In an effort to be more intentional about writing posts soon after they happen, I bring you a post about my most recent work-related adventure that ended about a week ago.
Every August, the Southwest Program of COBS (where I work in Moab), hosts a Canyon Skills Training for staff who work in both the Southwest and Rocky Mountain (located in Leadville, CO) Programs. The training is provided free to those staff who want to go. I went last year and had a blast, and couldn’t have been more excited to return this year for a multi-day canyoneering adventure during which I would be hanging out with my friends in some of the most beautiful places in the world, laughing a lot and learning more things in each hour that I could count on my fingers.
This year, twelve of us (nine instructors/LCs, two trainers, and COBS’ executive director) ventured out into the White Canyon area of southern Utah to run Cheesebox and Gravel Canyons.
August is monsoon season in the Southwest, meaning we’ve been getting a lot of rain, and thus, we encountered our first fun surprise on the drive out to the top of Cheesebox. The trucks had to cross over a normally dry canyon wash to continue down the road, but water was flowing through it. The small river wasn’t very deep, and the trucks were still able to cross, but it was quite exciting to drive through it. Sometimes, driving big trucks on gnarly four-wheel drive roads (as I do occassionally for work) makes you feel like a badass.
The first few days we based camped so that we could do some skills progression days and then run Cheesebox Canyon before backpacking over to Gravel. That first afternoon, we did a slickrock school, which is basically just practicing walking on rolling edges and learning how steep of an angle you can walk on before you fall. We also discussed handlines, using meat anchors (humans) and when to use those (for shorter down-climbs or places where people might feel uncomfortable).
The second skills day, we were doing some hiking around, and had noticed that the clouds started building. Soon, we were graced with the ever elusive cloud-cover. Not long after that, just after we had climbed through a narrow section a very small canyon, it started to rain. We were hanging out underneath a small shelf, and watched as a waterfall started to form slowly off the shelf. Ten minutes later, the spot were we had just climbed down from was gushing water. We decided to don rain gear and walk out from where we were, so that we could get a good view of the flash flood that that definitely occurring at the bottom of the large canyon below us. It was amazing! Waterfalls were forming around us left and right, and the water on the sandstone creates this beautiful shine that cannot be beat. It was kind of a bummer to discover that my rain jacket no longer really works, as I was soaked through, but I was enjoying what was happening all around me too much to focus on it too much. This was the first time I’d ever seen a flash flood form, and it is hands down one of the most beautiful and amazing things I’ve ever witnessed. Flash floods are extremely dangerous to be caught in, which pretty much only happens if you are at the bottom of a canyon, so part of the amazement in witnessing it was the fact that we were in a perfectly safe location, high above the canyon wash.
The next day, we ran Cheesebox Canyon, which was the highlight of the training for everyone, I think. Cheesebox is a long canyon, and it takes a long time for twelve people to move through wet narrows, down-climbs and rappels. We were hiking by 5:30 that morning, navigating to the canyon with headlamps. One of the coolest parts of the morning was the gray fox we saw running along a narrow shelf. I had never seen anything like it, and it was beautiful.
By 8:00, we were donning wetsuits and preparing to drop down into the narrows. Canyon narrows, at the very, very bottom of the canyon, see very little sunlight. The narrows in Cheesebox, like many other canyons, are ‘wet narrows’, and you are swimming in water anywhere from knee deep to over your head, pretty much the whole day. Thus, even if its over a hundred degrees outside, it can be really cold down in the narrows. We had three rappels throughout the day, many down climbs, countless potholes in which we were swimming through, and the most laughs ever. I think I did at least 1,000 squats that day, trying to stay warm. My favorite part of the day was the last narrows section we went through, right before our exit. The clouds had been building all afternoon (good thing we got an early start), and the thunder was starting to rumble overhead. I was last in the line of twelve, and kept hearing people in front of me shrieking. I couldn’t see them, so I was thinking to myself “oh boy, these potholes must be the coldest we’ve gone through yet”. They were cold, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As an LC, I don’t often go into the field for extended periods of time, but I’ve always heard stories from canyon staff about swimming through potholes in canyons affectionately called ‘mank tanks’. Mank tanks are caused by flash floods and typically have one or more of the following things: dead animals (cows, mice, etc.), lots of debris, and an awful stench. This manky section of narrows luckily didn’t have any dead animals, but it did smell awful, and the debris resting on top was at least three inches thick. It made it really hard for a lot of people to swim through, as you had to be constantly pushing debris out of the way, and you couldn’t touch the bottom. It was hard to communicate too, as no one wanted to open their mouth, for fear of getting something awful in it. I think most people thought it was disgusting, but I thought it was amazing! Oh the joy of swimming through inches of debris at the bottom of a canyon in the middle of nowhere, Utah! How many other people had been here and done this? How many people even in just the state would think this was a possibility? Nature is an incredible force and can do some pretty amazing things, and I was in the thick of it! How cool!
This post is getting kind of ridiculously long and entirely too detailed, so I’ll just list a few more training highlights:
– three lightening drills
– sitting in one lightening drill, watching another flash flood form and having waterfalls start forming and flowing right on either side of me
– practicing setting up anchors
– having my friend Jess, read to us in the tarp every night from Down the Great Unknown, the book about John Wesley Powell’s journey down the Colorado and Green Rivers through the Grand Canyon
– navigating overland (really difficult on mesa tops, and not necessarily a highlight, but more of a good learning experience)
– hiking overland on the last day, watching the sign rise over the buttes and mesas and seeing a rainbow form