Canyon Tales
To Hall & Back
by Randi Poer

—  February, 2003  —

My husband Lewis came across the Hall Canyon trip report early last year while he was surfing the net looking for ‘mining camp’ ruins to explore. It had been posted out there in net–land by the ‘Desert Peaks’ section of the Sierra Club. After reading it, I put this canyon high on my ‘must do’ priority list. I e–mailed the report to a few friends and everyone who saw it was intrigued. The TR described rugged terrain, heavy bushwhacking, lots of flowing water, and numerous high falls to rappel; fourteen in all, with many of them in the 70’ – 120’ range. The previous group had nine people in their party, and it took them two days to get through it. We figured with a group of four, we would most likely be able to get through in one long day. I guess we were even slightly cocky about it! None of us had a clue as to just how grueling an adventure we were in for.

I had waited half a year for a chance to explore Hall Canyon, and had tried to plan two previous excursions, both of which fell through for one reason or another. Now it looked as though this trip might have to be put on hold as well, due to a severe storm that rolled in. It had been raining for three days straight, and the temperatures had been in the low 30’s in and around the intended trip zone. After a group discussion and a hashing out of a contingency plan of sorts, we came to the conclusion that, unless “Hall freezes over,” the trip would be a go.

Friday morning, Lewis and I arrived at the designated meeting spot, on the highway, at the intersection of Trona and Ballarat roads. We arrived about 11:50 and no one was there. We were expecting to meet up at high noon with Dick Shear, Scott Smith, John Perry, and our special ‘secret kept from Dick’ guest attendee, Rich Carlson. Turns out that everyone wanted to see the ghost town, and to meet Donna—the new care–taker—of Ballarat. After a radio call, we located the group and then we headed down the road to meet them out front of the Ballarat general store. Ballarat is a no horse, one–person town with a small store—which sells nothing but warm cokes—a few nearly completely dissolved adobe buildings, a small graveyard, and a few abandoned vehicles—one that supposedly belonged to the Manson Family. There was apparently no running water in the town at this time.

We spent a few minutes saying ‘hi,’ sorting gear, meeting Donna, and then we were off. I kissed Lewis good–bye and we parted ways for the weekend. Our group took off in three trucks in one direction, while Lewis and Donna took off in his truck in the opposite direction. Lewis had graciously offered to drive Donna up the mountain to check the water lines, which feed Ballarat from a nearby spring. I would find out later, that he was unable to locate the source of the problem. Oh well, hopefully another Good Samaritan would come along before Donna dies of thirst.

We drove about three miles up the road to Indian Ranch and parked Rich’s and Dick’s truck’s there, outside the gate posted ‘NO TRESPASSING.’ Then we all hopped into Scott’s truck—a Cool Chevy Avalanche — which comes equipped with leather North–face seats, jr. back–packs and even a computer generated electronic girlfriend! We proceeded up Jail Canyon road, losing the road more than once and smashing Scott’s running board in the process. Jail canyon is a very sporting 4WD road that disappears here and there, and eventually ends up in a rugged wash. The plan was to drive to an old jeep trail that heads over to Hall Cabin near our intended drop in point. The road has been closed to vehicular travel since 1994, due to the Desert Protection Act.

Having somehow missed the very visible intersection of Jail canyon and Hall canyon road, we arrived at what we thought was the road to Hall. We parked, did a last minute equipment check, donned our packs and headed up the road at 2:45. It started off broad (like a fire road) then quickly came to a dead end. No one really thought too much of it, as we proceeded up the mountain following animal trails, and, or the path of least resistance.

About a half–mile away from the truck, Rich noticed a very nice looking mining road way over yonder on a distant hill.

“Hey, isn’t that our road over there?” he says.

It sure looked like it, but no one really wanted to go back down, and lose what little elevation gain we’d attained so we decided to make our way up the precipitous hillside, instead, and intersect the road up there somewhere. It was a good plan, but not an easy one. Our packs were heavy, and the going was rough, especially making our way up a couple of loose, steep, rock strewn gullies. With much effort and a little teamwork negotiating the packs, we were finally on the road. We rested here for a few minutes, and then continued on our way.

The weather was cool, which made hiking so much more bearable. I hate hiking in hot weather and have a tendency to over–heat easily. The boys were wrapped in sweaters and caps, and they kept asking me if I was cold in my tank top, which I wasn’t. I couldn’t understand how they were comfortable in those sweaters, lugging heavy packs uphill! On and on we trudged, wondering if the cabin was just over the next rise. Here and there, spectacular views of the valley could be seen below.

After a few hours, Scott and John had disappeared from view, I was walking alone, and Rich and Dick were back there somewhere. It started to get dark at some point, so I had to stop long enough to pull out my headlamp. I continued on, hoping for level ground. Finally, we were all together again at an elevation of about 5600 ft. We still had another hour of hiking ahead of us. Mostly down hill from here though, so that was nice. We arrived at the mouth of the canyon at 8:15, five hours after we had started this bear of a hike. It was dark, it was cold, and there was no sign of the cabin, or a flat spot on which to pitch the tents. Getting those packs off of our backs was a welcome relief. We poked around a bit looking for the cabin, but couldn’t locate it in the dark.

We chopped away at a few bushes, moved a heap load of rocks, and were able to level a semi–reasonable couple of spots to place the tents. Rich and Dick would share one tent, and I would share the other tent with John and Scott. If you’re old–fashioned—like I used to be—you might think it less than ideal to have co–ed sleeping arrangements. It’s something I had to get used to early on in my caving career, and I’ve grown quite accustomed to it. The only thing I can’t seem to get used to is having to endure the ‘farting’ and ‘snoring’ of two men at once!

Sleep, for me, was interrupted all night long by bouts of shivering. I was too tired and cold to dress for bed so I slept in my clothes. I did not stay warm, and I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. You know how it is; you gotta go, but you don’t want to get up. So in and out of sleep I drifted.

• Heading Downcanyon •

Saturday, I awoke at the first sign of daylight, but I waited until I heard movement outside to actually start moving myself. Scott made the comment that my knee had been pressing against his back all night long.

When I apologized, he said, “Oh no, don’t apologize. It felt great. Just like a massage.”

Poor single guys! I guess they don’t know what a ‘real’ massage feels like.

We were out of the tent and packing up our gear by 6:30. The hills above us were speckled with snow, and it was fairly chilly out. Scott and I made our way through dense brush over to the stream to pump water. There was burro crap all over the place. At one point, I think we had inadvertently made our way to the community burro pooping grounds. It was really gross! Poop was everywhere! We quickly looked for another area to pump, got our water and headed back.

The BLM cabin was located about 100 yards from where we’d camped. It had a BLM ‘adopt–a–cabin’ placard on the side, but it looked more like it was part of the ‘abandon–a–cabin’ program. It was in a serious state of disrepair. It was full of rat droppings, the windows were gone, and the roof was caving in. It had a nice, newer wood–burning stove, but that was its only amenity. We saw a few remnants of stone structures that may have been homes at one time, and wooden stakes along a hillside, which looked like an old fence. Those would be the only man–made structures we would encounter throughout the canyon.

We followed a man–made road and faint animal trails for the first half a mile or so, to where the canyon started to funnel in towards the watercourse. Dick and I decided to suit up here in preparation for the drop into water. I had only one pair of shoes, and one pair of dry pants. Not quite knowing what the weather had in store, I didn’t want to get my shoes or clothing wet. The others pushed on. After suiting up, I plowed my way through 10–foot high stalks of what looked like wheat, to stand at the edge of a two–foot drop.

I stood there for a moment admiring the scenery. The canyon walls were an impressive 150’ high mass of giant boulders secured by brush and mud. Down below me, there was a small ankle deep stream flowing and an enormous amount of very high, thick brush. I slid down the little chute and made my way by parting brush at every step as I followed the water. The only view I had was the thick vegetation in front of my face. I tried to follow where the others had gone, through previously parted brush on occasion, or matted down vines where they had trudged through. Long tangled vines clung to our feet and tried to keep us from moving. The brush seemed to get thicker and thicker, turning to fairly stout bushes blocking our way. We had to crawl up and over them. Dick was following me, and I was lost.

There was only one way to go, but “how in the hell are we going to get through this?” I wondered aloud.

All of a sudden I noticed a trail of blood. I guess no one had any breadcrumbs to leave behind. This was good enough. Whoever got hurt, I hoped it was nothing serious. We followed the splatters of blood when we saw them and crawled when we had to, as we made our way down canyon. At 9:45—an hour and 15 minutes after we’d left camp—we caught up with the others on a boulder out–cropping. We continued to plow and crawl our way through the tangled vines, and bushes for another 2 hours. Rich had cut his hand earlier—nothing serious—and at some point, both Scott and John had a twig poke them in the eye as they fought their way through the mass of vegetation.

At 11:30, we stopped for lunch on a broad boulder. The canyon had opened up a bit, and we could actually spot dirt down there. Places where we could walk unencumbered.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad” I remarked. “Looks like that might be the end of it too,” I said with a smile.

Rich just looked at me, and said, “Well, if it isn’t, then there’s going to be a lynching.” He also smiled, so I knew he was joking.

We were having a great time!

From this point on, until we got to the first rappel, we were able to alternate between bush–crawling, bushwhacking, bush–wading, and following small animal trails that ran along the hillsides. The parts of the canyon we could actually see were lovely. There were barrel cactus dotting the hills, high walls, nearly vertical in places, and a mosaic of convoluted boulders in others.

We finally arrived at the first rappel at 2:30, just six hours after leaving camp!

•  The Rappels  •

The first waterfall was about 60’ high and could be bypassed via a down–climbable boulder wall on the South side. John climbed down, dumped his pack and climbed back up to show us all how easy it was, but there was one awkward area that had a lot of loose rubble and sand, and it was a long way down if someone happened to lose their footing. We opted to play it safe and rappel instead. There was a BLM marker (placed here by the Desert Peaks group that had come through in 1994) near the point where we set our anchor. We rapped from a large boulder and continued on through very heavy brush to the next fall. It was only about 50 yards away, and we were talking about the possibility of getting through the rest of the drops fairly quickly. We didn’t have a clue! No one had thought to bring the previous groups TR, which would have given us a better idea of where we were in the canyon. The second fall was a beautiful moss covered chute with high vertical walls and an ankle deep pool at the bottom. The pool was surrounded by—yes, you guessed it!—heavy brush.

The third rappel, which was about 70 ft. was almost completely hidden by a lush garden of delicate looking ferns. John, then Dick, and then Scott made their way down. Neither Rich, nor I could see from up above any of the difficulties they had encountered, nor did we have any form of communication other than whistles. As I slid over the edge, my feet had to gingerly push through the mass of vegetation to feel for the wall. Once over the lip, I found myself free–hanging in space with sheer gray rock to my left, and lush green ferns to my right. It was very beautiful! I started to spin a bit, and found my back facing the wall. I oriented myself—feet toward rock—as best I could, and continued to rappel. I heard shouting from below and stopped. It was hard to hear them over the roaring of the waterfall (which was on the South side of the chute). Dick was yelling up to me to look for his pack.

I’m thinking, “Huh? Your pack? Like, what would your pack be doing up here?” Had he somehow lost it as he rappelled?

At first, I didn’t see the crevice and started looking into the ferns. They stood out about six feet from the wall and, if his pack had fallen in there, it would most likely be lost forever. I sent my pack down and continued to look.

Dick yelled up to me, “In the crevice!”

I rappelled down a bit toward said crevice, and gravity started pulling me backwards into the crack. I spun myself around to face the wall, found some good footing, and was able to peer down inside. Low and behold, there was Dick’s pack, about 10 feet down the hole. I assessed the situation and figured I could get down there and back out with minimal difficulty. But then, as soon as I started down, I realized I wouldn’t be able to lift the pack above my head. I yelled down that I would need a haul cord to attach to the pack. Rich heard what was going on, and he offered to retrieve the pack on his way down.

Thank GOD!!!!

I continued the rappel, and Richard the brave–heart retrieved the pack (sans Dick’s tent poles) and we continued on. Turns out, Dick was sucked into the crevice (backwards) and had to dump the heavy pack in order to get out. Same thing almost happened to Scott on the way down. Somehow, with the lay of the land and the way the rope set, gravity just sort of pulled you into this thing—the way a black hole pulls in matter. It was freaky.

Next, we came to a nice little chockstone rappel that required us to squeeze through a little hole between a series of wedged boulders. From this point to the 5th rappel we had to carefully pick our way through this dense jungle of foot snagging vines, and thick, tangled trees and weeds. There was quite a bit of downclimbing as well. I couldn’t stop laughing! I kept hearing grunts and cuss words from the guys up front. I’d catch site of one of them, every now and then falling, and then struggling with much difficulty to get up and moving again. At one point, Rich was right in front of me and then, all of a sudden, his head was at the same level as my knees. He had fallen into a hollow area of the brush. I seriously, could not stop laughing! It was so difficult to get through this crap that it took us almost 3 hours to move a mere seventy–five yards downcanyon.

Just as everyone started giving me the evil eye, and renewed talk of a ‘lynching’ ensued, a spectacular view of the valley below filled our eyes and hearts with awe. We could see for miles and miles; the salt flats below, the Argus mountain range across the valley, the setting sun on a distant horizon. Instant harmony filled the air, and we were all in a state of bliss once more—just like we were at the beginning!

The next rappel (the 5th) was out of sight! And I do mean, out of sight. We couldn’t see it! That is, until we had very carefully made our way through some very high bamboo type reeds. We had to mash the stuff down to get through it at all. And we had to be very careful not to inadvertently tumble off the invisible edge. This drop was so choked with reeds that there was no visible place where they ended and the drop began. We could see the bottom, but not the way down. At the end of the drop was a pool of unknown depth, approximately eight to ten feet across. At the terminus of the pool was a tangled mass of trees 15 feet high at least. We were standing in a narrow field of reeds (about 10 feet wide) with a raging fall on the South side of us. Although the drop itself was only about 12 feet, we didn’t know what lay beyond the trees, the depth of the pool, or, what difficulties might lie beyond the trees.

It was a bit of an irony really that we’d all read the previous trip report, left it behind, and then mentally recalled it time and again during our adventure. “Is our 5th rappel, their 5th rappel?” and so on. We were comparing bits and pieces of what we’d recalled from that TR to what we were experiencing. In retrospect, I’m happy to have left the previous TR behind! Made it a little more sporting for us.

It was fast approaching sundown and, not knowing what we’d encounter from here on out, we decided this was as good a place as any to bivouac. Once mashed down, the reeds made a nice mattress. There was a small alcove (where we had rappelled down) that made for a nice gear stow/changing area, and we had just enough room to place a couple of tents. Dick discovered that his tent poles had remained in the crevice, and he set up a tent–less sleeping area for himself and Rich. John, Scott and I had our tent set on a small sloping mass of reeds. The angle wasn’t too great, maybe 20 degrees. John promised to try and keep from rolling onto Scott and me, as he would be the one sleeping on the rise.

Dark clouds had been making their way East for the latter part of the day, and they were directly overhead now as we pitched our tent. All of a sudden it started to sprinkle, and then the rain turned to sleet. Thank goodness it didn’t last long. The clouds dispersed and a billion stars came out, creating a fantastic visual. Looking up at that starry night sky pressed between granite walls and the falls thundering nearby made for a very serene ending to a grueling day. We changed for bed, cooked up some MRE’s, and drank cocoa and baileys. What a day this had been. We still had ten rappels ahead of us. It was off to bed very early (around 8) as the temperature was dropping, and it had been a long day. I dressed for bed this time and stayed toasty warm all night.

“Cock–a–doodle–doo! Cock–a–doodle–doo!”

“What in the heck is that?” I mumbled to John.

“It’s breakfast!” he replied.

We laughed at Rich’s wake up call, but didn’t get up for another 10 minutes or so. It was just too darn comfortable on that cushiony mattress of reeds, bundled in such a warm bag. The inevitability of having to move became apparent after Scott woke up. He started moaning and complaining that all the noise had awakened him from a rather pleasing dream. Then he started to go into the details.

“That’s it! I’m outta here,” I said.

I fumbled out of the tent, dressed, and packed up my gear. Shortly, we were headed downcanyon again.

We used an existing bolt anchor, which had been secured far back from the drop along a smooth boulder face. Dick was the first down, followed by myself, then the others. By the time I got down into the pool, Dick had already fought his way through the mass of trees and was waiting at the next drop, which lay just beyond. The pool was only waist deep and Dick had broken enough branches making his way through, that it made the going fairly easy for the rest of us.

At our 6th rappel we found a couple of old, rusted bolts and a metal camping pan. We believe this is the area where the previous group had spent the night. This drop was a beautiful 120 ft V–slot with a raging waterfall. Gravity pulled us into the V one–by–one, although the descent started out on a rounded boulder slab well North of the slot. Luckily this was past the extremely narrow section where packs and\or bodies could’ve easily become wedged. This was a fun rappel. Water was splashing down, and you were alternately in and out of it as the walls narrowed and widened. The drop ended in a shallow pool. From here, we bushwhacked our way through the same crap we’d been fighting all along but also did some boulder–hopping as well.

At the 7th rappel we had to duck under a massive group of stout branched shrubbery that choked off the entire top of the drop. We had to take our packs off, and crawl between the branches to set an anchor. After wrapping a webbing sling around the trees (on the North wall—opposite the falls), we headed down the 80 ft drop, landing in patches of thick vegetation. After more bush–wading, the canyon widened and the brush was replaced with huge boulders to downclimb. A previous group had rigged, what Rich referred to as, a ‘death triangle’ on the North wall. It was removed and replaced by a more suitable anchor.

There was an incredibly narrow slot along the South wall dropping down into a small pool. The stream cut a path through the middle of the canyon, then tumbled over the edge about 100 ft. 7o feet over the edge, a ledge redirected the fall over towards the South wall. Had we rappelled the notch—which would have been dangerous—we would have ended up in the pool. Rapping from the North wall, we ended up instead in a pile of that brutal nonsensical stuff called ‘shrubbery!’

We continued to swim through, dive under, and crawl on top of the brush leading to drop number nine. We took a short lunch break before rapping down. We anchored around a large boulder along the South wall adjacent to a beautiful 120 ft waterfall. At the next drop, we bypassed a 40 ft fall and opted to upclimb the North wall, and then downclimb a boulder–strewn gully to the 11th rappel. There was an abundance of barrel cactus in this area and, luckily for us, a scarcity of that damn bushwhacking type brush! The sun had made an appearance at this point, and we were starting to get warm. With only four more rappels ahead of us and the small amount of water we’d encountered thus far, there was no sense in staying in our wetsuits. We changed into our regular clothes and proceeded down to the drop.

Scott and I lounged around on a large boulder playing ‘who can hit that rock over there?’ while Rich, Dick and John set up the rappel. I would have won the game, but Scott kept stealing my good tossers, and he eventually knocked the rock into oblivion. This was a treasured moment for me, sitting here with a friend, smack–dab in the middle of a rugged canyon with a beautiful view of the valley below. Not a care in the world, besides who was going to hit that rock! It might sound silly, but it really was one of those Kodak moments, which etches itself into a fond memory.

Up and moving again, we rappelled down a sloping boulder wall, which could have been downclimbed. Once again though, because of the heavy packs, we opted to rappel instead. We made our way uneventfully to the next rappel. Fast approaching 4:00, we stepped up the pace. We only had a couple of hours of daylight left. The 12th rappel was a sweet 60 ft, 3–stage waterfall with lots of water flowing. The canyon started to look pretty normal all of a sudden. We were hiking on dirt, along a short section of man–made road, climbing over boulders. We encountered a very high boulder field that we had to make our way up and over. Climbing up those massive boulders at this point in the day was not a pleasant prospect. It was however, much more desirable than the other alternative, bush–wading. So we climbed up, up, up and over. Then we downclimbed to a small boulder ledge, made our way around some stout trees, and then downclimbed another short ledge to the 13th rappel.

John, Scott and I were situated in a small alcove at the edge of the giant boulder field. We started assessing the anchor potential, locating the webbing, preparing to set up the rope, when all of a sudden someone above, either Rich or Dick yelled, “Rock!” and a thunderous crashing sound came roaring down the canyon. The rock sounded huge! We all ran for cover underneath a very large undercut boulder shelter at the end of the alcove. John dove under there, while Scott and I just kind stood under it like an umbrella.

John, all of a sudden jumped to his feet, cursing, twisting, and turning with a painful look on his face. The danger of falling rock had passed, and we had a serious task at hand. To help John remove a multitude of stickers, which had embedded themselves into his arms chest and back. He had flung himself into some sort of a sticker bush. It was no use trying to free him of those little spines though. Taking off his shirt seemed to help some, but he just had to grin and bear it for the most part. You know what they say about the end of the day, when everyone starts getting a little tired? The probability for mistakes and accidents increases. We were all getting tired at this point. So far, I was the only one who hadn’t had a mishap.

That was about to change.

In retrospect I don’t think I mentioned anything to the others. I started to rap down (I was the first on rope) and I immediately saw that this was not going to be an easy rappel. I was dropping down a narrow notch that had very dense ferns and wet moss bordering it on all sides. My feet pushed into the spongy wall, which sometimes held and sometimes didn’t. I thought I had solid purchase with my left foot when all of a sudden it went crashing through the muck and my leg went flying into the narrow v. My left arm reached out to break the fall and the palm side of my forearm slammed into a bulging rock before I could catch myself. At the same time, my right knee slammed against the other edge of the V.

To top it off, I had rappelled past the end of the rope, which was hung up on a tree branch about a foot above me. I locked off, and started whipping and wiggling the rope. It was a tangled mess. After dealing with it, and sending it down, I continued to rappel. You know how you get that little jumping motion going down the wall? Well, that’s what I intended to do. I jumped and slid down the rope, but all that happened was that I went from a vertical position to 60 degree’s! I was nearly upside down.

“Gosh darn it!”

Those man–eating vines had wrapped themselves around my foot and were not going to let go. I had to reach up, and tear them away. As I flung myself up and forward to free my foot, the rope I had coiled around my pack, flopped in front of my face and nearly got entangled in the vines as well. I was getting seriously pissed off. I finally made it down, a little less for wear, but safe.

The other guys rappelled down. We pulled the ropes and were on our way once more. Daylight was waning, but the next drop would be our last. This last drop was a very lovely 120’ nicely flowing fall. It had a small pool at the bottom, with a man–made rock dam. Once we had pulled the rope, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and started out of the canyon. It was 6:10 in the evening. It was so nice to be walking on a real trail! Darkness fell and we had a hard time finding our way back to the trucks but eventually made it.

We took a group photo. I haven’t seen the photo yet but, if we looked anything like we felt, then we must have been a sorry sight. Dick headed out, with a promise to call our better halves and let them know we were safe. Rich drove us back to Scott’s truck, and we parted ways.

As grueling as this adventure was, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It’s never about just the adventure alone. It’s also about the people you’re blessed to share the adventure with. This was a wonderful group of people, who kept a good sense of humor under less than ideal circumstances. I can say that Hall Canyon—or Hell Canyon as we like to call it—will go down in history as one of my most memorable trips.


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© 2003 Randi Poer