Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Kaiparowits Plateau

Collet Top Arch and granary on the Kaiparowits Plateau.
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Last May (2017), before Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke decided, against the will of the vast majority of 2.8 million public commenters, to radically shrink the Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, I drove the Smoky Mountain Road across the Kaiparowits Plateau on my way to the Grand Canyon.

Like many who have hiked in the more accessible and popular canyons of the Escalante River (link, link, link, link), I’d always been curious about the Kaiparowits, looming to the southwest above the Straight Cliffs. It is notable for many reasons, but the ones that conflict the most in today’s politics are its size, remoteness, and lack of human impact versus the enormous amount of coal that lies beneath it. I fear that the recent decision to shrink National Monuments has more to do with this coal than anything else, and removing it would destroy all of the other qualities of this place, perhaps as rugged and untrammeled as anywhere in the lower 48 states.

Of the relatively few people who have spent any time on the Kaiparowits, most have done what I did—spent a couple of days driving the Smoky Mountain Road and day-hiking. A few are more ambitious, crossing the plateau on the Hayduke Trail, or finding their own routes through the dry, incised terrain (link, link).

Help protect the Kaiparowits by calling your senators and representatives and by supporting organizations like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).

Kaiparowits landscape from the southern portion of the Smoky Mountain Road.

Claret Cup Cactus, Kaiparowits.

Last Chance Creek -- a rare source of reliable water on the dry plateau. I camped here.

Cottonwood, Last Chance Creek.

Water in Last Chance Creek.

Dry Fork, Last Chance Creek. I tried to hike down this, but quickly was forced out of the canyon by a pour-over and couldn't find a way back in.

Bone, Kaiparowits Plateau.

Moonset, Kaiparowits.

Prince's Plume, southern edge of the plateau.

Southern escarpment of the plateau above Bigwater, Utah.

View southwest from the southern edge of the plateau.

Boulder near Bigwater, Utah. I found chalk on some of these boulders

Boulders and badlands below the Kaiparowits near Bigwater.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Canyoneering: Black Hole of White Canyon

Larry Scritchfield deep in the Black Hole of White Canyon.
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It's easy in a blog post to fall into the trap of making a canyoneering trip sound more dangerous and dramatic than it really was, but the Black Hole of White Canyon is one of the pure fun ones, at least in the conditions we experienced--clear and warm early fall weather, no danger of flood, easy swimming, and reasonable water temperatures. Conditions change, and this trip can be more serious, but except for a couple of short stinky pools and a short, tricky climb up a log to get back to the rim at the end (probably avoidable), our trip in early October was not at all scary. We used a short piece of rope to belay the log (thanks, Larry), but otherwise, needed no gear besides our wetsuits. 

Larry Scritchfield on a warm-up hike in Fry Canyon the day before we did the Black Hole.

Approaching White Canyon--it drains a vast complicated area.

Me and Larry at the warning sign that was placed one season when a huge "unstable debris jam" clogged the Black Hole. The jam has since been washed away. 

In White Canyon above the Black Hole.

Getting ready to suit up for the Black Hole--the water was cold enough for wetsuits, but not very uncomfortable with them on.

Jim Akers, emerging from one of the early swims.


Jim and Larry in a Black Hole slot.


Jim and Larry, emerging from one slot swim...

...and entering another.

More swimming--at one point, we swam past a tarantula sitting on a ledge, but it turned out to be dead. How did it get there in the first place?

Jim Akers in full neoprene.

Warming up, like guards at Buckingham Palace, but less ridiculous.

Easy travel between pools. Note the flood debris wedged in about 30 feet above Larry's head.

Unpleasant travel in log-filled pools. Luckily, there was only one small section like this.

Jim and Larry, avoiding a stinky pool. 

Jim with a stick. You'd have to ask Jim.

A corkscrew section, with occasional water.

Fins and water, deep in the Black Hole.

Larry and Jim approaching a fin section.

Climbing on slickrock to avoid another stinky pool (most were not stinky).

Jim, mucking around before climbing past a stinky section near the end of the difficulties.

Out! We left cars at the beginning and end of the trip, with cold beer in the latter.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Canyoneering: Fern Glen to Tuckup in the Grand Canyon

Don Reyes on Muav limestone in lower Fern Glen Canyon.
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As Grand Canyoneering goes, the 5-day loop down Fern Glen Canyon to the Colorado, along the river (upstream) for a few miles (an understated George Steck route), and then up Tuckup Canyon to return to your starting point is relatively mellow. Technical obstacles are a series of rappels and downclimbs in Fern Glen and chockstones in Tuckup that have to be groveled over. Total mileage is a little under thirty. No packraft is required.

But it beat us up relentlessly every single day.

Each morning there were terrible noises as Larry Scritchfield, Don Reyes, and I tried to slowly get ourselves moving. We figured that our collective 175 years added to our suffering, but to be sure, others much older than us have done bigger trips.

Tom Jones (Canyoneering USA) describes canyoneering in the Grand Canyon well in a Rave:

My knees still hurt. But this is not usual. I do one hiking trip each spring to the Grand Canyon, carrying a BIG PACK (camping, canyoneering, pool toying) and it wrecks me. Then it takes a year for me to forget.”

It's been two years since I canyoneered in the Grand Canyon (see blog post), and one year since I had my right knee replaced. The knee performed perfectly on this trip--but the rest of me suffered. 

Admirably, a community of highly motivated and strong people tackle big Grand Canyon trips more frequently, and Todd Martin’s book, Grand Canyoneering, is a masterpiece of documented experiences that collectively seem almost unimaginable. Martin himself acknowledges many, both recent and historic, who inspired him—exploring in the Grand Canyon has a rich history that pre- and post-dates European arrival in the New World.

These are some captioned photos from our trip, followed by a little info on logistics to supplement Martin’s excellent descriptions, and a paragraph about a new camera I tried out on this trip.

The Tuckup trailhead. Not a bad place to spend a couple of nights if you have enough chips and salsa and a wee bit of tequila.

Jim Akers and Don Reyes checking out the canyon. Jim camped on the rim and did gnarly solo-dayhikes, including the trail down to Lava Falls, while we lugged our backpacks around. 

Crinoid fossils in Kaibab limestone near the rim along the Tuckup Trail early on the first day when we were still perky.

Larry Scritchfield surveying the Esplanade after descending from the trailhead. This is near the top of Tuckup, and we returned to this place at the end of our hike.

Larry near the head of Cottonwood Canyon, where there is a spring and the first water after leaving the rim.

Larry traversing the Esplanade on the first day.

Don looking into Fern Glen Canyon from near where we spent our first night.

Larry and Don with The Dome in the background. Our loop circumambulated this feature, but mostly while deep down in the canyons.

Larry and Don descending through the Supai sandstone in upper Fern Glen on our second day.

One of many rappels in Fern Glen. All were awkward due to undercut lips, but anchors were generally good.

Don wrestling with a short rappel.

The top of the Redwall limestone in Fern Glen.

Suiting up for swimming in Fern Glen. 

Don (entering water) and Larry in Fern Glen.

The longest rappel in Fern Glen is 200' in three stages. This is looking down at the bottom of the first stage, with the second around the corner to a deeper pool and swim.

No ferns in this particular part of Fern Glen, but they did grow in others.

Another Fern Glen chockstone rappel.

Larry, cagily dodging a swim.

Larry (R) and Don (L) entering the Muav limestone in lower Fern Glen.

Descending through the beautiful Muav limestone.

The final Fern Glen rappel, in pouring rain during a lightning storm. Do you hear a freight train?

Double rainbow over the Colorado River.

Our second bivy under a big overhang along the river upstream from the mouth of Fern Glen. By this time, the rain had stopped.

An example of the hideous river traverse. Pick your line.

As we traversed upstream through cat's claw, rafters traveled the other direction in a much more pleasant parallel universe.

Rafters throwing Larry some beers after taking pity on the bleeding old men carrying packs.

Hauling packs up a chockstone in lower Tuckup Canyon on our third day.

Larry in Tuckup.

Bouldering our way up Tuckup Canyon.

Our third bivy. Partway up Tuckup Canyon.

A side canyon in Tuckup. Lovely little terrarium.

Don surmounting a Supai boulder in the Redwall.

Redwall limestone in Tuckup.

Our first view of the Shaman Panel. Information here and a great high resolution image and description here.

Look closely. These guys are clearly early boulderers working on a roof problem (about a third in from the left).

Larry enjoying the Shaman panel.

Larry and Don at the Shaman Panel.

The Shaman Panel.

Sha-men with a flask of scotch on our last night.

A rare selfie.

Jim met us near the rim with cold beer on his way down to visit the Shaman Panel. 

Trip Logistics (brief): Fern Glen and Tuckup canyons are well-described in Todd Martin’s book, Grand Canyoneering, but I’ll add a little info here.

Rather than doing the steep drop-in approach Todd describes, we opted for hiking down the Tuckup trail from the Tuckup trailhead and then traversing around the Esplanade to the head of Fern Glen. This was a sloggish 9-mile hike, with water at Cottonwood Canyon and in potholes at the head of Fern Glen. Larry aptly described passing the heads of several canyons as being “trapped in a fractal.” Staying as far above the canyon heads as is reasonably possible is a good strategy—the “trail” is helpful but often hard to find. Since we didn’t do the steep approach, I can’t say which is better or faster. The way we went was mostly gentle but long. We spent our first night at the head of Fern Glen (some shelter under overhangs, but we all had tents or bivy sacks).

The second day we descended Fern Glen to the Colorado River and then traversed up the river for about a quarter-mile to bivy under a big arching overhang visible from the mouth of Fern Glen. It was a dry, flat, reasonable bivy spot. The only notes about Fern Glen that vary from Martin’s book are that the early downclimb of a “steep, unpleasant slope” (Martin) that looked horrendous to us was easily avoided by rappelling off a tree. Rappel anchors were reasonable for the remaining (~9—I lost count) rappels in Fern Glen. The “pile of rocks” used for the 200’ rappel is really more of a wedged chockstone pinch-point, and it seemed very secure compared to the teetering cairn-bollard that we were all picturing. There are two bolt anchors described by Martin lower in the canyon. The upper one had been chopped (badly) and replaced with a secure natural anchor. The lower one consisted of two rusty ¼-inch bolts (one a button head, the other a hex head). Those are suspect, but we used them anyway. At some point, they should either be replaced or abandoned. The last rappel included the jammed knot that Martin describes and a large stopper—we were in a lightning storm at that time and didn’t check it out thoroughly.

The river traverse is not fun! It’s 3 miles of fighting through tamarisk, desert broom, and cat’s claw, traversing up onto sharp scree to escape all of that and then descending back into the flesh-ripping brush to escape impassible boulders. One party suggested traversing the cliff base for significant distances, but we had little success with that because cat’s claw seemed to also enjoy hugging the cliff forcing you back down. Steck supposedly did the traverse in 3 hours. It took us 6. Near the end, we received 4 cold beers from a passing raft trip! We arrived, bleeding, at Tuckup, ate lunch, drank the beer, and then staggered up canyon for a few hours to a good bivy under an overhang above the wash on the right (looking upstream). Across from the bivy was a big Redwall alcove with an odd little spire that we called The Pope attached to the base of the wall. The main difficulties in Tuckup were climbing up boulders that regularly choke the drainage. These were strenuous, but not terrible.

On the fourth day, we continued up Tuckup (mostly easy) to a dry camp at the incredible Shaman Panel, carrying water from where it seemed to peter-out in upper Tuckup.

The last day was the climb back to the rim on the Tuckup Trail.

Camera nerdery:  This trip was the maiden voyage for my new Sony a6300 mirrorless camera, recently purchased for backpacking to avoid the burden of carrying a full-sized DSLR. I have not bought any additional lenses for this camera, so I used the “kit lens,” a low quality16-50 mm. Aside from the lens, which is soft (focus) and not snappy in terms of color, I was happy with the camera. It inadvertently (no idea how) was changed from ISO 400, which I had deliberately set, to ISO 1250, which I hadn’t, and stayed that way for much of the hike until I noticed it on the way out (the pitfalls of unfamiliarity with a new camera). The picture quality as a result isn’t exceptional, but I think with a better lens and more familiarity, this will be a great camera when weight is an issue.