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
 

Page 2

Kelsey knows the reactions his name can provoke among Utah's backcountry set. He seems to take a pirate's pride in the fact that over the years, several of southern Utah's national parks -- including Zion and Canyonlands -- have pulled his titles from visitor center shelves. "The parks want to have editorial control of what appears in the guidebooks they sell," he said. "I'm not about to agree to that. My books are kind of like the unauthorized, unsanitized versions."

My own adventures with Kelsey's guides are punctuated by a single ill-fated trip 16 years ago. As freshmen at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., two friends and I followed Kelsey's descriptions into a rugged canyon near Green River called the Lower Black Box. We entered the main gorge and found the early-October flow of the San Rafael River cold and swift. The canyon steadily grew narrower and deeper, and soon we emerged in a section jammed with floating logs and large chokestones covered in slippery mud. In spite of 90-degree temperatures, our good physical condition and handy inner tubes, we were no match for the chilling combination of water and shadow.

Halfway through, I began slurring my words and shivering violently. We found a sandbar, and I put on my long pants and draped a towel over my shoulders for warmth. The shivering did not stop. A streak of sun illuminated what appeared to be a possible exit route. We cursed Michael Kelsey and started up.

After a half-hour of tense climbing, we reached the top and the warmth of the rim and discussed what had gone wrong -- which is to say, we deconstructed the book. Where was the information about the floating logs? The warnings of hypothermia? The caution about the current that held you like a vise against the massive stones? If the sky had rained frogs, or even just rain, we'd have blamed Kelsey for that, too.

I realize now that we had entered the Lower Black Box ignoring clear signs of danger -- too late in the year, too much water -- and lacking a clear understanding of the inherent risks. But even now, it is difficult to blame all our problems on our own poor judgment. Over the years, as canyoneering has becoming increasingly popular, our misadventures have been repeated by dozens of others. These stories carry a typical refrain: inexperienced hikers led astray by Kelsey's route descriptions.

I have watched most of this from afar. For the better part of the last decade, the concrete and steel canyons of New York City have been morose surrogates for the sandstone gorges of southern Utah. Yet I find myself pulling Kelsey's guides from my shelves as frequently as ever. At a certain level, they offer a visceral link to landscapes deeply etched in the soft stone of my memory. But it's more than that: Unlike any other guidebooks I have encountered, Kelsey's books exude a strange -- almost radioactive -- motive force; they quite simply make me want to "go." My desire to better understand their seductive power has become something of a subconscious itch. Perhaps this is why, this past June -- disregarding all posted warnings -- I decided to enter another one of Utah's deep, dark, watery places -- this time in the company of Michael Kelsey himself.

I crawl from my tent at 7 a.m. The sun zaps my face as I boil water for coffee. Kelsey is already awake, sitting quietly on the tailgate of his Jeep Patriot, which he has ingeniously transformed into a camper and support vehicle. Every inch of free space in the truck is stuffed with gear -- climbing rope, water jugs, sunscreen, daypacks, maps, sleeping bags, tattered copies of his various books. He has removed the passenger seat and rear seat and fitted it with a plywood platform and a small mattress. He prefers the truck to a tent, he says, because of his grueling schedule -- a week on the trail followed by a week at home in which he madly transcribes the handwritten notes from his backcountry rounds.

Kelsey relays the weather forecast: clear and hot, ideal for a descent into the Black Hole. He laces up a pair of running shoes, his trademark desert footwear, which he buys used a size too large and stuffs with thick insoles for greater shock absorption. We are in no hurry. Best, he says, to let the air warm before immersing ourselves in the cold water in the depths of the canyon.

My decision to defy the bullet-riddled warning at the edge of White Canyon is not entirely blind. My knuckles and shins bear fresh scrapes from the "warm-up" hike we'd taken the previous day through Blue John Canyon, a tangle of beautiful, challenging slots near Hanksville. As we clambered, crawled and stemmed through Blue John, I looked on in awe as the near-septuagenarian negotiated chimneys and massive chokestones with Spider-Man-style acumen. The Blue John complex is perhaps best known as the place where Colorado hiker Aron Ralston was trapped for five grueling days in May 2003. To escape, Ralston had to amputate his lower right arm, which had been pinned under an 800-pound boulder. Kelsey says he was contacted recently by Hollywood filmmakers working on a movie about Ralston's ordeal. I'm not surprised when Kelsey tells me that the filmmakers said that Ralston was toting a copy of his canyon guide.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.