Up a canyon with a short rope!!

I found myself on the morning of February 4th, north of Arches National Park at 7am driving on hwy 191.  In my Nissan truck were my friends Whit and Heidi, sleepy eyed and watching the sunrise to the east.  Once we reached hwy 70 to the North, we head East our exit, toward Yellowcat Rd, a road leading to the Ancient structure of Yellowcat mine and the canyons we would be wandering through.

We pass the small town of Thompson and I thought of coffee as I see the lonely gas station pass by, but chose to skip it for the day.  Actually we all had chosen to go without this tasty morning beverage.  I look through my windshield and see the sun glare on the pock marks from the millions or rocks that have hit on the 260,000 miles of traveling, some pebbles big enough to make me actually duck.  Thank you LA freeways.

Soon we reached Yellowcat rd., hit the off ramp and pulled out the map.  Whit is firing off mileage numbers for turnoffs while Heidi is crammed in the backseat of the two person truck trying to get a view out of a window.  We hit a turn at 5.3 and see an enormous bird leap into flight off the side of the road and start some how floating across the desert landscape.  I think it was a California Condor, but it was probably a massive Golden Eagle.  What ever it was, it had a 7’+ wing span.

1.2 miles further down the road we enter the labyrinth of dirt roads taking us further away from the mother road and into the middle of the freezing desert.  We almost reach the pullout for the trailhead in the barren rolling desert and I see that it took an hour less time than I thought it would.  The second I get out of the car I think, “holy shit!” as the freezing desert air hits and burns my face.  Time for another layer… and where are my gloves?

We rig the gear at 8:30am and head South toward the mouth of Winter Camp Slot, which is somewhere out there in the rolling hills, our first adventure of the day.  The info we had for the canyon was that it was close to the trailhead.  The first and only rappel was 190′ and the topo said to retrieve it after heading down the canyon.  We walked out onto a bulb of sandstone above and near the middle of the canyon.  It gave us a great view of the upper and lower sections of the canyon.  The snow and cloud covered La sals stuck out of the crypotbiotic covered hillside all around.

All of us having cameras and me not having gloves, the wind quickly froze my hands in seconds as I tried to snap off a few frames before my fingers locked up.  Whit took off to the head of the canyon and we followed in a maze of stream beds.  At the mouth of the canyon I rig the micro thin shoelaces Whit calls static ropes and toss them into the canyon.  He heads down the ropes first as I watch the flex of the Juniper tree that was our anchor.  Whit reached the base of the canyon, yelled up and after Heidi I headed down.  I tried to rig the ropes so we could pull them and save some back tracking.  I reached a shelf that passed a lodged juniper stump and looked down the dark slot below.  I moved over the chasm and looked down to see 100′ more feet below in the incredible 5′ wide slot canyon.

Pulling the ropes was difficult since they were 4mm and there was friction from all of the turns of the canyon.  The rope released from the anchor and I held my breath as it fell cleanly into the canyon.  Yes! The rope pulling is always a good feeling.  We headed down canyon, passing pour offs, muddy walls and many tributaries showing the recent ice and snow from a rare winter storm.  The frozen sand was nice to walk on and even though we were in the shade, it was was warmer than being in the freezing wind on the domes above.  The air was calm and silent as the sun began to crest and enter sections of the walls.

Before we knew it we were entering the bottom of the ever widening canyon, looking at our exit point near the Cottonwood trees solidly rooted into the base of the canyon.  We headed out at this point and made our way back to the truck.  Some grazing cattle and sandstone domes on our left watched us as we meandered up the narrow washes.  To the south was the ridge of Arches National Park known as the windows and Elephant Butte.  Just to the left of that ridge and 20 miles away were the La Sal Mountains being blanketed by storm clouds.  Could we be in a more scenic place? … and this is only 1:30 hours from the house.  Some times… well all the time, I think “There is to much to see.”

The cold from the canyon and wind on the road back to the rig had sapped our energy which we felt once we stopped.  Food was the number one priority, and warming up was next.  We jumped into the truck and made our way over to La Boka arch, just up the road from the trailhead.  Below the arch was an alcove that faced east and was soaking up the rays of the sun.  After the early start and the cold wind, laying in the sun quickly put me to sleep of course after all of us took a handful of photos.  We were all in a groggy state enjoying the heat from the sun then I spazzed out and wanted to hike to find the other arch in a side canyon around the corner.  The snow covered north facing slickrock slabs on the other side of the slickrock dome blocked the entrance to Henry’s arch up in a alcove.   We circumnavigated around the rocks, making our way back to the truck and back to the map of the next canyon.

Still having a few hours of light we decided to head into another short canyon called Repeat Jr.  Just up the road from the arch we were at the trailhead and psyched to head into this slot.  From reading the topo it sounded like a straight forward canyon.  One 150′ rappel from a big tree, then a walk down and around to clean the tree.  No real obstacles were mentioned, but that was soon to change.  We reached the mouth of the canyon and started looking for a big tree.  The only one I saw was a flexy looking Juniper up and out of the canyon.  When rigged the tree I wanted to back it up off of something else incase it happened to rip out.  I tried to use as little rope as possible to rig, just so that I would have enough to reach the ground, but since it was only a 150′ rap and we had 200′ of rope, no problem.

I wanted to rap first into the canyon, so I grabbed my Deuter pack, loaded the rest of my gear, put myself on the thin line and started making my way down the icy slopes and into the bowels of the canyon.  On my way I was moving loose rocks so they wouldn’t come down after me if the rope hit them.  This already was more technical than Winter Camp wash from the morning.  As I coiled the rope after reaching the first ledge I tossed it and noticed it wasn’t even close to the bottom?   Had I used 50′ of rope to rig the anchor?  No way could I have used more than 15′ of rope.  The canyon turned into a tight angling slot that was trying to pull me in, but I chimneyed to the outside then finally was able to get my pack off and clipped it to a sling so it could hang below me and allow me to fit.  Before I knew it I was at the end of the rope, the knot on my belay device and still 40′ to the ground.  As I looked into the dark canyon I could see what looked like a pool of black water at the base.  The beta said there would be no water, then I realized it wasn’t water.

I yelled up to Whit that he needed to extend the rope so I would be able to reach the bottom of the canyon, then I would have to deal with getting somehow past the dead cow 40′ below.  I braced myself on the walls while Whit quickly rebuilt the anchor, so glad I was wearing my 5.10 Guide Tennies.  I was stuck on the walls like a lizard, a really cold lizard waiting for the rope to extend.  Looking down and seeing a cow was freaking me out.  Was it alive?  Was it going to get up and move when I was walking over it?  I was hoping the canyon was narrow enough for me to chimney over it.  Soon I had enough rope to get just above the cow and start moving across, looking through my feet to see the 7′ animal.  It looks like after seeing the bundle of hay behind it, ranchers were trying to lure it out, but there is not way to turn around a cow when the walls are no wider then it’s body.  Sad to see it had to suffer this way.

I was off rappel and Whit started heading down above me, into the cow filled canyon.  He had seen a cow in a canyon, placed there by a flash flood on a previous canyon and said this one wasn’t bad, just give it a few months.   It’s something you don’t really want to see though.  He said that me freaking out about the cow had turned Heidi away from heading down, so as soon as he was off of the rope and clear of the cow, we headed down canyon and planned to meet her at the anchor.  The canyon doubled in width a few hundred yards down to ten feet wide.  It was a short canyon and we were at the end in no more than 15 minutes and on our way back to the tree.  On our way back we passed some of the most amazing Cryptobiotic soil covered hillsides I have ever seen.  It’s incredible how amazing every view in every area of the desert is.

It turned out to be a stellar day.  The sun was setting to the west and as we made our way back through the web of dirt roads.  Just another great day in the desert.

Long live Adventure!

-Eric

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