Canyon Tales
Mae West Slot
by Dave Black

Re: the term ‘Mae West’

This is a Steve Allen term and I think the term got injected into the ACA vocabulary by Joe Wrona or myself a year or so ago. It’s pretty tough to define. None of the very popular CP canyons are Mae Wests. None of the Leprechaun Canyons fit the definition, but Shane’s Doom [Sandthrax] sounds like it would. I think the classic short Mae West is Bunfodor Crack. It’s only a mile long and has only one drop at it’s junction with a large canyon on Lake Powell. Bunfodor is almost totally airborne and very tight with a couple of exposed bombays, and it’s almost consistently the equivalent of easy to moderate 5th class climbing (maybe 5.6 over the bombays—it seems harder because of the exposure). After you walk into the entrance there are only three very short sections where your feet even touch the ground and you can walk a few yards. At the end you’re hands and backside are hamburger and your pants need serious patching.

That’s the type of canyon I call a ‘Mae West.’ Joe’s and Steve’s definitions may be a little different, but the essential elements are a tight slot configuration that forces you off the ground and requires climbing technique, and lots of air (exposure). They’re virtually horizontal or descending chimney climbs and their canyoneering rating needs to include the climbing class (I’ve been in some Mae Wests that are easily 5.10—a nasty surprise for someone who can’t do 5.10).

At the risk of sounding a bit insane, I’d have to say that playing with the bombays and pits is one of the real attractions in Mae Wests. It’s fun going through the full range of stemming techniques while off the deck like that. You never know how much farther you’re going to have to stretch and where you’re going to find that extra inch or two. You have to find it, of course, because the alternative is very grim and reversing the moves upcanyon is often tougher than following through downcanyon. In other words ... you can check in but you can’t check out.

When you’re stretched out like that it’s amazing what techniques you can come up with to extend your reach. Fun stuff. It’s almost all unbelayed soloing, otherwise it would go so much slower. It would be possible to do running belays if the group wants to rope up and if there are obvious features to runner. Also, some stem or chimneying positions are actually strong enough to do standard belays from. Ah, yes, the human Tuber. If you fall you just jumar back up to your cursing partner and try again. The problem with roping up at all is there’s the very real possibility of pulling the entire rope team off if somebody falls. Besides, all that fiddling around with a rope and runners burns up precious arm strength and time. Pretty exciting stuff that makes for tall tales around the harem tent heater.

Although West’s chest is the likely origin, I think the quote fits a Mae West canyon better: “When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.”

llana kanka

“It was an outgrowth of looking down a canyon that was shaped like that ... it had many curves. And somebody looked up the canyon and said, oh, that looks just like Mae West.
And the name stuck.”

— Steve Allen

Articles by Dave Black:
  First Descent? • Dave Black
  Mae West Slot • Dave Black
  A Sh***y Trip in Heaps • Dave Black
  Fixed Ropes in the Black Hole • Dave Black
  For Pothole Puzzle Solvers • Dave Black
  On Writing Books • Dave Black

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© 2002 Dave Black