Shenanigans

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The manifold and subtle canyons of the Roost are one essential Colorado Plateau experience. The super tight slots are another. Knowing we were two days into a two week trip, and not in what one would call canyon shape, we headed south from Hanksville to North Wash, and Shenanigans.

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The story of how the canyon got its name is worth reading.  North Wash has good, free camping close to a paved road, and a number of scenic, easily digestable slot canyons.  Rolling in at dusk on a Saturday in October I expected a crowd, but was taken aback by the two dozen cars.  We were full of burger and fatigue, and luckily neither of us have trouble falling asleep near noisy people.  We had a warm-up canyon on the menu for tomorrow.

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The main fork of Leprachaun was intended to get the wheels turning and promote a smooth run through the longer Shenanigans. Instead, the physical beatdown had us rethinking our plans. M in particular, as she recalled not having been through it before, and suffered more bruising due to her bonier frame. I had my own concerns. I’d hiked Shenanigans at least twice before, probably thrice, and my first trip down had been solo. As the aforementioned story details, the crux of Shenanigans is an uncompromisingly narrow slot right at the end. You can’t turn your head once in it. I recall cruising through on previous trips, but years of backpacking had thickened my shoulders and chest, and years of office work and the sltoh it promotes had thickened my gut. I was damn close to the 180 pound limit for transit of the slot at ground level.

We walked back to camp, dried gear, ate, and took a dayhike to a swimming hole (which the recent floods had filled with sand and murky, organic soup water). Eventually, we decided to go for it. I sold M on the scenic value of the canyon, and we both felt that the opportunity of our visit should not be squandered.

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We were not disappointed. In addition to the usual profusion of narrows, squeezes, and downclimbs, Shenanigans has several sections which hold your memory of it apart from other slots. Two are pictured above (M photos, both). The first is a deep, dark slot slanted right at around 25 degrees. It’s a good 12-16 inches wide, if not more, and the hard part is thus not fitting through but in the shoulder walking necessary to make progress while dragging a pack. Some tiems the floor is flat and sandy, more often it is bare rock and pinches to nothing, squishing feet as they grope blindly for purchase. On my solo descent, I recall the overhanging side being covered with spiders that ran away from the force of my exhalations as I crept along.

The second section is the grim crawl of death. Arriving, you downclimb a 20 foot, sinuous chute to a dark ledge, only to find that after a brief pause the floor vanishes into shadow, the floor barely visible 30 feet below. An awkward, and easy but intimidating crawl leads to the boulder picutred beyond me and a rappel to the ground. Another move where falling is not likely, but exposure has you contemplating all eventualities.

In between these section are some of the most radically fluted and twisted narrows I’ve ever seen, complete with a natural bridge to crawl through. How violent water must be to carve such things makes your hair stand up a bit no matter how good the forecast.

We don’t have pictues of the final slot. I made it through, but with at times disconcertingly little room to spare. Never before have I had to tilt my chest up, down and diagonally to fit through just that right spot. Focus and fear precluded stopping to get the camera out. It is the longest 150 yards I’ve ever walked (shuffled).
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At the end the bottom drops out and a short rap leads to a tense disconnect on a greasy foothold right above a murky pool. The rest of the canyon is pretty dry (we had one armpit deep wade, and were glad to not be overheating in wetsuits), and thus a delicate traverse on slime ledges is required to keep dry. We both just made it.

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At this point M decided that she had done this hike before, with the slime traverse of all the unique features jogging her memory.

There is an unmatched feeling, after having exited the narrow slots, of returning out of the dragon or leviathan to the land of the living. Not only does little live in these canyons, the menace of flash floods and the cloistered geometry lends them an inhuman intrigue even alpine winter cannot approach.
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For that reason we felt light and free as we completed the bushwacking down the stream post-rappel, and then the nasty, fourth-class gully exit. A quick fifteen minutes of walking through the sage plains and we were back at the car.

Another essential, ineffable experience in the bag.
 

The South Fork of the Roost

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When we lived in Utah the Robber’s Roost was one of my favorite places, and two weeks ago I was reminded that it remains so today. Driving out the sage flats as the sun sank behind the Henry Mountains I concentrated on missing rocks and not flatting our little car. Views as you traverse the massive, gradual hump of dirt and dust between the Dirty Devil and Colorado change slowly, though the few miles heading over towards Burr Pass and the Ekker ranch, from which you can see both the Henrys and La Sals, is not to be missed. I dodged ruts down off the mesa in the dark, managed to not get the car stuck, and we made camp under the moon.

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It takes a keen eye, or prior experience, to know just how elaborate the canyon systems hidden in the middle distance are.

First epiphany after four years in Montana: you can see everything in the Colorado Plateau.  The rising sun highlighted different detailed minute by minute, leaving little mystery if I had the where-with-all to see well.

Our “warm-up” destination was the South Fork of Robbers Roost Canyon.  In our Moab days, when the introduction of mass-market technical canyon beta spelled either the death or birth of the golden age of American canyoneering, I made a list of canyons to hike.  Only a few where left when we moved away, and the South Fork was one of those few I’ve yet to attend to in the years since.  It’s long enough, and the exits from the canyon system few enough, that it almost demands an overnight.  Back then I was still captured by the climber mentality of everything-in-a-day.  Now I embrace backpacking, and the miles of canyon walking our route necessitated was as attractive as the slot itself.

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A short walk from camp brought us to the South Fork spring, home to piping, old pools and game fences constructed from juniper logs, and lots of cow sign.  Another short stroll down the wash brought us to the first drop, home to some poorly placed and unnecessary bolts.  Note the rope grooves caused by anchors too far from the lip of the drop.

We built a cairn and dropped in.  The total weight of our rocks was probably 600 pounds, and the friction of the rope on the lip and proper rap technique brought the force on the anchor down to a fraction of that.  Nonetheless, I clipped in to provide M a bodyweight backup.

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There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of debate about canyon anchors.  The most relevant point is not the particulars in question, but the vociferation of the debate itself.  The desert is sensitive to human passage in places, but beyond all other delicate biomes it holds evidence of prior visitors, obviously.  No one hikes in remote canyons to commune with obvious ghosts, and insofar as the particulars of this debate have little environmental consequence (use trails and shit are exceptions), minimal visual impact over years should be the standard.

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The slot was long and gorgeous, alternating tight downclimbing challenges with soaring walk-through sections. The air stayed cold well into late morning, the sun overheard clear and uncompromising.

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It was fantastic.

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Rather less fantastic was another epiphany won by time away: the canyons get a lot more traffic today.  The South Fork is not technically fierce on paper, a fact which combines with the aforementioned length to keep away most capitol C canyoneers and instead favor adventurous backpackers and trophy thrill seeakers.  I speculate that this is responsible for the sake of the anchors in the canyons, which were without exception piss poor.  We replaced webbing and re-rigged every one, and deposited a rainbow of 120+ feet of nasty webbing in the dumpster in Hanksville two days hence.

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But even the fuckers a day ahead of us who left their golf visor, beef jerky bag, panties, and initials (with date) scratched in the rock couldn’t dent the mood.

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Slot gave way to big walls, abundant pools, and tight meanders, which gradually widened to sand, pinnacles, and cottonwoods midway through their autumnal transition.  It was gorgeous.

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Late in the afternoon we had walked off our map, and were flagging a bit in the sand.  The confluence with the main fork would be obvious and a good landmark to camp by, but the chill of evening and an obvious side alcove with a spring had us set up camp in the wash what turned out to be 1/3 of a mile short.  We pitched the mid in packed sand, gathered water, made dinner, and as darkness settled fired up the new wood stove.  This was appreciated, as the temp dropped well below freezing and our bodies, light on dinner and heavy with fatigue from the foreign environment, fought to keep warm.

The full moon lit everything with a ghostly light only curiously removed from that of day.

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Morning camp slowly, pink light creeping across and then down the walls.  We burned a few more sticks as we ate breakfast.

The main canyon was obvious, and among other things marked by our first glimpse of tamarisk.  We followed a deer trails through the thicket and up the main fork.  Evidence of major floods from the month before were obvious everywhere: seasonal pools full of murky water, grasses tamped flat, quicksand, and a dozen species of flowers.  The air at 9am was 60 percent winter, the leaves in the trees 95 percent fall, and flowers and rich green undergrowth 75 percent spring.

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By late morning the sun was reaching us consistently, and we tanked up on water and layered down just in time to head up and out the infamous moki step exit. We’d each done it a number of times previously, as part of day trips through the various north forks above. An easy 25 foot slab leads to an easy 20 foot 5th class wall. Not the sort of thing you’d realistically ever fall off, but with a drop emphatic enough to make you contemplate the improbable. I wasn’t ready to do it with a pack like back in the old days, but felt comfortable enough soloing it, hauling packs, and belaying M up.

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Only the slickrock stairmaster to the rim and a healthy road walk back in the heat of the afternoon remained.

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My canyon sense was and is rather rusty, and after some dumb mistakes route finding we were up on the flat, knocking off the road walk, and drinking beers at the car, looking northwest towards Hanksville and burgers at Stans, 30 straightline miles and a two hours drive away.

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It took quite a few more days to get into the groove of the trip and process those miles, but I can now say this was one of the most memorable trips of the year.  And yes, we’ll be moving back to Utah.

My thoughts on base layers for active adventure

I hesitated to write the footwear article I published last week, for reasons I’ve written about on several occasions, namely that I don’t want to feed the gear obsession that for many perniciously supplants actual experience.  Yet the response I got to that article, for quarters expected and not, has been positive and profuse.  So I going to do more in that idiom in the future, with an emphasis on broader overviews of important equipment issues that can be both important and complex.  I’ve been studying gear catalogues too closely since I was in third grade, and while the volume and type of my outdoor experience is not exceptional, I hope I can put forth some words in ways that folks will find illuminating.  Ergo this article. 

Base layers are, with the exception of foorwear, the most important piece of gear you’ll use outside.  Unlike footwear, the same base layers can be used year round across disciplines.  It’s a worthwhile endeavor to match your physiology and approach to outdoor adventures with your base layer choice.

Base layers exist to be a buffer between your skin and the environment.  They move sweat away from your skin (wicking) so that it can evaporate, keep the sun brush, and rough rock off you, and provide a modicum of warmth in the dry, the wet, and the states between.  An ineffective garmet will leave you damp and cold, and in the case of underwear or the interface between skin, fabric, and pack straps, allow chaffing to occur.  Good clothing and gear elsewhere can be rendered largely ineffective by a bad baselayer.

The normal debate here begins with material, namely ultrafine merino wool versus the various polyester weaves.  But first, it’s worth mentioning cotton.

Cotton is known as the death cloth in outdoor circles for its ability to retain lots of moisture and dry very slowly.  Under most conditions, this makes it totally inappropiate for any item of gear, save perhaps a bandana.  However, in serious heat, cotton can be put to good use.

And not just in Vegas.  The rather natty shirt pictured above was a Patagonia outlet purchase, and is made of a very tight, fine weave of 65% poly and 35% cotton.  It is a fantastic hot as hell base layer.  It keep the sun off (flip the collar up to protect the back of the neck, and wicks and dries just fast enough to cool without chilling.  I’ve worn it mountain biking and hiking in 90+ heat the last two summers and become a big fan.  Of course, in any conditions other than serious heat and full sun, it would become dead weight in the pack.

Most folks will wear a poly or merino base layer.  At present the stereotypes governing the two fabrics are well established and a matter of empirical and subjective consensus.  I’ll review them briefly.

Merino wool:
-Highly resistant to stink
-Softer
-Comfier/warmer when wet and damp
-Fragile
-Dries slower
-Absorbs slightly more water (the above BPL article puts it at ~20% more)

Polyesters:
-Moderately to horrendously stinky
-Lighter
-Tougher
-Dries faster, absorbs less water

I’ve yet to use or hear of a fabric that seriously breaks with any of the above.  My preferences for the last few years have been to use a wool shirt as a base layer in winter conditions, when I’ll be using a midlayer, and synthetic in three season conditions and for more active pursuits like mountain biking.

There is a bit more to the story here, and that is fabric weight.  I sweat more than most under any active circumstances, years of living in Arizona and Utah, I suppose.  I’m also a pretty warm person compared to most.  Thus I value fast wicking and drying highly.  Not only does this prejudice me towards synthetics, it leads me to only select thinner base layers, and fabric thickness plays a large role in water aborption and drying time.

Take Patagonias Capilene 2 (my favorite for the last 15 years) compared to its Wool 2.  Cap 2 fabric weighs 124 grams per square meter, while Wool 2 weighs 165 grams per square meter.  Cap 3, significantly warmer in my experience than Cap 2, is 167 grams per square meter, essentially identical to Wool 2.  One of the reasons Wool dries slower than synthetics, and why I’ve had a hard time embracing it, seems to be that the structural limitations of ultrafine merino make it difficult to make it into fabric light enough to be a truly year round base layer.  BPL has a line of merino clothing made of 115 grams per meter fabric, which seems promising.  I snagged one of the beanies they made, in a single production run, from this fabric last fall, and find it an extremely versitile hat.  Unfortunately this light merino is proportionally more fragile, enough that the product page carries a disclaimer, and that BPL is currently struggling to find a shop willing to work with the finicky fabric.

 This is Kevin Sawchuk heading up to Pentagon Pass almost exactly 365 days ago during the Parcour de Wild wilderness race.  We both wore light wool base layers (Patagonia Wool 2 for me, Ibex Woolies for him) under lighter synthetic midlayers (Patagonia for both, R1/2 hoody for me, R1 hoody for Kevin).  In the cold, wet conditions we found this system worked very well, keeping us warm even though we were damp most of the time.

In summary, pick your fabric weight carefully, and lean towards the lighter ones, especially for active uses.  Pay attention to weave as well; Cap 2 wicks and dries faster than Cap 1, even though the fabric is marginally heavier, due to the weave.  Open knits with a three dimensional structure are best.

Your base layer shirt will get worn a lot, and the lighter fabrics that get summer usage will often be the only thing on your torso.  They’ll get a lot of abuse, be it from pack straps, slot canyon walls, or mountain bike crashes.  It is in this department that merino comes up drastically short, and why I can’t see myself buying more of it.

This is me riding the then brand new Karate Monkey in Granite Basin during December of 2006.  I’m wearing a long sleeve Capilene 2 crew neck under my thrift store jersey.  I bought that crew neck in 2004.  It’s still in service today, and gets worn at least once a week.  I have two Wool 2 shirts that are 12 and 16 months old.  Both have a few small holes in them.

Beyond selecting a base layer fabric that suits your needs, getting one that fits is vital.  Fit in many respects determines function.  A good wicking layer can’t do its job if it flops away from your skin, and can’t be a comfy part of a clothing system if it forms creases and pressure points under a midlayer.  Keep the big picture in mind when making selections.

The most useful base layer is the long sleeve crew neck.  Rolled up sleeves are only mildly warmer than short sleeves, and with so many blood vessels close to the skin on the inside of the forearms, rolling down sleeves adds a surprising amount of warmth.  I’ve never found turtle neck comfortable, or zip necks especially useful, but others have different experiences.

Base layer undies are vital.   Spending 30 bucks on a pair of synthetic undies is not an exciting way to spend money, but will end up being among the best you’ll ever spend on outdoor gear.  Goodbye swamp ass.  I like boxer briefs for the balance of comfort, good wicking, and chaff prevention.

Long bottoms are useful as well.  I have a pair of Cap 2 long johns I hacked to below knee (knicker) length.  They provide complete coverage when paired with knee high socks, avoid bulky overlap under ski boot cuffs, and the additional thigh and knee coverage adds more warmth than you’d think.

Ariel, Isaac, M, me, and Phillip in the Robbers Roost during November of 2005, with a lot of old canyon anchors.  We camped out in the cold for a few weeks, did a ton of canyons, and celebrated T-day with a bitching dutch oven cook out, beer, and shooting cans with my .45.  A few days before this picture was taken Phillip and I descended an obscure fork of Upper Blue John.  M and I did an unknown, possible first descent of it a few days prior.  Phillip and I had intended to upclimb the publicized east fork into which our fork fed, but our attempt to pack toss and tent pole hook past a 25′ drop didn’t work, and we had to wade the 150 yard long, chest deep pool below.  In near freezing weather, with no sun, and no wetsuits.  I wore Cap 2 knickers and soft shell pants and was cold, but survived.  Phillip wore something similar, but the cold seemed to affect him more.  When we exited the long wade he immediately dropped his pants and shuffled back and forth giving his manhood a vigorous two-handed rewarming.  Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  We climbed a sandy 5th class ramp to escape the slot.  Lesson: know your physiology and buy clothing accordingly.

Last but not least, a good synthetic base layer headband is handy in winter.  It will keep your ears warm, disperse forehead sweat, and let heat vent out the top of your head without soaking a hat.  I made one last winter, with a double layer of Cap 1 and a single layer of Cap 2 in the back.  When the aforementioned thin wool hat would get too wet skinning uphill, but it was too cold to wear no hat at all, this little thing was amazingly useful.

In short, baselayers are important, and a matter of personal need and preference.  While there is no substitute for trial and error, and lot of money and bother can be avoided with a little research and introspection about how and where you’ll be wearing them.  I’m hopeful that a poly/wool blend (like Patagonia’s newest generation of Wool 2) will come into being soon, and will allow the anti-stink, warmth, and coziness of merion to be enjoyed in a ~120 grams per meter fabric that dries fast and is tough enough for real world, four season use.  In the meantime, I’ll keep using the boxes full of baselayers I’ve accumulated over the years, because so many of the quality synthetics just refuse to die.

Going big

The laptop is back, so beware; this will not be short.

Just for today, I did some training on the Spruce Mountain road. 1.5k of climbing, in places quite steep. I still can’t get it all in one go. 38 minutes of pain. We’ve had isolated storms moving through all afternoon, and towards the top I got a bit of what may be the last snow of the year. Driving back into town, a singular dark cloud was pouring down on Little Granite Mountain.

For dinner I had a big spinach salad, and a big steak cooked over pine coals. Our little yard sale hibache does very well, as does the national forest and free fire-control downed wood. A few Newcastles (if a person exists who can drink one Newcastle on a night with a fire and the coyotes howling, it is not me) to make the world seem perfectly in order. A perfect bike sitting well used in the garage. A truck with freshly rotated tires. A ravishing spouse off making enormous amounts of money.

Life.

And now, the Easter weekend canyon epic:

Would you trust your life to this?


We did. I came to canyoneering from climbing. In climbing you’re dealing with falling bodies, and large forces. In canyons, you’re rappelling only, and ideally facing only static forces. That, coupled with a strong desire to maintain style and eschew drilled bolts, has brought forth some creative anchor building. Piles of rocks, rocks buried in the sand, knotted webbing wedged in cracks. It’s some good technical, analogue problem solving. With penalty points.

M starting the rap from the above anchor. Yes, I suck and can’t turn pictures. (But I don’t suck, I can turn pictures, and I know his password- M)


M handlining off a tree. Note the flora; Zion has a fantastic mix of desert and alpine, you get p pines, cacti, and manzanita in the same 50 feet.


M rapping. Showcased is the short, often awkward forms water cuts. The key here is to be smooth and not shock-load the anchor, which can multiply the forces applied.

M and Phillip. Some end of the season snow.


Another typical rap. Large stones wedge, from rockfall or floods, and create debris and gravel dams, which cause drops.

All of the above are in the upper section of Corral Canyon. After ~10 raps and assorted downclimbing snow sliding, the canyon opens into a wider area. We skirted the drainage until we came to this:


~700 foot shear drop. Once you drop in and pull the ropes, you’re committed. Our directions were vague, so we took a while to find the proper tree to start the sequence. In the end, common sense and experience usually prove to be a good guide. Someone had to do it first, and they typically take the line of logic. In our case, two fat trees at 170′ and 200′ led to a nice ledge with bolts, and not-so-nice ledge with bolts, and then a big ledge and a 35′ rap of a shrub into the depths of the slot shown above. Then it was only another 4-5 short raps in a quarter mile to the narrows.

No pics hiking in the dark while tired. Being a dedicated documentarian takes a will I didn’t possess that day. Apologies to the dedicated fans. Buy me some beer in May and I’ll reconsider in the future.

M and I ensconced in the handicapped bathroom, Temple of Sinawava bus stop, ~0000. I’m psyched to have my inflated dromedary as a pillow, and that Phillip shared his space blanket. It’s also nice to not be wearing a wetsuit anymore. And laying down is good after 15 hours on the move.


Phillip was pretty stoic about the bivy, but I think he had the most clothes of the group.

Baby’s first pseudobivy went well. Better than a fire on a gravel bar. Space blankets make a big difference. Testing has confirmed their merit.

Tomorrow, whatever I forgot.

fin