Thursday, October 31, 2013

Most Excellent Slot Groveling

For the last several years our great old friends the Hanlons and the Elovitzeses have been coming out to Utah in the spring for a week of canyoneering; Greg first brought Sawyer when the latter was 9 (and was barely able to reach the pedals of the rental while he drove on the back roads so that Greg could read the guidebooks) and each year we've done a slew of great canyons.  Canyoneering is fun enough at all levels that it doesn't need to be "burly" to have a great time, and the moderate canyons are fun for everyone who is relatively fit, athletic, and has a bit of gumption.  However, with experience comes a bit of a desire to tackle some of the more difficult endeavors, so last week Mike and Greg came out for a few days of doing the less "family friendly" canyons, which - considering that the only times I've spent unexpected nights out was with these two guys - had the potential for some excitement.

Quandary Canyon - in the southern San Rafael Swell - was the first canyon I ever did a few years ago and it has two faces:  the fun, very moderate romp down a beautiful canyon with a couple of short rappels and some scrambling/downclimbing, and the infamous "TKPS" in the middle:  a Technical Keeper Pothole Section that features an unusual number of hard-to-escape-from potholes in a few hundred yards.  Last spring we did the fun romp that bypassed the TKPS on a day that was too cold to consider a lot of swimming in icy pools, so we were keen to return in milder conditions, which the beautiful Utah fall weather delivered last week.

A note of reference:  a "pothole" is basically a hole in the canyon worn into place by water coursing down the canyon and creating "puddles" that range from the size of a bucket to the size of a swimming pool, and in the Southwest canyons they can be anywhere from bone dry to completely full to everywhere in between, and the "rims" typically are quite rounded on the downstream side and the water typically scours the face and the rims pretty smooth, so getting out of them can be a challenge.  Here's Greg bobbing in the bottom of one in the TKPS:

There are a variety of techniques used in getting out of those that are not full of water:  toss a rope attached to a pack or a strong bag full of sand over the edge and let the friction of the heavy pack against the rock below provide an "anchor" to haul yourself up the rope using mechanical rope ascenders, get two people in the pothole and boost each other up (hard to do when you are both bobbing; easy when it's dry), or use big wall climbing techniques of trying to put hooks in the rock and then climbing up the rope that's attached to the hooks.  Generally speaking, like any good outdoors geeks we had all the gear and had read all the books, now we just needed to actually do it!
finding my inner Spidey

Turns out that those techniques do indeed work, and after a couple of hours of grunting we found ourselves safe and sound at the bottom of the TKPS a bit sooner than we anticipated and decided that our return would be going up the adjacent Knotted Rope canyon, one that I had also descended on my inaugural canyoneering weekend. Climbing up canyoneering routes is not very typical due to the rappels and the smooth watercourses that make climbing pretty tricky, but we had a bit of info that indicated it could be done, so we gave it a go.

Walking up the lower canyon was in full sun, and as we got to the fairly obvious challenging section the thought of putting on wetsuits seemed unappealing at best and unnecessary since "we're hot and it's short".  But we quickly realized that it doesn't take much of this:

and this:

to get cold quite quickly, and the wetsuits started sounding pretty good.  But of course since we had already invested in a (bad) decision we kept it going so we got colder.  I was aided in my chill by trying to do a relatively easy traverse around a full pothole and right at the crux moment both my feet peeled out from under me and I plunged in over my head, much to the merriment of my compatriots. But we finally exited and started marching up out of the canyon and warmed up.

Utah's terrain is notoriously complicated and convoluted, and that night we found ourselves driving two hours to get to a spot that was......6 miles from where we started.  We felt a bit silly for doing that, but there were two canyons in the same area that we wanted to do, and starting out on a shorter fall day with a 6 mile hike before embarking on what was described as an 8-10 hour adventure seemed like a poor idea.  Not to mention the fact that we are entitled  'Mericans and drive everywhere anyway.  The two canyons we wanted to do in this area were Cable and Seger's Hole, with the latter being described as "the best canyon in the Swell" (so we had to do it).  Both canyons started with good marches up the Moroni Slopes:

 with sweeping views of the Muddy Creek area:
Greg canyoneers for breast cancer!
Despite the fact that southern Utah had gotten hit by some of the same torrential rains a month prior that had made headlines in Colorado and pushed the Dirty Devil river (just downstream of us) up over 7000 cfs, we found that Cable Canyon was quite dry:

 and the "challenging" potholes were quite easy to exit when we could stand in the bottom and boost someone up and out, and practice our "aiding" out:

That said, remembering the chill from the day before I did put on my old neoprene top, tho I have to admit it was partly to simply look like a cool guy:

We knew from the description that Seger's Hole was going to be a bit of a step up in terms of both difficulty and coolness, and  it most definitely delivered on both fronts.  At the first sign of water we wetsuited up, and encountered our first challenge when we needed to rappel into a pool and the anchor bolts had been cut out, which was not a big deal because we could put a hook into an old bolt hole and rap off that; not a bit deal, that is, until we couldn't flick the hook out of the hole when we were done.  After trying many different flicking techniques we finally were able to use Greg's apelike arms to use a pole to push it out, and on down the canyon we went.

The pothole section was impressive.  At one point all we could see downcanyon were potholes that had the water level at least several feet below the rim.  And being in a canyon like that feels a bit more committing than some other activities I've done:  if it looks challenging, there's pretty much no other option than to make it happen somehow.  There's no portaging, going around, going a different direction, or going back up.

We got to one pothole that required a rappel in and was very conducive to tossing a pack - with the rope attached - across it and down to the next pool, visible about 20 feet below.  No problem.  I wanted to go in and use the ascenders - which I hadn't really tried yet - to get out, and all went well until I started hauling up on the rope and got a bit of a sinking feeling as I simply hauled it towards me: the pack was sliding up the wall on the downstream side of my pothole.  Hmmm.  Not really supposed to work like that.  I kept pulling at the rope/pack hoping that it would start to provide more friction, but of course the pack just continued its merry ride up the wall towards me.

As I swam around in the pool, getting colder and colder, we discussed our options, and Greg decided to come in to see if he could give me a boost. We then got firsthand experience with two bobbers trying to boost each other out; doesn't really work.

We finally pulled the pack all the way up with the intent to pass it back up to get more weight in it and were surprised when it actually stuck at the rim where the ramp it had been on went up more steeply, and I clambered out quickly.   A good lesson to test the friction of a pack toss before committing to it!

We soon caught the only other folks we saw in our four days of canyons:  very nice Salt Lakers who had with them a young guy who was doing his first canyon!  I guess we weren't being so burly after all (but the truth is the "challenge" is getting one person past an obstacle; once one person is past, it becomes very much family-friendly).
However, would you trust your family to this man? 
Soon enough we did the beautiful final rappel and popped out into Muddy Creek right where it exits its last dramatic gorge for a nice sunny snack spot.

Our last day we hit a little canyon called Trail Canyon that crosses highway 24 as it goes towards Reservoir Powell's infamous Bullfrog Marina.   The description sounded a bit dire:  they gave it an R rating - which indicates some notable exposure - and make a big deal out of the fact that everyone needs to be a 5.7 climber, and despite the fact that Mike said "I don't really know what that means" we figured we'd be good. As it turns out, it was neither as difficult nor as exposed as we anticipated, and the only real challenge came when Mike's pack dropped into the bottom of a very tight slot and needed to be retrieved, but as it turned out someone my size could just barely fit through with some strategic breathing to keep my chest small.
Putting a new Black Diamond top to a good abrasion test
Suck in that gut, soldier!  
As ever, adventuring with the presidents/secretaries/treasurers and the majority of the members of the New Hampshire and Cincinnati Canyoneering Clubs provided plenty of shivering, lost skin, torn/worn gear and clothing, rental car cleaning, and many, many gut-busting yuks.  Thanks gents.

and thanks to Mike for most of these pics....

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