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Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
The titanium lined, 7 mm thick sleeve of Mike's wetsuit split open like parchment paper as he intently slammed his arm down on 3/4 inch thick sheets of ice to clear a swimming path for our group of five through the frigid waters at the dark bottom of the snow and ice-covered walls of the slot canyon. Blood flowed out of Michael's arm from ice lacerations. Jason, who didn't bring a wetsuit, shivered as he brooded, having to get back in the water again. Philip could no longer feel the tips of his frostbitten fingers. Mitch secured our rope in his pack since the depths of the black waters had just consumed our rope bag. Welcome to Bear Canyon in April!
The hike began at the end of FR 142E. From the parking area (6,600ft), we strolled back up the road for about 20 minutes and then turned W into the woods, where we descended quickly into a leaf-covered wash. There was no trail. We continued on a NW route back up out of this wash. There were several use paths--whether animal or human is unknown--that we crossed in this area. Within a few minutes, we were on a FR heading N toward West Clear Creek. The wash from which we came was to our E, and another narrower wash shortly appeared to our W. We descended into this wash, which led us into Bear Canyon. There were a few areas where other washes entered this wash, but it was easy navigation: head downhill. From the parking area, it took us about 1 hour at a moderate pace to get into Bear Canyon. We had hiked about 1 mile.
The canyon floor became rockier, and then the walls slotted up around us. There were some pools here and there. Some could be avoided, others were about knee-deep at the most, and we could easily walk through them. Within about 30 minutes, we came upon back-to-back drops, approximately 40 feet each, both of which could be skirted to the right with no gear and no problem. After the second drop, we quickly came upon the First Obstacle. The First Obstacle involved a go-cart-sized boulder that was wedged between the canyon walls. Just before the boulder was a human size hole. There was about a 20 ft drop down that hole to continue with the hike, which at this point turned into technical canyoneering.
We chose to secure our webbing to a boulder about 5 ft up the canyon from the wedged boulder. From there, we rappelled down the human size hole under the wedged boulder. Soon, we reached a small opening in the canyon where we could put on our wetsuits in preparation for deep water ahead. Foreboding patches of snow and formations of ice surrounded us.
With our wetsuits and harnesses on, we swam through frigid water to the next obstacle, which waited at the end of a long, deep pool. Philip was on point at this stretch, and he peered over the 1-foot lip of the pool down a 30 ft waterfall: the Second Obstacle. He climbed over to a small, one-person ledge on the right where there was a well-secured bolt. Mitch held onto the lip and fed the rope to Philip. (Note: don't put your rope bag on the lip. It's temptingly convenient, but if it falls, and there's a good chance it would there, you're done.). Philip crouched on the ledge to feed the rope through the bolt. It was difficult as his body shivered, and his hands trembled from the biting swim to this point. The rappel itself was easy enough, but the landing spot was another pool, and it was too deep to stand. There was minimal current, but bone-chilling black waters and frozen hands made the prospect of a floating disconnect undesirable. Mitch shouted down for Philip to let out slack and swim for shallower water. Fortunately, we had 100 ft rope, so we had plenty of slack. Philip swam to a small lip that divided this pool from the next and got off rope. The rest of the group used the same technique.
From the lip, Philip, who was still on point, jumped into the next pool. He could see a small widening of the canyon and a shaft of precious, warming sunlight. Soon, he was locked in the pool by a 1/2 inch thick sheet of ice... not thick enough to climb onto but thick enough to require quite a bit of energy to smash as he swam. Soon he could stand, and he bolted toward the light for a thaw. As Philip stood in the light, bare-skinned Jason, who had yet to make the second rappel and the swim thereafter, desperately shouted through the canyon walls to ask if Philip had found sunlight. Affirmative. For Jason, warming up would be even more crucial than for the rest of us. Jason then ominously asked, "is there more water?"
We thawed in this spot for about 20 minutes, and then it was time to move on into the narrow darkness, once again. Shortly, we came upon the Third (and final) Obstacle. The Third Obstacle entailed a 15 ft rappel from a chokestone into yet another pool! Secure webbing on the stone was already in place so, after careful inspection, we used it. After that, Jason took point and skillfully avoided water. In one instance, he used his hands on one side of the canyon and feet on the other side as pressure points to crawl like Spiderman perpendicular to the canyon walls and parallel with and over the water. Mitch, eager to avoid the water, too, attempted the same technique. Unfortunately, at this point, the canyon walls were wet from Jason's journey. Mitch's feet slipped out from underneath him, and he plummeted 6 feet into the narrow pool below. Mike made the same attempt and met the same fate. Fortunately, in both cases, their heads missed the narrow canyon walls, and neither was injured. Seeing this, Michael and Philip just opted to swim. Brrr!
Jason's impressive water avoidance victory was short-lived, however, as we came upon another large pool. This time, even Spiderman could not climb around or over it. Time to get wet. Mike went first. This is where he came upon the 3/4 inch thick ice sheet and split his suit. Fortunately for all of us, this was the last of the swimming pools, and the canyon opened up some in space and light again. As we rested and warmed for a while, the first of another canyoneering group emerged from the ice pool we had so nicely cleared for them. She was wearing a drysuit and drygloves. In fact, when we later saw their entire group, they all had drysuits. Really, drysuits and drygloves were what were needed in Bear Canyon this time of year.
Not yet knowing that the swimming was completely behind us, we left our wetsuits on as we hiked onward. When we felt "safe", we changed. We did a bit of rock hopping and saw a few cool drop-offs, which we scrambled around to the left. Before we knew it, we were in West Clear Creek, which lived up to its name. The water was fairly deep at the juncture of Bear Canyon and the Creek, but we could skirt it along the N bank. We hiked for about 20 minutes to a large pile of washed-up trunks and mud on the S bank. This is where we exited. We scrambled from here straight up a steep, rocky route for about 1/4 of a mile from about 6,000 feet to 6,600 ft. We were back at the truck, and if we were cold before, after this little scramble up, we were warm again.
To conclude, Bear Canyon would be a great introductory, metaphorical icebreaker for those who are interested in canyoneering. The whole trip was only about 3 miles. A little bit of orienteering was involved in getting started, which was a fun challenge. The rappels were short and relatively straightforward. The setup for the Second Obstacle was a little tight and risky, but the others were okay. Also, at the Second Obstacle, one would have the opportunity to practice a floating disconnect without much current or the convenient option of avoiding it with some slack and a swim. The adventure is waiting for those who are careful, properly equipped, respectful of the intrinsic dangers, and accompanied by at least one person who has canyoneering and rappelling experience. One little tip: wait until later in the season to do Bear Canyon lest it will be a bone-chilling icebreaker, literally.
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