On May 3rd, a group of five of us--Jim, Joanne, Mitch, Rob, and I--headed up from the Ol' Pueblo to immerse ourselves in Salome Canyon--Nature's Waterpark. We hiked down the well-graded trail into the canyon and enjoyed sweeping views of Lake Roosevelt, Four Peaks, and Dutchwoman Butte. When we hit an area with several Cottonwoods, we made our easy descent to some Salome pools. There, the wiser in our group changed into wetsuits. The reports I had read were ambivalent on the subject of wetsuits for Salome this time of year. Let me end the controversy right now: WEAR A WETSUIT this time of year! You are pretty much in the water the whole time once you descend from the trail, and the water is beyond refreshingly crisp! We three "skins" made it through just fine and had a blast, but boy oh boy would a wetsuit have been nice! Brrrrrrr! Also on the subject of floatation--BRING SOME this time of year. You will be swimming through several long, deep pools with your gear. My dry bag did the trick (and was also absolutely necessary to keep things dry).
As we progressed into the waterpark, we enjoyed boulder hopping, pool wading and swimming, and zipping down several natural water slides---yahooooo! One more plug for the wetsuit here--more comfort for the derriere on the waterslides! I brought along a helmet for the rappel; however, I ended up putting it on earlier than that because there were plenty of opportunities to bang my head onto something. I also wore gloves. There were a surprising number of people in the Salome--we saw at least 20, several of whom were kids from a scout troop. A bit of a traffic jam formed at the point of no return--the 40 foot drop into Salome Jug. There are two ways to drop into the Jug depending on conditions. One way is to follow the narrow route of the waterfall. The other is to clamber along the canyon wall about 10 feet past the waterfall and then rappel down from there. Because the waterfall was gushing with tremendous velocity, Rob, the most experienced of our rappellers, made the decision to 86 that route in favor of the dry rappel.
At this point, Jim pulled out an old harness he had brought along for me. I looked at it and thought, "why is such a seemingly simple device looking so complicated to me at this moment?" Jim and Joanne helped me put it on and the three of us just couldn't get it to fit quite right. That's when it hit me. Perhaps I should have tried it on before standing in a pool of frigid water, holding onto my pack with one hand to keep it from plunging over a 40 ft waterfall. Having never rappelled before, perhaps I should have taken a class on rappeling or at least read something about it on the internet or had some freakin' clue! Not too bright. I was disappointed in myself for my utter lack respect and preparation for this moment. Fortunately, we got the harness squared away and Rob, Jim & Joanne were excellent teachers. I felt totally confident and secure once we got going. Standing around in anticipation, shivering in my soggy cotton t-shirt was the worst part.
I had been warned that you don't hit the ground at the bottom of this rappel; you hit water, right under that fire hose waterfall. You have to do a "floating disconnect." Even the terminology sounded intimidating. As I paused about halfway down and saw that water pounding deep, hard, and fast into the pool below, I said screw the floating disconnect. I worked my way down to about 5 feet above the water and swung myself off the wall like Tarzan to land on the bit of ledge where Jim was anchoring our rope. It worked! Cool.
As our group sat on the ledge at the base of the waterfall, waiting for Rob to come on down, we heard a muffled yelp. Then silence. We looked up--Rob was fine. Then we heard it again. From where was it coming? Then we saw a man dangling from a rope at the base of the waterfall! The rope was tied around his torso like a noose. He was hanging helplessly trying to keep his head above the current of the pool and yet gasping for air in the gush of the waterfall pounding down on his face. "Help!" was his muffled yell. We shouted up to Rob to yell over to this guy's group to give him some slack! After they gave him some slack, he was pushed free from the waterfall and we threw him a line. Falling into Jim, I used my body weight to pull this chap out of the water. He fell to his knees and was in complete shock for about 3 minutes. He came around as Joanne calmed him down.
It turns out that this fellow was with the scout troop. Apparently someone in their group had gone down the fall with just a rope around the waist later in the season last year, when the fall was but a trickle. They thought the same technique would work today. It absolutely did not. I am quite certain that had there not been others such as ourselves around, the man that we rescued would have been killed. He was completely helpless hanging there and would have had no way to communicate with his group above that could not see him nor hear his muffled cries for help. We shouted up to Rob to tell the troop to turn back, not an easy journey at this point, but certainly less perilous than the route onto which the group had sent this man. The troop listened to our advice. A tragedy that certainly would have gotten worse was avoided.
The man was out of drinking water and inflated his empty camelbak to provide some floatation for his exhausted body as we swam together out of the last of the pools, the largest and the coldest, with the exception of the final pool which was relatively warm due to its exposure at the mouth of the canyon.
After thawing out at the mouth, we headed up a wonderfully maintained, steep trail to the main trail on which we had started this adventure. Back in the parking lot, I was pleased to see that the scouts had made it out alright. One of the scouts was the son of the man whom we had rescued, and I could see the father's endearing epiphany as they were reunited.
The hike into Salome Canyon is lovely, the early pools are gentle and inviting, and the rigor of the canyoneering picks up as you head toward the climactic waterfall--the point of no return. From there, the remaining pools and hike out provide the perfect denouement. Salome is Nature's Waterpark. It is filled with beauty and fun; however, as our story showed us, it also lurks with underestimated danger and demands both sense and sensibility.