Pothole Escapes: An Introduction

Three canyoneers planning a pothole escape in a Lake Powell slot canyon

Tom, Ram, and JDZ work the escape

I recently ran across this highly illustrative portrait of a pothole escape from a Lake Powell canyon in Spring 2009, and I thought it a good example of this infamous canyon character, the Pothole. Potholes have a grand reputation in canyoneering for being some of the most intimidating and diabolical characters around. Back when Imlay and Heaps were scary, don’t-go-there canyons, tales of the freezing, dark, unknown potholes left many canyoneers (including me) more than nervous to go see for themselves. So… what exactly IS a pothole?

As seen here, a pothole is basically a big hole in a canyon, drilled out to large proportions by gritty water over hundreds of years. In this particular case, the pothole is about 15 feet deep and perhaps 20 feet in diameter. Because the walls are very to completely smooth, it is typically impossible to climb your way out, leaving your creativity to overcome what brute strength and agility cannot. And thus comes forth the barrage of tricks: pack tosses, sand bags, partner hoists, stick clips, and other techniques ranging from medieval to genius. All the tricks and tools have one simple goal – getting out of the hole safely and efficiently.

In the photo, we can discern a few notable things:

1) At least one person (the photographer) has already escaped the pothole and is looking down from the downcanyon rim. I can’t remember exactly how I reached the rim, but it was likely a partner hoist or perhaps ascending on a counter-weighted rope – or a combination of the two?

2) Jonathan has remained high on upcanyon pothole rim. He has the best view AND the best leverage for throwing, pulling, etc. The team will keep him there until the last possible moment, as the person in this position can be uber-useful.

3) Tom has set up a “two-man lift”, a simple but powerful technique where two lines go from his harness to the rim, where two people (me and Calvin, in this case) pull him up. By splitting his weight into two separate loads, physics does us a favor and makes this pretty easy, even while balancing on a 2-foot rim. By attaching the ropes to Tom’s harness, he has free use of his hands to help us, once he can reach the pothole lip.

4) Ram has some time to stand and gawk at the splendor of the canyon. Good for him!

It’s dubious to say any pothole escape is “typical”, but this one is a great example of some basic, commonly-used techniques for an empty pothole. This canyon was a true pothole fest, with perhaps 25 – 30 pothole problems to solve en route to the splashdown into Lake Powell at the end. If this sort of thing looks fun to you, check out our Lake Powell HighVenture, a fantastic opportunity to learn a wild array of potholing techniques.


About Nick

Nick Wilkes found ZAC in 1996, working first as an outfitter, then a guide, then as webmaster. An ardent adventure enthusiast, Nick's recent exploits involve laying down roots in Wisconsin, chasing his kids around the house, working as a Madison, WI photographer and growing his Wisconsin climbing business. Connect with Nick on Facebook, Google+, or directly via email.
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