Illusions canyon

July, 2017

Just a day swimming and falling through bedrock. A deep, narrow, cold cut in the earth beneath the malevolent Arizona summer sun. A slot canyon is like a video game–you move from room to room, puzzle to puzzle, challenge to challenge, hardly remembering the previous level as you engage fully in the next, focused to avoid death, or at least to move quickly and reach the once cursed, now beloved sun after the tenth swim has chilled your bones. Illusions is an absorbing illustration of its canyon kin. Fifteen rappels off some funky, complicated anchors, many into hesitant pools of unilluminated groundwater, and a couple into potholes of the potential ‘keeper’ kind, where if water is low, they will keep you there unless you have a mechanism to hook a stone lip high above your head and climb your rope ladder to safety…

Canyoneering is basically mountaineering inside-out; many similar considerations apply, like weather. With a 30% chance of rain on our proposed descent day, i.e. a 30% chance of being flushed down a slot canyon in a flash flood, we spent a waiting day in languid exploration of the gorgeous main trunk of Oak Creek.

The forecast was clear the next day. So after hiking up over the rim and visiting the lonely fire-watch guy at the lookout tower, we started our bushwhack descent.

The canyon transitioned from trees on steep slopes, to bushes and rock…

…to rock and water.

Winding down through corkscrews and windows. The sandstone, even when wet, is surprisingly grippy. In slick granite, such formations are far more dangerous to traverse by hand and foot (and butt) alone.

That’s me getting ready to rap back into the depths. The sunny openings were pretty frequent at first, but became rarer the deeper we got. I didn’t photo any anchors on this trip (which was an oversight since there were some weird ones! like a sling with a knot tied into it and jammed into a crack, or a big stump that could be tipped out of its crack, but would hold if pulled in the right direction!). You can get a better idea of how we do this from my post of a first descent of a creek in Grand Canyon here.

Alive without breath; As cold as death; Never thirsty, ever drinking; All in mail, never clinking…

(A fish in the deep–Gollum’s riddle to Bilbo in the goblin caves)

The first 100 foot rappel. The top of this one looks like a¬†Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

The final rap, another 100 foot drop, this time into a ‘keeper’ pothole! This hole is known for harboring decomposing carcasses of unfortunate creatures that have ventured in for water and been ‘kept’. We couldn’t see the hole from the top to evaluate how much water it had lost since our friends descended this a month earlier. I rapped with some nervous anticipation with a home-made escape gadget clipped to my side… (next photos)

I descended like this, with a climbing hook tied to a trekking pole and an etrier (rope-ladder) clipped into the hook, and the whole assembly wrapped up and clipped onto my harness.

The water was high enough that we could reach the lip by hand, but I had been really excited to use this contraption, so I had to give it a try just for kicks! You can see the black hook at the pole end (a Black Diamond Grappling Hook for aid climbing) connected to the orange etrier (which is longer than it looks, more foot loops are down below the edge).

When we rapped into the pool, we noticed it smelled strongly of skunk. I figured a skunk had died in here recently. But it wasn’t until I had already dropped back into the hole to test my escape hook that I noticed a skunk carcass floating gently toward me! Poor skunk. I think people should install an animal ladder here. There’s no reason to let nature take its diabolical course here, even if it means de-purifying the experience for a few canyoneers.

I put myself out of reach of the lip and used the extended hiking pole to place the hook. Then I stepped into the stirrups of the etrier and climbed to freedom. The system worked! *One thing anyone must be mindful of is that the hook may have to be placed near horizontal in other situations, so it should not be fixed inline with the pole. It should be allowed to dangle down at an angle from the pole, as I had done in anticipation of that kind of situation (imagine a shelf arcing up and away toward horizontal, with a lip on the horizontal part).

Happy to be warm and dry in the main canyon again, Marielle washes the dead skunk out of our drinking water containers.

And the golden glow on the enticing bigwalls led us gradually out into the night, back into the busy world of cars whose drivers won’t give you a ride even if you’re carrying a helmet.

We actually found it difficult to say that this canyon was ‘fun’ while we were doing it, and even after. We shivered a lot, and had to rebuild most of the 15 rappel anchors, which took a lot of time. We had to make decisions like “Should we rap both these steps at once, risking getting the rope stuck on a longer pull? Or should we pull now and rap the second step from this shitty, loose stump? (I found a more embedded piece of debris to back it up on that one)”.

But even if not ‘fun’, it was certainly engaging, which is often the more tangible value of mountaineering. I am a believer in the value of Type II fun (not fun at the time, but great fun remembering and telling the story!). As I tell this story, I feel the familiar sensation of the ‘call of the canyon’, the ‘freedom of the hills’, that seems ubiquitous in every human spirit, pulling us back to land and our wild self.