How to hike a canyon without leaving a trace

Sutteer shares tales of his canyoneering adventures

Canyoneering is popular at nearby Arches National Park, where these photographs were taken in 2013, left, and 2010. Local expert Brett Sutteer told an audience during a presentation at the Grand County Library that canyoneers have joined other outdoor recreationists in following a leave no trace philosophy.
Photos courtesy of the National Park Service/Wikimedia Commons

Local canyoneering expert Brett Sutteer is well connected within the local canyoneering community, making him a prime candidate to speak about the outdoor activity and its history.

During his lecture at the Grand County Library on Feb. 21 titled, “The Evolution of Canyoneering on the Colorado Plateau,” Sutteer shared some of his experiences navigating the narrow valleys of Utah and Arizona.

“It seems to me that everyone who actually goes out and goes to [canyoneer] falls in love with it,” he said.

Canyoneering, the sport of exploring canyons, requires a variety of skills. While some canyon routes are accessible via walking, scrambling and bouldering, others are more complex, particularly on the Colorado Plateau.

The Colorado Plateau encompasses the Four Corners region of the Southwest United States and is large enough to nearly touch the northern and western borders of Utah. Among the locations for canyoneering in the region are the wilderness areas of Zion National Park, the narrows of the Grand Canyon and, of course, the slots of Arches National Park.

Canyoneering is not typically an individual endeavor. Sutteer has navigated many canyons in the Four Corners region alongside other avid adventurers. Sometimes an extra hand, leg or body is needed when the exit threshold of the climb just out of reach.

The challenge of canyoneering is similar to those of hiking, climbing and navigation. Canyoneers may find themselves descending a rock face just as they are getting out of a pool of freezing water.

In one of the video clips Sutteer shared from his trips, his travel group can be seen trudging through muddy sand, getting covered in silt and mud nearly up to the waist. It was the only way through that section of the canyon.

During his lecture, Sutteer addressed the logistics of rappelling and rafting on these trips given the other, diverse obstacles that one must face. One such challenge, perhaps the primary one, is making the typical one-way canyoneering trip without leaving behind any equipment.

It might not be obvious how one would rappel down a 50-foot drop without leaving behind rope, bolts, carabiners or other gear, but it is possible, and according to Sutteer, figuring out how to do it is part of the fun of canyoneering.

Sutteer presented a quote that he attributed to Tom Jones, a canyoneering equipment maker: “If we bolted up everything, canyons would be like sport climbs.”

Sutteer showed examples of retrievable rappelling systems, such as sand anchors and water anchors, that are typically used on no-trace canyoneering trips. Such systems rely on anchoring a hiker at the top of a ledge using the weight of sand or water in a bag to prevent the person from dropping while rappelling.

Such anchors are made retrievable when the hiker makes it to the bottom of the incline being descended. For example, a secondary rope (besides the one used for rappelling) may be tied to the anchor so that, when pulled, it releases the weight of the sand or water from the bag.

Once this weight is released, enough friction is lost that the bag that had acted as the anchor can safely fall down to the hiker.

The leave-no-trace approach is the accepted approach to canyoneering in most jurisdictions, and for some, it is the most ethical.

“There are ways of doing the thing without having bolts at every drop,” Sutteer said during the presentation. “We just need to up our skills, not bring the canyon down to a lower level.”