IMGP4045 [1024x768]It all started at Freezefest around a huge campfire. Snow, frozen water and zero degree temperatures attract a group of slightly insane canyoneers to the annual New Year’s festival called Freezefest. It takes place each year in Southern Utah.

“Water canyons in Mexico this summer, who’s in?!” says Matt.

“Stoke-O-Loco!” becomes the name of the event. We start to plan our Mexico canyoneering trip. We’re stoked until we find out how much it costs to go to Mexico. High alpine canyons in Colorado become the plan instead. Now it’s “Stoke-O-BROKE-O” in Ouray, Colorado.

IMGP2711 (Large)Fast forward eight months. It’s August in the high mountains of Colorado. Stoke-O-Broke-O is here. It rained this morning and clouds still cling to the steep peaks surrounding the small town of Ouray, Colorado. I drive my van to the trailhead of Cascade Canyon and meet AJs group. They depart, and a few minutes later the “Stoke-O-Broke-O” group starts showing up. Matt, Mark, Randi and I are feeling stoked as we pack our gear. Mike pulls in. He just drove all night from Flagstaff, Arizona. He’s pretty stoked, even after zero sleep. He quickly packs his stuff and we are ready to go.

We shuttle in my van (called the “free candy van” during this trip) and start up the trail. It slowly climbs 2300 feet with great views of the surrounding mountains. I like these approaches, where you do all the climbing at the beginning of the day. When we exit the canyon we’ll be right near our cars and a tasty restaurant, says Matt. Perfect.

IMGP2732 (Large)We get to the start of the canyon and wiggle into our wetsuits near the top of a 25 foot waterfall. The soft white water gently pours over a wide lip. Below lies a floor of colorful rock divided by white rivulets of rushing water and then the canyon drops steeply out of sight. The recent rain makes the rock look polished. The saturated surfaces of the rock shine with tones of rusty red, soft green and dark gray.

We enter the canyon and enjoy several rappels near waterfalls, but not actually in the water. The rock is very solid and perfect for downclimbing. On some downclimbs my legs are obscured by gushing water, splashing in the air, tugging at my feet. I’m accustomed to using my sense of sight for downclimbing. Downclimbing in flowing water requires use of a different sense – feeling. I feel with my feet and find my way down rocks I can’t see.

Small balls of white hail erupt suddenly from the sky. We laugh and Mike shoots a short video of the hail. Three separate times that day the sky opens up suddenly with a dramatic hailstorm. Clouds pass over, the sun comes back, rain, hail, repeat. The weather holds more surprises for us later on.

IMGP2725 (Large)A drenching waterfall rappel appears in front of us and Matt gets the rope out. It’s only about 30 feet but it will be my first rappel into a heavy flow of water. I wonder if I will be able to breathe once I get into the thickest part of the waterfall. How hard will it push me down the rope? These are the things I’ve been warned about when rappelling in flowing water. I rig high friction on my rappel device and drop down into the rushing water. It shoots down the back of my wetsuit, intensely cold. I love the sound of the water splashing loudly off my plastic helmet, like standing under a tin roof while it’s raining. Cold sheets of water hit me in the face, but I can breathe when I need to. I like this.

It starts to rain. The canyon is especially lush after the recent rain. Pine trees and bright green bushes crowd the rim of the rocky canyon, and occasionally a glossy green plant clings to the rock down in the watercourse.

IMGP2745 (Large)Despite the cold weather and complete lack of sleep for one of our friends, our laughs and smiles warm the canyon and we forget about the cold. We stay busy on many fun, wet downclimbs and numerous short rappels.

We arrive at the 150 foot waterfall and find AJ. He’s the last in his group to go down, and he’s just getting on rappel. The sun shines as we get ready for the first of seven remaining rappels. The grand finale of the day will be a 300 foot waterfall – Cascade Falls.

Randi goes to the top of the falls and starts to get on rappel, then stops. Then, Matt is nearby so he decides to go first. Matt gets on rappel. This takes about a minute, and neither of them knows it but in about a minute and a half the creek will start to pulse. I am standing off to the side of the waterfall, watching. As soon as Matt starts to drop over the edge the flow increases and softball sized rocks start tumbling down the stream with the current. Danger.

IMGP2747 (Large)Matt scrambles hand over hand up the rope. I can’t hear anything above the sound of the water. I can just see the look on Matt’s face, and he is not stoked. He points at the rocks tumbling in the water, mouth open, yelling.

The next couple seconds pass in slow motion. I see Matt at the top of the falls, now standing on solid ground. The creek suddenly changes color to a milky, chocolate brown. It could flash flood at any moment and I’m standing on the brink of a 150 foot waterfall. I think back to all the debris we saw in the canyon from previous flash floods. These facts combine in an instant, and I leap into action and fly up the rock to the side of the falls, then up a dirt slope. I don’t even bother to put the items back in my pack. I just toss them up the slope in front of me. We all claw our way up the hillside and perch on a dirt slope, safely and helplessly watching the creek increase in volume. The flow isn’t huge, but it’s about double what it was earlier. That’s a lot for this canyon.

We cower beneath big trees, and a light rain shower trickles between the branches. We put on extra clothing and I feel relieved and safe, laying there under the trees. Mike notices a large, brown, sparkly geode nearby. We admire it.

Right as we’re starting to relax, thunder booms right near us. The whole canyon trembles. Is it better to be on the slope or under a tree? There’s nowhere else for us to go. Neither seems ideal, so we decide our strategy will be to hope. We sit and hope lightning won’t strike as thunder booms all around us. The storm passes. We watch the creek decrease in volume over the next hour and we talk about getting ready to rappel. Suddenly, the flow increases again to the same level as before. The water continues to move softball sized rocks. We have seven rappels ahead of us and the sky is gray and misty. More rain is coming. We can’t do these rappels right now.

We talk about how to help AJs group below us. They are between two of the long waterfall rappels, and might be stuck there until the creek mellows out. While the canyon is raining drama down upon us, we remain calm. A couple people even take a short nap on the slope. No one complains, although we realize the situation could lead to an uncomfortable bivy or difficult exit. I feel thankful to be with this positive group.

Matt is trying to find a solution. He stands at the top of the waterfall trying to communicate with AJ down below. The rope became wedged in the rock as the creek surged, and now it’s stuck somewhere in the middle of the falls. Matt yanks on it for several minutes. Finally it comes loose.

A long session of “canyon charades” ensues, which we watch with great interest. Matt is standing at the top of the falls trying to discuss options with AJ, at the bottom of the falls. Only they can’t hear each other. The water is too loud. Matt uses facial contortions and wild arm movements to say everything from “do you want me to pull the rope”, to “let’s meet at the bar later on” and everything in between. After several minutes, an agreement is flailed out between AJ and Matt. The waterfalls are too dangerous if the creek continues to pulse. AJs group will attempt to hike out.

We’ve been sitting by the creek for an hour now. We decide we should try to hike out, too. Matt apologizes to us for not completing the canyon. Even the half of the canyon we saw, which was the mellow half, was incredible. It had still been a pretty awesome day, overall. Now, the unknown exit lay ahead of us.

As we sit on the slope, we eye a broken down cabin across from us on the hillside. Mark hikes up to the cabin debris and finds a large cast iron stove which had to be hauled in somehow.

“It sure didn’t come down the watercourse,” Mark says and we giggle. We’re still in good spirits.

We hope there might be an old trail somewhere. We go up the hillside and pick our way across the front of the mountain. We find a faint trail and it’s definitely a welcome route across the steep and rocky terrain. We follow the faint trail for about an hour, then rejoin the main trail. We hike the rest of the way out, and are happy to see AJ at the lower trailhead. Everyone is safe, although it sounds like AJ’s group had a rougher hike out than we did. They hadn’t even changed out of their wetsuits before the hike because there wasn’t even a good place to do it. I guess we got pretty lucky with our route.

IMGP2710cropped (Large) (2)At the end of the day, we feel good everyone is safe. I think about the tiny events which protected us that day. I thought about the delay getting on rappel at the waterfall right before the creek pulsed, our trail in the middle of nowhere, and the safe exits found by both groups. Cheers to a memorable day in Cascade Canyon!


Lisa Hackett

About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, drive from Idaho to Alaska solo, live and work in a van in the wilderness and dodge encounters with wolves and bears. Seriously. More

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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