Loose Lids and Tight Spots

Since my first introduction to canyoneering I had been telling various friends around the country how great it was and how they should come to Utah to give it a go.  Several folks gave me a reply along the lines of “indeed, canyon hiking is great. I’ve done the Bell Canyon/Little Wild Horse canyon loop, and in the Grand Canyon I’ve hiked up Elves Chasm, North Canyon, Silver Grotto, and others.  It’s fun and beautiful, but not very adventurous.”  It was a bit difficult to convey the excitement of challenging grovels through body-width slots that seem to practically go underground, big dramatic rappels, complex pothole escaping, and the arcing beauty of sandstone with the golden veneer of reflecting sunlight.  But finally in 2008 I was able to talk my old pard in adventure Greg Hanlon into coming through Utah on his way home from a business trip to California to give this whole canyoneering thing a try.

Greg is from New Hampshire and is no stranger to adventure, having written the guidebook Steep Creeks of New Englandfor kayakers, and paddled class 5 rivers from Chile to California to Quebec, done dozens of ski trips to Utah and BC, and mounted weather stations on calving glaciers in Alaska and Greenland.  So he’s got pretty high standards, and after all my talk I felt a bit of pressure to deliver on the fun of canyoneering.  But it’s the Utah desert in the fall; what could possibly go wrong?

The first possible thing that could go wrong was that it was early December, when the days can be mild but the nights are long and cold, even down south.  When we rolled into the North Wash campsite at 10pm and the temp was already in the 20’s, I reflected that throwing down all of $5 for a taped-up roll of logs at the Hanksville gas station probably would have been a good investment in being able to pass the subsequent evenings huddled around a nice fire. But we did manage to at least pass the night in decently-warm sleeping bags and I at least had the sense to bring a tent to somewhat keep our own body warmth somewhat contained.

Our morning was as lazy as the sun as it barely crept over the horizon formed by the escarpment that creates the North Wash canyon complex and we waited for the inevitable warming, and soon enough we were off towards the Leprechaun Canyons.  Many times the terrain above canyons can be a bit barren, and wandering around sandy, sagebrushy flats that’s been devastated by cows isn’t very inspiring, and Greg was a bit dubious that my tales of slot canyon wonder could indeed lie nearby.  But soon enough we were at the head of West Lep and the first rappel into the slot, and our canyoneering adventure was underway.

It didn’t take long; after an hour of groveling through the skinnies of West Lep (where some of the movie “127 Hours” was filmed) and working on our strategic breathing through the tightest spots (“pause, inhale  – compressing your ribs and back against the opposing walls – then exhale and move!”) Greg intoned “I don’t know what I was thinking; I’ve never been canyoneering before!”   By the end of the day, he was an enthusiast, albeit one with torn up clothes from the abrasive sandstone.

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But Greg’s clothes weren’t the only things torn. I had recently decided to try to lighten my gear load and had gotten a superlight nylon Black Diamond backpack, and inexplicably brought that pack with me for canyoneering. By the time we took some deep breaths on the exit from West Lep, my new pack looked like a grey nylon block of Swiss cheese, and stuff was already falling out of the bottom and the sides, to the point where I had to line the inside of the pack with my jacket to keep stuff inside.  Light is not always right when it comes to abrasive sandstone.

Back at the campsite we had the good fortune to meet Dan Ransom, whom I later realized is a pretty renowned canyon adventurer, and he and his pard not only gave us some good beta on a canyon adventure for the next day, but also asked ”you guys need any firewood?”   He was leaving and didn’t have a need for it, and our evening was sure to be that much more pleasant.

However, our enthusiasm was short lived.  As we started unpacking the gear from the car I got a telltale whiff of what was to plague us for the next 24 hours; white gas.  I hadn’t quite snugged down the cap on the stove’s fuel bottle tightly, and some of it had leaked….right into the food.  “Hmmm.  Maybe it’ll evaporate off with time?”  Alas, even with time and cooking, our dinner had the unforgettable taste of white gas, and while we did indeed appreciate the little fire courtesy of Dan, our “dessert” consisted of burping up white gas.

Another cold night gave way to another brilliant morning.  We debated making the drive back to Hanksville for a gas-free breakfast, but daylight and warmth is so precious at that time of year that we didn’t want to squander any of it in the car, so we hammered down some scrumptious granola served with a side of gas, and headed off to the next trailhead.

Greg was digging around in the back of the car for his gear and suddenly burst out laughing.  I looked up to see him holding up some of his clothes as he exclaimed: “Well, we lost all our water, but at least my clothes are soaked!” Somehow I had also not tightened the water jug’s lid and it had spilled, mostly over his stuff.  My canyoneering shitshow continued!  There was still barely enough water in the jug for both of us to have about a bike bottle’s worth, so off into the arid canyons we went, happily burping white gas yet again.

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The canyon was worthy; huge dramatic raps and top notch groveling with the early winter light glowing on the walls.  At one point as we were traversing the skinnies I was standing above the ground with my toes and heels wedged between the walls, and as I moved forward I realized that my trailing foot was a little stuck.  Not thinking too much about physics I twisted my foot to get it unstuck to no avail, and then not thinking too much about orthopedics I engaged my hip for the big yank on my foot to free it, which resulted in not only freeing my foot but also freeing my meniscus from the rest of my knee.  I was able to hobble out of there and back over the slickrock to the car, but it wasn’t long before my next adventure was to the operating room.

Fortunately for me Greg is one of the most fun and easygoing recreation partners I know, and even on the way home he was laughing hard at my various faux pas, even as I was cringing a little at them.  And it’s a testament to his good nature that he’s been back to Utah every year since to join me for canyoneering exploits, though I have noticed that he always mentions that he’s bringing his own little butane stove and double checks the various containers’ lids!

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