Sunday, August 12, 2007

X-Rated Slots

Technical Slot Canyoneering Technical slot canyons, like technical mountain climbs/rock climbs, are given ratings to inform those venturing into them of the canyons difficulty. In climbing we use things like 5.8 or 5.10 etc.. in canyons we use ratings like 3B IV or 4C V. If a climb has an abnormal risk involved an R is added to the end, if a high risk of death is involved an X is added. Canyoneers use this same system, we add R's and X's to the end of our canyon ratings. A competent and experienced canyoneer can generally get through an R canyon without any problems, and feels very satisfied at the added challenge. X-rated canyons should probably never be done by anyone, even the most experienced canyoneers could die or be seriously injured if they make one bad step in an X canyon. The most common "X" factor is high off the deck stemming, basically free climbing with big time exposure! This month I would like to share my experience in my first "X" canyon, something that no one should be stupid enough to ever try.

Morning dawned as the suns first rays pierced through my sleeping eyelids. I peeked out of my bag to see Ram shuffling things into his vehicle and then noticed "Spiderman" Steve had rolled in sometime last night without me even stirring. We quickly stuffed our gear into our cars and were off, following the road that once led wagon trains of the past on their way to the Hole in the Rock looking for a way to cross the mighty Colorado River. Luckily for us we were riding in fancy cars and SUV's instead of oxen drawn wagons. After endless driving we were finally at the trailhead, a high, sandy, sagebrush covered plateau overlooking a vast expanse of slickrock.

Our group was strong, me being the weakest link. Ram has been descending canyons since the 70's, back when he used Dynamic ropes (oh the horror!) doubled over and brought inflatable rafts to ferry packs through water(what a pain!). Hank's list of canyons reaches far beyond anything I've done, he was part of the "first" descent of Sandthrax, a high stemming, very scary X canyon feared by many in the canyoneering community. And "Spiderman" Steve, who after hearing of Hanks first descent of Sandthrax, decided to breeze down it solo in an hour and a half. I on the other hand hadn't really done a full on X canyon yet, but was assured by Ram that my skills were sufficient as long as I stayed focused and did not let the high exposure play with my head. Besides, we had confirmed the week before that the worst of the X section could be bypassed if I decided to chicken out.

By the time we started doing the approach hike, the sun was starting to scorch the ground. Highs were supposed to be in the high 80's to low 90's so the sooner we could get to the shade of the canyon, the better.

After routefinding around the maze of slickrock it was time to drop into the slot. Things started out right away, the slot being shallow but beautifully sculpted with twists and turns around every corner. We did not spend much time touching the sandy bottom, we instead were forced about five to ten feet above the slot where we were basically horizontal route climbing, finding ledges to use as feet and hand holds, relying on body position for balance and twisting technique to get the stretch we needed to reach that next foot hold.

The canyon continued to twist and narrow forcing us higher off the deck before getting a brief respite on the canyon floor at the point of no return. Looking at the small, yet deep crack in front of me, my body trembled at the thought of continuing. There was an easy exit up a large rockfall, but if I didn't take it, it would mean descending a long drop into a slot barely wide enough to shimmy sideways through. I gathered my courage and down we went into the bowels of the earth, a subterranean twisting slot stared at us commanding our respect. After squeezing downward the ground leveled and the slot skinnied, now too narrow to fit even the smallest of humans. Back we went to a good spot to go up where we did a very fun 5.7 climb up forty feet to horizontal stemming up to around sixty feet off the ground. Across we stemmed, sometimes back on one wall, feet on the other. Other times twisting our bodies for that next foot hold, or steadying our balance for that perfect hand placement. It was exhausting work both physically and mentally but after rounding a few curves and dropping buckets of sweat the canyon relented and it was a mere elevator ride (elevatoring is a canyoneering term used when you press your arms and legs against both sides of a narrow slot and then release enough pressure to "slide" straight down but yet stay in control. Feels like taking an elevator to the bottom floor) of about 40 feet back to the canyon floor.

Whew... the canyons scariest section now past we continued through the now deepening and increasingly beautiful canyon. A rappel brought us to the next forbidding looking section of slot. At this point the canyon dropped about thirty feet down, but the walls both slanted at about a 70 degree angle. The bottom was black and looked too narrow to fit through, however the option of going high looked just as bad, probably would have to go 80 to 100 feet above the bottom to bypass this section. We looked back at Ram like scared children, "where do we go?"

"Down," was his commanding reply.

We looked down into the blackness... "uhhh... are you sure, come take a look at this"

Ram came up from behind us and peered into the dark drop below us, we knew he would realize he was thinking of the wrong spot and give us some sane way of going through this section. "Yup, that looks right... go down."
Trusting Ram's judgement down we went, into what turned out to be wide enough for us to shimmy sideways, but so dark we could not see our hands in front of our faces. On we shuffled through the dark until a long sliver of light could finally be seen marking the end of the blackness. Splash went our boots... oh great, a pool of water in the pitch black. We kept moving toward the light as the water level crept near our waists, finally we could see the walls, but once again the canyon constricted to a section too tight to fit through. Luckily this time we only needed to go about fifteen feet off the deck to get to a spot we could fit. The tricky part would be getting to that level as there were minimal hand and foot holds to get up there. After much grunting and fighting we all made it up and over, not the most exposed, but the most difficult section of canyon.

After regaining our sight it was more spectacular scenery, with a short swim and another rappel into a fantasy land of springs, slickrock, thick foliage and massive overhangs. This was truly a magical place.

My feelings of awe and reverence for this amazing, but dangerous place are hard to describe. I was tested to the limits of my abilities and have come out of the experience with more confidence and awareness while on the rock. As with many outdoor challenges this one really made me feel alive. Can't wait for my next adventure!

All photo's taken from various websites, including:

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Blogger powstash said...

Fantastic read, thanks for sharing the adventure!

8/12/2007 11:17 PM

Blogger testmonkey said...

you so crazy!

8/13/2007 10:04 AM


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