Canyon Tales
First Descent?
by Dave Black

This is one question I just have to contribute my dime’s worth to. I’ve been around too long and have been through this too many times as a climber to fall prey to the belief that any descent of a canyon without anchor left–overs is a first descent.

The idea that the lack of slings or bolts or beta guarantees that you’re the first down a canyon goes against logic. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was doing a first descent or ascent only to find that someone else had already written it up somewhere else or could describe in detail from memory.

Let’s take the CP for example. I would be willing to bet my jumars that there isn’t a first descent to be done within 5 miles of any major paved road in the Plateau. Why? Because if the native Americans and Mexicans didn’t explore it or live in it, then the chances are that the cowboys, archeologists, pot hunters, grave robbers, and uranium and gold prospectors did. Ropes have been around for a couple of thousand years at least (check out the rope grooves in Butler Wash). Ladders aren’t a new invention. There are some pretty scary looking Moki steps in some of these canyons. An example of a forgotten first ascender is Cass Hite, who had most of White Canyon scoped out, probably to include Cheesebox and the Black Hole, before he died in 1914. How many bogus first ascents of those canyons do you suppose people have imagined? The rest of White Canyon was scoped out during the Uranium boom, and what little ‘first’ stuff remained has probably long since fallen to silent clean canyoneers, like our friend Steve.

Here’s another thing to remember. The bolt–boom came out of the mid 80’s and 90’s. You have to remember that there have been a hell of a lot of canyoneers operating in the CP for a lot of decades. Before the bolt boom, and even now in many cases, the first ascensionists[descensionists] dropped their canyons without bolts, using natural anchors. The procedure for many of those folks was/is to descend the canyon once, then descend it again or ascend it to clean the webbing and anchors out.

My own example is Quandary Direct. Several years ago I thought my friends and I had a first descent because there was no webbing or left–overs of any kind. Nope. Turns out one of those ‘environmental fruitcakes’ had done it years before we did. What those ‘fruitcakes’ did was preserve it in its natural state so folks like me could do it the same way in the future.

So that begs the question ... if a canyoneer cleans the canyon, did he really descend it (sort of the “if a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears or sees it, did it really happen” thing). Come on guys, get a grip.

I was writing a guide to rock climbs in northern Utah in the mid–80’s. One of the things that convinced me to drop that project and dump it in Brian Meacham’s lap was the constant bickering there was about first ascents. The incidents that pissed me off most were when the newer climbers called the older climbers liars because there were no bolts or pitons on their routes to prove the elders had done it first. Routes I had done frequently, for a good twenty years, were suddenly named and claimed by somebody else because they had slammed their bolts into it for proof of ownership (‘Lawyers, Guns, and Money’ is a good example).

I know canyoneers that have been exploring these lands for decades. They roll open a topo map, and the ink from their map notes must weigh more than the map itself. Every little nook and cranny on the map is annotated in some fashion.


How do you tell if a canyon is a first ascent or not?

You don’t. You can claim it if you want, but there will be some quirky smiles from guys like me when you do.


llana kanka

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© 2001 Dave Black