How did you get into Canyoneering?
From family, friends and strangers alike, I get this question asked fairly often. I'll be honest and admit that I am reluctant to answer the question because I'm afraid that it'll sound like I'm rambling and going into tangents. Thing is, for this particular story, somewhat of a back-story is needed to fully comprehend what happened. So naturally I go all over the place as I try to cover every single occurrence. Someone that had read my blog posts before suggested it might make a good post. I don't post often but thought it would probably be the best way to tell the story as I can sit down, tell the story properly and in chronological order!
The quick and easy answer to the question is that a friend of a friend introduced me to it. My first canyon was Eaton Canyon and it was this trip that set in motion future adventures. That's it. To spice up the story I can throw in a fun fact from this descent. I almost died. Almost drowned to be exact. Given your teaser and cliffhanger, I shall lay it all out...
Perhaps the story begins with my EAS on December of 2008. Simply put, I proceeded to be a couch potato after my service with the Marine Corps. Perhaps a common practice among Marines that get out for a few days, maybe weeks? Months? Seems my plan was to go for years. I did pretty much nothing that required physical activity for over two years. So let's fast forward through my laziness, drinking and eating out to January of 2011. It was while I was celebrating New Years with my girlfriend and her brother where canyoneering first came up. Intoxicated and on the topic of outdoor activities, her brother mentioned a friend of his, that we'll call SocoYukon, that was really into hiking and going through canyons. That was as extensive as it got, so with my interest sparked, later that night I made her brother give SocoYukon a call. I'll admit that the conversation is a blur but the result was that a date was set to meet up to hang out at a cabin for the night before and head out to Eaton Canyon first thing the next morning.
Not knowing at all of what I was getting into, I did some research, of which SocoYukon gave me some links. This is also the beginning of countless hours looking at Christopher Brennen's beta late at night. I read Eaton's beta, or more like skimmed it and declared myself ready. So the day came where we met at the cabin. The day before I had gone to REI and according to me purchased what I thought was the best descender. A Petzl Reverso 3, despite SocoYukon's instructions to just get a Super 8. When I showed up with it, he looked at it as a caveman would look at a smartphone. Actually, we both did. Neither of us could figure out how to use the damn thing. So he decided it would be best to return it and buy a Super 8. This already started the day late, because the nearest REI was in Arcadia and they didn't open their doors until 10am. This would put us at the trail head around 10:30 if all went well. A little unrest began as from my readings this canyon was a lengthy one and it was best to start early because of it.
The night at the cabin began with an agreement between SocoYukon and I to not drink too much because we had to get up early. Needless to say, we drank too much. It was SocoYukon, two friends of his, my girlfriend and her brother. So it was a lot of catching up between them and a lot of getting to know them for me. The drinking pursued until the early morning.
The next day, or should I say later that morning, we got up around 11:30am. Made our way sluggishly to the car to gather all the gear. This is where I learned that my harness would be a Swiss seat using a 10mm length of rope. The rappel rope was of the same diameter and the pull cord was that cheap yellow plastic rope you see at Home Depot. No helmets or other PPE. You see, SocoYukon is either a minimalist, a dare devil, a crazy person or fearless. Or perhaps a combination of those. We did have wet suits. I was very, very fortunate to coordinate purchasing one from Craigslist on my drive up to LA. Still sluggish, we headed off for some drive-through breakfast and then to REI. On the way to REI, the conversation arose that since we had woken up so late, he suggested we go to Little Santa Anita instead. Perhaps driven by pride, my response at the suggestion to go for Eaton anyways was, "Fuck it, let's do it."
I never had a sense of time until we exited, but given that time and my estimate of how long it took us, I say what we stepped off around 2pm. Those that have descended Eaton, will understand why this is an outrageous start time. I'll point out my lack of physical condition with no regard to the difficulties that lied ahead in not only the technical section, but also the approach.
The hike to Henninger Flats was brutal for me. I was honestly burned out 1/3 of the way up. Mind you that around the half way mark I voluntold myself to carry the rope bag. Where at this point a guy with a large backpacking pack came up along us and started talking to SocoYukon. The conversation must have been juicy because they both took off sprinting compared to my pace. I cursed my way up the remaining stretch. By the time I got to Henninger Flats I was ready to turn back. With a determination to not quit, I trucked on. It was a nice change of pace when we reached the telephone trail but my legs had already given out 1.5 miles back. On we went. The cold water from the first slide was a bit of a shock but very welcomed to my sore legs and overall sore body. The rope bag was a simple duffle bag with a single strap that had dug in to my shoulders the entire way. The water flow was high, easily the highest I have ever done it in and I've been to Eaton 16 times now. This made the first rappel tricky for me, specially as I had not rappelled before and was going to get a crash course IN the canyon. So let's summarize the things stacked up against me so far.
First time Canyoneering
Super late start.
Out of shape.
Don't know how to rappel.
High water flow
Not a beginner's canyon
We went on. Eventually we reached the first long rappel known as the "gully" to some. It was after this point that we started to hustle because darkness was starting to creep in. Inevitably, it was night. We did not have headlamps, just a full size Maglite. Using it was more of a hindrance so opted to hike with our super human night vision. To be fair, the moon was almost full, Waxing Gibbous to be exact, so navigating the boulder strewn creek was not too difficult. Powered through the section of long hiking, and the third-to-last fall. Shivering the entire way. At times, it seemed my body tensed up to shiver explosively for about 2 seconds. It wasn't until we reached the second-to-last waterfall that my exhaustion affected me. I had been pushing my body past its limits for several hours and it abruptly made it known. As SocoYukon set up the rappel, I could not see anything below the fall. Just a roaring waterfall that I could faintly make out its path as it jutted out into a pitch black abyss. I could make out the canyon downstream of it, but could not see anything directly below the fall.
I got on rappel and proceeded to head down first. I was fine until I reached the ledge where the water juts out as there is an undercut in the rock here. I did not know this as I could not make out anything. In the process of negotiating this undercut, I took a not-so-graceful tumble where I ended up right on the waterfall. The water pounded on my head with great force that urged me to rappel faster. At this point, I could not see anything because my eyes were shut due to the water, not because of the darkness. I blindly rappelled further and further down into what seemed a bottomless fall. Eventually I felt the water from the pool as I ended up in a small space between the rock and the fall. This allowed me to catch my breath and rest a little from the tumbles I took on the way down. I do take pride in never letting go of my brake hand, rule #1 SocoYukon made clear. After a short rest, I started my attempt to disconnect from the rope. All the while trying not to lose my Super 8. Here I asked my already exhausted body for more energy to be able to tread water as I disconnected. Since I wasn't carrying a pack with a dry bag where I could lean back and float, I tread water like never before. I only had a 2L Camelbak that was empty by this point. I tried several times to disconnect, but each additional try was more lifeless than the one before. A long time must have elapsed as I could make out faint screams from above from SocoYukon. I made an effort to reply, but my weak cry was just muffled by the raging waterfall. At times I felt a tug on the rope, which was SocoYukon pulling on the rope to see if I was still connected making my attempts even harder. After what seemed an eternity, I was finally able to disconnect managing to not lose my Super 8. I held on to the rope as I caught my breath again and looked around to plan my swim out to shore. As I faced the rock with my back to the fall, I decided to swim off to my right, I'd push off the rock to gain some ground and swim past the fall. I paused, pushed off, let go of the rope and went nowhere. I swam in circles changing directions but I stood still. I was exactly between the fall and the rock. I was swimming with all my might yet made no progress in any direction. I quickly realized that the fall was pulling me down. Such was the amount of water that it created an undercurrent that kept me in place. I have never been afraid of water and I consider myself a good swimmer but almost immediately I lost my composure and swam frantically. In probably a matter of a few seconds a number of thoughts surged through my head. I was not in control. The current is too strong and my body cannot keep swimming. This thought consumed me. If I was to drown and die, it would be because I stopped swimming. I was fatigued beyond my limit's limits. In all honesty, it didn't sound like a bad idea to just stop trying. It would end this struggle and be done with it. Milliseconds later, I snapped out of this and looked around for the rope. That fall had pushed it out of the way and way out of reach. My next target was the wall. Maybe I could reach it and find a hand hold or something to rest a bit once more. The distance was only inches away but it stretched to miles. When I reached it, I found myself clawing at the wall. Nothing to grab onto and the previous thought drowned my awareness once more. I distinctly recall thinking and asking myself, "Am I really going to die clawing at the rock like in the movies?" As I clawed I began to make progress to my left as I still faced the rock so I turned to my left and swam. In the watery darkness I made out a foreign object, the pull cord. Knowing that I could not put my weight on it, I swam to it with the intention of holding onto it just enough to rest a bit before I swam to the shore. I reached out, grabbed it and simultaneously felt a sandy bottom. I could not reach the floor completely, but could reach a lump of sand which allowed me to stand on my toes and catch my breath. I rested for a short time and almost impulsively swam to the shore. I could now make out the length of the swim and the remnants of energy and adrenaline rushed as I reached the rocky shore. I looked for a large boulder and sprawled out on it.
SocoYukon was able to make me out as my dark silhouette stood out on the lighter colored boulder. He rappelled down and disappeared into the bottom of the waterfall. I was barely able to make out where he emerged a few feet from the fall when he started to swim unnaturally. I stood up helpless of what the problem was and of what I could do. He eventually began to get closer to shore and told me what happened. One of the straps of his backpack had come off and tangled his left arm. After he let me rest for 5 more minutes or so, we continued on. I expressed my experience to him and he mentioned there was a way to bypass the last waterfall via a sketchy trail that traverses the ridge. At this point anything but rappelling in a fall sounded good to me. So we headed to the trail. He had never been to this trail so finding it was difficult. Some may recognize what trail this is. A trail that is almost entirely responsible for all the deaths, accidents and rescues at Eaton Canyon. We scrambled up this trail where we reached fixed ropes to climb up. The scramble was accompanied by many giant millipedes.
We reached the ridge after maybe 35 minutes. We could no longer make out the trail and sat down surrounded by millipedes to think of our next plan. One option was to keep going as the terrain allowed, weaving through bushes and risking being cliffed off. The other option was going back down, rappel the last fall and exit that way. In the back of my head I knew the best option was to go back down and rappel, but I was reluctant to do so after my distress on the previous one. After some convincing, I agreed to go back down and exit via the creek. When we reached the waterfall SocoYukon assured me this fall was easier as there was no deep pool below. He went down first to shine some light on me using the Maglite. I was very cautious and nervous starting this rappel and its awkward start didn't help. I reached where the water makes a turn and juts out and decided my best strategy was to go fast to minimize the pounding to my head. For the most part, my strategy worked and I stumbled down to the shallow pool in no time. In relief, I took off my Swiss seat and gear and put it in the rope bag as SocoYukon carried it. I zombied my way the last half mile that took something close to 45 min. We finally reached SocoYukon's truck and turned on my phone. I precisely recall the time, it was exactly midnight. Also saw the numerous missed calls from my girlfriend. We drove back to the hotel we had and got some glorious Mickey D's. Showered and laid my aching body in bed not long before I fell sound asleep.
I don't think I have ever told anyone the full story like this. I have mentioned to some that this experience is the only one I truly consider a near-death experience. Despite my experiences in the Marine Corps and close calls, I never really felt in danger while deployed. My first canyoneering trip was cold, long, exhausting, scary, miserable and almost killed me. Yet I went on many more trips. Interestingly, as I've mentioned earlier, I have done this canyon 16 times as of today, making it my most frequented canyon from all the ones I've had the pleasure of descending. Perhaps not the ideal first experience one would like to have, but I am grateful for it. Put some things into perceptive and introduced me to something great. I have come a long way from this first trip and have been continuously adding to my "canyon resume" these past years. Thank you SocoYukon for without your existence, who knows where I would focus my free time.