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.
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.