Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Adventure Countdown (Click on Highlighted Text for Video)

I am turning 45 years old this year.  Reality hit not to long ago at the Sports Mall, where I work, when an “ older lady”  came in for her scheduled training consultation. During our conversation she stated that she was 45. It then dawned on me, for the first time, that I must look like an “older man.” I have not put much interest into the aging effect, and how it will eventually limit the types of activities I can participate in. But this was a shrewd experience to remind me that I am not invincible and things are beginning to change.  

So in my aging years I took time to reflect, during my 5 hour car drive to the Escalante Staircase, on the impressionable adventures of my “younger years”: free soloing in my teens, backcountry skiing before there was the high performance backcountry gear, whitewater kayaking, wildland fire fighting,
Alaska Backpacking 
homeless adventure  in Alaska, the Utah desert, and many more cherished memories
. During my reflection I felt an odd sense that an adventure countdown has begun. Is it my age, my course of life, my family responsibilities,  that are alarming me to an inevitable fate?  That one day I will not be able to participate in some of the adventure activities I love. My heart sadden as I realized I'm entering a new chapter of life.  So if this is the beginning of the end then I am going to make sure that my adventures are momentous moments.

For my first countdown adventure I decided to go canyoneering in the Escalante Staircase.  As you stand overlooking the Escalante Staircase from a nearby plateau you may ask, “What the crap was President Bill Clinton thinking when he made this a monument? It's a barren land of dirt and rock!”  It's when you get down into landscaped that you realize the labyrinth of beauty he was protecting. Escalante is chock-full of canyons and washes that are scars of mother nature's power. Ironically these scars are the lifeline to the beauty and spectacular scenery that attracts so many people to this area. These washes are the feeding grounds for deer and cougar, and house a plethora of rodents and frogs.  There are  thick “jungles” of grasses, shrubs and willows, aged cottonwood trees, and the undesired tamarisk and russian olive.  This oasis of greenery is something you wouldn't expect in a desert. It is amazing to view the checks and balances of years of nature's creative power.  All the more reason to protect this wild beauty.

Ironically my momentous Escalante moment starts at a desk. I planned our adventure using the Alltrails app, by downloading topo maps and direct routes to base camp and canyons. I  also flagged significant areas and attach vital information to my maps.  I love using the Alltrails app for adventures.  It allows me to see where I am at, at any given time without  cell service.  I was shocked how many people were hiking in the Escalante wilderness unprepared.  We were asked several times  how to find “somewhere.”  The only downside to Alltrails is, it’s an electronic map so I have to bring a charging device. But if I put my phone in airplane mode,  I can use my phone for 2 days without having to charge it. Of course I am a good Boy Scout and I  always print and bring a hardcopy map for “just in case.”

The  trip included  3 canyons in two days.  Neon and Ringtail on day 1 and Choprock on Day 2.  I  personally have experienced Choprock and Neon canyons. My first descent down Choprock took over 14 hours, finishing in the dark around 10pm. The canyon starts with a 2-3 hour approach across primitive wilderness. Good navigation and route finding skills, or using your Alltrails app can save you a significant amount of time since there are no designated trails. The approach is very exposed to the sun and it is HIGHLY recommended that you start just before sunrise.  Which can be a little disheartening when you have to cross the frigid Escalante River, thigh deep, that early in the morning when the temperature is about 45 degrees. But totally better than the alternative of nasty sweaty parts due to extreme heat.  

Choprock is an adult  playground with several 20-40’ Elevator slides using wet suit  friction to control your descent. There are a few stemming and bridging sections that if you are like me, a little afraid of heights, make your sphincters pucker.  There are plenty of long frigid swims where everything shrivels up even with a 5mm wetsuit. And slots so narrow that anyone who  is considered a “Clydesdale” will raise an eyebrow and wonder if they just entered their grave. But will soon find out that they fit just fine as long as they are content with leaving a few chucks of flesh and strips of clothing.  Interestingly I  repeated  Choprock canyon a few years later and we practically swam the entire canyon.  Which offered a complete set of new challenges and a fresh adventure experience.

That is one of the great  attractions to  canyoneering.  Canyons are constantly changing due to Mother Nature’s power.  Which then offers a unique experience that requires respect each time. I always get  canyoneering  “jitters” before I enter a canyon, because no matter how much beta I research, there are always unforeseen challenges that require problem solving.  Which, also is an appealing element of adventure.  Our group, Jared, Adam, Braden,
Start of Escalante Adventure 
and myself had plenty unforeseen issues during our trip. We had broken pack straps, soles detaching off shoes, we got lost….not really,  just cliffed out, , muscle cramps, taking NUUN without water to relieve cramps (not recommended),
protective rope sheath broke, and the normal unexpected canyoneering issues of how to get over, under, through obstacles.  It is these unforeseen challenges that create laughter around the campfire and bonding memories for a  lifetime.
We arrived at the trailhead at the end of Egypt Rd Thursday night (really Friday Morning)  at 2am.  It was a chilly 32 degrees with billions of stars giving off there luminescent glow.  With a 2 hour hike to base camp in the morning and anticipated 14 hour day in canyons, there was not much chit chat.  It was straight to bed on my one inch Therma-rest insulating me from the rocky ground.

The objective of backpacking is to pack the bare minimum equipment so there is less energy spent in carry, and more energy spent in traveling.  So, there was careful planning on what equipment to bring for  the lightest pack possible. Combining a backpacking activity with a canyoneering activity makes it difficult to carry a  light pack.  With both activities  mandatory gear our packs were weighing about  65 lbs  

Canyoneering equipment
  • Wetsuit 3 lbs (dry)
  • Two 100’ 8mm rope 3 lbs each
  • 300’ 8.5mm rope 15lbs
  • Pothole escape bag (hooks, shot bags, slings, etc.) 5 lbs
  • Rappelling equipment (harness, belay device, biners, rapides, etc) 5 lbs
  • Canyoneering Backpack 3 lbs

Backpacking equipment
  • Touring backpack 3 lbs
  • Clothes (2 pair of hiking clothes, 1 pair of camp clothes) 5 lbs
  • Sleeping bag and pad 4 lbs
  • Food 5 lbs
  • Cooking Gear 2 lbs
  • Hydration equipment and filters 1lb
  • Water 5 lbs
  • First aid 1lb
  • Toiletries 1 lb
  • Other (cards, phone batteries, headlamp, etc) 5 lbs
We rose Friday morning  just after a beautiful sunrise and took our bare minimum weight of 65 lbs. into the Escalante wilderness.  The Escalante wilderness isn’t really supposed to have designated trails.  But because of the increasing popularity to this area social trails have become designated trails.  One of the social trails highlighted on our map was a mile shortcut to our base camp.  Let me rephrase that, it was supposed to be a shortcut to our base camp. Due to a few degrees off in our bearing we missed our mark by about ½ mile (Sunday School analogy material) and were cliffed out looking for another way down to the river bottom about 500’ below. We found a way that required a 20’ down climb off a rock face.  To finalize our commitment to this route I threw my bare minimum pack off the cliff and yelled “I’m committed” and scurried my way down the cliff.  This quickly became the theme of our trip, “I’m Committed!”
Base Camp Night 1
We attained base camp, in the Escalante River wash surround by aged cottonwood trees, by 10am.  No time was wasted setting up camp.  We quickly emptied our shoes of the extra pounds of red desert sand, and organized our canyoneering equipment to head off to Ringtail Canyon. Now, Ringtail  was the mystery canyon.  I  searched many canyoneering websites, and  the information was  vague and non consistent with the images I was seeing.  The beta was stating “an easy out and back very dark canyon.”   But, many of the  images showed narrow dark slots with  keeper potholes.  The phrase “keeper pothole” kinda puts the fear of God in you, and you would think there would be more information on this canyon if it was going to be difficult.  So I search for many days trying to find beta and information about the canyon, but nothing was very helpful.  So I made my own plan,  using Google Earth, the  AllTrails app, and a few blogs,  to find a route that would possibly lead us to the technical part of the canyon and avoid an out and back experience.  As we started hiking to the Ringtail entrance,  my “sense of exploring” euphoria kicked in.  I was loving it!

On they way we met some visitors from Montana who were kayaking the Escalante River and were canyoneering each canyon along the way.  I was highly intrigued and spoke to them for quite awhile.  River running is my favorite outdoor activity. Combining  river running with  canyoneering would be like George Costanza combining food with his intimate activities, it would be a pinnacle experience.

After coming off my next year's fantasy high we found ourselves at the base of Ringtail Canyon.  Using the information I had gathered we found an entrance 1 mile up canyon.  Ringtail Canyon did not disappoint. There was plenty of narrow slots, down climbs, and a couple of  potholes.  I think the information is so vague to keep it  a secret.  We had so much fun stemming and bridging through the narrow slots and using some partner assist strategies to get out of the potholes. We even pulled out the grappling hook for one pothole.  But it was only used to measure how deep the water was to see if we had to use a swimming escape or a partner assist escape technique.
Ringtail canyon was the perfect 3 hour “warm up” to our adventure, that  took more of a toll on our bodies than anticipated.  Mainly because we did not put on our protective wetsuits until after we had left a few layers of our skin slot walls.  And the beta was right, slots so narrow that the sunlight did not  penetrate through the narrow crack above.  Creating an attractive element to come back again. Maybe next year during  my kayak fantasy trip?

Wasting no time again, we  set off for Neon Canyon  with its much anticipated Cathedral Arch about 1 mile up canyon from Ringtail.  Because Neon was so close, we decided to keep our wetsuits on and just roll the top half  down to our waist….Mistake!  Though the temperatures were a very pleasant 70 degrees, the route to the entrance of Neon is very sun exposed.  We quickly were blazing in the sun creating a nasty sweaty environment in the lower half of the body.  But the canyon entrance was ensight and we endured the unpleasantries of sweaty male bodies.

As stated before, when repeating a canyon I get the jitters from the unknown due to the changing conditions in slot canyons.  Neon has a couple of keeper potholes if the conditions are right. But  jitters quickly transitioned  to a fun, relaxing,  lazy river ride.  Neon was full of water, and there were plenty of welcomed  swims through narrow slots that cooled the  unpleasantries from our approach hike.

Neon’s gift is the last rappel of 80’  from Cathedral Arch.  It is an indescribable obeisant double holed arch formed in a fern laden grotto with a pool at its base reflecting a contrasting palette of  surrounding colors.  People come from all over the world to hike at its foot,  and we are privileged have rebirth from its breath.These are the types of experiences that words and pictures do not give justice to how amazing this area is.  I have had the conversation many times comparing an experience with looking at pictures and video. Though the pictures and video are amazing, their purpose is to inspire action, and to create your own adventure experience where you get a glimpse of what heaven might be like.

With only  4 hours of sleep on my 1” Therma-rest and playing in Nature's playground for 12 hours, we strolled into base camp exhausted and ready to reminisce the day over a 600 calorie Mountain House entree and sipping purified Escalante spring water.  Sleep came easy for half the night as I laid comfortably  in my daughters hammock. A first time experience for me.  I have shied away from hammocking due to the exposure to bugs.  But I was desperate in reducing my pack weight and chose a 6oz hammock over a 5 lb tent.  And the hords of No-see-um bugs orchestrating  fly by maneuvers had no affect on my deep slumber.

The second half of the night was rudely interrupted by some unknown  specie of annoying bird that had over 15 different calls.  I know,  because I counted them.  I even tried to determine if there was a pattern to its calls.   So, I forcefully enjoyed the moment by listening to the night orchestra of dessert sounds, and gazed at a view in the sky that alludes to something much greater than my puny existence.    

Ringtail and Neon canyons  were great preludes of what was to come in  Choprock.  We woke early  Saturday morning just before the sunrise around 5:30 am.  We broke base camp and moved it to a different location crossing the Escalante river, thigh deep, 5 times before we could drop our 65 lbs (now 75 lbs due to wet gear) of bare minimum equipment. We then headed North East parallelling the south fork of Choprock Canyon for an uneventful  2 hour approach hike.  

One of the great privileges to our human existence is how we connect emotions with our experiences. Exuberant joy with the birth of a child, soiled pants fear due to heights, and shouting at the TV anger from a dropped pass in the endzone are just a few examples.   I love experiencing adventures when you feel a gamut of emotions. Then finish with a big grin on your face and with a chuckled voice say “I just did that.”

This was our 8 hour Choprock experience. There were barbaric yawps as we finished sketchy down climbs. There were stealthy chuckles as we weaved through tight squeezes just big enough to fit our helmets. There were “Oh s#%*” moments like when Adam had to elevator slide 30’ into a pool of water. Another puckering moment was when my backpack, hanging from my harness on a 60’ rappel,  got tangled in the rope preventing me from from rappelling down. And the scariest moment was when Braden made the last rappel of  80’ and watched the protective sheath around the rope shear tear exposing the fibrous rope. It was these moments and many more (of course not so scary) that we all smiled and said “I just did that.”

It's a good trip  when everyone walks out of the canyon safely, and with their shoes still on their feet. The wear and tear on equipment from canyoneering is pretty harsh. Ripped packs and new holes in the wetsuits become boasting trophies. We even had a voluntary moment of silence for Jared's 15 year old talking shoes during our Sunday morning 3 mile hike, all uphill,  with 75 lb packs, back to the car. Yes, 75 POUNDS! Our gear was still wet and there was enough stowaway sand to amount to 10 extra pounds.  But likes sand through an hourglass so are the days of our lives,  and our adventures must come to an end.   It seems that the car ride home is much quieter than the drive down.  It might be because we were tired and our bellies were full,  or we might have been reflecting on the moments, but we were all in agreement to pencil in the next adventure and add another momentous moment to our lives.