How to Kill a Rental Car #3: Day 3, Canyoneering 101: Desert Highlights – Moab, Utah, USA

Day 3, Canyoneering 101:
Desert Highlights

Don't look down

Josh suspends high above the canyon floor.

Lack of structure was something that Josh and I had both wanted for this adventure. Some people might call it procrastination, but not planning ahead is a sure way to inspire creative thinking. There was only one scheduled activity during the entire road-trip: canyoneering in Moab.

I had traveled in the desert southwest several times before, but canyons of southeastern Utah were new to me. In what little research I did in advance of our journey, I had promised myself that we would do was a couple of days of backcountry backpacking in the Utah canyonlands. I have some experience backcountry camping in more temperate climates, but I knew that we should not attempt any wilderness trekking in the canyons without a guide. Josh and I were desert-dilettantes, and it could easily go horribly wrong for us. Moab has become something of a Mecca for outdoor sports, so I started looking into some of the touring companies that operated out of the area. I wasn’t particularly interested in mountain biking, horse treks, rafting, or full-on rock climbing… but canyoneering? Interesting term. I had heard friends talk about this relatively new sport that combines hiking, climbing, and rappelling.

A quick online search took me to the Moab Area Travel Council’s website. From there I was able to check out any number of adventure tour outfits. Narrowing them down to about 10, I started making phone calls. None of them advertised multiple-day trips, but it never hurts to ask. That’s how I found Matt Moore, the owner of Desert Highlights. His website talks about one-day excursions but contains no mention of multi-day treks. Over the phone, Matt’s demeanor was cool and laid back. I pitched my idea and he mulled it over for a moment.

“Sure, I think we can come up with something.”

No one else I spoke to in the Moab area would even consider the notion of deviating from established trips and schedules. What Matt came up with for us was a two-and-a-half day trek through a place called Cheesebox Canyon in southern Utah near Natural Bridges National Monument. As Matt explained what was going to be involved, I reminded him that Josh and I were both new at this and we wouldn’t want to get in over our heads.

“You’ll do fine,” was all he said.

Unfortunately, a few days before we left Seattle I received an email from Matt saying that there had been quite a bit of rain in the area of Cheesebox Canyon and that it was too flooded to negotiate. Bummer! Instead he had put together two of the one-day trips that he thought we’d enjoy. Matt was apologetic, but being eager for the experience I told him that it didn’t matter to us. Matt himself was to be out of town, but we would be in the capable hands of one of his colleagues.

We're gonna what?

Mike and Andrew prepare for the second rappel.

Mike Carroccino is a 22-year-old Alabaman with a lanky gait, crooked smile, and an understated sense of humor. We met him at the Desert Highlights office in Moab at 8am, where we helped him load the three packs that we would be carrying that day. Mike had everything that we would need neatly laid out in piles on the floor of the office: lengths of rope, rappelling harnesses, carabineers, hard hats, and “the slick.” Most climbers and canyoneers will use expansion bolts as rappel anchors. These consist of two or three bolts securely placed into the rock, which are equalized with slings to distribute the weight of the individuals rappelling. Once in place they must be left there. “The slick,” on the other hand, is a device, invented by Matt and a friend, that allows the canyoneers to retrieve all of the gear and reuse it for the next trip. I’m relatively sure that the guys at Desert Highlights were all Boy Scouts, and they definitely adhere to the “leave no trace” credo of wilderness trekking. The slick is also a resource saver. Pulling down the entire apparatus prevents them from having to replace carabineers and webbing that other canyoneers leave behind. Even better, as they move through the canyons they collect the gear that others have abandoned. On our first day out Mike cleared several lengths of fluorescent green webbing and collected at least one expensive-looking carabineer.

We loaded the gear into the back of our Mitsubishi and headed for Arches National Park. As we passed through the checkpoint at the park entrance the ranger made a joke about being careful of the company we kept. Mike was a familiar face at Arches. All visitors to the park that plan on doing any kind of backcountry hiking must obtain permit at the visitors’ center. Mike’s wife Kristin, also an outdoor enthusiast, works as a ranger at Arches and was able to produce our permit in short order while her co-worker Ranger Dan led Josh and I into a small room with a television, VCR and about 20 chairs.

“And now I will dim the lights so that you may enjoy this award-winning film,” he said using his best Droopy Dog impression.

The “award winning film” was actually quite informative. Production values aside, the video contained loads of information on the local ecosystem, flora and fauna, and tips on backcountry etiquette. Of particular interest was the information on the cryptobiotic crust. The crust is a combination of lichen, fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria that forms over the course of many years into a knobby, brittle soil. It acts as a binding agent for soil particles, preventing soil erosion and providing nutrients for desert plants. When hiking in the canyon country, people are asked to keep to established trails, bare slickrock, or sandy washes. The crust is extremely fragile and if stepped on and crushed will take at least 10 years to begin to recover. The visitor’s guide published at Arches says that the cryptobiotic crust can take up to 250 years to become fully restored.

Armed with our permit and the knowledge of our ecological responsibility we hit the park road for the Fiery Furnace, about 15 miles into the park. The Fiery Furnace is a confusing maze of slot canyons. The Park Service restricts hiking here, and most people who visit the Furnace do so as part of guided ranger walks. By having our permit and an experienced guide, Josh and I were able to see the Fiery Furnace in a way that few people ever do.

Lomatium Canyon was our goal today. Named for an unassuming desert shrub, found only in the Utah canyonlands, the Desert Highlights website describes Lomatium as “an otherworldly defile weaving its way through an area of untold geologic chaos.” This may sound a bit dramatic, but after disappearing into the first slot canyon we realized that it was not an overstatement.

Oh s%*$... now what?

Josh demonstrates the fine art of “chimneying”.

Mike proved to be an excellent teacher. We learned the art of “chimneying,” which is basically wedging yourself between two walls of rock and working your way up using any appendage that provides the best leverage. He would patiently offer suggestions for how to best negotiate a section of the canyon.

“Or that will work too,” he would encourage us when we decided to be creative.

In the first few hours of the day as we climbed out of Lomatium Canyon to the top of the Fiery Furnace, we traded stories and got to know a little more about each other. I personally feel that if you’re going to trust your life to someone, it’s nice to know a little bit about them. Mike is an experienced outdoorsman who grew up exploring the caves of Alabama and has completed several rescue and backcountry medical classes, including a 90-day Leadership Semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School. We were in good hands. I asked Mike about some of the most memorable trips he had guided, and Josh educated us on the art of body piercing.

“That’s probably the most interesting ice breaker I’ve heard so far,” Mike confessed.

By lunchtime we had reached Abbey’s Arch, named for author, environmental activist, and one-time Arches ranger, Edward Abbey. Resting in the shade of the arch we psyched ourselves up for the first rappel. One of two rappels that we would attempt today, this one was the highest, over 100 feet. As Mike attached the slick to the arch, Josh and I harnessed up and debated who would descend first. I volunteered, and Josh readily agreed.

After a quick tutorial on how to attach and use the descending break and how to avoid executing a face-plant into the canyon wall, I lowered myself into the abyss. My descent was uneasy at first, but once I got over the abject terror of dangling 80 feet above the canyon floor things smoothed out. It was over before I knew it. Josh followed shortly and then Mike. In actuality all three descents took about 20 minutes, but it seemed much shorter. The second rappel was not far down the canyon, and by this time Josh and I felt like we could handle just about anything. It’s amazing what adrenaline can do.

Desert Highlights can adapt the Lomatium Canyon trip based on the desires of the group. Mike presented us with several opportunities to explore side canyons. We lost ourselves in the Fiery Furnace until late in the afternoon. We were expecting temperatures to reach 105�F (40�C) that afternoon, but in the shade of the canyons it was quite comfortable. We didn’t see another soul until we were climbing back up the ridge toward the parking lot.

We dropped Mike off at the Desert Highlights office and went in search of dinner. Today we learned that canyoneering can be a lot of work, but the rewards are worth it. Josh and I were quite pleased with ourselves and wanted to celebrate with barbeque ribs and beer. There is no shortage of eateries in Moab, and on Mike’s recommendation we made our way to the Flat Tire BBQ Roadhouse. At dinner we noticed just how much of the red dust we had brought out of the park with us, and went in search of a shower. Travelers can pick up a list of places that offer showers (ranging from $2-5) at the tourist information office in Moab.

The Lazy Lizard Hostel is pretty typical of what you would expect of a budget traveler’s flop. They offer $10 dorm beds, and semi-private and private rooms from $20-30, plus laundry facilities, a hot tub (which was not working when we visited) and showers. The place itself is a bit grungy, and the clientele looked a bit sunburned from their desert adventures, but the showers were divine.

Because we originally hadn’t planned on spending a night in the Moab area, we hadn’t given any thought to where to stay. Matt had suggested a Bureau of Land Management site where we would be able to camp for free. Ken’s Lake is about six miles south of the town of Moab and has a few basic campsites. It was in Moab that we learned the significance of the term “high clearance vehicle.” Our Mitsubishi Mirage certainly did not qualify. The area around the lake is popular with ATV drivers, and the road into the lake is rutted and treacherous. Josh winced each time I scraped the bottom of our little car over a rock or negotiated it through a streambed. The campground itself was nice enough and offered a stunning view of the sunset over the wall of Moab canyon. We passed the rest of our evening in front of a roaring fire under the stars, talking about what we might expect tomorrow.

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