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Canyon Exploration, San Rafael Swell, Utah
April  1998

Author: Mike Sullivan

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.


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