Swell at routefinding

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 38.84078°N / 110.8857°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Sep 1, 2007
Activities Activities: Hiking, Scrambling, Canyoneering
Seasons Season: Summer


I have a habit of brushing off routefinding as a negligible challenge when planning or psyching up for a trip--worrying instead about scary things like exposure, avalanches, or flash floods. It almost seems the trip would be impoverished on the discovery and adventure factors if I don't get off-route at least a little bit, and things have always turned out fine (though occasionally making me nervous).

But actually, I have decided that I am really kind of bad at routefinding. Maybe it's not just that I have not in the past paid enough attention to this factor in trips. This time, for a trip to a somewhat remote part of the San Rafael Swell, I actually brought two scales of map, a guidebook, and some GPS waypoints, and still managed to get several hours off-route.

Hyde Draw

upper Straight Washviewing the entries from Cliff Dweller Flat
Straight Wash (part of which is known as Eardley Canyon) begins in sort of the east-center part of the Swell, south of I-70, and runs more or less southeast until it cuts through the reef. It slices down into the Hermosa Group, the oldest layer of rock (Pennsylvanian) exposed anywhere in the Swell, and reportedly has some excellent narrows. Not being a technical canyoneer, and therefore unprepared for the section toward the lower end of the wash, I planned to go down as far as we had the time/skill/gear for and then back up, instead of all the way through.

I had read on Tom's Utah Canyoneering Guide about two 4th-class entries into upper Straight Wash, plus a more straightforward but longer and more circuitous and vague way in, via "the Red Draw area", from Michael Kelsey's book. With Google Earth's help, I had set GPS waypoints for each one which I thought might come in handy if I got lost, and my plan was to bring a rope as a backup and try one of the 4th class ones, and if I and/or my wife found it too sketchy for our comfort level, we'd go around to Red Draw.

From the top of Cliff Dweller Flat where we parked, with no sign of any other humans for miles around, we could see not only wild burros, but also exactly the contours of the various slopes and washes that lead into Straight Wash that I expected to see based on the Google earth image and the 7.5-minute quad map. It seemed so straightforward to drop off the escarpment and head "that way" for a mile or so that I didn't at this time bother to consult the map. Off we went.

Confidence was reinforced again when down in the juniper forest we found a small drywash that seemed to go in the direction we wanted. We found ourselves in a nice little canyon with some easy but interesting obstacles to bypass. Soon we came to a dryfall that appeared impassable without a rappel, and remembering that the aforementioned website described a couple such dryfalls which were each to be bypassed by going up and over into the next gully to the left, we looked up and left and saw a cairn. A bit of mildly exposed 3rd-class scrambling later and we were in the adjacent wash. Almost immediately was another impassable pour-off, which I assumed to be the second one metioned on the website. Again, we found a way left, up, and over.

We scrambled down some more, getting increasingly nervous about how many hundreds of feet lower than us Straight Wash was, even though we were fairly close to it. We couldn't see the whole way down our gulch, but it was obviously getting closer and closer to being sheer and suspiciously not merely 4th class. I thought, good thing I made a GPS waypoint for this part; we can see if we're at least near the right place. But I failed to get satellite reception, so I got out the topo map for the first time. It dawned on me that we were most likely in Hyde Draw, which joins Straight Wash farther downstream (where the walls are much taller) than any of our planned routes. How did we get here? And how come the route we took, with its two leftward bypasses, seemed to follow the website description? (I quickly realized that in this terrain, that should not be so unexpected a coincidence).

What was clear on the map that I hadn't seen from the mesa above, was that the little wash we had followed, although seeming to start out going a reasonable direction, sort of subtly gets you veered off toward Hyde Draw, but by the time you (or at least I) might notice this by looking back at the mesa as a reference point, the mesa was no longer visible because of small local hills and junipers.

Starting over

We decided there should still be time to get at least somewhat of the way into Straight Wash if we went out and around upstream towards Red Draw and tried again. We came to another wash, which from the map I determined (correctly, if you can believe it) to be the way to the 4th-class entry described on Tom's Canyoneering Guide. It was already almost noon, so we took advantage of some shade and ate some lunch. Then we crossed the wash believing that the next one we hit if we went "that way" should be a tributary to Red Draw.

We started down that wash and encountered several small dryfalls and pour-offs to bypass. These I found interesting for the challenge (basically consisting of 3rd-class scrambling up and around them), but slightly frustrating because of of being a bit time-consuming, and my wife was more frustrated than I was (probably my extra height made things easier for me). Since I still thought we were in a lower tributary to Red Draw, I promised we didn't have to come back this way, we could go farther upstream where it is most likely gentler. I found the promise reassuring to myself when to bypass the final dryfall required a rather difficult stretch to lower myself over an overhang. Since my wife is 10 inches shorter than I am, she lowered herself into my arms rather than to the ground. It was hard to think it would not constitute nontrivial rock climbing to go back up that, and I still thought we were in that Red Draw tributary which was supposed to be relatively straightforward.

Chased away

you know it s time to turn back...Time to turn around
Finally we merged into Straight Wash (although I was uncertain at first as to whether it was really Straight Wash or the lower part of Red Draw), and started walking easily along it (except for some opaque pools in unstable sand which we climbed up around). But just as we reached the narrows and were getting very happy about the views as well as the shade, we could see in the sky upstream thunderclouds forming. I had realized back in Hyde Draw that it was too late to finish our hike; that today would have to be counted as an exploratory adventure, not a successful navigation of a predetermined route, so, to my surprise actually (since I generally hate turning back), my decision to turn around then was something I felt reasonably good about.

When we reached what I thought from the map must be Red Draw, we were confused because we didn't recognize it, nor had we recognized the past 200 or 300 meters of our hike back upstream. Still thinking we had come down Red Draw, I hurried back downstream to see if I could shortly find the tributary we had come down. I did, but it dawned on me that if this was Red Draw, then we had come down the main part of Red Draw, not a tributary, and therefore had to go back the same way despite my reassuring comments earlier. We came to the base of the hard part and thought for a sec about whether it would be safe enough to climb back up the same way or if there was another way. Above and to the right there was a sort of large steep crack/gully/notch (not sure of the word: too big for a crack, too small for a gully) with a lot of rock protruding out of it that I thought might be an easier climb. I started up first, and although the footholds were large, handholds by a certain point left something to be desired and there was a lot of loose material. With some encouragement from my wife (who is less nervous about exposure than I am), I sort of crawled up awkwardly, and she came up behind making it look easy. Ahead lay a steep but hikable gully that appeared to have no obstacles all the way out of the canyon.


good reason to get out of Straight Washthe sky after we got out of the wash
Once out, I led off to the right since that's where the mesa was relative to Red Draw, but when we got to where we could see the mesa, it was, bewilderingly, in the wrong place. I went through a little mental paradigm shift and then everything made sense. We had unknowingly gone down, not Red Draw, but the wash that we had crossed right after lunch--the one which, ironically, leads to the 4th-class entry we had originally planned on, and which we were now surprisingly back on the other side of. The lower part of the steep gully we came out of was part of the final leftward bypass the website had described, and the tributary I thought would be Red Draw but failed to recognize from below really was Red Draw. We felt good about having successfully gone that way and not needing the rope, but if only we had done it on purpose!

Below the now more extensive thunderclouds, we went back to the car on top of Cliff Dweller Flat. I tried the GPS again to see if it was just canyon walls or what that made it not work, and still no reception. Probably my rechargeable batteries were undervolting it a bit too much.

Devil's Canyon

knob near Justensen Flatsview from camp
butte near San Rafael Knobview from camp
We camped at Justensen Flats and decided to do nearby Devil's Canyon the next day. But I slept in, so we didn't get the early start that I desired in order to get back out by early to mid afternoon when I expected storm clouds to form again. We started off anyway, thinking we'd at least get to the short first narrow section. We did, but experienced another hour delay due to wrong routefinding. At the start of the narrows, there is a pour-off which you were supposed to be able to bypass, and not initially seeing a good way down, we saw a trail and cairns going up around on the left. Following it led us to a tributary slot which we were able to get into, and which had some fun short drops to climb down, but which also had a pour-off where it met the main canyon, which we could have slid down but most likely not climbed back up. However, we were in a really cool (in every good sense of the word) pocket in the slot: a rounded little room which was nice for eating lunch in.

our lunch pocketour lunch pocket
After lunch we went back to the main pouroff, and looked around some more. This time we traversed on the right side. It led to a dead-end and a large cliff, but there was a switchback that headed back to the pouroff on a lower legde. There was a short friction climb down a steep ramp, and we were shortly in some nice dark narrows. My wife got herself ankle-deep in some gooey stinky mud and wasn't very happy about that, and soon the narrows ended and we were back in the summer sun. She also started not feeling very well, and since it was a couple of miles to the next narrows and it was the hot midday and I'd already doomed us by sleeping in, and clouds were forming, we turned back. Good thing, because it did rain pretty good later that day.

upper narrows of Devil s Canyonthe narrows
overhanging bank in Devil s CanyonDevil's Canyon


It really wasn't the optimal conditions for this kind of trip: too hot outside the narrows, and too much risk of rain (by my judgment at least) to be very commital about slot canyons. I feel pretty good about the adventures and the views and my photographs, so that even though we are going to have to repeat each hike on this trip in the future to get them right, I'm not terribly disappointed. At the least, I know how to get into those canyons now so next time it should be quick getting to the good parts.


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