Rolling back into civilization (Hanksville, Utah) I called home to let my wife know we’d survived the kids’ first slot canyon descent. “How was it?” she asked Roman. “It was awesome,” he said. “We had an amazing adventure. There were rappels, downclimbs, narrow slots, a few harmless spiders, and even a dark passageway into a hidden chamber.” It was more words than he’d uttered in 2 days of canyoneering. No doubt his apprehension had kept the exuberance in check, but now he’d succeeded, survived, and was feeling the warm glow of overcoming a big challenge.
It started with a 5-hour drive from SLC to the North Wash, between Hanksville and the north end of Lake Powell. After setting up camp on BLM land near mile marker 28.2 of US Highway 95, and eating dinner, we went for our first walk. A half-mile of sand and red stone led to the bottom of Sandthrax Canyon, a notoriously difficult one to descend. Its rating, “4B X III, means a bad fall could do you in! But we were merely visiting the dark, spidery canyon mouth. A 50’ section of belly-crawling would lead to a beautiful atrium. But it was a daunting start for the youngsters…and even for me. Daddy Longlegs are actually Opiliones, not spiders, and quite harmless. I tried to steel my nerves and crawl on, but their large nest, and the seemingly endless crawl through the dark, constricted passage was too much. I was unable to set an example of stoic courage for the youngsters, and I backed out myself.
The scramble back to camp across the sunset-lit slickrock was surreal and the kids did what they will, crawling into alcoves and gathering atop small goblins of eroding sandstone. This was a chance for them to find their footing on the improbably sticky sandstone. Good rubber shoe soles stick surprisingly well, especially on the way up. Descending is the bigger challenge, and we warned the kids not to scramble up a smooth slope that they couldn’t get safely back down. Most incidents and accidents result from exactly this.
As early as we could rally and feed four 7-10 y/o boys the next morning, we dropped one vehicle at the finish of the East Fork of Leprechaun Canyon, and packed everyone in the other 4WD for the short, but moderately rough road to the starting point. Deanpaul grinned with youthful enthusiasm as he tested his new Nissan Xterra on its first rough road. It held up great and we all piled out atop the plateau country with vast views of North Wash, the Colorado River Canyon, etc.
The bright sun was warm in early June, so we hid under a lone Juniper to don harnesses and helmets for a 50’ rappel into the canyon. A big boulder atop the dark entrance had been slung with webbing to make a solid anchor.
I tied my younger son, Diego, 7, just in front of me with a sling, and we “tandem rappelled” down as I controlled our one belay device. This made him feel safe and comfortable. Once our feet were on the ground, we waited in a spot safe from rockfall. I gave a “fireman” belay from below as the older boys, Roman, 10, and Leif, 9, rapped down on their own. Finally Deanpaul clipped Finn to him and slid down the rope as well. Our first problem was a stuck rope. Deanpaul had to “Batman” (i.e. climb hand over hand up the rope) back up, feeling sheepish that he’d “stuck” it on our first rappel. He quickly sorted it out, rapped back down to us, and pulled it down on the second try.
Leif, who’d been in this and other canyons before, demonstrated downclimbing techniques, and went first. In some “third-class rock” areas Deanpaul and I spotted the kids, especially the smaller ones. In other cases, they braced hands and feet against the sides and chimneyed down. Also employed were the “bum-scooch,” controlled sliding or “elevator”, “smearing”, and “stemming” techniques. We’d outfitted ourselves with various canyoneering-friendly, abrasion resistant, friction enhancing pieces of gear. Elbow and knee pads were borrowed from volleyball; rubber-palmed gloves from gardening; neoprene workout shorts from the gym; and sticky-rubber rock-climbing approach shoes.
Soon we emerged into an open area, and stopped on a shady rock for a snack and water. A few hundred feet of open country brought us to another drop-off. We spotted the kids on a short drop, and then traversed out left onto a ledge. Here Deanpaul “scooted” down the slickrock, smearing on the steep stone with his sticky shorts and boot-soles and lowered himself into the gully bottom. The boys copied his method and slid in a (mostly) controlled manner into his waiting arms. He then set them on the sand and they headed down canyon.
The middle portion of the wash was narrow and winding slot with eroded layers of reds, tans, and maroon that rendered a beauty beyond compare. Suddenly the remarkable uniqueness of canyoneering dawned on me. This was the reward we’d come for. No place else on earth is quite like the time-worn narrows of a canyon cut deep into the Colorado Plateau.
The dads stayed higher in places, primarily due to our size, stemming with hands and feet against either side of the fissure. In so doing, we were suspended above the lads, and they tunneled under us through the constriction. After lunch in one of the few flat, shady alcoves, we continued the journey. The technical portion of East Leprechaun Canyon (3A II,) culminated in what initially looked to be a huge drop with a monstrous wall behind it. Yet we clambered down several short sections and braced our way around several sharp bends and soon we were at the final rappel. Diego and I bonded again by doing a tandem. The older boys expressed their independence and felt empowered by using their own brake hands to control their rate of descent. However, if they accidentally let go, I could arrest their fall by pulling taut on the rope from below.
At the base of the tall, vertical wall, there was a confluence with Middle Leprechaun Canyon on our right. Knowing its secrets, Deanpaul encouraged the older boys and I to venture up into its deep, dark confines. The leaning walls of “Belfast Boulevard” soared overhead, never more than a few feet apart. The narrow top allowed only a hint of daylight in. Headlamps were a must.
The younger lads had enough challenge for the time being, and played on a wide ledge while we shimmied up. Cross-pressure with hands and feet worked for the dads, and Deanpaul offered his knee, then his shoulder as FOOTHOLDS(!) for the 60-lb. boys to climb up. In this way we passed a 20‘tall chockstone that was lodged in between the canyon walls. Leif and Roman ventured a bit further on their own, discovering a chamber beyond with another nest of Opiliones.
Despite the lure of this canyon, we knew it was time to finish the main slot and get the boys back to camp. We reversed the crux section and joined Finn and Diego. As we strode toward the canyon mouth, it widened and the walls rose. Now it was a broad avenue lined with overhanging sandstone skyscrapers and flat enough for a car to drive. This is where the beginning of the movie “127 Hours” was filmed. We spread out into age-based pairs and relished the cool up-canyon breeze as we strolled home.
This bliss led to a wide-open, blazing-hot, sandy wash where the canyon walls melted away. It took a bit of coaxing to slog the last half-mile. Blonde, blue-eyed Diego wilted in the 90-degree heat and intense desert sun. Arriving at the cached pickup truck we reached into a cooler for ice-cold Gatorade. Air conditioning and soft seats had never felt better! Finn Russell, 7 y/o, wore a broad smile on his small face. “That was cool,” he gushed, and the other boys chimed in with similar enthusiasm. Despite many quiet, anxious moments, and even a few short breakdowns, they’d overcome the fear of the unknown and completed their first canyon descent. Now they were proud and happy.
That evening, as I made a tailgate dinner, Lars Kropac, from Germany, rode into our campsite on his bike trip across America. He had a warm smile, friendly manner, and the relaxed attitude of a person thoroughly worn out by pedaling a heavy bike through the desert. You never know who you’ll meet, and the boys immediately took to him. Roman showed him a nearby site and helped him pitch his tent. We shared an evening of hot dogs, teriyaki chicken and marshmallow s’mores roasted over the coals.
When Deanpaul and his boys returned from eating burgers in Hanksville, they liked him too, and we convinced him to join us for the next day’s expedition.
The boys were inspired, impressed, and interested in Lars’ trip. “What does he eat, drink and do?” they wondered. “And why is he doing it?” As we explained, we could see the seeds of future adventures growing in their own young heads.
The next day began slowly with sleepy kids and lazy dads. But after a bowl of Lucky Charms, we rallied the team, and headed for the Lucky Charms slot canyon loop. Our European guest, outfitted with spare gloves and elbow pads, his own bike helmet, and an extra harness, found that canyoneering was a new, awesome and formidable challenge.
This route climbs up one canyon and down another. On the up, Deanpaul introduced us to “gallumphing,” or frog-hopping up-canyon by bracing toes, knees and hands against the opposing walls and jumping forward. Strenuous and dynamic, it proved more functional than most rock-climbing tricks I tried. The key to “Canyoning” is learning to move efficiently through the space the canyon gives you. Different methods work, depending on skill, fitness, and size. What is easy for a 5’-7” person may be hard for a 6’-2” guy, like Lars.
Deanpaul scampered around crux cliff on a loose traverse, and tossed down a rope-end. He then stuffed himself into a water-eroded, body-size, “pot-hole” to become a “meat anchor,” and provided a belay from above as each of us clambered up. Roman and Leif weighted the rope often, but made many moves on their own. Diego and Finn relied primarily on the rope-assist.
Lars discovered how vexing it can be to worm your way up a chimney with virtually zero skills or knowledge. But the grip of the stone and the features of the fluted slot offered options for his tall frame, and he figured it out. After watching and coaching from below, I expected a struggle, too. But by stemming with feet, body and hands, I found it only moderately difficult, and I climbed in control. Rock experience does carry over, and friction is your friend!
A short, steppy section brought us to the canyon rim. We followed it south in the bristling sun, looking for another shady slot. Finding it we headed down slip-sliding, skidding, downclimbing and rappelling. The fun scrambling ended all-too-soon as we emerged into another sandy wash. The the pillar of confidence and leadership for two days, Leif now complained of a sore ankle, and got a piggy-back ride from dad. It was a small price to pay, and one we will look back on fondly. As they grow, and we get older, we’ll soon be physically unable able to carry these kids. This was a real father and sons adventure. Bonding in the amazing Utah red rock desert wilderness. A journey filled with challenges, but a memory we’ll all treasure. One of life’s great moments.