IntroMaidenwater & Leprechaun Canyons
North Wash/Lake Powell area, UT
Participants: Teresa Gergen, Kirk Mallory, Jean Aschenbrenner, Dominic Meiser, Sarah Meiser, Dwight Sunwall, & Kevin Baker
April 24-25, 2010
Sarah put together an "Intro to Technical Canyoneering" trip to some awesome slot canyons in Utah amidst the Navajo sandstone playground that is known as North Wash. The Maidenwater canyon system is closer to Lake Powell. Slot Canyons are not a common geologic feature and the largest concentration of them in the world can be found in Utah due to the arid climate in the desert and the flash floods that occur cutting huge gouges in the earth. I made my "virgin" canyoneering trip here just three weeks prior and was itching to improve my skills in this playground of rock!
Beginner canyoneering is a bit more laid back than mountaineering as you get to enjoy later starts and the cardio fitness needed is not quite as taxing as there is a lot of waiting around going on. You also sometimes get to descend to the start by doing car shuttles to make the hikes shorter. It was nice to be "lazy" after a hard winter of winter 14ers and low peak marathons, although a few of these canyons were very physically demanding due to the exertion needed to squeeze your way through them!
This would be the first technical canyoneering outing for Kirk and Teresa, so Sarah picked some easy canyons to start with. For the first day, we did the two easier left and right branches of Leprechaun along with both branches of Shillelagh. I won't write a report on those, but you can see the pics for those in the slideshow.
Maidenwater Middle & South BranchesMaidenwater Canyon-Middle Branch
We were ready to raise the bar a bit, so we decided to take a shot at the middle and south forks of Maidenwater, which is just off Highway 276 and not far from Lake Powell. Maidenwater is carved out by Trachyte Creek. The middle fork is significantly easier and shorter than the south branch, so we hit it first. The highly skilled canyoneer can downclimb this entire fork unroped, but most choose to rappel 2-3 times with the longest rap being only about 35 feet. It is a bit of a hike to get up to it as you can't take a direct line. We overshot a waypoint and had to backtrack a bit. I can see why it would be very easy for someone to enter the wrong canyon here as the navigating can be a bit tedious and confusing even with a GPS!
Jean heading up to Maidenwater's middle fork:
The Henry Mountains rise dramatically to the west, providing a stark change in scenery from the desert hues.
I don't remember a whole lot about this canyon other than it served as a great warmup for the long 6 hour south branch that we were about to descend. There were plenty of chockstone problems and short, steep downclimbs to navigate through.
Sarah gets a thigh belay from Dominic with a handline on a chockstone problem:
The canyon narrowed in spots enough to practice a bit of chimneying for future Mae West V slots that do not allow walking on the floor of the canyon.
The hike ends with a trip through a tunnel below the road, probably dug out to drain the canyon and keep the road from getting flooded. A steep climb back up the road and after a repair break, we were ready for the more difficult south branch.
After 5 canyons, most of our pants were in various states of disrepair. A few of us were on the verge of totally blowing out the rear end, so a duct tape repair session was in order. Somehow my Missouri Tiger shorts came out of the weekend mostly unscathed! Here's a video of the taping session.
Duct Tape Movie
Maidenwater South Branch
Maidenwater's south branch turned out to be an enjoyable canyon, but it seemed to go on FOREVER! It would take us about 6 hours to make our way down the many "rapid fire" problems that exist. We followed our track from the morning for a bit, then traversed underneath a butte and tracked s.e. to the north rim of the canyon. We then headed over to the south side where we found the weakness, a short class 4 chimney that brought us to some steep slabs that got us down into the canyon.
This canyon is fairly narrow for the duration of the descent, but not near as narrow as some of the Irish canyons in North Wash. Quite a few of the anchors in this canyon are deadman anchors buried in the sand, so we used a human "meat" anchor belay on quite a few of them. It was fun to be the anchor and just lay there in the sand and relax!
Teresa on initial 20 foot rappel:
Some of these rappels are very awkward because you have to face out to get around the chockstone, which quite often has an overhang behind it. It took me awhile to get used to this on my first trip, but it seemed to come more naturally this time. In some cases it was easier for me to just lower myself with the aid of a handline if necessary than to mess around with a rappel.
I think we all lost track of how many rappels we did, but it had to be at least a dozen. At one point I checked the time and we guessed how long the next one would come and it was 4 minutes! These canyons are so abrasive that it is not wise to leave on your harness for long, so we did a lot of taking our packs off and putting on the harness.
We thought we were near the end of the canyon when we came to a ankle deep pothole, but we still had a ways to go.
Dominic wades through the pothole:
A view down Maidenwater's long south branch:
The tricky downclimbs just kept coming and coming, but it was a lot of fun to solve them as each offered unique challenges.
We finally hit the final pothole where we could see the road, and after six hours we were all ready to fire up the grill at camp. As we were getting ready to leave, somebody discovers that the keys to one of the vehicles is locked in the car! :eek: The irony to this is the day before somebody left a key in the shuttle car, so Dominic and Sarah had to hike all the way back up to the trailhead and get the cars!
Everybody starts shooting off ideas to avoid having to break in. We end up using some tent poles that were in Jean's car to try to unlock one of the back doors. The tent pole is rigged with a loop of tape at the end. After an hour or so of trying, some of us go back to camp while Dominic and Dwight work on it. Sarah and Jean head to Hanksville to try and get a signal to call AAA. Dominic and Dwight are the heroes and are able to get it unlocked after perfecting their technique! Dinner is a bit late, but we're happy everyone is back in camp!
Leprechaun Middle Branch: Tight Canyoneering At Its FinestLeprechaun Canyon Middle Branch
Kirk and Teresa decided to hit Turkey Knob before heading home, while the rest of us capped off the weekend with a scintillating descent of the hardest of the 3 branches of Leprechaun. The narrows on this canyon are ridiculously tight and I was worried about feeling too claustrophobic and was glad to be the lightest guy checking in with a 32 inch waist. The weight limit is recommended around 180 pounds, so Dwight would be on the border line!
We drove up to the trailhead at the end of the dirt road, and chatted with some guys who had done it just the day before. The hike down to the head of the canyon is less than a mile and we were soon at the initial downclimb into the canyon, which we're able to do without a rope with a thigh belay from Dominic at the bottom.
The toughest branch of Leprechaun awaits:
Shortly thereafter we do our only rappel in the canyon, a short one of 20 feet or so which Dwight does using the rope as a handline.
The downclimbing seems not too bad at all because it is so narrow that there are plenty of holds and stemming to be had. It doesn't take long until I am fully aware that this is by far the narrowest canyon I've been in.
Slot canyons are too dangerous to consider on a marginal weather day as the risk of being swept away in a flash flood is very real. Some suggest not to mess with these if there is any threat of rain in the immediate area. We're glad to enjoy this magnificent, other-wordly place safely on a bluebird day and I'm having a blast, but I'm still worried about fitting through the narrowest spot.
We're down to about a foot wide now and have to duck walk in spots to get through. We drag our packs to fit through and I keep asking if we're past the narrow spot yet. The seemingly constant stemming and awkward angles is very strenuous.
Shot from Sarah of me in a tight spot:
Sarah announces that she is just past the narrowest spot and it looks pretty spooky! I have my pack clipped on a daisy chain to the front of my pants on a biner and make the mistake of not getting it out of the way. It takes me a couple times to squeeze my waist through as the biner gets stuck and applies some pressure on a certain sensitive area! I about rip my pants off.
I think Sarah took this right at the tightest spot:
I make sure I'm close by Dwight as he squeezes through, and he says that he has to compress his chest to get through and we estimate that it's only about 6 inches wide! We're relieved to get through the crux, but the narrowness doesn't seem to relent.
Video of narrow section
After the narrowest section, the walls are at a bit of an angle forcing you to do pushups against one side for awhile. It's by far the most physical demanding one we've done this weekend. The narrowness finally relents, and when we rejoin the other branches, it seems pretty easy. We revisit the area known as Belfast Boulevard, which has an odd bouldery section where you can crawl up and it feels like you're coming out of your mother's womb! There are many chockstones to navigate around.
It takes us a little under 4 hours to descend the canyon, which ends with a pleasant walk back to the road. What an amazing weekend of canyoneering!