April 16, 2018

Cable Canyon & The Squeeze: A Canyoneering Report

Back from a week in the desert with good friends exploring canyons in the San Rafael Swell.  Let’s start with where the SRS is, then we’ll get into the rest of it.

If you’ve ever driven on I-70 west from Colorado and into Utah, you’ve passed through the Swell.  You probably thought of it as Canyon Country. I know I did when I passed through coming home from the Leadville 100 a few years back.  On both sides of the freeway as far as you can see are huge canyons streaked into a vast desert.

Doubling back on themselves, giant slices in the earth, painted layers that drop down past the edge of sight; it’s the kind of mystery world we dream about, the place where deep geologic time is drawn starkly across our field of view.

Like me, you probably wondered how far back those canyons go and what it must be like to get off the freeway and explore.

It took a few years, but when friends of mine who are extraordinarily competent in the vertical world of climbing and descending asked if I’d like to join a canyoneering trip, I said the same thing you’d say:  “Heck yeah!”

I flew out to Phoenix, caught a bus up to Flagstaff where I met up with one of the party, an ER doc and former Yosemite Search and Rescue member.  We drove 6 hours north, past the Grand Canyon, past Kanab, and along the Sevier river system until we popped out on I-70, east bound to a dirt road exit.

Another hour and a half of driving on dirt roads left over from mining days and maintained by cattle ranchers had us at a remote campsite at the head of Cable Canyon, deep in the Swell. 

The San Rafael Swell that I saw (and I saw only a narrow slice of it) was the canyon country I’ve read about.  Jaw droppingly beautiful canyons, lots of dry washes, pinyon pines and juniper trees up high, sand and scrub down low.

It was easy to imagine any of Cormac MacCarthy’s scenes in this country; remote, austere, and stunningly beautiful.  We parked the van (a tricked out 4x4 built to be lived in and tuned for utilitarian performance on a drive up from the bottom of South America a few years back) and inhaled the desert.

There was nothing, and everything.  Tucked away behind a windbreak of a few low trees, our view was a glorious drop off into the beginnings of Cable Canyon.  The quiet was the kind you submerge in; so total that it pressed in on you and squeezed out any tension. 

That depth of quiet, the vastness of it, is one of the finest tonics for modern living I’ve experienced.

The other 2 members of our party drove into that silence late that night. Together we experienced the joy of reunion, the excitement of adventure to come, and the restorative sleep gifted by a vast and quiet land.

I suppose this is a good time to describe canyoneering as I’ve experienced it.  I think of it as adult puzzle solving with potentially high consequence.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you whoop with joy and occasionally clam up in fear when you think of what might happen if you make the wrong move.

The general idea is to find a very narrow (say, less than a spread arm’s width apart) canyon that you follow down until it spits out into a larger river system.  Ideally, the canyon will have lots of steep drops that you’ll need to rappel down. 

If you’re lucky, it’ll have a bunch of what are called “keeper” potholes; huge tubs scooped out of the canyon bottom by the extraordinary power of occasional flash floods over time. 

Keepers can be anything from just deep enough to stand and look over the edge, all the way to a double overhead rim that you need to stand on top of a friend’s shoulder in order to scramble over.  The exciting bit of canyoneering comes in sliding down rappels and then escaping from these keepers, by hook (literally) or by crook. 

Escapes are executed in any number of ways, from a scramble up the rock boosted by a buddy, or using a specialized metal hook to catch the smallest edge, or tossing a bag over the rim of the keeper with a rope tied to it and using the friction of rope and bag to help pull yourself out.

Similarly, rappel anchors are made with whatever’s handy, from a “meat anchor” (one of the party will wedge themselves against the canyon walls and tie a rope to their harness from which you’ll rappel) to a metal hook slid into a hole or crack, or tubular nylon tied around a convenient boulder.


The fun of canyoneering is solving those two problems over and over:  First, where can I anchor my rappel from so I can get into a keeper, and second, how do I get out of a keeper?

Our party of 4 consisted of 3 experienced climbers and adventurers. Their background included mountaineering on K2, kayaking across Lake Michigan, triathlons, Yosemite Search and Rescue, big wall climbing, competitive mountain biking, and guiding parties down canyons and up mountains. 

Then there was me.  My job was to “bring the stoke.”  Luckily I’d packed plenty of that, and a joyous time was had by all.

All the attractions of canyoneering were present, from cool shade in the depths of the slot canyons to eating lunch in the warming sun out on a sandy ledge.  We waded through filthy water, scraped, slid, climbed, hooked, and squeezed our way through gorgeous Mother Earth’s playgrounds, and at the end of the day, washed ourselves clean in (literally) Muddy Creek.

Nik in a dirty water keeper hole in Cable Canyon

We all came out of the desert in good health minus a few bits of skin and a splash of blood here and there; nothing we can’t regenerate.  Here’s hoping that sometime soon you’ll have a chance to hang with your crew way out back of beyond, solving puzzles, building friendships, and relishing some of the high peaks of human experience.

To life, my friends! 

Nik Hawks @ Paleo Treats

Nik Hawks


Nik Hawks helps run the show at Paleo Treats. Fascinated by humans in all their strange glory, Nik is harnessed in and pulling hard in pursuit of excellence with the rest of the PT Crew. Enjoy!

Too much reading...
How about dessert?

Too Much Reading...How About Dessert?

1 Comment


May 13, 2018


When joining an “expedition” of any sort, my first item on the checklist was alway to ensure there is someone there who will suffer more than me.

Second, “bringing the stoke” has been my proud wheelhouse with that exact crew. They appreciate the might-can-do attitude and on that basis will overlook all technical cluelessness in exchange of a good giggle.

Finally, flailing with style and in good humor sets the tone for the memories to be laid down with relaxed muscle memory that can be easily recalled later. I tell myself that these soft skills are at least as important as ropecraft and precise nav… okay, that was grossly inaccurate but you get the idea.

Anyhoo, Good on ya.

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