Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Gear Conundrum!

Jared On Rappel in the Glen
Canyon Recreational Area.
Photo by: Ram
With the weather so warm this year, I am reading more trip reports than normal so early in the season.   We have had nearly 50 degree weather almost all January and that is downright absurd for this time of year.  I am really going to be jonesing to get out onto the lake if this keeps up.

With all this talk there is also talk of gear and equipment.  I have recently heard groups looking for gear they wanted to start to  plan for this year.  While some of us are still anxiously awaiting the return of Imlay Canyon Gear goods to gawk at, I thought this would be a good time to go over my thoughts and ideas on Canyoneering gear and some do’s and don’ts when buying.  These thoughts are geared mostly towards the new Canyoneer.

To participate in any hobby you need to have gear.  Fishing needs a boat and poles, Mountain Biking needs a bike and helmet, jeeping needs a jeep and so on.  With hobbies comes money to be spent or really good friends that have it all and you get to tag-a-long.  With Rock Climbing and Canyoneering there is no difference, you need gear from one source or another and to say the least, some of this gear can mean the difference between life and death.

When I started into Canyoneering I gave up several hobbies to be able to afford more of the gear I would need for this endeavor.  I tagged along with a friend for a little bit until I started procuring my own gear.  I made some mistakes in the beginning with some of my purchases and have gear sitting that is no longer used.  So what does all this banter mean?  Learn from others, and pay attention.  Try out different items before settling.  Take some courses where you can practice different techniques and use different items comparing them side by side.

One of the questions I hear quite often that scares me to death is “Where can I buy some used equipment from?”  Remember, some of this gear is designed to SAVE YOUR LIFE!  Do you really want to trust used equipment?  Per manufactures recommendations, some of it does have expiration dates.  Used ropes should never be trusted for a purchase.  You never know what kind of conditions that previous owner(s) kept them in or used them in etc.  NEVER EVER BUY A USED ROPE!

Other gear is not as hard to question.  You can look at webbing on harnesses and wear on hardware, but still do you really believe you know what kind of condition it is in.  THIS WILL BE YOUR LIFE HANGING ON IT!

So as a help for those looking to get into the Canyoneering Gear buying spirit, here is my personal list on equipment.  In order to help in the selection process I break it up into two categories to give you a priority list to start shopping for.  This list is based on travel through a Technical (class 3 rated) Canyon.  To get through a Technical canyon you have gear that you NEED and gear that is OPTIONAL or as I like to call it – COMFORT GEAR.  Some people are going to disagree with me, by all means, please leave me some comments below and let’s discuss it.  So here we go – 

Needed Items:

Rope: Canyoneering uses a static or low stretch/elongation rope to rappel on.  Any load rated rappelling rope will work, however the Canyoneering ropes do perform better in their respective environment. Canyoneering ropes are made to better withstand the rigors of being drug through sand and water and constant abrasion over rock and edges.  The most common sizes are 8-9mm diameter and lengths are gonna be double the length of the longest rappel in the canyon.  Most generally a 200 ft. rope is a good starter rope that will get you through a lot of really good canyons.  Popular brands include: Imlay Canyon Gear, BlueWater, Sterling and Petzl.

Harness:  You will need a seat harness.  Harnesses must be rated to hold your weight under load and not tear or come apart.  Canyoneering has some specific harnesses made for the sport that have some PVC plastic seat protectors built into it or these are also available as an add on.  You are constantly sliding and scraping your dairy air in the canyon and you will eventually wear out the seat of your harness and pants and everything else back there.  Plan on replacing your harness every so often due to the abuse it gets.  For this reason people often go really cheap to replace often, or really expensive to have them last a little longer.  Popular brands are: Black Diamond, Singing Rock and Petzl.

Locking Carabiner:  Locking carabiners are needed to attach the rope to your harness.  While any brand of climbing rated carabiner will work, I prefer a locking carabiner that is of the twist or screw lock variety.  This requires you to manually lock the carabiner each time you use it.  I recommend staying away from the auto locking carabiners.  In Canyoneering with the sand and grit that we are swimming through, this blocks up your auto lock, and could render it unsafe.  Screw locks are generally easier to keep cleaned out and with the manual function you are forced to check them each time you use it to confirm it is locked.  Popular styles and brands are HMS sized pear shaped carabiners: Petzl, Black Diamond, Rock Exotica, Cypher.

Rappel Device/Descender:  A device to attach to the rope to control your descent speed will be needed.  Generally a rappel/belay device is used for this.  While any device designed for this purpose can be used, there are a couple that are designed specifically for Canyoneering so as to be rigged and de-rigged in a multitude of conditions such as hydraulic water flows.  Popular devices include:  Sterling ATS, Rock Exotica Totem, Petzl Pirana.

Tubular Webbing:  1" Tubular Webbing is used to rig your anchors to attach your rope to.  When purchasing your webbing from a climbing shop, consider purchasing subdued colors so as to keep the aesthetics of the canyon appealing.

Quick Links/Rappel Rings:  Rappel Rings and Quick Links (also called Rapides), are attached to the webbing on the anchor to attach your rope.  We never attach our rope directly to the webbing as the nylon on nylon/polyester combination can create a lot of heat if movement is created and this can melt through the webbing causing anchor failure.  Sizes used for the links are big enough to put your rope through with some room for movement.  Sizes are generally 8mm or 5/16" sizes.  The links should be of a quality make and rating to hold your weight and then some.  Brands include: Maillon, Cypher and Kong

Optional/Comfort Items: Items that make the canyon a lot more fun, enjoyable, and safe.
Helmet:  The helmet really isn't necessary to get through a technical slot canyon.  It does make it safer and for this reason I don't ever recommend going into a technical canyon without one.  Helmets protect not only from dropped rocks and debris, but from hitting your head on slips, trips, falls and fumbles.  On many occasions I have stood up in a canyon only to find a rock ledge protruding out just enough for my helmet to smack it.  Helmets are any climbing rated helmet.  Popular brands include: Black Diamond and Petzl.

Shoes: Hiking shoes are decent to carry you many places.  Canyoneering shoes are however phenomenal.  The most popular shoe is the Canyoneer made by 5.10 (Five Ten).  Their sticky rubber soles grip wet rock and canyon walls like no other shoe out there.  They are however known by some to be one of the most uncomfortable shoes to wear and they are a bit pricy for a pair of shoes.  Other brands include:  LaSportiva

Packs:  Backpacks are necessary to carry your equipment in and out of the canyons.  They will get beat up and trashed if they aren't of quality make and let's face it, after so long the good ones will eventually get worn out as well.  Popular brands: Imlay Canyon Gear, Metolius.

Dry Bags and WetsuitsIf you are going to be in canyons with lots of water and swimming you will need some thermal protection and a way to keep your spare clothes and lunches dry.  I recommend staying away from dry suits.  They are pricy and once they get a whole in them your thermal protection is gone.  A wetsuit continues to provide thermal protection throughout, even after a hole is scraped into it. Popular Wetsuit brands include: Henderson, NeoSport, Body Glove, NRS and Camaro.

Rope Bags Very useful to organize and carry your ropes.  They make packing and stowing the rope simpler and quicker when you are in a canyon. Popular brands include: Imlay Canyon Gear, Metolious, Black Diamond, Canyon Werks.

Cows Tails:  These are made up of webbing and/or material with multiple tie-in points.  These are used to tether yourself to the anchor on a ledge, hook into ascending equipment, or hang your pack from when stemming.  Popular brands include: Black Diamond, CMI, Petzl and Rescue Systems Inc.

Headlamp:  Always good for early starts, late exits, deep dark canyons and emergencies.

Ascenders and an Ascending System for Emergencies and Potholes.

GPS, Maps and Compass.

Extra food and water.

In a later edition, maybe we will discuss extra gear above and beyond this list that is needed for more advanced canyon explorations - Class 4 Canyons.

Friday, January 17, 2014

You're Thinking About Canyoneering?

With the new 2014 year, you may be looking at trying new adventures and new things.  We all make resolutions whether we admit it or not.  Many have decided to become more active and feel that spending time outdoors would be good for their body and soul.  Have you considered Canyoneering at all?  What is Canyoneering you ask? What does it offer me as an adventurer?  How does one start Canyoneering safely?

Brett on Rappel Blarney West
These are questions that we often hear from potential clients.  Obviously it's hard to get into a sport if you are not sure what it is, and even harder if you're not sure where to start.

Canyoneering is an adventure sport that has been around for several decades, but only begun gaining traction and notoriety in the last 10 years.  Canyoneering is a hybrid activity combining disciplines from many other outdoor sports - Rock Climbing, Rappelling, Caving, Hiking, River Running and Swimming to name a few.  We hike into narrow slits in the earth's surface.  Areas that have a rock density conducive to millions of years of wind and water erosion creating canyons and cracks.  Some of which are often times hundreds of feet deep. 

While in these canyons we climb up and over obstacles, rappel past drops, swim through pools and channels of water (sometimes ice cold which is great in the summer time), and stem our bodies between the canyon walls at great heights to make it past even narrower sections.  Canyoneering has become a huge draw in the desert southwest where many of these canyons exist.  These canyons are magical wonderful places with an awe and wonderment about them.  Every time I get to enter one it is nothing short of a spiritual experience.  

Brett Swimming Blarney West
There are several DVDs you can purchase to learn more details and get a visual understanding of the sport: Gorging and Canyoneering the Colorado Plateau. Of course YouTube has a plethora of homemade movies from individual trips.  We also have some resources here on our blog linking to some of our videos.  Click Here

 Now that you know a little about what it is, how should one start with this new adventure? Well, you're doing it right now by reading this.  Study everything you can find on the subject.  Make sure you have an understanding of what you will be getting into.  Research the web, books, friends and those that have been out there.  There are some really good online resources, and yet there are some really bad ones.  You have to be able to filter these out.  People have been seriously injured and/or died in canyons by using bad techniques and bad judgement.  Some resources can be found in Online Forums and groups.  Again putting your filter on, be careful, but some of the more prominent ones out there are: Bogley Outdoor Community and The Canyon Collective.  You may also find helpful information on Rock Climbing and Caving forums as well.

Aaron Rappelling Pleiades Canyon
For those looking to get a more hands-on technical study guide on the sport, don't expect to find a large library on the subject.  There isn't much out there in the way of Canyoneering specific technique books like there is for other sports.  I anticipate that this will slowly change as it continues to grow.  The best concept book you will find was written by my friend Dave Black.  It's really good and captures many of the essential techniques needed to travel through most of the moderate to challenging canyons.  He even throws in some rescue skills and other essentials.  Check out: Canyoneering: A Guide to Techniques for Wet and Dry Canyons.  Other books that cover a lot of rope techniques that translate over are: Climbing AnchorsHow To RappelKnots for ClimbersMountaineering-The Freedom of the Hills and The Complete Guide to Rope Techniques.

Jared Rappelling Fry Canyon

The best and safest method to really get immersed in the sport and start things off right is to take a class or  a day trip with a guide to see if it is something you are interested in pursuing further.  As mentioned, the sport has almost exploded over the last few years and there are a lot of guide services now offering to show you a great canyon.  Some things to consider when choosing a guide are: How long have they been in business? What qualifications do they possess? Are they insured? Are they permitted by the land agencies where they are guiding?

Jared and Aaron Teaching Ascending during
3 Day Technical Canyoneering Course 
(Photo Credit: Lynette Brewer)

In the state of Utah anyone can hang up a sign and advertise themselves as a guide.  All they need is a state sales tax license issued and a business license for the city they are in and off they go.  Whether they have any experience or not is never in question. Guides should be able and willing to share their experience and qualifications with a questioning client, after all you are going to be hanging on one of their ropes in a canyon.  Currently the only certifying entity in the United States for Canyoneering Guides is the American Canyon Guides Association (ACGA) and the only certifying entity for Canyoneering training schools is the American Canyoneering Academy (ACA).  While most companies have transformed their rock climbing guides into canyon guides, the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) is currently not offering Canyoneering specific training and certifications.  If you want more information about trips offered through North Wash Outfitters check out our website and click on the "Adventures" link at the top.

Jared and Aaron Teaching Ascending during
3 Day Technical Canyoneering Course 
(Photo Credit: Lynette Brewer)

If you're looking at taking classes, there is everything out there from one day introduction courses to three day Beginning (Technical) and Advanced courses to Rescue and Wilderness First Aid.  Look for something that is going to build with your current strengths and further expand on what you want to do to learn and grow your skills.  If you want more information about courses offered through North Wash Outfitters check out our website and click on the "Courses" link at the top.

I hope this intro has been able to give you some thought on how to get started in this exciting world of adventure.  We always love hearing what others have experienced in canyons and how they started in Canyoneering.  Whether you are already an accomplished Canyoneer or have only been in a few canyons, we would love to hear about your experiences.  Tell us how you got started or share some tips for the beginners and some advice on what some of your favorite pieces of Canyoneering gear is that you have discovered.  We hope the best for you in this new experience and look forward to answering any questions that you may have.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Moonhouse Ruin as a Fortress in the Desert

Moonhouse Ruin
Moonhouse Proper
     It seems I can reach out and touch the low-hanging grey clouds that promise moisture on the mesa as I turn off the pavement onto one of the rut-covered sandstone trails that passes for a road in San Juan County, Utah. Driving in San Juan County is an experience that enlivens all of the senses: the stunning contrast between the harsh sandstone and the gentle curve of the sage leaf, between the spine-covered prickly pear cactus and the delicately painted yellow of the yucca flower, delight the eye. One hears the slithering sound of the wind through pine and cedar, over sandstone and soil, beating on the window and carrying with it sand demanding to be let in. The smell of the high desert is unlocked as sage releases its scent and the all-important moisture on the air is often smelled long before it is seen. The seemingly smooth sandstone jostles and jerks any vehicle that dares attempt to cross it. The subtle taste of soil, sage, sand, and cedar creates the sauce that covers this high country desert.
Contrast along the trail.
     All of this can be found as one traverses the trails that snake across the mesa. It takes little imagination to look across the mesa and see the ancient farms that would have been here. Corn, beans, and squash were grown here, irrigated from the canyon bottoms and tended with an eye towards the harvest. With that harvest came the plenty that all societies hope for when the seed is planted. These staples were stored against the lean years that would inevitably follow. The ruin I sought on a foreboding day in April was, at least toward the end of its life, used as this kind of depository for the harvest. Any who view this site recognize its defensive position. The overlook provides a wide-angle view of the site and it is easy to imagine this ruin protecting not only the people who built it but also the staples they stored there. Their food was a resource that had to be guarded and stored in a way that would keep out not only the pack rats, mice, and other rodents, but also those who would raid and seize the staples that were deposited in the canyon walls

View from the overlook.
So well-fortified is the site that a Twenty-first Century traveler must negotiate many of the same obstacles that were no doubt valued by the ancient inhabitants for their defensive qualities. High on the opposite canyon rim one can see that the slick rock rim extends as far as the eye can see both up- and down-canyon. This would funnel all approaching traffic down-canyon or across-canyon, forcing them onto one of two paths leading to the Moonhouse ruin proper. One path leads through a narrow window situated under a huge hoodoo, the other up a narrow crack that would require stemming and climbing with both hands.
Guardian on the path to the Northwest.
     Once the observer enters the site, a path leads west to a kiva and easily identified water seeps. Sealing this end of the canyon off is the window under the hoodoo. To the southeast are rooms so uniform the local rangers have named them “Motel 6.” Chinking with white rock and a footprint in the mortar lend flair to these rooms. This path quickly ledges out.
Kiva to the Northwest
Motel 6
     The most iconic collection of rooms-six rooms, including the Moon Room for which the ruin is named-is found behind a formidable façade. The façade is pocked with loop holes to view any friend, foe, or eager hiker approaching up- or down-canyon. Petroglyphs decorate this important space. On the inner courtyard wall, facing out, is a white band 14 or so inches high with downward facing triangles on the bottom and dots along the top. It is as magnificent as any Monet. In a time when elsewhere in the world gunpowder was being invented, the Song Dynasty was passing, and Genghis Khan’s rule was ending with his death, here in San Juan County some ancient was putting paint to sandstone canvas with a human-hair brush.
Inner courtyard wall
      Found on the far end is a T door to a treasure room. Here, inside the Moon Room itself, a similar white band encircles the space. But instead of the geometric design found in the courtyard, you are greeted by a crescent moon in inverted white and brown facing a full moon. This room is completely captivating. The light is filtered through strategically-placed windows and shines along the band, illuminating the painted moon.
I understand farming, cooking, hunting and other daily tasks that the ancients would have performed. I also understand that there is a sacred nature and ritual that gives life direction and suggests that souls yearn to be taught, to seek favor, to find meaning. I see this room as special, though I cannot tell exactly why and even the most educated and informed observers of today can only hazard a guess. This room and rooms like it hold different meanings for different people. That is the real power: that 800 years later this room still bids the traveler to ask questions and to seek meaning-not just from books and research, but from the canyon, and from our own souls. In that way Moonhouse is still as significant to us today as it was to those who built it.
"Full moon" 

Ringing in the New Year with a bit of Cold Psychotic Shenanigans

For those that aren't fully engulfed in the sport of Canyoneering, this whole idea seems a bit psychotic.  For those that are into the life of a Canyoneer, this post will draw up stirrings and feelings of jealousy and rage at not being able to be there and they will understand this feeling.

Canyoneering is often times thought of as a warm weather endeavor and rightfully so.  You are constantly swimming and splashing through narrow slot canyons where the sun doesn't shine and the earth seems to swallow you up.  When you get done with the cold water swims you quickly seek out the opportunity to bask in some warm sunlight and strip down the layer of neoprene that has protected your body for the past several hours.  This is what it's like in June and July, when it's 100+ degrees outside.  Now take away the sun and 100+ degree temps and do it all.  Now you have Freeze Fest.

The winter months can be somewhat agonizing for the Canyoneer to get through when it's cold out and all you do is dream about your next slot canyon adventure.  Freeze Fest was dreamed up 12 years ago by some die hard Canyoneers who just couldn't take sitting around the house during the winter months any longer.  Dubbed as "The Bad Idea that Caught On" Freeze Fest has been gaining momentum ever since.  The "Main" event as it has been dubbed is a trip through "The Black Hole" which is a section of White Canyon in south eastern Utah just north of Lake Powell.  While most of the Freeze Fest canyons done during the 5-8 day event are dry canyons, meaning there is no water in them, The Black Hole event is designed to completely mess with your body and test how much cold you can endure, or how much neoprene you can pack on in order to stay warm.

I don't always get to go out and participate in this event, but living only an hour away from it, I try to meet up with them each year as I am allowed between work and weather conditions.  For Jan 1, 2014, the weather forecast was set to be one of the best ever and I was not working so it worked out great.  Aside from that, it was my 10 year anniversary from the first time Dave Black took me out to this event and I met some of the best Canyoneers and later friends that you can have in this sport.

I took along Aaron who was eager to just get out of the house and play during his Christmas break.  We loaded up the Tahoe and hit the road at 8:30 a.m.  Knowing there is usually a 10:00 a.m. start time this would give us time to get out there and gear up.

As we arrived there were several cars already in the parking lot.  Turns out one would be Jenny who I have spent some time canyoneering with.  She was excited to see us and greeted us with great big hugs.  As more and more people arrived from their campsite in North Wash, we continued to greet old friends and start making some new ones.  We shuttled vehicles and made the start of the hike with 30 participants (a record number I understand).

Photo by Malia

The hike into White Canyon turned into a sweaty march and showed how warm it was for January.  Hats were removed and jackets stored for later.  We approached the suit up point and as the group had kinda spread out, we all started combining together again as we changed into wet and dry suits.  As small groups finished changing they set out through the water and off into the canyon.
Photo Sequence by Aaron

It turned out to be a great day.  Everyone kept moving and stayed warm.  One key was to keep your hands out of the water, but after a while that became tiresome and you started swimming just to get out and walk to warm up.  We kept calories going in to keep our internal core temps up and we kept moving as much as possible.  What a great 10 year anniversary for me and to be able to spend the day with some old friends and find some new ones, it was fabulous.
Photo Sequence by Jared