The purpose of this trip report is to demonstrate that there are canyons out there that are dangerous and require quite a bit of special rock climbing skills to escape. I have opted not to include pages on canyons like Alcatraz on the SP, and some people do not like canyon pages at all anyway, so I won't submit more. Canyoneering is a great sport, but be careful out there!
I did this trip with Michael Kelsey. Michael Kelsey is a well known if secretive guidebook author and is rather notorious locally for extreme solo climbs and trips around the world. He has authored several book including Climbers and Hikers Guide to the Worlds Mountains. It wasn't the difficulty of the canyon that trapped us, it was the fact that we were unprepared.
Alcatraz is in the Robbers Roost Country of East Central Utah. It is very near the canyon that Aaron Ralston cut off his arm in.
We first spotted Alcatraz Canyon when we "canyoneered" Larry Canyon all the way through several years ago. We scouted out an exit route, but that was it. We came back in mid summer 2002 to finish the descent. Mike had scouted out the canyon and he came to the conclusion "It looks like a short and easy canyon with one high rap at the top, then one or two other short raps below". Unfortunatly, I bought into his story. I drove down to the canyon after working late and without any sleep and arrived at the head early in the morning. We started on a hot summer day with shorts, t-shirt, 2 qts. of water and some snacks, and three 50 meter ropes. One 50 meter rope was left behind at the first drop. We went down the canyon admiring the beauty of the place. There had been a recent storm and the canyon had a lot of mud in it. We went over the "semi-keeper" pothole and did the short rap and pulled our rope. (A "keeper pothole" is a hole in the canyon floor that is vertical an all sides. The holes are caused by flash floods. After a flood the hole will be full of water. As the water dried up in the dry desert air, a hole in the canyon is left behind. The name "keeper pothole" is used becuse the holes arer very difficult to get out of once you drop into one.) This was a big mistake, as we couldn't retreat up the canyon if we wanted to. The canyon below got narrower and darker as we went along. It wasn't overly difficult to descend, but reversing the route would be very difficult. We got to a place that I knew if we climbed down, there would be no chance of climbing back up. The canyon was getting really tight and with shorts and a t-shirt we were getting scraped up, and we didn't bring any headlamps. It was also a very hot day, and the canyon was filled with slippery gooey mud. We didn't have any beta about the canyon below, and we were starting to worry that it might become a keeper slot and since it was summer I was paranoid about running out of water.
We decided to retreat and made the ardorous ascent back up the canyon. We lost a little skin and slipped alot in the gooey mud. We eventually reached a sloping 70-75 degree wall about 120 feet high that we though we could use hooks to climb out of the canyon (I am against using hooks 100% unless it's an emergency. Because of our situation, we thought it prudent to use them. In all my canyoneering trips, this is the only time I have used them. I also only bolted a canyon once.).
The rock was extremely crumbly, so crumbly in fact that placing bolts or pitons was impossible. The rock was so soft that the only way to place any “protection” was to chip a small hole in the rock and place a hook/or bolt in it. That isn’t to say to tighten a bolt in, but to simply set it in for “psychological protection”. Very bad rock!!! In a normal situation, I would never suggest such climbing methods, both for environmental and safety reasons.
This exit was our last resort and we were trapped. It was mid-August in the desert, we were out of water long before, and if we didn’t escape, we would die. If we fell off the route would probably die. It’s still better to take an if and probably over a would any day.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening climbing up that wall with no protection. The top was overhung. We were also out of water and it was very hot and I had some bad heat cramps. We reached the top of a bench late in the evening, but the only problem was that the bench pinched out, and only exit to the rim was on the opposite side of the canyon. Mike had to rappel back into the canyon, but just above the semi-keeper pothole, and jumar back up the rope that we left at the head of the canyon. He then exited and came around and dropped a rope off the overhanging rim so I could jumar out of the canyon and to the rim. We had escaped Alcatraz! It was after dark by the time I got out. I think I drank a gallon of water when we got back to the vehicle.
I learned my lesson about pulling ropes in tight slots. With beta, canyons become much easier since you know what to expect. This is not the most difficult canyon I've been in by any means (but it still is very challenging), we were just simply unprepared and without enough water, and got into a difficult situation.
The canyon is now known as Alcatraz Canyon and is known to be a real classic amoung expert canyoneers. There have been several more descents of the canyon over the past few years.