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  • Canyoneering Country Is Calling

    Learning the ropes for a canyon-based adventure in Utah’s Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.

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    My wife had only one stipulation for our first technical canyoneering adventure: no swimming. “I don’t mind wading,” Chris said, “but if any cold, muddy water gets over waist deep, I am not going to be happy.”

    So I wasn’t sure how she’d react as we peered over a chockstone—a boulder wedged between the walls of a sandstone canyon—in Utah’s Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument and saw a 20-foot-long pool of undetermined depth waiting below. “Take my camera,” Chris said. “I want to get it over with.”

    She sat down on the chockstone, and Rick Green, the head guide of Excursions of Escalante, pointed to where she should brace her feet as she scooched toward the edge and then eased into the dark water—and just kept going, right up to her chest. “Whoa, I bet that’s deeper than you expected!” Green exclaimed. After a startled shout, Chris laughed and gamely waded toward the far end of the pool. What choice did she have? In canyoneering, moving forward is always the best way.

    Canyoneering is the Chutes and Ladders sport of descending steep, narrow slot canyons—which are formed by water rushing through soft rock—by scrambling over rocky obstacles, rappelling, wading, and, yes, sometimes swimming. The routes are generally downhill, but that doesn’t make them easy; a one-mile stretch of canyon can take hours to traverse. But anyone capable of hiking rough terrain—on a thirteener, for example—can handle a slot canyon with a trained guide. Excursions of Escalante welcomes adventurers seven and older.

    Chris and I had hiked plenty of straightforward canyons in Utah and Arizona, and we are experienced rock climbers, so clambering over rock and rappelling down vertical cliffs are comfortable for us. On this trip to Grand Staircase–Escalante, we wanted to try something more advanced, but we didn’t have the know-how to take on a technical canyon—one requiring ropework and other advanced skills—without expert assistance. On this day, with a chance of rain in the forecast, we were doubly glad we had hired a guide, considering flash floods are the biggest danger when canyoneering.

    The dendritic tributary canyons of the Escalante River make Grand Staircase–Escalante one of the premier spots in North America to practice canyoneering. Though reduced in size by more than 45 percent by presidential proclamation in 2017, the national monument still protects about a million acres of desert canyons and plateaus (nearly the size of Denver, Jefferson, and Boulder counties combined). A dirt highway called Hole-in-the-Rock Road extends southeast from near the small farming and adventure town of Escalante for more than 60 miles, all the way to Lake Powell, giving access to dozens of slot canyons.

    We’d planned this outing as the capstone of a road trip through northern Arizona and southern Utah, taking in the sacred Canyon de Chelly and the famous light show of Antelope Canyon, both on the Navajo Nation reservation, and then exploring upper Buckskin Gulch west of Page and the Cottonwood Narrows on the road to Escalante. But these all were simple day hikes, and now we were ready for a greater challenge.

    On a cool morning in early May, we found ourselves at the headquarters of Excursions of Escalante, outfitting for the day along with five other clients. Rick Green, his partner and co-owner, Amie Fortin, and assistant guide Andrew Jimenez fitted us with climbing harnesses and helmets and handed us shiny daypacks constructed from thick vinyl to resist abrasion from the sandpapery rock. We’d been advised to wear sturdy, protective clothes and shoes as well—no tiny shorts, swimsuits, or sandals—but even so, two of our group would wear holes in the seats of their pants by the end of the day.

    Before heading out, we gathered in a circle in the company’s grassy backyard for a safety briefing. Green has been guiding canyoneering trips in Grand Staircase for more than two decades; he’s led many first descents of canyons and serves on the local search and rescue team. The hazards of canyoneering range from sprained ankles and falling rocks to heat stroke and hypothermia, but the most dangerous is sudden floods, which can fill a canyon almost without warning, even when rain falls many miles away. “I’ve got 33 canyons to choose from, and I won’t decide which one we’re going to do until we get out there and I see what conditions are like,” Green told us. “There’s a pretty good chance of rain later on, so I’ll choose a canyon with many exit points and a small collection area for rainfall, so I don’t have to worry about what’s happening 30 miles away.”

    Seventeen miles out Hole-in-the-Rock Road, we turned onto a smaller dirt road and headed across the Egypt Bench to a small pullout at a bend. Bright orange scarlet gilia and yellow prickly pear flowers dotted the gravelly red soil; a raven squawked at our intrusion from a nearby juniper. As we piled out of the trucks, I wandered about 40 feet and then pulled up short at the threshold of a huge chasm. The canyon below was a narrow gash, so dark inside you couldn’t see the bottom. “Some people start here and rappel straight into the canyon—it’s like rappelling down a 20-story building,” Green told the group. “See those grooves the ropes have carved in the edge?” Then he pointed to the shorter, gentler side of the canyon: “Don’t worry; we’re going over there.”

    After working our way down rock slabs to a ledge above a drop-off, Green anchored a climbing rope to some large boulders, and Jimenez demonstrated the rappel into the gorge. He walked backward down the steep, rocky slope, controlling his descent with a rappel device—a simple friction brake—and, where the wall steepened to near vertical, disappeared from view.

    Now it was our turn. One by one, we clipped a rappel device onto the rope and our climbing harnesses and started down. It took some trust to walk backward into a void, but the descent lasted only a couple of minutes and was relatively effortless—and decidedly fun. At the bottom, we stepped in wet sand. Jimenez coiled the rope, and we headed down the canyon, walking single file. The colorful rock walls curved overhead as the canyon tightened to only three or four feet across.

    At the first big blockage, a pile of boulders forming a step several feet high, I was tempted to jump to the sand below from the top of the heap, but Green quickly vetoed that idea. “Think yoga, not Ninja Warrior,” he insisted. He showed us how to maneuver into a body bridge (what rock climbers would call chimneying), with back and hands pressed against one wall of the canyon and feet braced against the other wall. Scooting sideways and then down, we could maneuver past obstacles in complete control.

    At each new challenge, Green would demonstrate another technique: a heel jammed into a crack between a rock and the canyon wall or a foot bridged across a slot. At times, he’d call out “left saddle,” meaning we should sit with our butt on the left side of a ledge or boulder and then ooze over the edge. The idea was not to muscle past obstacles but to use gravity and creativity to find solutions to each new problem. There was teamwork, too: A foot braced in a slot could become a literal foothold for your partner; a bent knee became a stepladder. After descending past an obstacle, we pointed out hidden footholds for the next person to come down.

    There was a lot more water in the bottom than expected, though. These canyons constantly change as a result of weather and erosion—a flood will push logs into the canyon and move boulders, creating new dams and pools. The water was cool as we waded, and despite some questions about quicksand (which is “not an issue,” according to Fortin), the floor felt firm. The pools glowed orange from light reflecting off the walls.

    At a widening where the walls were not quite as steep as before, Green paused and asked the group if anyone noticed anything unusual. Chris spotted them first: a line of shallow holes in the sloping sandstone, about a foot apart and leading out of the canyon. “Moqui steps,” Green said. “The Native Americans who lived here hundreds of years ago carved these to access the bottom of the canyon—maybe for water, maybe to trap animals they were hunting. Maybe just a shortcut.” For us, they might offer an escape route if a storm threatened. If that happened, one of our guides would climb the old steps, trailing a rope for the rest of us to use.

    In fact, ominous gray clouds had been building behind us. Green rallied the party but resisted hurrying as the walls narrowed and we shuffled sideways to proceed. “Little steps, little steps,” he cautioned. Suddenly the canyon broadened again. On a less threatening day, some groups continue down this canyon, but we weren’t taking any chances—just one canyon over, a California couple died in a flash flood in 2008. As rain began to spit from the sky, we hiked up a steep slope to reach a sheltering alcove below the rim. We pulled sandwiches out of our packs as the storm passed and shafts of sunlight played across the wet desert. It was lunchtime—and we had earned it.

    If You Go

    The details: Excursions of Escalante operates from March to November; most canyon tours run from approximately 7 a.m. to between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m., depending on each day’s route. Tours start at $205 per person, including equipment, lunch, and post-canyon ice cream. 435-826-4714

    Get There: The town of Escalante, Utah, is an 8.5-hour drive from Denver. The tiny village of Boulder is 40 minutes closer to Denver but offers far fewer services than Escalante.

    Stay: Escalante has plentiful lodging options; the Cowboy Country Inn is inexpensive and kitschy-cool. In Boulder, splurge for a room and dinner at Boulder Mountain Lodge and its James Beard Award-nominated Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm.

    See: Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is open for hiking and canyoneering. Take your newly acquired bridging and partner-assist skills down Hole-in-the-Rock Road to Peekaboo and Spooky canyons. Don’t miss the hike to 126-foot Lower Calf Creek Falls, the trailhead for which is off UT 12, about halfway between Escalante and Boulder. The Escalante Interagency Visitor Center is closed due to the pandemic, but a phone line is staffed Monday through Friday to assist visitors: 435-826-5499.

    Canyoneering and COVID-19

    Excursions of Escalante began its season at the end of May—about two months later than usual. Amie Fortin, co-owner and excursions director, said the company would keep up its rigorous disinfecting practices and would turn away guests who had coldlike symptoms. However, slot canyons are constricted; the guides provide hands-on assistance; and wearing a mask is difficult in an environment that’s often either hot or wet, meaning standard COVID-19 safety techniques aren’t practical. Ultimately, Fortin said, visitors need to understand that “there is no social distancing in this activity. There will always be some risk.”

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