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Grand Canyon Solo

Searching for unique photos puts our columnist in a tough spot


Black Oak, Autumn, Yosemite National Park. Backlight for drama.

Damn the sheep, damn the light, I was alone and I was trapped! I was 20 feet above a deep pool, having squeezed myself behind a truck-sized capstone in an effort to climb out of a canyon narrows. Blocking my exit were several bowling ball-sized rocks, spaced like bars in a cage, sealing a way out!

Okay, I wasn’t totally trapped. I could retrace my steps back down this upper fork of Deer Creek Canyon, but it would take hours and include a difficult climb down. Because of the rough terrain, I wouldn’t make it back to camp by sunset, which would force me to spend the night out. If I could complete these last few feet of climbing, it was an easy walk back to camp.

This adventure in the Grand Canyon occurred in the second week of a 25-day rafting trip down the Colorado River in March 2007. My group’s objective during the trip was to explore the expansive wilderness away from the river. We’d wake before sunrise and leave the river for the day by partnering into small groups, each group setting out on its own unique adventure.

Danger seems to be a constant companion when you explore unknown wilderness. The desert wilderness of the Grand Canyon offers plenty of places to get into trouble. Typically, when exploring off the beaten path, I always travel with a partner as the best form of health insurance, should I get into trouble.

On this particular day, I chose to explore alone. What drew me into the canyon alone was my eagerness to catch the morning light and the potential for good photos. Of course, exploring alone exposes one to risk, but this was a risk I was willing to assume so that I could walk at my own pace with photography as the priority. Yet as I walked up that canyon, I was also aware of potential dangers and kept my eye on my back trail as much as I did on the camera’s viewfinder.

I was excited to visit upper Deer Creek not only to see new country, but also to photograph in a place rarely visited, much less photographed. Owing to the orientation of the canyon to the sun, the light in Deer Creek Canyon is exceptional. High gray limestone walls, stained a reddish hue, act as natural reflectors, bouncing warm sunlight deep into the canyon.

Getting into places like this often doesn’t come easy. I had been hiking for hours when I came to an impasse, a high pour-off that, when there was rain, would send runoff water crashing 100 feet to where I stood. To the left, I saw a possible route up the wall, but I thought it was too sheer to climb without a rope.

On closer inspection, I found desert bighorn sheep tracks pressed into the sand at the cliff’s base. The bighorn are masters of the Grand Canyon’s vertical environment. As a climber, I saw no reason to retreat from the challenge of ascending a desert bighorn sheep route. But I knew a sheep route, even for an experienced climber, could be imposing. With each move I made up the cliff, I was tempting fate, as it’s much more difficult to climb down what you’ve climbed up.

The sheep route followed a series of ledges up 60 vertical feet of rock. I had seen how sheep leap on powerful legs from ledge to ledge. Being bipedal, I moved much slower, pulling on tiny edges with my fingers and smearing my feet on the crumbly limestone rock connecting the ledges.

At the top of this cliff, the sheep tracks continued farther up the narrowing canyon. That was all the enticement I needed—the sheep tracks held the promise of an exit out of the top of the canyon. I was making good photos, and the sheep route was an exciting addition to my adventure, so I committed to going ahead.

I was traveling light. That was critical, given all of the climbing I was doing. Slung over my shoulder and neck in a zippered camera bag, I carried a digital Nikon D200 with a Nikkor 24-120mm zoom. I also had a 12-24mm zoom, spare battery and a digital wallet with extra memory cards protected inside a Ziploc® bag in my small Osprey daypack.

I also carried a rain jacket, rain pants, wool hat, fleece pullover and food. I had an empty water bottle, but in the canyon, I was drinking from small pools and springs. I had enough food for the day, but in the desert, water is the highest priority, and I had plenty.

My first-aid kit contained a lighter, matches, a small Gerber knife, a signal mirror, headlamp, a roll of tape, a knife and a few Band-Aids®. Not much, but the best way to stay healthy on a wilderness trip is accident prevention.

A wristwatch helped me monitor my progress because in the deep canyon, I couldn’t use the sun to judge time. In the climbing sections of the canyon, I always reversed the more difficult moves to assure myself that a retreat was possible.

All had gone well until I was literally a few feet from stepping on the top of the Redwall formation and freedom from any more difficult climbing. Looking up at those rocks that blocked my route, I surmised they were probably washed into the crack during a recent flash flood.

I saw where the sheep route went around the massive capstone and up a glassy, waterworn wall with a fall potential of 30 feet. Sometimes, sheep fall, as I knew I would if I attempted their route.

Then I had a wild thought: Maybe I could dislodge the rock above me. In my predicament, I flashed on the story of Aron Ralston, who was climbing alone down a canyon narrows in Utah very similar to the canyon I was in now. At one point, a rock rotated, pinning his arm.

Aron waited five days for a rescue. When the rescue didn’t arrive, he escaped by cutting himself free with a penknife. With that thought as a warning, I braced my arms against the wall, then swung my feet above my head and kicked at the rock above me. The second kick moved the rock; the third kick knocked the rock out and over several inches.

That was just enough to allow me to slither, hands first, out of the hole. In seconds, I was on top of the boulder and standing in the bright late-day sun. The last photo I took in upper Deer Creek was of the exit hole I had just crawled through.

Then I shouldered my pack and went looking for the easy trail back down to camp. Preparation and experience had given me a unique adventure and access to a beautiful remote canyon. Creativity and a cool head got me out of a literal tight spot with a good story to tell my buddies that night in camp.
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