I have been itching to do some real canyoneering for years, everyone at work knows about this odd obsession and my friends regularly take a jab at my ambitions. The closest I have come so far has been walking through slots that I thought of as tourist hikes. You didn’t need ropes, there was no swimming and at no point did I feel like I might die. They were all stuff my mom could do.
I had always believed that true, spectacular canyoneering involved risk. Each twist and turn could lead to your possible- nay probable- demise.
I had a handful of canyons picked out for spring break. I would start with something decidedly touristy- and see how it went, and then if things felt right- move up through the ranks and culminating in a legitimate technical descent.
Spooky and Peek a Boo Canyons seemed like a good starting point. These popular slots are only about a mile from the trailhead, and they are typically dry and crawling with other people. The canyons were very nice, they required some grunting to get up and over some obstacles but overall they felt quite safe and friendly, assuming you like dark claustrophobic places.
There were several other canyons in the drainage we did not intend to explore, but ended up in through poor navigation- and a proliferation of cairns that inevitably follow tourists around. Normally I find cairns useful, unobtrusive and welcome- but when they are built by people just as lost as you- they become less so. The cairn trails usually ended at cliffs, or when the rocks ran out. I did however, enjoy myself thoroughly despite a complete lack of near death experiences.
The next day we planned to head to the Egypt area. At the turn for the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, we looked west and saw the clouds roll in, then the wind came up. We rolled right past the turn off and into Escalante. It did not look good, even a 30% chance of rain was more than I care for.
We bunked over in Escalante and I toured the Egypt slots via the internet. There was only going to be one really solid day with no rain and I had to use it for Neon Canyon- my main goal in life.
Neon Canyon had several factors that made it my target. First it ended in the Golden Cathedral, where you get to rappel through a set of holes in the ceiling of a giant natural amphitheatre into a pool of water. Spectacular! Second it was possible solo, while no one else wanted any part of canyoneering with me, they offered to wait in the Golden Cathedral while I walked some bonus miles and did some exploring.
I gathered books and maps from the Escalante stores, scoured the internet and asked around. I discovered one chilling footnote on several pages “In 2004 a keeper pothole developed in the bottom of Neon Canyon, take at least 4 people to get out if it is not full of water. A PACK TOSS WILL NOT WORK!” Luckily the keeper came and went with each storm and it appeared there was only about a 1 in 5 chance of it being a real obstacle. If it was full of water you could simply swim across it. It was raining as I read this. Certainly it would be full to the brim.
The morning was cold but perfect. No clouds were visible for hundreds of miles, the wind was still and the rain had undoubtedly filled the pothole-there was no reason not to go. We walked through miles of strength sapping sand and finally reached Neon Canyon. I left the group and headed up onto the plateau that would eventually lead to the canyon’s entry.
After about 2 miles I spotted a rope dangling into the canyon, it was the first place that looked even plausible to get in from the high bench I occupied. I spied a decent line down to the anchor to check it out. I debated for about two seconds whether to don my dry suit before committing to the canyon.
I was sweating hard, so I just slipped on my harness quickly, double checked the anchor and my setup and rappelled into Neon Canyon. The rappel was uneventful, and I was positively cruising and gaining confidence. I must be some kind of canyoneering savant I thought. There were some small potholes as the canyon continued to narrow but everything was easy to climb out of and no real obstacle had yet to bar the way.
The rappels cruised by and I was brimming with confidence and still bone dry. Then it became very obvious exactly where I was- a textbook keeper pothole 20 feet across barred the way. It was definitely going to require a dry suit. It had perhaps 4 feet of water, enough to drown in but not enough to help you get out. This was the keep in full keeper mode, so I sat down to consider the possibilities.
The pack toss method was definitely out, even for an Olympic caliber pack tosser.
It would take a massive amount of boulders or logs to build a pile tall enough to get out.
There still appeared the chance that I could go back. This was the humble pie option, and the climbing would be hairball.
The final option I immediately dubbed the superhero option, a small ledge ran around the pothole starting fairly wide and gradually tapering to nothing about 7 feet from the other side.
I returned up canyon a bit to a nice sunny flat spot and donned my full gear: dry suit, harness, helmet, insulating layers, neoprene gloves, river shoes and climbing gear. I slid down the rope and into the pool.
I was immediately disappointed. The exit lip was shaped very poorly, and there were no protrusions or dimples to provide grip on the rounded lip.
I also looked up and from this point of view the superhero option looked ludicrous, any miscalculation would result in broken bones; quite a no-no with a lot of technical work and a huge hike still to go. I went back to the entry rope and climbed backwards out of the pothole to re-group.
I was still unjustifiably confident in my ability to invent a way out and execute it brilliantly. I returned to the exit lip and got out my hooking kit, which was a tent pole duct taped to a metal hook with a webbing ladder attached. In theory- I would find a dimple, insert the hook and the climb ladder. The flimsy pole did not allow for the degree of control I wish it would have.
It was also harder to do blind that I expected. After some effort I noticed some rougher feeling patches on the lip and focused my hook there. It finally felt a little solid and I put some weight on the ladder. I was clearly not good at this, the hook scraped off the edge, fell right on my head and I splashed down.
My second and third attempts to get the hook to find a depression sufficient for my weight also ended up with me in the water and the hook in my lap. I gave up on the hook and started to gather rocks, as the bottom of the pothole was full of round boulders.
I gathered all of the biggest rocks I could move, and in about 30 minutes had a mound built, and my reach was a foot short of the rim. Unfortunately every time I took a rock out of place, the bottom got deeper and more muddy. Soon it required a brief dive to retrieve even a small boulder. After another hour I had a sufficiently high mound built. At least now I had a good view of the lip from my pedestal. I held the hook in my hand and ran it all over the rim looking for a dimple to set the tip in. I found one, placed the hook and weighted the bottom step of my webbing ladder. It held. I tried the second step. I was now eye level with the rim and my hook, and the microscopic dimple that held my weight gave out. The hook and debris shot for my eye but I managed to stop the hook from major damage. I had a small cut 2cm from my right eye and a big bruise forming around it.
I was just about out of options. Then I noticed that my hooking attempts had left small scars on the rock, even light pressure from the sharp hook left an impression in the wet rock. I experimented for a second and had a brief moral debate. I needed to use the hook to scrape a new, better dimple that would hold my weight. Should I alter the lip slightly to get out or risk my life going backwards out of the canyon. The dilemma ended when I noticed the scar my blowout had made really wouldn’t be that much worse if I just cleaned it up a bit and tried again. The damage was done.
I scraped my hook around in the scar to shape it and stood on it to test the angles it would need to hold. After 20 minutes of trial and error I thought I had it right, a full weight test was successful and I climbed the webbing steps. At the third step and my waist was almost level with the lip, one more and I would be out. Unfortunately I am an aid climbing novice and could not locate the final webbing step from my blind position. I leaned back to locate it and BOOM, I was in the water again.
My first thought was a line often repeated in survival literature- “this is the sort of thing you really should practice before you need it to save your life.”
I decided the plan had almost worked and the dimple was unchanged so I climbed back into the saddle. I went for two more rides before I got it right and flopped over the lip like a beached whale.
The rappel into Golden Cathedral was everything I dreamed it would be. The anchor went smoothly, the light was excellent, the scenery was spectacular and the view was way better than it was from the ground. The pool below sent concentric circles of light to the cathedral every time the rope made waves. I might not be a canyoneering savant, but I was alive.