climbing

Non-Technical Slot Canyons for the Adventurous Day Hiker

Utah is home to some of the most unique and amazing geological features in the American West. Nearly every other license plate in the state has a picture of Delicate Arch on it, and the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon and Goblin Valley are famous enough to warrant millions of Instagram posts. Perhaps most unique of all, and most seldom explored, are the thousands of slot canyons specific to Utah. While many require rappels and pothole escape techniques, there are still some that will take your breath away without requiring any technical skills. Here are a few of my favorites.

Little Wild Horse

Located six miles west of Goblin Valley State Park, this canyon separates you from the crowds of people swarming around the hoodoos next door. The hike is an 8-mile (four hour) loop. It occasionally has water running through it, but the water rarely rises above knee deep, so a good pair a wading shoes are all that is needed. Any major obstacles are avoidable and down climbs are easy. Overall, this is a sandy bottomed, mostly dry, kid-friendly slot canyon perfect for beginners or day hikers.

Beta: http://climb-utah.com/SRS/lwh.htm

Peek a Boo and Spooky

Due to their popularity, hiking these canyons feels more like an adult Disneyland than traversing around southern Utah’s desert. Nevertheless, the slots are absolutely stunning and the hikes are not long. While Peek a Boo and Spooky can be done separately, the best way is to loop them. Hike up Peek a Boo and, upon exiting, follow the cairned route east to the top of Spooky. Scramble down Spooky and return to the main concourse area where both the trailheads meet. The canyons are located about 26 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock road near Escalante, UT. Take the 4WD, high clearance Dry Fork Turnoff and follow it left to Dry Fork Overlook where the trails begin.

Beta: https://utah.com/hiking/peek-a-boo-slot-canyon

Moonshine Wash

Back in the days of prohibition, this canyon was used to hide an illegal distillery, remains of which are easily located in the canyon. Thus, the name Moonshine Wash. The canyon itself is a classic, tall slot. It’s located in the San Rafael Swell near Green River, so expect some solitude. At times, it requires deep wading, but all the down climbs are secure and simple. A competent hiker should have few problems completing this canyon. An old sheep bridges spans the top of one section of the canyon, making for an iconic photo op, and plenty of primitive camping is close by.

Beta: https://www.roadtripryan.com/go/t/utah/robbers-roost/moonshine

Egypt 3

This canyon pushes the “non-technical” description. It has potholes that require partner escapes, exposed down climbs, and advanced route finding. A GPS is highly recommended for this canyon. Yet, the rewards of completing Egypt 3 make it worth it. As soon as the hike begins, you are greeted by a stunning cliff drop-off of a few hundred feet. Traversing left, you see the massive Egypt Canyon begin to form. Eventually, you’ll drop into it via a bonus side canyon and begin to experience huge slotted walls and long, tight squeezes. This is an extremely narrow canyon, often needing 100-150 yard squeezes with packs held in front. There is a single rappel at the very end of the canyon, but it is optional and can be avoided. Unless you have experience canyoneering, do not do the rappel. The exit hike is very exposed and extremely hot. It would be easy to get lost walking back. Bring beta, a map, compass, and GPS with way-points to safely and enjoyably complete the canyon.

Beta: http://www.canyoneeringusa.com/images/stories/PDFs/Escalante/HoleInRock/Egypt.pdf

*Canyoneering is a dangerous sport, even for non-technical routes. Many canyons are remote and not often traveled. An accident could mean serious trouble. Nearly all require exposed hikes in/out in hot desert sun. Bring lots of water, usually at least three liters each. Have plenty of options for route finding. A GPS is preferred, but a map, compass, and good beta should be brought every time. Be careful, well prepared, and practice good LNT.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Photo by Carolyn Webber

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Modern Day Expeditions

Today it’s near impossible to step foot where no human has before. It seems that the golden age of exploration has been trickling out since the last fur trappers and government surveyors found desk jobs. While expeditions on the scale of Lewis and Clark are few and far between, that does not mean there aren’t still people out there exploring wild places. Here are three modern day expeditions that you can follow from your computer screen this year.

Everest No Filter

Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards are no strangers to Everest or mountaineering. Two years ago they launched #EverestNoFilter to document their first attempt to reach the top of the world with no supplemental oxygen. Cory succeeded while hypothermia forced Adrian to turn around. A year later, however, Adrian shattered the record for the fastest ascent of an 8,000 m. peak. It took him exactly two weeks from the time he stepped foot out of his home in Tahoe to the time he stepped back in. This year, he switched his training and diet and is ready to reach the top without supplemental oxygen.

Both Cory and Adrian will be posting snaps to the main @EverestNoFilter account. With constant posts thanks to satellite technology, you’ll get a near live view of what it’s like to live in base camp, climb the mountain, and (hopefully) reach the summit.

Pole2Pole

Mike Horn is one of the rare modern day explorers. He sets out on his expeditions with the goal of completing something nobody else has done. He’s racked up a list of the most ridiculously impressive feats, like swimming the entire Amazon River, following the Arctic Circle across the Earth during winter, and circumnavigating the world using only human power. Now, he intends to once again circumnavigate the globe solo, this time vertically. He will cross both the north and south pole on his expedition, using a combination of off-roading, sailing, and skiing to reach his destinations. He set off about 150 days ago, and has already crossed the south pole, but is headed through New Zealand on his way up north.

Instagram is the best traditional social media to follow Horn on. He posts daily when possible. His website, mikehorn.com, has an interactive map that shows where Mike currently is, where his support boat is, and every location he uploaded.

Riding Wild

Aniela Gottwald grew up with a love of the wilderness. Her father routinely took her on seven hour hikes through the forests and mountains and her mother taught her everything there is to know about horses. Starting this Spring, she plans to traverse over 4,000 miles accompanied only by her two recently broken mustangs and one wolfdog. Her route follows the Pacific Crest Trail through the U.S. and continues two to three months past the trail’s end to the Sacred Headwaters in Canada.

Her goal is to raise awareness for wild mustangs in the U.S., whose populations and habitats have been steadily declining since Americans first settled the West, and the Sacred Headwaters, which lack any governmental protection and are being developed for mining. Ultimately, Aniela hopes to make a documentary of her travels in order to raise the most awareness for her cause. Follow her on social media or check out her website at ridingwild.com.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.co

 

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Adventures to Get Over Your Post-Ski Blues

Even though this year record-breaking storms have been pummeling California endlessly, ski season here in the Wasatch is coming to an end. It’s always hard to say goodbye to the best snow on earth, but the ‘Satch still provides plenty of opportunities for adventure if you get out and look for it. Here are just a few.

Boulder Little Cottonwood

Switch from stuffing your feet in ski boots, to climbing shoes. Both Cottonwoods boast no shortage of trad, sport, and even top rope routes to work on. However, Little Cottonwood holds the crown when it comes to bouldering. Follow the road up the canyon for about 1.3 miles before reaching a parking turnout on your left to reach Gates Bouldering. Most of the routes are just a short walk from the car. If you’re not a serious climber, then bouldering is a great place to start. Check out Mountain Project to find a few problems for your skill level. Plus, Outdoor Adventures rents crash pads for $6 a day.

Longboard Provo Canyon

Provo Canyon is the Goldilocks of roads to longboard. It’s mellow enough to keep control the whole way down, but steep enough to keep you going. The best way to do it is to set up a car shuttle. Park one down canyon at Nuns Park and pile into the other to shuttle up to Vivian Park. Hop out and enjoy the 25-minute coast back down to the bottom car. Repeat if desired. Beware that there is a 15 mph speed limit for all riders. Local authorities have considered banning boarding altogether here from the number of people breaking this, so please keep it in control.

Shoot the Tube

Nearly every Salt Laker drove over this adventure all winter long during their hurried dashes to catch some pow at the resorts. Located literally underneath I-215, Shoot the Tube offers an adult version of those classic, inflatable water slides. Finding it is not hard, just head down Foothill until you can see Suicide Rock (the one off to the left covered in graffiti). The tube starts in the bottom of that little canyon. Grab some inflatable tubes, a GoPro, and a couple friends to welcome in the hot desert summer. Be careful to pay attention to water levels.

Climb the Pfeifferhorn

In winter, the Pfeifferhorn (known as The Little Matterhorn), offers one of the best technical mountaineering experiences in the Wasatch. Most of us do not have the skills, gear, or know-how to not end up swept away in an avalanche. That’s why summer is the perfect time to tackle this most iconic peak. Drive your car up to White Pine Trailhead in Little Cottonwood Canyon and enjoy the climb. Plenty of people tackle the peak in a single day, an out and back trip of about nine miles, but you can also camp at Red Pine Lake for a more mellow day. Either way, the view from the ridge is amazing.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of Hannah McGuire

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Conquering Peaks: Becoming a Mountaineer

Ever heard of Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Reinhold Messner, or Jon Krakauer? These are the men who helped define mountaineering, the sport of climbing tall mountains. Each stepped foot on the tallest mountain in the world — Everest. They were united by the desire to summit mountain peaks, a feeling that drives all mountaineers.

To launch my own mountaineering career, I decided to start locally.  With a climbing colleague, we set out to tackle Broad’s Fork Twin Peaks last June. Although the elevation of 11,329 feet is nowhere near that of the breathtaking elevation of Everest (29,035 feet), we were faced with challenges.

After reading previous mountaineers’ advice on which route to take on Mountain Project, we decided to start at the S-curve in Big Cottonwood Canyon. We discussed the equipment needed to go on this expedition — sunglasses, sunscreen, hiking poles, crampons, a mountaineering axe, a probe, a beacon, and a shovel. We were forced to bail on our first attempt due to a snow storm, so the next time we began before the sun came up on a cloudless day.  The hike was straightforward on a dirt trail for about 3.5 miles until we hit the snowfield. We were both instantly blinded by the ivory blanket reflecting the sun.

We pulled out our glacier glasses and continued the ascent. Shortly after we stepped onto the snow field, the steepness made it difficult to keep our balance. We switched from hiking poles to the mountaineering axe and strapped on crampons. When mountaineering, there is often no trail to follow. Instead, you must assess the terrain and find the safest way up.  We saw previous slide paths from avalanches and made our best path zig-zagging through them.  The soft snow made it so we were postholing, meaning each step brought us waist-deep in the snow.

We made it to the ridge, cautious with each step between the 2,500-foot drop-offs on either side. Then, we began the final ascent, approximately 500 feet to the summit.  The closer we got to the peak, our hearts were pounding knowing we were almost there. At last, we summited East Twin Peak and gaped at the impeccable view. While catching our breath, we took our crampons off to walk around on the peak. Once we saw the other peak tantalizing us 528 feet away, we decided to finish the job.

We walked slowly on the thin knife blade of a ridge and enjoyed a break on the other peak. While taking photos, we heard a roaring sound echo around us, which sounded like a locomotive steaming by. It was an avalanche that broke loose on O’Sullivan peak a half-mile behind us and crashed down in the valley below.  That was our cue to exit and make our way back down the long and tedious descent.

Once we reached the open snow field, we could glissade down using our axe to self-arrest as we sped down. We removed our snow gear and stepped back onto the dirt trail, a few miles from our cars. At the journey’s end, we got in the car and looked back up toward the peak, neither of us believing the amazing climb we just endured. After mountaineering to the top of my first peak, I understand the desires each of those wild peak baggers have. Mountaineering is an addictive sport.

k.creveling@wasatchmag.com 

Photo by Kiffer Creveling

Corrected from “These are the men who helped define alpinism, the sport of climbing tall mountains.” on 4/12/17.

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Coping With FOMO

I ran into my buddy at the climbing gym the other day. He was planning a weekend trip to Arizona to kayak, and this was the first I had heard about it. He didn’t even think to invite me, and perhaps with good reason. I had my own plans to canyoneer in Hanksville, Utah with my UExplore class.

Most of the time, I think taking eight outdoor education classes in a single semester was the best decision I made since coming to college. But sometimes, I realize that while I’m practicing rappelling with my classmates, my buddies are out kayaking. While I’m learning quinzee construction in the Uintas, my friends are shredding eight inches of fresh powder at Alta. While I’m topping out on my first ice climb in Ouray, Colorado, my dorm friends are splashing around in the Subway in Zion National Park. Yes, it’s a little ridiculous to regret missing kayaking with your friends when you’re descending a canyon with other friends, but it’s hard to avoid; Utah is jam-packed with opportunities to have wild adventures. And the FOMO — the Fear Of Missing Out — can be all too real. Just look at the steady stream of ski hills and climbing routes inundating any outdoorsy Instagram feed.

Should we, as “outdoorsy millennials,” plunge headfirst into every random outdoor sport that comes our way — even if this means we won’t necessarily become expert or even proficient in any of them? Or should we focus our energy exclusively on one or two of our outdoor passions, sacrificing new and novel opportunities in other venues? There’s really nobody to tell you how to enjoy the outdoors, and moreover, no perfect recipe to balance your professional and academic careers with your outdoor passions. Sometimes, when you enjoy climbing,

mountaineering, canyoneering, skiing, ice climbing, kayaking, hiking and mountain biking, it’s a struggle to live in the moment — to fully appreciate the slope you’re skiing or the slab you’re climbing — because you’re so ensconced in indecision, in fear of missing out on other adventures. And don’t forget that finals are coming up and you’ve got a paper due Monday and you really should be studying. So how do you balance it all?

First of all, still go outside this weekend — even if you have seven papers due Monday. It’ll keep you sane. There’s no “recipe for recreation,” so go out and build your own adventure. Take eight UExplore classes if you want to — or maybe take two — or maybe take none. Let yourself be fully swept away when you’re kayaking and let climbing completely rock your world. Personally, the best means I’ve found to really live in the moment outside is to push myself as hard and as far as I possibly can. I want to be sure I am fully appreciating, exploring, and living in whatever space I find myself. There’s no use thinking the grass is greener or the peaks are higher somewhere else.

c.simon@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of Claire Simon

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Get a Job Outdoors This Summer

Birds are chirping, flowers blooming, and the stress of finals and unsolved summer plans grow with each passing day. Yes, spring is finally here. As students around campus scramble to bump their grades up just a few more points, the professional world is gearing up for the summer season. Entry-level jobs pop up faster than wildflowers, and the good ones are taken just as quickly. If you’ve ever considered working outdoors, get your resume. This list will convince you to snag that summer dream job.

Explore More

Melting snow and warmer weather unlock an entire realm of Utah activities. Peaks are begging to be climbed in the Wasatch, trails ridden in Moab, and canyons descended in Zion. While you can (and should) jump at these opportunities during your off-days, you will discover all the hidden nooks and crannies of these places, squeezing every drop of adventure from it. You get to spend way more time rafting down rivers or climbing rock faces and you’ll get paid to do it!

Add Some Spice to Your Resume

Eventually, college will come to an end and the years of work we put toward a degree will hopefully go to use in an actual career. On that day, we will be reduced to a paper of accolades stacked in with hundreds of others. Having an interesting summer job on there, like Kayak Guide or Vineyard Assistant, will set your sheet apart from the others. Plus, it will open the door for you to share a sweet story and connect with your employer.

Mold Your Job to Your Liking

Anna de St. Aubin landed a job on a local farm last summer. Her daily duties involved everything from feeding goats to selling vegetables. Each morning, “[she] woke up early, made coffee, and watched the sunrise,” and every evening she would time her chores, “so the sun would be setting just as I was finishing milking, so I could watch the bats come out.” This is a whole lot better than waking up to a screaming alarm and bussing tables until it’s too dark to see outside.

Live Outside

While there’s always an allure to showers and a soft bed, there’s hardly a better experience than weeks on weeks of camping. Backpackers pay no small amounts to go do it all around the world, but finding a job that lets you camp for the season means you’ll be the one filling their pockets rather than emptying them. If your goal is to dirtbag through life, make your mom proud and earn cash while doing it.

Pro Deals

Loving the outdoors means you probably love gear too. All of the greatest recreational opportunities require a boat load of expensive equipment, most of which marks well beyond the salary of a college student. As a guide, or affiliate of a guide company, companies will set you up with deals to get everything cheaper. They know that clients will see you use it and be more likely to purchase that brand over another. Score garage sale-like deals so you can adventure on.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Photo by Chris Hammock

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Kick off the Climbing Season in the Valley of Zion

Ice and snow are sliding off the canyon walls, exposing those projects you’ve been dreaming about all winter. Rock climbing season is here. It’s still March though, an indecisive month that can toss rain, snow, or 65 degree temps at you with a shift of the spring wind. Yes, the Cottonwoods have missed you, but escaping the mountains gives you a better chance of escaping that random snowstorm that will kick you off your project. Switch granite slabs for limestone crags overlooking the expansive Great Salt Lake. Come to the Valley of Zion.

It sounds exotic, but don’t worry, the classic, scratch-your-head names climbers give to walls await you. Choose from Blob’s Your Aunt, Blob’s Your Cousin, Blob’s Your Nephew, or Blob’s Your Uncle. Most are single-pitch sport routes that are a lot longer than you initially expect. Since the majority of climbs are in the 5.9-5.10b range, it’s the perfect confidence booster to launch a new rock climbing season.

Warm up on Blob’s Your Uncle, just above and to the left of the parking area. Greg’s Bear Hug and Drunk Monkey are some favorites, but there’s not a climb here that won’t give you varied climbing and some exposure. Just remember to bring a lot of quickdraws, since 10+ bolts are common. The climbs are side by side, making it a great cragging spot with endless views of Stansbury Island and the near-constant lull of trains passing along the salty desert.

Head over to Elysian Fields after you’re warm, a four-pitch sport climb classic never exceeding 5.9 difficulty. The views along the way are stunning.

Camp for the night and check out Blob’s Your Aunt, another easy crag with a large collection of routes. If you want to try out more difficult, shorter climbs, go to Cannabis Crew Wall. You’ll need to check out “Utah’s West Desert” by James Garrett for a full list of climbs in the area.

Once you’ve had your feel of the valley drive back toward Grantsville to explore South Willow Canyon. The West Desert is the perfect weekend climbing spot not too far from Salt Lake, but with different terrain to feel like you went somewhere.

Photo by Andre Romero

Get here:

Drive west on I-80 past Tooele. Take exit #77 and a side road to the base of the climb. Four-wheel drive required. Hike up a short trail for a quarter mile.

Camping:

From I-80, take exit 84 to get to Stansbury Island. Since the land is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, you can pretty much camp anywhere. Just remember to leave no trace. The sunsets and sunrises over the lake are unreal.

Packing List:

Sport climbing gear (at least 14 quickdraws)

Camping gear

Warm layers (It’s the desert — it gets cold)

Fire wood and camping food (fires are permitted on the island)

c.webber@wasatchmag.com

Photo by Ana Shestakova

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Beyond the Wasatch: Arches National Park

Over President’s Day weekend, I packed up the car and left town early to escape the overcast grey skies of the Wasatch Front. As I drove southeast, each passing mile of the three-and-a-half-hour road trip down to Moab meant less snow-covered peaks and more red rocks sneaking into the terrain.

The promising forecast of 55 degree weather and the off-season crowds made it one of the best times to intimately explore Arches National Park. With over one million annual visitors, you are bound to see other people on the trails, but visiting this park before the peak season (April – September) is a great way to escape the crowds.

There are over 2,000 natural arches, making the grand landscape of Arches National Park home to the greatest concentration in the country. Beyond that, the beauty of the balanced red rocks, sloping sandstone hills, peaks, spires, and slick rock canyons of Arches make this park an ultimate destination for desert rats. Inside the park, there are 14 hiking trails to choose from, along with areas for rock climbing and canyoneering. Surrounding trails just outside of the park give you access to mountain biking and ATVing.

The entrance fee is $25, so shelling out $80 for an annual parks pass is worth it for the chance to visit this part of Moab again, or any of Utah’s other national parks. You can’t live in Utah without seeing the iconic Delicate Arch that appears on Utah license plates, but once you get away from the ant march of traffic on the trail, try some of the lesser-known hikes such as the Fiery Furnace. You’ll need to purchase a $6 permit in order to navigate the sandstone fins of the furnace, and if you need a helping hand, rangers are always available for guided tours. With 76,000 acres of Arches’ delicate desert ecosystem, you can have hours of fun exploring the park.

SPRING BREAK ITINERARY

MONDAY: Moab is a popular tourist destination, which means planning ahead is crucial so you don’t end up  driving around trying to find a campsite at the last minute. Inside of Arches, Devil’s Garden Campground is often full. Instead, take advantage of the many surrounding campsites outside of the park for cheaper rates. I’d recommend the Sand Flats Recreation Area, just eight miles south of Arches. There are 120 sites to choose from at $15 a night. Each campsite has a fire ring and picnic table, and all are within short walking distance of a vault toilet.

Once you set up camp, go for a scenic drive through Arches to take in the sights of Delicate Arch and the Windows section. Here you can see some of the largest and most iconic arches in the entire park. Check out the historic Wolfe Ranch, home of the first family of settlers to live in Arches.

TUESDAY: Start at Devils Garden campground and hike the 7.8-mile primitive trail loop. The farther along you get, the thinner the crowds become. You’ll see seven arches on this hike, starting with the 290-ft. span of Landscape Arch. Hiking the primitive trail is a great way to break away from the crowds while taking in the beautiful scenery of the park. Just make sure you’re prepared to do a bit of scrambling and sliding as you navigate over the terrain. As you traverse farther along the trail, enjoy the seclusion of the surrounding valley of desert life and geological formations.

WEDNESDAY: When your body is good and sore from the previous days’ hike, head over to Moab Main Street to visit the in-town attractions. Get your feet off the ground at Raven’s Rim Zip Line adventures and catch a birds-eye view of Moab for $129. If heights aren’t your thing, at the same location and for the same price, you can book a 2.5 hour 4WD adventure tour through the high desert. There are many shuttle services in the area to drop off and pick you up at the end of the day if you choose to try out river rafting or mountain biking.

THURSDAY: Finish your trip hiking some of the moderate trails. Trek a mile to check out historic rock art panels at Courthouse Wash (one mile), gaze in wonder at Balanced Rock (0.3 miles), or navigate sand dunes and slick rock as you make your way to Broken Arch Loop (two miles).

FRIDAY: If being surrounded by million-year-old rocks makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, then it’s worth it to make a stop at the Moab Giants Dinosaur Park before you hit the road home.

The attraction is conveniently placed just nine miles north of Moab on Hwy 191 and boasts a large concentration of fossils. Tickets are $22 to enjoy all the indoor and outdoor activities of this mini Jurassic park. Roam along the dinosaur trail to discover over 100 life-sized dinosaur models, check out ancient sea creatures in the paleoaquarium, and browse the museum to learn all about the animals that lived in Moab centuries ago.

e.aboussou@wasatchmag.com

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First Descents: The History of Canyoneering

Just four hours south of Salt Lake City lies the birthplace and holy land of one of the most versatile adventure sports today: canyoneering. Since the late 1970s, Southern Utah has hosted a select group of adventurers as they climbed, swam, and rappeled their way into the depths of the narrowest, toughest, and most fantastic canyons on Earth. Ironically, the sport of descending got its roots from a group of dirtbags focused on ascending.

Climbing had just a two-decade head start on canyoneering, with the first ascents of Half Dome and El Capitan both around the late 1950s. Soon, pioneers in the climbing community began creating their own gear for the sport. Companies like Patagonia and The North Face found their beginning at the base of Yosemite’s big walls and were some of the first companies to produce advanced climbing gear.

Most of the pioneering canyoneers started out as climbers, utilizing recently developed climbing equipment to go down instead of up. Pitons were used to bolt un-anchorable rappels, and climbing ropes lowered the early athletes over waterfalls and overhanging cliffs. But canyoneering did not truly have its own identity like climbing did. It was more an activity for climbers to do in their off time than a sport in its own right.

Dennis Turville — climber, professional photographer, and pioneering canyoneer — changed this in the 1970s. Often accompanied by fellow outdoorsmen Mike Bogart and a few other close friends, Turville blazed the trail for many of the first recorded descents around the Zion area. He is considered one of the earliest serious recreational canyoneers. Famous Zion canyon routes like Heaps, Keyhole, and Pine Creek are all can be attributed to Turville and company. His reports are sparse — usually no larger than a paragraph for each canyon. Sometimes, like in the case of Middle Echo Canyon, the account is as short as, “one rappel bolt.”

The records are as barebone as they come, yet this was likely intentional. Turville didn’t record his canyons so others could follow him. These few lines were simply him documenting that he was the first down the canyon. He wanted his hidden hobby to remain that way. As it stood, he never saw other people in his canyons, or even signs of people. The only information that slipped to the public’s eyes were the photographs Turville snapped inside the canyons, offering glimpses into the tantalizing world beneath the rim. Yet, the locations of these photos were heavily guarded.

As sparse as they were, the reports at least included a date for each canyon. The earliest of which, and possibly one of the first true American canyoneering descents ever, was the Middle Fork of Choprock in April of 1977. It was descended by Bogart, Karen Carlston, and Dave and Annie George. Because of its non-technical nature, Turville sat out, preferring instead the difficulty and technicality of other canyons.

Repelling down Pine Creek Canyon in Zion National Park, Photo by Kiffer Creveling

Revealing Hidden Canyons

Turville and his associates kept pounding out first descents into the late 1980s, but by now they were no longer alone. Other explorers started dropping down canyons all over Southern Utah and beyond. Among these were a few who believed the canyons should be for all.

Michael Kelsey, by far the most controversial of the above mentioned group of canyon-goers, wrote some of the earliest guidebooks for canyoneering. His most popular, “Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau,” just published its sixth edition and boasts over 400 pages of route descriptions.

Although many people use Kelsey’s descriptions to find new adventures, not all are fans of the man. In fact, enough people find Kelsey despicable enough that he acquired the nickname “the devil in sneakers.” This contempt stems from a few perspectives.

On one hand are the Bureau of Land Management/National Park Service (NPS) agents who now have to deal with much higher traffic in previously unknown areas. This inevitably means an increased number of ill-prepared parties and a much higher rate of accidents and rescues. It also means greater environmental degradation.

The other half of Kelsey’s critics are the serious outdoorsmen who recreate in Southern Utah and like Turville, aim to keep their spots secret. Suddenly, their favorite local hike is frequented by troops of boy scouts and trails appear where footprints weren’t visible a few years ago.

Kelsey, who has been catching flack since he published his first canyoneering book in 1986, shakes most of the blame onto individual parties for not practicing Leave No Trace principles or preparing properly. Since then, he has continued to hike, take meticulously detailed notes, and publish edition after edition of his various Southern Utah guides, opening up the world of canyoneering to anyone with $20 and a sense of adventure.

Canyoneering Hits the Mainstream

By the early 1990s, canyoneering had grown in the Southwest among small groups of serious outdoor recreationalists. However, it had yet to reach the mainstream in any impactful way like climbing had. Unfortunately, canyoneering became mainstream after the stories of two accidents.

In 1993, a group of three adults and five teenagers faced devastation in Kolob Canyon near Zion National Park. Flood waters were too high for the canyon that day and two adult leaders drowned. The remaining six were trapped for days in the canyon before the Park Service rescued them.

The ordeal gained public attention when some of the survivors sued the NPS and the Washington County Water Conservancy District, for the death of the two men because their leaking dam upstream of Kolob attributed to some of the heightened flood waters. The tragedy and controversy of the story, and the implications of the outcome of the court case on the NPS as well as landed the gruesomely tragic tale on pages from local magazines like High Country News, to national publications like People magazine. For many Utahns, it was the first they heard of canyoneering.

Just 10 years later in 2003, Aron Ralston pinched his arm in by a loose boulder in Blue John Canyon. He survived over five days in the canyon before amputating his own arm with a low quality knife and walking out. His heroic story was most famously told in the 2010 Academy Award-nominated film “127 Hours,” in which Ralston is played by James Franco. This was canyoneering’s most mainstream appearance yet, and the story most recreationalists point to when describing what the sport is to their unknowing friends.

While both of these instances spread canyoneering past the confines of the Utah desert, they also marked the sport as dangerous. If unprepared and uneducated, there are few more dangerous activities than rappelling down 60-foot waterfalls and swimming through hypothermic waters.

Legitimizing the Sport

Stories of danger and disaster seemed to only embolden more and more adventurers to get out and canyoneer. By the turn of the century, more and more people wanted to get their fix of Utah’s famous canyons, yet there was no organization in place to provide the proper education to these adventure seekers. It was shaping to become a serious problem for canyoneering. Fortunately, the solution arrived, and his name was Rich Carlson.

If Turville is the pioneer recreationalist, and Kelsey the pioneer route publisher/popularizer, Carlson is the pioneer professional for the sport. Carlson has been dropping down Utah’s canyons since the late 1970s, and started America’s first professional canyoneering guide company in 1990. In 1999, he started his ultimate vision of creating the world’s premier canyoneering organization, the American Canyoneering Academy (ACA).

David Tigner, head of the University of Utah’s canyoneering program, calls Carlson a “pioneer of canyoneering” who chose to “concentrate on training people.” His ACA today sets the bar for every canyoneer and canyoneering organization in the United States, and possibly worldwide. It is Carlson and the ACA who are responsible for deciding the requirements needed, from professional certification standards to defining a minimum degree of competency for a canyoneer.

Tigner’s own program at the U is modeled after the three basic skill sets the ACA requires for beginning canyoneers. It emphasizes practice, preparedness, and caution. One of the key points Tigner tries to impress on all his students is, “the best place to learn canyoneering is at home, not dangling 100 feet off a cliff.” This very much aligns with Carlson. He’s interested in revolutionizing the sport through training and organization, something canyoneering badly needs, rather than exploration.

Repelling down Pine Creek Canyon in Zion National Park, Photo by Kiffer Creveling

The advent of the ACA in 1999 pushed canyoneering to a new level. Suddenly, the sport had legitimacy. Serious canyoneers could focus on professional guiding to earn a living rather than dirtbagging it in a van, and beginners to the sport had a place to go to safely participate and learn the skills. Yet, no matter the skill of the canyoneer, they were still going into a canyon with gear made for climbing.

Industry didn’t catch up with the sport until the mid 2000s, when Tom Jones started Imlay Canyon Gear. This was one of the first canyoneering-specific companies, specializing in packs, ropes, and rope bags. Generally, the problem with using climbing gear in canyons is durability.

While in a canyon, any given piece of gear will be submerged in water repeatedly, drug through sand, scraped on walls, and tossed anywhere from 10 to 100 feet onto the ground. This means ropes need to be more tightly woven, packs have to have drainage holes in the bottom, harnesses, as Tigner jokes, need to have a, “PVC cover for your rear end so you don’t rip out your pants.” While canyon-specific gear is still very niche and rare, even having a market large enough to support a canyoneering company is a sign of growth.

Today, the sport is a far cry from where it began. It is organized, detailed, and far safer, yet no less adventurous. Pioneers like Turville, Kelsey, and Carlson have all progressed the sport in radically different ways, blazing the path for many others to follow down the depth of Utah’s, and the world’s, best canyons.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of @surfnsnowboard

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Meet U grad and epic climber, Conrad Anker

I bustle in from my car exactly on time, jogging so I won’t be late. I hop-scotch my way through a snowbank onto the sidewalk and clutch my interview questions as I burst into the hotel lobby. There he is in a baseball cap and a flannel. Conrad Anker, climbing wonder. He is visiting Salt Lake City from his home in Bozeman, MT to deliver the keynote speech at Utah Clean Air’s (UCAIR) Inaugural Annual Report dinner. Anker smiles and waves from across the room as I walk his way. He draws himself up to his entire impressive height and shakes my hand, introducing himself as “Conrad.”

Conrad Anker, I would later learn, loves blueberries and the color turquoise. For the self-proclaimed “voracious reader” to pick a favorite book is to un-favorite all the others (but he still recommends Lao Tzu’s Cold Mountain book of parables to me). Also, he has a sweet-tooth. I start asking him how Conrad the University of Utah student became Conrad the Incredible Climber, and he chuckles. He knew since age 14 that climbing was the most important part of his life, making his decision to come to the U an easy one. “It had mountains on the brochure,” he says. He studied parks, recreation, and tourism to get himself every bit closer to climbing up peaks, cliffs, and ridges.

In college Conrad enjoyed his business case study classes. He took shifts living in a shantytown established in the Student Union to implore the university to divest from an apartheid-riddled South Africa. He was “kind of a nerd,” who liked his pens and science, and “basically an introvert.” Today, representing the North Face and speaking in front of massive crowds is vastly removed from where he wants to be — escaping into the mountains to climb. He surrounds himself with positive people, choosing simply to “let the pessimists go.”

When Conrad was in college, climbing wasn’t as simple as a trip to the Student Life Center Summit wall. It was an extension of backpacking and mountaineering—a means to revel in the outdoors. Still, he’s glad the U.S. now has 600 climbing gyms operating and 400 more in the works, because it means more people are exposed to the intrepid values of climbing that guide Conrad’s life. For him, the sport embodies kindness, positivity, and trust.

Conrad chooses to let traditional measures of success go. He worked as a carpenter after graduation not to bring in the bank rolls or get in front of a camera, but to have more time off for climbing. “My success is defined by my own internal compass, not by what society says,” Conrad says. Climbing isn’t just a sweet gig or a way to escape responsibility. For Conrad, it’s a means to be where he needs to be—outside. Conrad possesses a hyper-situational awareness that tugs his attention during our interview and leads him to feel cooped up just discussing an indoor engineering job. But during high-stress mountain expeditions, this hyper-focus is a necessity. It seems Conrad was made to be outside.

As for the high risk aspect of his feats, Conrad says his drive toward the life-threatening is written into his DNA. This isn’t to say he careens into impetuous adventure at every opportunity. He welcomes the opportunity to reevaluate his life and his trajectory, having done so most recently after surviving a heart attack 10 weeks prior to our meeting. When asked whether he can ever picture himself not climbing, Conrad replies, “Well I’ll always be climbing stairs.” He no longer feels the need to pursue ultra danger treks. Simple climbing and spending time in the mountains are what make him happy. This secure, easy awareness of purpose has brought Conrad through life and around the globe.

c.simon@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Chin
Conrad Anker geared up and climbing near the team’s highest portaledge camp at over 20,000 ft.

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