Once More Unto The Breach

Into Utah's Black Hole with guidebook author Michael Kelsey

  • Covers and pages from some of Michael Kelsey’s guidebooks, including a warning to hikers.

    Jeremy Miller
  • Kelsey looks rimward in the narrows of the Main Fork of Blue John Canyon.

    Jeremy Miller
  • Michael Kelsey climbs down a narrow crack in Squeeze Fork of Blue John Canyon.

    Jeremy Miller
  • Michael Kelsey pauses after swimming through a narrow passage in the Black Hole.

    Jeremy Miller
 

"Do not attempt the Black Hole descent," reads a sign posted behind bullet-riddled Plexiglas. The warning, erected by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the San Juan County sheriff's office, displays photos of a gothic canyon choked with mud, tree limbs and logs. In heated conversation with himself, guidebook author and canyon rat Michael Kelsey paces in front of the sign, which stands in a turnout near the Lake Powell supply depot of Hite, Utah.

The "Black Hole" is a narrow gorge in the middle section of White Canyon, which runs for about 50 miles from the foot of the Abajo Mountains, near Blanding, to Glen Canyon. At its deepest section, the Black Hole is just a few feet wide and impervious to the sun. The crux involves swimming 1,000 feet through narrow sandstone passageways in water that rarely exceeds 55 degrees Fahrenheit. And now, it seems, there is the matter of an impassible clutter of driftwood.

"What a bunch of shit," says Kelsey, swatting wildly at gnats. The 67-year-old wears a bleached white hat draped with red fabric and a faded logo that reads, improbably, ROBO HACKER. Behind bargain-bin eyeglasses, his eyes are an intense blue, set above a pointed chin fringed with gray stubble. "They're lying, trying to scare people off." At one point he rears back and I think he's going to heave a can of chicken, intended for tonight's dinner, directly at the Plexiglas sign.

Six years ago, a flash flood filled the canyon's narrowest sections with debris and made safe passage impossible. The warning was posted to discourage people from entering one of the most beautiful -- and potentially treacherous -- of Utah's slot canyons. But Kelsey, who is credited with naming the Black Hole back in the 1980s, has inside information. He explains that a more recent flash flood, in 2006, cleared the debris from the gorge.

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It's clear that Kelsey feels he has a job to do here, a bit of truth-telling on behalf of the hiking public. That's been his self-imposed mission for the last 40 years. He began writing guidebooks in the early 1970s as a hitchhiking world traveler. Of his 16 self-published guidebooks, half are devoted to canyon country. The most popular, Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, has sold 50,000 copies since it was first released in the mid-'80s, arming hundreds of hikers, from novices to experienced backcountry trekkers, with information about scenic and potentially challenging routes through canyon country. To his adherents, Kelsey is an authority and a faithful (if not always 100 percent accurate) guide. But to critics, he is a purveyor of half-truths and a revealer of precious secrets -- selling detailed directions to beloved locations often considered too delicate, remote or dangerous for the average hiker.

Like many visitors to the Colorado Plateau's backcountry, I have used, even relied on, Kelsey's books. They evoke all the joy and excitement I feel at the start of each new canyon trip. Perhaps this is why I have come to relish his books as a distinct, off-kilter literary genre, with their incantatory incorporation of the third person ("The author drank it, and lives on, but there are some wild cattle and beaver in the drainage …"), their liberal use of exclamation points ("He hardly got any fotos!"), and their disarming colloquialisms ("shorties are as useless as tits on a boar").

But like many of Kelsey's readers, I've often found myself frustrated by my experiences in the field. The casual route descriptions often lack explicit cautionary language -- the kind found, for example, in the popular Colorado mountaineering guides of Gerry Roach. ("The introduction is over and the challenge looms overhead.") Kelsey can be vague; sometimes he includes routes that he has not fully completed, and his estimated hike times can verge on the superhuman. "Mr. Kelsey appears to be a hiker who is in great shape," says Tom Heinlein, field manager of the Monticello BLM office. "But the times in his guides are often a little bit suspect."