Struck by the spirit of adventure, Cameron Martindell plunges into the Black Hole of Utah’s wet and wild White Canyon
Photos by Cameron Martindell
Spontaneous adventures, ironically, take time. It’s only after years of adventuring — rock climbing, search and rescue work, surfing, kayaking — that I find myself with the skill sets and gear to suddenly be suiting up to delve into a beautiful slot canyon just south of Hanksville in southern Utah. Four of us — Doug, Cory, Dan and I — are surrounded by orange-and-buff sandstone reaching up hundreds of feet. Wetsuit, helmet, harness: check, check, check. Backpack, rope, waterproof camera: check, check, check.
Gnarly textures and large bulbous formations are mixed among huge, completely smooth portions of the vertical and sometimes overhanging walls. These smooth surfaces are the result of when massive flakes of sandstone had decided they didn’t want to hold on anymore only to fall into the rubble of jagged detritus deep in the canyon below. And, if the fallen stone made it all the way down the canyon, it wouldn’t be long before the raging spring melt-off waters of White Canyon Creek rounded out those jagged edges and erased evidence of the plummet entirely. But the creek isn’t currently flowing. It’s fall, and the rushing torrent of snowmelt from the spring and the flash floods of the summer rain have run their course. All that is left behind are the trapped pools of still water in the lowest parts of the canyon.
From where we suit up, a smooth mirror of benign water welcomes us, and we step in. Ripples radiate out from our toes as if to alert the rest of the canyon of our approach.
Just two days before this moment, I was at home on the far side of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Doug texted me to borrow a waterproof case for his phone. A request like that begs questioning. He was going canyoneering (or canyoning), which is simply the process of exploring a canyon by traveling down it. Where the water went down, the canyoneer went down — be it as a gentle babbling brook or rappelling over a cliff like a waterfall. I had done some of this in Australia and Switzerland, and when Doug came over to pick up the case he showed me some photos. My constant expression of awe and deep interest prompted him to finally ask: “Do you want to come?”
With a nod from my understanding wife, I was off first thing the next morning. In my frantic process of packing the night before, not knowing quite what I was getting myself into, I overpacked. I didn’t really know how warm or cold the air and water would be; how torn up my gear would get from the abrasive sandstone; what our camping situation was going to be like. I relied on my best guess based on what I knew about that part of Utah, what time of year it was and what Doug told me.
The shallow, clear pool where we first tread soon turns into a narrow channel of cold, neck-deep, murky brown water. As we venture farther, the walls get taller and come closer together. Our wetsuits are soaked through, and we appreciate how cold the water truly is. For the majority of the population, this is a pretty obscure little canyon. Very few guide services offer trips here and only by request. For the self-sufficient adventurer, the only way to know about this route is from meticulous guidebook research or from hearing about it from someone while sitting around a campfire or through some other grapevine. I was no different, having first heard it from a friend of a friend. Finally, after a number of swims, squeezes and scrambles, we reach what this trip was known for: the Black Hole of White Canyon.
The fallen pile of sandstone chunks before us left only a small dark gap leading down farther into the earth. The Black Hole is deep and dark, and a subtle whiff of organic matter wafts up to tickle our nostrils. As our eyes adjust, we notice the mysterious shimmer of dark water below. From where we stand, we just want to jump the dozen feet down this rocky hole into the dark pool. But unlike my guided trip in Switzerland where each of the jumps had been scouted out to ensure the water was deep enough and there aren’t any lurking hazards, this is a complete unknown, and we have to climb down and ease ourselves into the dark, smelly waters.
There is nothing graceful about getting down. Once Dan, our unofficial guide and the only one of us to have done this canyon before, is down and floating, the temptation to just jump taunts us again. But any sort of injury, even just a sprained ankle, would make for a very long and arduous evacuation.
Our bodies stir the water and release the full brunt of the foul stench of decaying wood. Months earlier when the creek had stopped flowing and the water went stagnant, with sticks and other floating fragments became trapped. We swim a modified doggy paddle instead of our preferred elementary backstroke so that we are able to feel through the dark. One hand stretches out forward; the other swipes the floating foulness away. Soon, a light in the distance brings hope. The organic debris piled up downstream is thick enough to climb upon it, into the light, and ultimately escape the Black Hole.
Once back in the light of day, we take a moment to wipe the wood chunks from ourselves and move on. The scent lingers with us for a few more swims until we are rinsed clear.
The stretch of canyon we are exploring is only 5 miles long, but it took us four hours to crawl, climb, swim and splash our way past the various obstacles. Our exit is obvious. The vertical walls start to mellow out and reveal more blue sky beyond the elusive, narrow, snaky silver that had guided us this far. On a flat rock perch above the canyon floor, confident we are done swimming, we peel the cold wet neoprene off our bodies and revel in the warm, dry Utah desert air.
My overpacking pays off. We are car camping after all. I have everything I need — gear, skill and strength — to be comfortable and safe on this trip; and, as it turns out, not just safe and comfortable, but to be able to escape the Black Hole. Astronomically, a black hole is a gravitational field so strong, that light that can’t escape. For us, curiosity and the lure of adventure, exploration and natural beauty sucked us in. We came, we saw, we explored. I added another notch of experience to prepare me for my next spontaneous adventure.