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It was probably three hours into the second day of a four-day loop through some remote canyons north of the Colorado River in Arizona when I realized I wasn’t doing the one thing that led me to the trip in the first place: taking pictures.

I also wasn’t torturing the group with horrifying ’80s pop music earworms, betting I could hit far-off objects with rocks, reviving journalism, critiquing song lyrics (Steve Miller should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity), planning ski trips, creating a true third American political party or any other of the diversions in which I indulge while participating in the various outdoor sports I enjoy.

Like a driver in a snowstorm suddenly realizing they’ve been white-knuckling the steering wheel for so long their forearms are on fire, I was so entirely focused on not killing or maiming myself 45 miles from help that it wasn’t until half-way through lunch that it occurred to me that I was bleeding. In many places.

“You’ll get your canyon legs now!” said my brother’s friend, Mike, when I made reference to a particularly expressive gouge on my right shin.

Shit.

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I was with my brother, his girlfriend and Mike – all experienced canyoneers – on this 25-mile trip through Hades Knoll, Tuckup and Rocky Point canyons, which are roughly (very roughly, given the condition of the roads) 60 miles south of the small town of Fredonia, AZ, in Grand Canyon National Park.

A couple years of seeing my brother’s Facebook photos of canyon trips in the Southwest had me intrigued: Alien landscapes of incredible lighting, geologic fireworks of all kinds, the jaw-dropping rappels.

After three months of nothing but trail running and backpacking, I was also so desperate to do something different that my brother could have suggested downhill mountain unicycling and I’d have been game.

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Canyoneering, or “canyoning” in the non-American portions of Earth, is simply the act of traveling through a canyon using technical skills and equipment. Anything less is just hiking, the same as the difference between hiking and mountaineering.

The technical aspect on this trip was rappelling: setting up an anchor (usually a loop of flat material called webbing) on a rock or tree and then sliding down the rope to get past drops that are too steep to climb down and too tall to jump off.

It depends on taste and preference, but “good” canyons tend to be those with aesthetic narrows, big rappels, route-finding puzzles, and hopefully all three.

—–

In those first hours of the second day (the first was straightforward hiking, livened by kicking a couple low-lying cactus, which you shouldn’t do) descending Hades Knoll Canyon, I had done the top three sketchiest downclimbs of my life and multiple awkward rappels that sent me pinballing off rock walls, kicking at boulders and flopping like a drunk into smoothed bowls of cold water.

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I felt like I had been thrown into an industrial washing machine along with sharpened boulders.

The overwhelming mileage was put in on smooth gravel or low-key boulder hopping as the canyon narrowed in descent. But the majority of the time was spent on downclimbs directly over large boulders choking the width of the canyon, skirting said boulders, or rappelling.

This either creates a comforting rhythm of intense focus and recovery or something that feels like L.A. traffic, depending on your outlook.

Having spent the summer – or, more accurately, 20 years – moving as quickly as possible in the mountains at all times, I began firmly in the latter camp but grew in appreciation for the former as the trip went on.

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A handful of rappels and downclimbs later, we reached the confluence of Hades Knoll and Tuckup Canyons, where we made our second camp in a spectacular amphitheater of sheer red walls and domed ceilings carved by ancient rivers.

As we descended Hades Knoll, the width and colors of the canyon walls pulsed like vertical waves. Four-foot wide, red slots followed by dirty white half-hourglasses many feet across, and everything in between, which is what camp looked like.

Sleep came easily under the stars with a warm wind providing the white noise.

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Day three began with a couple miles of easy hiking north up Tuckup Canyon to eventually access Rocky Point Canyon, much shorter than the other two, from the top.

A brief hike up a gentle breach in the canyon wall, a little annoying contouring, and it was time to put on the wetsuits and get to work. It seems a little strange to need a wetsuit in an area known for being a blast furnace, but in the near-permanent twilight of deep canyons, the water and wind stay surprisingly cold.

It felt like a ski tour: a bit of slogging and a bit of thrashing about to get to a fun descent.

This canyon required a handful of rappels, including two very aesthetic drops down long, smooth porcelain-colored slabs.

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Rappelling off a simple rock climb requires really nothing more than the courage to walk backward down a slope where a fall would likely leave you with very few intact bones.

Rappelling in a canyon is that, but with rock slicked by water and sometimes moss, into water or knee-deep mud.

And you only get that fun after thrashing around on your hands, knees, elbows, shins, forearms and shoulders in order to get into position to actually rappel.

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This is because rather than clean, L-shaped cliffs, these rappels began in jumbles of boulders that finally gave way to slabs. My shins and the insides of my forearms just below the elbows where absolutely covered in bruises and cuts by the end.

“The start is a little awkward,” struck immediate fear in my heart.

—–

And handful of rappels later, we exited Rocky Point Canyon, packed up camp and headed south to the Colorado River, a route guarded by still more sketchy downclimbing and a few swims through neck-deep pools.

Thankfully, that price was well worth admission to the Colorado. You hear the river long before you see it, and when you abruptly exit the canyon everything seems to go from hard to soft. You walk out onto a silky sand beaches that go on forever. The air feels warmer, being about 3,000 feet lower than the trailhead. Some rafters tossed us beers that were immediately torn open, which helped.

We spent the night eating and drinking with a large crew of well-supplied rafters from Oregon with blessedly outstanding taste in beer, setting up another perfect night under the stars.

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We’d need every bit of that rest for the 10-mile trudge up Tuckup Canyon to the car.

A quick way to rid yourself of a light hangover, I discovered, is to just roll right out of the sleeping bag and do an unroped 5.5 climbing move or two above 30 feet of exposure with a full overnight pack.

(Two photos by my brother)

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The adrenaline soak clears the cobwebs like a delete button. Chase it with a tightrope traverse of foot-wide ledge above about a 60-foot drop just to make sure you’ve got the thing licked.

The rest of the ascent was the now familiar cycle in reverse: dodgy climbs and boulder hopping between stretches that were city-park smooth. All the while, you’re braced by the waving walls of the canyon and it’s changing moods: dark reds warmed by the angled sun to harsh, ultra-contrasted white made almost monochrome by the direct light.

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There’s a intense sense of something approaching trespass in this landscape. Everything is entirely dominated by the bludgeon of rushing water, but there’s none to be seen except at the Colorado. It’s like being in a river’s tomb.

Along with gaping at the scenery, a large petroglyph, Shaman’s Gallery, provided a welcome excuse to break from the march for a moment.

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Several miles of plain hiking above the canyon and we were back on the horrendous road to dinner and a hotel. The 10-plus miles in the canyon was as draining as 20 on smooth mountain trail.

—–

The next morning, the damage was catalogued:

  • Bruises and cuts pretty much everywhere from the elbows down on my arms.
  • Same from mid-thigh to my ankles on my legs.
  • Below the ankle: planet-sized blisters.
  • Backpack, which had made it through almost four months of backpacking and scrambling with nothing more than sun bleaching and stains, ripped in three places.
  • Broken water filter.

But, as usual the damage was completely proportional to my contentedness. I’d earned a couple days on the couch, seen a completely different landscape in challenging wilderness, got a bunch of experience that will cross over to ski mountaineering and saw my brother in his element.

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