James Canyon is an impressive slot canyon located just a few miles south of the city of Flagstaff in northern Arizona. Its seasonal river cuts deep into the thick Coconino sandstone formation, a trademark layer of the upper Colorado Plateau that happens to be riddled with cross-bedding and other aeolian features, displayed in perfect form as if from a textbook. To navigate the most challenging 5-mile stretch of James Canyon requires an exciting variation of rope rappels, boulder scrambling, and (of course) long swims in cold murky water. In multiple sections, the canyon narrows to a thin slot no wider than five meters. In some places, the sandstone walls tower more than 300 feet above the riverbottom. Considering its proximity to Flagstaff, the solitude and wilderness that can be found in James Canyon is really amazing.
Translation of difficulty grade 3B-II:
- Technical difficulty = 3 (some rappelling and other rope techniques are required, but nothing exceeds the typical skill-set of an experienced mountaineer)
- Water difficulty = B (long swims in slow-current water are required)
- Overall mountaineering difficulty = II (at least half of a day required to complete the objective)
SUMMARY: I navigated James Canyon with Steve, Alissa, Giselle and Max on my 23rd birthday, which was September 13th of the year 2015. Although not my first canyoneering expedition, this was my first involving technical rope work in the form of rappels and fixed-rope downclimbs. The five of us arrived to the lip of James Canyon in the early afternoon following an adventurous morning driving around the beautiful red rocks of Sedona and an historic partial ascent of Wilson Mountain. We entered the canyon as a group, but left Alissa and Max behind at the first technical section so that they could stay back and take care of Max’s dog Carson. Meanwhile: Steve, Giselle and I continued down the most exciting part of the canyon until excessive rainfall and encroaching darkness forced us to escape (by a messy class-2+ scramble) to the comfort of Flagstaff.
13 SEPTEMBER 2015
After an adventurous morning rambling around the red rocks of Sedona, the five of us locate the trailhead for James Canyon based on internet references. It’s out in the vast Ponderosa pine forest south of Flagstaff, at an intersection of a dirt road and a powerline track. We hop out of the car, ready ourselves for the canyoneering mission, and start following the powerline southward. What starts out as a gentle downhill ramp gradually becomes a steep bushy scramble along what we assume to be a small feeder wash to the main canyon itself.
With the strength of five adventurers we land on the floor of James Canyon proper. Pathetic puddles of muddy water lie scattered across a pristine white slab of Coconino sandstone.
Short walls of Coconino sandstone display the classic cross-bedding that is so familiar throughout the Colorado Plateau. Since James Canyon cuts such a deep swath through this formation, we can expect even better outcrops further downstream.
Soon we come to a distinct slot in the canyon where the sandstone walls almost pinch together. Through this slot lies a large, circular pool of water so muddy and so still that is takes on the appearance of chocolate milk.
We consider our options for getting around this obstacle. The pool is bound on both sides by vertical walls of sandstone – of the two options, the left wall is the only one that looks somewhat possible to traverse. Max and I make decent headway on the steep traverse before running into a blank, moss-covered section that forces us to retreat.
Thankfully we are able to scramble up onto the top of the right-hand canyon wall. We continue along the top of the wall, searching for a way to get back down to the canyon floor. An opportunity presents itself in the form of two fixed bolts, which we use as an anchor to rappel down the cliff.
Very soon beyond the rappel we arrive to the edge of another pool of water. Unlike the last, this one is not able to be avoided – it’s time to get wet. We realize we’ve now come to the brink of the point of no return; Alissa and Max decide to escape the canyon in order to keep watch on Carson.
“And then there were three” – Steve, Giselle and I take a collective deep breath, plunge our legs into the thigh-deep water, and wade across the pool.
The next pool is equipped (naturally or otherwise) with a network of fallen logs. Despite being dreadfully slippery, the logs provide a means for us to walk across the pool without getting wet.
We scramble over a small hump in the river-bottom slabs and suddenly come face-to-face with an incredible slot in the canyon, which we appropriately name The Keyhole. The sandstone slabs drop sheer beneath our feet to a pair of not-so-inviting potholes at the bottom of the slot, which are filled with murky brown water. Here we are required to execute a succession of canyoneering techniques. Rappelling the vertical slab involves dropping into the deep murky water from a free-hanging position (because the last few meters of the slab are severely overhung), unclipping from the rope, and frantically swimming to the opposite side of the pothole. The water is ice-cold and absolutely swarming with water-skimming insects.
We catch our breath on the thin strip of rock separating the two potholes before plunging into the frigid waters of the second pothole, again swimming desperately to the opposite shore.
From the far edge of the second pothole, the Keyhole drops eight vertical feet to the surface of a much larger body of water. Swallowing my fear of deep unknown liquid, I plunge off the lip of the pothole into the pool. The extreme cold literally takes my breath away, and initially it seems impossible to swim the entire length of the pool. But I learn, in a situation like this, that a minor amount of motivation turns into a heavy dosage of desperation. Before I know it, I’m halfway across the pool, floundering like a wounded dog yet somehow making forward progress.
I’m incredibly relieved to reach the opposite shore of the pool, until I realize that my body is soaked through to the bone. I can’t seem to catch my breath, nor can I keep from shivering violently. Giselle is in a similar state when she completes the swim. Neither of us can utter a word between uncontrollable shivers; we consider the early symptoms of hypothermia but come to the conclusion that we should tough it out. Instead of turning out of the canyon to safety, we turn to Steve for experience in guiding us to further adventure.
We walk a few hundred yards on the dry shore of the creek until we notice the walls closing in ahead of us. Matching escarpments of sheer sandstone compliment either side of the slot canyon, effectively squeezing the creek into a short but very deep pool.
Unfortunately, the walls are also effective in squeezing all types of debris into this narrow slot, including dense tree-trunks that form an underwater jigsaw puzzle for us to solve. We spend a great deal of effort rearranging the submerged logs into a pattern that allows us a passage wide enough to swim through. Steve likens this tactic to the game Rush Hour.
The water level is armpit-height on myself, slightly lower for Steve, and above the head of Giselle – meaning that the poor girl has to solve the dense jigsaw puzzle while expending energy to stay afloat in the vile, putrid water.
With considerable effort we make our way through the log-jam, emerging into a slightly wider slot with water that is just as cold, but remarkably more clear.
The next few-hundred yards of the canyon maintain a spectacular slot form. By this point, Giselle and I are on the verge of being too cold to function. Somehow we press onwards, following Steve as he alternates between wading through the creek and boulder-hopping on the shore, determining our mode of travel as he sees fit.
In addition to being a suitable “guide” for our group, Steve also serves as comedic relief to alleviate the suffering of myself and Giselle. Finding a human-sized pothole above the water-level on the canyon wall, he crouches inside it and plays peek-a-boo.
Among this section of alternating between swimming and scrambling, there are two drop-offs (each about two vertical meters in height) to negotiate. Thankfully both of these drop-offs are generously equipped with fixed ropes, which we utilize to descend safely without having to dunk our heads under the water.
The obstacles in James Canyon are varied, including reptiles! We learn this fact upon discovering a bull snake (?) outstretched and effectively camouflaged on a moss-covered boulder.
Razor-cold water, sketchy scrambling, potentially hazardous reptiles… given these inherent challenges, one might assume that the onset of a rainstorm would be the last straw, enough to drive us out of the canyon and to the safety of the car. However, our bodies are already so cold and wet that we hardly notice the raindrops at all. That is to say, we see and hear the rain before we feel it. If anything, it adds to the whole canyoneering experience. I sing a pathetic, barely audible “happy birthday” to myself.
The upcoming section of canyon calls for the longest swim yet. Keeping our heads above the surface of the water, the three of us doggy-paddle through a submerged slot for a distance of over fifty yards.
A remarkable thing happens when I emerge from the deep water. Instead of growing ever colder (as before), I suddenly feel warm. The shivering ceases, and Giselle and I are once again able to speak to one another in full sentences. “We’re madmen!” I exclaim, throwing my dripping-wet face to the sky and unleashing a hysterical cackle.
Madmen indeed, to be canyoneering on a day like this, but our spirits are overflowing with joyful exuberance and natural curiosity.
For the next several-hundred yards, the canyon widens out, the sheer rock walls give way to brush-choked slopes, and the water level drops noticeably. We deduce that we might be nearing the culmination of James Canyon proper… that is, until we reach the lip of the Garden of Eden.
The Garden of Eden is a name that we give to the section of canyon below us. Here are the finest exposures of Coconino sandstone mingled with a myriad of trees sprouting from the lush canyon floor. We share a laugh at our naïve assumption that our canyoneering mission might have been drawing to a close. Now it becomes painfully clear that we have a great deal of unknown land to cover before reaching the end of the canyon. We soak in the view (and the rain) while pondering what step to take next in our journey.
Our primary concern is time. None of us are in possession of a watch, and cloud-cover succeeds in obscuring the arc of the sun. This means that we have no idea what hour it might be. We hazard a guess that our pre-determined meeting time (5:30pm) with Alissa and Max back at the vehicle is likely to be nearing.
As a trio, we decide to rappel down into the Garden of Eden and then take advantage of the next available opportunity to exit the canyon. This rappel is the most exciting of the three in James Canyon, descending a 50-foot sheer cliff painted with colorful oxidation patterns and smudges of lush green moss.
Once in the Garden of Eden, we continue downstream while scanning the sides of the canyon for a break in the cliffs that might afford a safe escape. The walls increase in height with each probing step down the canyon. Looking a short ways ahead, we see that the waterway makes an abrupt 90-degree turn to the left (away from where we left our vehicle), thus forming a continuous 300-foot wall of sandstone. Because we’ve pulled the rope that we used to abseil into the Garden of Eden, there’s no turning back. All we can do is hope for an opportunity to escape the canyon depths.
The walls get steeper and taller, causing us to feel increasingly anxious. We attempt to make light of the situation by envisioning stellar rock-climbing routes on the fantastic sandstone walls.
Eventually we locate a break in the cliffs where we are able to scramble up and out of the canyon using hands and feet. It’s a messy escape, but sufficient to get us back to the upper plateau.
Safely out of the depths of the canyon and up on the forested plateau, the three of us rely on our collective internal compass to guide us back to the vehicle. Miraculously, we arrive at precisely 5:30pm, our pre-determined time of meeting! Alissa and Max are there waiting for us.
The whole crew heads back to our home in Flagstaff and proceeds with the obligatory birthday celebrations. This was arguably one of my most adventurous birthdays to date; only fitting that we should conclude the journey with cake and beer.