The Outing: Bailey CanyonFour of us set out from the Bailey Canyon trailhead above Sierra Madre in the San Gabriel Mountains last Saturday morning to hike the Bailey Canyon Trail to about 2,400 foot elevation, at which point we would begin our descent down the several waterfalls in the middle of steep, rugged Bailey Canyon.
We had a 200- foot 9mm rope for primary use and a 100- foot 8mm rope for back-up. We knew that most of the route was bolted and, as we discovered, all the bolts we saw in place were relatively new. We also carried 60 feet of webbing, a few rappel rings, assorted slings and a bolt kit just in case.
As we ascended the 2 miles to our jumping-off place, we kept our eyes on the substantial cloud cover on the 4,000 foot ridge running perpendicular to Bailey Canyon. There was a tinge of black in the clouds and we wanted to be satisfied that a heavy rain would not visit us. If common sense didn’t tell you that you should not be in a deep, narrow fissure like Bailey Canyon during a heavy rain, the memorial at the trailhead for a father and son who were swept to their deaths down the canyon in a debris flow in 1994 was definitely a sobering reminder.
Descent into the Canyon: Fall Colors, Brackish Water and a Mine ShaftThe weather stayed dry, if a bit chilly. We reached our departure point, marked by some stone cabin ruins just off the main trail, in a forested glade above the cliffs of the lower canyon. We donned our harnesses, helmets and wind-breakers and descended into the trees, brush and rocks carpeting this beautiful canyon. Fall colors still adorned the trees and the water in the canyon meant a lot of very green shrubbery to wade through. Fortunately, we saw very little poison oak.
Within 10 minutes of starting down, we encountered a few dry waterfalls that didn’t
require rappels because you can safely negotiate around them. Soon, our noses detected a very unpleasant odor. Several pools of water on the canyon floor had been standing too long without being stirred. Lord, they smelled rank! We tried not to step in these brackish pools, but wet feet could not be entirely avoided.
As we descended, we spotted a small mine shaft about 4-5 feet in diameter on the right wall of the canyon. Word has it that you can crawl about 100 feet to the end of the shaft if you so desire. No one in our group was up for a wet, claustrophobic adventure, so we looked and kept going.
On some rappels, landing in pools of water was unavoidable.
We came to the longest rappel in the canyon. Although the drop was somewhere between 80-90 feet, it was on a gradually sloping rock face and so the rappel was nothing particularly exciting. The best descents were still to come.
After moving through a relatively flat section of the canyon, we came upon a 50 foot drop where the first half is over some large boulders. These boulders created an overhang for the last half of the drop affording an exciting free rappel. Lower down, there was another drop providing a second free rappel.
Avoiding Bee ArmaggedonA memorable moment occurred as I was nearing bottom into a heavily shrubbed area. I heard the distinctive buzzing of bees, lots of them. Karen had come down first and was standing very still so as not to rile the crowd. As I landed, I maneuvered to avoid the area where these guys seemed to be most heavily congregated. Karen and I stood motionless, almost holding our breaths, as we waited for Bob and Dale to get down. We could see the bees in front of us flying in seemingly erratic fashion and we tried to keep our distance. We could only hope that Bob and Dale would get down without unleashing bee Armageddon. Our hope was fulfilled and when everyone was down we wasted no time in getting out of that area.
Nearing BottomAfter dropping deeper and deeper into the canyon, there was one dramatic moment, visually speaking, when a gap appeared straight ahead in the canyon walls and between it emerged the hazy expanse of the San Gabriel Valley below.
Last Rappels: A Giant Chockstone and Avoiding A Tree Trunk Enema
The last rappel is down a 35-foot waterfall (one of the two where water was running) known as First Falls. This descent is extremely slippery due to the wet slimy moss on the rock face. Don’t let your attention wander here. Before the area of touchdown, there are several logs to negotiate. At least one of these logs has a section of its jagged truck protruding skyward directly in the flight path of the unwary rappeler’s derriere. If you don’t make a successful side-step of this obstacle, you risk incurring what can only be described as a tree trunk enema.
Coming down this last rappel, you will likely see some surprised hikers standing at the bottom of the falls wondering where in the devil you came from.
Some Canyon BetaThe canyon afforded 12 rappels. We did single strand rappels on all but one section. I down-climbed two of the 12 sections since the two consisted only of 20-30 feet of 4th class rock. Of the 12 sections, 10 were bolted and 2 used natural anchors (stout tree trunks). About 2/3’s of the way down, Bob replaced some tired-looking webbing around one of the tree anchors and snapped on a fresh rappel ring.
Incidentally, the place where Bob replaced the webbing was the only location where getting to the anchor was a bit dicey. The tree anchor was about 15 feet off the canyon floor and we had to scramble up a slightly brittle rock slab to reach it. Clipping into the anchor while setting up your rappel is definitely recommended here.
At this time of the year, only two of the waterfalls had substantial water spilling down their faces. However, as mentioned, there were pools of water all over the canyon floor.
Our total time for descending the canyon was about 5 hours at a modest pace. Every moment was enjoyable. Thanks, Mother Nature.