Day 4, Entrajo:
In Too Deep
See them while they’re still dry.
Rain. It’s not supposed to rain in the desert. I stepped out of the tent at 6am to a cool cloudy morning. Clouds were gathered around the wall of Moab canyon and there was rain falling over Ken’s Lake. It felt like home. After a hot breakfast and tea Josh and I drove into Moab to meet Mike for our second day in the canyons. Mike had again prepared the gear that we would carry that day and was ready to head out by the time we arrived. Josh said he had some “business” to take care of before we headed out and quickly disappeared back out the office door. The day before Josh had discovered a little cafï¿½ adjacent to the Desert Highlights office, where he could satisfy his morning coffee fix. He had returned with his caffeine elixir and a cinnamon roll as big as his head, which he offered to share. This morning as he returned from the cafï¿½, coffee and cinnamon roll in-hand, he admitted that he thought the owner was “a hottie” and he wanted to go flirt with her again.
“Yeah, that’s Tatiana,” Mike said, “Matt’s girlfriend.”
“Really?” Josh replied, flashing us an unabashed smile.
There’s no one for Josh to flirt with down here, but he’s going anyway.
We were to conquer Entrajo Canyon today. The sky was slate grey, with threatening-looking storm clouds gathering in the northeast. As we drove back out toward Ken’s Lake Mike began assessing our chances of getting rained on. It seemed like a good possibility, so I told Mike that we were Seattleites and didn’t mind a bit of rain.
“You might,” he replied.
Entrajo Canyon was several miles beyond Ken’s Lake, along an unpaved road. With guidance from Mike, Josh negotiated the canyon road as carefully as he could. The rutted red track was not really appropriate for anything other than a “high-clearance” four-wheel drive vehicle, but we managed somehow. I couldn’t help thinking about the young woman who rented me the car back in Seattle – if she only knew.
The guys have to stay sharp and be wary of any signs of flash floods.
After several slow miles, we drove through a wash that Mike observed had flashed recently, most likely during the rains the night before. Coming out of the wash we passed an old van that looked like it hadn’t moved in many months. I noticed an old desert-rat sitting in a lawn chair next to the van, with a very scrappy-looking dog beside him. He waved as we passed. Not much further up the road Mike told Josh where to park, and we began suiting up for our day’s adventure. Mike went down to inspect the wash we would have to cross to begin our hike. He pointed to the cliff wall to his right.
“We’ll come out over there,” he told us.
He walked over to a twisted juniper log and hopped up and down on it. It barely moved.
“When I was here the other day this was about fifty yards [46m] up the canyon,” Mike said, giving a testament to how powerful the flash floods through the canyons can be.
“Shouldn’t they have a ‘No Diving’ sign here?”
One’s choice of footwear is a critical factor for successful canyoneering. The Desert Highlights guys recommend an old pair of sneakers with reliable rubber traction that you wouldn’t mind getting trashed. Climbing shoes are for show-offs. Hiking boots are usually discouraged too. They’re thought to be too heavy and rigid for the kind of walking and climbing that is usually required.
When I pressed this point with Matt he had said, “I guess hiking boots would be okay if they’re really broken-in.”
As much as any self-respecting BootsnAll member I’m pretty particular about my choice of footwear (see Search for the Perfect Boot, on this site) so I interpreted Matt’s comments as the permission to wear my 10-year-old, twice-resoled Timberlands.
The first part of the day was quite easy. The first mile took us along the wash up the canyon. Josh and I both walked gingerly through the mud and sand, careful not to get our shoes/boots too wet. Mike slogged ahead, not being too particular about avoiding the wet sand and mud. Mike stopped at a place in the streambed and told us to remove our packs. From here we would take all of the gear we needed ahead with us in one pack. Mike took charge of redistributing the load, and I volunteered to carry it first. Mike stashed our packs behind a rock in a stand of willow. We then spent the next half hour working up a healthy sweat on this chilly morning climbing out of the canyon. It was a pretty simple climb, without too much technical business. When we reached to top and stopped for a drink, Mike scanned the horizon, looking at the threatening clouds to the east.
“Okay guys, we have to make a decision,” he said gravely. “Do we attempt the slot canyons?”
We debated the subject for a few minutes, but it came down to Josh and me not knowing any better and convincing Mike to try it. The danger was that if it began raining upstream we could easily find ourselves trapped in one of the pockets of the canyon by a flash flood.
“And that would be bad,” Mike said.
“How bad?” I asked.
“Can you swim?”
“It wouldn’t really matter.”
“I see your point.”
Mike rigs for the first rapell.
Mike was confident enough in our ability to negotiate the canyon quickly. Once we committed to running the canyon there was no turning back. He taught us some of the indicators of a flash flood and told us to keep our eyes and ears open. We worked our way down into the next canyon and came to the first slot. It was full of opaque reddish-brown water. There was a film of a light brown scum, twigs of juniper, a few water skimmers, and other detritus floating on the top of the pool.
“Yep, this one’s been primed,” Mike said. “It’s pretty clean too. Must have rained hard last night.”
By saying that it was “primed” he meant that it wouldn’t take much water to make the pool overflow into the next slot. The pool’s cleanliness was also a matter of opinion. We took off our packs and put on our rappelling harnesses and hard hats. I opted to take the lead through the first slot and began to lower myself down to the surface of the water. It now seemed ridiculous to have been so concerned about getting my boots wet earlier.
As I lowered myself into the icy muck I asked Mike, “How deep is this anyway?”
At that moment my left hand slipped and I plunged into the pool.
“About neck-deep I’d imagine,” Mike said over Josh’s howling laughter.
Josh lowered the pack down to me and I crept along the left side of the slot, trying to keep to the shallowest part of the pool. I held the pack above my head to keep it from getting drenched. Josh was next to cross, followed by Mike. I decided to stay in the lead and lowered myself into the next slot. This one was even deeper than the first. We would have to swim. I tested the depth along the length of the slot. It became shallower after about 20 feet (6 meters), and I was able to wade to the other end. I returned to ferry the pack across by balancing it on my head, holding it with one hand and paddling like a madman with the other.
There was a set of expansion bolts at the end of this slot, indicating that it was time for our first rappel. It wasn’t a big one, about 10 feet (3m) into another waist-deep pool. We got through it quickly, and Mike retrieved the gear. It was getting colder; Josh began to shiver. After a couple more slots we found ourselves walking along the streambed we had come up earlier. We stopped for a small break and retrieved the other two packs before heading off in a different direction than we had come. We soon found ourselves in more exposed territory, and a light breeze was blowing. Mike and Josh seemed to be suffering from the cold more than I was. I actually found it quite pleasant, but refrained from making any comments for fear of being smacked by my increasingly surly companions.
Mudbaths weren’t mentioned in the brochure, but Andy’s taking advantage of one anyway.
Mike told us that it wasn’t much farther. One more 80-foot rappel (24m) would put us out in the canyon where we parked the car. As Mike worked to rig the slick to an ancient looking juniper, Josh’s teeth began to chatter uncontrollably.
“Caarrrr… Hhheeaattteerrrrr…” Josh moaned, sounding very much like Homer Simpson.
This last rappel was in two stages. After the first 40 feet (12m) or so we landed on a small shelf and had to reposition for the next stage. Josh eagerly volunteered to go first, his desire to be warm again apparently overriding any self-preservation instinct. Knowing that this would be our last rappel on this trip I took my time, hanging out and enjoying the sensation of suspending above the canyon floor. When I finally did come down to earth it was into a knee-deep pond of opaque brown water.
Josh was nowhere in sight. I waited with Mike to help him retrieve the slick and pack up rest of the gear. Together we walked down the streambed toward the car. Josh was sitting in the driver’s seat, with the heater on its highest setting, wearing every stitch of clothing he had with him, and nibbling on the remains of his cinnamon roll.