Chambers Canyon, Robbers Roost, Utah, November 2007
As a child I was very claustrophobic. I remember incidents of being covered by a blanket and thinking I was going to suffocate and the family camping trips where I awoke in the middle of the night to frantically unzip the tent's door so I could immediately poke my head out and gasp for fresh air. Thankfully, somewhere along the way, I overcame my fear of tight spaces. That was my feeling, at least, until I entered Chambers Canyon in the Robbers Roost area of Utah with friends Bill, Aron and CP on a beautiful November Sunday morning.
During the previous two days we had explored some other amazing canyons in the Roost-Not Mindbender Canyon, Larry Canyon and Alcatraz Canyon-but Chambers would be a much more difficult challenge of the body and mind. It would also be my first canyon adventure with a 4 rating--advanced canyoneering: requires difficult pothole escapes, serious squeezing, extensive high-risk downclimbing, or have difficult-to-establish natural anchors.
Chambers Canyon is a relatively newly discovered canyon insofar as I know and I had never heard of it until CP mentioned it only days before we left on the trip. We he had mentioned it none of us even knew where it was located. All we knew was that it was ridiculously tight, committing and strenuous. It's so tight you cannot take a backpack in and therefore you cannot carry a rope or any other provisions that might ease one's mind or assist with getting down steeper sections. None of us even wore helmets for fear that the added width of the helmet would keep us from getting our heads through certain sections. So with excited trepidation, we began searching for information on the internet and from friends on how to find the canyon. As it turns out, canyoneers are even more secretive about their canyons than cavers are about their caves! Some advanced Googling by CP and I yielded some GPS coordinates for the canyon but the coordinates I found didn't even come close to matching the coordinates CP had found. So CP decided to contact an acquaintance of his that is a very experienced canyoneering guide that maintains one of the most popular and comprehensive canyoneering websites around. And with some words of caution and advice his friend e-mailed him a very detailed map showing the location of coordinates of Chambers Canyon. Score!
The parking area for Chambers is down a dead-end road in the Roost that apparently goes nowhere of any interest. After 10 miles of driving a true two-track road that had bushes between the tracks that were tall enough to create a constant sound of rubbing on the vehicles under-carriage, we arrived at the end of the road. If one went any further on the road he'd end up floating his vehicle in the Dirty Devil River!
Outfitted with equipment consisting of nothing more than long pants, long sleeve shirts and leather gloves, we departed the vehicle and immediately started descending into the basin where we'd find the slot that is Chambers Canyon. We expected the canyon to be so tight that I was the only one brave enough to carry a camera. The others feared that even the bulk of small camera would be a hindrance. With that in mind, I had devised a sling from webbing for my tiny camera bag that would allow me to hang the camera below or behind me if necessary. As we hiked down to the slot I really enjoyed the feeling of hiking without a pack or any additional gear. It felt odd to be going in so light but was also quite refreshing. With the lack of weight and gear we all ran along the slickrock and were quickly at the head of the slot. The canyon wastes no time in slotting up and was immediately tight and dropped quickly.
At first CP stemmed above the tight slot hoping there'd be a way to avoid getting into the tight stuff so quickly but he quickly determined it was time to slink right in. Being the most adventurous of us all, Aron took the lead. We quickly got into the position that we'd be in for most of the canyon-sideways with our legs splayed with feet pointing in opposite directions. In this position our chests and hips would be as narrow as possible allowing us to pull off the experienced technique of sideways galumphing for long stretches at a time. This would be repeated for nearly the entire canyon with only short reprieves at small alcoves where we could take a break and shake ourselves out a bit.
It was marvelous to be shimmying through this canyon. Its width was just wide enough to allow passage for us to access the beautiful chambers that are the canyon's namesake. It is canyon that has seen very little human traffic for many reasons with one of the biggest reasons being the limited size a person can be to enter this canyon. It's so tight it has a weight limit of 180 pounds for a person and even that seemed generous. At times we'd have to shimmy up some 20 feet off the bottom of the canyon to access a section that was wide enough to offer egress. CP just slightly thicker than the rest of us and in a number of spots he had to go higher than us to pass through. Thankfully he's a very experienced canyoneer and this did not scare him.
Just before reaching the chambers of the canyon, we negotiated one of the narrowest sections of the canyon and for a brief moment my childhood claustrophobia returned. The section was so narrow we had to suck in our chests, hold our breath and push through using friction from our hands, knees and feet wedged around us. Movement was in centimeters at a time with minor corrections required to move slightly up or down to find a spot where we could grunt through. At one instance I slid down just a bit as I repositioned my feet and for a brief moment I thought I might be stuck! At that moment I was regretting the extra helping of spaghetti I had consumed last night for dinner but with some foot finagling and grunting, I was able to push up and forward just enough to get moving again and punch out to the beautiful chambers area.
The chambers were amazing. The area is a true "subway" in that it opens up round and wide around us but above us the slot was more of a slit and just open enough to allow a bit of light to pass through and illuminate the chambers. Walking on the soft sand on the floor of the canyon here was a welcome reprieve from the abrasive and strenuous slots through which we had just passed. For a few minutes we enjoyed the light and sound in the chamber before moving forward. Beyond the chambers the canyon opened up and we thought we were done with the technical difficulties of the canyon. But as we ventured down another 100 yards or so the canyon choked back up and we were soon down climbing through a blocky section above a pool of water deep down in the narrow slot. We were able to avoid any interaction with the pool, thankfully. But up ahead we encountered the most technical portions of the canyon which give the canyon its "4" rating. The canyon was so narrow down low that we were forced to into narrow stemming and climbing moves some 25 feet above the canyon floor on smooth, fluted walls. And then came the 20 foot, awkward and exposed down climb where the canyon opened up too much to allow for any more stemming. I was very glad to have experience with crack climbing for this down climb as the corner of down climb offered some very secure hand and foot jamming to allow me to down climb this section facing in. The moves felt like solid 5.7 crack climbing and were actually quite enjoyable!
A small alcove gave us a break before the final sideways squeezing section before the exit to the canyon. The last squeezing section was as strenuous and narrow as earlier squeezes and a bit more awkward. I started to go first but when it got really narrow I backed out thinking there's no way it would go and guessing there must be a way up higher. But Aron again took the lead and pushed through so we all knew it would go. We squeezed, shimmied and galumphed for a bit more before one final awkward down climb and slide into a smooth-walled alcove just before the exit. The final moves through the exit were really quite fun as we bent our bodies to match the shape of the keyhole-type exit that deposited us to end of the slots about 6 feet above the sandy floor of the wide open canyon. While we all breathed a sigh of relief upon exit, no doubt, we were also not quite ready for the action to be over. The physical and mental challenge the canyon had given us in order to reach the fabulous chambers was well worth the effort and we had seen a place very few have seen and a likely very few others will see given the strenuous nature of the canyon.
We enjoyed a short side jaunt down to the Dirty Devil River before hiking over slick rock benches and domes back to our vehicle. The round trip had taken us exactly three hours. It would take Bill and I three times that time to complete the drive home but the weekend's adventures with great friends were well worth the driving effort we had to endure.
Written by Jason Halladay on 25 November 2007 for TheMountainInstitute.com.