Aug. 20, 2017
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Chavez Canyon presents the rare slot canyon in New Mexico.
Brett Kettering

Backyard Canyoneering

Explorations in local slots seek out the best of what New Mexico canyon country has to offer

March 22, 2017, 12:00 am

The first time Brett Kettering and Daniel Creveling lowered themselves into Pajarito Gorge near White Rock, they had only a vague image of what they were getting into. The committed canyoneers were searching for home-turf, a place they could train and practice with others members of Los Alamos Mountaineers. They’d stared at what looked like a gigantic drop while climbing nearby, wondering what waited off the edge, and hiked either end of the gorge, peering down and up its extremities.

“We finally decided one day, ‘Oh, let’s go do it,’” Kettering says.

They used natural features to build an anchor, secured a rope and tossed one end down, leaning over to see it touch the next ledge. Then they rappelled into the narrow chambers of rock, lit by the ambient glow of sun striking the far canyon wall and baking the thread of the Rio Grande flanked by piñon and sand far below.

Three times, they’d have to set gear, rappel—sometimes into and around potholes carved deeper than anyone has yet to determine—then pull the ropes down after them, eventually arriving at the bottom of a boulder field. The hike out meant scrambling up heaped black basalt to reach nearby trail systems.

The canyon catches rainy season runoff and the detritus that comes with it, car parts and mangled bicycles among the garbage. But still, it’s like a beautiful secret, a space few visit, reachable only by those trained in the technical aspects of canyoneering and willing to brave the possibility of stuck ropes, flash floods and rattlesnakes as well as the near certainty of wet boots.

Their first descent may have been the first time anyone dropped into that canyon in this style, but now, Creveling revisits it to see traces of others having traveled there. It’s becoming popular.

Like so many outdoor sports, stare too long at canyoneering and its contrivances prompt existential crises. Why climb to the top of a cliff just to be lowered back to its bottom? Why seek out a route through slot-like canyons and jumbled terrain with mandatory rappelling and views deliberately limited to the stretch of rock wall right in front of you? Why descend a canyon just to hike back out of it?

“I sometimes say canyoneering is like hiking through canyons with some rappelling thrown in, so you get to hike through canyons and see some interesting things,” Kettering says. “But there’s a little bit more adventurous aspect to it in that you get to rig a rope and rappel. I like also the fun of figuring out, ‘How am I going to build a good anchor here?’”

That problem-solving is appealing, Creveling echoes, but so is the sense of adventure and exploration.

“You get to see things that aren’t usually accessible, so they’re usually more pristine than other areas because not a lot of people go through there,” he says.

Heavy rains in September 2013 sent huge columns of water through Pajarito Gorge, and a boulder the size of a small Volkswagen they used as an anchor disappeared.

“It’s completely gone. There’s no sign of it,” Kettering says, surmising that it shattered on the canyon floor. “Those kinds of things happen, right? The canyon changes. You get these big water events, and all the sudden what used to be an anchor is no longer there.”

The two connected through Los Alamos Mountaineers, where both instruct and lead trips. The gorge is now a test piece for those looking to get on board with that organization’s outings.

Kettering enrolled in one of their courses looking for more skills to pursue his hobby of “high pointing,” visiting the tallest summit in every state. But canyoneering hooked him, and he and Creveling began exploring nearby options rather than traveling all the way to the well-known canyon country in southern Utah.

After venturing into Chavez Canyon, near the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiú, Kettering recounts, “We thought, ‘There’s got to be some more interesting stuff maybe closer to home.’”

That fueled poking around nearby canyons. The process for setting a new route starts with hiking either end of it, taking GPS readings and comparing elevations from the top and bottom to estimate the number of rappels required. Those explorations are still underway. If the trip goes poorly—if a rope gets stuck or the route dead-ends—there’s equipment to ascend the rope, and plenty of stories about the time someone climbed up only to discover the rope holding their body weight on some breathtakingly small feature. Hair-raising near-misses aside, the buzz online about get-togethers through and new routes points to a growing interest.

So, why? At the bottom of the gorge, still shady on a day with temperatures rapidly ramping up, it’s quiet and cool beside the murky pool left from recent rain. There, the scenery functions like a haiku, made richer by its brevity.

The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community.


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