The team stood at the edge of a gorge they believed no person in modern history had ever fully explored. It was part of a larger expedition organized by OPB's Oregon Field Guide. The objective was to navigate and document an uncharted gorge in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.
He walked to the edge of the falls, checked his rigging and stepped off the cliff. The crew watched Smith turn insignificant in comparison to the giant waterfall. From the rocky edge of the gathering pool, they saw him sway in and out of the cascading path as he slowly made his way down. Then at the bottom, he stopped.
“We were all a little bit worried at that point,” said Mike Williams, Smith's friend and volcano rescue team partner.
The experienced rescue technician knew that it would be difficult to breathe under all the rushing water.
The waterfall crashed on top of Smith and at the water's end he couldn’t rappel any farther. But he didn’t want to jump. As far as any of them knew, Smith was the first person to ever rappel the waterfall. The pool in front of him could be any depth and the current beneath the falls could be any strength. If it was deep and he got caught in his ropes, he could drown. Smith started thinking in bigger terms.
"There's that moment of being thankful for everything you have in your life. You reflect on that and then move through it,” Smith said.
The pool turned out to be waist-deep. That leap of faith would be the first of many lying ahead for the crew as they set out to explore an uncharted wonder of the Northwest, Valhalla.
Discovering The Gorge
A wildfire sparked a chain reaction that led Mike Malone to this waterfall. In 2010, Malone flew in a helicopter as a forest fire raged below. En route to pick up two resource advisers from a remote destination in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, the fire forced the helicopter to detour.
Flying at lower altitudes, Malone sailed a few hundred feet above the treetops. Then he happened to look down. He saw what he believed to be a slot canyon. These are the beautiful canyons with archetypal tall walls and narrow pathways such as Oregon's Oneonta Gorge or Utah's Red Cave in Zion National Park.
A week later, the crew took the same route and Malone saw the canyon again. A half-mile upstream he saw a waterfall that he estimated to be 80 to 100 feet tall.
The 34-year U.S. Forest Service veteran was floored. He spent his entire life working in the area and had never heard anything about a slot canyon. He pored over topographic maps and Google 3-D aerial photos. He asked every ranger who worked in the district and, to his amazement, found no evidence or documentation of it.
Five years, two grueling expeditions, numerous scouting trips and countless hours of planning later, Malone returned with a corps of discovery to explore and document the hidden slot canyon.
The team consisted of Mike, his son Sean, Oregon Public Broadcasting's Oregon Field Guide and the team tasked with traveling through the dangerous, uncharted gorge: the Canyon Crew.
FAQ: What Is A Slot Canyon?
One does not simply walk into Valhalla. The floor of the gorge is a river rushing through logjams, countless drops and many waterfalls. Traversing the canyon requires an expertise in climbing, rappelling and navigation. It also requires fearlessness and possibly stupidity to negotiate the dangerous uncharted landscape.
Mike Williams, the emergency medical technician, knew the stakes.
"I just realized that nobody can get hurt down here because if we do, it's going to be a long time to get out," Williams said.
Joining Williams and Smith was Brian French, a professional rope rigger and arborist. Adventure photographers John Waller and Ben Canales were also part of the Canyon Crew.
The remoteness of the location and steep canyon walls meant any serious rescue effort would take, at best, days to accomplish. It was dangerous, but the reward proved too enticing to turn down.
During a 2015 scout trip, Waller and Smith scrambled down into the top gorge and upon a rare geological wonder. Cascading from the rocks were two waterfalls that collected into the river passing through one of the most rugged defiles in the Pacific Northwest. John Waller looked around in disbelief.
“There’s all this beautiful mist coming in the sky, the sun’s peering down casting a rainbow,” he said.
The overgrowth of the grotto bloomed in a palette of deep greens. It looked like a fairy tale.
“Everything that was expressed to us about how spectacular this place could be just came true,” Waller said.
They named the falls — only the second double waterfall known to exist in Oregon — Shangri-La.
The adventure through Valhalla starts in the lush Shangri-La landscape. The Canyon Crew knew just a little about the trip ahead thanks to helicopter flybys. But there were many unknowns between the crew and the finish line, which was where they would meet Mike and his son, Sean Malone, at the Gates of Valhalla, the downstream entrance to the slot canyon.
Smith collected his gear after a brief scare at one of the Shangri-La cascades and they were off. But the Canyon Crew only took a few official steps before encountering the first obstacle.
Two significant waterfalls blasted through a cave system below. Beyond the slippery rocks and sheer power of the falls was cold water. Smith rappelled into its frigid, dark mouth.
"If you don't have a wet suit on, you’re going to die of hypothermia. It's that cold," he recalled.
At the landing they found another nearly 40-foot waterfall.
By the time they finally navigated down to the opening below, it was nearing dark.
“Then the temperature really started dropping," Canales said. "It becomes disconcerting because it’s soaking wet.”
The waterlogged crew found a skinny sandbar to set up camp for the night. The gorge surrounded them; so beautiful during the day, it transformed into a dangerous location to sleep at night.
"You're just looking up the canyon walls and you're like, 'Oh man, if a rock comes off of there — boom — you're done for,'" Smith said.
By his estimate it had taken the crew a full day to travel less than 200 yards.
The next day was full of more unknowns.
“We’re truly moving into a section — even from the aerials — we haven’t been able to tell what’s there,” Waller said.
When they packed up, they turned the corner and were greeted by an estimated 25-foot waterfall. Canales was both amazed and nervous.
“I’m much more of a normal person, not a hardcore adventurer. There’s kind of a low-level panic in the back of the mind. This is not normal," he said. "What’s going to happen here? What’s going to happen there?”
“Being in Valhalla, it feels like you’ve gone into the throat of something, through the stomach and you’re in it,” Canales said.
As the day progressed, the crew encountered two more waterfalls and four smaller falls. For Canales, all the anxiety took a backseat to the thrill of the adventure.
Then the gorge opened to an amphitheater.
It was another grotto in the Valhalla canyon that left the outdoorsmen who spent their careers in the wilderness grasping for words of comparison.
“Huge towering walls on either side of you,” Waller said. “Big mossy pour-overs, water spilling and trickling in all these places, and there’s ferns and moss and green, and it’s just a strikingly beautiful place.”
“I’ve not been in a place like that in Oregon before,” Canales said. “It kind of took on a spiritual moment in there.”
They named it Cathedral Garden. The crew set up camp and spent the night next to the river roaring off the canyon walls.
They awoke covered in banana slugs.
The Gates Of Valhalla
The Canyon Crew met Mike and Sean Malone the next day at the Gates of Valhalla.
Over the course of the three-day expedition, they tackled nine waterfalls that needed rigging to move beyond, countless smaller falls and descended 600 feet in elevation, all in the half-mile canyon.
"I can't believe it's in the Northwest," Smith said. "It was life-changing for me."
Mike Malone was entering the Gates of Valhalla for his third time. This time, however, he shared the journey with his son.
Smith helped Mike Malone reach the top of the waterfall that dead-ended his two previous expeditions. From the new height, Mike and his son could see farther into Valhalla.
“It’s a surreal sight,” Mike said in amazement.
“Hearing about it for so long doesn’t prepare you for what it’s actually like,” Sean said. “It’s just breathtaking.”
For Mike, it was a dream to see something so magnificent and wild.
“To realize that in Oregon there are still places that are undiscovered,” he said. “Even after Valhalla, I think there’s more.”