Justin Kuhn (my co-worker) and my eight year old son Kessler joined me for a technical adventure descending Quandary Canyon and ascending Ramp Canyon.
Quandary Canyon is an isolated canyon in the southern portion of a remote region in Utah known as the San Rafael Swell. The San Rafael Swell is a spectacular jumble of slot canyons, canyons, cliffs, rock towers and erosion features and is always an exciting place to visit.
This route was chosen for several reasons:
1. These canyons are the last canyons cutting through the San Rafael Reef that I have not descended and/or ascended (there are numerous minor drainages cutting into the face of the Reef that I have not visited, but these are the last ones that cut through the Reef).
2. It sounded like a fairly straight forward, but still exciting adventure for my son and for Justin.
3. The canyons aren’t that long of a drive from home.
While the written story is below, the photos will tell most of the story.
Kessler stemming in Quandary Canyon.
We got a fairly early start and headed up the slopes to the head of the canyon. Because we were on an old washed out mining road, the grade wasn’t too steep and we climbed to the head of the canyon rather quickly.
Kessler and I near the beginning of the route up to Quandary Canyon. The route will pass through the notch above.
Kessler and I entering Quandary Canyon.
After descending into the canyon, the fun started almost immediately. There were two short rappels and some nice narrows right off the bat. Kessler enjoyed being lowered off the rappels (he doesn’t have enough weight to him to slide down the rope so he was lowered), but Justin scraped his hand on the lower one.
Me on the first rappel in Quandary Canyon.
Kessler on the second rappel.
Some of the beautiful sandstone in Quandary Canyon.
After the upper rappels, the going was pretty easy for a while and there were some interesting natural bridges and potholes. For the most part, we negotiated the canyon directly in order to maximize the fun and challenge and did the two final rappels (one is optional, but we did the drainage directly).
This is beautiful Quandary Canyon below the first technical section.
A cool natural bridge in Quandary Canyon.
Kessler and I on the third rappel.
Justin on the third rappel.
Kessler and I in the narrows of Quandary Canyon.
Kessler on the forth rappel.
I had carried a wetsuit for Kessler and wading shoes/neoprene socks for me (Justin also had neoprene socks), but we found all the potential wades and swims to be dry. There were some really nice slots along the way.
Deep in Quandary Canyon.
Kessler exploring a slot section in Quandary Canyon.
Justin climbing through part of the slot in Quandary Canyon.
Quandary Canyon has one very difficult section known variably as the “Suicidal Section” and the Technical Keeper Pothole Section”. We wanted to avoid this section (there is a bypass) at all cost, so once we reached the first keeper pothole, we retreated and looked for the bypass.
This is the "Suicidal Section", a.k.a. "Technical Keeper Pothole Section" of Quandary Canyon. There are many deep holes that are extremely difficult to get out of.
Kessler in the slot of Quandary Canyon just above the pothole.
There was a steep gully just after the last rappel and we climbed up it. It was steep, challenging and exposed and we climbed up it some 400-500 feet before finding it to dead end with a cliff on the other side. On the way up we found two sets of slings in the crack/gully, but were wondering why they were left on the ascent. We knew that we must be on the wrong route, but this was the only gully between the last rappel and the first big pothole. There was a gully before the last rappel, but it couldn’t be the right one, at least if the route description was correct.
We decided to retreat and to take a closer look at the first big pothole. We thought that it could be possible that this was a new pothole scoured out by flashfloods and that the route had changed. We decided to retreat back to the pothole and to cross the pothole if possible and to check out the canyon beyond it. It was a tough climb back down the chute and it was obvious that other slings were left by other parties who had made the same mistake and wanted to rappel back down.
Once back down the chute, Kessler and Justin stopped for lunch while I descended the slot and I jumped into the pothole (knowing that I could climb out of it with the equipment I brought). From there I shouted and asked Kessler and Justin to come down. We lifted Kessler down in the pothole with me and I lifted him up the other side and instructed him to explore down canyon and see if there was an exit on the left. I instructed him to be very careful and to not climb down anything that wasn’t easy to climb back up. After less than a minute he shouted back that there was an exit through a gully on the left. Kessler came back and Justin gave me a back and shoulder stand and I went down canyon to check out the gully. I climbed up it twice and checked everything out. It appeared to be the correct way out.
Exploring down canyon to try and find the correct exit.
I retreated back to the pothole to lift Justin out. Shoulder stands and lifting each other out, but with an eight year old and two 235-245 lb. guys we had to be a little more creative. After finding out that I couldn’t lift Justin out, I jumped back in the pothole and he climbed out on my back/shoulder to boost me out. When that didn’t work, we lowered the packs back into the pothole and I stood on top of them to climb out. It worked fine, if it wasn’t too graceful. After that we lowered Kessler back into the pothole to lift the packs out, but he struggled lifting them. All in all it wasn’t hard to get out, but we wasted over two hours being off route.
Looking down one of the many potholes in Quandary Canyon.
After ascending the gully (with a fun climb at the beginning), we quickly climbed up over the saddle (the real exit gully was much easier than the false one) and descending the steep slickrock ramp down the other side.
At the end of the slickrock ramp, it was an interesting climb under and over boulders and to the floor of the canyon. Kessler could fit under more boulders than we could and beat us to the canyon floor.
Climbing up the correct bypass gully in Quandary Canyon.
Justin on part of the correct bypass. This route was much easier than the false bypass we took.
Kessler and I on the bypass in Quandary Canyon.
View from the bypass in Quandary Canyon. Mt. Ellen and Factory Butte are in the far background.
After the canyon floor was reached, there were several minor obstacles before a spring and a pool of water at the base of the San Rafael Reef. I slipped on the hidden sand covered mud and covered myself in black stinky mud. After that it was a minor bushwhack to a big wash intersecting the canyon. We rested here while deciding which route we would take back to the vehicle.
Kessler and some chockstones in Quandary Canyon.
There were two main route possibilities to complete the loop. The standard route heads west and intersects the Grand Canyon of the Muddy at which point it follows the creek up through the canyon to the Hidden Splendor Mine and then it is a road walk of a few miles back to the vehicle. A second route heads east along the base of the Reef and climbs up Ramp Canyon to the vehicle. This is the shortest way back, but it is more challenging. This was the route chosen, mostly because I hadn’t done it yet and wanted to.
Hiking along the San Rafael Reef between Quandary and Ramp Canyons.
Somehow we ended up leaving our topo map behind, so at one place I went on ahead to scout out the route to Ramp Canyon. After exploring around for 40 minutes I came back to Justin and Kessler and told them that I found the route. I also showed them a cave I found while exploring around.
Cave we found while exploring off route.
Tilted rock forms a ramp in Ramp Canyon.
After reaching the mouth of Ramp Canyon, we headed up. There were several obstacles, all of which were fairly challenging, but not that serious.
Kessler climbing an obstacle in Ramp Canyon.
Kessler and I climbing another obstacle in Ramp Canyon.
Near the head of the canyon we reached a huge chockstone which is the crux of the route. It sure looked a lot more intimidating than I had expected. Various sources rate the climb around the giant chockstone as 5.1, 5.4 or 5.6. The first person would have to climb it without a belay and belay the others up. I volunteered to be the one to do it. Kessler also climbed up one route to check it out (not reaching the top of the chockstone), but I made him come back down so I could climb first and rope him up.
Kessler scouts out routes around a chockstone in Ramp Canyon. I made him come down because I thought his route didn't look good and that he should be roped.
I made the climb (as mentioned, it was scarier than expected) and made a little jump at the end. I set up the belay and Kessler was attached to the rope for the climb. I was crossing my fingers that he would remain cool and collected about it and Kessler basically runs up the pitch as fast as I could belay him. He kind of shocked Justin and I. You could say that he sandbagged us pretty good.
After Kessler climbed the pitch, I hauled up the packs and Justin climbed the pitch.
Justin Kuhn climbing the Ramp in Ramp Canyon.
After climbing the crux pitch, we knew that we were mostly home free. The remainder of the canyon had some nice scrambles and some nice narrows before opening up. After the canyon opened, up it was an easy walk along a jeep trail back to the vehicle.
It was a grand adventure and we were all tired as we headed back to Green River.