What is canyoneering you may ask. This is a bit more complicated to explain than it may seem. Canyoneering is an adventure sport that is still relatively young and not yet as well known as rock climbing or mountaineering. It does require a variety of technical skills and equipment if you want to avoid becoming a Darwin award winner by removing yourself from the gene pool. Not all canyoneering is technical. If you have hiked the Grand Canyon then, by definition, you have been canyoneering. Technical canyoneering on the other hand involves much more than the ability to carry a pack over uneven terrain. Because all canyons are different and extremely dynamic in nature, you need to be prepared for whatever obstacles you may find there. This could be large waterfalls or cliffs which will need you to rappel in order to get past. Deep pools of slow moving or swift running water that will need to be crossed and special rope techniques to do so safely. Low grade climbs – up or down (often called scrambling) – that can expose you to serious falls. Maybe even a close encounter with wildlife that may be trapped in the canyon and somehow has decided that going through you is the best way out.
Canyons can represent the only source of water for many miles in any direction. Thus wildlife will often locate themselves near these premium locations. I have found everything from Gila monsters to Elk in canyons – most times to our mutual surprise. I have hiked into a canyon I had never traveled before, decided I needed more gear and on the way found the tracks of a Mountain Lion over the top of mine where it had followed me for several hundred yards before leaving the trail and undoubtedly watched my travels in his home turf, possibly contemplating whether or not I might taste like chicken (I rather hope not).
What did I mean “Canyons are dynamic in nature”? Canyons represent the lowest route in a watershed so all of the water from a given area will find its way into a canyon. This funnelling effect causes a huge volume of water to rip through a comparatively small and often narrow area amplifying its effect on the surrounding environment. Canyons can change RADICALLY from a single flash flood and many canyons flash several times per year. These changes can be as minor such as clearing sediment deposits or major like hammering fixed anchors flat or removing them all together. I travel through the Salome Jug several times per year and the anchors at the first rappel station have been hammered flat by debris carried in flash floods so many times I no longer trust them entirely. This is one reason why canyon guidebooks can be so dangerous. Obstacles, anchors, or escape routes that may have been there when the book was written may or may not be there a short time later. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for responsibly written guidebooks and most will have this very disclaimer in the front. Just understand that these resources are good for a general overview and that’s all. One of the many challenges of canyoneering is being prepared for the unexpected.
Water in canyons is often protected from the warmth of the sun and can be cold even in the summer time so thermal protection needs to be considered in wet canyons. Extra layers are a good idea if your trip runs longer than you expected – possibly even a wetsuit if you spend extended time in the water. Your equipment will likely include webbing and rappel rings for building anchors, rope (hopefully a LOT of rope), a backpack, helmet to protect your most valuable tool, a harness to cover your ass (literally and metaphorically), various carabiners, a rappel device, ascenders and related gear, sticky shoes that drain well, a headlamp, as well as various layers and types of clothing. Add in a bit of food (Del Teco quesadillas keep well in your pack as long as they stay dry) and water and you have the basics. Sounds expensive, huh? Like any other sport it depends upon how involved you want to get. So why – what is the draw? What makes canyoneering so different from anything else you can do to pass the time?
I don’t know about the reasons others do it but for me it is the spirt of exploration and personal challenge. I love the idea of going into a canyon and really not knowing what to expect. I love the rush of rappelling over a roaring 200′ waterfall and swimming accross a clear pool of cool churning water, then trekking off into a rich riparian zone eager to seek the next challenges that lie ahead. When I step out over the edge of a 200 foot rappel with the sound ofwater rushing past me and crashing onto the rocks below, I can guarantee you I am NOT thinking about my wife being upset that I didn’t wash the dog this weekend.
Canyoneering is a high commitment sport. In many canyons, once you go over the first rappel and pull the rope, your in ’til the end. You never know exactly what you may find or what may have changed. In a recent canyon, we had travelled past three rappels and found to our horror that a colony of bees had taken up residence 20 feet directly above a mandatory rappel in a very narrow part of the canyon. There was no going back. We had to think our way around this obstacle very carefully as the stakes were pretty high. I found myself thinking how the odds were better that I would win the lottery before I would die from being stung to death by bees. I bought a ticket on the way home from the canyon. Fortunately these bees weren’t of the aggressive variety – or we did a good job of not provoking them. That little nugget was not in the guidebook…
It’s best to be prepeared for anything. I know a rock climber that climbed himself into a wasp nest and suffered several stings before finally getting belayed back to the ground to make a hasty escape. I know a canyoneer that had rough encounter with fire ants before we even left the parking area (ants in the pants – literally). The point is there is risk in everything. You take a risk every time you get behind the wheel of your car or ride your bike to the store. If you’re willing to take the bigger risks you can enjoy some of the bigger rewards in the form of confidence and personal victory. Some risks are part of everyday life. Some challenge you to explore your limits and see how far you’re willing to go and find out what you’re made of. In the words of Jackie Robinson “Life is not a spectator sport”.
A key part of this great sport is knowing how to do it. I highly recommend traing from a reputable school so you don’t end up as a statistic. Safe practices will give you confidence to think your way out of a potentially sticky situation and diverse skill sets will bring you home to tell the cool stories. Each skill set represents another tool in your toolbox that can be adapted and molded to fit a particular situation. Anchor building alone is a full day of class that covers concepts and ideas but rarely does mother nature bend herself to planting the ideal tree in the ideal location. These concepts require you to know how to adapt them to whatever situation you find yourself in. There are several schools that provide excellent training, Alpine Training Sevices and The ACA are two canyoneering schools in know of that teach in the southwest. I know competent canyoneers from both schools and I am comfortable running canyons with any of them.
Some thoughts on political correctness…
If you are out and find yourself in a situation where someone builds an anchor that you are not comfortable with, don’t hesitate to rebuild it to your satisfaction. You don’t need to be rude. I have used the excuse that I need the practice my anchor building skills so as not to offend those I am with. In the end, it is your life on the line so if there is no other way than to run the risk of hurting feelings, then hurt feelings. Feelings will mend but a fatal fall to spare someones ego is rediculous. Any technically challenging sport where your life depends on performing a skill you will trust your life to is no place for political correctness. Most serious accidents are built on a series of mistakes – any of which could be changed and thus stop the tragedies before they happen. Accident reports are often littered with mistake after mistake piled upon one another – one bad decision made that leads to another and another… You see words like “hypothermia” and “fatigue” combined with phrases like “took longer than expected” or “we thought we’d be done before dark so we didn’t bring our…” -or maybe- “… seemed like he knew what he was doing so we just used his anchor even though it looked a little questionable”. I will hurt your feelings and make you cry if you try to insist on me using an anchor or rope system that I think is sub-standard. You are welcome to do the same should the situation be reversed. You are responsible for your own safety and if you are the most experienced member of the group, you are responsible for many other people’s safety as well. Also remember the anchor you build may be used by others that follow you – maybe days or weeks later. Every canyoneer is responsible for themselves but you would likely feel guilty if you left an anchor that worked for you because you knew the proper way to load it but found that the next person was injured – or worse – when they tried to use this anchor some time later. The sport is still young – be a good ambassador and all will benefit.
Well there’s my rant. I’ll add and edit this as I have thoughts that seem relevent. Be safe and enjoy your life.
I am not a rock climber. My friend Scot has tried, to his credit, to convince me otherwise. Oh sure I’ll go to a local climbing gym and tire myself to exhaustion dragging my under conditioned carcass up a simulated rock wall from time to time. But that is the extent of my abilities as a rock climber. I have known and still know those that can make this sort of behavior look easy and graceful. In fact, Scot is one of them. He and his girlfriend Jess can almost run up a wall and I’m convinced that the only reason they don’t is to keep from making me feel bad (thanks Scot and Jess). So it was a mix of enthusiasm and dread I accepted and invitation from Travis, a friend of mine from Alpine training Services, to come to a climbing festival being held in Joshua Tree National Park on a weekend in May of ’09.
The invitation came down via e-mail in March and it only took me until April to talk myself into going. Don’t get me wrong, I am not afraid of climbing. In fact, I would be considered smarter if I were. I am, however, painfully aware that my complete lack of flexibility and balance are going to cause me to be as frustrated as a no-legged policeman watching a doughnut roll down a hill. But it would be a chance to catch up with some friends and besides – what’s the worse that could happen, right? I was pretty convinced that this would be the weekend that California decided to begin it’s ocean migration towards Hawaii, but barring better judgement I talked to Scot about it. He said he would go and bring Jess so I invited my oldest daughter Samantha (don’t call her that – EVER! It’s simply “Sam” – or else…) and sent word that we would be there.
Time flies when you’re having fun – or when you’re past the age of twenty-five. For me it’s the latter. Before I knew it, the time had come to get my gear in a pile and prepare to get on the road for California. I had never been to this part of California before and I was looking forward to seeing what all of the hype was about. Joshua Tree or “J-Tree” as it is often called, is a mecca for all things rock climbing in the southwest. When you say epic rock clmbing around here, the first thought from those that know are Yosemite, Joshua tree, and idyllwild, often in that order. J-Tree is over 800,000 acres of land where the only thing more plentiful than the climbing routes are the trees for which this place is named. The Joshua Tree was given it’s name by a group of 19th century Mormon settlers crossng the Mojave desert. The unique shape of the tree and its leaves reminded them of a story in The Bible about Joshua and how he would raise his hands toward the sky in prayer. The landscape in J-tree is unique to my experience. When you begin to travel through the park, you will see vast plains of the kind of low scrub you find in the high desert and Joshua trees growing up from it are the tallest plants by far. These plains exist between spired formations of fractured granite jutting from the earth, forming an almost alien landscape. It is a surreal beauty that is very distinct from other deserts you might see. If you were drugged, kidnapped, and suddenly found yourself here (and you had even vague knowledge of what a Joshua tree was), you would know exactly where in the world you were.
And did I mention the climbing routes? There are more than 5,000 named routes in J-Tree. That’s almost enough to keep you busy long enough for more granite to spring from the ground. Our plan was to hit the road after a short day of work. We wanted to get going around 4:00 to try to be at the group campsite by 9:00 after an anticipated 5 hour drive as estimated by Mapquest. Like many things in life, for instance like the childhood plan to be the first person to open a slurpy stand on the moon (could happen), this plan went slightly awry. We didn’t leave until around 6:00 in the evening. traffic was bad, we needed food, blah blah blah… Whatever. the point is 8:00 found us crossing the California state line and heading towards CA 177 north. It was a beautiful night like so many are in the desert. The moon joined us early in the evening and I’m sure we could have turned off the headlights and drove perfectly safely in the bright moonlight. Unfortunately law enforcement frowns on this kind of behavior and is all too happy to quash “driving under the influence of zen” with a healthy dose of what-the-hell-were-you-thinking-you-dumbass?
We arrived at J-Tree around 11:30 that night. It was still warm and we barely needed our headlamps to set up camp. We were all so excited we thought we would have a hard time getting to sleep. We were wrong. First light crept over the horizon just before five in the morning. By six the sun was shining through my tent. I rose and staggered out of the tent to admire the irony that of the three tents we set up the night before (Sam wanted her own space), mine was the only one that was not in the shadow of a large granite wall. I spent a little time reorganizing the messy packing job I had done to get us to where we were going when I watched a newer model gray Xterra roll up with the driver wearing a Cheshire grin.
It was Ted, a man Travis I had instructed in Canyoneering the year before. Ted had come to Arizona to take a trip through Salome Jug with me just a few weeks before. Ted is just over seventy years old and is a role model for how I would like to be when I’m his age – “Like Ted or dead” became the mantra as it turned out. He is a former professor from M.I.T. and still gets out to go backpacking regularly. He decided to try Canyoneering and fell in love with the sport. I was happy to see him. Like so many others, Ted likes to underestimate himself and his abilities. When I watch Ted his actions remind me of when I was just a boy near the beach at a lake not far from home. There were these little birds called Killdeer and they would build their nest in the sand. When you came too close, the mother bird would begin calling loudly and then feign injury or helplessness in order to lure you away and protect her eggs. I was very young and her ploy worked on me famously. If you don’t know him, Ted is like this little bird as he will tell you of is weakness and inability to do what needs to be done. He’ll tell you about his lack of confidence and ability but don’t fall for it – this man will make you look silly. I am wise to his tricks – besides – I don’t need anyone’s help looking silly. I can do that all too well on my own.
Ted has the classic “early to bed, early to rise” philosophy. by the time he found me just after six in the morning, he had already eaten and been on a hike checking out his surroundings. I have no doubt that if Ted had decided to take up football at his age, he would be equally successful in the NFL. Ted is crystal clear with his thoughts and feelings about things but says them in such a way that you don’t get offended. You always know where you stand with Ted. He is a genuine fellow with values of days long past. When I met him the previous fall I liked him immediately.
I wandered down to the next camp and said my hello’s to a groggy group of outdoor enthusiasts and professionals alike that were murmering about forgetting to turn off the moon the night before. References to the thirty days of sun in the Alaskan summer were made as well as a pot of liquid that looked like coffee but would be better suited for removing rust from old parts. The sun was up and soon so were Scot and Jess. Scot was busy making pancakes from a cheese whiz style can and Jess was feeding him Redbull (against medical advice. Scot needs redbull like a shrew needs crystal meth). Sam was lying in her tent calculating EXACTLY how long it would take her to prepare for the day as well as what steps could be omitted to provide just fourty-three more seconds of sleep.
The sun waited for no one and it wasn’t long before we were on the rock face lacing and building top rope anchors, playing with various pieces of protection (terminology used for the hardware climbers use to build anchors such as cams, stoppers, and nuts. Google climbing equipment – you’ll be amazed). The sun was hot and it didn’t take log to hit ninety degrees. Shade offered marginal comfort and lunchtime found us lounging in the shade of a large crevass like a bunch of lizards. The rest of the day found us on the wall climbing and laughing at ourselves and the countless stories told.
This is a hard post to write as the time we had was fantastic and the banter endless. There is no real beginning or end to the events of the day. They just seem to blend together. There was no real destination or conquest, we went up the wall and down again on progressively harder climbs until our muscles were fried and could climb no more. This post I think is written more for me than anyone else. I don’t want to forget the fun we had or any of the fantastic people I met or got to know a little bit better. After a long day of sun, climbing, and nearly endless laughter, we went into town where we had a dinner of mexican food (some of us would pay dearly for this the next day – namely those that were down wind of Darren) and went back to go to bed. Smores were on the itinerary but no one had the motivation. We were up again the next morning and out on the rocks deeper in the park that day climbing, practicing rescue techniques and advanced anchor systems until I said my good-byes to one and all as we loaded up to head back to where we came from. The drive was long and silent as the miles ticked away back to Arizona where the next day would find us resuming our lives where we left them. The drive went quickly for me as I allowed my mind to wander over the events of the weekend and smile all over again at the time we had.
I came to the festival looking to spend time with friends and maybe find a nugget or two of knowledge that can only be learned by being around those that do this kind of thing constantly. You can read in books all about the techniques and gear but the really valuable stuff comes when you’re sitting there watching a master at work and paying attention to the little things he or she does that they take for granted. I stopped Darren in mid sentence when he was explaining how to quickly equalize and anchor – an important piece of information – because he quickly flipped his hand almost unnoticeably and came away with a clove hitch. If you don’t climb or run canyons this means nothing to you but if you do, you can understand the value of tying knots or hitches one handed. He did it one handed and QUICK! I had to learn. I watched Travis as he belayed a climber and spotted for them on their route. It was not what he said, but also what he didn’t say that spoke volumes about what he was doing to balance assisting the climber as well as letting them figure things out for themselves to help them build the necessary confidence for them to take their sport to the next level. It’s these details, these little things that make you better and safer. It’s the funny story about a close call that carries within it the thinly veiled warning that makes you think about things that might not have occurred to you and will help you be a stronger, better climber, canyoneer, or even person.
I went there just to get away and see some friends. I went to take my daughter on her first real outdoor climb. I went to get Scot and Jess around some world class climbers and help them pick up some tricks and techniques to take their game to the next level. I left with knowledge, wisdom, and enough stories to entertain those around me for several weeks to come. I am always aware of how fortunate I am. If I am measured by the quality of those I surround myself with, then I am truly blessed with a reputation that far out classes my reality. From my friends In Michigan where I left to those I have made here and in California, I am lucky indeed.
To those I knew when I got there, Darren, Travis, Sandra, and Ted as well as to those I just met or got to now a bit better like Jonnie, Rob, Lisa, Mike, Brent, Brian, Donmienne, and Jon (I’m sorry Sandra, I never knew the name of the fellow that rode with you). Thanks for a great weekend. I’m sure our paths will cross again one day. The stories will flow like the waterfalls in Maui and the knowledge we’ll share like food at thanksgiving. We’ll speak of those not present and vow to pass on greetings to them when we see them again. If there is a heaven in the great unnkown after life, for me it will be like this but without an end.
Yep, many good stories start with “so…” and go from there. This is a short story with the typical twists of a trip gone awry. My friend Jim came out to visit for a week at the beginning of April. We had planned to spend almost every day in a canyon or getting into some kind of situation to test ourselves in. Mother nature has a way of adding “challenges” to our well laid plans as well and we always looked forward to seeing how we fare. The first one came by way of appendicitis in the wee morning hours about a week before Jim was to come out. The appendicitis was for Jim – had it been for me it would have needed to occur on an undocumented second appendix as mine was removed over twenty years ago.
This little hiccup caused much concern over what we would be the nature of our mischief over the course of his stay here in the lovely state of AZ – that I would like to take a moment to point out is where Jim USED to live before he banished himself to the cursed land of gray skies and mosquitoes that is known as Michigan (even though his reasons were noble). I never really learned what the word Michigan means but I like to think it is an old Indian word for misery. Since “Michigan” sounds better than “Misery” they just never bothered to translate it before they made it a state. We would have to wait and see what Jim was up to doing when he got here. As it turned out, his threshold for pain approaches mine. This combined with a stubborn streak that wouldn’t let him waste his time here sitting on the sofa set the wheels in motion for a nice trip to explore a couple of (hopefully) unexplored canyons north of the Tonto Basin area of the Tonto National Forest. Plans were made, e-mails sent, maps printed and we were off. There were four of us on this little expedition and spirits were high as we began our trip. They wouldn’t necessarily end that way…
Our idealism got the best of us as we decided to take the direct route and actually expected to drive to where the map showed the best place to get out and hike to the drop in of our much anticipated canyons. Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s law is often my un-invited copilot and today he had mother Nature on speed dial as well. We drove 3/4 of the way up a mountain and were stopped cold – literally – by a snowbank in the middle of the road. What the F@#*!?! This IS Arizona after all – and no where near Flagstaff. We were a bit ruffled but unphased as we determined a back way to check the canyons we wanted to see by taking a little used road we had passed on the way in. So what if it is dirt , unimproved and unpatrolled. I mean, how bad could it be, right?
Funny you should ask… We back track 40 plus miles to get to this road and make our turn onto what at fist looked like a very well maintained forestry road. Woohoo – we’re in business!!! This road has plenty of twists and turns as many of the backroads in Arizona do. Like the others, this road follows the contours of the countless ridges and washes that make up much of the landscape of the Sonoran desert. We travel roughly fifteen miles before we read a sign wich indicated the road ahead is not maintained – travel at your own risk. Eh – so far so good – we’ll just go a little further… Well the road gets pretty rough from here. We needed about five more miles before we would be close enough to the bottom of our canyon destinations to get out and get a good look at what we might be dealing with. Wind and rain had washed much of the soil away and left a road made up mostly of large rocks and boulders with the occasional washed out road just to keep you from getting too comfortable. Mr. Murphy was loving it – my other passengers… not so much…
We passed a few ranches – amazed to see people living out here. We quietly wondered if they knew the Civil War was over… Then we came upon our first disappointment. We found the drainage from the first canyon we wanted to explore and there was some kind of Branch Davidian like compound there nestled quietly – and well away from the prying eyes of humanity. All it was missing were the machine gun turrets and I’m not entirely sure they weren’t just well camoflaged. We would have to continue on as we did not want to test the threats made on the No Trespassing signs. I am quite certain if I had a bullhorn and a pack of firecrackers we could have had their COMPLETE and undivided attention – right up until the time they began to realize the neither the F.B.I. nor the A.T.F travel in a single yellow Nissan Xterra. Fortunately for all concerned, my supplies did not facilitate my sense of humor.
In a scary twist, just as we were trying our best to be stealthy and pass by with out gaining unwanted attention, we came to a place where a CARDBOARD detour sign had been placed in the road pointing toward the happy little compound. Faces blanched, blood ran cold, and knees rattled but we tempted fate and proceeded to check it out. Suddenly I had visions from the movie “The hills have eyes” and I began to lose all enthusiasm for our adventure. Fortunately for all concerned the sign was placed by a good sumaritan to help us avoid a damaged portion of the road where it crossed a creek. This was especially important for me as I quickly realized that due to an old leg injury, I was the slowest one in the car. How did that old saying go…? “You don’t have to be faster than the bear (or the mutant canibal with the butcher’s knife) – just faster than the guy next to you.” Little did my companions realize that I am not above a quick whack to slow them down and facilitate my escape. If we all survived I would apologize then. If not – better them than me… No victim – no crime.
About a half mile past this little playground we decided to stop and check out our surroundings. I decided to go a bit further on foot to see if the road could possibly get any worse without either disappearing altogether or travelling through the nest of a T-rex. I was quickly joined by Scot, leaving Brandon to rehaydrate and Jim to try to figure out how to get his intestines back into his abdomen through his incisions. Fortunately he had a plastic spoon and some climbing tape…
As we were walking, I was pondering the sign we had passed and the precise definition of Unmaintained road. Unmaintained since when – World War 2!?! I was having difficulty even walking this road at times when something funny happened – we found a sign. The fact we found a sign in and of itself wasn’t funny. What was funny is this was a very nice expensive sign placed there by the Forestry service indicating that we were in the area of some Indian ruins. It went on to say they think the Indians left around 300 years ago and they don’t know why. I know why, it’s because they couldn’t build a F@#*ing road to get into or out of this place! Not really but the thought did amuse me for a minute. So first they put up a sign several miles back that would imply “Hey dumb a$$, don’t go any further because if you do and you get stuck no one will find your sun bleached bones for decades”. Then we find a second sign that seemed to indicate to me “Well you might be F@#*ed, but hey – check out some Indian ruins before you die! They couldn’t make it here either!?”. Curious…
So Scot and I turned back at this point to return to the vehicle and continue on. Just past the sign we found a nice shady place near a barely flowing creek where we could sit and enjoy a snack and plan our next move. This would be significant as we would come to find out. As Scot and I get back to the vehicle, we realize Jim and Brandon were not there. Either Jim had successfully re-installed his intestines and was off with Brandon exploring, or Brandon was disposing of incriminating evidence and offering Jims body to the locals as a peace offering and helping us to secure safe passage. Turns out it was the former – much to my relief.
We opened the back hatch on the Xterra and started to get some water when we heard a strange buzzing noise that was rapidly getting louder. Scot and I glanced at each other and simultaneously looked past the front of the vehicle where we were both amazed and terrified to see a hug swarm of bees “migrating” over the top of us. I learned later that bees often do this and it is called “swarming”. It happens when the colony gets too big or for a number of other reasons. I wasn’t particularly scared at the moment. I was fascinated by the sheer size of it and how you couldn’t see through it. It was huge and moved with a certain grace – like watching a flock of sparrows or fish move together. I counted about ten seconds for it to pass completely but realized only after they had passed that I had stopped breathing. Judging by the color of Scot’s face I don’t think I was the only one. I breifly entertained a certain satisfaction in knowing that me being slower didn’t matter in this case as we would be equally screwed – with the exception that I was the one with the keys to the car… I watched them pass over the hillside and around a small ridge before I lost track of them completely. I didn’t really feel like I was in danger but I did think I saw them communicating with each other by flashing gang signs. Scot was sure we had just cheated certain death and vowed to buy a lottery ticket that night.
Shortly after, Brandon and Jim came down off of a ridge they were exploring – oblivious to our most recent near death experience. We piled into the SUV and after a few minutes of driving, were all marvelling at the out of place sign next to the road and pondering just how many of our tax dollars it took to place it there. Soon after, we were at the shady place with the creek. This place was a desert sanctuary with tall trees, grass, a shallow gently flowing stream, and lots of shade. We hopped out and read some “No littering” signs that were once again, strangely out of place. We would have been less surprised to find human remains and a long badly written last will and testament. There were more vehicle tracks than I had anticipated finding though. There was some evidence of campers there recently too – unless it was a trick by the locals to lull us into a false sense of security before they… Never mind. As I’m munching on my Powerbar and once again pondering my place on the foodchain, I walk to the creek crossing to check it out. It has erroded into the soil pretty well but it is not deep and has obviously been crossed many imes. Both banks are fairly steep and the far one from where I am standing has a lot of slick rock and ruts on the otherside. How bad could it be?
I hand Jim my camera and tell him to get some pictures as I cross. Mr. Murphy had other plans. I throw it in gear and plow through the water, hit the other side and stop – cold. The ruts are too large and the rocks are too slick. I throw it into reverse and try to back out the way I came. Nope. Too steep. We spent the next two hours building and testing and building and testing various ramps made from rock, dirt, and river debris before we finally got out of there. My three companions angrily voted that I would be the first on the menu should we be stranded there for more than four hours and the need to resort to cannibalism should be their only option for survival. That was the good news. The bad news was that we were now comitted to continuing to where the map showed this road connecting back with the main road about 25 miles further. Bummer. We decided to explore on foot a bit and stretch our legs to see what we could find. Scot found a really cool waterfall and Jim found a particularly vicious form of poison ivy that does a good impression of flesh eating disease. I guess we know now what happened to the Indians… They were both just lucky I guess. I stuck aroung the truck and checked it for damage and prepared for part 2 of our trip.
Once we underway we spent another 5 hours banging jolting and jumping around before we finally found our way back onto pavement. All of us had stiff necks and sore muscles from our excursion into the unknown. the climbing tape held and Jim’s intestines remained intact – mostly. To top it all off, we missed the second drainage we wanted to check out but did find the third which looks promising. None of us were too inclined to return at the time. Jim spent the next two days recovering from this ordeal but we did get back out to run a couple more canyons before he left. All in all it was a good adventure filled with obstacles an overcoming them. It was also a reminder that you never really know what you’re getting into so it is best to always be prepared (even though we weren’t).
I’ll be back this summer when there is less chance of snow to explore those canyons and plan a way out. Scot and Brandon will likely be with me and Jim will be anxiously awaiting photos. I relish these times. They can’t happen often enough. I’ve heard it said before that life is remembered in moments. Our minds don’t remember entire days just impressions and highlights. Days like this are filled with highlights that make them memorable for years to come. I hope you have yours as I’ve had mine.
Salome Jug is a canyon in Arizona located approximately 35 miles south of Payson and 100 miles or so northeast of Mesa. It’s a technical canyon with only 1 rappel but a lot of sketchy downclimbs. My friend Jim and I decided to run this canyon on Monday the 6th of April.
Although the temperature would climb to around 85 degrees, we planned to hit the trailhead at around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. The approach/exit trail to Salome is about two miles long and is downhill on the way in. Since the exit trail from the canyon comes out and reconnects with the approach trail, this makes the majority of the approach trail also the exit trail. The altitude gain is not especially aggressive and the switchbacks are relatively gentle so the climb out is not unbearable, but I prefer to do it near or after dark so I can avoid hiking uphill in the sunlight. Being in the desert, the trail is fully exposed to the sun and is rocky so care must be taken to prevent dehydration as well as rolling an ankle on the approach/exit trail.
The day looked great as we pulled up to the trailhead. We were right on schedule and looking forward to a great day of fun in the water. Our only detour was a quick stop for a cheap outdoor camera (disposable) and we made up our time easily on the 100 mile drive from Gilbert where we live. After a brief moment to gear up and apply some sunblock, we were off on our march. The mood was fantastic and jokes (usually bad ones) were plenty as we began our trip to the canyon. We were all hoping for good water levels as this canyon is at its best when the water flows. It is almost always wet and you will be in the water the whole way through – with the exception of some boulder hopping. Low water means stagnation and lots of slime so timing with this canyon is important. Spring time is safest because the water levels are a bit more predictable but you will need a wetsuit if you run it before May. There is a place on the dirt road that leads to the canyon where the water crosses over it. You can usually tell the condition of the canyon by how much water is over the road. If it is flowing over the road at a trickle, it will be clear but low. The ideal is about four inches of water flowing over the road. This usually means the water will be clear and flowing down the slides with good volume through the falls. Water on either side of the road with no flow means stagnant slimy water.
Needless to say we were sweating heavily by the time we reached the entry of the canyon. After a run in with an angry prickly pear (it won), I hit the water. The conditions were great. The water was warm and just a touch lower than optimal, but the canyon had been cleared of the slime and debris that tends to accumulate there over the course of the long hot summers. After a few minutes of cooling off, we began our trip through Salome Canyon.
The canyon starts out wide and shallow. It is all pink granite flecked with copper that is decorated sporadically with large slate gray boulders as well as sedimentary boulders washed down from somewhere upstream. This is still my favorite canyon from the shear beauty of it. Anyone who has seen the pictures of the slot canyons of the southwest with their beautifully carved sandstone walls can appreciate the spectacular sight of very similar shaped smooth granite. The granite of this canyon was uncovered by the waters long ago and over the course of thousands and thousands of years, sculpted into what we see today. Completely the opposite of the jagged granite of the San Gabriels, this whole canyon has been carved by water and the debris it has carried.
As we traveled deeper into the canyon, the walls began to become gradually closer and the canyon deeper. This seemed to cause the water to carve out many interconnected mini “chambers” where eddies must have formed. Although the walls never really come closer than about eight feet from one another, they are high enough to really make you feel small. We stopped for food just upstream of where a large column of granite has broken away from the wall and formed a doorway beneath it that you must cross under to continue. Although not much of a squeeze as the height of the opening is around fourteen feet, it is still a cool feature of the canyon that will be remembered and talked about on the trail back.
The holes of water start to get deeper around half way through. There is a lot of scrambling to find the best way through some pretty tricky areas. Patience and assistance are the key for safe passage. The granite can be slick so don’t underestimate it. There are two really good slides in this canyon if the water is flowing. They are not especially tall or long but they are a lot of fun as they dump into small pools of water. One of them was only partially wet and needed us to bail water into it. As the holes get deeper, the swims become longer. I usually place a couple of empty water bottles in my pack to help with floatation. This turns a swim into a leisurely cruise and allows more time to admire the canyon. Following this advice, we took our time and were relaxed as well as comfortable during our swims.
We reached the rappel down the water fall at around 6:30 after taking our time through the canyon. There are two bolted locations here where anchors can be built. The first is to canyon right at a height of about eight feet just over a ledge. There are three anchors here including two expansion bolt style and one glue-in eye bolt style. Don’t use these without inspecting them carefully. These anchors are often beat flat after a good storm from the debris carried down by the flood waters. Be prepared to shuffle across the ledge to the more exposed anchors further out. The first anchor station allows you to descend the waterfall itself which is the narrowest part of the canyon and can be a bit of a squeeze. If water levels are up, the the force of the water can easily push your feet out from under you and put you in a jam so avoid this rappel during times of good flow. The other location requires you to climb a ledge out about fifteen feet where there are more expansion bolt style anchors that offer the opportunity to rappel straight down through a brief free hang before landing on a shallow – and narrow – ledge in the water below the falls.
We took the time to replace the webbing at the first anchor as we didn’t know how long it had been there and proceeded to line up for the rappel. We wasted no time as it was beginning to get dark and we wanted to be on the exit trail before the sun fully set – for no other reason than our headlamps would attract hundreds of flying bugs.
After the rappel we began the longest of the swims which begins in the legendary Jug. This is the feature the canyon is named for. The water has carved out a large chamber from the bottom up forming a granite “Jug” with a relatively narrow exit. This is truly something worth seeing and I would be proud to take anyone interested at any time to go through it. After exiting the Jug, the swim continues to a rocky shoal where you will climb out of the water just long enough for your pack to drain before scrambling over more boulders to re-enter the water for the final swim to dry land and the exit trail.
The hike out was a nice one. The air was hot but the wet clothes kept us cool until we reached the car. The sun had just set when we left the water and the half moon was high during our exit. The road home was long and the excited chatter slowly gave way to tired satisfied silence. After returning home I quietly gave thanks to whatever powers that be for a great day with a great friend in a truly epic setting. Days like these aren’t as common as they should be. I guess that makes the time that much sweeter. I wouldn’t trade a day like this for anything.