IntroductionThis is a brief synopsis of our April 1-3 trip to SE Utah in order to explore some new routes as well as revisit some other old (for me at least) and challenging routes in an amazing region. The primary motivation behind the trip was to explore to and find a large natural arch that I had seen several years earlier while exploring some remote rock domes I reached from climbing out of Stair Canyon. The routes here are intricate in what seems to be at first glance an extremely inaccessible area tucked in a sea of slickrock, canyons and rock towers.
Last January, my brother and I had done the last of the crucial routefinding to get to the route into Marinus Canyon, but what would we find when we got there? Would the route through the canyon require any difficult climbing? Would the big drop I knew that existed in the canyon be too much for us? Or would the route be easy and fast with few technical obstacles? Did the big arch really exist and if not, what exactly was the feature that could be seen from afar? Would the route be worth it or would it be a long hike through an ordinary canyon with just a few technical obstacles?
Of course, a thousand or more questions could be asked, but there is only one way and one way only to find out the answers to these questions. …………………………..
April 1: Visiting and Old Friend (North Fork of Iron Wash)The plan was to meet Chris, Brett, Craig and Amanda in Rifle Colorado at 10 am. Unfortunately, Chris and Brett were delayed by a wrong turn and a snowstorm, so we left late from Rifle.
On the way to Marinus Canyon (see next day’s entry) the plan (actually a last minute plan because we were running late and didn’t have enough time to do a longer route) was to do the North Fork Iron Wash, a technically challenging canyon in the San Rafael Swell in East Central Utah. I been to the crux section of the canyon twice (including when I climbed up and past it with my brother), once in April 1989 and once in November 1995 as well as explored the region from Ernie Canyon, so it was like visiting an old friend. North Fork Iron Wash is in a fantastic region of upturned rocks known as the San Rafael Reef.
We didn’t start the canyon until 4:30 pm, but I wasn’t that concerned since I have been there several times before and knew the area well. Certainly we could make it out of the canyon before dark(?).
From near the mouth of Ernie Canyon we excitedly made our way along an old track to and old 1920’s car that was converted into some kind of drilling rig, presumably for water. From there we made our way into the canyon, but since this canyon wasn’t originally part of the plan, we didn’t have a topo map and ended up hitting the canyon too far west. We explored one of the obscure upper forks to a huge spring and swimming hole before heading down canyon. The canyon quickly slotted up and we found that it was wetter than normal. Hmmm; this was going to be more “interesting” than expected.
There was much clear (unusual) and cold water in the canyon and we found it to be more time consuming than it usually is. We explored many challenging bypasses around the cold pools which required some very tricky technical climbing up to 5.9 in difficulty. One was a new keeper pothole that hadn’t been there before.
We had a lot of fun cliff hanging on the technical bypasses above the pool until we got to the end of the slot section of the canyon, which is also the crux and the darkest part of the canyon (it is pretty dark in here throughout the day year round).
Previously, I have always taken a low route around the lower keeper pothole, but that route can be risky if you fell. Instead, we opted for the high route or “log route” as it is known. It is perhaps easier and safer than my previous route, but a little exposed in places. We climbed the exposed ledges up to the log and rapped down to the floor of the canyon just as it was getting dark.
Unfortunately, since it was dark, the return journey took much longer than normal (especially since we didn’t bring a topo map for this one). Routefinding was much harder in dark than it is in the daylight, but we were never lost, though there were a few short dead ends on the route to contend with. It was just slow going and we reached the vehicles not long before midnight. It was still an enjoyable day and would hopefully be a good warm up for the next day.
April 2: New Explorations (Marinus Canyon)Marinus Canyon has been a sort of ongoing, but usually forgotten project for me. It all started fifteen years ago my wife and I explored up the canyon from North Wash until we reached a blocking falls. Around the same time period I made my way exploring through a maze of slickrock domes along the rim of Marinus Canyon. At the time I noticed that in one of the forks and from a certain section of the rim, it appears that the entire canyon goes through some tunnel or huge double arch. Finding a way into the canyon and to the arch has always sounded interesting, but the project was always put on the backburner for one reason or another.
By January 16 2010 (see trip log entry for that date) the project was near the front on my list. On that day, my brother and I made a respectable attempt to get in and through Marinus Canyon, but we were thwarted by snow, difficult conditions and lack of daylight. The trip was not a failure as it provided valuable route information to the rim of Marinus Canyon from the floor of Stair Canyon. See the January Trip Report.
In late March I had posted online that I wanted to find partners to reach what I thought was a big arch in Marinus Canyon. Amanda, Craig, Brett and Chris offered to join me.
We got a later start in the morning due to our tiredness from the very late night before (see the trip description for the previous day). We hoped that the day would not be such a long one and that we would get through before nightfall.
The approach to the canyon went pretty smoothly (the route-finding my brother and I completed in January really helped out). Our approach went three miles or so up Stair Canyon to a place where we could climb out to the rim. After that it was much routefinding, scrambling and some climbing to the maze of dome-lands between Stair Canyon to where we had hoped we could descend into Marinus Canyon. There were some short technical moves and some exposed scrambling, but it was a fun route and the views over the slickrock domes to the Henry Mountains were awe-inspiring. After reaching the floor of Marinus Canyon the going got easier for a while (though still a bit strenuous in places). Just before we reached the floor of the canyon we found a neat little arch.
We slowly made our way down canyon to the top of a large pothole arch above a huge falls in the canyon. Right after the arch the canyon dropped into a HUGE keeper pothole (possibly the biggest I have seen) hanging part way down (70-80 feet?) the drop (which was almost 200 feet high). Chris rappelled of a small falls and even a little off the lip of the big drop to get a good look directly into the pothole. By eye, he estimated it to be 30 feet deep, but that was just a guess. After that he came back up and we discussed what to do.
We quickly decided that with the relatively late hour we didn’t want to attempt the keeper pothole (especially since it was getting late) and discussed turning back. We also took a walk along a ledge to get a good look at the arch and pothole and subsequent drop. Several minutes later and during the discussion, I also noticed that if we traversed the wide ledge a bit down canyon and to a tree that there was a ledge part way down the drop that our ropes might reach and thus we could do the drop in two stages and thus avoid the keeper pothole.
I volunteered to walk the ledge over to the tree and see if the rope would reach the ledge (the others were sitting in a good place to view the drop). I walked over, checked out the tree (which was very solid) and threw the rope over the edge and after yelling my question across the canyon to the rest of the group (since they were in view of the ledge directly below me), found that it would reach the ledge for sure. We discussed what to do because the group was still divided on whether to turn back or just finish the canyon. I thought reversing the route or following the Kayenta (sandstone type) ledges out would take too long and we had already had a long day the day before (finishing the previous day’s canyon just before midnight) and that it would be much quicker to finish the canyon. Some of the others didn’t want to do anything technical in the dark (we had about 3 hours of daylight left) and thought we might not get through the technical section in the dark, though I expressed my feelings that I was pretty confident that there wouldn’t be any more big drops down canyon and that I would guess that there was a 90% chance that we could complete the technical section before dark since it wasn’t that far (~0.5 miles?) to where I had already hiked up from the bottom previously. Besides, it wasn’t winter anymore and a night without sleeping bags or a tent would be survivable (though perhaps uncomfortable) with the extra gear we took a long.
In the end we decided to push on and finish the canyon. The rappel from one ledge to the other turned out to be 170 feet. After completing the rappel, while the rest of the group was rappelling down I walked down to see if I could set up another rappel for the final 80 feet to the floor of the canyon. I found that could scramble to within 10 feet of the canyon floor and thought that with partner assist that we could downclimb the rest. I returned and told the others the news so as soon as we were all down the rap we headed down to the floor of the canyon.
Other than at the big drop, we ghosted (left no trace) the other drops. We were all glad to make it down to the bottom since daylight wouldn’t bless us with its presence that much longer.
We found that there were several other obstacles in the canyon, mostly short. We had one chimney downclimb and another rappel. Another tricky and steep downclimb with a partner assist was used before reaching the part of the canyon that was “known”. Below that, it got dark and we completed getting through several boulder jams (it was a very dark night because there were no clouds) before reaching the lower section of the canyon. Below that it was a long walk out (or at least it seemed long) in the dark out to the vehicle. We were very hungry and tired but we had made it. We had got to see a new and impressive arch and visit a new section of canyon. Other than the fact that the canyon took longer than expected, it went off without a hitch.
Taking it Easy (Pictograph Cave)Perhaps thankfully, not much happened today. We were all tired from the previous two days journeys and in the morning I took the group to see the Pictograph Cave in North Wash. It’s a short hike from Hog Springs, but is a very impressive place and we spent time admiring the alcove and ancient artwork. We also visited some of the nearby petroglyphs panels before heading home.
I also stopped for a short hike on the Rifle Arch Trail on the way back.
Thus ends our odyssey of exploration.