Canyon Tales
S & M
by Marjorie McCloy

Steve Barbee and I were hoofing our way back from Larry, in Utah’s Robbers Roost, when we first spotted the north fork of Twin Corral Box. It was hard to ignore, this vertical plunge of 100 feet just a dozen or so yards from the road, and I’m sure we weren’t the first to notice it. But this was spring of 2001, and maybe, just maybe, no one had descended the narrow slot that squirmed away from that drop. If someone had, we sure didn’t know about it.

Two weeks later we were back, this time with Steve’s truck and the whole day in front of us. We spent a couple of hours scouting the east rim and located an exit; you could clearly see a defile after the canyon opened that went from floor to rim, and we could also locate it on the map. Several large domes stood between us and this exit, but we figured they wouldn’t give us any more trouble than route–finding. And the best news—the exit didn’t appear to be more than a mile down canyon. We couldn’t see into the slot at all, but hey. One mile and a full day? What could go wrong?

We geared up. Not knowing what to expect, we went well–stocked: 4 ropes of varying lengths, yards of sling material, bolt kit, drill, wetsuits, dry bags, ascenders, food, water, more. My pack was about 40 pounds; Steve’s, at least 60. We backed the truck near the rim, stuck some rocks behind the tires, threaded a sling through the tow bar, and lowered the 60–meter rope. Steve went first.

I touched down, untied. The worst was over, I figured. I hate long free rappels, and we were standing in the bottom of a sinuous, rose–glowing canyon. We pulled the rope, and as it pooled at our feet, I felt nothing but pleasure. Adventure! Beauty! Exploration! Life was good, with the minor exception of the heavy pack.

When I think back on this descent, I try to remember that initial feeling. I focus on the soft pink light that shone through the hundred–foot–high golden fins, five minutes down canyon, that reminded me of giant goldfish gills. Of Steve’s smile, and the fire in his eyes as we moved into the unknown. But what surfaces, what I cannot push below this expectant start, is what happened next.

The pothole looked like it could be a keeper; the murky water was about 4 feet below the rim, and how deep it was was anyone’s guess. Beyond, the canyon dropped away. A small chockstone was jammed in a crack on the upcanyon side of the pothole, and we slung this and attached the long rope. Steve sketched around steep granite to the left of the pothole, carrying the rope, and, balancing on the rounded sandstone lip that separated the pothole from the drop, tossed the rope over the far side.

I threaded the same descending ring with a short length of rope, tied in, and followed.

Steve was readying for the rappel. “Looks like about 30 feet,” he said. “Lie on your belly when you have a sketchy anchor like this one,” he said, “and slide off the lip gently. It keeps the rope from jerking the anchor or pulling up on it.” I studied his technique as he slipped over the side. But what I didn’t notice was that he had attached his belay device, not to the loop on his harness designed for this purpose, but to a gear loop on its side. And on his ancient harness, these loops were made from fraying cord.

His chest was at the lip when he saw his error.

Oddly, I don’t remember the look on Steve’s face as he grabbed for my hand. But his words are branded into my brain. “I’m going to fall,” he said. “Please help me.”

I tried to pull him up, but I was no match for a man and a 60–pound pack, and his feet had no purchase on the wet wall below him. I was also aware of my own position, perched on a rounded rim and attached to a manky chockstone that would never hold my fall and both our weights should I be pulled over the edge. I needed more mobility, and I needed it immediately. I jettisoned my pack into the pothole behind me and tried to maneuver to where I could pull Steve’s pack away from his back. One hand still clung to his—I could not bring myself to let go—and my arm raked back and forth across the sandstone, rubbing the skin off. With the other I fought to get access to his pack without toppling from my perch. This man was going to die, damn it, I was his only hope, and I simply was not strong enough to do what was needed. Long minutes passed, my mind was running wild, I was straining both mentally and physically, what to do, how to help, how to reach his pack, there it is, my hand is on it, can I lift it even slightly from his back, now, now, it’s finally lifting, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

“Is it helping?” I asked, desperate for him to haul himself up the rope.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s helping. Thank you.” He actually thanked me. “But I’m too tired now; I’m just going to have to go.” Again, words forever burned into my consciousness. “I need both hands on the rope. Can you get my hand around the rope?”

The rope was pinned to the rock by his weight, but with the superhuman strength that comes in times of crisis, I somehow managed to pry it up enough to slip his gloved fingers beneath it, then watched him slide from view.

The thud seemed nearly instantaneous. Miraculously, he was unhurt. The 8–mm ropes had twined tightly below him during our struggles, his gloved grip on the ropes slowed him, and the frayed cotton gear loop played its humble part as well. Steve was safe, 30 feet below, and I wept with relief.

Now I had a decision. Should I enter the pothole to retrieve my pack, and assume I could get out by myself? I made a mental tally of what I was carrying: two 50–meter ropes, the bolt kit, my wetsuit, ascenders. We could do without the ropes, in all probability—we had two others, and the map did not show any big drops—and I could tough it out without a wetsuit. The ascenders were important if a rope got stuck, but a moot point for exiting the canyon, since we had not left the long rope in place at the entry. But the bolt kit?

I jumped in.

The water was about knee deep and the bottom was thick with muck. I stepped onto the nubbin I had scoped out from above, and my foot slimed off immediately. I reached into a side–pull crack above me, and tried to stem across the bowl, but at 5’ 4”, I was too short. I had now exhausted the climbing possibilities. “Think,” I commanded myself. I had never been in a deep pothole before, but I knew about pack tosses, and the short rope was already set up on the anchor. I tied the ends to my pack and, with great effort, heaved it over the lip. Now the line was taut above me, but I was able to pull it down and step onto it, rinsing the muck off my foot. Now I could clean my other shoe as well, and using the added height the rope provided, my muck–free shoes, and the side–pull crack, I was able to clamber out of the hole.

I rapped down to Steve. “I’m sorry,” he said, pulling me into a hug. “I’m sorry I put you through that.” But the fun was just beginning.

The canyon tightened up almost immediately. We shrugged out of our heavy packs and pulled them behind us, forcing them through the narrow passage. Not smooth, straight narrows, but tight twists that doubled back on themselves, demanding us to carry our packs above us much of the time. My arms were raw from rubbing over the lip, and pieces of gravel were embedded in the wounds. But I barely noticed, as the effort of holding the pack, now several pounds heavier from water weight, took all my attention. We wriggled and pushed through the dark, willing the canyon to open, to release us. Just one mile, I kept thinking. But by now it had been three hours, and the end was not in sight.

My headlamp picked out a short drop and water in the slot below. The walls veed narrowly to a point below the water. It was black as night, and the inky water absorbed the prick of light. If I slip, I thought, I will be pinned forever in the bottom of this god forsaken slot. To Steve I said, “Shit.”

“Shit?” he responded. “That doesn’t sound good.” And we inched sideways through the offwidth, balancing our world of useless precautions on our heads, certain that if we lost our tenuous purchase we would slide into that unforgiving pinch with no hope of rescue.

Those 40 yards were the worst. And perhaps it was at that spot that, the following year, Michael Kelsey hooked out the steep wall above rather than tackle the forbidding stretch in front of him. But Steve and I pushed on. Now an undercut drop of about 10 feet, ending in a pool, was at our feet. Exhausted, not thinking clearly, Steve was ready to jump when I spotted an old rusty bolt hanger with a faded shred of webbing attached to it, eye level in deep shadow on the left wall. My god, I thought, this friggin’ canyon goes.

It went, and we went with it. The defile opened up to the rim as nicely as it had looked, and the overland domes, though complicated (follow the cairns, not the logical–looking path), delivered us back to the truck with no further drama.

Driving home a couple of days later, my damaged arms supported by pillows on my lap, Steve and I discussed potential names for this canyon. Although the name we came up with stayed within our circle of friends, we felt it was absolutely perfect: S & M.

— Postscript —

About five years after this descent, after S & M had been named Alcatraz and seen dozens if not scores of descents, I decided to banish my demons and give it another go. This time I wore my wetsuit for abrasion control and carried a tiny pack with just a harness, lunch, and water. My friends carried the minimal gear the canyon requires; the long entry rope we retrieved at day’s end.

And you know what?
It was FUN.

Marjorie McCloy

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© 2009 Marjorie McCloy