Monday, June 25, 2012

Canyoning near Caltech

Many adventures, not all adapt readily to the blogging medium. I think this is a function of how much talking goes on. When I travel by myself, most down time is spent in quiet introspection and narrative building, whereas on a family adventure most time is spent talking and chasing, carrying on, etc! ;P

To begin with, last Friday Tesla Motors launched their all electric (all singing, all dancing) Tesla Model S luxury sedan car. It looks quite nice - I saw one at Caltech a few weeks ago. It's interesting to look at the pricing model. For most cars, buying a bigger petrol tank would be a small additional charge. For electric cars, the fuel tank, or battery system, is the single most expensive component, so each additional 120km or so of range costs you another 10k at the showroom. Prices for batteries are coming down, as energy capacity slowly increases, so likely this won't be the case forever. For the time being, however, the energy capacity of the best batteries per kg or per volume is about 1% of petrol, at least in the re-usable, non-Dell laptop sense. This necessitates a large battery, but you can get away with a motor that fits inside the wheel, with only one moving part. In the Model S, the battery pack is about 10cm thick and forms the floor of the car and part of the chassis, transforming this technical constraint to terrific body stiffness and a great deal of freedom with interior design. I think it's a rather nice car, though I'll have to clip my coupons for a while to afford it. Some reviews: 

To the main news. There was some unpleasant noise in various online climbing forums a few months ago as Caltech Alpine Club was incorrectly accused of trashing a climbing route in the Sierras. To mediate the PR situation, we decided to publicise one of our cleaning up trips much more widely this time, which resulted in yesterday's activities. Meeting at 7am, a hardy bunch of climbers and their friends set off for Eaton Canyon, one of the nicest canyons in the San Gabriel mountains and also one visible from Caltech. I was kitted out in shirt, board shorts and vibram "creepy toe shoes". Later I swapped my shirt for my harness, thus maintaining the size of my clothing arsenal. Some other, much more experiences canyoners wore wetsuits and very sophisticated belay systems. But I digress...

The trip began with a swift walk up the Mt Wilson Toll Road, originally a mule track by which large telescopes were brought up to the peak piece by piece about 100 years ago. Later it saw use as a death-defying car race track, though this morning it supported bikers and runners. It's about half of the Caltech-Mt Wilson-Caltech marathon, an unofficial route used by people who really really like pain. Though some improve it slightly by appending another 42km to get to the beach. About 2/3 of the way up we turned off the main trail and began an increasingly steep, slippery, and overgrown descent down into the canyon. My shoes provided a unique insight into the degree to which old dirt roads and tracks become very very rocky. Having got the canyon floor, most people harnessed and helmeted up and proceeded down stream. At this point I realised I had forgotten my trusty bike helmet, so resolved to avoid having my brains dashed out by an unseen rock plummeting from above. Reader ==> I got lucky this time!

I set off down the canyon, and quickly came to a double natural waterslide. Popping out the bottom, drenched utterly, I removed a persistent string of green goo from my hair and grinned from ear to ear. This canyoning business is awesome!

As one of the more experienced members of the CAC who were there that day, I was positioned manning a rappel (abseil) station, basically to ensure that people who were rustier than I put the ropes through the descender properly. The first waterfall, however, was easily downclimbed by any of several different routes, so I talked nearly everyone through them instead, taking time between groups of people to explore the area. I found a snake, a few frogs, an extensive cave system (beneath fallen boulders) with unexpected chimneys I used to surprise passing canyoners. Some hardy souls also fireman poled down a tree to bypass the drop. Some years ago it was in fact possible to pass all six major waterfalls by jumping, but subsequent floods infilled the bottomless pools to the point where I could touch the bottom in all but one.

Soon enough all the canyoners had passed me, with J and a rather determined woman in her 70s bringing up the rear. I put my gear back in my waterproof stuff sack, put my dried shirt back on, and promptly got it wet again. It was rather cold, so I took it off and went shirtless for most of the rest of the trip. I had another dry shirt in my pack that I wore during the longer breaks from getting drenched. The canyon walls slid by as I skidded on smooth river sand over boulder after boulder. Below my rap station was a series of larger and terrifyingly awesome waterfalls. I clipped onto the rope and threw myself into the abyss. I had found that my dominant right hand was more useful for fending off the wall than locking off the ATC, so I usually descended left-handed. This also helped to equalise the wear on my gear! From below, each waterfall was a unique combination of curved, watercut lines tracing back in space and forward in time to the current chute, often green with algae and moss, and forming very sleep water slides. Canyoners with more sophisticated belay devices, such as figure-8s or piranhas were able to slide these waterslides and check themselves before plummeting into the cave and pool below. Every now and then I walked beneath an enormous tree trunk, wedged between both sides of the canyon far overhead by a past flood. One of the last waterfalls in the upper section required a tight squeeze between a boulder and the wall, just wide enough for me to fit through. I threw my bag into the pool below, probably bursting the waterproof bag containing my (old) camera, with inconvenient results...

Meanwhile, I'd managed to feel my feet onto two slippery ledges below and out of sight. My body, wedged in the narrow space, left just enough space to pass my left hand through and tie into the rope. Meanwhile a very petulant frog sat on a rock 10cm from my face and stared at me the whole time I was fumbling the ropes. At last I was tied in, and began to descend. At this point the anchor was above my head, which necessitated some creative gyrating. The very height of gracefulness, I can assure you. Not long after that, a fallen tree provided a nice tightrope to avoid a swim down a short waterfall and across a pool. Here I caught up with the first of some of the people who'd already passed me. Wire brushes and squirters in hand they were undoing in 20 minutes what some spray-paint wielding vandal had done to some perfectly respectable granite in about 10 seconds. I stopped to scrape with a convenient rock until shivers set in and I kept moving. Between the two sets of falls, there is about a mile of more-or-less flat river to traverse, which is not dissimilar, though somewhat less tracked, than the canyon between the bridge and the first waterfall. I proceeded down until we came across a second group of trash collectors and graffiti removers a short distance below the third-last waterfall. It was at this point that I discovered that my camera and waterproof bag weren't, so I salvaged the batteries and memory card before proceeding. A rope had not been set on the second last waterfall, as there was an easy track to bypass it. Unlike the first waterfall bypass track, which killed two people last year and injured a few others---one before my very eyes. He escaped by helicopter with two additional "knees" between his hips and the original pair. 

Below the second waterfall was a large open area with a lot of trash and graffiti. By the time I got there, most of the work had been done by the second team, who had come up from below. Also enjoying the surroundings was a group of about five youths, who kindly took it upon themselves to see if alluvial action had yet deepened the pool below the waterfall to re-enable jumping. The first guy took the waterslide, falling about 8m into the pool, and didn't die. His friend decided to climb up the wall another 4 or so metres, and after a few minutes of deliberations, jumped. All but one of his foot bones survived the fall. Initially in shock, they began to walk back down the canyon towards the first waterfall, and presumably their transport. After a few hundred metres, however, it became clear that walking was not really an option, let alone climbing the track back down. For a while it looked like we'd have to harness him up and lower him over the first waterfall on one of our lines (how's that for an exercise in liability?!). Well before he got anywhere near the last drop, however, two helicopters had flown in and winched him to safety and probably a stern talking-to. On our way out we saw the usual 15 members of the fire brigade with their one-wheeled stretcher, impressively far up the very rugged canyon! So in the end, the only stuff I lowered over the last waterfall was some rubbish. Soon after I lowered myself down the final slippery and extremely cold/wet waterfall to the pool below and greeted some friends sitting at the bottom, including my Australian friend S, who helpfully pointed out that my bare chest was traumatising members of the general public. Again. I pulled my dry shirt out and threw it on, to general grunts of approval. Stowing my harness, I looked once again like a normal person, though by the time we'd walked back to the car, the pound or so of sand in each of my shoes had managed to displaced a lot the skin with which it competed for primacy. This was not a problem while walking in the water, or while my shoes were wet, which I found interesting.

On the way back to Caltech we passed my friend J (of the European adventures a year ago), who was off to summer research in points East for 6 months, so I jumped out and gave him a hug moments before he boarded the airport shuttle. Back at the ranch I cooked about 100 kilos of pasta before arranging my surviving photos and hitting the sack.

In other news, T, S, and I explored Anza Borrego Desert State Park a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty rad, though the adventures are best shared in the visual, rather than textual, medium:

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