Outside the Wasatch

Spring Skiing at Brian Head

It’s that time of year. The snow in the Cottonwoods is slushier, skis are skinnier and costumes are more flamboyant. Spring skiing is in full swing. You don’t want to miss a prime spring skiing weekend, but you really want to camp and see some red rock to get you through the last few weeks of school. Pack up your skis and camping gear and take an overnight trip to Brian Head.

Brian Head Ski and Snowboard Resort is a short three and a half hour drive from campus. Of Utah’s many ski resorts, it has the highest base elevation (9,600 ft.), serving eight chair lifts and 71 runs over two mountains, along with two terrain parks. So why would you trek out to semi-southern Utah to ski slush when there’s plenty right here in the Wasatch? A Brian Head spring staycation is epic for three reasons: cost, camping, and craziness.

Cost:

An adult weekday full-day pass is only $38, a weekend full-day pass $59 — compare that with a $79 day at Brighton, a $83 day at Solitude, and $106 at Snowbird. So whether you drive out Thursday night to ski Friday for $38 or make the trip on a weekend day, rest assured you’re getting all the wild slush of spring skiing at a fraction of the Cottonwoods’ cost.

Camping:

Since Brian Head is more southerly than most ski resorts, surrounding areas are much warmer, much more melted, and therefore conducive to camping. Camp for free overnight before your epic day of skiing without worrying about the logistics and gear required for winter camping in the snow.

Brian Head Resort is only about a 20 minute drive from free camping in Dixie National Forest. There are plenty of trees, and the area is readily accessible to vehicles, so feel free to sleep in a truck bed, sling a hammock between trees, or pitch a tent. Whatever your choice, snuggle in among that scrubby southern Utah shrubbery and red sandy soil you’ve been missing all winter long. Freecampsites.net is a superb resource to consult while selecting your site.

Craziness:

Brian Head closes for the season Sunday, April 16, meaning next weekend will be prime end of season madness. Expect all the skimpy clothing, parking lot partying, and sunny silliness that you love about spring skiing. Additionally, Saturday, April 15 will be the Brian Head Annual Bikini Slalom & Pond Skimming Contest — definitely arrive prepared for epic enjoyment, whether you participate in or watch the festivities.

c.simon@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of Brian Head Ski Resort

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Beyond the Wasatch: Great Basin National Park and Lehman Caves

Three and a half hours west of Salt Lake City, in the middle of the Great Basin between Utah and Nevada, lies a hidden treasure trove of adventure.  Within the 77,180 acres of Great Basin National Park, it’s impossible to get bored. Explore a diverse range of scenery and activities, from the 13,000 feet of its highest mountain peak to its lowest sub-alpine lake. Gaze in wonder at the beauty of a bristlecone pine forest, trek to a glacier, or hike to an arch, but you can’t come without exploring the depths of the magnificent cave system.

Before I visited the Lehman Caves at Great Basin National Park, the most I knew about caves is what I could remember from the cartoon “The Berenstein Bears” that I watched as a little girl. “Stalactites and stalagmites, only caves have got ’em. Tites are always on the top and mites are on the bottom.” I walked away with an education that surpassed that tidbit of information by leaps and bounds.

The Lehman Caves Tour is one of the biggest attractions that Great Basin has to offer, and rightfully so. As I descended underground, I felt as if I had stepped back into a place frozen in time. The marble and limestone caverns were formed 550 million years ago and discovered just under a century ago by Absalom Lehman in 1885. Along with the usual array of stalactites and stalagmites, the Lehman Caves have quite the collection of shields (over 300). These rounded formations projecting upward out of the cave walls are rare, and are thought to form as the limestone cracks and shifts.

The temperature in the caves is a cool 50 degrees year-round and the first room on the tour is the Gothic Palace. Footsteps echo as you enter this grand chamber and you can hear the drip-drip of water sliding down the limestone walls, but your see only darkness. The park ranger leading the tour simulated how it would have felt years ago to enter this space for the first time, as Lehman did. She instructed each of us turn out our lights, then she lit a single candle; the only light source that Lehman had at the time.

This isn’t a cave for spelunking or exploring on your own. Tours are guided by a park ranger, who takes you through the 5 cavernous rooms, each with a unique history and geology. The groups are limited in size to 20 and run at different times depending on the season. The tours are regularly sold out, so make a reservation ahead of time. The $10 fee for the 90-minute tour is absolutely worth the cost. Or, for those short on time, there is a 60-minute tour available for $8.

While the Lehman Caves are very popular, Great Basin is also home to 40 other caves. Most of them are closed for safety reasons and research, and others are closed to protect the bats that call these environments home. For those experienced in caving, Little Muddy Cave is open for recreational use. With a permit, you can explore this cave from October 1st through April 1st. Little Muddy Cave is a little over 1000 ft. in length and it’s filled with mazes of crawl ways. The smooth mud floor is perfect for wiggling through some of these tight spaces.

During the summer, more hikes are accessible, but going in the winter means less crowds. Whenever you decide to make the trip, here are some tips to make it worthwhile:

-Regardless of which direction you’re coming from, the road to Great Basin can get pretty desolate. Driving past endless fields, rolling hills, and snow-capped mountains is a wonderful way to start this journey. Make sure you’ve got a driving buddy, or a really good podcast to keep you awake.

-Between the three campgrounds in the park, there are 70 campsites to choose from. Each site is $12. In the winter, they are first come first serve, so call ahead to check on availability. In the summertime, reservations are available, but they fill up quickly.

-If you’re visiting in the winter, pack accordingly. There are few in-town amenities and water pumps are off until April.

 -Make sure to apply for permits at least two weeks ahead of time. Backcountry camping, climbing, and caving all require permits and the approval process can take a few days. If you’re planning on booking a cave tour, make a reservation at least a week in advance in order to  guarantee a spot.  If you don’t get a permit, don’t fret. There’s plenty to do here:

-Hike up to the Bristlecone pine forest. This moderate 2.8-mile trek brings you to a grove of ancient trees. Just past the trail’s end, you can get a look at Nevada’s only glacier.

– Ascend the highest mountain peak in Nevada. Wheeler Peak (13,063 ft) has breathtaking views of the sage-covered hills and birch tree forests.

– Try your hand at catching a rainbow trout as you fish in either Baker Lake or Lehman Creek. Purchase a Nevada fishing license ahead of time.

– Take the 3.4-mile roundtrip trail for stunning views of Lexington Arch. This natural Arch is six stories tall and carved out of limestone.

e.aboussou@wasatchmag.com

Photos by Esther Aboussou

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Moab: the Mountain Biker’s Mecca

Moab is home to some of the highest quality mountain biking trails in the country. About four hours southeast of Salt Lake City, over 100 miles of trails sit, begging to be explored. From short tracks just over a mile to overnight rides taking you deep into the desert landscape, you will likely leave addicted to the red rock landscape. Break out that dusty bike of yours, give it a shine and tune up, and dirty it up with some red mud.

If you are new to mountain biking but are looking for a little bit of a challenge, ride the 20 miles of Klonzo trails just north of Moab. Drive two to three miles along Willow Springs Road toward Arches National Park to find the seven Klonzo trails. They range in difficulty, but they are geared toward intermediate riders. Ride along petrified sand dunes with a stunning backdrop of the La Sal Mountain Range.

For the skilled and technical riders, the Porcupine Rim Trail needs to be on your Moab itinerary. It includes everything you love about mountain biking: tight edges along cliff sides, stunning scenery of red rock in a vast desert landscape, and fast single-track drops coupled with ledge drops. Most importantly, there is only 1,000 feet of elevation gain over the entire ride. The 15 miles of exhilarating terrain will take you about four to six hours to complete, depending on how many stops you take for photos. Or, start in Moab for a 34 mile out-and-back.

The Whole Enchilada, located at Burrow Pass Trailhead along the La Sal Loop Road east of Moab, is one for the record books. Originally designed to be an entire loop, the trail now boasts about 25 miles, and it helps to have a shuttle car. This is no walk in the park. Anyone who has been to Moab before knows that the hill climbs and the descents are not to be taken lightly. If you find yourself walking some of the technical portions of the ride or to cross a couple streams, don’t feel too bad. Tricky spots shut down some of the best riders. Nonetheless, weaving between sandstones and lush forests keeps riders coming back hungry for more.

p.creveling@wasatchmag.com

Photo by Peter Creveling

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Take Your Running to the Hills

Concrete grids and treadmills may rule the winter months, but it’s spring and it’s time to hit the trails. Fresh air in your lungs, ups and downs, winding paths, and scenic views atop mountains — these are the moments runners live for. Convenience and flat terrain attract runners to the roads, but nothing compares to an escape to fields of pine boughs and wildflowers in Salt Lake’s foothills.

Joey Campanelli, a local trail runner, lives for those sights. The first time I saw him, I was skiing down a run at Alta. I saw a flash of florescent pink and turned to identify the shorts over leopard leggings running up the ski slope. Soon, I saw his big, goofy grin. Campenelli wasn’t going to let snow deny him his passion for trail running. He used it as a tool to train harder. In his books, trail running is the only way to run. The freedom, the peace and quiet, and the beauty are hard to beat.

“The trails take you to the most amazing places,” he said. “You also meet a lot of cool people if you do it enough.”

It’s easy to lose touch with the natural beauty of the world when you’re accustomed to staring at a sunrise in Yosemite National Park on a computer monitor. Escape the chaos of city life and burn off the stress and strains of the day by running in the hills.

Trail running offers a mix of challenges: one moment you’re running uphill with your heart pounding and the next you have time to relax after you crest the peak and jog along a stream. But this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, variation means a wide range of muscles get exercise. You can also be distracted by the beautiful scenery and stimulated by what’s around the next bend.

Strap on some running shoes and hit the trail. The Bonneville Shoreline Trail along the Salt Lake foothills and Pipeline Trail in Millcreek Canyon are great for beginners. *Warning* Trail running can be highly addictive and make you want to sign up for a race — so here’s a list for you:

 

April 29, Amasa Trail Runs, 15.5M, 9.5M, 6.5M, Moab, Utah

June 3, Vigor Solitude Trail Series Races, 13.1M, 8M, 5M, 3M, Cottonwood Heights, Utah

June 10, Park City Trail series 5K, Park City, Utah

June 17, Wasatch Steeplechase 17M, Salt Lake City, Utah

s.guirguis@wasatchmag.com

Photo by Carolyn Webber

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Raft through Southern Utah

Southern Utah is home to famous rock climbs, backpacking, and world-class canyoneering. It’s destination Red Rock. But it’s not all sandstone slabs — it’s also a place for epic whitewater rafting. On a stretch of the Colorado River called Westwater, in a little Utah town called Cisco,  adventure is waiting. Here is your itinerary:

Two months to 10 Days from Launch: Call the Bureau of Land Management at 435. 259. 7012. to get a permit for Westwater Canyon. Permits are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis, so depending on the time of year, call as early as possible. Your permit includes a $10 fee per person that must be paid 30 days in advance or at the time you make your reservation. You can check the reservation calendar through the BLM website in order to see availability for your planned trip dates.

Day 1: Drive to Cisco (four hours from Salt Lake City). If you arrive at the Westwater put-in a day early, camp for $10 a night. Bathrooms and potable water are available.

Day 2: If you are floating Westwater Canyon in a single day, start as early as possible. If not, you can put in around noon or later without much difficulty. Seeing as the first day is mostly flat water, plenty of snacks, along with your best songs, jokes and games, are a must. There is a class II rapid, Wild Horse, at mile 4.7 and a class III- rapid, Little Dolores, or “Little D” at mile 7.7.

If you are floating Westwater early in the season, bring warm clothing. Water is frigid and requires at least a wetsuit — preferably a dry suit — to comfortably navigate.

There are 10 campsites in Westwater Canyon, assigned at the ranger station at the put-in. If the Canyon isn’t crowded and you have your pick of sites, the Lower Little D site is beautiful, and has easy access to a kitchen area by the river with scads of secluded tent sites higher up the canyon wall. Look for the glowing canyon walls and red rock features illuminated by the sunset.

A fire-pan is required for each float group on the river, so make good use of your’s with a roaring fire at night. You will also need to bring your own groover or wag bags to dispose of waste.

Day 3: Explore Outlaw Cave. Approximately 100 yards down and across the river from the Lower Little D campsite is Outlaw Cave, a fun little stop filled with “outlaw” artifacts like old pioneer shoes and a wood-burning stove.

Then, get ready for rapids. Beginning less than a mile below the Lower Little D camp, Marble Canyon, Big Hummer, Staircase, Funnel Falls, Skull, Bowling Alley, Sock-it-to-me, and Last Chance are all notable rapids in a four-mile stretch in the canyon. These rapids range from class III to IV depending on flow levels. Skull Rapid specifically deserves special attention, as Skull Hole near the end of the rapid on river right and  Room of Doom further down on river right have been known to trap boaters. At higher flows, you don’t want to take a swim in the Room of Doom. Note that the rapids are largely constant in this stretch of the canyon, and are best navigated by someone with previous experience in the canyon. If you do have a mishap in one of the rapids, get back into your boat as quickly as possible to be prepared for upcoming features.

You might want to stop for lunch at some point when the canyon opens up after Last Chance Rapid. Also, keep an eye out for cliff-jumping opportunities as the canyon widens. A couple miles’ worth of flat water paddling will bring you to the Cisco take-out.

As you are driving out of Cisco, a ghost town on the road back to Highway 6 offers some spooky scenic views and photo opportunities.

Resources for guided and private trips:

https://www.blm.gov/programs/recreation/passes-and-permits/lotteries/utah/westwatercanyon

For permit information:

http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/1840#main

For river flows and features information:

https://www.oars.com/adventures/westwater-canyon-rafting/

For professional guiding services:

http://redriveradventures.com/utah-rafting/westwater-canyon/

c.simon@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of Ruth Eipper

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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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Whitewater Thrills in Jackson

A Chicago city slicker with Ray-Ban sunglasses wrapped around his head with twine, a rugby princess with flowing red locks, a blind former professional gymnast, a blonde pun master with a brilliant fake Australian accent, me, and a handful of middle-aged parents. This was the crew that rode the Snake River through Alpine Canyon, just outside of Jackson Hole, Wy. Our fleet consisted of three hard-shell kayaks, two inflatable kayaks, and one raft. Our emotions were somewhere between panic attack and out-of-our minds stoked, corresponding to our varying degrees of river-running competence.

The morning of the descent, we drove about an hour from Pun Master’s family cabin in Driggs, Id. to the put-in. While some of our crew bumbled around unloading trucks, inflating boats, and running a shuttle vehicle to our takeout point, I was tasked with instructing our Chicagoan city slicker on righting a flipped inflatable kayak in the river.

The first stretch of river was calm with blue skies. The Chicagoans, having never set foot nor paddle in a river before, were frantically paddling over every little riffle in sight. Easy class II and III-waves were punctuated with stretches of flat, where cookie-eating and game-playing prevailed. After about two miles on the river, we came to Haircut Rock, the second class III rapid of the day and the only one of any real consequence. It involved a sharp right turn in the river, to avoid the rapid’s raft-flipping namesake. Eddy lines roiled around the infamous rock, threatening the kayaks in a Bermuda Triangle of unseen conflicting currents, ultimately flipping and holding our Pun Master and his hard shell in a hole, or recirculating current. I nearly shot straight into his flipped boat, skirting him as widely as I could. The city slicker clung to his own paddle and watched the water in front of him so closely that he failed to even notice the “Bermuda Hole”. Those of us that witnessed the flip shouted encouragements to roll back up and watched with avid trepidation to see whether our friend would stay in his kayak. Pun Master ended up taking a swim, emptying the water from his boat with some difficulty considering its drain plug was makeshift-stopped with a wine cork. The Chicagoans looked on in a state of impressed, frazzled awe as Pun Master relayed to the group the weird forces of the currents converged in the canyon.

For the next three miles, small surf waves and irreverent women’s rugby team sing-alongs, conducted by our fearless red-headed rugby leader, kept everyone occupied. The trip took a turn for the frigid when we lost the sun to gray clouds and Alpine Canyon enveloped us on either side in deep gray rock. We were soon upon the Big Kahuna class III rapid, closely followed by the class III Lunch Counter. Our cold woes quickly dissipated and the wave trains carried us hard and fast down the river.

Less than 7.5 miles after the put-in, we reached the take-out. Jackson Hole burgers and a bouldering wall at the park in town were beckoning. We’d made it — city slicker, blind gymnast, rugby star, fake Aussie, and all.

Photo by Eric Simon

FOLLOW OUR LEAD

Put In: West Table put-in has changing rooms, toilets, and super-hero rangers who will take note of your party logistics and inform you regarding river flows and any debris or hazards in the canyon. The ranger station has a manual pump for inflating kayaks and rafts. There is no drinking water available, so be sure to bring enough with you.

Features: The Alpine Canyon run of the Snake has two class II rapids, five unrated surf waves, and seven class III rapids. However, at low to moderate flows, Haircut Rock, Big Kahuna, and Lunch Counter are the three crucial points of challenge on the run.

Takeout: Sheep Gulch takeout is at mile 7.4 of Alpine Canyon. It is critical that rafts take out here, as it is the only point accessible to vehicles via takeout ramp. Kayakers can run some fun wave trains just below Sheep Gulch and still easily trek out to the ramp.

Area Attractions: If you’re looking to log more time on calmer water, a trip to Alpine Canyon is also the perfect opportunity to float around Grand Teton National Park, with 10 scenic lakes open to non-motorized vessels. The Tetons offer prime camping, hiking, climbing, and backpacking opportunities. If jet-boiled Ramen just won’t cut it after a cold day on the water, venture into Jackson Hole for some killer post-float food. The gargantuan nachos at Lift Jackson Hole are a personal favorite.

Do not forget warm, waterproof layers. In the spring, snow run-off makes this canyon run even more bone-chilling — especially out of direct sunlight.

If you have no experience running whitewater, Jackson Hole is home to scads of commercial companies that can guide you down the Snake River. Jackson Hole Whitewater and Mad River Boat Trips are two of the most reputable companies.

c.simon@wasatchmag.com

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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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Beyond the Wasatch: Goblin Valley

Last year, my fiancé and I made it a goal to travel at least once a month. We visited national parks and monuments, state parks, and hot springs, and we were able to round out 2016 with 13 camping trips under our belts. This year, we started out fresh with a January trip to Goblin Valley State Park.

Goblin Valley is basically an enormous playground. There’s something for everyone; campers, hikers, bikers, and climbers. The park’s main attraction is the collection of sandstone hoodoos sprinkled throughout the landscape. Down in the valley, these mushroom-shaped rocks and towers fill your view in every direction, and each one is unique. Inside the park, there are five designated hikes.

Little Wild Horse and the Ding and Dang Canyons are just a few miles away from the visitors center and these slot canyons offer a whole day of fun. Little Wild Horse especially is very popular because you don’t need to be experienced to navigate, climb, and scramble through it.

A day use pass to enter the park is $13. If you’re planning to stay the night, there are 25 sites in the campground and two yurts available. Campsites are $25 a night, and there are options for tents and RV hook-ups. Along with that, there are showers and flush toilets, and each site comes with a fire-pit, picnic table, and shade shelter. Yurts are $80 and are equipped with bunk beds, a seating area, table, heat, A/C, and a BBQ cooker.

For weekend warriors like me, here’s your perfect three-day itinerary:

FRIDAY:

Arrive at the park as early as you can. After setting up camp, explore the three valleys of goblins. They are in close proximity to each other and offer hours of fun if you decide to trek through all of them. Pack a lunch and a lot of water. After a break, take the 1.5 mile hike to the Goblin’s Lair and relax in the fresh cool air of this enormous cavern. If you’re prepared for it, permits for rappelling down into the canyon can be purchased at the visitors center or you can hire a guide for a canyoneering tour.

SATURDAY:

Visit Little Wild Horse slot canyon, just five miles west of the Goblin Valley Visitor Center. The full loop of Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon is eight miles, or you can stick to Little Wild Horse, 3.3 miles one way. It’s easy to navigate for all skill-levels and ages. When you get back to camp, relax your sore muscles by the fire and gaze up at the many visible stars in this Dark Sky Certified Park.

SUNDAY:

On the last day of your trip, take the easy 250-yard trail down into the valley to get a closer look at the Three Sisters, one of the most iconic formations in the park, before packing up and heading home.

e.aboussou@wasatchmag.com

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