The plan for day #2 in Death Hollow was to hike only about 6 1/2 miles to the Boulder Mail Trail crossing. Sounds easy, but miles tick off a lot slower here in the "Hollow," and I knew the next mile below Right Hand Fork would be, as one guide book states, "the most difficult mile" of the trip. It really wasn't that bad, and the day started started out a lot like the previous day ended: lots of big chokestones that we could either scramble, stem, or hand-line down and a few shallow stagnant pools to wade.
Above: even with an efficient system in place to either pass or lower packs down with rope, it still chewed up a lot of time. You also risk wearing holes into dry bags if they are just attached to the outside your pack and scraping against the slickrock.
We waded through long stretches of knee- to waist-high water as we progressed. About an hour below Right Fork, I began to wonder if this mile-long "difficult" section had been over-hyped because if anything, travel seemed a little easier than the day before.
Still, I think all three of us had a bit of an ominous feeling that there was still one more big challenge looming ahead.
Sure enough, the floor of the canyon soon disappeared into a black abyss below a massive pile of boulders. It was about an 18-foot drop into a long, narrow, and dark passageway flooded with what was surely to be frigid water.
Eros walked along a high ledge to the right to see if there was any safe way around the drop. No luck. With a strong reflection of the morning sky on the water's surface, there was no way to tell how deep the pool was.
Above: Canyon walls reflect off the surface of a deep, water-filled slot.
After some debate, we decided that the safest way would be for me to rappel down and check the water depth. If it was deep enough, then Eros and Hector could just jump in. At this point I placed my camera and GPS in dry bags and double-checked that everything was sealed. The following photos are still shots from video that Hector captured with his waterproof GoPro camera.
Hector tied the webbing around his waste and then braced himself behind some rocks. I tiptoed out the edge and wrapped the webbing through my legs and over my shoulder using an old "body rappel " method that uses the increased friction to control your descent. We had used this routine a couple of times before and it worked well, but as I began to lower myself and really lean back on the rope, it felt extremely awkward. I pulled myself back up and tried to figure out why it felt so uncomfortable. In retrospect, I think it was mostly just a bad angle. I didn't want to go straight down the chokestone because it quickly would have become a free-hang since there was nothing but air under the stone. Thus, I was attempting to descend facing the canyonside (which had a bit of an overhang too) at a 90-degree angle to Hector and the webbing tied to his waist.
With some trepidation, I attempted the rappel once more.
Above: I ready myself for a harrowing descent into the flooded slot (Hector photo).
I thought perhaps if I leaned farther back, I would feel more stable. Wrong. I felt more awkward than ever. I seemed to be getting hardly any friction from the loop of webbing over my shoulder and I knew this wasn't going to work. I was overly committed now and I couldn't pull myself back up. I quickly looked down at the water and tried desperately to focus past the surface reflection so I could gauge depth. I could just barely make out a smooth cobbled floor and guessed that I had at least 6 feet of water. I was going to drop into the water one way or another and the last thing I wanted was to get tangled up in the webbing as I fell. With the last bit of strength left in my grip, I held onto the webbing with one hand and unwrapped the remaining webbing off of my shoulder with my other hand. The instant I cleared the rope, I let go.
I went in feet first and the least stream-lined as possible. My first thought as I reached the apex of my submersion (without touching bottom) was that I had dodged a bullet. Every experienced canyoneer knows jumping into a pool of indeterminate depth is one of the major "no-nos". My second thought was, 'oh crap, Eros and Hector probably think I've hurt something... or worse'.
As I neared the surface, the familiar delayed reaction of compressed lungs caused by plunging into hypothermic waters hit hard. Finally at the surface, I could hear Eros and Hector yelling down, "Are you hurt?...Did you break your ankles?" I tried to answer, but I simply could not get any wind to pass over my vocal cords. All they could hear for a good 10-15 seconds was my gasping for air.
As soon as I caught my breath, I communicated that I was OK and that I'd probe the depth of the pool to ensure there were no hidden boulders. Turned out that the water was a good 8-12 feet deep with no large boulders. Eros and Hector began lowering packs with the parachute cord. It was tiring to tread water with just my feet while I used both hands to untie the cord from each pack. Once all the packs were down, I held onto mine for flotation as I signaled for Eros and Hector to hop in. Hector crouched down on the edge ... then froze up. He had never cliff-dived or done anything like this before and so he was understandably a bit timid. Hector stepped back to regain his composure as Eros leaped in with a splash and then surfaced releasing a series of shock-induced howls.
As me and Eros clung to our packs, we urged Hector to take the plunge. Again he got into position, but then hesitated. I'd now been in the frigid water for a good 10 minutes or so, and with my teeth chattering and uncontrollable shivering, I could feel my body going into early stages of hypothermia. Eros swam to the far end of the watery passageway where it shallowed to just a couple of feet deep. I too was ready to get out but I wanted to stay and support Hector.
He was finally ready. Just as Hector was about to jump, I noticed he still had his camera fastened around his head. Oh well, I wasn't about to stop him now and besides, surely they designed the camera to float, right?
Hector didn't just drop straight down. I swear he jumped toward me, like I was supposed to catch him! I kicked hard to back up and he splashed down right in front of me.
Above: The image Hector captured as he hit the water. I guess I look pretty far away, but I thought he was trying to land on me!
As Hector surfaced, shrilling in pain from the cold, he felt his head and sure enough, his $300 camera was gone. I shoved his pack over to him to hang onto as we scanned the surface, in vain, for a floating camera. But, it had sunk like a rock and was now down some 10 feet or so amongst the rocks. The worth of the camera alone wasn't quite enough to make me dive for the lost GoPro. BUT, it contained an entire video (which I have yet to see other than the stills seen here) of this whole debacle that I figured would someday be a treasured memory.
So I swam out to where Hector landed, took a deep breath and dived. I had difficulty holding my breath and was only able feel around on the bottom for a couple of seconds with no luck. I told Hector I'd give it one more try, but then I'd need to get out as my condition worsened. As I grasped my floating backpack, I took in several deep breaths to over-oxygenate my veins and in I went. Opening my eyes, I was surprised to see the camera directly below me and within easy reach. I emerged triumphantly holding the camera high. Hector thanked me and we made our way out of the pool.
Above: luckily, Hector's GoPro settled at the bottom of the pool facing up and recorded my desperate dives to find it.
Above: me and Hector swim the 20-30 yards to the pool's exit (Hector photo).
Once on dry land, I put on every layer of clothing I had. I would eventually warm up after a few hours, but I never felt 100% for the rest of that day.
About a half hour later, we ran into a thicket of willows that could mean only one thing: we had reached perennial water flow. I then knew we were past the most difficult obstacles.
The character of the canyon bottom changed drastically. Gone were the stagnant potholes and constricting chokestones. Peaceful cascades, emerald green and orange pools filled with crystal-clear water, and lush vegetation were were all we had to worry about now.
I felt like we had paid the price for admission into paradise. Words can't describe the beauty found in the middle and lower parts of Death Hollow. So I'll let the camera do the talking from here.
Above: every shaded corner of the canyon harbors incredible hanging gardens.
Above: the colors of the pools ranged from green, to turquoise, to orange, depending on the type of algae growing on the bottom (Hector photo).
Above: busy beavers. Every once in a while, the stream would be noticeably backed up and flooding the stream-side vegetation, and without fail, around the next bend would be a brand new beaver dam.
Above: Eros and Hector's shoes have "stealth rubber" soles that are super-sticky giving them a big advantage when it came to slimy, off-camber slickrock.
Above: a pressurized spring known as "squirter spring" shoots vertically about 4 inches before draining into the nearby river. The fresh mineral-rich water tasted sublime.
Above: large, clear pool near camp where we filtered water. I got to give a shout-out to my mother-in-law who years ago gave me a heavy-duty water filter as a Christmas gift. I think it's meant to be part of a food storage kit because it isn't small, but we could filter about 10 liters of water in under 15 minutes!
Even though we traveled only 6.5 miles, it was a long day. We eventually made it to the spacious Ponderosa Camp where both the Boulder Mail Trail and old telegraph line cross the canyon. We all gorged ourselves with various Mountain House meals, and after a brief visit with some hikers passing through on the Mail Trail, we hit the hay early. It was hard to believe our adventure was already half over.
Above: camp #2 on a sandy flat below several stately ponderosa pines (Hector photo).