Eaton Canyon


There is a first time for everything!  The last couple years have held many firsts for me.  2015 is shaping up no different.  My adventure bucket list includes ice climbing and canyoneering, both of which I have successfully completely this year.  I checked off ice climbing right out the gate in January up in Lee Vining before this blog started, but last weekend was a real summer kick off in Eaton Canyon.

Eaton Canyon sits only 20 minutes away from my home in Altadena, California.  It has a nature center, and a little nature walk to view the bottom of a waterfall, and a little walk-in campsite that is frequented by the boyscouts, and one more thing, a HUGE canyoneering trip that is buried from the public eye.  On the canyoneer's grading scale it's a 3B IV, Which means: 

Class 3 - Intermediate Canyoneering  Rappels or technical climbing and/or down climbing. A rope is required for belays and single-pitch rappels.

B - Water with no current or light current. Still pools. Falls are normally dry or running at a trickle. Swimming expected. 

IV - Expected to take a long day. Get up early, bring a headlamp. Possible bivy.

Eaton Canyon lived up to all of these terms and conditions. It is regarded as one of the best canyons in Southern California, and some consensus would consider it a 10 hour day trip.  It is a multicomponent exercise involving hiking, rock scrambling, swimming, repelling, and then repeating those actions over and over.

On June 20th, 2015, a group of 7 of us meet at the gate to the nature boundary at 7:30am. Some important foreshadowing of this trip report is to notice that gate behind us.  It is a tall structure bound with massive razor wire.  This gate is open to hikers, backpacker's and bikers from sunrise to sunset.  During any other hours, one must use an alternative entrance near the Nature Center.  This gate sits along a residential road but is a common access for the campground and specific park destinations, including the upper canyon.

L to R: Jimmy, Gabe, Emilio, Sindy, Steph, Mel, & Melissa

We arrived at the gate right around the time it opened, the beginning of the approach consists of a hike up a dirt fire road to reach Henninger Flats.  This is maybe 3 miles with a couple thousand feet gain, no big deal early in the morning.

When we got to Henninger Flats, the campground around Eaton Canyon, we stopped to briefly enjoy the view and hydrate.

 I observed a warning sign for Rattlesnakes.  I've encountered rattlers before, in Burbank, San Gorgonio and Joshua Tree, they don't usually spook me.  For some reason I snapped a photo of the sign, and that might have been prophesied what would happen.

From here, you continue up the toll road, which could eventually connect you to Mt. Wilson. 

Not far above Henninger, you make a left over a tiny wooden bridge that almost immediately shoots you into the deep backcountry.  What goes from a very dry and arid atmosphere in the public, immediately transforms into secluded rain forest vibe.

You're prepared to get wet when you start this trip, but when you pop into the top of the canyon you are sort of skirting the creek trying to keep your feet dry.  Almost instantly you realize that it's not only impossible, the creek is the only form of trail.  To avoid walking in the water, would require heavy bushwhacking. 

The terrain was bittersweet, while beautiful and sequestered, it was also treacherous.  There was a combination of wet shoes with moss covered rocks on the bottom of the creek, which meant moving extremely slow to keep your balance.  In addition there was massive poison oak on the sides of the trail.  Spider webs in the trees, swarms of bees, a large rattlesnake that forced us to bushwhack through a grove of stinging nettles (more poisonous plants) and of course infinite mosquitoes to bite your ankles.

In contrast to nature's torture devices, there was also an abundance of beauty.  Flocks of butterflies (or at least really beautiful moths) would flutter when you stepped over logs, and countless cute frogs clinging to the granite walls.  We saw a deer prancing thru the forest (and a rotten exploded carcass in our way too) Really cool newts and skinks, a non-venomous snake swimming by and enough greenery to keep some sun burn at bay, which is a rarity in Southern California hiking.

Eaton Canyon is often referred to as an "adult water park"  there is a succession of mini-waterfalls that you either slide down on your butt or jump off into (depending on the water depth at the given time) then rotated with technical rappels, some climbing, hiking, it just never ends.  It's at a good 8 miles trip.

Eventually you need to gear up with a harness, rappel device, a fancy rope, and helmet, and maybe a couple other accessories.  This is what separates a class 3 canyon from a class 2 or 1 canyon.  This can be dangerous, especially adding the element of water, it's slippery!

Some rappels end in a pool of water, you must untie from the rappel device which treading water and swim out.  Here is Mel demonstrating!

At this point, I have no recollection if these photos are in any particular order.  It becomes a roller coaster of fun/scary/tired/excited.  There is somewhat of an endurance challenged involved.  The only way to properly explain the sequence is to post this canyoneer's map of Eaton.  Click to enlarge, you can see there are something like 6 roped repels and 10 slides, and lots of down climbing, tree-hoping and hiking.

Here's Emilio, the man with the master plan, our fearless leader for the day.  He had done the trip once before, so hey, that qualifies him!  Thanks Emilio, even after your phone crapped out from getting waterlogged, you still had a great grasp on the land form recognition, everything was also "just around the bend!" 

I think two phones blew out that day, amazing we got all these photos and the cameras stayed dry.  Emilio had a GoPro in a waterproof case which was nice, Jimmy rolled the dice and 50% of his electronics made it out of the canyon still functioning.  I guess one ziploc bag is really better at protecting a sandwich than an iPhone.

Thanks to Sindy for editing this video, it gives a better perspective on the event.

Eaton Canyon adventure

The weather was great, normally people wear a light wetsuit, but since it was in the 90's we many of us jammed out in shorts.  Too bad we didn't know there would be so much poison oak! Here's Melissa, she rappelling in real boss mode.  We all took a pretty good beating, but I feel like she only took one beating on her knee, so that out her below average with trip injuries. Good work!

Down some trees into a pool, a couple nice balancing acts and bizarre traverses.

A couple of the rappels had very awkward starts and some awkward finishes.  Sindy never blinked about walking on the wild side.

And for every tree you had to go over, you had to go under one too!

At around 6:30 pm we started approaching the final rappel.  This one is special.  You rappel over what's known as Eaton Falls.  This particular waterfall is the base of the lower canyon.  There is normally a large audience to watch you descend this portion because this is the main attraction of the common Eaton Canyon Nature Trail hike.  Many people hike the simple couple miles to the waterfall to utilize it as a swimming hole, picnic area, selfie background and escape from the city.

However, Eaton Falls is also rich in a dark history of helicopter rescues and unfortunate deaths. Many ill-prepared enthusiasts attempt to use-trails to ascend the upper falls for cliff jumping and swimming.  In 2011 alone there were over 60 helicopter rescues.  A quick google search brings up story after story of depressing fatalities, many oh whom are young kids.

To rappel this final 50' waterfall is exciting and nerve racking all at once.  It is to an audience excited to see the action, and it is a signifier than the mission is coming to a conclusion.

Last year, after the 5th death, the forest service made a public and official closure of the upper canyon trails.  It's a $5,000 fine to enter in the 84 acres marked off.  In spite of this, if you apply for a permit, specifically for canyoneering, and get the signed approval of the District Ranger  Denis Merkel, you may pass through the upper and lower falls.

After we all finished the final rappel, I coiled the rope for the last time that day.

We finally removed our helmets and took a concluding group photo.  We reorganized our backpacks and headed for the 1/2 mile hike back to the side gate where we had parked in the morning.

We were proud to finish the canyon before dark.  Most of us were new to canyoneering so expected it to take longer than usual.  We all got down and out safely before dark.  On the hike back to the car we discussed how one more person in the party could have potentially disrupted our timing.  We were hiking out while the sun was setting.  Our clothes were drying and our eyes naturally adjusting.

Perhaps you remember that fence from the beginning of our adventure?  The one with the coils of barbed wire that closes at sunset?  Yeah, well we got there just after sunset, and it was locked!!!  Now it was dark, we were hungry and exhausted.  We faced another 2 miles of night hiking to get back to our vehicles.

We wasted no time and just accepted that our adventure wasn't over.  We joked about bivying by the fence and leaving in the morning, which would REALLY make this the Grade IV canyon trip!  No thanks!  We caught wind of some real locals who happen to be in the park after dark, we followed them down a slim horse trail to a side gate, perhaps shaving some distance off our expected re-routed path. We all chatted about showers and hamburgers and Mexican food. 

By the time we all got back to our respected vehicles on Pinecrest Rd. it was 9:30pm!  This made for a 14 hour adventure.  Perhaps a slow time for the Eaton Canyon descent, but every minute was amazing!

I might have to update by adventure bucket list!  I know alpine climbing is still on the docket, could that be accomplished in 2015 too?!