Boltergeist – 3A I
Dixie National Forest, near Zion
Synopsis: This canyon was easy as far as the rappels & downclimbs, but gave us awesome practice evaluating & building our own natural anchors. It was also deathly hot (100 degrees out, at least) but there was enough shade to give us breaks. The canyon was very non-committing with plenty of escape routes and by-pass routes around almost every drop. We could’ve done better on the route-finding/navigation/direction-following portions, but otherwise I think we did pretty damn good out here 🙂
Our plan for Saturday was to hike up the Narrows and explore Orderville Canyon from the bottom. Adam was worried about the throngs of tourists in the Narrows and wanted us to get a very early start to avoid the crowds.
That didn’t happen. I refused to wake up any of the 6 times that Adam tried and by the time my eyes reluctantly blinked open on Saturday morning, it was 8:30 am. Oops. Although annoyed that I had slept so late, Adam was still in bed himself. Both of us were in a good deal of pain; yesterday’s 7 mile trek through the Subway with heavy packs had re-awoken all of our chronic injuries. For him, it was his knee and ankle hurting. For me, my ankles and a flare-up of last year’s plantar fasciitis. It didn’t take us long to decide that the ankle-twisting, feet-bending Narrows was not a smart choice for the day.
Weighing our options, we narrowed our choices down to three short & sweet canyons in the Dixie National Forest near Zion; Boltergeist, Yankee Doodle, or the non-technical, water-park fun Kanarra Creek. Yankee Doodle sounded like the most fun, but we wanted more practice rappelling than the one rap would offer. We decided to do Boltergeist first, and then decide on Yankee Doodle or Kanarra Creek from there.
Using BluuGnome beta, we found the well-worn Boltergeist trail and followed recent footprints down into the head of the canyon. It’s sloping, brushy walls gave us the wide-open feel of the Arizona canyons Adam & I are used to, while the sculpted sandstone floors, rappels and potholes reminded us that we were near Zion. It was blazing hot, and only minutes into our adventure we took a break the shade of a large tree. The first drop was only a few hundred feet from the beginning of the canyon, and downclimbable only by geckos and pygmy mountain goats. Adam thought maybe he could do it, too, but we decided to save the risk-taking for later and instead use the faint trail on the left (LDC) side, using a series of ledges to bypass the drop. We did notice a piece of webbing tied to a tree and considered rappelling, but the anchor tree was unnervingly close to the edge, and there would be plenty of rappels ahead.
Immediately after the first drop, we came to the second one. There were two pieces of webbing tied through a hueco, forming a badass natural anchor for a rappel I couldn’t see a whole lot of. A chockstone at the top of a mini-slot blocked the view down-canyon of the rappel, but we peeked underneath the chockstone and saw a 30 foot drop of the 18-24 inch slot. Adam was having a hard time deciding if he wanted to chimney the slot or rappel down. I don’t have the best relationship with gravity, so the rappel appealed to me as an easy way down. Plus, I was lured by the stylish anchor.
We inspected the webbing in place, and both pieces looked to be in decent shape. There wasn’t much wear or fraying, but one piece did look rather faded. Further exploration revealed that both pieces had writing on them. One said ‘09: we took that to mean that it was placed in 2009, and thus should be replaced. But the other, more faded webbing said 11/10. If those are dates, why is the newer piece the more faded? Both pieces said D.Dye and 18’ written on them…maybe they were marked when the webbing was cut? Unable to decode the writing and unwilling to use 2 year old webbing (in case that’s what it was), we opted to replace it. We took this opportunity to use up half of our webbing extending the anchor to eliminate both the chance of getting ropes stuck and some of the icky rope grooves formed by the current placement. I considered tying webbing around the rock instead of using the hueco, as we were basically trying to extend the anchor over the rock anyways. It seemed probable that the hueco was used just for style points, but the rope grooves told me it had been used a lot; I don’t really know much of anything, so who am I to change a system that works just fine?
Adam decided to chimney down, so I had him do that first and then belay me. Hanging out on the edge of the rappel, I heard him scrambling around, then silence, then the all-too familiar sound of something heavy falling a lot of feet.
“Please tell me that was your pack,” I said, echoing his concern from my pack-fail the day before in the Subway.
It was his pack. He wiggled his way down the tight spot, grabbed my rope for belay, and I was off on my awkward start. Actually, the entire rap was awkward. I was rappelling into the slot Adam had just chimneyed, and it was only barely wider at the rappel spot. I should’ve just downclimbed the damn thing, because that’s basically what I ended up doing anyways; there was just no room to rappel.
The next obstacle we came to is considered the first rappel in Luke’s beta. I will call it…The Slide. It’s a 3 stage situation involving 10 feet of downclimbing, 10 feet of sliding, and 10 feet of straight down. The beta says, “For a fun adventure lie down at the top of rap 1 and just slide down the first part in the trough holding the rope to use as a break when you get to the drop off. Then set yourself up on rappel and rap down the drop. The slide is a fun alternative to walking it while on rope.” That sounds like a disaster to me. We rappelled the whole thing.
The second rappel (3rd for me) could have been done as a downclimb, but the awkward start wigged us out so we rappelled it:
There were a few downclimbs & obstacles in between the raps, but not a whole lot. Here is a fun slide we found and some mini potholes to scramble around. I did not mean for that to be a poem so please don’t take it that way.
And then we arrived The Big One. I leaned over the edge to take a peek and immediately felt my stomach drop. The ground in front of us dropped away 150 feet. We could break the rappel up into a series of rappels and/or downclimbs, making the first rappel 100 feet to a ledge, but that didn’t change the fact that the ground was 150 feet below us. From my careful perch near the anchor, I couldn’t see any sign of this ledge, so I hiked around to get a better look. I did not bring my camera, I’m sorry. Here’s what it looks like from the bottom.
Looking at the huge drop in front of me, I was pretty scared. I had rappelled drops bigger than this; the length of the rappel made me nervous, but what had me scared was rigging the rappel myself and descending without a belay. I had done these things perfectly fine over the last two days, but the increased risk-factor here was freaking me out. I was definitely having second thoughts. I looked up at the slope to our left, offering a manageable hike out. “Or there’s our escape route,” I said to Adam.
“I know. I was looking at that too,” he said. He looked at me, watching the panic set in.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I admitted. “I just don’t like the idea of not having a belay.” We both knew I had to go down first, because I had more experience rappelling and this would be Adam’s longest rappel yet.
He understood why I was scared, but knew if we rigged enough friction that I would be safe; he’d seen that I am a competent rappeller and wouldn’t do anything stupid like let go of my brake hand. He gently encouraged me without pressuring me, leaving the decision completely up to me. As I eyed the escape route again, he made a good point. “We’re going to have to do this in Pine Creek tomorrow, anyways.” He was right, of course. If I couldn’t nut up for this 100 footer, what made me think I’d be able to do tomorrow’s? It was now or never.
I nodded grimly. “OK,” I whispered. “Let’s do it.” Adam went back over to set the rope length while I stayed at my lookout to make sure they reached the ledge. Once I was sure they did, I made my way back over to him for 3 or 4 rounds of tearful panic. He gave me one of his fantastic pep talks, coached me to take deep breaths, and reminded me that I was a rockstar. I worried that my anxiety would make the rappel even scarier for him, but he later told me that calming me down helped to calm him down, too.
We loaded up on the friction; double rope, high friction side of the ATC, 2 carabiners under the ATC, one on a leg loop to use if needed. It was overkill, more friction than I’d used even on Englestead’s 300ft drop. But I was irrationally worried about losing control, so I’d rather have to force my way down the rope than risk not having enough friction. Good God, was that a workout! Most of the rappel was free-hanging and I used the leg biner to stop myself cold every few feet to convince myself I was still in control. I couldn’t quite figure out how to hold the rope to use the leg biner and had my brake hand in the most awkward of carpal-tunnel-inducing positions. It took every muscle fiber in my right arm to feed the rope through all that friction, but I was too nervous to just let myself ease down the rope.
I got braver & actually managed to rappel a little bit as the ledge neared and I could see that it wouldn’t be hard to land on. I’d been worried that I’d have to swing into it and would somehow miss my turn-off, rappelling right off the end of the rope & down the last 50 feet of the drop. I did not do that. I made it to safety, called “Off rope!” and sat down to belay Adam; I was too shaky to stand. He took a few minutes to clip in, amp up his courage and scoot out over the awkward start to where I could see him, but I knew he was coming because of the large volume of sand and pebbles raining down on me from his position. I bowed my head and held my breath as a thick coating of red sand landed on me and turned to mud on my sweaty skin. I suppose I could’ve moved out of the way, but that didn’t occur to me until right now.
He was about halfway down and rapping like a pro when he stopped, fiddled with his device, and started looking nervous. “Adam, are you OK?” I asked. No answer. Nervous, awkward movements. “What’s wrong?” He stopped messing with his ATC and began rappelling again, jerkily. “Adam, stop. Stop.” He stopped. “Look at me. What’s going on?”
“Something’s not right with my ATC,” he said, looking away from me and continuing down. He stuck his landing, recovered his breath and explained to me what had happened. The rope underneath his ATC had been twisted, but I had told him earlier that his ATC would sort that kinda stuff out and he didn’t need to worry about it. Turns out I was wrong, because as the twisted rope hit the ATC, both strands popped up and over the lip, twisting further, and ran over the side of the device. It had still worked as a friction device, almost too well, and Adam figured his best plan of action was to just keep coming down. It’s always really scary when something goes wrong on rappel, no matter how minor it is.
We tried to pull the rope, but it wouldn’t move. Adam could see that it was twisted up at the top and spent the next 10 minutes masterfully untwisting it and pulling the rope down.
Got it! Good problem solving skills, Adam, and also good vision! I couldn’t even SEE the rope 100 feet above us, much less make out which way it was twisted. We packed up the rope, took off our harnesses, slid on our butts down a 15 foot sandstone slope and made a sweaty beeline towards the sound of running water where Boltergeist entered Water Canyon. Our progress towards salvation was immediately halted by another drop with webbing tied around a tree. We had assumed the butt-slide was the rest of the 150 foot drop, but we had been incorrect. Here was the last 50 feet, and all our rappelling gear was packed away. Dammit. We could bypass the drop by walking around left (LDC) where a faint, sketchy use trail could be seen, but it looked hot and nasty. We scrambled around on the rocks to the right instead.
Meeting up with the lush Water Canyon, we were disappointed to find a babbling brook where we had been hoping for swimming holes. We were already so damn hot, and now the riparian vegetation added humidity to the mix. Super. Adam had drained his two liter camelback, and we began rationing my remaining .5 liter. We didn’t know what time we had started or what time it was now, but we were well aware that we’d been in the canyon a lot longer than the expected 1.5-2.5 hours. Our 5 liters of water was almost gone, but we knew the car couldn’t be too far off…the whole canyon was less than 2 miles! The beta had told us to look for a trail up and out about .25 miles up Water Canyon. Climbing out before then would probably end up in a lot of 4th and 5th class climbing. We marked the junction of B & WC on the GPS, and at .18 miles up found a trail leading up the slope.
Adam pointed out a drainage just ahead of us that looked like it would provide an easy way out, and surmised that this trail would take us there. I felt like we should continue on, to follow the beta more closely. Problematic, however, is that our beta was second hand. Luke had reported hearing about an exit .25 miles up canyon. The .25 miles was approximate, and may or may not actually exist. I agreed to try this trail, but it soon stopped convincing me of its traildom. I pointed out that this very well could be a game trail, but answered my own doubts by figuring that deer wouldn’t take a hard way out when an easy way was close by…right?
The trail was very obviously not taking us to the drainage, but we were 1/3 of the way up this horrendous shrubby slope and decided to just keep going. This is the second time this summer that the whole “I don’t want to lose elevation” excuse has gotten me into trouble. The bushwack up the slope sucked. It was steep, and everything bit. The bugs bit, the branches bit, even the leaves bit! I’d look down to brush off a biting ant and instead find all 5 points of a dried scrub oak leaf clamped onto my arm. The slope gave way to boulder scrambling, which gave way to rock climbing. I was tired, I was hot, and I am NOT a rock climber. I was afraid to drink any water, fearing the dreaded ‘empty suck’ of my camelback. If I was out, I didn’t want to know.
We were now facing a 30 foot rock climb with a good deal of exposure, and Adam apologized for bringing me this way. He asked if I wanted to go back down and find the other trail. I did not. The idea of climb-falling down this steep-ass slope was just as horrifying as making the death defying push to the top of the cliffband, and this way would be faster. With his words of encouragement and his hand on my ass, I eased myself up the rocks using cracks, bumps, dents and spiky tree branches to pull me upwards.
A few more climbs later and we were one obstacle away from freedom. One very formidable obstacle; a sharp corner of a boulder jutted out over a tiny rock ledge, leaving six inches of room on either side of the rock. We had to face the boulder, step around the point (over 30 feet of thin air) to the other side of the ledge and bring our other foot over, clinging to the smooth boulder face for support. Ohh boy.
Adam stepped over it no problemo, but trying to convince myself that I would, just this once, not be uncoordinated and clumsy, was a little harder. I tried to just go for it, without thinking about it. Adam had his camera ready to take a picture of me stepping over, but I hesitated too long. Instead of stepping over, I stuck my bandana in my mouth, stared at the empty space below the rock ledge, and freaked out. The picture didn’t turn out as he’d planned.
A few false starts later, I looked up at Adam with puppy dog eyes. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to balance, or that I’d do something clumsy and teeter off the edge. Luckily he was able to grab my backpack and reach his hand out for me to grab onto while I pulled myself around and up. Whew! I shakily heaved myself up the cliff band, and we were out of the canyon. “Raise your arms,” Adam said, poised to take a picture. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, so I flexed my biceps. I’m not sure why that was my instinctive response.
Once we made it to flat ground, it was thankfully fairly easy to find our way back to the car. We had traveled barely over a mile in a single direction, so even I couldn’t get lost. Unfortunately, since we had no trail, we had to bust a bit of crust to get back to the road. Cryptobiotic soil was EVERYWHERE and we tried to stay off of it but it was just impossible. My biologist friends and I are always debating whether it’s better to walk in a single line to completely destroy one section of crust or to walk in a staggered arrangement to divy up the abuse. Just in case, I did a little of both. Once we hit the road it was a few minutes walk back to the car and my cooler full of Powerade!
We turned the AC on full blast, flopped into the seats and Adam turned to look at me. “I think I’m done for the day,” he said wearily. It was 4:30.. I don’t know when we started, but I’m sure it wasn’t after noon. How did we turn a 2 hour hike into a 5 hour one? Oh yeah. We’re noobs. And it was 100 degrees outside.
“From now on,” Adam says, “Let’s always to remember to add Adam & Kristi time* to our time estimates.”
Pretty pictures from the trailhead & the drive back to Hurricane:
*Adam & Kristi time: A complex calculation of approximate time added to hiking time estimates to account for time spent taking 35 pictures of the same rock formation, chasing each individual side-blotched lizard, squeeling over chipmunks, peeing every 10 minutes, digging out snacks, over-analyzing rappel anchors, convincing Kristi she has the balls to do whichever climbing manuever is required of her, putting on sunscreen, taking breaks, going back to pick up stuff left behind, untangling cluttered harnesses, digging out and putting braces on various joints, doing obstacles twice to get a good picture, etc.