Don’t Look Down: “What would have been the crux in R-rated canyons is a welcome rest here.” Photo: Steve Brezovec
The obstacle in front of me is unlike any I have seen in a canyon before. It’s a big problem. An outwardly flaring offwidth crack, barely 1 inch wide at its narrowest point, runs for 40 vertical feet all the way down to the sand below. The only possible point of passage is 50 feet off the deck with a giant, unstemmable silo, a wide section of canyon with concave walls, that will force us to the ground. This is beyond my ability. We’re screwed, but I really don’t want to shout that to my partners, lest panic ensue.
We are canyoneering deep in Escalante. But this is far more like climbing than canyoneering, and bad climbing at that. When most people think of Colorado Plateau canyoneering, they envision hiking through beautifully sculpted chambers, negotiating water-filled potholes and rappelling over short dryfalls. The beauty and solitude are exquisite, and the occasional sense that you are the first or among the very few visitors to a space is a rare experience. Well, at least we have the solutude here.
We are high-stemming, a fringe version of the sport that appeals only to the most masochistic. We haven’t been on foot for three hours, and then, only for ten minutes as a brief respite. It’s not just the height that’s the challenge in canyons like these. The friction sucks, too. Sturdy, high-friction, clean Wingate sandstone is nowhere to be found—in its place is dirty, downward flaring walls. Carelessly placed feet smear off, and deceptively solid handholds crumble into dust. Vertically parallel walls provide none of the comfort of the usual flaring, funnel-shaped cracks. Here, we have to push and strain for every moment of safety above the waiting jaws of the darkness below.
The knockout punch is the sheer relentlessness of it all. After the first hour of lichen-covered slipperiness, we had some time to rest, rehydrate, and refuel just before what we feared would be a 40-foot vertical offwidth climb. It proved instead to be an impossibly long hallway of vertical walls, nearly but not quite so narrow as to require unclipping our helmets. Then the canyon began to twist and contort, forcing us to upclimb 20 feet further up before we hit “elevator shafts,” downward body-size tubes we descended via controlled slides.
We suffer through wave after wave of crux moves. What would have been the crux in the R-rated canyons further down the mesa is a welcome rest here. We start with a silo with nothing but open air all the way to the ground. Some silos are too wide to stem, but the worst ones, like this one, are just wide enough. Hands on one wall, feet on the other, I extended as far as I could, knowing that the slightest slip-up would result in an 80-foot ground fall.
When things get even more tricky. So we make individual decisions: I plunge headlong into a tight hallway 30 feet off the deck, while my patner Aaron opts to climb 40 vertical feet up, half of which he rates as an unprotectable 5.8 offwidth with a 50-foot ground fall exposure. Landon waits patiently to hear which is the less agonizing route. Shortly after entering the hall, I descend 30 feet by headlamp into a dark wormhole, which eventually pinches off to nothing, forcing me to upclimb 80 feet further than Aaron but with good chimneying the entire distance, provided you are small enough to fit. Our third partner, Landon, is not.
Aaron finishes his climb, crosses a silo with the potential of an 80-foot ground fall, and perches himself in a stem between this silo and another to provide a belay. It takes 15 minutes for Aaron to finally detangle all the knots he puts in the rope with my awkwardly perched belay rope handling skills. Landon’s struggle and look of relief on topping out confirm that the belay was a good idea.
Soon after, I’m trying to avoid a climb to 100 feet and an exposed stem by jamming myself headfirst and horizontally into a chest-width slot over a 80-foot shaft to the ground. The half-baked logic here is that the tightness of the slot will offer enough security to allow me to swing my feet forward to a safe stance on the other side. That safe stance doesn’t materialize before the tightness relents. I think I’m going to be dumped into the shaft. Blindly, I catch myself and swing my feet from behind my head to forty-five degrees in front of me, desperately catching safe purchase on the other side.
I laugh, but the laughter escapes my lungs with a maniacal twist which disturbs my partners. Soon, Aaron crosses a silo directly into an 8-inch wide off-width upclimb. It provides no safe perch, only a similarly difficult off-width downclimb above a wide open silo. With one arm and his hip wedged in the crack behind him, Aaron attempts a controlled slide into a staging point for the silo crossing. There’s no friction—he’s nearly spit out of the crack directly into the silo below. He carries his momentum into a dynamic, careening stem over the silo, barely avoiding the fall. We name that problem “The Ejector Seat.”
Our energy is waning. The guys arrive behind me at that unclimbable 50-foot crack. Their already shell-shocked expressions fall a little further. Aaron begins to articulate a plan to dyno 12-feet horizontally into the crack using a precarious sloping intermediate hold 40 feet above the canyon floor.
“That won’t work,” I say.
“I don’t see any other options,” Aaron states flatly. My eyes dart high and low. I’m sure we could use the rope to swing packs up and over the log lodged 55 feet up the crack, hopefully catching solidly enough to allow us to ascend the rope up and over.
“You checked to see if it goes low?” Landon asks.
“No, but we have to go down there anyway so we might as well check.”
Seconds later, I scramble 30 down feet to the sandy bottom, one of very few we had stood on the entire trip. Around the corner, at about waist height, the crack flares out to the ground promisingly. Guarding against false hope, I drop to my knees and poke my head around. Unbelievable. Solid ground!
We whoop with joy. Judging by how long we had been in and what we had seen from above, it feels as if the worst is over. We crawl a few more mild twists and turns and we arrive at our final cache, which marks the end of the nastiness and the beginning of the final ‘X’ section. A few years ago this section would have been considered one of the most challenging testpieces in canyoneering, but now it’s welcome relief. A few more miles of walking and we’re high-fiveing back at the car,
Later, we’re back at Rick Green’s guide service, Excursions Escalante. Last year Rick had completed Bishop Canyon, which we had scouted the year before that. Rick later confirmed it as the hardest ‘X’ canyon yet. If anyone would appreciate our tales, Rick would. As we spin out the yarns, Rick, wife Amie, and a few loitering canyoneers bring us ice cream and give more high fives as we revel in our obscure achievement. Rick offers to take us to Bishop in exchange for a trip down S.O.S., as we named our highball. We laugh.
“Maybe in a few weeks,” I say, “Or never.”
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For canyoneering adventures with a little less torture but just as much beauty, talk to Excursions Escalante. Rick’s enthusiasm and expertise will guarantee you a trip of a lifetime.
Imlay Canyon Gear and all the other swag you’ll ever need for all levels of canyoneering can be found at canyoneeringusa.com.
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Steve Brezovec lives in Oakland, CA, where he spends his time splitboarding, trail running and wondering why he left Utah.