I started canyoneering in Southern Utah a few years ago, and one of my favourite activities down there is what we refer to as a “Midnight Keyhole” – a descent of Keyhole Canyon, in Zion National Park, at night. Keyhole is an ideal canyon for a night descent. It is very short – takes about 45 minutes or less, car to car, for a capable party. It has a couple of short swims, so needs a wetsuit, but is close enough to the road that you can hike in and back out with the wetsuit on. There are two short rappels, some easy downclimbing, and a few beautiful skinny sections.
Exiting from a Midnight Keyhole descent, Zion National Park.
I’ve descended Keyhole at night two or three times with fun groups, and this spring I descended it at night solo. What an incredible experience! I used a headlamp until I was done with the rappels, then did the subsequent swims, wades, and easy downclimbs entirely by feel, and the tiny bit of moonlit that filtered into the canyon.
For the last couple of years, Jeff and Damien and I have thought about how cool it would be to descend Cypress Creek, in West Vancouver, at night. It is relatively short (2-3 hours), and close to the city. It involves four rappels and a number of short jumps. It took on almost mythical status – we talked frequently about doing a “Nightpress” trip, and mentioned it to other canyon friends as well.
This past week, Chris mentioned that the coming Friday would be a full moon, with nice weather and clear skies – and what a perfect time it would be for Nightpress. With a little discussion, we decided on Thursday for the descent (as I had to work on Friday night).
Great crew! Damien, Jeff, Chris, and Maarten
And so it was that five of us met up at the parking lot at Cypress at 9 o’clock Thursday night. We packed up our gear, and Jeff handed out glow sticks to the participants, as well as a couple of extra waterproof flashlights he had kicking around (it’s good to have a gear junkie in the group!) At 9:25, we started up the trail for the drop-in point.
We managed to make it all the way to the point of the ridge, where you drop steeply into the gorge, without using headlamps. At that point they were definitely needed! We dropped down, and donned our wetsuits.
Preparing to start the first rappel
At 10:15, we were rigging the first rappel. It was pitch black – the moon wasn’t nearly high enough to reach into the canyon. Damien went first, dropping into the abyss filled with rushing water. OK, half-filled with rushing water – the creek was pretty low, with the current drought conditions!
Jeff’s light at the top of the first rappel
We each rapped down, in turn, with our puny headlamps providing a small circle of comfort, with a whole lot of “unknown” all around us! For some of the photo opportunities, one or two large flashlights would be pointed at the rappeler as they descended; half the time, they only made it more difficult to see what was around you on the way down!
Pool at the second rappel
The section of canyon from the third rappel to the footbridge and fourth rappel can often seem to drag when descending the canyon in the day; it is a fairly long stretch of boulder walking. Walking it in the dark is rather a different experience, as all your concentration is focused on the small pool of light in which you and your companions are traveling. All attention is trained on aiming your light at your feet, in order to avoid tripping. At one point, one of my companions remarked that doing the canyon at night sure made that boulder walk pass quickly. Five minutes later, another companion stated that it certainly made the boulder walk seem to take forever. Such a subjective experience.
Chris on rappel three
We eventually reached the final rappel, and sequenced our way down to the pool below. Chris went first, as he wanted to set up his tripod and camera to attempt capturing some of the rappelers descending. He went all the way to the pool.
Jeff approaching the jump at the end of the final rappel
I descended next, and got off the rope at the final ledge, about 4 meters above the pool. I was, again, surrounded by a pitiful pool of light (from my non-waterproof headlamp), being drenched by a heavy rain of water on all sides. I pulled out my bright (waterproof) flashlight, and sized up the best location in the pool for the jump. I tossed down my pack, extinguished the flashlight, and hurled myself off the ledge. It was an interesting drop, one I’ve done many times before, in daylight, that seemed completely new in the dark.
A fine splash from a jumper!
Finally, all of us were down the final rappel, the rope pulled smoothly, and on we went. The jump that followed immediately was also a good one in the dark. In fact, Jeff and Damien both climbed back up the side, and did the jump again from a couple of meters higher!
We reached the exit point, and debated whether to continue down to the big pool jump just down canyon. Jeff and Damien and I decided to go for it. We jumped off the big ledge on canyon left, then climbed up to another stance on canyon right. This one was about 6 meters above the pool, and was very spooky – yet exhilarating – in the dark. After a couple jumps each off this spot, we decided we’d better get on our way, if we wished to get any sleep that night at all!
Some of the jumping during our Nightpress expedition:
We hiked up and out, and were back at the cars around 1 AM. A quick change, a quick beverage (thanks, Maarten!) and we were on our way before 1:30.
An unforgettable trip, with a great crew, that is just begging for a repeat! I was joking with the guys that maybe that’s where we ought to be celebrating New Years… HA!
Jeff and I had been looking for possible canyons to descend in the Southwest BC area for a while. One watercourse, Gonzales Creek, had caught his eye as potentially containing a combination of steep descents with an entrenched creek – equaling possible rappels, and if we were very lucky, some interesting narrows.
Unfortunately, on the first day of September, Jeff had an unpleasant jumping experience in a pool in Cypress Creek, and broke his ankle – taking him out of action for the balance of the BC canyon season. However, he did encourage us to go in and have a look at what Gonzales Creek was hiding. On September 24, Artem, Dmitri and I went to see.
Red line is the Petgill Lake Trail. Blue Line is Gonzales Creek.
The day was kind of gloomy, with rainshowers threatening. Dmitri was slowed by traffic, coming from the east. I needed to make a stop for coffee and lunch supplies on the way. It wasn’t until almost 8:30 that we left West Vancouver and turned the corner near Horseshoe Bay, heading up Howe Sound.
We started off by dropping a vehicle at the exit point from Gonzales Creek at Highway 99, and walked up the lower part of the creek for a bit. We reached the bottom of a waterfall, and looked at how much water was coming down. Then we thought long and hard about actually entering the creek.
Waterfall at the bottom of Gonzales Creek. We thought we could get through this just fine – but if, further up the canyon, it all funneled into a narrow spot? And had a long drop? Then how comfortable would we be with it…?
For a while, we thought about the possibilities: The days are short. The canyon could get skinny. There could be very long drops. There could be long sections without escape. Just that amount of flow was disconcerting… At one point, while we were pretty ambivalent, I almost called it: No. But then Artem said that it was in his nature to go for it, to go until he reached something that actually made him stop, rather than call something off preemptively. This reminded me of something I’ve heard a friend say before: If you’re afraid to do something, viewing it from a distance (a climb, a descent, whatever it may be…) then go right up to it and touch it. If at that point, you decide not to do it, fine. But you may find that it isn’t as scary up close as you thought it was at a distance.
It was now almost 9:30. I said, “Well, let’s hurry up and go for it!” We headed back up to Murrin Park, got all our gear ready, and started up the Petgill Lake trail at 10:10.
The trail is about 6km long, and gains 645m (plus a bit more, as there are a few gullies that one traverses up and down on the way in.) With all the wetsuits, ropes, and other equipment we were carrying, it was a fairly grueling ascent. Added to that, the rain that came and went during the hike did not help us enjoy the trip.
We reached the lake at 12:15, after over two hours of hiking. We suited up, and walked around the lake to its outlet. (Except for Artem – he got right into the lake in his wetsuit, and waded/swam to the outlet!) The time was now 12:45, and only a little over 6 hours of daylight remained… GPS said we had 1.6km to the highway (as the crow flies), and a descent of about 670m to go.
The outlet from the lake was quite bushy, and only had a little water running in it.
The small creek exiting Petgill Lake was very bushy.
The outlet from Petgill Lake opens up a little bit before joining Gonzales Creek.
After about 150 meters or so, we joined the main creek, where a LOT more water was running. It was now a few minutes after 1:00. There followed some blocky downclimbing, and a bunch of boulder walking. Some of the downclimbing was kind of interesting, and it was pleasant enough – but nothing special. Had the flow been lower, it would have been downright boring.
Some of the walking and scrambling in Gonzales.
Just after 2:00 I pulled out the GPS, to check our progress. We seemed to be travelling forward OK, but hadn’t dropped particularly far. The GPS showed the highway to be 1.02km away, and still 550m down. We had covered 1/3 of the distance, but only 1/5 of the elevation. The lines on the GPS looked like the bottom would drop out very soon. It did!
Artem approaches the first rappel in Gonzales Creek (at the pointy rock, sticking up beyond the log)
At 2:15, we reached the first rappel. The flow of the creek split in two, half down one side of a boulder, half down the other side. The rap was only about 6 meters high, but was almost immediately followed by another, about 15 meters along. It looked like there was no escape route from the bottom of this rappel, but there might be from the next.
I dropped down the first rappel. Even with only half the flow of the creek, it was a brutal trip down through the full brunt of the cascade, and into a small alcove behind it. I was equipped to ascend the rope if required, and scouted the next rappel while the others waited above. It looked like the rappel would be doable, but was followed immediately by another. It did look like it would be possible to exit the canyon on the right if necessary. I signaled to Dmitri and Artem to follow me down the first rappel.
Once they reached the next stance, we discussed our options. By now it was about 2:45, and there was still a lot of canyon to cover. Because there was an exit visible into the trees after the next rappel (number two), we decided that we would look at rappel number three, but likely escape the canyon to the right.
Rappel two was to the left of a boulder, where all the water was going right. At the bottom however, the water came in from the side, and was just about impossible to avoid. The rappel ended in a pool, with the full force of the cascade joining there. Artem went first.
Artem finishes rappel two, and scouts the top of rappel three. The exit is just beyond the log angling up. Much steeper than it looks!
Dmitri followed Artem down, but had a little slip into the full flow at the bottom of the rappel. In a moment, though, he was out of the cascade, and moving across the pool.
Dmitri on rappel two.
A few minutes later, I joined them at the top of rappel number three. At this point, both Dmitri and I were starting to feel pretty chilly. We were tempted by the thought of exiting and walking down through the trees for a while. Artem had a proposal for us, though. We could see that there were at least a couple of drops in short succession ahead. We would set up a rappel, using the 60m rope, and he would head down to the next drop. Looking down, if it looked reasonable to get down that drop, and there appeared to be an exit or reasonable anchor after that (we could see that the canyon opened a bit shortly afterwards) then he would continue down the next stage. Otherwise, he would ascend the rope, and we would exit.
This sounded fair enough to Dmitri and I, and we watched Artem head down rappel three. He stood for a long time at the brink of the next drop, weighing the options. After a few minutes, I decided that if Artem was uncertain about it, then it was probably a better idea to just escape. I blew my whistle, and he looked up. I beckoned at him to come back up. Artem nodded and started back towards us.
Artem scoping the next drop – either rappel four or the second stage of rappel three.
Artem getting another angle on the next drop.
While Artem started up the rope, Dmitri and I started exploring our escape route. The first section was very steep, with loose soil and very exposed to the canyon below. I put Dmitri on a belay, and he headed up to the first large tree away from the precipice, and anchored the rope there.
Artem ascending rappel three
When Artem got back, he described how at the next drop, the full current appeared unavoidable – it all dropped onto an angled slab, then channeled down a narrow groove on the left. We handlined up into the forest. The time was now about 4:00.
The treed slope was very steep, and began to bluff out, forcing us back into the canyon itself. The route down was incredibly precarious, and we made full use of all the small trees, embedded rocks, and roots that we could find. Finally we were back in the canyon, at the bottom of the skinny slot waterfall that Artem had seen from above.
Narrow, unavoidable waterfall, bottom of rappel three
Just below this, we were able to rappel down beside the next waterfall, staying right out of the flow until we got to the pool at the bottom.
Dmitri rapping beside a waterfall
The waterfall we avoided, by coming down the groove on the left of the photo
We were able to scramble down canyon for another twenty minutes or so, then came to another waterfall. By keeping to canyon right, we were able to take a dry fork that rejoined the main channel.
Down a dry fork, about three stages.
After this rappel, the time was about 5:45, and we were starting to get concerned about daylight. We scrambled down the canyon a bit more, then exited to the left. For a while, there was some good progress made through the trees, descending steeply, but not too steeply.
Descending through the trees and moss
It began to get steeper, but there were also tantalizing views to the right of a couple of nice waterfalls in the creek.
Nice waterfalls beside us
The slope got steeper and steeper.
Steeper slopes in the forest. The angle is steeper than it looks in the photo – and became scarier, but I put the camera away!
At this point, it was also beginning to get quite dim. We tried a few different routes (Over the saddle? Nope, doesn’t help. Follow this bench? Nope, it peters out. Along this ledge? Yep, it seems to go…) and finally reached a steep slope back to the creek. Artem and Dmitri got down, but I was really sketched out, and it was getting hard for me to evaluate the footing in the twilight. I sat by a big ol’ tree about 15 meters above the creek, and set up a rappel. Down I went and met the others. As I pulled the rope, it snagged on a small dead tree, and brought that down toward me. Artem saw it happening, and called “Tree! Tree!” to me. I ducked in close to the slope, and a 10cm thick log sailed over my head into the pool beside me.
This part of the canyon consisted of lots of smaller, blocky cascades. There was too much water, and the drops were a little too large to make them downclimbable. It would have been one “nuisance rappel” after another, for a while.
We escaped into the trees on the right side of the canyon, and after a few minutes descending the easier slopes, we stopped to don our headlamps and have a quick bite to eat. We could hear vehicles on the highway below us now, and knew we were getting close.
After about a half an hour descending by headlamp, we came to an open, brushy area. Turning off our headlamps, we could make out a rocky slope off to our left – a slope we had ascended earlier to view the lower part of the creek. Rather than beat our way through the grasping, snaggy brush, we headed back up into the trees, then trended back toward the creek. In a couple of more minutes, we were back to where we had been almost eleven hours earlier.
A careful, headlamp-lit descent down the bouldery, rocky ramp, and we were at the highway, two minutes from the car.
We reached the parking area right at 8:00, and there were high fives all around! The canyon had a few rappels and waterfalls that might have been rather nice in lower flow, but there was a lot of boulder walking and work involved to visit something that, frankly, was nothing to write home about. The main thing was, we were able to go in, see what was there, and escape again unscathed.
The trip may not have been productive, but we had a big day out, had some great experiences, learned something about canyon exploration and ourselves, and did so without any injuries or an unplanned bivouac. I’d have to say that makes it a successful trip!
1. Hike start 2. Petgill Lake 3. Join Gonzales Creek 4. Rappels begin 5. Final escape to the right 6. Creek meets highway
On July 17th, Jeff, Fix and I descend Box Canyon, near Squamish. This is a beautiful, sculpted granite and basalt canyon full of flowing water.
A view into the middle of Box from the rim
It is the first time that Jeff and I are descending the canyon, so naturally I take a bunch of photos on the way through, with my two year old Olympus Tough TG-310. As I arrive at the bottom of the very last rappel, I reach for the camera hanging from my harness… and it is gone. With great difficulty over the roaring water, I holler up for Jeff and Fix to look for it up above, but no luck. It has either disappeared higher up the canyon, or has fallen into a pool where no one can spot it.
The bottom of the final rappel in Box Canyon.
Thirteen days later, I return with Jeff, my son Perrin, and Artem, and try to watch for my camera in the lower part of the canyon. From viewing Jeff’s photos and video, we figure it is somewhere between the seventh and eighth rappels. There are a lot of swirling pools and rushing water. I expect nothing, and sure enough find nothing…
Bottom of the seventh rappel in Box Canyon.
I go through again with Thomas on August 16th. It’s now been over four weeks. I barely glance down on the way through – what are the chances of finding the camera, never mind finding it intact?
Top of the seventh rappel in Box Creek
This past weekend, August 31, I descend the canyon yet again. There has been a monstrously large thunderstorm thirty-six hours previously, and absolute torrents of water have flushed out the canyon.
A pool at the bottom of rappel four in Box Creek.
Fifteen of us struggle our way through a canyon that is roaring (and delightful!)
Ilze descends the chute of rappel five in Box Creek.
Just after the seventh rappel, Ilze looks into a pool of water, and spots my red camera! My theory is that the camera had been in a higher pool where it was less visible, and washed into a shallower pool during the storm. Nobody tells me about it, until we reach the end of the trail, where we will meet the boat to take us back to Squamish. At that point, it is presented to me with great fanfare!
After more than six weeks in a canyon pool, it works!
The amazing thing: it is beaten, it is battered; it has spent over six weeks submerged in a turbulent pool of roaring canyon water… And it still works! Olympus, your “Tough” camera is indeed rugged! (Those marks on the back are scratches – the display is unbroken, and works perfectly!)
On Wednesday, February 20, Kevin, Jeff and Fix went on a short trip through the lower part of Brothers Creek, descending the portion between the Crossover Trail, to just below the Skyline Trail. There was a lot of snow at the drop-in point (2077 feet), and some where we exited (1650 feet); we were also snowed on for the whole trip.
There were a couple of nice downclimbs shortly after the drop-in, followed by some nasty log jams. just above the Skyline Trail, there was a really nice waterfall rappel. We rigged it with a retrievable 2-ring webbing anchor off a tree on canyon left. A beautifully carved pothole was located at the bottom of the waterfall.
After passing below the Skyline Trail, there was a burly downclimb through a log jam, then we used a handline off a log to descent a short waterfall. The gorge was fairly nice at this point, but we were a little chilly, and approaching private land, so we escaped up and to the left, passing below the powerlines to rejoin the Skyline Trail back to the car.
The creek wasn’t particularly special, but was a great winter’s day out in marginal weather, in fine company. Hard to complain about that!