Everywhere and Nowhere- Canyoneering the Escalante

everywhere

 

“I can honestly say I don’t need to revisit this adventure again but I can say that I’ve done Choprock Canyon.  It’s one of those lifetime adventure achievements.” 
-Jim Holland

Sometimes being in the middle of nowhere means you are in the middle of everywhere.  Our location is N37 36’ 44”, W111 10’ 44”, the confluence of Fence Canyon and the Escalante River which proves my point.   Our weekend objectives are the one and only Neon Canyon and the amazing and extraordinary Choprock Canyon.

Over the years I’ve learned I don’t need to suffer to have an adventure.  Our first day in we had the great idea of completing both Neon and Ringtail Canyons before attempting Choprock Canyon the following day.  My partners Kevin Kilpatrick, Jim Holland, Jim Harris and I awoke to a pristine Utah desert morning complete with café con leche, bacon and egg sandwiches and the occasional mosquito.  Relaxed and carefree, we decided to axe Ringtail and just enjoy Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral.  A wise decision.

We embarked on our journey, immediately beginning waist deep in the chocolate waters of the Escalante River.  In and out of the meandering flows and sand bars we reached the mouth of Neon. Age-old Cottonwoods whose limbs spread out like legs of a tarantula mark the entrance.  A pleasant camping spot minus the hum and vibration of the gray ribbed bark.  The harmony of the wasp.

We turn down river left, making our way up a staircase of crumbled sandstone.  A slightly beaten path leads us out of the canyon, exposing us to direct sun, a barren landscape and eventually a view of a large swimming hole, which would later become our lunch spot.

An hour or so of searching for our entry, we found an anchor, donned our wet suits, set our ropes and rappelled in but not before pinching our ropes between a rock and a hard place.  Not able to pull our ropes free, we rigged our T-blocs and etriers and ascended, in a wetsuit and full sun nonetheless, the cream colored wall to free and re-rig our ropes.  Canyoneering, a game of inches, can be costly if you aren’t precise, cognizant and patient.  Slow down, breathe everything in and caress Mother Nature’s work of soft, silky sandstone but never once take her for granted.  An inch can be the difference between a nightmare of a day and a ‘walk in the park.’

The first section of Neon Canyon consists of waist deep wading and an occasional swim.  The canyon bellows in and out, dips and dives.  A keeper pothole challenges our path. Partner assist or climb up to some anchors and set a rappel to navigate this ‘problem?’  That is up to you as further down canyon we enjoyed more down climbing, swimming, wading and rappelling.  There’s always more than one way to skin a cat.  Opening up, Neon offers a sunny lunch spot with a mocha colored swimming hole, cliff jumping included.

Neon ends with a dramatic triple pothole arch you rappel through 80-feet to the canyon floor.  But to get here one might need to navigate a problematic keeper pothole.  In some years, the pothole is non-existent. In other years, be prepared for the worst as conditions change after every storm or flash.

Kevin rigs our rappel.  Jim Harris ties off and gets in position for unique photo angles.  Dangling 60’ off the deck, Harris captures kaleidoscope action photography.  Light reflecting from the pool of water below creates a disco ball effect on the sandstone walls and ceilings.  Swirling silver circles of light dance and prance.   Two-thirds of the way down, water seeps from a fissure in the wall.  Moss, ferns and lichen hang on to every last drop.

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Halfway down the rappel, I spin with the disco lights taking in a memory of 10 years earlier when I first experienced the Golden Cathedral.  On the sand bar below I admired 3 canyoneers as they slithered down a rope through the holes in the roof and said to myself, “One day that would be so cool!”

Today was that day.  In the middle of nowhere, dangling on an 8mm rope 40’ above my friends and a pool of water reminded me I was right where I was supposed to be, right in the middle of nowhere while being right in the middle of everywhere.

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Choprock Canyon is no joke.

It is not a place to go without experience, a sense of adventure and definitely not without confidence.  Choprock Canyon is the real deal and will rank high on your list of most memorable and most accomplished adventures.  But be forewarned, Choprock is “deadly, lethal, technical, and twisted.”

To begin, there is a lengthy approach through the sands of time.  Two and a half hours from camp we waded the Escalante, climbed Moki steps, orienteered Choprock Mesa for a view of our entry, the Henry Mountains and the vast and colorful Colorado Plateau in between.  Plateau synonymous with convoluted terrain, in this case.  Deep in the bowels of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and just east of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument of southern Utah, one of the last frontiers to be mapped and named, Choprock incises itself like a Rattlesnake into the meandering Escalante River, the last river in the lower 48 to be named.  The river exposes whites, grays, and brilliant reds of over 200 million years of geologic history.

One of my partners, Kevin, grabs hold of a rock and it shears off.

“Geologic time includes now,” he exclaims as he pulls himself up and out of a pool of water resembling an oil slick.

Orienteering to the head of Choprock canyon includes maneuvering over and around cacti, cryptobiotic soils and petrified sand dunes.  Like only one other place on Earth, Vietnam, there is the entrance to Chop, the Riparian Section, where you will swat reeds, cattail, and horseflies from your face.  You will flounder through thickets of desert brush, an exfoliate of its own kind.  You will soak in oil-like water covered with a translucent film, most likely the oils of poison ivy. You will more than likely take an unnecessary gulp of this putrid water.  Try not to. Trust me, I did it so you don’t have to.

Scrambling over fallen rocks and loose, silty slopes will test the strength and flexibility of your ankles.  Grabbing hold of sharp, prickly, spiny things will test the thickness of your skin, as well as your definition of fun.

The fun doesn’t stop there.

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Rappels from unstable logjams down desert varnished walls into a cauldron of stagnant water becomes the norm.  Laughter  joins the welcoming sounds and music of desert toads, frogs and crickets.  A red-throated hummingbird buzzes my earlobe, stops for a second to admire my orange helmet, and zips off in search of nectar.  One to two hours is all you will need before you realize this is not only fun, but that it’s a different kind of fun.

The canyon walls begin to close in, bringing a dramatic change to a once wide-open jungle environment.  This signals the second part of Choprock, the ‘Happy Section.’  Better stuff happens here as the canyon turns into a subway containing flowing water.  Pools with dead Mormon crickets, 14” long string-like worms, tadpoles and an occasional dead mouse guide your path.  Some swimming is required but not necessary.  However, desert canyons are dynamic creatures and what may be a pleasant trip through one year could easily be a terrifying act of life and death the next, as was the case in May of 2005.

The winter of 2005 brought record amounts of snowfall to southern Utah.  In March, the desolate ‘island in the sky’ Henry Mountains were over 200% normal snowpack.  I attempted to ski them twice that year but to no avail. Forgotten equipment and slicker than snot roads kept us from getting anywhere close to the base of the Henry’s.  Legends like General Wesley Powell and Edward Abbey have called the view from atop the most fascinating and beautiful in all the west.  Seven years later I could attest.

Canyoneering, a relatively ‘new sport,’ was experiencing exponential growth.  Newbies, climbers and mountaineers were venturing into the depths of the Colorado Plateau for the next adventure, the next rush.  Guide information was limited at best and what was available came from years of drought and a few selected pioneers of the sport.  To say the least, everything depended on where your information was coming from and in general, springtime shows how dynamic a slot canyon can be and when you’re the first to navigate a canyon for the season or after a flash, you find out quickly that you are actually a pioneer with minimal knowledge.

In our case, our information for Maidenwater Canyon in the foothills of the Henry’s called for knee to waist deep wading, 6-8 rappels and one mandatory swim.  What we experienced was 7 or 8 full on swims, occasional wading, hypothermia and an experience that would alter the way we canyoneered for life…preparation.   Choprock wasn’t an even a thought in our young, virgin minds.  But for two Provo boys in March of 2005, it was their destiny.

As far as the world knows, the two boys from Provo were the first to attempt Choprock in 2005.  Even in 2013, not many people visit this amazing but treacherous canyon.  They descended on a typical Utah bluebird spring day into the bowels of the Earth to never see light again.  Speculation abounds as to what actually happened that dark day.  The two witnesses were dead and found days later in the Grim Section by the second canyoneering group of the year.

Was it hypothermia? Most likely since the water in the Grim Section never sees light of day, it was March and the water is Icelandic cold year round.

Was it fear? Absolutely.  Walking into the unknown even with the slightest amount of knowledge is scary.  A small mishap in Choprock Canyon can turn your adventure into an all out epic.  This is no place for a twisted ankle, a separated shoulder or worse, a tib-fib fracture.  Lower yourself slowly or you could end up like the two mountaineers in the infamous story, Into the Void.

Was it because of an ever changing, challenging, and dangerous canyon?  There is no doubt about that! Enough said.

Knowing we were getting closer and closer to where the two boys perished, I stopped to watch my partners laugh and giggle as they made their way in the ‘Happy Section.’  I admired life for what it was worth, reflecting on what I would always say to my mom when I returned from an adventure, “The most dangerous part of what we do is the drive to and fro.”

Walls of orange, magenta, red and purple line this most enchanting section of Choprock.  Gray, white and lava colored pebbles litter the canyon floor.  Lizards, for every reason, have made this section home.  Vegetation is plentiful but not painstakingly in the way.  Water runs clear.  Air is crisp and fresh.

We regrouped after an hour into this section to refuel, add layers for warmth and take everything in.  Enjoy the ‘Happy Section’ for as long as you can because things will dramatically change again when you encounter the doorway to the ‘Grim Section,’ a logjam with a rabbit hole that only Alice can fit through.  You have no choice but to enter headfirst into the first of many long, cold and dark hallways.

Have fun!

Swimming is mandatory and maneuvering logjams, log soup and helmet wide corridors is common.  Claustrophobia most certain.  Drinking rotting debris-ridden water a guarantee.  When needed, I recommend adding air to your dry bags to help keep you afloat but remember, you may have to swim under an obstacle to move onto the next.

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Partners will give assistance in any shape or form.  Squeezing sideways.  Body dragging.  Scraping helmet-wide walls both sides at a time. Ascending logs and chockstones in bell-shaped corridors.  Swimming under and into darkness.  Kicking partners in the head. Splash.  Ker plunk.  Gulp! Its all gonna happen here not because you want it to, but because its what you have to do.

The Grim Section ends with an awe-inspiring 70’ rappel into a lush and vibrant grotto.  We gathered here to pull our stinky wetsuits and dry suits from our bodies, take in the moment and readying ourselves for an hour walk back to camp and beers.

Choprock Canyon is a beautiful and amazing place, one of the most intriguing canyons in North America, if not the world.  Descending the canyon IS very difficult and should always be taken seriously.  Choprock is not a place for beginners, even with the most experienced leadership.  Choprock is not a place for experienced outdoorsman or day hikers.  Choprock is and will always be a place for the most experienced, most prepared, most confident and most patient of canyoneers.

You have been warned, we have achieved and this was no joke!

One Response to “Everywhere and Nowhere- Canyoneering the Escalante”

  1. loved reading it.slowly.just a reminder that we really do not know – how much we dont know.most of us have no idea how big is adventure menu…

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