Outside Insight | Trial by Ice

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Canyoning Guide Jake Huddleston considers risk and assumption on a November adventure and learning experience.
Jake Huddleston Jake Huddleston
Canyoning Leader & Guide
November 10, 2020

It was a bitterly cold day in early November, and our small group of four canyoneers had just donned our wetsuits on the hillside above the canyon. The cold weather meant water levels in the glacier-fed river were at their lowest for the year, a key consideration when descending a deep, narrow slot canyon that has never been explored before.

Canyoning is the sport of descending steep watercourses, which often involves a combination of rappelling, jumping, swimming, downclimbing, and hiking. Obstacles can include waterfalls, deep pools, and swift water with recirculating currents. Wetsuits, harnesses, and helmets are standard gear. Canyoning is in its infancy in the PNW, with many “first descents” yet to be done. The four of us were an experienced first descent team, having explored many canyons together, and we had been eyeing this canyon in Tieton for months, waiting for the right conditions to make an attempt.

On a reconnaissance trip in October, we dropped into the canyon and ran only the final rappel sequence. In the process we caught a glimpse of the upper, still undescended section. The exploratory season for canyoning typically reaches its peak in September. We knew conditions wouldn’t be ideal for a full descent without a streak of cool, dry weather, unlikely after October. However, we spotted a potential window and decided to try for a run of the entire canyon.

The Descent

We woke up early and began our approach hike in the dark. Our team was a group of five, with four of us planning to descend the canyon and meet the fifth at the bottom at the end of the day. This was a big endeavor, particularly with the limited daylight in November. Nevertheless, we made good time and several hours later we were suited up and dropping in. We were excited. We knew this was going to be one of the most beautiful canyons we had explored yet.

As we expected, the water was very cold. Our first waterfall was 30 feet high and coated with ice around the main fall line. We found a spot to rig an anchor and began descending, kicking off sheets of ice as we went. Several drops later, we reached the entrance rappel into the main narrows. Undeterred by the conditions so far, we descended and pulled our ropes. We were committed.

As the canyon narrowed in around us, we encountered the first of our real problems. The normally dry ledges of rock next to each pool were covered in thick sheets of ice from the fine spray in the canyon. Most attempts to climb out resulted in sliding back into the pools. It didn’t take long for us to realize the seriousness of the situation. Not being able to climb out and move about the rock impeded our ability to escape the freezing cold water, as well as our ability to look for safer rappel routes out of the main flow.

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Thick ice coats the canyon walls as the team leads a rappel. Photo by Kevin Steffa.

We managed to make slow progress down several rappels, though the biting cold was beginning to affect us all, both physically and mentally. With little warning, our efforts were interrupted by a huge splash in the pool just a few feet away from our group. We all stared in horror as a massive icicle, weighing at least 50lbs, bobbed in the water. We realized that the sun had come out, warming the rim of the canyon and causing chunks of ice to detach, the consequences of which were the same as falling rock. It was no longer just a matter of navigating the cold and icy conditions to get through the canyon ­— we had to get out before one of us was struck by falling ice, a potentially deadly situation.

The sense of urgency in our team was immediately apparent. Our priority now was to make it out as quickly as possible using any means necessary. We broke out our emergency bolting kit, and one of my teammates belayed me out to an edge to look for a suitable location to place one. The slippery ice prevented me from reaching a spot where I could access bare rock. I resorted to chipping away at the ice with my hammer, desperate to find enough surface area to place the bolt.

It took me 45 cold minutes to set the anchor and rappel forty feet down to the next pool. My teammate who had belayed me at the top came down next. He yelled for help upon entering the pool, and I had to pull him out myself. He told me that while standing in the chilly pool above, his legs had gone numb through his wetsuit, making it very difficult to swim or stand. I helped him to the side of a gravel bar and sat him down. He was shivering and was having difficulty communicating. I immediately knew that he was in the early stages of hypothermia.

The rest of the group came down and we discussed our teammate’s condition. We had to decide whether to spend time and energy getting him warm again, or to keep moving as quickly as possible to get to a safer location. We decided to keep moving, taking care to monitor and assist him. Even with dry clothes and warming supplies in our packs, spending a night in these frigid conditions could be deadly for all of us.

Fortunately at this point, we realized we were very close to the end of the canyon. After navigating several more obstacles, we reached the final rappel sequence.  We offered to lower our cold teammate first if he could not rappel on his own, but he insisted on doing it himself, despite the pain of the feeling in his legs beginning to return. He yelled in agony as he rappelled, struggling just to keep himself upright through the flow.

Soon, we were all down and out. Our saving grace was our fifth team member who hadn’t joined us in the canyon. Anticipating that we would be cold, he had made a fire. He had nearly put it out to meet us at the trailhead when we made our exit from the canyon. We spent a very long time by that fire. Four hours later we were all back at the cars, warm, dry, and most importantly — alive.

Reflection

I have thought about this day many times, wondering how we could have approached this trip differently and considering the warning signs we may not have taken into account.

First and foremost, I think our group made a number of assumptions that day about the canyon’s conditions which should have required further discussion. Perhaps the most obvious factor of all was the unusually icy conditions. Even though we had run icy canyons before, we underestimated the amount of ice and the problems it would cause. In hindsight, the ice was a red flag that we should have discussed as a team as soon as we encountered it.


 This article originally appeared in our Fall 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

MAIN PHOTO: Taking a rest in the heart of the canyon. Photo by Kevin Steffa.

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