Northwest Fork of Three Canyon

Nickname: That’s It?
Fun: 3/5
Difficulty: 1-4/5
Beauty: 2/5
Time: 1.5 hrs down and back up
Hiking: 90%
Rappels: 0-3
Advanced DCs: 0-3
Water: bone dry

There’s really not much to this canyon. An advanced canyoneer who enjoys climbing and a full day adventure would likely prefer to descend the Main (East) Fork of Three and exit via the three upclimbs in the Northwest Fork. If they’re too difficult or the exposure proves unmanageable there’s always the prescribed exit route near the bottom of the fork, which,  incidentally, is itself very exposed.

Another alternative route would be to do the North Fork (which this author has not explored) and the Northwest Fork in the same day,  with perhaps a jaunt along the green in either direction, or up and back down East Three.

Allan and I parked nearby and were in the canyon in less than 10 minutes. The first rappel is obviously downclimable and we mistook it for such. R2 is intimidating due to its height,  a sold 65 vertical feet,  and so I did it with a top belay. The canyon’s lower pouroffs are easily identified by a righthand (western) bypass trail, again very exposed. We turned around above these, realizing we’d completed the canyons interesting parts, though I suspect that the section below the pouroffs is lush and beautiful,  seeing as Three’s lower main fork is said to have perennial flowing water and this is where the Northwest Fork joins it.

I free soloed both rappels and assisted Allan with a top belay on each using a 9mm static line,  a grigri and two locking biners; both raps already had wrql anchors around chokestones. The risk of a big fall is minimal because neither rappel is vertical. You could, however,  slide deeply into the back of either crack, making restarting your climb difficult as both cracks are too narrow there.

The drive to Green River was less than 30 minutes, and Ray’s Tavern turned out two mediocre burgers like usual.

Northeast Spur Fork Canyon

Nickname: Happy Birthday Canyon
Fun: 5/5
Difficulty: 2/5
Beauty: 5/5
Time: 3+3 hrs
Hiking: 95%
Rappels: 1
Advanced DCs: 2
Water: bone dry

One of the most beautiful canyons this author has had the pleasure of exploring in 60+ canyons over 5 years.

We parked at the Pinon Juniper campsite in Kelsey’s book and did the lower half first; it’s a short and easy hike in (and out at the end of the upper half.) The rappel at the very end really is only about 80 feet, despite looking twice that height from the top. The start is awkward and nerve racking and most of the rappel is free-hanging, thus turning an otherwise beginner-friendly canyon into something solely for those with iron constitutions. Allan was pretty shaken at the bottom. There is also a serious downclimb a little ways before that that looks impossible until you begin the descent and see the great holds around the corner. Above that is a larger natural bridge in a section of slot with beautiful colors and stripes,  fins and chutes.

It’s a 2.5 mile road walk back the way you drove in from the PJ campsite to the parking spot at the top of the canyon, exactly at the Deadman Trail and Spur Rd junction, and from there your best bet is to follow the established trail to the southernmost entrance; that is, the furthest entrance. This way you get to see the colorful slot there, which you can miss by going into the two closer  entries. There is a 2m slide/drop that left my lower legs buzzing and would likely prevent ascending this upper half of the canyon, although experienced climbers might do it with a daring stem maneuver . There is a very good upclimb in a side canyon at a big 4-way junction shortly before the 2m drop, and I want to take Allan back to try it.

All in all, this canyon is a walk-through. It would be an ideal place for an advanced beginner. The upper half is interesting, fun and imminently doable, while the lower half provides a couple of challenging downclimbs (which could all be rigged for rappel; they already have webbing and quicklinks) and a scary but not-dangerous rappel that can be escaped by retreating up canyon to the halfway point entrance in the event it’s too much.

It’s beautiful and fun,  the only barrier is getting they’re – it’s about as remote as you can get in Robbers Roost; 4×4 and extra gas is required for all but the most careful and patient explorers.

Northwest Fork Big Spring Canyon

Fun: 3/5
Difficulty: 3/5
Beauty: 3/5
Time: 2 hrs
Hiking: 60%
Rappels: 6
Water: 1 knee-high wade near the end

Currently our favorite spur canyon. Easy road access. Ibis hook helpful but not necessary. Several hairy downclimbs that were already rigged with webbing and rapide. We took one 80 foot rope,  long enough for all but the final rappel, which is 150-200 ft and so would require a long rope and pull cord. We carried ascending gear but the number and complexity of downclimbs would have made it a grueling chore to go back up.  As it turns out there is an easy exit just above the last rappel and after the last slot and wade. We suspect there is a possible escape below R6 on the right/east,  but  if there’s not then???

Much prettier and challenging than Low Spur, which we did this morning. All in all the road out here,  the Spur Road,  is rough and requires 4×4 and oversize tires,  extra water and gas, and significant patience. The “unused track” that Kelsey describes is not there and we walked all the way to the road on our return to the truck.

Low Spur Canyon

Fun: 2/5
Difficulty: 4/5
Time: 3 hrs
Hiking: 85%
Rappels: 3?
Water: 6″×5’… so not much

Done as a down and back,  with significant difficult upclimbing. One could save an hour by skipping the 2nd to last rappel and downclimb; this nerve racking DC only serves to give you a look at the lower canyon as it opens up,  and you’re downclimbing down a crack that slowly rolls off and spits you out, only to return when you can no longer stomach the exposure. Or, you could take a 200′? rope and do the last rappel,  then walk to the confluence with Horseshoe Canyon and ascend or for 3 or so miles to exit via the old Phillips Oil Co road or to a car spot at Horseshoe Canyons West Trailhead.

Very short slots,  the upper is better with a twisting corkscrew descent, no headlight necessary.

North Fork No Mans Canyon

Nickname: “No man would be interested in this” Canyon
Fun: 1/5
Difficulty: 2/5
Time: ~5 hrs
Hiking: 85%
Rappels: 6
Water: feet stayed dry!

Dont let this canyons proximity to Twin Coral and Larry canyons fool – it’s no epic adventure. In fact, I fully expect to forget about it soon, and leave it out of the guidebook. That said, it has a fork I did not explore (the South Fork) and a small tributary to the North Fork that I did explore (South Branch) that we only saw the very bottom of as part of our exit route. The highlight of this technical decent is the complicated and downright scary final rappel. The most noteworthy part is the grueling hike out.

We followed Michael Kelsey’s beta (map 21 in Hiking and Exploring Utahs Henry Mountains and Robbers Roost) to the recommended parking area at 1664m and rappelled into the head of the North Fork just a stones throw from the truck, literally. The canyon was mostly open walking, especially at first. No significant stemming was needed, although we made several down climbs, some of which required a small jump at the end. Rappel 4 was notable in that despite looking necessary on-sight we quickly realized a downclimb was possible, so we free soloed it in both directions to make sure. It was.
The other rappels and even the slot sections were forgettable, save for rap 6, although rap 5 to the rap 6 stance was a twisting drain set off by a massive chokestone  blocking the slot, a decent reminiscent, albeit much smaller, than the final Pine Creek rappel in Zion.
Rap 6 is big (our rope plus a length of webbing attached to the pull side, about 240′ in all) and took several adjustments to get set up correctly. Deployment is complicated by a slick narrow slot and an abject inability to see the ground. I’d suggest marking your rope ahead of time and double checking everything before you deploy your ropes; we biner-blocked the wrong side of the rope and I had to tie off and switch ropes mid-rappel when u came to the webbing that we’d tied on as an extension so that the pull side of our 200′ Canyon Fire would reach the ground.
The cattle trail exit is unclear – it actually leaves up a side drainage, and several hundred feet must be gained and then relinquished on your meandering climb to  the rim.

Writer’s Rock

My winter life is anything but boring. In fact, it’s probably a good measure more interesting than my summer life, i.e. hiking and canyoneering. But the winter does something to me, it stops me, makes me silent, blocks the words from flowing. It’s like for all that’s going on my life feels less worthy of talking about. To put in another way: I get depressed. So depressed I don’t really want to hang out or talk to anybody, or write. I haven’t talked to my family, any of them, in about two months, and if you’ve been paying attention to the blog you know I haven’t written anything either. Well, today was a typical day save for a few clutch rocks, and I’m going to write that, if only to get things flowing.

I caught one of the first gondola cabins up the mountain and headed out across the soft powder on my favorite board, a big, long and unequivocally beat-to-hell k2 from four years ago that can only be ridden in powder like this because of all of the metal, wood and plastic that is peeling off of it. The day was bright, and I mean really bright, compared to the short wintery-day darkness that we’ve been living through up here in the Colorado Rockies, and that makes riding powder like this a dream. I checked all of my favorite spots sequentially as I headed to the very back of the resort, and after a couple runs the back bowls opened so I did a short hike and checked them out. Good, but not great, so I headed back toward the front to look somewhere else. From the chair I saw sparse trees and no tracks and made an unusual detour into an area I usually avoid. One run, then another, then another. It was great. Other people saw what I was doing from the chair and started to follow. I launched the big rock underneath the chair lift. I hiked to the top of a big cliff and realized it was one I’d never summitted to before. Or dropped off of. I climbed beneath an old gnarly pine and took a peek. I sat down, relaxed, strapped in. I stood up and took a deep breath. I had plotted exactly the track my snowboard should leave: a gentle curve toward the downhill, to depart the pillowy, mounded snow on the big rocks just below a small ridge that was (presumably) a jagged rock fin. I took a deep breath and followed the track that wasn’t yet there right to the pillow’s edge and then I was free. For that split second. Sailing. In that moment nothing else matters. Not the take off, not the landing, not the rock and not me. For that split second I am happy. And that split second lasted a long time. I began to realize two things: 1, that cliff was about 50% taller than it had looked from the top; and, 2, the wind-drift gap between rock and snow at the bottom was really a hole large enough to consume me if I had gone any slower. Close call. And I forgot about landing. The snow approached and I set the board down and felt the crust underneath the thin, south-facing powder layer, and I let myself fall limply onto my back. It didn’t matter. Nobody was watching and I wasn’t planning to tell anyone about it anyway. I looked back and saw that i had taken off next to a jagged rock fin, and had landed on the edge of the wind drift hole at the cliff’s base.

After that 15′ cliff I was pumped. I hiked to one of my favorite areas and found myself on top of a cliff I’d jumped many times last year. I jumped it again and the ensuing high-speed descent was thrilling. Powder just thick enough to cover rocks and down trees embedded in the hardened crust below. Sometimes you’d be gliding over the rocks, feeling them scraping below, getting bumped around by nubs and limbs on dead trees below, and that is a very exciting feeling. Man against nature. The snowboard is the tool that directs and transports you, shields you from harsh terrain below, floats you across depths otherwise impassable, but only if you know how to ride it. You have to know how to commit, to know your ability and to trust in it. Then you go. Places you can’t go any slower, you can’t drop any smaller, rocks you can’t avoid and excitement you wouldn’t trade for anything. On the second run I ended up on a rocky ridge. I mad a fun descent of several small rocks and found myself inside two bands of cliffs. I saw two guys below with their skis off. Then I saw more, but I only glanced. I continued my descent through sharp granite. I was riding along the top of one cliff, walled in by another, with them below. I paused my pumping music. “How does it look?” I asked. It was only out of respect, for I knew exactly how it looked and I knew by the lack of any tracks that they had not ridden it. “Not good,” was the ok for me to turn my music back on. I put my hands behind me and leaned back, inching down lightly over exposed rocks until I was back on ridable snow and quickly I came to my spot. This is the beauty of not stopping, not scouting, not thinking twice. This is the thing that both makes my life amazing and miserable. I sailed off the cliff. Maybe it is 10 feet high, or maybe 15. Freedom and excitement rushed through me again. Muted cheers drift into my ears and took me out of the moment just a little. I touched down gently, the snow was softer down here in this shadowy valley, and a rush of speed came over me. I shot down through the trees and off of more rocks with powder flying and music pumping. A hit here, a hit there. I never looked back. I ran to the bus, went home and ate, then went to work. I didn’t say anything, and nobody asked. Today was for me.

“It was so god awful and normal…”

Dad and I had talked 78 minutes. We talked about my trip and each of our health, the dogs and the new fence, and we updated each other on everything that life was like at the moment. And I wasn’t angry with him. I’d called three times now, and I all three times I was very angry with him. It was his fault my sister had died, I kept thinking. It was because of this that I didn’t call him right after it happened. If I had, I’d have apologized today, and that would have been awful. Anyway, he didn’t answer any of those three times. Talknig to him now, he’s had as a rougher time than anyone. Says he can’t sleep, but he’s having happy dreams. It’s just that he wakes every hour or so some nights. He got a prescription, so those nights he takes a Xanax. One of my sister’s favorite drugs. My dead sister. The drug I always kept around but never enjoyed enough to take recreationally. I hated the feeling of coming off of Xanax the next day. Flexaril was much better and had the same effects for me.

I told him the dreams I’d been having. Dreams that are so intense and real that they seem to have lasted all night, at least, if that hadn’t actually happened in real life. And they couldn’t have. In my dreams it was sunny, but I know that outside it was just a cold dark night like every winter night here in the mountains. I would sit with someone, someone I can’t remember, and I would talk about Lida. I don’t remember if they would talk or just me. Then I would cry. Really cry, like I don’t think I’ve ever cried in my entire life, convulsively balling and tears streaming endlessly. It felt amazing, like I was letting myself be someone I’ve never been able to accept.

I’m not a crier. I don’t think I’ve ever been. Even with bones and tendons and torn flesh sticking out, a split open chin or broken teeth, my eyes don’t even tear up. Ending an amazing relationship many years long brought only a couple of streams of tears on different days, and these only a tear or two long.

This lack of crying has always made me wonder about myself. Is there something wrong with me? Am I a bad person because I don’t cry? I didn’t cry at all when Toni told me. “No! What? No!” was my response. Then a long silence on my end while her screeching and sobbing filled the temporal space in our conversation. I began to wonder how it might be affecting the rest of my family. My thoughts shot to the one person it would affect most. “Oh god. Does mom know?”

I’m not a nurturer. I’ve never considered myself to have great empathy for the people around me. My strongest empathy is for my family, and even that comes and goes. But I’m strong. I have a way of accepting and moving on, instantly. It’s a weird gift, and although I naturally wonder if I’m “bottling my emotions”, I’ve never found a way to let them out. So I proceed, by checking in on everyone else. I called Mom, and then I called Dad. You know, he didn’t answer. I left him a message though, and as soon as I started to speak I felt some empathy. I just said, “I love you Dad, and that is all I need to say.”

I was on the bus from Tahachapi to Bakersfield when I first started to cry. It hit me hard. It was a simple peaceful sadness and I cried at the senselessness of it all. Immense loss filled me.

I woke up from my soggy dream dream exhausted, and it happened the next night too. Both days I got up at 6:45 am and went to work. Girly Girl was there. I was exhausted. It was yet another strain on our relations.

“Dad, there was one more thing that I wanted to ask you. This might be kind of morbid, but what was it like when you found her?” It was so god awful and normal that I can only recount it matter of fact, because I know him and I know her and I know the place where she was. I know the way she leaves the lights on and her dogs in their cage, and the way she passes out fully clothed. Such was the case on this particular Sunday.

My Dad had called and texted the day before and she’d not answered. It had snowed. He knew he’d need to come home to check on the dogs and when he got home from his girlfriends he let them out of their kennel and put them outside. She was passed out, bent over the bed, as he’d seen her once before. As I write this I can smell the familiar sent of fresh urine on old newspapers lining the bottom of their cage. I don’t call it a kennel because a well-trained dog likes to be in its kennel. Aster and Bodie despise it.

“Damnit Lida, why’d you leave the light on?” He turned off the bathroom light and went out to shovel the drive way. He got halfway done and came back in to take a break. He walked in, her bedroom door still open, and I’m assuming her light still on. He picked up the little baggy of “street drugs” off her waist-high bed. One white pill lay out on the bed and he put it back in the bag and put the bag in his pocket. He’d done exactly this with a small baggy of brown heroine sometime prior. He talked to her, saying something I can’t remember. Probably asking what the pills were and reprimanding her. Expecting her to wake up as he looked over her. But you already know that she didn’t wake up. She didn’t move at all, and my Dad put his hand on her cold back.

What would you do? I can see myself finding her. I slide to my knees and hug her however I can. She’s wearing jeans and I press my head against her leg and cry. I squeeze her and she is hard. Then I turn and just sit, leaned back against the bed. In this version my Dad comes in next and I just sitther on the floor crying. She died while I still lived there. While we all lived there together, doing that funny thing called family life that isn’t like anybody else’s.

“What did you do?” he asked her. He said a prayer, asking God to watch over her. He brushed her hair back and saw the deep purple of her left cheek. She had died face down with her phone in her hand. Her finges were pointed in the position that you make when you die. When I heard this I began to wonder if she was calling for help. I liked that version for some reason.

He put the drugs back on the bed. He called 911 and as he told me the next part we laughed together. There are, it turns out, a lot of ridiculous things about people dying. 911 asked my Dad to turn her over and give her CPR. He repeated that she was cold. And stiff. If he turned her over her legs would stick up in the air, he told them. After all, she had died bent over at the waist a whole day prior. Not that he knew this, or that anybody really knows, but that’s the way it seems.

The emergency crew arrived with a fire truck and ambulance, only to declare her dead. Then the police came. The emergency crews did something in the bedroom that sounded like jumping and then brought her out straightened. Meanwhile my dad was confined to the couch where the police asked him the same questions different ways. “They treated it like a crime scene,” he said. And I don’t blame them. This thing smacks of foul play. Who opens up a bag of pills, pops one in their mouth, lays an extra one on the bed, lays the baggie down next to the extra pill, and then just croaks? Who lays expensive and difficult to obtain oxycodone pills out on their bed, anyway? “I’m glad she died at home,” my Dad said. She didn’t, Dad.

I called Mom to test my theory on her. She didn’t buy it. She said Lida had done similar things before, and she was right. But in the end she belied her truth: it was hurting her to do anything but let it go, and finding that someone else might have played a role in Lida’s death was anything but letting it go.

 

Family Emergency

It was that simple but it took me all day to figure it out. I finally decided to go to Lancaster tonight after mapping it and seeing that, at the very least, Lancaster put me an hour closer to LAX than Bakersfield did. From downtown Lancaster I could then take a bus to the train station, there I could take the metrolink to LA union station, and from there I could take the shuttle to LAX and finally fly out. The total trip would be about twelve hours and, if I left now I could make it by lunchtime tomorrow. I’d be a little exhausteder, that’s all. I got up from the fast food salad I’d unwittingly bathed in ‘dressing’ – a pseudonym for the white creamy mixture that results from the combination of corn syrup and vegetable oil with a smattering of other less healthy ingredients and which is essential in masking the dry and processed taste of all Burger King’s ‘salads’ – and crossed the parking lot to the bus stop. I’d missed the bus. The kid had told me it always runs late. Come to think of it I hadn’t seen a Kern County bus run late and I’d spent seven of the last 30 hours on them. I’d been in Burger King mapping and searching and coordinating with hosts for the evening and had assumed I’d figure it all out with enough time to go either east to Lancaster or west to Bakersfield. Now I could either camp out here in dry windy and cold Tehachapi, it is rural and doesn’t have too shady a vibe (unlike Bakersfield, my God) and so it wouldn’t be hard to do, or I could ride 90 minutes back to Bakersfield – the fourth time I’d be traversing that winding and hilly section of Highway 58 in 30 hours. That bus, it turned out, was running late, and as I stood on the bench inside the shelter in order to keep the biting wind off my bare legs as it cut underneath the glass walls, I got an idea. An idea that could have occured to me anytime after 8:30 a.m. when I realized I wouldn’t be going to Irvine to have my ears molded in silicone, but that instead took a full 11 hours to surface. A testament to how exhausted I am. I swapped Bakersfield for LAX and got an astounding result: nothing changed; I could just as readily fly out of Bakersfield as out of LAX and avoid five hours of bus and train travel and the associated cost. Wow. Duh. And since I was paying with award miles the plane ticket wouldn’t cost anymore (or any less, $80 and 60 cents to use your free ticket.) I called my couch surfing host and asked for a ride to the airport. One more thing on top of needing a last minute place to stay and to be picked up downtown. She is a mother and I think she knew I was in need without me ever saying it because when I got in the car she basicly immediately asked what was up. And I didn’t hesitate to tell her. I mean I didn’t tell her somebody had died, because that has proven to be a real conversation killer today, but I told her I’d planned to get off the trail and then as soon as I did I got hit with what I’ve resigned to calling a family emergency. Except its not an emergency. Somebody’s not choking, or in need of a lung or kidney or blood, or even lying on their deathbed. Nobody needs taken care of, we’re all nice and healthy. Nobody needs anything but we all know something big is missing. I’m not even going home. I just have to get the hell out of the place where I found out, and it took all day to plan it but now I can sleep a few hours (inside a house nonetheless) and I’ll be gone by 7:00 a.m. If I come back to the PCT it will be difficult to pass through here again.

Making a Break

Start:  Muir Pass
Camp: South Lake
I woke and started packing at first light. I still had a full food bag, about five days worth if I was hiking and at least a week like this. That seemed terribly ironic.
I suited up in everything I had, two pairs of socks plus a third over my airy tennis shoes, shouldered my pack and headed down the way I’d scouted two days before.
The descent was relatively easy thanks to Mark’s footprints. I only fell a couple of times, and my feet were numb but not unconformably so. In about three hours I found myself at the intersection of the PCT and the Bishop Pass trail, the point where I’d told Mark and myself I’d stop for the day so that I could descend the north side of Bishop Pass in the sun. I had no idea what either side of the pass might look like. I lay in the sun, impressed with the great warmth afforded down here at 9,000 feet. I took off my coat for the first time in five days. Then I took off one of my shirts, and finally my arm warmers. I took a chance and took off my rain pants. The rain pants Girly Girl had loaned me that just happen to fit perfectly.
I made lunch and relaxed while I played with the idea of staying, where I might camp and where water was, what the night might be like and that kind of stuff, all the while snacking on ‘LU’ – some kind of wafer with good dark chocolate on top. “Doing chocolate, ” I sometimes joke to myself when I eat chocolate for the first time in a few days because it has such a strong effect. I noticed the exact moment it hit me: my eyes locked onto the pine bows above and focused them sharply in my view. Colors grew more vivid and the world suddenly turned bright. It was like somebody had lifted the little red cover and switched on life’s afterburner. I sat up, took two bites of my lunch that was now ready, and headed up the Bishop Pass switchbacks, formatting a recipe for Trail Lasagna that I’d already written in my head.
I moved quickly and the temperature dropped quickly as I climbed the 3,000 feet to the pass. The numbness in my feet became an annoying ache, then a frozen stiffness. The top of the pass lay buried in waist deep drifts just like Muir Pass. Not surprising since it’s the same height. The crust actually supported me for a few steps in places. Then it would crack and I’d punch through sinking up to waist but not the fun kind of sinking, not the “holy moly this stuff’s deep” kind of sinking. There was no base to walk on. My feet rolled around blindly on loose rock, pitching my ankles with unwelcome suddenness to unnatural angles.
I did not stop atop Bishop Pass. I had arrived with an hour of sun left to spare, but with saltating ice crystals licking my face and everything below my knees packed with snow and turned to frozen stumps, I paused only to say aloud, “Is this really the trail?” and there was only one way to find out – trudge on, one knee-deep step at a time, and see what lay below. Three uneven steps in a row, or anything obviously pointed and sharp (like most of the granite naturally laying around) and I was probably off the trail.

A herd of dear saved me. Just as I had followed their prints for miles at a time in the North Cascades, I defaulted to following them here once I lost the trail. They lead me through notches that I’d never have suspected but that were unmistakably man-made and soon I was descending dozens of north facing, snow packed switchbacks down a cliff. Just like the North Cascades, I was kicking myself to be experiencing such a remarkable piece of trail in such harrowing conditions. I hiked until that exact moment – 13 minutes before I can’t see anymore – and pitched my camp on the first bit of snow free ground I found, a smelly horse hitching site.