Canyon Tales
Fear and Loathing
in Egypt 4

by Ken Huls

CAUTION:  I wrote this account 1½ years after descending the hardest section of Egypt 4 (E4). I took no notes. This is what I recall. Details are lacking and what follows is undoubtedly objectively inaccurate. This is not intended as a guide to Egypt 4, so don’t rely on this information if you intend to descend this challenging canyon. Rather, this is what my first X–rated canyon felt like.

‹› ‹› ‹›

It was September, still too damn hot in Phoenix, and high time for a late summer trip to canyon country—our remedy for AZ cabin fever. My girlfriend, Mica, and I had been talking about Escalante all summer, and couldn’t wait to get onto the Egypt bench for the first time. Egypt 2 and 3 were clearly on the agenda. Both seemed like the kind of canyons that we enjoy descending together, and E2 provided the opportunity for a first long drop for Mica.

Mica and I fell in love in the canyons. A lifelong hiker and climber, I had been canyoneering for some years but was always lacking for partners. Mica did not have much outdoor experience but was intrigued and eager to learn. Loving the adventure, beauty and solitude it offered, she took to it quickly. Before long, she had a good number of canyons under her harness and, by the time we were planning this trip, she had the fundamentals down from her descents of a variety of canyons including Pine Creek, Echo, Spry, Burro, Fivemile, Miner’s Hollow, Chute/Baptist, Larry, Mindbender, Not Mindbender, North Fork Robbers Roost, and Cheesebox. She had been a sound second in Quandary Direct, had some climbing experience by then, and could lead if need be.

I had just descended Heaps earlier in the year, Imlay the year before. Those two, along with Quandary Direct and the Squeeze, had convinced me that I loved pothole canyons. I also had become a bit overconfident. While many of the hike times that Michael Kelsey (MK) reported in his canyon hiking guides had long seemed nearly superhuman to me, my strongest partner, Geoffrey, and I completed many of the slots that we dropped in the red book [1st Ed. Tech. Slot Guide] well ahead of MK. Moreover, many just did not seem as difficult as he had made them sound. I did not take into account what was later pointed out to me. That is to say that MK’s learning curve is not explained in his guides but is reflected in his descriptions and by his descent times. To paraphrase another, you have to know which version of MK you are reading and his corresponding skill and experience sets.

So, feeling pretty comfortable with potholes, and having faced and conquered my fears of the perch and long drop in Heaps, I was hankering for something new and we began to discuss trying some of the tighter slots.

We found a taste of it in Alcatraz. MK’s epic had us a little concerned as we pulled our trucks right up to the edge and looked directly into the canyon’s bowels. No gentle approach or warm–up there. One just raps right into the works. Kelsey’s account seemed very real as we looked down the dark, tight slot ahead and imagined him freaking out and hooking his way up the walls. That canyon proved to be the tightest slot we had yet attempted, and it also provided the most stemming with exposure.

Everyone had a distinct and different response to this new type of canyon. Geoff, Matt and I are all pretty big guys and we were forced to take the high road much more frequently than in canyons past. I found the higher stemming a bit unsettling at first but enjoyed it. Though Matt is an experienced 3B canyoneer, this was clearly not going to be his favorite type of canyon. He resisted the higher path two times too often, and both times got stuck. His girlfriend, Ashley, was rather new to canyoneering but is a former pro comp climber and had a steep learning curve. She found the exposure to be harrowing at times. Geoff is an old hand climber who now gets his kicks running ultras. Growing up in England, he cut his teeth on gritstone and has climbed sea stacks in Australia and A5 big walls in Yosemite. He now has a long canyon resume and moves through slots like a ringtail cat, but I didn’t see the usual joy in him that day.

On the other hand, Mica seemed completely unfazed by the new terrain. She looked strong, confident, and at ease. Unlike Matt, Geoff and I, Mica was often able to stay low when we had to go high, and her lighter frame seemed to be an advantage when she was forced to higher ground. She frequently left us big guys behind and each time came back beaming. She was clearly having the time of her life and loved showing us apes up a bit for once. We began to think that skinnier slots would prove to be her strength, and she and I decided to seek out some more. Mae West was calling our names. Seeing as we were going to be in the neighborhood, we began to flirt with the possibility of dropping Egypt 4 this time around.

Problem was, MK clearly had not descended the entire canyon and admitted it, though he still offered someone else’s rating: “4B III R or X?” Equipment: “... 15m rope and perhaps an Ibis hook and G–pick (?)” All those question marks were disconcerting. Oh, he hadn’t done 800 meters of the canyon? So what did he really know? At least the lack of some of his usual (and sometimes useless) beta (i.e., the red tape around the horn should still be there? but maybe someone can replace it) would only add to the adventure. But the thought of a possible X–rated descent left me both excited and scared at once. Truth be told, the challenge of such a canyon had long intrigued me, but the storied Sandthrax epic had convinced me that we had some work to do before we would be ready.

Attempting to be at least marginally prudent, I checked some online canyon guides but couldn’t find much. The ACA site had a rating and brief description, but did not call it an X. I recall a comment along the lines of “a step up from Egypt 3.” Foolishly, I did not ask my betters on the Canyons Group, thinking, if this was a true X, then surely someone would have rated and posted it accordingly. OK then, a hard R with lots of stemming. Sounds good. And off to Escalante we went.

The fall weather was typically brilliant. The air crisp, the light soft, and we could really feel the autumn, something I sorely miss living in Phoenix. Heaven.

Egypt 3 was delightful. That is, all except the last couple of hundred meters before hitting Twentyfive Mile Wash. Recent rains had left it a true swamp: exhausting and stinky, with plenty of quicksand. Two or three times we had to play ‘hunt the shoe.’ No matter. We were in love with each other, Egypt, and the canyons. I really enjoy canyons that can be descended with very little, if any, rope work. Raised a climber, I just can’t shake the idea that rappelling is merely a quick way to get down after the real work is done. The downclimbing and bit of stemming that E3 offered made for a great first day back in the canyons.

Feeling tuned up, we began to discuss the next day’s challenge while walking the benches back to camp. E2? Or go for it while still fresh and tackle E4, saving E2 for day 3? I was all for 4 and couldn’t wait to try some sustained high–stemming. Mica, however, began to have second thoughts.

She’s often a bit queasy before a canyon or a climb, even ones that should be easy for her. Rather than scrap every adventure after breakfast, we’ve learned to adjust and just work past it without too much navel–gazing and analysis. It’s just her way and as soon as she’s on rope or in canyon, the jitters go away. I figured we just needed to get going and all would be well. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and we had all day. We could go light and fast, though we ignored MK’s musings about skipping a pack. What, NO WATER? No survival kit? That kind of talk has always sounded like an Search & Rescue Full Employment Act, and I hated that he printed it. While we passed as usual on the MK G–pick suggestion, we did take water, snacks, bunny strap and a hat and fleece each. Plus, I threw in 70 feet of 9/16 tape, two étriers and my mini survival kit—just in case. And a camera—it never came out of the pack.

We got an early start, and good thing because, as has so often been the case, MK’s map and approach directions thoroughly confused me. We ended up too far west and in a side drainage that was feeding us back into E3. Hmmm, this looks mighty familiar. Running into another group, we were able to tell them that yeah, you are on route, but we obviously aren’t.

Up and out and over we went. Much topo–gazing, compass–fixing, and traditional Kelsey–cursing later, we located a trickle of a drainage that had to be it or we would soon fall off the bench and roll down to the Escalante. Ok, so it was now noon, but without rope work, this should go quickly, and hey, we’re warmed up—or so I reassured Mica. I offered to call it a day, but she saw right through me. My eagerness had gotten the best of me. So off we went to ‘have a bit of a look.’

Things started out easy enough. The canyon begins as a shallow drainage meandering in and out of the slickrock expanse. Potholes and a few short pourovers appear here and there, but all are readily bypassed. About when we started wondering whether the slot proper would ever form, we were forced up on the gently sloping walls for a section of easy, low–stemming. This ain’t so bad, we thought. We can do this all day. I was actually feeling a little disappointed and hankered for more action. Hoping to find it ahead, we soon dispensed with any thoughts of just having a little look.

It didn’t take much longer to find the action. The walls steepened, and then a water–filled chamber appeared. So far we were dry and hoped to remain so given the cool temps and the shaded walls ahead. However, the contour and width of the slot on the other side looked a bit intimidating and might make for a difficult exit if one ended up in the drink. So, with Mica holding station at the entrance to provide reversibility, I headed into a pretty full body bridge to try my hand at taking the chamber high and dry. At 6’3” I was able to pull it off. It was obvious that Mica, who is considerably shorter, would have quite a challenge in finding a dry route on the walls, but it was theoretically possible. And if she went into the drink, the landing was deep water with no visible hard or pointy things. Plus, I was on the other side ready to assist with tape and étriers in hand.

After a valiant attempt that saw her halfway across the obstacle, in she went with a cold, but safe, splash. Judging by her reaction, the water must have been a tad chilly. Mica made several game, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to exit before we started to get worried about the strength–sapping cold water. I joined two étriers, attached them to my harness, and lowered them to my freezing girlfriend. With me in a solid stance, she was able to climb up and make the exit. At this point we felt committed. So after a quick breather, we were once again heading downcanyon.

The commitment soon became daunting—much of the canyon afforded a view ahead for up to 50 meters at a time, but all we could see was the promise of unrelenting high–stemming. Sustained stemming with 40 or 50—and at times up to or 70—feet of air underneath our asses was unnerving. It’s one thing to chimney up and take the high road to pass an obstacle, but quite another to stay there with no end in sight. And it’s still another to experience the sinking realization that by all appearances we were likely going to descend the entire freaking canyon this way.

At about that time we started to discuss taking the first available exit. This canyon was something that we just weren’t prepared for that day, and all we wanted to do was get out in one piece. Unfortunately we had absolutely no idea how long it would take to reach one. Fear of the unknown began to take its toll and I tried to bolster Mica’s flagging morale by repeating the mantra: “We will get out,” and “The first exit won’t be far.” I guess I needed to hear it, too.

The uncertainty about what we might encounter and how long it would take to reach an exit wore on us almost as much as the problems posed by the canyon, itself. On and on we went in our sideways–crab scuttle fashion. God, I wish I had heeded one piece of advice—that of padding one’s ass! To cover a kilometer on your butt requires either the hide of a pachyderm or some serious protection. The Scuttle Butt wasn’t cutting the mustard and blood had begun to ooze through my pants.

The relentless exposure was incredible. I had begun to think that canyoneering, while fun and full of discovery, just might not have that much more challenge to offer. One of my early concerns in the canyons was going unroped in places where I was accustomed to protection. At times it seemed foolhardy, but of course, one gets used to it. This brought those early memories back, and in spades. I fought the constant realization that I could fall at any moment, and that might be all she wrote. Sure, people knew where we were, but we were on a multi–day trip and no one would be looking for days. Plenty of time to bleed out or die of exposure if the fall didn’t kill me—or worse, her. You can’t dwell on such thoughts or you get gripped. Focusing on a meter at a time helped. And not looking down. Narrowing the world to a little doable patch and trying to relax the muscles that were not in play seemed to work and our pace picked up.

Soon the character of the walls switched from offering a fairly constant width and angle to sections where both varied from foot to foot in both the vertical and horizontal planes. The walls became a maze of ever–changing dimensions and one had to adapt. We wanted to save energy and keep the rate of travel up by staying on a consistent path, but that proved impossible. Routefinding became the name of the game and due to our vastly different proportions, Mica and I frequently had to take separate paths in order to minimize laid out stems or bridges—much more comforting to have your ass on the wall.

Again, focusing on the moves at hand made the going easier, but it was hard to maintain after being laid out time and time again, all the while trying to ignore the fall factor. Our bodies tightened up in response to fear and anxiety, and staying loose was a constant battle. Realizing that this was a marathon of sorts, we had to stay loose or we would not have the energy to finish whatever distance remained.

I had taken to short–roping and belaying Mica with that 9/16 inch webbing. I would advance 10 or 15 feet ahead on a troubling stemming section and take a strong stance. She would then follow under the psychological protection of my pathetic hip belay. It helped her confidence, but I winced at the thought of ‘catching’ a pendulum in those tight places. I had taken her pack and added it to my bunny strap, which was plenty of fun—double the friction and weight and very awkward. But the freedom helped her immeasurably and we dearly needed her stamina to hold out.

Then the walls started to come apart right underneath us. Much of the canyon seems to be covered in slick algae or moss. This stuff looks harmless, but we soon learned that it tended to destabilize the rock underneath. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that we were keeping at least three points of contact most of the time, and often more, counting butt, shoulders or elbows in addition to hands and feet. But when that first dinner plate under my foot slid out and fell away into the darkness below, I felt a panic rise in me that was hard to choke off. With solid points of contact remaining, I could keep my stance. But what if a plate calved off under both feet, or under both a foot and my ass at once? Worse yet, what if one slid off while Mica or I was stretched out in a bridge?! I knew the answers, and decided they were ones on which it was best not to dwell. On we went like soldiers crossing a minefield, each placement tested before being weighted. But the plates continued to drop.

The words exposure and commitment took on new dimensions for us. I was feeling like I do when leading a trad climb and I am 20 or 30 feet strung out above my last piece of pro. And I find the crux. Every move, every foot began to feel that way.

And then we found the silos. I looked out over the first of a series and thought, “How am I going to get past just ONE of these things?” They looked too wide to stem or bridge. One could not bypass on the top due to the pronounced flare, and there was no below to the long, deep cylinders. Indecision began to set it. Again I told myself to focus on the moves at hand, one at a time, and to limit my perception to the immediate. Gingerly entering the first, I stretched out—butt and shoulders off the wall. The sense of gravity was overwhelming and amplified by the packs swinging below from my bunny. Focus, focus. One hand, one foot at a time. And I was across. The seemingly impossible was doable. But to look ahead was the death of spirit. How many more? Four, five ... more? And how many downcanyon?

Now it was Mica’s turn. Though saying it could not be done, she bravely bridged out on ‘belay.’ Fully laid out, she kept her cool and crossed the first silo to the relative safety of my stance. She couldn’t believe she had made it. Buoyed by success, we headed the few meters to the next silo, and repeated the process, focusing all the while on one silo, one move at a time. Resisting the impulse to look ahead and count the obstacles in our path, we forged ahead and finally crossed the series after what seemed like hours. Our relief was tempered with the ever–present fear that we might encounter a similar crossing ahead. Though we found several more silos, thankfully none were more difficult than that which we had already crossed.

After about four hours of this, we had touched the canyon floor once, maybe twice, and for only a few feet at that. Psychologically, these touchdowns provided a much–needed respite, as did the occasional body pocket and ass–sized shelf. However, thoughts of bivouacking in such places were plenty grim and went unspoken by us both.

After a particularly hard section that required a body reversal or two and a hairy laid out stem, Mica found shelter in one of the larger pockets. She needed the break both physically and psychologically, but I was afraid that a loss of momentum would break her will. We agreed on a short rest, but it was soon apparent that my fears were well founded. Already feeling profoundly guilty for the entire episode and the danger that I had placed Mica in, I now felt like an unbelievable tool for forcing her back onto the walls. I tried to console myself with the knowledge that it had to be done. Though truly terrified, she instinctively understood the gravity of the situation and the necessity for action. Mica swallowed her fear and bridged out. I loved her for that and learned with a certainty that I could rely on her courage under any circumstance.

Eventually we encountered a section of walking canyon that might have reached a whopping ten meters in length. Bliss! Looking ahead, one had the sense that a small, thin canyoneer might be able to take the low road for some distance. Mica seized on that possibility, but her hopes were soon dashed. Her disappointment then turned to despair as she looked up and realized that to effectively reach the horizontal path we would have to chimney straight up a good 50 feet. In her fatigued state, that was a daunting task. Dithering was no good, so I started up. The width and contour of the walls provided a difficult start, but I was soon in a good, solid stance. I dropped the end of the tape to her for a hip belay and again tried to calculate the odds of catching her. But at least the drop was straight and without obstacles, so as long as I caught her she should be alright.

Mica made repeated attempts at the chimney, but couldn’t make it high enough to sustain the climb. Time and again, she struggled up four or five feet only to drop to the floor. “I can’t,” she said in a small voice, sounding desperate and defeated. “You WILL,” I replied with all the quiet confidence and force I could muster. It had become apparent that she needed assistance or the fruitless labor would squander whatever energy reserve she still possessed. With her consent, I initiated a body haul. Hand over hand, I took her up the first 6 for 8 feet, at which point she was able to obtain enough purchase to help. A combination of heavy tension and hauling saw her to the proper crack width for horizontal travel. At that point, I knew that barring a fall we would make it out of the canyon together one way or another.

We were hunting for MK’s listed exit east of 5201T. He had said it was about ⅔ of the way down. Surely we had come that far? It had been an eternity. Already the canyon darkened, but every turn seemed to bring fresh light and the promise of wider canyon and an exit ahead. Each time our hopes were crushed.

For much of this time we could look up and see what appeared to be the top only 10 or 20 feet away. A brass ring just out of reach. Intellectually, I knew that it was almost certainly not the ‘top,’ and, if I somehow got that far on friction, I would most likely still be faced with a wider, but still inescapable section of canyon. Anyway, any attempt to exit would be the assumption of outrageous risk that would likely result in a fatal fall or a broken and bleeding body.

I recalled a canyon tale in which a group got in over their heads in Leprechaun on their annual ‘adventure trip.’ With the others in a panic, the leader tried to chimney out and took a long fall with his head ping–ponging from wall to wall. He was lucky to have survived. Though it had been a tremendous error in judgment to attempt the canyon together, we would at least not make that mistake. The exit was ahead and I doubted that the canyon could dish out anything worse than the silos we had already crossed. Going slow and sure, we would make it. Better to spend a cold, sleepless night on a tiny butt shelf than try anything rash. It was maddening, but we resisted all desperate impulses and continued our slow progress.

After another hour, I began to fear that we had somehow missed the 5201T exit. After all, MK hadn’t actually descended this portion of the canyon. What did he know?! And I had found some of the approaches and exits in his descriptions to be ill–advised. I kept remembering his G–picking and hooking his way out of Alcatraz. Well, we wouldn’t make that mistake either. I told Mica that, if we had missed it, there should be an easy exit to either side after only another half km of easier slot. ‘Course, again, he hadn’t been down that section of canyon either as far as we could tell, but the topo clearly showed accessible contours at that point. We forged on.

Daylight ahead. Soon I saw a low–angle slab appear to the right. Could this be it? Looking up, I hurled a few curses. It was well over a hundred feet to gain the top—and it did look like the top, though I could not be sure. 40 feet of low angle gave way to 40 or 50 feet of higher angle friction slab. The last 40 feet looked pretty grim—vertical, or nearly so, but with hope for some holds. We held a war council, weighed the risks for the lead, and decided I should give it a try. The first two sections were clearly doable. If the last section proved too risky, I could always reverse, and the spot where we stood offered a reasonable bivouac. With Mica’s blessing, I dropped my pack and set off.

‘Pitch one’ was nothing and I hauled the packs and belayed Mica with that sweet 9/16 tape. Thank the canyon gods I brought it. The second section was a little hairy, but really no big deal except for the exposure and mental fatigue. I told myself I wouldn’t think twice about it but for the air below. Haul and belay again. The final pitch looked daunting. Yep, really vertical, and those holds now looked like crumbly slopers. But it was short. Again I told myself that it was nothing if not for the exposure, and I had done this many a time before. Good decision or not, up I went. It was not fun. The holds were crumbly and sloping, but testing everything before weighting and maintaining three points of contact it was doable, and I pulled onto the top. I was worried about Mica, but recalled catching a full–grown man on a hip belay 30 years before when I was 11, so I figured it was going to be ok. As it was, Mica was up like a rabbit.

We sat there on the edge, exhausted but safe. Even with the pressure off, Mica fought back her tears. I feared her reaction now that we were out and hoped that this would not spell the end of our canyoneering together—or worse, the end of us. But mostly I was just relieved that we had gotten out with nothing worse than a lesson hard–learned and a lot of lost skin. Finally, she uttered the dreaded words, “I may never go into another canyon again.” Who could blame her? Suffering from my guilt over the episode, I certainly couldn’t. But to my amazement that was soon followed with, “What an adventure!!” God I love her.

We didn’t talk much, but enjoyed the early evening light back to camp. There were plenty of those “God, it’s good to be alive” and “Ain’t everything so damned beautiful!” feelings. We made no attempt to follow MK’s suggested route again, and instead headed straight up the drainage and route–found our way up the bowl at the head of E4 to the rim of the ridgeline above. It’s easy, and we found that if you keep heading north you’ll soon see the Egypt trailhead below. Ah, Kelsey! If we ever were to come back to complete our descent, at least we would not waste hours on the approach. Just go south from the trailhead and you can’t miss the damn thing.

That night we slept like the dead. Egypt 2 was no longer an option, so the next day we headed into Escalante to lick our wounds, shower, and get some real chow and a bed. Stopping in at one of the outfitters, we had a chat with the proprietor about E4 and gave our TR. We advised that this canyon might be a bit of a sandbag. He did not say much about the place, other than his memories of Kelsey having passed through and how grim he had said the canyon was. Oh, so MK has done the canyon? I was a bit confused by that, but knew his 2nd Ed. was coming.

Returning home, I couldn’t get the canyon and our experience off of my mind. Guilt and shame alternated with relief and exhilaration. I did not know what this experience meant for my canyoneering future and me. Not so for Mica, she knew she was never going to attempt something like this again. But for me it was much more complicated. E4 was my first experience in a sustained Mae West, and, though I was not sure that I actually enjoyed the experience, it did challenge me like no canyon had before.

To put things in perspective, I had been doing a lot of soul–searching since Heaps earlier in the year. I had wanted to descend that canyon for many years, but never quite felt ready or had the right partner. That spring I was ready and Geoff was available. We were ham and eggs in harder canyons, and I knew his big wall experience would really pay off on the long drop. Yet for weeks before the trip, I had images of falling from the perch. Putting them aside, the descent went absolutely beautifully, and I had probably the two best days of canyoneering that I have yet experienced. Two weeks to the day later, Keith (who I did not know) fell from the perch and died. Like Keith, I have two little kids who hope to canyon with me someday.

Egypt 4 got me to thinking again. Was canyoneering worth it? Or was it just the risk of sustained exposure that had gotten to me? Maybe I should stick to my comfort zone and not push it. Unfortunately, that just isn’t my nature. I decided to bare my soul and hang my ass out on the Canyons Group. Getting it off my chest helped. The community was very supportive and I found that I was not alone. I also found out that Egypt 4 was recognized as a fairly solid X. That helped, too, but also raised the question of why the hell didn’t anyone have it X–rated online? An interesting discussion of Kelsey, his 1st and upcoming 2nd Ed’s, and the ethics of publishing X–rated canyons ensued. Having fallen ‘victim’ to a published canyon with both unclear and sandbagged ratings, the answer was clear to me. Make damn sure you have either descended the entire canyon and rated it accurately, or don’t publish it at all.

As for MK and his E4 info in the 1st Ed. Slot Guide, yeah, he did say he had not descended the whole canyon, but he also said he missed 800 meters of the best part due to his less experienced partner. In his 2nd Ed., he relates that he had missed 1.5 km of the most difficult part on his scouting trip with that same partner. Hmm. That’s twice as much missed as what he revealed in his 1st Ed., and 1.5 km is pretty much the entire slot prior to the major exit. Certainly, it’s almost all of the technical section, and the entire X–rated portion of the canyon. Which was it, MK?

I know some advocate keeping the hard stuff out of the guide books and sites in order not to honey–pot people. Worries about attracting yahoos seeking out ‘extreme sports’ experiences are real concerns. But folks, canyoneering is no longer a secret, and a canyon like E4 is so close to other accessible, well–traveled canyons, not to mention so close to a major trailhead, that people are going to find their way in. If the word is out about the canyon, and it’s difficulties are accurately rated, it may actually keep more out than the X rating would otherwise attract. Anyone who goes in knowing what they are in for is responsible for their own experience. Same goes for anyone who goes in NOT knowing what they are in for. But if you sandbag a canyon, intentionally or otherwise, you are at least partially responsible for the consequences suffered by anyone who relied on your bad beta and rating.

That’s for ethics. As for me, I consider myself ultimately responsible for any experience that I have. Yeah, I was concerned about the unnamed canyoneer who rated it a possible X, and checked the guide sites, but I did not take the time to ask the Canyons Group or another similar forum for their experiences and advice. I should have—my fault—and in the end there is no one to blame but myself.

Navel–gazing aside, I had unfinished business. I needed to either finish the canyon where we left off or do an entire descent with my strongest partner, Geoff. Mica had no interest. The first time I had brought the idea up, we both got a funny look on our faces and headed for separate bathrooms. Geoff was unsure about it, and anyway not available, as Mica and I headed back to Egypt the following fall.

This trip was different for us. We took my little girls and my father along. We planned to take the kids through Spooky, did so, and what joy to see their faces light up with first canyon discovery. Dad, who had introduced me to the outdoors and climbing at a young age, was along for the camping and to watch the girls while Mica and I descended E2. That was Mica’s first longer drop. It was a brilliant day and she handled the long drop well.

Early the next day, I set off solo to find our E4 exit site and rim–walk the rest of the canyon. I planned to solo the last portion to the double exit if the distance was short and I was feeling it. I told her I would leave the rope fixed so I could back out if it got hairy or I lost my nerve. Not that this was the smartest move in the world, but Mica knew where I was and that I should be back in 4 hours or so. If help were needed, it would be a lot closer and quicker than on our last visit.

Having rationalized my madness, I set off early. Knowing the way, the approach was fast this time around and our exit was easy to find. I walked the remaining canyon down to the east/west double exit, which encouragingly wasn’t that far, and the exit obvious and gentle. I also saw what looked like two, and possibly even three, escapes to the east before the double exit south of 5201T. All in all, it looked like a go.

Back at our former exit, I fixed the rope. There is a nice juniper and boulder for a backed up bomber anchor. Looking down I felt anxious, but knew I needed to do this. I told myself I would just jumar out and call it a day if the fear didn’t go away once I reached the bottom.

Leaving our little staging area at the exit, I was immediately back into stemming mode. My fear vanished as I set ass and foot to wall. The stemming was high, but not so high or so sustained as in the previous section of canyon. The walls were also straighter, less convoluted, and seemed to be more stable. No more silos or tricky, exposed moves to be found. I was having a blast and enjoying the sun, crisp air, and silence of the canyon. It was exhilarating. After only 20 or 30 minutes, I reached the first possible exit to the east. That made me smile and almost wish we hadn’t taken that exposed escape last year, but there’s no changing the past and who was to know at the time? The remaining canyon alternated between sections of stemming and walking/squeezing for 20 minutes or so at a time. The breaks from exposure were pleasant and the hour and twenty minutes it took me to reach the east/west double exit passed quickly and without event. Mica and I had definitely passed the crux and most difficult sections of canyon last year. My respect for her is immense.

I took a few minutes for reflection and a snack before walking up and out to the west. Egypt 4 was done. As a wandered back to camp, I tried to decide what this meant for me and whether I wanted to try another X in the future. I still don’t know. I certainly enjoyed my return day, but it was clearly not as difficult as the upper section of the canyon. In retrospect, however, I have no idea what my reactions to the upper canyon would be if I went in prepared. So much of my experience was influenced by the surprise of what we had encountered and my concern for Mica’s safety. It’s hard to focus on the canyon and your experience while you are constantly scanning the walls for an exit and coaching your understandably freaked out girlfriend through the worst nightmare of her life, and all the while in fear that she’s going to fall to her death because you talked her into a canyon without knowing what you were getting into. Yeah, that’s no fun at all.

In the end, sustained exposure is something that may not be fun for me. The challenge and adventure of it may not be worth the cost. I found that it is one thing to deal with a series of challenging obstacles, each of which can be engineered for maximum safety, and, if under–engineered or unprotected, the briefer exposure to risk accepted and endured, but it’s quite another to expose yourself to injury and possible death, for hours on end without a safety net. The kids need me and I have lots of hikes and canyons that I intend to enjoy. This is a game that may not be worth the price. Though I may have to try it again to find out, I am in no rush. The beauty and wilderness quality of most slots are the main attractions, and R–rated action satisfies my need for adventure.

Ken Huls

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2009 Ken Huls