Neon Canyon, Arizona

April 23 - 25, 2004

Dave Svilar, Jill Wolverton


WIDE OPEN SPACE  Storm clouds clear as Jill scopes the descent to the Escalante River.

Canyoneering.  Not quite climbing, but not really hiking either, or so I deduced from the 22 books checked out under my name from the Telluride Library.  Scoping out plans for desert during winter I had decided that a precedence would be placed on visiting slot canyons.  Not only were the pictures enticing, but these geological features unique to the Canyon Country were full of potential adventure.  More reading led me to believe that "canyoneering" could not be that difficult - some routefinding (I can read maps), rappelling (easy, I'm a climber), and a little swimming (I float).  Picking our first canyoneering adventure we chose to visit the Neon Canyon with its famous grand finale, the Golden Cathedral.  My cavalier attitude towards this hybrid sport and subsequent lack of preparation would lead us to misery.

Irritated with the poor timing of the southwest weather patterns we left Telluride in a snowstorm.  As we made the long seven hour drive towards Escalante, UT I brooded: Why did it not snow in March when the ski resort was open?  Why does it rain so much in the desert?  Jill sensed my anger and inserted my favorite album in the CD player, Fatman IX (one of Alford's acclaimed mixes) which seemed to relieve some of the stress.  Looking for a way to salvage the dreadfully gray day we drove slowly through Capitol Reef National Park and even tried to make the rough drive into Cathedral Valley only to be turned back 10 miles down the road by what looked to be a river flowing through the road.  Finally, we reverted to the original plan by backpacking into the Escalante River near the mouth of Neon Canyon. 

Skies were still roiling with clouds, but the slickrock was dry and the sun was beginning to win the battle with the clouds giving us promise for better weather.  After 15 miles of dirt road and another 4x4 sidetrack a sign titled "Egypt" notified us that it was time to hike.  Under the burden of our overnight packs we descended a few miles over the barren slickrock and into the lush, green Escalante River.  Crossing only once we made camp a mile north on a sandy bank directly above the river.  Jill was glad to hear the soothing gurgle of the river while I was simply glad to be sleeping outside under the stars again.

ESCALANTE  Jill seems to enjoy her wade of the Escalante River.

Sweating and snoring like a herd of swine Jill lay comatose in my brand new warm down bag oblivious to the freezing desert morning.  Meanwhile, chivalric Dave had waken to his own shivering, his old synthetic bag with its loft reduced to that of a bedsheet was covered in frost.  For once I was the one begging for a snuggle, attempting to steal some of the warmth that was spilling out the top of Jill's bag in the form of steam.  The sun finally found its way into the canyon and my shivering subsided.  Little did I know that later in the day I would be shivering again, only next time, it would be worse.

Making our way south from camp we crossed the Escalante several times and then entered a dry fork to our left, Neon Canyon.  Following the wide, weaving, dry wash we came to the famed, Golden Cathedral.  Glowing a deep red the Wingate sandstone rose almost 100 feet overhead like a... cathedral.  Instead of intricate paintings of Michelangelo overhead two large holes opened towards the heavens (and the rest of Neon Canyon).  Apparently the holes spewed water during flash floods, certainly a spectacular site for anyone unlucky enough to see it.  Our plan was to hike back and scramble up to benches above the canyon and then re-enter the Neon farther up-canyon.  We would then navigate the narrow canyon using a series of rappels that would bring us back to the grand finale, a rappel through one of the magnificent holes of the Golden Cathedral.

GOLDEN CATHEDRAL  Dave sizes up one of the desert's finest sandstone formations.

Hiking through the searing heat of the benches above the canyon we were glad to finally make our first rappel into the canyon.  The rappel was only 30 feet which gave Jill a good chance to review her technique, especially considering she'd only made one previous rappel before in her life.  After a few hundred yards of average hiking we came to the end of the line.  The only way to move on was to rappel through a chockstone hole and into the unknown.  Setting the anchor we tossed the rope through the black hole and heard the cruel sound of a splash as rope hit water. 

I went first bottoming out waste deep in a dark, freezing cesspool.  I yelled back up to Jill informing her that I was going to continue down a ways to see if it would 'go.'  According to slot canyon enthusiasts, these narrow canyons can change from flash flood to flash flood.  What may be passable in April can become impossible to navigate in May.  Pulling the rope after Jill rappelled would commit us to this beautiful, yet treacherous place.  There would be no return.  I waded through the murky water watching it reach up to my chest.  I must have made the telltale sounds of someone who is cold because Jill called down through the crack above, "Davey, is this the part where your little pee-pee gets even smaller than normal?"  Y-y-y-y-es it certainly was.  A brief bit of more wading led to ankle-deep wading as the canyon became shoulder width.

SAFETY FIRST  Inspecting the anchor before rappelling into the black hole.


OFF RAPPEL  Jill pulls the ropes after descending into the water, committing us to the dark slot.


SHADOWY FIGURE  Jill navigates the murky shadows of Neon Canyon.

Just over 24 hours ago it had snowed, and combined with the lack of sunlight the water had not had time to warm up.  However, even with chest high wading the shivers subsided upon leaving the water.  This would change.   The next obstacle required us to make a short, awkward rappel around a chockstone and into another pool.  Again, I went first, but to my surprise and then dismay I found the water to be over my head.  It's hard to deny that in any other scenario swimming through tight, mysterious caverns would be good adventure, but the cold would not let us enjoy.  My body went into violent shivering spasms bordering on convulsions as it tried to deal with the shock of the freezing cold pools.  As the freezing water extracted a terrible price on my core body temperature I did manage to swim with the pack on my head to avoid soaking the camera and the rest of the contents.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, as our bodies frantically shivered away the cold, I remembered reading that wet suits and even dry suits are mandatory gear essential for canyoneering.  Kind of like a bat in the sport of baseball.  It was too late to think about why I was swimming through ice water in my underwear, because the biggest obstacle of this adventure was now directly in front of us.  A pool with no visible bottom guarded by polished sandstone walls.  The only way was to jump, and once in, there was no way back.  Swimming with the pack on my head was not an option.  How do we keep the backpack from getting dunked?  Usually dumber than three mules, a quick thought actually came into my head.  Just like one of my childhood influences, Hannibal of the A-Team, I had a plan.  I took one end of the rope, jumped into the pool and swam across while Jill held the other.  Clipping the pack to the rope we made a line and eventually cleared the 100 feet over the pool to dryness on the other side.  Considering the circumstances it was the smartest thing I'd done since curing cancer at my last job.

FREEDOM  Finishing her rappel, Jill celebrates the end of canyoneering wretchedness.

Miserable, wretched and hovering on the grim cusp of hypothermia we reached the top of the Golden Cathedral.  Despite our state we enjoyed peering through the hole we were about to rappel through to see the final pool of water waiting at the bottom.  The final drop is 70 feet down to the pool with a little over half being a hanging rappel, meaning you just swing in space.  As soon as we reached the sandy and sunny shores of the Golden Cathedral a much needed warmth penetrated our bodies.  Considering what we had just been through the next hour of sunbathing, sans clothes, felt like the greatest beach on Earth.

Choosing a warmer pursuit for that evening's activity we hiked up dry Choprock Canyon and then up onto a bench to view the sunset.  The next morning we hiked back to the Toyota feeling glad that our first canyoneering experience was over.  Reflecting on the events of the previous day we decided that next time we would invest in a wetsuit, bring a shorter rope, and find a waterproof cover for the backpack.  Upon reaching the trailhead we met two strangers geared out in the latest canyoneering attire preparing to shoot a documentary video involving the reaction of women to 'extreme' sports like canyoneering.  I thought to myself, take your girls swimming in a slot canyon a day after it snowed without a wetsuit - that would be 'extreme.'  Of course, don't take Jill, because if you're looking for whimpering, whining, and other feminine reactions you will not get it.  Jill's as good a sport as there comes.  That's my girl.

Cactus in Choprock Canyon.


WARM AT LAST  Soaking up well-deserved last rays of the day.


SNAGGED  Posing with my favorite desert character, the snag.

-written May 2004

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