Canyon Exploration, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Participants: Mike Sullivan, Glenn Slattery, Lee Keiser, Dava Tatarski
The San Rafael Swell is a million-acre uplift in central Utah,
crisscrossed by canyons and scattered with sandstone knobs, spires, and
arches. Several wilderness study areas have recently been designated
there, and there has been a proposal to create a new national monument
within its boundaries.
We started our trip by meeting up in Green River for the 2-hour drive
down into the southern reaches of the Swell. We set up our first
basecamp (actually Glenn's remodeled schoolbus) adjacent to Muddy Creek,
upstream from the remains of the Hidden Splendor Mine. We chose Chimney
Canyon as our first objective. The route was a nice mix of creek
crossings, gully hiking, and light scrambling. A large ice floe from a
deeply shaded spring was an interesting find, considering the 85 degree
weather. Upper Chimney Canyon looked very promising for slot
explorations, but we chose to leave it for another time and exited via a
side canyon to loop back on an old miner's track to our basecamp.
Our second day's goal was Quandary Canyon, and it was an absolute jewel!
The canyon begins in an incredibly beautiful high basin, and immediately
drops into a snaky slot. We had several intensely fun hours of
scrambling, stemming, downclimbing, bouldering, lip-jumping and
rappeling. Because it drains such a small area, all of the upper pools
were dry from the winter, which made the route much less difficult to
negotiate than it would be during or after thunderstorm season. We
climbed to the rim for lunch and had eye-popping views of the San Rafael
Reef, Factory Butte and the Henry Mountains to the south.
We then pushed down the canyon as it dropped into the Reef, and were met
with ever larger dropoffs and pits. We eventually faced another big drop
into the bowels with no rap anchor except for a length of old log I had
salvaged from an adjacent pit. After a fairly passionate discussion, we
decided to backtrack and prussiked up our last rap line. We returned to
our lunch spot and scrambled up and around the impasse. We saw that just
a short way below our turn-around spot there was an awesome ~100'
dropoff into a huge green pool. Hmmm...
The canyon leveled off below there, and our group split in two, with one
pair ascending Ramp Canyon back to our starting point, and the other
pair hiking down to Muddy Creek and then wading back up to basecamp. The
900' climb back up Ramp Canyon turned out to be the more enjoyable
option, with some 3rd class scrambling and interesting routefinding. The
other route wound through some beautiful Wingate Sandstone walls, but
was a wet and tedious slog.
We spent the next day resting, drinking too much beer, and checking out
the black widow who was guarding a huge egg cluster in a rock crevice
near our camp. Ah, maybe we oughta find a different campsite next time.
Lee and I then decided to do upper Devil's Canyon, and relocated to the
central part of the Swell. The canyon was much less intense than
Quandary, with lots of nice scrambling. At the head of the canyon is San
Rafael Knob - the highest point in the Swell, at nearly 8000 feet in
elevation. Naturally, we wanted to climb it. "Canyoneering the San
Rafael Swell" by Steve Allen is a guide to the area, and it described
the climb as being pretty easy. Unfortunately, the beta in the guide was
totally inaccurate. Instead of the expected easy ramp on the upper south
face, we found a looming cliff. Nice guide, Steve-o... We finally
settled on a low fifth-class line on the east, and gingerly picked our
way up soft, powdery sandstone slabs. Just below the summit, black
clouds sailed in and started dropping big flurries on us. We topped out
quickly, took a photo or two and hauled back down the slabs before they
got wet and even mankier. The sun came back out just as we got back down
to level ground, and we chose a nice meandering route along a mesa-top
back to our starting point. As usual, our time was shorter than our wish
list, so we packed up and headed back down to Green River for the drive
home. This is a place that would take months to explore properly, and I
hope to return to it many times in the future.