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Lonely at the bottom

Only a few canyoneers venture into San Gabriels' hidden chasms -- and that's the real beauty.

November 15, 2005|Bill Becher | Special to The Times

THE first step backward over the cliff is always the hardest. Chris Brennen checks his harness and peers over his shoulder at the canyon below. Brilliant yellow leaves dapple the surface of the clear, chilly stream that plunges down through Little Santa Anita Canyon.

Brennen is going to rappel beside a 40-foot waterfall. At the lip of the fall the wet granite is smooth and greased with brown and green lichen; an unroped slip could be fatal. But the rocket scientist has stepped into thin air many times before.

The San Gabriel Mountains, minutes away from the galleries and sushi restaurants of Old Pasadena, are heavily used by hikers and mountain bikers. But few have seen up-close the beauty that lies at the bottom of the canyons that slice through the mountains John Muir described as more rigidly inaccessible than the Sierra.

To reach these little-visited granite chasms, Brennen and his friends go canyoneering, a sport more closely associated with the dizzying slot canyons of the Southwest than L.A.'s nearby mountains. For more than a decade, this band of buddies has used gear and techniques borrowed from the rock-climbing world to navigate otherwise impassible off-trail corners of the San Gabes.

"We called it 'adventure hiking' at first because we hadn't heard about canyoneering," says Mark Duttweiler, who has accompanied Brennen on many trips.

Walk up and rap down is the basic plan for canyoneering. Brennen and his companions hike two miles up the Mt. Wilson Trail from Sierra Madre. Before they reach a spot called First Water, Brennen and Duttweiler leave the trail and bushwhack down the side of a steep ravine, carefully pushing aside branches studded with thorns. Poison oak is everywhere.

After scrambling and sliding to the bottom of the canyon, Brennan and crew walk down the creek bed, balancing on stones worn smooth by the water.

Thrust up by a kink in the San Andreas fault, the San Gabriels are among the newest mountains in North America, and the steep canyons are constantly changing after winter rains. Boulders move, pools form and empty, creating a different experience each year.

Brennen rigs a rope through a metal anchor installed by a previous canyoneer. Held in place by an expansion bolt drilled into the rock, the steel hanger provides a secure attachment for ropes. The alternative is a "natural anchor," using a tree or boulder and nylon slings. Canyoneers are divided on the issue. Brennen favors natural anchors, feeling they are more in keeping with a leave-no-trace wilderness ethic, although constructing one often means leaving a piece of 1-inch wide nylon webbing slung around a tree or boulder.

Brennen slowly slides down the rope, feet against the rock. He keeps his speed in check. Although he's wearing gloves, he knows that if he loses control and grabs the rope it could sear his palms.

Losing control on a rap is one way to get hurt canyoneering. The surging runoff from last winter's record rainfall made spring conditions especially hazardous. Conditions have been wet but safer this fall. Still anchors can fail, and sudden storms can cause flash floods. In other areas canyoneers have rappelled into deep moving water, gotten tangled in their equipment and drowned.

Brennen, a professor of mechanical engineering at Caltech who helped NASA design the space shuttle's main engine, says that for him the lure of getting to otherwise inaccessible places outweighs the risks. "You can't get here without technical tools. You need a rope to see these waterfalls and beautiful places."

And there's the adrenaline pump that comes from sliding down a rope through a waterfall. Brennen drops out of sight down the rope. The rush of water makes it hard to hear, so he blows a whistle when he's down safely, and Duttweiler, one of Brennen's former students, begins his descent. When he reaches the bottom, Duttweiler pulls the rope loose from the anchor above and carries it to the next drop.

A large boulder bridges the narrow canyon. Brennen and his crew will slide through the waterfall and under the rock.

There are at least eight rappels that canyoneers must maneuver down to reach the bottom of Little Santa Anita Canyon, and most end in pools of water. The potholes are formed by the constant pounding at the base of the falls. Most are wadeable, but one requires swimming. Duttweiler raps into the pool and floats on his back while he detaches the rope from his rappel device.

The other way they maneuver past a small waterfall is less technical. Once they've scouted the drop and know how deep the pool is, they jump.

Duttweiler does that at the next drop and nearly disappears underwater, his red helmet bobbing like a strange species of jellyfish.

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