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Canyoneering: A breath-taking weekend of redrock, ropes and trust

May 12th, 2014 Posted in Arts and Life

Romero and friends spend a weekend dropping off precipices in Southern Utah

Photo Essay by Sarah Romero

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK—It’s an adrenaline-flooded feeling to hang over a 150-foot gorge on a single strand of rope.

Canyoneering in Utah’s back country requires courage, yes.

Some knowledge of ropes, knots and carabineers? Of course.

But the most crucial component of this dangerously thrilling sport is trust. You have to trust the coiled rope, no thicker than your thumb, to hold your weight. You have to trust that whoever built that “dead-man anchor” on the ledge above knew what he was doing. And you have to trust yourself as you lean over the edge of the cliff and feel the empty weight of the sky behind you not to let go of the rope.

Canyoneering is the ultimate test of your own nerve against the force of gravity. And there’s no better place to test your wits than in the sandstone slot canyons of Capitol Reef National Park, midway between Bryce and Canyonlands, south of Interstate 70 and ranging north and south from Torrey, Utah, in Wayne County.


Capitol Reef’s landscape offers a great deal of variety, which makes it a natural playground for photographers, hikers, campers and canyoneering enthusiasts. The breathtaking scenery includes white Navajo Sandstone, black volcanic lava boulders, petroglyphs from the Fremont hunter-gatherers, sandstone formations layered with red, blue, and green colors, and beautiful orchards and farmland.


• See Romero’s reporting on her Capitol Reef adventure on KSL.com: 3 locations for canyoneering in Capitol Reef National Park

Ropes, knots, carabiners and the guy belaying from above are the rock-climber’s best friends.

Ropes, knots, carabiners and the guy belaying from above are the rock-climber’s best friends.

CASSIDY ARCH—This seven-rappel route starts from the top of Cassidy Arch. The hike to the arch is 1.75 miles up steep terrain, but the panoramic views from the top of the arch are breathtaking and well worth the hike. The first rappel is located on the north side of the arch, and is anchored from a large juniper tree


From below, the climber is dwarfed by the Cassidy Arch against a pure blue sky.


After the rappel from Cassidy Arch, you descend into tight slot canyons. Here, Jeffrey Lunt descends a 40-foot rappel while Sarah Romero watches from below.


The second rappel starts from a gently sloping rock, and eventually drops 140 feet into a deep canyon.


The third rappel of the Cassidy Arch route is divided into two sections. The overall drop is 65 feet, and the second portion of it descends through an archway under the overhanging sandstone.


THE WIVES—The Wives is a group of seven parallel canyons, which all drop into Cohab Canyon. Each canyon is unique and offers its own technical challenges, but Wives three, four and five are by far the most enjoyable.

Wife Three: Wife Three consists of three rappels, the first an exhilarating 200-foot drop into a wide canyon. Slowly slicing through the air while descending hundreds of feet is truly a thrilling experience. Romero prepares to lean back into the air.


Into the Gorge

Into the Gorge

Romero dangles halfway down the 200-foot cliff face.

Romero dangles halfway down the 200-foot cliff face.

Wife Four: After the initial 75-foot rappel into the canyon, Wife Four becomes a narrow slot, which can be down-climbed without ropes. Here, Romero points to the crack she just squeezed through. The beautiful sandstone formations make the claustrophobia manageable as you inch your way down to solid ground.


Wife Five: The fifth wife consists of five rappels, the longest one being 100 feet. Andrew Menlove descends into a small alcove on the third rappel.


Deadman: Wife Five presents the ultimate test of trust and wits, with its dreaded “dead-man anchor.” Fittingly named for its deadly consequences, dead-man anchors are built by burying rocks deep into the sand. Patrick Romero and Andrew Menlove roll a heavy rock to a dead-man anchor to reinforce its strength.


Leaning back over the edge of a cliff, knowing that the only thing between life and death is that pile of rocks, takes a tremendous amount of, yes you’ve heard it before, trust. Hard to think of a more thrilling weekend.




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  1. One Response to “Canyoneering: A breath-taking weekend of redrock, ropes and trust”

  2. By Tom Lyon on May 15, 2014

    Romero’s pieces are the best I’ve seen in years — she caught my eye with the Gossner article (thorough and detailed, yet it moved —
    and the piece on rappelling was also good –all around excellent!

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