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The clouds were starting to look bruised, with a hint of pink on their edges, when we took off our harnesses in preparation for the final half-mile walk out of the canyon. The imposing cliffs of Hells Half Acre Gorge were behind us, and the riparian jungle of Aravaipa Creek was visible below. We’d be there soon.

With ropes securely stashed away, we strode along a bedrock sidewalk streaked with rivulets of water. Rounding a corner, the horizon ahead suddenly fell away, sending the trickling stream catapulting into the abyss. Perhaps we had taken off our harnesses a bit prematurely.

Jer crawled down to waterfall’s edge, peering over the lip in search of a downclimb. Pat looked for anchors above the drop. I walked the rim of the unexpected lower canyon trying to ascertain the big picture. There was no dodging it, this was going to require a rappel, and it looked to be about as long as our doubled 200-foot rope.

With daylight fading, we slung a massive boulder, threaded the rope, and one by one, abseiled over the edge with twenty feet of rope to spare. Committed now, we scrambled downstream to find another drop, much shorter, but pinched in canyon narrows above a pool. With careful footwork, we all made it across with dry feet, and coiled the rope as darkness truly started to wash over the gorge. I was getting psyched to set up the next rap via headlamp when the sound of running water snapped me out of reverie. It was the creek. We were out.

Ninety minutes of walking in the dark brought cold ones at the car. Days are short in winter. Our previous day was dedicated entirely to reconaissance after passing two unlocked gates. I was confident enough to spout something about feeling confident when my brother Jerry wisely tempered my enthusiasm with, “You just never know when trouble is around the corner.” We rounded a corner, and there sat a cowboy; hat, vest, spurs, horse, cow dogs, the whole bit. “And there’s trouble,” Jer quipped.

He wasn’t really trouble at all, just a nice ranch manager who informed us that we would not be driving down that road any farther. The Nature Conservancy has plans for that area, and they don’t include vehicles, we learned. We chatted for some time before retreating to the ranger’s office and re-tooling for plan B. Fortunately, Hells Half Acre Canyon is attainable in a single day from the Aravaipa western trailhead. Most of the other side canyons entering Aravaipa, however, will require backcountry base camps from which to make canyoneering attempts. There are certainly more gorges there. I hope to be back—with a new plan, and more daylight.

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