OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

CANYONEERING IN THE SAN GABRIELS

``This range .... is more rigidly inaccessible in the ordinary meaning
of the word than any other that I ever attempted to penetrate. The
slopes are exceptionally steep and insecure to the foot, and they are
covered with thorny bushes from five to ten feet high.''

From ``The Mountains of California'' by John Muir,
referring to the San Gabriel Mountains.

Growing up in Ireland where all the mountains have been ground down by eons of ice sheets, I was fascinated by the precipitous San Gabriel Mountains from the first moment I laid eyes on them. That was almost 40 years ago when I first drove up the Pasadena Freeway to spend what turned out to be most of my life in the shadow of this vertical wonderland. The San Gabriels were to become one of the joys of my life, an infinite resource for adventure and for serenity. In the 1970s, with young children in tow, one of our favorite weekend pastimes was to hike as far as we could up the steep canyons of the front range that lay just a stones throw from our home. Eaton, Rubio and Bailey were great favorites especially since they all involved some adventurous climbing. In Rubio we would ascent the now buried Maidenhair Falls using an old wire cable that hung on the right side in order to get to the spectacular twin falls, Moss Grotto and Ribbon Rock. In those days there was a lovely little deep pool on the narrow shelf between the two falls and we would climb up there to go swimming. Not knowing any better, I used an old piece of hardware rope tied around their chests to belay my young daughters. The younger one still tells gleeful stories about dangling in the air after a slip. One of my favorite photographs is that of my elder daughter sitting by that pool (it nows adorns my Rubio webpage). Bailey Canyon was similar with a series of adventurous climbs needed to ascend beyond the first waterfall. But, perhaps, the greatest adventure was in Eaton Canyon and would be unrecognizable to most modern hikers. In those days at a point on the east wall of the canyon about 100 yards downstream of Eaton Falls there was a series of rickety wooden stairs interspersed with precipitous ledge trails that climbed about 200 feet up the canyon wall. We would carefully ascend these ledges and stairs to a place where there was a tunnel through the mountain ridge that carried a water pipeline. Taking a deep breath we would walk through this dark and narrow tunnel only to emerge into what we thought was another, secret canyon. And we would delight in the pools and falls in this special place. Later explorations would reveal that this was in fact another, upper section of the same canyon. But back then we thought this the height of adventure and loved the mystery of the place. Some years later, for appropriate safety reasons, the Forest Service tore down the old stairs and blocked the tunnel. But by that time my children had grown.

That is where it all started. In the increasing time I had alone I hiked almost all of the 100 trails in John Robinson's classic guide, ``Trails of the Angeles'' and, sometime in the late 1970s, early 1980s, I began to wonder what lay beyond the ends of the established trails, especially in the Devil's Canyon and Sheep Mountain Wilderness Areas. I was particular drawn to the waterfalls and to the canyons they lay in. It seemed to me they were among the most spectacular features of the San Gabriels and I wondered why they were not better appreciated and documented.

Geologically the San Gabriel Mountains are among the youngest in North America. The kink in the San Andreas fault as it runs through the Los Angeles area has caused our mountains to be thrust up as the Pacific tectonic plate moves north relative to the North American plate (the San Andreas Fault runs along the northern foothills of the range and is, of course, the consequence of the movement of those great tectonic plates). The erosion and growth that smooth out other ranges have not yet had time to counter this growth and hence the rugged verticality of the San Gabriel Mountains. After several attempted ascents in the area of Eaton Canyon, John Muir wrote as follows in his ``Mountains of California'': ``This range .... is more rigidly inaccessible in the ordinary meaning of the word than any other that I ever attempted to penetrate. The slopes are exceptionally steep and insecure to the foot, and they are covered with thorny bushes from five to ten feet high.'' Indeed, there may be canyons, perhaps in the Devil's Canyon Wilderness Area, where man has rarely, if ever, set foot.

The next phase of my explorations involved a new mountain bike that allowed me to go further along the established trails than my feet would carry me. It was inevitable, however, that I would push too far into the wilderness and the notorious result was an unplanned overnight spent beside the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, a consequence of assuming the red line on one of John Robinson's maps meant there was a trail all the way down that canyon. So I set the bike aside and returned to exploration on foot, venturing as far as I could both up canyons from the bottom and down canyons from the top. Often I was stopped by waterfalls that I did not have the skill to ascend or descend. One particular objective became an obsession and motivated my first true canyoneering adventure in the San Gabriels. Devil's Canyon begins high on the slopes of Mount Waterman and winds its way all through the Devil's Canyon Wilderness before emptying into the Cogswell Reservoir. Eventually I would traverse the entire length of this wilderness canyon. But in those early days I had only explored a short distance downstream from the end of the trail that drops down into the canyon from Chilao Flats. I had managed to reach the Devil's Canyon Falls that could be so awesome after winter rains. But only after an exhausting all day walk there and back that left little time for exploration. A subsequent examination of the topo map revealed that it might be possible to reach the falls much more readily (and thus leave time to explore them) by descending a steep side canyon that dropped down from the Angeles Crest Highway at a place called Windy Gap. Several times I climbed down this steep gully only to be stopped by a dryfall that I could not descend. Moreover, I began to recognize that all this climbing alone was both irresponsible and dangerous.

Now it so happened that about this time I had a succession of graduate students who were hikers and a few who had some rock climbing experience. I persuaded several of them to accompany me on another effort to descend this side canyon (Skull Canyon) which we soon did successfully. Some of those young people never went hiking with me again. One, however, caught the fever and he happened to have some rock climbing experience. His name was Garrett Reisman and he not only became a very good friend but one of the pioneers of canyoneering in the San Gabriels. Later, he went on to even greater adventures as a NASA astronaut. To complete the story, it turned out we were able to find a safe way down that side canyon without using ropes but we were already discussing the need for technical assistance in our anticipated explorations of other canyons.

Daughter Dana in Rubio Canyon

Several weeks later we assembled the necessary harnesses and ropes and set off for a more ambitious descent in Bear Canyon, the other major drainage in the Devil's Canyon Wilderness. There were about seven of us and only Garrett had ever rappelled before. He claimed it was easy and he would teach us "on the job" as it were. Incidentally, in that group was another future astronaut, Bob Behnken, and Bob, I remember, came dressed in what he considered appropriate attire for this adventure, full army fatigues and big, black army boots. When I think back that somehow epitomizes how naive we all were - and we didn't have a single helmet in the whole group! Anyway we dropped down into Bear Creek from the end of the highway at Crystal Lake and got quite far before we encountered the first necessary rappel, a drop that would be trivial for us today. It consisted of a vertical 12 foot drop into a deep pool. There was a very convenient tree about 10 feet back from a sharp lip at the top of the drop. Garrett took over. After much talk he rigged the rope around the base of the tree and asked for the first volunteer. Bob stepped forward in his natty fatigues. Garrett instructed him at length and then Bob started backwards toward the lip and very slowly began to rotate backwards with his feet on the edge. Unfortunately Garrett had rigged the rope so low on the tree that this rappel entry was much more difficult than it could have been. Bob got about two thirds the way into his rotation before the inevitable happened. He lost his balance, swivelled sideways and ended upside down just over the lip with the black army boots sticking straight up. Fortunately he did not let go of the rope and we were able to rescue him before any harm was done. After that ignominious beginning things could only get better and we began to learn the art of rappelling by trial and error, by devising our own anchor methods and other rope techniques. But the reader might be amused to know that Garrett and Bob are scheduled to fly into space together in the Space Shuttle Endeavor in Decemeber 2007. Bob is scheduled to make two space walks, in one of which he will be on the end of a robotic arm controlled by Garrett. I wonder if he remembers what happened that day in Bear Creek.

In the years which followed we became more and more ambitious in tackling canyons that presented more serious obstacles. Eaton Canyon was one that held an increasing fascination for us. We had hiked up to Idlehour Campground and explored down as far as a place we came to know as the "Point of No Return", where a small slide down into a deep swimming pool meant that return upstream would be exceedingly difficult without a rope. We had also conducted several expeditions in which we tried to get as far up Eaton Canyon from the bottom as we could. In these efforts we bypassed the big falls at the bottom by climbing over the ridge above where the wooden stairways had been. Upstream was a deceptively easy looking obstacle that we came to call "Naked Triumph Falls" after one of our party led the way by swimming the pool naked before climbing the small falls. But we never were able to get further upstream than the 12 foot falls which everyone now jumps during a descent. And the topo map showed there could be many difficult obstacles between the "Point of No Return" and this 12 foot falls. We were determined to attempt a descent but could find no information anywhere that might guide us. Finally Garrett and I decided we would do it alone and without beta. I don't think I will ever forget arriving at the top of the falls we now call "The Gully" and looking down at the pool at the bottom that seemed hundreds of feet away. But we made it down. And to make the descent even more exciting the river was flowing lustily that day so we ended the descent behind the falls and had to do our first swimming disconnect.

In the 1990s others began to join our adventures. When Garrett moved on to high adventure, two other graduate students became key pioneers in the group, Clancy Rowley and Mark Duttweiler. We also made a valuable connection one day while buying a large quantity of webbing in the Sports Chalet mountain shop in La Canada. The grey-haired man serving us asked what we were going to do with so much webbing. We described our adventures and his interest was aroused. His name was Alex Kirkcaldy and he had once been head of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team. Moreover, during his time the Team had conducted a number of rescues from canyons in the Big Tujunga area, rescues of people who had stranded themselves in canyons at the top of waterfalls they could not descend. Alex proceeded to tell us of Fox Canyon, of Silver Canyon and of Suicide Canyon, all of which empty into the Big Tujunga and all of which contained big drops. He even mentioned a young man who worked at JPL and whom he had rescued from Fox Canyon; his name was Martin Regehr and more of Martin shortly. We took careful note of Alex's comments and resolved to get to all of the canyons he mentioned. It was great to finally get some real beta.

   
Rapelling in Eaton Canyon Great Falls of the Fox

The following winter we conducted a bike ride down the fire road from Mount Gleason to the Big Tujunga. At one point near the bottom of that ride we were able to view one of the waterfalls in Fox Canyon from about half a mile away. It was an awesome, roaring sight and one that persuaded us to wait until summer before venturing into that maelstrom. In the intervening months we conducted several exploratory hikes during which we developed a rough trail down into Fox Canyon below the Gorge starting from the fireroad on the ridge to the west. We also descended the Lower Fox Canyon Falls and even conducted a reconnaisence of the gorge from the air (Garrett was also a pilot). As the day of our planned first descent approached we again consulted Alex to glean evry last bit of beta from him. During that conversation he introduced us to a young man working temporarily in the mountain shop, a climber by the name of Troy Sette. Alex persuaded us to allow Troy to accompany us and hence another of the pioneers joined the group. In the end the descent of the gorge we named the "Great Falls of the Fox" was a truly spectacular adventure and one we repeated many times. It is amazing to think that this jewel of the San Gabriels is not even indicated on the topo map.

A short postscript before leaving the Great Falls. We later made Martin Regehr's acquaintance and he accompanied us on one of our trips down Fox Canyon, making his first "successful" descent. Susan Sette, Troy's wife, was also with us on that trip; we only discovered a week later that she was three months pregnant that day.

About that time in the early 1990s we first learnt of the term ``canyoneering'' (up to then we just called what we did ``adventure hiking'') and we discovered Tom Jones' marvellous guide to Zion National Park and other Utah destinations. It did not take us long to organize the first of many trips to Zion and later to the other great destinations on the Colorado Plateau. Several years later, three other great friends joined the core of the canyoneers that developed the San Gabriels: the Marquesa de Canyonette, Randi Poer, whose blithe spirit enriched any adventure, Scott (Seldom Seen) Smith, one of the kindest people I have known, and the ``Magnificent Marine'' John Perry whose strength eased all obstacles. There were others, of course, and among them my great friend David Wales, but I have mentioned all those who made major contributions in the early days of canyoneering in the San Gabriels. And who were truly a joy to be with.


Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen