Adventure #5: Waterholes Canyon

*This is Adventure #5 of my Top 10 Adventures Countdown*

I love thinking about how the slot canyons I regularly enter have been formed by millions of years of water flowing over and through rocks. The shapes and patterns and twists and turns that form are incredibly beautiful. In addition to being able to see this beauty first-hand, I love the adventure that comes with descending a technical canyon. The knowledge and skill required to rappel and stem and traverse and build anchors is rewarding.

Waterholes Canyon offers one of the best mixes of these two elements of any canyon I’ve done to-date. It has amazingly beautiful geology and an extremely high adventure factor.

In March 2013, during ASU’s spring break, Mike and I joined two other friends to descend Waterholes. Adam is in our outdoors club and has done several canyons with us. He frequently hikes barefoot, though he had shoes along for this adventure. Damian is a very experienced canyoneer with lots of expertise in rigging ropes. He had done Waterholes a couple of times before, so we were very happy that he was willing to show us the ropes (literally). Mike almost always leads the canyoneering adventures we go on; however, Waterholes is probably the most intense canyon we’ve done, so Mike and I were glad to have a leader with some knowledge of the canyon. Mike has done a few other canyons with Damian and has worked for him with clients at a high-ropes course on multiple occasions, but this was my first canyon with him.

This canyon has a couple of challenges that required extra planning on our parts. One challenge is the length of the biggest rappel in the canyon. At 300+ feet, it presents some serious rope concerns. Carrying 600+ feet of rope through a canyon is no easy task. We staged the rappel in several drops, but we had to carefully consider which ropes to bring. Another unusual challenge (for us anyway) is the fact that the canyon ends at the Colorado River, with no land exit options. Canyoneers hoping to complete this canyon must figure out a way to get from the mouth of the canyon to an exit at Lee’s Ferry 3.5 miles down the Colorado River. We considered hiring a water shuttle driver to pick us up, but we ended up going with a more self-sufficient plan: we hiked through the canyon carrying pack rafts. Next, the still cold weather of early March, the high canyon walls that admit very little sunlight, and the potentially very chilly pools made us carefully consider wetsuits and layering to avoid hypothermia for our third (albeit more typical) challenge. Cold weather isn’t the only weather to consider while canyoneering, though. Our fourth challenge was the rainy forecast, which forced us to push back our trip. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a slot canyon when it starts to pour. Finally, due to the recent collapse of highway 89, we even had challenges in planning our driving route.

After considering all of these factors, we met up and drove north. On the first day we stashed one of our cars at Lee’s Ferry and then drove to Page, AZ. This is the only canyoneering trip I’ve done for which I had a hotel room the night before, but I’m glad we went that route. We were able to sort gear and get a good night’s rest before the next day’s adventure.

On the day itself, we started nice and early. One of Damian’s friends kindly shuttled us to the starting point and left us gasping in the chilly morning air (I think it was in the 30s, which is mighty chilly for us Arizonans). We set off on a short hike across the desert to the point where we would drop into the canyon. There are two (or three, depending who you ask) main sections to Waterholes. Our plan was to do only the lower and most technical portion.

The pre-canyon shot

The pre-canyon shot

Hiking to the canyon

Hiking to the canyon

Peering into the canyon from above

Peering into the canyon from above

We're in!

We’re in!

As we clambered down into the gash in the earth, my excitement grew. This is when I discovered that not only would this be a crazy and difficult adventure, but that it was one of the prettiest canyons I’ve done as well. The way the walls are carved is so magnificent. In short order, we got to one super narrow section that we had to squeeze through with tons of effort. This section of the canyon is so narrow that you cannot walk along the bottom (where it’s only inches wide). Instead, you have to wedge yourself in between the walls several feet up where the walls are closer to a foot or two wide. If you are claustrophobic, you would most certainly loathe this section.

Adam in the squeeze!

Adam in the squeeze!

As the day continued, we met several minor challenges. We stemmed potholes; slogged through mud; and splashed through a couple of cold, though relatively shallow, pools. When we got to one pool that we thought we would genuinely have to swim through, we balked. Instead of suffer the chilly waters, we inflated one of the pack rafts. Mike climbed awkwardly into this and floated himself across the pool. Damian, who was the only one of us with a drysuit, simply swam across without worrying as much about the cold. Being fond of rigging, he then proceeded to set up a Tyrolean, which is somewhat like a zip line. Adam and I crossed the pool on this.

Damian using his grappling hook to avoid a pool

Damian using his grappling hook to avoid a pool

Adam on the Tyrolean

Adam on the Tyrolean

Mike rafting over the cold pool

Mike rafting over the cold pool

Damian, with muddy gear, stopping to refuel

Damian, with muddy gear, stopping to refuel

As if his beard wasn't crazy enough!

As if his beard wasn’t crazy enough!

Mike stemming an interesting feature

Mike stemming an interesting feature

Finally we came to the biggest challenge of Waterholes: the 300-foot rappel. In a way, that figure is a bit misleading, however. We actually had to do a pretty crazy rappel to get to the 300-footer. This pre-big-wall stage was about 100 feet through a very narrow squeeze. This isn’t counted as part of the big drop because it is still enclosed by the canyon walls and has a very small staging area for the big drop below it. As the master rigger, Damian descended first with the rope for the first stage of the 300-foot rappel, which we did  in two sections. As soon as he reached he bottom of the first pre-big-drop-rappel, Adam followed. By the time Adam was down, Damian had set up the ropes for stage 1 of the big drop, which he descended to a very narrow ledge on the nearly-sheer rock face. Once Adam joined him there, Damian set up the final rappel (stage 2 of the big drop), and Adam continued down.

The pre-big-drop-rappel

The pre-big-drop-rappel

Meanwhile, I had completed the first pre-big-drop-rappel and was wedged into a reassuringly narrow slot. I say it was reassuring because peering out from its confines I could see the 300-foot drop to the canyon floor. I appreciated the constricting feeling of the walls at that point. It felt like they were hugging me and they wouldn’t release me until I was ready to descend. It was difficult to get myself situated for the drop, however. The walls were so narrow that my feet had to be planted one in front of the other, I had to face sideways, and I couldn’t even turn my shoulders. In this lonely position on what felt like the edge of the world, I set up my ATC and triple checked to make sure the ropes were running correctly through my gear. I also used a back-up prusik knot that Damian had taught me earlier in the day. The knot is designed to catch your fall if you lose control of your rope when descending, but the trick is that you have to slide it along the rope with one hand as you go to keep it from arresting you when you don’t want to stop. With my gear in place, I squeezed my pack through the tiny window and let it dangle on a short leash below my feet (this is a common technique for long drops since you don’t want the weight of a pack pulling you backwards or flipping you upside-down as you descend). Then I followed into the open air of the biggest rappel I’ve faced. My heart was pounding, but the rappel was thrilling.

For a few minutes.

Shortly after I started my controlled descent, however, I found it incredibly difficult to  move downward along the rope. My back-up prusik knot kept sticking, and I had to force it downward in order to move another foot. This became incredibly exhausting after a while. I had to use more and more force as I moved down. Soon, I was using both hands to yank at the knot. It turns out that I had set up my rappel poorly: I had used the toothed edge of my ATC (which I pretty much always use for rappels) in conjunction with the new prusik Damian had taught me. These two things are not meant to go together as they make it nearly impossible to smoothly descend. I was supposed to use the prusik as a backup to the smooth edge of my ATC. Essentially, the rope was creating way too much friction in running through the redundant setup. Honestly, I could have used some canyoneering techniques to stop my descent and make adjustments, but at 200+ feet above the deck, I didn’t want to risk completing a maneuver I hadn’t practiced before. My nervousness about the height made me unwilling to fix the situation. Instead, I continued a tortuously slow descent of the first-stage rappel. By the time I reached Damian halfway down the wall, I was flustered and had rubbed the skin on my hands raw. I was also embarrassed about making a rookie mistake. I suppose it’s much better to have too much friction on your rope than too little, but it was an ordeal nonetheless.

Me, looking dazed after my ordeal and before the second stage of the big drop

Me, looking dazed after my ordeal and before the second stage of the big drop

Meanwhile, Mike was having trouble of his own. Having completed the pre-big-drop-rappel, he couldn’t pull the rope down after him. It had gotten wedged in a tight crack 100-feet above his head. He tried many things to recover the rope, at one time building a 4:1 pulley system for added force. No use. The rope was completely stuck. We made the decision to leave it behind, which is never a fun decision to have to make. With two remaining ropes and only a few short rappels down canyon, it was not a life-threatening decision, but it was a pricey one. Ah well.

Mike, looking crazed after his own struggle

Mike, looking crazed after his own struggle

Set up correctly this time, I rappelled the second stage and Mike completed the first. It was a much more enjoyable descent, though by this time I was ready to be down on solid ground again. Despite my struggles, the majesty of the high walls was breathtaking. I relaxed enough to take in the surroundings. Once I was down, Mike and then Damian followed. We had finished the largest challenge of the trip, but we still had a considerable amount of canyon left with not much light remaining.

The wall

The wall of the big drop; we rappelled roughly where the black streak on the right is

The wall

Damian beginning the second stage of the big drop

Maybe this visual will help you with the scale of the big drop

Maybe this visual will help you with the scale of the big drop

We worked our way toward the river in waning light. After several more rappels, it was time to bust out our headlamps. By that time we had completed the technical sections and merely had to make it to the river. After a longish flat section, we arrived at the shore around 8:00 pm. There we worked on pumping up our inflatable pack rafts and quickly discovered that Adam’s had multiple holes in it. Three pack rafts for four people presented a problem, but it was one we had to overcome.

With tiny rafts inflated, we launched into the Colorado River in the dark. Mike and I squeezed into one raft, with me basically sitting on top of Mike, and Damian and Adam each took their own packs and one of ours. Although I was horribly uncomfortable, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that I was rafting the Colorado River in a pool toy after a long day in a difficult canyon. The stars were magnificent (and about the only things I could clearly see in the pitch blackness); even the walls of the canyon on the edges of the river were difficult to discern. We paddled some, but mostly we floated the 3.5 miles downstream.

As we got closer to Lee’s Ferry, I became nervous about missing our exit. I knew we would see it, but despite the calm current, I was worried we’d sweep past it. I kept urging Mike closer to the shoreline. I didn’t want to hit the small section of rapids below Lee’s Ferry. All of my worrying was for naught since the exit ended up being a fairly simple affair.

On shore by 11:00, we’d completed the most dramatic and adventurous canyon I’d done. My overall experience was dampened a bit by my stupid mistake on the big rappel, but on the whole, the trip was amazing! Waterholes is a gorgeous and challenging canyon. It made it into my Top 5 for obvious reasons. Come back to see which four adventures managed to beat it!

Comments
2 Responses to “Adventure #5: Waterholes Canyon”
  1. Bob Self says:

    This is wonderful stuff–the concerns of your preparation, the details of the adventure (rope-burned hands and inches-wide canyon floors), and the locations themselves. The pictures make their own other narrative, but your writing makes it equally vivid and interesting–and adventurous! It was great being able to go along with you guys!

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