Canyon Tales
by Tom Jones

Shenanigans — tricky or questionable practices or conducts.
     —Webster’s Dictionary

“The very bottom end of the Middle Fork of Butler’s West Fork. There appears to be a piece of webbing hanging down from one of the boulders above the slot; if so, this means it has been completed by some really skinny people.”
     —Kelsey, Technical Slot Canyon Guide, 1st edition, page 123.

It was to be my first day out with the legendary Steve Ram, a potentially useful partner from Colorado, so I wanted us to do something good. Alicia and I had walked up to the head of the West Forks of Butler a couple weeks before, and looking up into the slot, it looked pretty good. Maybe a hundred-foot rap at the end, and the slot was about 10 feet wide up there. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Ram brought ‘his boys’, two skinny young bucks from CO, Mike Vladman and John Baise. This was to be the first day of a week-long adventure, and, being on the weekend, Alicia was along for the fun. The elusive Mr. Dave Black could not pass up the ‘first descent’ opportunity, so he drove out too.

• The Date — March 9th, 2002 •

Winter was still across the land of North Wash, a chill upon the landscape, with little pockets of snow here and there. Ms. Scotter and I knew that the final rappel was to the edge of a pool and was going to require a swim. Which would be ... stimulating! Off we went across the desert in the bright morning sun.

As was his way in those days, Mr. Black informed us that he had to be at work at 5 pm, a two-hour drive away. Thus, he carried minimal gear and was planning to run out after the last rappel. So we should hurry.

We soon found the top of the canyon, and set up an 8–foot rappel to get in, then a 30–foot rappel past that. Fun little narrows led us into the canyon, and we scurried along, enjoying the day and getting to know each other. We chatted amiably, as we passed the occasional harder stem or downclimb, working our way through the canyon.

The canyon was good—we were pleased. Soon we came to a long, awkward, sideways slanted corridor, and those of us with substantial packs suffered through it. Now this was interesting! The canyon opened out and there was a nice spot in the sun for some lunch.

I had made a new pack for this trip which was, to put it nicely, not very good. It was wide and squat, rather ugly, and getting torn up fast. It would not last the day. As I looked ahead in the canyon from the lunch spot, I could see a tall, smooth wall on the left, like the one we had seen from below—we must be near the end. Dave was getting anxious, perhaps not helped by an absence of extra clothes. We pushed onward.

The canyon got narrow and dropped more quickly. Dave pushed on ahead and disappeared, but we soon caught up to him at the ‘Grim Crawl of Death’. Dave crawled across and checked it out, decided he could climb down the chockstones, and grim-crawled back. We anchored a rope to him and rapped 30 feet into the darkness, then helped him downclimb the chockstones. Time was getting late, so Dave took the shorter of our two ropes and said bye–bye. He would charge on ahead to get out and to work, leaving the rope behind at the last rap.

“OK,” I thought, rolling my eyes and shaking my head in the dark. “Whatever!”

The canyon got more interesting, and our group spread out. I wanted to keep us together, but Dave shot out ahead; Alicia danced forward with no visible difficulties, with me just behind, struggling through the tighter sections with my big and poorly proportioned pack. Ram was trailing behind with his boys and a bit too many ‘scotch muscles’ for this canyon.

Then the canyon got narrower, and I got a little concerned. Well, I thought, I know Dave got through it, and he’s about my size, so I must fit—we pushed forward.

Coming around a corner, we found Dave hanging out in a wide spot.

“It gets narrower ahead – I’m not sure I fit!” Dave said, with a tone of seriousness.

It was, basically, 4 pm on a winter evening, in an unknown canyon with night coming on. It was cold out, and we knew our new friend, somewhere out of sight and sound behind us, was somewhat larger than us. Huh! This was starting to have all the signs of being REALLY STUPID. What were we doing exploring new canyons in winter?

“I’ll go check it out,” the 98–lb Alicia said, and scampered forward.

I followed, with some trepidation, Dave behind me. It got narrower and was very impressive. Would we fit? The slot was a true slot, tight enough that I could not turn my head around, about 100–yards long and maybe 100 feet tall, and basically parallel—no increase or decrease of width was detectable within sight.

If it got too tight, we would be screwed.

We pushed forward. Alicia found a few places that were ‘a little tight;’ I found quite a few. I pushed through the first tight spot, then found another one 10 feet further on. The next spot required some hunting around to figure out where my chest would fit. The pack jammed constantly, and I tugged and yanked at it, finally squeezing it through. We finally came to place that even Alicia thought was a little tight ... uh oh.

But Alicia had good news, too. Up ahead, it actually opened out. If we could get through the next 50 feet, we’d be golden. I asked Alicia to come back and take my pack, and she graciously did so. I found a place large enough to turn my head around, then unpacked my pack, handing the contents over my head to Alicia. In two trips, she got rid of that stuff.

Okay, now for the narrow part. I pushed into the next section, and it was really tight—tighter than anything I had done before. Thankfully, the sandstone was smooth rather than abrasive, and a light coating of dust supplied some lubrication. I pushed into a tight spot, then pushed harder and got stuck. HARDER! and I was able to pop through that section. Hope it doesn’t get tighter than that!

I came to a log, and it looked bad. The bottom of the slot had been flat and wide enough for feet, but here a log had created a dam, and beyond the log, the floor dropped 2–3 feet. This would have been fine, except that past the log, it looked like the canyon got an inch or two narrower. At the top of the log it was tight—would I inch off the log, then slide down into the tightening narrows, and never move again? It seemed like a definite possibility. Alicia checked it out but could not render a helpful evaluation.

Well? Time to roll the dice. I tiptoed over to the log and extended off of it, getting as much forward progress as possible off the change in height. It was real tight—but just possible. My sternum flexed inward, I leaned into it downcanyon, pushed with all my might, and made slow progress. Part of my consciousness concentrated on slow, shallow breathing and not freaking out.

Zen mind zen mind ZEN MIND Z!E!N! M! and I pushed through and out the other side.

I scurried to the opening, where Alicia had my stuff in a pile, and breathed deeply. Ahead—the canyon curved around a corner and got tight again. Couldn’t see, we had to climb over a rock.

My thoughts turned to Ram, somewhere back there. I hoped he had turned around already, he would NEVER fit. If he reverses out (which must be really difficult), could they climb out to the rim? I didn’t know, and I didn’t think so. My dark revelry was interrupted by Dave’s plaintiff call.

Dave is an awesome and very experienced climber. I thought of him as skinny, and perhaps a little taller, but not as meaty as me. So he should not have a problem fitting. But he did. He had struggled through many of the same places I had and was now at the log. HE was not getting the warm fuzzies, more like the cold sweats, looking down into that constriction. I found out later that he had once been stuck in a squeeze chimney on a rock climb for an hour and a half, and was not able to summon up quite the same zen mind that I was.

Alicia went back and got his small fanny pack. Not a big help, but ...

One of the problems with this kind of slot—it is SO narrow, that you can’t really climb upward. In order to avoid the constriction below the log, Dave could maybe scurry across at the level of the top of the log, but going across without losing height is practically impossible.

The lightbulb went off. If Alicia could hold Dave up a bit, he could scurry across at the higher level without sliding down. Alicia scurried into stilt position beyond the log, and Dave stepped out and onto Alicia’s shoulder. A couple of moves across, and both stilt and stiltee were breaking into laughter—not too hearty because the canyon was not wide enough to draw a full breath—and Dave was past the worst spot.

There was nothing from the people behind us, so we pushed on. Over the rock, another narrow spot, then we were FINALLY at the final rappel we had seen before. With about 15 minutes of daylight left. Urgh. Dave downclimbed the top 50 feet of the rappel to the platform atop a sheer drop. He slung a chockstone in the floor.

“I’ve got a good anchor here,” he said. “I’ve got to get going—I don’t have a head lamp. I’ll come back in the morning to help rescue Ram!”

It was so messed up. “Okay” I yell. Dave strips off his clothes in preparation for the swim, and ties the rope off to his chockstone. We hear noises from behind, and Mike comes up, sweating hard and very concerned, and dragging a large pack with the long rope in it. About this time, I see Dave getting set to rappel. He gives the anchor a solid tug and POOF! It explodes into dust. He starts hunting around for another. I grab the long rope from Mike and anchor it to a solid rock.

Things are happening fast now, because the light is fading quickly. I toss the long rope down to Dave, and he ties the short rope to it, and I pull it up. Mike wants that for going upcanyon with Ram. The long rope extends to the ground and Dave raps off. “Good luck,” he calls out. Yeah!

Mike and John are going to help Ram back out up the canyon, try to find a place to climb out. In the dark. The good news is, Mike wants me to take his pack, because he has all sorts of gear too, gear that is essentially useless. ‘Essentially useless’ describes my pack at this point too, because the canyon has cut off the lower shoulder straps and without Mike’s pack, I would be carrying my stuff in my arms. Looks like a win–win to me! Mike leaves the pack, takes the small rope, and we wish him luck. I brought radios, and I hand one to Mike.

“We’ll come looking for you,” I promise him, imagining the three of them huddled in the canyon all night. “If we can,” I think to myself.

Now for the final rappel and fun swim! I put a big sling around a solid horn and rappel down to the platform. Alicia follows. Off with the clothes, into the drybag. I rap down and unhook on the edge of the pool. Time is of the essence, so I don’t have the opportunity to contemplate it for long—I plunge in and swim the 20 feet to the other side. WOW! Chilly. I have one end of the rope, and Alicia zips my pack down to me. I quickly change back into my dry clothes and do some jumping jacks to warm up.

I KNOW there’s a way to set up a guided rappel, so that Alicia does not have to swim, but by now there is 3 minutes of daylight left, and my low–blood–sugar brain is not firing on all cylinders. The anchor is actually 50 feet above Alicia, and I try to explain the sequence to her but ... nope, not going to happen—sorry hon, you’re just going to have to swim.

She strips and zips her pack across—I pull her clothes out and put them on a rock for easy re–dressing. She slides down the rope, unhooks, and plunges into the icy water.

“The rope, the rope!” I cry—she has to bring the cleaning end of the rope across, or I’ll have to go get it!

She turns around and swims back, grabs the rope and swims to the shore. Aaaaaaaaaaaaah. Cold! Tosses her clothes on while I coil the rope and pack Mike’s and my gear into Mike’s pack.

We’d been here before, so at least we knew how far it was out. 3.5 miles—a ways. We hit the trail and set a fast pace, to get warm as much as anything. We hustle, my mind going about 90 miles–an–hour trying to figure out the rescue. Let’s see, walk up the road to camp, re–hydrate and eat for 15 minutes, grab some long ropes and sleeping bags and water and food and go find our friends. It was going to be a long night. We dashed out, surprising ourselves by our swift passage.

Getting near the end I pulled out the radio. On the fifteen minutes was the radio plan. At 8 o’clock, I thumbed the Call button. “Hello, Hello???”

“Hello—we’re out!” came the response from John.

Miraculous—not only them getting out, but the signal getting through, too. And their finding a way back around to the car, in the dark.

We were happy, though now we were looking at a 40-minute walk back to camp when we hit the road.

“I’m coming to get you,” John said. Such service!

We reached the end of the canyon, crossed the flat spot and climbed to the road, just as a truck rolled up and turned around.

“Hop on in,” John said. Perfect timing.

Back at camp, I gave Ram an inappropriately huge hug. I was SOOOOOOO happy not to have to go wander around in the dark, trying to find them.


March 9, 2002
‘First-of-our-group’ descent of Shenanigans
(aka, middle of the West Forks of Butler).
Through: Dave Black, Alicia Scotter, Tom Jones.
Back Up: Steve Ramras, Mike Vladman, John Baise

•  October 2003  •

YoFest came and went and my knee was still working, so the deep dark narrow crack of Shenanigans was whispering in our ears. Ram had attempted but been denied, when at maximum weight. As his penance, he had given up Scotch between trips and made other tremendous sacrifices to get down to fighting weight. Still, the canyon is incredibly narrow—success was uncertain.

Joining us for this venture was the A–Team. Mike Offerman volunteered, well ... was volunteered, as the designated climber. Kari Moe, Megan Polk and Barb Pollyea served as the designated ‘little people,’ and Steve Cole came along, keeping his weight low by a continuous application of nicotine. I was the designated scout, having survived the previous attempt, popping out the bottom, and Ram served his usual role as Master of Ceremonies.

The mantra for packing was “Nope, don’t need it, doesn’t fit,” which was applied to everything from harnesses to helmets to lunch. OK, a little lunch is fine, but you’ll have to eat it before we get to the squeeze.

A crack of 10 AM start and we were walking across the desert on a beautiful October morning. Meandering between bunches of bitter brush, we found the top of the canyon and executed the first rappel, Steve Cole demonstrating his climbing prowess by easily downclimbing the short drop thus saving leaving a sling. Folks were sequenced down the next drop, then I walked over and found a tree to rap off of, saving everyone tramping across the steep sand.

And off we go, the fun begins.

The drama of the previous year had overwhelmed our memory, which failed to retain the delight of this wonderful canyon. Nice narrows, nice downclimbs, lots of elevator work, not too much squeezing—plus the usual narrow slanted corridors requiring dragging, a couple scary little sections, and generally a fair amount of work. We had all prepared to push through by wearing disposable cotton long sleeves and legs, and this paid off in spades as the squeezing took its toll on our muscles, but not our skin.

A few hours work and we arrived at the open area, some sun to warm up in, and a break for lunch. Anticipation of the tight squeezes ahead kept the calorie intake modest.

After lunch the canyon narrows and starts to drop precipitously. I marveled at the boyz’ escape the previous year, where they up-climbed some of these tight, dropping corridors. Wow! We soon arrived at the first rappel, and the sandy belly–crawl that Mike was designated to enjoy. The drop was a little more than I remembered, and we quickly sequenced people down, leaving Mike at the top with the rope. From below, we followed Mike’s progress across the belly-crawl by his measured breathing and intermittent scraping. No cursing, so it must not have been too bad. He soon made it over to the chockstones and set to setting up the rope. Ever try to set up a rope to rappel on a chockstone you are standing on, in a narrow slot. With the folks below insisting that you go one way or the other, OH, and make sure it pulls easy. After some finagling, the rope was set and Mike was down in the dark bowels of the earth with the rest of us.

Leaving one of the ‘little people’ at the rope, we moved on—and the canyon intensified. The sky was lost way up there somewhere. Another 20 minutes and we came to the ‘Main Squeeze.’

I had forgotten just how cool this feature is. About one hundred feet long, amazingly consistent and straight, it is, for most of its length, just slightly larger than my chest 9” to 10”. The gentle undulations are lovely, and it really helps that the rock is smooth and covered with a bit of rock dust, making pushing one’s chest through it considerably easier. But most remarkable, the slot proceeds skyward at the same width to the limit of vision, at least 60 feet.

We squeezed through, we big people using the classic sternum jam / hip jam pivot method, occasionally hunting up or down for the specific spot that would allow passage. A cool head and careful route selection got us ‘big people’ through, while the wee ones danced through, for once having the advantage bigtime. Completing the Main Squeeze, we sent one uh dem little ones back to fetch Meg at the rope, and continued on. After a brief respite, another charming narrow section required more chest compressions. We were soon through and at the final rappel.

We made short work of that. As I lowered myself into the icy pool, not anxious to swim, I spied a line of holds on the left-hand side that looked like they might work. A bit of careful traversing led past the pool to the quicksand beyond. I stood around a while, enjoying victory, then spent a few minutes extracting myself from the muck. We zipped the packs across and all enjoyed the traverse.

Hiking down the spectacular canyon, Ram sniffed out the ‘Kelsey Exit’ and we were not–soon–enough back at the car, drinking ice–cold cream sodas from Steve’s cooler.


Concurrent Trip Report:
Crossroads • Ram

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© 2002 Nolan Thomas Jones