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The Black Hole of White Canyon

Full of Surprises

Written By: Micah Mckee

          Two friends who suggested I join them on their yearly pilgrimage to Moab to ride the Slickrock Trail introduced me to Southeastern Utah in 1989. We packed up bikes and rollerblades and spent a fun filled weekend one upping each other in pubescent shows of bravado.

          I returned a few months later on the invitation of a friend who spent virtually all his vacation and spare time exploring the ledges, nooks and crannies of Cedar Mesa. It was on this trip I was really bitten by the urge to know this place. This endless seemingly little known place.

          For the better part of five or six years I could be found exploring the hidden parts of Cedar Mesa. I searched for the Anasazi and on many occasion found them. We would spend hours sitting on canyon rims, binoculars slowly combing the opposite side, looking for any sign that people had lived there. We found a complete pot on one trip, three quarters of one on another trip. More pottery shards, corn cobs and metate stones than I can count.

          It was on these trips I began to learn the desert. Learn how to move where no trails showed the way. Learn to watch the weather, know when it had last rained and when it might again. Learn that snow chains can be very useful in the middle of summer. Learn the meaning of the word monsoon and how the sandstone became carved into slot canyons.

          Being of the restless sort and afflicted with a penchant for reading maps the way most people read books I soon began to look beyond this little mesa. I began to venture into Red Canyon, the Goosenecks and farther north into the San Rafael Swell. I was introduced to The Swell and its sinuous canyons by the expertly crafted books of Steve Allen. In exploring Cedar Mesa we had spent eons of time pouring over maps and sitting for hours studying the terrain. Steve shortened my learning curve and pushed me on to places I probably would have completely overlooked.

          The Swell was the first place I began to get the idea that there was something for the technically inclined. A challenge for those looking to go just a bit farther. Canyoneering it was called.

          I had done a bit of climbing growing up. When your back yard is filled with the likes of The Flatirons, Eldorado Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park it's not even really a choice. In exploring Cedar Mesa we had gotten ourselves in some pretty tight spots trying to gain this ledge or get to that granary but we never carried ropes or called it a sport.

          I cannot even remember my first technical canyon, probably Eardley or Crack Canyon or something else that Steve had said could be done by the fairly proficient rock climber type.

          I was hooked.

          It was the thrill of figuring out how to find your way in a seemingly unknown place. There was the guidebook of course but you cannot describe every little problem in two paragraphs, thankfully. It was overcoming chockstones, dryfalls and pouroffs and each time you pulled the rope there was that little jolt of fear. I hope it goes.

          It was on an early trip to The Swell that I made the circle tour from Green River to Moab and first was shown the beauty of White Canyon. A canyon so intense and compact that upon completion we went right back for seconds. Here you were silently floating through polished sandstone curves while the reflected sun danced on the walls. In a word sublime…and cold. I remember finishing the last swim and running to the huge swath of sun piercing to the canyon floor, peeling off my wetsuit and laying on the warm rock shivering.

          Three years ago I met a girl, as even the lowliest dirt bag climber is bound to do at some point, and knowing that the chances that this was probably a sign on the order of a bush on fire I took it pretty seriously. Fortunately she was strong enough not to be very impressed by my dashing good looks and fended off my advancing moves until we hit on a mutual affliction: the desert. She too had been smitten by the endless expanse of sand, rock and sagebrush, the silent sunrises and supple curves of sandstone stretching on forever.

          We went on numerous trips over the next year and a half. I showed her the places closest to my heart, those secret places that each desert rat has that even a hot poker as incentive would never pry loose. It became clear that even dangling at the end of a rope in Bluejohn Canyon she was not about to be scared, on the contrary she was drinking it up. I took the hint.

          In May of 2002 we planned a weeklong trip to do a couple canyons, White Canyon among them. I had been watching the weather all spring watching the rain forecast, hoping we would get lucky with clear skies for the week before we arrived and plenty of water in the canyon. It was to be her first time down and I wanted it to be epic.

          We geared up and headed down into White Canyon with very little company, as is the bonus for those lucky enough to get into it during the week. We made our way over the first few obstacles and through the first bit of wading and it was clear that the water was well up. We reached the leap and stopped for a bit of food and final gearing up. I had brought some webbing and gave her the option of going down that into the water but she'd have none of it and joined me on the leap and slide down into the first swim. For the next hour she was like a kid in a candy store; swimming into each new chamber and letting the water settle, floating there drinking in the silence. A cold little kid I might point out. At something less than 55 degrees the water was not providing the best platform to linger on the beauty of these narrows.

          Sun spot to sun spot became our movement pattern. Stand and shiver till we warmed enough to get back in for the next swim. Towards the end of the last swim she stopped in a four foot beam of afternoon sun on a sand bar, shivering, looking up into the rays and wishing it was hotter. I swam over to her and made my way up onto the sand. Unzipping my wetsuit I reached into the small inner pocket and fished out that most unnerving piece of metal a man ever has the misfortune to pick out on his own. I knelt down just in front of her. She looked at me with the bewildered gaze of someone too focused on warming up to be bothered by anything else. I gingerly held the ring up to her, always aware that if I dropped it I'd never have a chance of finding it, and made my plea. She took a long look at the ring then at me and in a shivering shutter told me that this was a hell of a ploy to get her to say yes. Down in a dark, wet, cold canyon she was not sure how to escape, backed up against a wall by some goon in a wetsuit.

Mr. & Mrs. Mckee

          We are again planning a trip to the desert next week. It's been two and a half years since she said yes and we have been back to the desert more than a dozen times. She has started to threaten me with quitting her job and moving to Hanksville to spend more time in the great empty. A threat I like to take seriously. Don't be surprised to see a huge garage sale on my lawn one of these weekends.

Related Link:
Canyoneering Guide to the Black Hole

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