VMO+ Canyoneering and backpacking in Utah trip report (April 2017)

Posted by Andrew L. on


Steve and I executed the trip more or less as planned. The weather was good for backpacking and day hiking, so we concentrated on that after taking the three day canyoneering class.

After landing in Las Vegas, we checked out the Valley of Fire state park. Itís pretty, but could utilize a full day to see the major attractions there. The weather was in the low 90s, so we wound up not doing that much hiking. I figure that this added about an hour of driving, which by Southwest standards is short.

Andrew L. posted on

Learning canyoneering

A year or two ago, I bought a book on canyoneering, which is the descent of slot canyons by technical means. The first page of the book notes that it is prudent to seek professional instruction as most of the accidents that they had encountered were a party of inexperienced canyoneers lead by a moderately experienced climber. Thus for planning the trip, it was prudent to seek professional instruction. As I posted it as a DC UL trip, we went for three days of instruction instead of one or two, as I didnít want to assume outdoor climbing experience.

Itís prudent to learn the knots and hitches before taking a course in canyoneering. Since they are the same knots and hitches used for outdoor climbing, a climbing background helps here. If one is struggling with the knots and hitches, then it winds up being too much information too quickly. One of the other guiding companies even mails a booklet and cord to participants to drive the point home for practising before the course. I have the knots and hitches listed in the trip description. The guide was great in that he worked with me on how to work with new climbers while working with Steve on more basic aspects, as Iím working with climbers new to outdoor climbing more than I would like.

As for equipment for Canyoneering, wetsuits are pretty much mandatory. On one of the canyons, we had to get in waist deep water a few times for short sections and the water was quite cold. The recommendation from the guide for the main season use in Colorado is a 3mm Farmer John suit with a 3mm Jacket + neoprene socks. But if itís colder than 70F, getting in cold water is going to be cold. Apparently, wearing an old wool layer underneath adds a lot of warm. One can google for what kayakers do, etc.

While I had initially intended to just use my 60m dynamic climbing rope, the guide recommended against it. The sand and water would trash it quickly. And the sand and water would cause the weight of the rope to nearly double, which is unpleasant as the rope is heavy enough when clean and dry. (Dry weight: 75g/m * 60m = 4.5 kg ~ 10 lbs). The recommended ropes are two static ropes sized 40m x 9mm. One could probably substitute a dynamic for one of the statics. Steel Ďbiners were recommended for the Ďbiners that run on wet ropes, as the guide would blow through a aluminum biner in under a week if he forgot his steel.

Slot canyons are very hazardous in the rain. Zion NP had a seven fatality incident a year or two ago where-by a group thought they could knock out a short canyon before a storm blew in and miscalculated. The National Weather Service has point forecasts which provide more accurate predictions for the canyon areas. For our final day of canyoneering, I had seen a 0% chance of precipitation for Springdale, UT on my phone, but the guide pointed out that there was a 40% chance of rain in the watershed for the canyon as it was 40 miles East and there are some microclimates.

Between carpooling and the time in the canyon, we ended up talking with the guide a lot. His estimate was that about 80% of the clients overestimate their skills. The remaining 20% are a mix between people who are very modest and folks who accurately estimate. The guide didnít have a positive view of Meetup. Apparently, thereís a canyoneering meetup out there which is problematic. They had a near fatal accident last year where-by someone dropped 100 ft into a pool of water and escaped without serious injury. He also perceives it as a refuge for asocial people. At a minimum, it reinforces the need to filter people to keep the group healthy. And Iím aware that myself and my friends from the Baltimore Rock Climbing meetup rarely post outdoor climbing for some of the same reasons.

The overall tactic for gaining experience after the class would be to do:

* Shorter more technical canyons. E.g., do some 3B canyons to try the same things when wet.

* Or longer, but not as technical canyons.

Generally, the guidance was to learn how to canyoneer when:

1. Dry

2. Wet

3. Wet & tired

4. Wet, tired and at night

While the weather was OK for doing some technical canyons immediately after the course, it would involve getting in the cold water for at least one if not two days, so we headed to Escalante instead. The problem that I have if I lead a trip back to Utah next year for canyoneering where others donít have any experience is that Iím currently not as far up the experience curve as I would want to be for dealing with folks who are new, which sounds like the ďmoderately experienced climber leading inexperienced canyoneersĒ caution that the book has on page 1.

Andrew L. posted on


The problem with planning a trip to Escalante is that the Hole-in-the-Rock road is not reliable. Specifically, it is impassable when wet and takes about 24 hours after a solid rain to dry. When wet, itís impassable for even 4wd vehicles. So we planned on doing it mid trip in case we needed to stay there an extra day due to rain.

Coyote Gulch was spectacular. We went down Hurricane Wash to Coyote Gulch to the Escalante river, back up Coyote Gulch to another trailhead and a 3.5 mile road walk back to the cars for a total of about 34 miles. When we were there, Hurricane Wash was dry until about the last mile.

While there are some campsites if one is willing to camp up on rock, there are many fine campsites after the intersection with Coyote Gulch that involve camping on sand. Thereís a short section of rock scrambling with non-trivial exposure to get around a waterfall and logjam, but overall the hiking isnít very technical. However, expect to cross back and forth across the stream at every bend as one goes down Coyote Gulch. When the weather was warmer, this wasnít a problem, but wet foot crossings arenít great early in the morning with an ambient air temperature in the 40ís. Neoprene socks would have helped in that case. There are a few springs past the first major arch which are likely cleaner water sources than the gulch.

We did ford the Escalante river at one place where it was wide. The water was still up to our knees for much of the crossing and was flowing quickly. Further downstream, there appeared to be obvious hydrocks around some rocks and it was deeper, so traversing this section of the Escalante is probably best done by kayak.

Andrew L. posted on

Capitol Reef and Zion NP

After Escalante, we did day hiking in Capitol Reef NP and Zion NP. There are very few water sources in Capitol Reef NP, so day hiking, grabbing dinner at a restaurant and camping on BLM or Forest Service land was our plan.

Due to demand for flights, it was far cheaper to fly back on either the Monday or the Saturday. While I chose the Monday as it gave us more time in Utah, we wound up replanning slightly to make the trip less strenuous per day due to the length.

Andrew L. posted on

Random thoughts

Cost estimate:

My personal accounting shows that I spent about $1,900 on the trip. This is a little bit more than my initial estimate, but within a reasonable margin of error. To do this trip on a lower budget, one could eat out less often and have fewer days of guided instruction. While I didnít like paying $400 for a non-stop round trip plane ticket to Las Vegas as I had sometimes found better deals in the past, the additional cost ended up as low overall percentage and I felt was worth it to square away the trip. The cost breakdown is approximately as follows:

Flight: $400

Car rental + gas + parking at BWI: $400

Guide for 3 days + tip: $730

Lodging (Last night in Las Vegas): $50

Food: $220

Equipment: $130

Total: $1,930 (all costs listed here are per person)

Changing a flat tire:

As we were wrapping up the canyoneering course and driving back to the shop in the guides car, we got a flat tire before a gnarly section of a dirt road. We dumped the contents of the trunk on the ground and started to remove the full size spare when a Toyota truck pulled up and offered to help. The conversation went about like the following:

Truck: Need a hand?

Guide: Weíre good, thanks for offering.

Truck: I see you have some ropes, whatchí doing today?

Guide: I was guiding some canyoneering today...

Truck: Do you know anything about the climbing routes over there?

Guide: Nothingís over there. (Lies)

Truck: Whatever there Zion Mountain School

Guide: Whatever there Will Gadd

Truck: Weíre stopping

It turns out that the random truck had two of the top north American Ice climbers in it. They were taking a break from guiding ice climbing in Canada to enjoy sunshine in Utah and had gone mountain biking for the day. They stopped and Will had an air compressor in his truck, which helped tremendously as the spare tire on the guideís SUV was flat. And Will had a better fitting lug wrench too, so it was super cool of him and his climbing partner Sara to stop and help. Hereís a link to an article of their first ascent of frozen Niagara falls:


Andrew L. posted on

This trip was highly weather dependent. It would be unwise to get in a slot canyon if there is any chance of rain that day. And accessing the trailhead that we used in Escalante is subject to the road being dry. Thus unlike backpacking in the mid-Atlantic, accept that plans will need to change to compensate for the weather for some trips in Utah. In addition, I felt it was appropriate to adjust the specific plans to compensate for the appropriate level of physical activity. In particular, while I could have pressed on with an even more physically strenuous trip, that would increase the odds of some in the party not enjoying it, thus would be unwise overall. Ultimately, weíre on the trail for fun.

I was surprised at the overall lack of interest in the trip. Other than Steve and myself, we had only two serious inquiries for the trip. One of them wound up on another invite only trip of mine and the other contributed some tips, but decided against it. An additional Vet member noted that he would have gone if it was only backpacking and not canyoneering. And that was it. I accept that I get that kind of turnout when doing the mountaineering trips due to the cost, physical fitness and skillset for mountaineering, but it was a surprise to see a lack of interest for this one. While I appreciate being able to post non-strictly backpacking trips to DC UL, itís prudent to note that one will only pick up maybe one person this way unless itís one of our established winter trips, so one might as well use email.

As an assistant organizer, itís not my place to make judgement calls on the overall health of DC UL. With that said, Iíve noticed that we have had three trips cancelled in the last month and I have a waitlist for my LM trip this coming weekend. I know that getting enough LM trips is a problem every spring though. I joke with my climbing friends that the half life of a friend in the DC area is no more than three years. After three years, about half of them have moved on. I suspect that the half life is even shorter with backpacking, as people get busy with other things in addition to moving out of the area. So it goes.

BLM / Forest Service camping in Utah is awesome. We got a number of dispersed campsites which had decent views, were spacious and out of earshot of other parties. Free. Permit needed for Escalante. (Queen Bee, Thanks for the recommendation!)

-Andrew L. (Camel)

Joffrey Peters posted on

Andrew - sorry it seems like you didn't get the most out of your Southern Utah trip. There's so much to do and see down there! Coyote Gulch is awesome - I did a fun trip down there about a year ago: http://prejoyful.com/2016/05/coyote-gulch-overnight/

(Linking this reminds me that I haven't written on my blog in almost a year, hah!)

I'm at a relatively new job, and can't take vacation for another two weeks yet, otherwise I'd certainly have made a serious inquiry about this trip.

Canyoneering seems like an awkward pursuit to enter. It seems wise to have hired a guide, but it strikes me that what is needed is a mentor (this is similar for climbing). While a guide can teach you some basics, it's tremendously helpful to have a more experienced person take you through things. That said, I only ever did non-technical canyon routes, precisely because I was nervous about the things that are so different from climbing: weird slickrock overhung potholes, cold water, flash floods... I can rappel all day long, but there are other concerns with canyoneering that made me hesitate even to try the easiest technical routes on my own.

All this to say: Utah is rad! Consider keeping me in the loop next time you're considering a trip down there... I'll be able to use sweet sweet vacation, oh, so soon! And there are tons of really cool non-technical routes to do down there as well! I have a few in mind...

P.S. I'm toying with the idea of an Indian Creek or Red Rocks climbing trip next Marchish.

Megan Berg posted on

Glad the campsites worked out! Great pics.