“A Hybrid Form of Madness”

I recently came across an article in National Geographic about canyoneering in Australia. The photos were amazing, and they have only increased my desire to hit the outback sometime in the not-too-distant future. I really like the writing in the article as well. The opening lines are golden:

“The Swiss have mountains, so they climb. Canadians have lakes, so they canoe. The Australians have canyons, so they go canyoneering, a hybrid form of madness halfway between mountaineering and caving in which you go down instead of up, often through wet tunnels and narrow passageways” (Jenkins).

As one of our most recent adventures illustrates, “a hybrid form of madness” perfectly captures canyoneering. A couple of weeks ago we ventured into Crystal Canyon and almost didn’t venture out.

Mike and I took along Pradeep, a canyoneering virgin, for this particular trek. Come Friday night, we were heading east out of the Valley toward the San Carlos Reservation. Once we headed off the highway and started along the dirt roads, the tracks became a bit overgrown and dicey. No worries, though; we drove to the end and parked our car in the middle of the desert. Around midnight we went to sleep.

Our car in the middle of the desert

The road we drove in on and had to find in the dark later on

The next morning we woke up and headed cross-country through the open and fairly featureless desert toward a point on Mike’s GPS. After crossing 2 miles of desert we ended up at the top of a canyon we hadn’t even seen a hint of from our car. A lovely spiral (snake?) petroglyph and a gloriously-scented plant marked the start of our descent.

Pretty cactus!



Really dead.

Petroglyph with opposite canyon wall in the background

After a somewhat gnarly bushwhack down to the river, we were rewarded with some crystal clear pools and a few little waterfalls. We donned wetsuits (that water was chilly!) and proceeded to cliff jump and swim about for a bit. The weather was fantastic.

The falls at the beginning of Crystal Canyon, as seen from the rim



Yeah, I shot that one... 🙂

When we’d had enough, we set off downstream. Most of the canyon was non-technical, meaning we simply had to follow the river by wading through it or walking on its banks. The hike was pleasant and uneventful until we came upon a small section of rapids. Our beta informed us that we could slide down the rapids but that we would have to jump over a waterfall below if we did. Since Pradeep is not a strong swimmer, he opted to go around while Mike and I had all the fun. Unfortunately, that fun came at a price. I failed to properly seal my waterproof jug, and I soaked our camera, GPS, food, and headlamps. Although the GPS is supposed to be waterproof, it had a giant crack in the screen that does not seal out water very well. Oops. The camera is still not working, and we’ll have to send it in for repairs. Double oops. (Luckily we were able to recover the photos we had already taken.) The food was mostly salvageable, but my headlamp was acting up. All in all, we had some pretty bad casualties.

Pradeep on his first canyoneering trip

At the top of the small rapids section

The last shot before our camera took a dip 😦

Even with all of this misfortune, however, we were enjoying ourselves. The technical portion of the canyon was the only remaining section. Again, Pradeep found a cool spot in the canyon to rest while Mike and I ventured on.

Although the hike and length of this canyon were among the easiest I’ve done, the rappels were some of the most epic. The first crept alongside a fairly heavy waterfall, but we were able to keep mostly to the side of it, saving ourselves from the raging torrent of water. The tricky part was maneuvering through the pool at the bottom toward the top of the second waterfall rappel without being swept over it. Mike went first and stayed on the rope until he managed to clip into the bolt at the top of the second rappel. I followed, doing the same, and we pulled the rope from the first rappel to set up the second. Then I decided to be the first to do that section.

Eeeek! That waterfall might not have looked too crazy to someone who wasn’t about to rappel straight through it, but it looked like Niagara Falls to me. I take that back; I think most people would at least look at it and think you’d have to be nuts to rappel through that. Well, I am, and I did. I was able to stay off to the side of the waterfall for the first half of the rappel, but then it hit a ledge and arced in a crazy fanned out spray over the precipice. I took a few deep breaths and went straight through the middle, getting pummeled the whole way. I disappeared beneath the falls. If Mike and I had traded spots and he had gone first, I’m pretty sure I would have panicked at this point. I literally disappeared from view under the waterfall for a minute or so. I found a lovely cave hidden under the falls in which to catch my breath, but Mike didn’t know that, so I figured I’d better get my butt out of there before he started to freak out. I gave myself a bunch of slack and washed right out of the waterfall and down a chute at the bottom.

When Mike got to that ledge spot, a look of doubt flashed across his face. “You want me to go straight through that?!” he signed and shouted.

Yep. “Just do it!” I yelled over the roar of the water. Although we were only about 10-15 feet away from each other, we were lip reading due to the volume of the crashing falls. I gestured madly, signaling him to hurl himself into the torrential flow.

He went for it, and we regrouped at the bottom, hearts pounding from the fear and adrenaline.

Since our camera took a dip and we don’t have any photos of the two waterfall rappels, I thought I’d upload a video I found on YouTube:

Thanks, AhikeZ, for the footage.

After a 50 yard swim through a deep pool and a round-about hike back to where Pradeep waited, we started our hike out of the canyon, back the way we came. (This is unusual for a canyon — usually you have to exit at a point far downstream because once you pull your ropes from a rappel, you can’t set them back up.) Now that the rappels were behind us, we started to worry a bit more about how we would find our way back to our car without our GPS. We tried to hurry our hike out so that we would have more daylight for our search.

We exited the canyon just as the sun was setting, and we had another half hour or so of dusk. We made some progress in the general direction of the car (we thought) in that half an hour, but soon we were groping for our headlamps. Mine was acting up due to its unexpected bath, so I found myself walking through the desert, trying not to trip over too many cacti in the blackness.

We had a topographic map with us, so we picked out the approximate location of our car based on its relation to distant hills. Mike decided that we should try to intersect the road we drove in on instead of trying to locate our car exactly. This, of course, was a smart plan, but I was still a little worried about it. There hadn’t been much of a road on the way in, and I wasn’t confident that we would recognize it when we came to it. I was mentally prepared to sleep in the open desert if necessary. My wetsuit would make a decent sleeping pad, and I remembered to pack my emergency blanket.

This is the desert landscape we had to scour for our car

After walking for an hour or so we spotted a horseshoe in the middle of a road! It was our lucky break. We thought we even saw tire tracks, so we started following the road back toward where we thought we parked. There were a few times when we lost the road and a few times when we suffered from doubt (are we sure we’re going the right way? is this the same road we drove in on?), but we eventually made it back to the car. In fact, when we started it up after hunting through our packs for the keys, the clock said it was 7:58. We not only made it back, we made it back by 8:00! It probably only took us a half an hour longer than it would have with the GPS. Mike’s got mad topo skills.

I think I’ll leave it at that.

One Response to ““A Hybrid Form of Madness””
  1. Kristen Mott says:

    glad you made it out! keep letting me or Mom know when you go on these crazy ones so we can send search and rescue if needed!

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