Canyons With No Sky


Story and Photos by Dennis Turville



Carmel Tunnel.  While my younger brothers were feeding/harassing chipmunks, I was staring downslope, trying to see inside the darkened convolutions of Pine Creek, utterly fascinated. I knew, right then, I was going into Pine Creek sometime.  Something very strange down there was calling my name.


And it kept calling me.  Several forays into the canyon got me as far as the CheeseRock Factory, where floods had carved holes through the sandstone like Swiss cheese.  But we always rigged rope to climb back out the way we came in.


A climbing buddy, Dean Hanniball, and I finally went for it.  The top of the canyon is actually the most interesting. Our last bolt anchors were drilled from big logs and a sandy canyon floor, but in later years, floods took out the entire landing we were standing on while placing those bolts, leaving them hanging in the middle of a vertical wall. But the scariest part of our first trip though Pine Creek happened after we got out.  We had staggered onto the paved road well after sundown and then had to walk through the Zion Tunnel back to my car in the dark.  I suggested we each grab a long stick, which we could rub along the cement walls as we walked the pitch black tunnel.  Whenever a car approached, weird tunnel acoustics made it impossible to tell which direction the car was approaching from, until we saw the glow of headlights, then we’d make a mad dash to the opposite side to avoid being killed.  The final insult was my car’s battery, quite dead when we reached it, thanks to my having left on headlights after driving up the tunnel earlier, so we had to push it out of the small parking lot and then jump into a dead car while coasting downhill into that black tunnel again, hoping it would start.  It did.

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A friend told me the most interesting canyon he saw when walking the entire Escalante River was halfway between Silver Falls and Moody Creek.  I asked for more details, but he said, don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it. The canyon we found was beyond beautiful, ethereal actually.  But this canyon wasn’t convenient like Pine Creek:  it was going to take some work.  We hiked along its sheer edges, seldom seeing the canyon bottom.  My companions on the edge looked as though they were walking on the Edge of the Earth, and the name stuck.  But first we had to find a way to the top of the canyon so we could then descend it.  Some people call this canyon Neon, but the first ones to call it that had never even been in it.  To us, the first descent party, it will always be Edge of the Earth Canyon, or EOE for short.


The upper reaches of the canyon ended at the top of an inclined bench of high country, with nasty cliff faces surrounding it. On one recon we found a crawl under a house-sized boulder which led through the cliff face. We came back, did several rappels, swam some pools and made camp beside a little trickle of stream.  The next day was moving along nicely when we came to another weirdness I had never seen before.  The canyon narrowed and dove straight down into a dark pool of water, and writhed like a snake out of view.  There was no clue of how long this nastiness might continue or how rough it might be getting through it.  We didn’t have wetsuits and I decided to bail. It was good we did.


I returned with Mike Bogart (Bug), a climbing girlfriend Jan Hansen, and wetsuits.  We soon found ourselves back at the mysterious hole, which was still waiting for us. I rappelled 40 feet down a nasty six-foot tube into chest deep water and looked around.  The canyon ended.  Wondering what to do next, I noticed a dim band of light in the water.  Damn.  The canyon went subterranean.  I told the others to start pulling hard on the rap line if I didn’t come right back out, and I ducked underwater.  I crabbed under a rock rib, only about three feet across, but I found being underwater and under rock perfectly terrifying.  Fortunately, there was another chest-deep pool on the other side, leading to a white sandy beach perfect for a camp spot.  I called the feature “The Wormhole,” after a bridge through spacetime predicted by general relativity, or more colloquially, a passage from one universe into another.

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Soon after the Wormhole, a long dark swim veers out of sight. It could be a couple hundred feet, or a damned mile, for all we knew. We did breaststrokes on top of our packs, trying to stay out of the cold water, until a slimy ridge of rock separated two icy pools.  I tried to get over it, but I just kept sliding back into the pool like a muddy water buffalo. So I wedged against opposite walls and Jan climbed over me. Then Jan and I jumped and locked hands, and Bug used us both as a ladder.  And on we swam.


The black pool ends and we staggered into warm sunshine.  I recognized Anasazi stone steps from our first recon trip. A fifty-foot rap into a deep pool prevents any thought of escape.  A couple more raps lead to a straightaway where we could feel upcanyon winds. Soon the Monster Pourover looms over our heads, where old river courses are left high and dry from flashfloods burrowing into bedrock beneath them, old river pockets like eerie sandstone eye sockets staring skyward. The final rappel was shorter than it looked, but it ended in a large plunge pool covered with about four inches of slimy moss. I disentangled from the rope and did my best to part the moss like fire as I swim, so I wouldn’t get a mouthful of mung.  We were through Edge of the Earth Canyon, finally.


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In some canyoneering guides they reserve a special place for the really big Zion canyons, one we call Troll’s Treat, and the other is Heaps.  Both are seriously committing and highly variable in difficulty depending on conditions. They require many tools in the gorging grab bag.  You must be prepared for weirdness, or you will need a rescue. So what’s it like being on a major canyon first descent?  Let me take you there.


The day before we had climbed around the next obstacle, vainly trying to get a clue of what might lie ahead, when I notice a small overhang which would offer just enough protection if I ever had to escape some threatening weather in this canyon sometime in the future.  I filed that tidbit away, not knowing then it would save me on a later trip.  Although it was only 3:30 in the afternoon, I had one of those feelings I get in canyons, a sort of sixth or seventh sense, which told me very plainly we should stop and camp for the day.  I told Bug and he said, “When it comes to your creepy canyon feelings, if you say camp, we camp.  That feeling has never been wrong.”  Good thing, because that creepy little feeling might have saved us.

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So now, in the cold morning, warming wetsuits by the fire, we are in no hurry to rappel into icy water over our heads, because once we leave, we will be entering what might be the worst section of canyon so far.  Immediately below us is most certainly what we call a “frozone,” – our shortened form of “frozen zone” – where a canyon convolutes both downstream and overhead, with multiple rappels into murky pools of water so cold they really should be frozen, all with no chance of sun anywhere:  a canyon with no sky.


I rappel into the pool slowly to minimize the pain. It’s already too dark to see my breath. Even with a wetsuit from ankles to wrists, this pool feels colder than belays on the north side of the Grand Teton in winter.  I swim to the next drop, and tell Bug and Mary to wait while I busy myself drilling anchors.  It’s all I can do to keep hold of the drill holder as I pound on it, let alone twist it enough between hammer whacks.  We do drop after drop until we come to a seventy-foot rap into yet another pool. The canyon at each rappel station is narrower than I am tall, and I am short.  Bug and I take turns drilling anchors, and at first we can each finish one hole before handing off the drill for the backup anchor.  But as we tire, we can drill only about an inch before begging the other to take over.  Half way through the frozone we come to another deep pool, choked with a huge tangle of overhanging ponderosa logs and slimy boulders.  It looks very difficult.


Bug raps into the pool and tries to climb out the other side.  It’s so dark he begs for a headlamp, which I slide down the rope to him.  He eventually finds a small, crucial handhold between slimy rock and slimier tree, and climbs out. We zip the packs across and climb the slime pile while Bug belays us from the logjam. Another couple raps and we finally crawl from the hundred millionth pool into welcome sun at two o’clock.  We have a quick late lunch and hurry on to the next problem – another frozone – each of us doing the math of what would have happened to us if we had tackled the middle frozone the afternoon before.canyon_cover_possibles-5


The final frozone just won’t let up.  We can hear the rushing Virgin River below, but we just can’t get there soon enough.  We are like a trio of Trolls, moving our packs through this treat of a canyon, and there was the name:  Trolls Treat, or Trolls for short.  The final pool is a maddening, muddy clamshell we cannot climb out of.  We manage to get a pack up the sloping mud to the dry rock above, then Bug goes underwater while I stand on his shoulders and Mary climbs up both of us like a tree, grabs the pack and climbs out.  She drags us out of the pool like dead fish.  From our final bolt anchors it’s one big rappel into the Narrows.  Although many people do not know this, we agonized over every bolt placement we ever did in canyons.  Of the twenty-six rappels in Trolls, only 13 stances were from bolts – not bad for 1978.


On a later repeat of Trolls, camped at the start of the second frozone, we awoke to raindrops on our faces.  We quickly climbed out of the canyon, up to the bench I had discovered on the first descent.  We had already spent an extra night on the rim, wondering what the weather would do. So when we hauled ourselves up to the small overhang I’d spotted on the first descent, and watched the storm morph from drizzle to downpour, we had shelter and firewood, but little food for the next three days.  We were going light and supposed to be out by now.  My companion was more worried about getting back to her high-stress job than staying alive, and repetitiously suggested we try to continue downcanyon.  Exasperated, on the second day trapped, I said, OK, let’s go look.  We looked down on our previous campsite and saw an entire creekbed of raging water.  Yet worse, all that water funneled into a wicked waterfall at the beginning of the second frozone.  We can get down that, can’t we? she asked.  I just looked at her, amazed.  The route looked like a drainpipe leading directly to hell.  No way can we do that, I said.  For two days I had been studying the map.  I could see what looked to be a fault cutting across the Narrows, which created a weakness in an edge of the canyon we were trapped in.  So on the morning of the third day trapped under the overhang, I knew we had to do something to get out of there before we became too weak to help ourselves.  No one could fly a helicopter in this weather.  No one could get to us even if they knew where we were.  And no one knew where we were.  It was simply up to me to get us out.  We put on our wetsuits – probably the best thing to wear when bushwhacking through nasty wet shrubbery – and after several hundred yards of horrible bushes, had her put me on belay while I downclimbed over very steep and slippery ponderosa pine needles to the edge of the weakness I saw on the map.  I could see a way down to white sand several hundred feet below, one that wasn’t an overhanging nightmare.  We struggled back to our camp, retrieved gear and prepared to escape the canyon.  That’s when I pulled out a granola bar I had hidden from her, and we shared it.  After almost three days without food the effect was amazing.  Sugar is indeed a drug on an empty stomach.  After four double-rope rappels we were in the Narrows proper, and thankfully, although our canyon was still in flood, the Narrows was not.  When we hit the paved trail, she said, I counted them….seven.  Seven what? I asked.  If we had done what I wanted to do, she continued, I would have killed us seven times.


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But of all the canyons Bug and I did together, people ask the most questions about Heaps Canyon. In preparation, I had hiked to Emerald Pools several times to stare at the spectacular final drop out of Heaps.  I studied maps, counted contour lines, and estimated wall height at about 450 feet.  I finally convinced Bug that if we could get low enough on the vertical section of the wall before it dove inward, the 300-foot rope – the one he and I had used for long leads up big ice faces in Canada  – would indeed reach terra firma in Zion Canyon. We bivied at little spring near the head of the canyon.  In the morning we soon passed the junction where a spectacular narrows slices in from Phantom Valley.  But at midday a threatening sky was a concern.  There was no high ground anywhere.  If it rained we were toast.  Rats in a drainpipe.  Toothpicks in a toilet bowl.  You get the picture. And a while later I spotted a nasty chimney I knew I could climb, albeit without my usual climbing equipment for protection.  Seventy feet out I placed a single protection bolt, and continued up for seventy feet more.  We were out.  We traversed many hundreds of feet downcanyon, and spent the night in a small niche.  That night it only rained several very large drops.  Deked again.


In the morning we rapped back into the canyon and started working down to where to canyon bottom disappeared over one of the most frightening edges in canyon country, where I had seen more than one flashflood jetting out of the cliff and falling many hundreds of feet to talus below.  We put a sling around a very trustworthy tree and I backed off first, automatically, with no argument.   Bug and I had a long-standing agreement that said:  Big Air, Turville goes first; scary water, Bug goes first.  We never violated that rule.  The rap from the top tree led to another.  And from the second tree whatever bad juju was coming, it was coming now.


As I back off into the unknown, the rock is dead vertical.  A hundred feet below rock disappears into cool Zion air, and begins a menacing curve inward.  If I rap much further, I will be dangling over fifty feet from anything I can touch.  I have to find a little ledge or something, anything actually, from which I can place a couple anchors.  And damned soon, too.  Bug has me on belay from above in case I can’t hang onto the rap rope while I drill.  Nice to know, it could happen.  I do a little pendulum on the rope to the left.  Nothing.  Another to the right, still nothing.  Any further I’ll be in the air, so I begin another, bigger pendulum, left, then back right, and this time I think I see something.  Bug is watching me pendulum across the terrifying wall over and over, more alarmed than I am, and he is the one tied safely into a tree, and I am the one on a truly terrifying rappel no one has ever done before.  I try another bigger pendulum – and I can tell you that swinging big arcs on this wall is much more frightening than any pendulum I ever did on big Yosemite walls – and now I can see a little niche in the wall.  It even has a little bush growing in it. I go down a couple more feet, run to the left like mad, and then run even harder to the right, leaning sideways at the end of the huge swing and grab the edge of the niche with my non-braking right hand and pull myself into a tiny little hole on a very big wall.  I place a bolt into purplish Zion sandstone, probably the best bolt I have ever placed anywhere.  I clip in, breathe, and drill another hole.canyon_cover_possibles-14canyon_cover_possibles-9


Bug lowers both packs down my rap line, and then does a directed rappel while I hold the end, grateful at not having to do the pendulum.  I tie off the 300-foot rope and throw it.  Bug puts me on belay with our other two 165-foot ropes tied together.  With the little bush in the way, I still can’t tell if the rope reaches.  I lean back, clear the bush and stop.  Bug yells, Does it reach?  Does it reach?  I look down between my legs at the red 9mm rope snaking down so far it simply disappears. It trails into infinity.  It could be one foot off the ground or a hundred, I can’t tell.  But looking more carefully, I can barely see the end of the rope making a couple small coils on a boulder way down there.  I look at Bug and simply say – yup! – and start sliding down slowly the first 290-foot free rappel I have ever done.


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Canyons are living, breathing things.  In truth, there are many canyons in my mind, but I remember them all, better than I remember most people.  I know there are Canyons with no Sky in my future, and if some find their way into yours, I hope you will be kind to them.  Travel in small groups, pick up after yourself and kindly don’t post.  Canyons need our help now, more than they ever have.  And they deserve it.

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