unforgiving, Uncompromising, Unimagined, and UN everything else. It was just a few overlooked souls wandering in the wilderness and wondering what else (other adventures) were out there.

Because of my interest in canyons I was looked upon as a second class wannabe and weirdo by my climbing contemporaries who did not grasp that this downward world was a whole new realm. A realm existing way below their radar ... and when some of my climbing friends asked me why anyone would want to do something like that, I simply ‘smiled and waved’ like a Madagascar Penguin. I was very content to let their notions exist. Even Dennis’ long time climbing partners thought he was losing it, challenging his interest in canyons as being less demanding than the glorified ascension of rock and ice. Their ‘dissing’ further strengthened my resolve (spite is a good motivator) to keep doing it. By keeping the climbing community in the dark as to what, exactly, we were up to, we managed to stay off the grid. As a rodent, it was like having the keys to the cheese kingdom without The King knowing mice were afoot.

As long as no one knew, it was a private preserve. Our very own, naturally contrived, intricately constructed, beautifully decorated, contorted backyard adventure maze—a wild territory with no laws. What could be better? It was too tantalizing to resist. Exciting times! Canyons had no rules, written or unwritten, whereas climbing was rife with controversy: tactics and ethics, magazine critiques (Climbing, Off Belay, etc.) definitions of clean ascents, on–sight routes, bolts/no bolts (Warren Harding), siege tactics, ropes/no ropes (John Bachar), direct lines (John Harlin), aid/no aid, rating inflation/deflation, free soloing, seasonal difficulty, chalk/no chalk, the list goes on. The objective was just to make it through alive. The challenge before me was ‘Getting it Done’ ... By Any Means ... No Rules ... and I was very comfortable to leave it that way. It was like giving The Finger to all the rigidity climbing represented. It felt good to be a rebel.

•  Downside of Isolation  •

We treated canyons as our private domain that we could do anything with and rightly thought that if more people were out doing what we were doing there would be damage done. That definitely would have been the case if larger numbers of travelers behaved as we did. Hence the start of the justification of our secrets. We had not imagined or cared about ‘clean descents.’ If one bolt was sufficient, two were better, and if two were better then four would be best as exemplified by the last rappel in Edge of the Earth—aka Neon. Leaving slings, bolts and rope scars were simply survival tactics. Expediency was the watchword.

However, and a very big HOWEVER, with us mice, there was always a little voice nagging at our conscience that told us our technique was damaging and thus had to be legitimatized as being commensurate with the risky nature of our task at hand instead of merely self indulgent. That’s where protectionism myths started and the ‘Nobler than Thou’ vindication took root. We self–servingly convinced ourselves that it was for the protection of the environment and the good of the land. When in reality, it was selfishness, not guardianship that drove us not to tell. It started with simple ego. The self–righteous protectionism came later, much later, not so much at first, but it did enter into the equation. When others ultimately started to recognize the significance of our early exploration, we allowed ego to dominate our rationale about environmental protection. That wrong–way thinking set us up as a Canyon EPA. It was pure unfounded hubris in my opinion. That arrogance didn’t last for me and in the late 80s I drifted away to a different life, for better or worse.

There was a Zion canyon accident in ’93 that added a new dimension to our protectionism. The canyon was one that was first descended by Dennis, Mary Dern, Jan Hanson and myself in 1978. The incident was caused by a bad mix of inexperience, hubris and misinformation and resulted in two deaths, a lengthy lawsuit and a big compensation. This served to add another reason for secrecy, it added ‘protection of neophytes’ to our ‘protection of canyons’ myth. False again. Human idiocy is connected with human desire through pathways more intricate than finding escape routes out of potholes.

Life keeps happening and I am now ebbing back to what drove me years ago. Detached introspection has given me the chance to examine my motives apart from being in the fray. So, to those who may have an interest, I will continue.

•  The Start  •

Dennis and I knew that if the right combination of climbing, river running, spelunking, desert survival, land navigation, engineering, expedition planning and problem solving were put together we could invent a new sport. We did it all in a pioneering spirit. Our tools were crude by the present day standards of 5.15 Rock Climbing, Big Wall speed routes, Free Climbing old aid routes, Hi–Tech climbing equipment, river savvy, space age material science, GPS location, cellular and satellite communication, and collective (Internet) problem solving. However, we did know that what we didn’t KNOW could KILL us. So we did our homework, sleuthed, applied logic, thought out–of–the–box, dry–labbed (practiced), put our heads together, observed keenly, and invented both methodologies and technologies, many of which are still considered useful. Our ace–in–the–hole was survival motivated pragmatism and that we had in abundance. We were, by all standards, merely good (not great) at any one of those necessary disciplines. But ... by aggregating our talents and knowledge into one cohesive endeavor we knew we could become niche artists ... and really good ones at that. The stage was set, the fire was laid. What was needed was the spark to set the mixture afire.

That spark occurred by happenstance, like rubbing two sticks together and not knowing when precisely they will burst into flames. One of those sticks was Dennis, a highly motivated, very talented chimney, crack and big wall climber with a head to match. The other one was me, a crafty engineer minded, technocrat inventor, and solitude seeking, desert wanderer who was always thinking “What if?” That combination proved a volatile mix for the inception of Canyoneering (Gorging). The ‘Fearless Vertical’ had met the ‘Calculating Horizontal’ in the world known as canyons. After several separate (or with a few other friends) forays into the canyons, Dennis and I, quite by chance, aligned ourselves for our first major canyon descent, Edge of the Earth—a remote, superbly spectacular canyon of average difficulty, a trade route now. What a grabber! What luck! What Destiny! What a choice Dennis had picked! After being successful at that, we were locked in and emboldened to move on to more and more intensive endeavors and larger and harder canyons. At first we did many canyons together while honing our skills, and later on with some with similarly talented, born to adventure, cohorts.

For me, besides Dennis, I felt Jenny’s influence the most ... she had my back at every turn and I knew I could rely on her. After observing her climb both rock/ice and placing my faith in her many times I took notice of how cool she remained in the face of mounting adversity. This gave me a good idea how she would react when the chips were down. She was always there. I generally did the ‘Sharp End’ stuff and she could follow, with ease, anything I could lead. She was (is) also a special friend, the one I asked to accompany me back to the place of my canyon inceptions ... Poe ... I imagined that one particular canyon might have the same effect on her as it did me. I was fixated on Poe for an unexplained feeling that permeated me when I first viewed it. As sensitive and intuitive as she is, she never suspected any underlying motives. I had been in the Poe area with other canyoneers, but never showed any special interest. It was her I asked to support me because I knew I would be scared shitless doing it. This is history according to Mike.

Secrecy was not entirely about protecting geology, promoting my ego, perceived competition with the climbing world, or preserving a private playground. Those reasons were superficial ... My underlying motive was internal. Selfishly, I craved the peaceful calm of solitude. Being in a place where nobody had ever been, The Unknown, was my refuge. I did not want other beings in my sanctum. For some reason (I speculate still) personal solitude in alien environments brings me peace. Accepting that feeling, but not really knowing what it is, I was driven to go to any lengths to get it, including being scared to death and secretive. I had made numerous solo journeys in the desert and mountains to simply wander and search for myself. I have never liked crowds, so secrecy fit nicely into my enigma.

Since 1969 I had wandered both mountains and desert solo. At age 20 I spent 10 days in the High Uintas alone to climb Kings Peak, among others, and no one had ever said, “That’s kinda weird.” I went solo. I accepted that. To ease my fearful mind in my search of my serenity I relied on my forte ... engineering crutches. Dennis and Jenny fell into my definition of ‘crutch’ and served me well as vehicles to my end; in addition to being my best friends, they were also my conveyances of sorts. Because of my need for being in the Unknown, I rarely ever repeated a first descent canyon, because, of course, that would then be Known, and would not be as real as the Unknown. What forces drove Dennis and Jenny is in their own consciousnesses. Those days are long gone. I look back and realize I may have been wrong about the secrecy. History will be the judge and history is never wrong.

•  There was One Particular Canyon  •

In 1972 a friend, Russel George, and I visited Halls Creek, via canoe thanks to a vintage British, rope pull, 1½ hp Seagull motor up from Wahweep marina (under construction at the time), while Reservoir Foul was filling. We fished and set doomed islands ablaze as we went, and I wandered (solo, because Russel was recovering from a broken leg) up Halls Creek to the Waterpocket Fold near the mouth of an unnamed canyon by Miller Creek. I ascended up the gentle sloping eastern side and stood overlooking the canyon with many potholes. I took a picture of a bend that had a pool and single cottonwood tree. That’s when I got my first mystical feeling about a canyon (and I do not use that word lightly because I am definitely not otherworldly).

It gnawed at me and intrigued me so much that I went back, solo, in 1977 to find a land route through the cliffs east of the fold. The route existed. Again ... the feeling happened just looking at it. I rapped in to get a ‘feel’ but did not explore. Eerie. Unable to reconcile that within myself I went back twice more in 1978, once with Mary Dern and Dennis Turville (‘S’/Happy Dog and 15 Minute/George’s Camp Canyon) and again with just Dennis (‘O’/Baboon Laughs) and I stood for a long time just staring, but I bypassed it with them except for stopping and pondering the ‘feeling’ at the pool with cottonwood tree. In all, I made five trips to Poe and one aerial flyover before I felt good enough about the canyon’s intentions.

I knew I belonged there. It calmed me. It called to me, it invited me, it beckoned me, it summoned me in. Though I knew not why, but that place brought me peace and has stayed with me ever since. An agreement was struck with the canyon and me; we were friends.

I was just getting to know Jenny in 1981 after we returned from guiding a climbing trip to the Canadian Purcells when we went to Poe. It felt right that she go through the canyon with me. They were both special to me. We named it for its pits and my pendulum method of surmounting them. After our transit I was content to leave the canyon to itself with my thanks and remembrance never to be forgotten, it appears, by neither of us.

She chose to publish her recollections of our visit, from her perspective, which is different than from mine. I have no feelings one way or the other if more people visit that canyon. Canyons are forever but memories die when people do. I had made my peace with it. That canyon was very special to me. It had crept it into my dreams and those dreams (and sometimes nightmares) were why I was so scared in its depths. What if dreams/nightmares are real? I had to find out—my driving force, that was the reason I was fixated.
 For those personal feelings I chose not to share my precursor treks and later voyages, save for a special one.

Most people engage in canyoneering and other gravity sports because they are fun, exciting, challenging and adventurous. They are full of awe and reverence and people like doing it. I do too, and most of my canyon wanderings were of that ilk ... enjoyment. But there was that One Canyon that was more intrinsic to me, it was not sport. ‘Sport’ means it’s fun, But that One Canyon was not sport, it was necessity. It let us pass.

•  My Journey  •

That I lived through those canyons could have been luck, but I doubt it. My father, a commensurate engineer and rocket scientist, always said, “I’d rather be lucky than smart,” but he also added one major caveat, “A good plan is better.” Today, I believe he was right. The engineer in me believed as he did, that preparation was the key. I (we) did our homework (beta) and I tried to leave nothing to chance. Attention to detail became paramount. I still remember the diameter and length of the rope we used in Poe canyon. To steel myself against the nagging and ever–present uncertainty, I invented widgets and gadgets, did aerial reconnoitering, read maps, listened to unsuccessful predecessors’ stories, bench–tested ideas and imagined the unimaginable nightmares in an attempt to assuage my own lack of confidence. My most significant crutch was my confidence in Dennis as a master of climbing techniques that, I knew (perhaps rightly or wrongly) would get us out of trouble should my unforeseen bane occur. His self–confidence was an essential ingredient in our successful navigation of ‘The Unknowns.’ When we faced the Unknown, conviction was the key to survival. How he wandered into EOE for his first time is still a mystery to me. It is very ‘out of the way,’ as much as POE is, and I don’t know what caused him to travel that direction.

For me, I knew I didn’t want to be saying, “I think I can,” in the bowels of giant Zion canyons with no idea what cold, icy, lonely, death awaited. He and I both like the ‘Sharp End.’ I was being cunning and resourceful and he was being bold. ‘What Might Happen?’ was in the front of my mind continually and I prepared for those contingencies with large amounts of inventive pragmatism. That preparation stoked my resolve and afforded my scared–shitless self the courage ‘To go where no man had gone before.’ At any significant drop we would toss a pebble over the edge and if it splashed, I went first because I was the better swimmer, if it thudded, Dennis went first because he was better at vertical. Case in point: He was the first person over the last rap in Heaps, I was first person into pits. Jenny, on the other hand, made an equally good partner because, while highly emotional (sensitive), has the quality of self–assurance in the face of adversity. She can always be counted on to act, not pause or freeze, and, once a decision is made, there is no force on earth that can dissuade her. An essential and necessary quality when all appears lost, but it can also can have its downside. She was the indispensable compliment to my pragmatism. My confidence in her was so solid it was with her that we first started going LIGHT and FAST.

Radically departing from ascension of rock, I started using 9mm, 8mm, 7mm, and even 6mm rope for weight and space considerations, which, of course, required a more delicate (a learned skill) approach to anchors, descending and extrication. 300′ of rope became my standard length in Zion and, when wet, it weighs a ton if it’s 11mm. Aside: A Backcountry ranger once appeared at our base camp in the Watchman Campground and slyly asked what all the wet rope (various 600′) was doing stretched between the trees around our old VW bug. We said, “Drying.” He knew we had been somewhere we didn’t have a permit for (we never got permits for anything) but, with his limited knowledge of what was in his way–backcountry, he hadn’t a clue which canyon had just been poached (bandit). He was just fishing.

Another of my firm beliefs was a little factoid Pete Gibbs unceremoniously related, “I can engineer my way up anything.” It probably meant nothing to Pete at the time he said it, but it grabbed me like opposite magnetic poles attracting and it soothed my nerves for I KNEW, down deep in my bones, I was confident he was right. Pete’s adage was very comforting with danger looming around every dark corner and at the bottom of every watery drop. It offered me solace when we were at the top of Potato Hollow staring down Imlay with the knowledge of what had befallen the first attempt descent party.

In my mind the major difference between ascending (climbing/mountaineering) and descending (canyoneering) was (is) reversibility. Ascending, meant to me, I could backtrack (retrace) my steps by rapping off, pendulum swing or picking an escape route. Descending, most times, is irreversible with a higher level of commitment. After we had pulled our ropes (sometimes 4 contiguous drops down) we were committed to one direction (or very creative ascending by applying the Gibbs Rule along with his ascenders). That direction might have been doable or not, life or death; flip a coin, pay your money, take your chances, whatever, we didn’t know. That’s why I needed my mental props, real or imaginary, however false they may have been. When I was out on 100 feet of single strand 9mm rope, suspended on homemade anchors, barely hanging on to questionable 5.10 sandstone, wearing slimy Vibram–soled approach shoes, precariously perched over a desperate escape from a water filled pit, unable to clearly communicate with my belayer, and only one way to get through, I knew that was not the time to have any self–doubts or partner doubts. Doubt meant death, but I had learned one thing well from Dennis, NEVER DOUBT.

•  On Rescue  •

It was either Self–Extraction or No–Extraction. An Everett Ruess type ending was better if it came down to a rescue. There was no need for someone with lesser knowledge about the dangers of canyons to come to our aid. In our minds, we were simply not worth it. Any attempt by ‘The Authorities’ with all their limited expertise to save our sorry butts would have resulted in a spectacle of major proportions that would have rescuers getting themselves into all sorts of trouble in totally unknown territory and applying unnecessarily vast amounts of resources making a media circus out of their heroic efforts. The truth was, there were no other experts in our field. The other people we took with us, except Jenny and Dennis’ pick, were friends with no technical understanding but lots and lots of guts. WE were the EXPERTS ... and if we were in trouble then others would be worse off. It was best not to tell anyone our whereabouts and avoid the hassle on both sides. The ones most at risk resulting from this kind of thinking were the unbeknowing friends we took with us.

A 3rd party rescue (aka government authority), was out of the question even if we had told them where we were going ... “Going where?” ... They would have said. For Park Service, Forest Service, BLM, Local Sheriffs, or SAR Teams of the day to mount a rescue attempt would have put their people in extreme danger. And/But they would have heroically tried. Hero being the root word in that sentence along with a ‘mentality’ that presupposes any effort is worth it, the more monumental the better. The only other real rescue possibility was friends with sufficient knowledge and skill to perform such a task, and there were very few of them. On rare occasions we would say things like, “If we’re not back by next Tuesday, look for us in the Escalante area” (a big place). So no, we did not expect any rescue. Much of our distrust had come from what we had seen of the spectacle the Park Service made of getting Gaylord Campbell off the Grand Teton (against his will) and fearing other government entities might do something similar, therefore we agreed we would rather die. In Harold Goodro’s words, the now famous Teton “Rescue” was a major “Cluster Fuck” and he also said, “Avoid wanna–be rescuers like the plague and put your confidence in those that would rather be somewhere else other than pulling your sorry ass off a mountain.” We heeded his words. That kind of rescue mentality is still alive and well today.

•  Methodology  •

Some might say I was ‘lucky.’ Actually, my luck was ‘Preparation for the Unknown.’ It was what allowed me to be scared and respectful simultaneously and provided me the mental toughness and intestinal fortitude that made progress in canyons possible. Mostly, we went ‘Heavy’ and, as we used to say, “Loaded for Bear”—had everything, all contingencies covered, ready for prime time, kitchen sink stuff. By inventing the unimagined solutions before disaster strikes and having the solutions already ‘canned’ proved both helpful and soothing.

When I went into a canyon I knew one thing without a doubt: There is ALWAYS a way through and I am going to find that way. No matter WHAT. Nothing taken for granted. No amateurish mistakes. Amateurs die.

•  Contemporary  •

Known difficulties (beta) and refining techniques for solving them are an ongoing topic on internet canyoneering sites and are enthralling to read about. There are some very clever people applying themselves to come up with ingenious solutions to problems that I could not begin to imagine. Mindlessness, complacency or doubt have no place in canyons of stature ... all can kill. Mother Nature shall always remain very unforgiving, regardless.

History cannot be altered or undone, either by those who participated in it or by those dissecting it. In the absence of truth, speculation is hearsay and invented controversies are mere theatrics. Canyoneering is real. It is authentic. It is a highly specialized, emotionally charged, potentially dangerous, mindful, recreational sport. Tragedy can strike anywhere at anytime. Mindfulness is not a minor concept. Complacency kills. Doubt impairs judgment. Mutual understanding about the risks is important to enjoying and benefiting from the consciousness of ‘Being One,’ ... I think. Acceptance of mortality with an eye towards the pragmatic are good watchwords. Canyons do not forgive mistakes and do not care much for those make them.

It would be a benefit to the sport and protect its wildness if people realize they are the mice and mice have no artificial laws protecting them from physics.

•  Finally  •

I hope this explanation helps builds awareness of the wild places and the not–so–special (pragmatic) mindset of those who went there a few years ago. It is solace for me. I am glad that more people have chosen to discover the ‘secrets.’ I can say two things to them, “Never lose site of your mind” (A lost mind is hard to find), and “Always have a way out” (What if?).

Mike Bogart

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© 2016 Mike Bogart