Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: May 2012

John Govi prepares to lower into Glen Canyon

I inched down the wall slowly, hesitant to look out. Three-hundred feet straight down was the bottom of the amphitheater floor. Gazing in that direction made me queasy, so I focused on the rope and belay device in front of me. But an unsettling sight greeted me there too—a deep dark crack jammed with old ropes, sacrificed life lines that all had epic stories to tell. I didn’t want to add to that history of epics, which is why Govi was going last, to carefully arrange our gear away from the rope-eater and ensure that we had cordage enough to reach the bottom. But that meant I was going first. So here I was, trying to not look down while peering across the cliff face for a ledge to land on.
It came into view, a menagerie of webbing and chains secured to a couple bolts in the rock. I was relieved to see it, but discouraged that it was twenty feet to my right. A simple pendulum would have me at the anchor, but nothing is simple when you are 150 feet off the deck. I crept to the right, keeping my feet on the wall while using my one free hand—my left hand, the wrong one—to grab holds in the sandstone. The closer I got, the more angle I created in my rappel rope. If I lost grip now I’d be going for a swing across the cliff. I was not psyched about that possibility. I stepped carefully, and leaned, staring at the webbing as if I could coax it my direction. It was only a few feet away. I took a breath, then made a few final steps followed by a short lunge. I gripped the webbing, pulled myself to it, and put my feet on a six-inch ledge. Exhale.

Snackin and rappin

When Lisa joined me on the ledge, we agreed that the endeavor wasn’t exactly fun, but we were having a great time nonetheless. It was even better once reaching the bottom, where monuments of sandstone soared all around, fluted and varnished and looming over bright green leaves of redbud trees, miniature in their surroundings. The only way to get here was from up there, and so we came, through slots and over drops and across pools, even employing a packraft to stay dry at a particularly manky head deep mud puddle. Now that the crux was behind us, the rest was all glory, fun even, as we wound deeper into the heart of Glen Canyon.

Packraft pool crossing

Lining up Government Rapid—Lava of the Juan

From my toes to my fingertips, every fiber pulled on the oars. I stole a glance shoreward to measure our progress against the wind. Willows bent and ribbons of sand swirled along the cliffs, snaking out of the canyon into space. Everything seemed to be in motion, except our raft. My strain held us stationary in the wave-tossed water, and then a stronger gust sent the boat sliding sideways across the river, straight for the dancing willows. Sometimes, I thought, it’s best to just hunker.
Such theatrics are hardly what I conjure when planning a San Juan river trip. This is the mellow river, a class II desert fairyland float through warm sandstone and spectacular, confused landscapes of canyon and valley and circular river bend. I don’t run the San Juan for high drama. But you never know what lies ahead on the river. This is precisely one of the lessons the river teaches through Grand Canyon Youth, a nonprofit based in Flagstaff, Arizona. GCY serves middle and high schoolers, educating them in ways both direct and subtle, and letting them be little river funhogs for a spell. That’s where I come in.
Five of us sat with our backs against a boulder for ten minutes while the weather front passed. When we set off again, it was into an aromatic rain-freshened desert, and the weather remained near perfect for the remaining five days of our San Juan trip. A bitter wind and salty rain is a small price, it seems, for sweet sunshine.

Storm light at Stairmaster Camp

Dropping in on Little LO

Launching horizontally from seven feet up, my idea was to land on the pack and skim across the water without feeling a drop. No such luck, halfway across the pool, the unmistakable cold and wet of canyon water began to seep up my legs. My Kokatat drysuit, nearly two decades old and two gaskets down, thus relegated to canyoning detail, worked well for the first two swims, but now the gig was up. I was getting wet. I exited the pool and began to walk for the promise of sunshine. Surely it waited downstream somewhere.
It was a little early for a venture into the canyons of the Mogollon Rim, but with temperatures in the 70s, we could wait no longer. Along with Billie Prosser, Curtis Newell, and filmmaker Kent Wagner, I dropped into Little LO Spring Canyon for the first canyoneering trip of the season. A couple rappels, several swims, countless scrambles, and a long long corridor of narrows later, we emerged into main Sycamore Canyon to peel off wetsuits and start our warm-up. A good day all in all. Check out Kent’s most excellent video of the trip.

Little LO canyon mouth