38-Hours–A Six-Hour Canyoneering Adventure Gone Wrong

UT2011-017 - Chute Canyon dark and deepUT-Fall2010-203 - Roxy below and a log jammed to show how high the water can get..

It was November 2010, and my then partner, Norman, and I decided to do a short technical canyoneering trip. I was hoping to get some photographs as well as experience the thrill of a slot canyon and some rappelling. We were to hike from McKay Flats in the San Rafael Swell, Utah, and head over to a rock formation known by some as Teepee Rock (It is called this in Kelsey’s book). Near Teepee Rock is Baptist Draw, a wide wash that quickly turns into a very narrow, turn-yourself-sideways-and-take-your-pack-off slot.

We Set off about 10:00 AM, quite a bit later than originally intended, but then the hike was only supposed to take around 4 to 6-hours so we weren’t overly concerned. We had stalled our departure to be sure that it wasn’t going to rain. We didn’t want to be in a slot canyon if it rained, and Chute Canyon is notorious for it’s flash floods.

Myself giving a thumbs up. All is well...

Baptist Draw was a lot of fun. It was narrow, with just one small pool to wade through and a couple of short rappels or down-climbs. We had to take our packs off to get through the narrowest sections, and had to crawl under some chock stones in a couple of spots. The slot grew deeper and darker as we approached the area where it dropped off into Chute Canyon. At this point we had to rappel down 75 feet into Chute Canyon.

I went down first, which was a little daunting as it was my first rappel over an edge where I couldn’t see where I was going, and my longest rappel to date. All went well, and once Norman was down and in Chute Canyon with me, he pulled the rope. It was then that we noticed the canyon wall to the north of the rappel had a warning message on it written in charcoal. It read, NO WAY OUT! TURN BACK! We both hoped it was just some kind of sick joke, but we couldn’t miss the obvious signs that someone had camped in that very spot just a night or two before, in the form of a camp fire.

Norm rapping down from Buckskin Draw into ChuteRemainders of the camp fire from someone else who got stuck here

From the junction of Baptist Draw and Chute Canyon, we were supposed to head north up this long, deep, narrow slot canyon, until it opened up a bit and we could find a way out by scrambling up on the benches above. We started up the canyon, admiring it’s 200 foot high walls, but were soon stopped by a very muddy and rather deep looking pool. In this spot, the curvaceous sandstone walls swept over the top of our heads, and it felt rather like being in a cave. A few tentative steps into the muddy pool confirmed our fear, this pool was very deep and very muddy, it sucked at Norman’s boots as though it wanted to devour them.

With both of our headlamps shining  into the cave-like narrows, we could barely see the far end, and it appeared that the canyon walls were possibly only two or three feet wide, and it was blocked with a very mud-slimed chock stone. There did not appear to be any place to get leverage out of the pool and over the chock stone. It appeared to be extremely technical and hard, if not impossible to do.

We backed out of the mud and contemplated our situation. We had spoken to some guys the day before that had done this route, but they had gone south down the canyon instead of up it. They were very tired, and said that the hike out had been very long. They had also mentioned some pools, one which was a rappel into a pool. These guys had been less than half our age, and THEY were tired. Despite this, we decided to take a look down canyon, and very shortly we came to the rappel into a pool. It was now getting late in the afternoon, as we had been taking it easy and not pushing to go fast. We feared that if we got wet this late in the day, we could end up with hypothermia. It was November after all, and the temperatures were dropping dramatically at night on this high plateau.

We looked at the mud pool again, and the rappel again, then turned our gaze to the canyon walls. Climbing up the 200 foot walls was one possible route out, but we didn’t have any anchors with us for climbing out, and when Norman tried to climb it, a huge chunk of sandstone broke off in his hand, and he fell about 10 ft. to the canyon floor. He tried a second time, but then darkness descended in just minutes, and I had to direct Norman back down with my headlamp.

There were now no choices left, quite simply, we were here for the night.

Baptist Draw in the background and Chute Canyon in the foreground

Benighted, we turned to our packs. Temperatures were dropping fast, and Normans wet feet were quickly getting cold. We decided the best spot was on the one foot high sand bank that had built up at the confluence of Baptist Draw and Chute Canyon. We put down the climbing rope as a base between the cold sand and our bodies, pulled out all our spare clothing and put them on. Norman put my spare gloves on his feet, and we shared clothes. I kept my helmet on in case anything came over the rim of the canyon or any rocks fell. We pulled out our emergency sleeping bags (those thin silver things), and got them ready to settle in for the night. In taking stock of our belongings, we figured we had enough food to get us through the next day if we ate it sparingly, but water was a concern, we didn’t really have enough, and the pools were full of cow dung, dead mice, and who knew what else.

Once settled we ate the banana we had brought and set aside the granola bars and nuts. As were were drifting restlessly into a light sleep, we heard a noise that puzzled us. It turned out to be a mouse in our food. We ended up putting the nuts in the toes of Norman’s boot, and then filling the rest of the boot with pebbles to keep the mouse out. It was the only solution we could come up with as the mouse could eat through anything else very easily. Then the mouse turned his attention to our last bit of water. I rubbed insect repellent over the tube of my water bladder, and it seemed to deter him. I kept the bladder under my head, and swatted at the mouse every time he made an appearance.

Throughout the night sand blew off the rim into our eyes, clouds passed in front of the stars and I panicked in fear of rain, we chatted a bit, and repaired my emergency bag when it tore in three different places. We used climbing tape, bandages, duct tape and anything we could find to hold it together. Norman snored, and I didn’t sleep a wink. My manta was “All is well in my world,” which always makes me feel calmer and deal with the situation better.

 

 

When we started to hike down canyon in the morning, we had about a liter of water left for the two of us. I was afraid of rapping into the pool with my pack on for fear of drowning (it looked too much like a repeated nightmare I’d had as a child), so we sent the packs over the pool on a zip line. We both ended up getting a little wet, but not too badly. Snow was fluttering around me as I waited for Norman to stem around the pool before sending the packs down.

The big rock in the middle is about 5ft tall or more, it's hard to tell without a person for size comparison

Then we started the hike out, going south down Chute Canyon, avoiding the pools as much as possible, and on and on. At one point we found a pool of water on a high bench. It was covered in ice, and tricky to get to, but we managed to get about a liter of grimy, gritty water out of it, and we put my emergency iodine tablets in it. According to the instructions, we had to wait four hours for the tablets to work properly. We ran out of our good water shortly afterwards despite rationing, and started on the iodine water about 3-hours early. It tasted nasty, and each mouthful contained gritty sand that crunched between my teeth and made me gag. Ugh!

Baptist Draw Satellite ViewIt seemed to take forever to get to Fault Line Canyon, our only option to get out of Chute Canyon and back up on the plateau. From here we had to hike up Fault Line Canyon, and once back on top of the plateau, we needed to head north back to camp. The sun was setting now, and darkness descended quickly. Soon we were gazing over a huge canyon, and with the moon casting shadows on it we couldn’t really tell if it was possible to cross it or not. We tried skirting it, but had picked the wrong direction. Then we got out the topographic map, and decided to try going around it the other way. There was no clear edge, and the terrain was a little rough, and in the end we decided to just head straight west to a two-track road that showed on the map. We used our compass, and found our way with the aid of a full moon, saving our headlamp batteries as much as possible. We considered starting a fire, but the food and water situation pushed us on. Fortunately there was no wind, a rare circumstance out here in the San-Raphael Swell in winter.

It took some time to negotiate our way to the road, and from there we estimated we had about seven more miles to hike back to our vehicle. It was a long trudge, and we dared not stop walking in case we couldn’t get going again. When we finally approached the general area of our base camp, we couldn’t find the vehicle, because everything looked so different in the moonlight. After backtracking once, we finally realized we hadn’t gone quite far enough. When we saw Norman’s Land Cruiser in the moonlight, it was the most beautiful sight ever. We drank electrolytes immediately for we were severely dehydrated, cooked a meal on the tail gate, stripped off our muddy clothes and sank into bed.

We had left at 10:00 AM on a Sunday morning. We got back to base camp just after midnight on Tuesday morning. Our little six-hour adventure had turned into a 38-hour ordeal.

 

About a week after this little adventure I decided to research the canyon some more. I learned that what we had gone through had happened to several people, but on checking the BLM web page I didn’t find any warnings about this particular canyon.

Then a few months later we went back to the same area and just looked at the canyon from above. We ran into a couple of young men who were on their way back from doing our intended route. We asked about the mud pool and the boulder that had blocked our way. They looked puzzled, and then recalled that there had been a boulder in that spot that they had walked UNDER. From that we guessed that the water was at least 7 feet deep, possibly as much as 10 feet. I read about another scenario where someone had actually swam the pool, and managed to get out the other way, but this man and his girlfriend were excellent climbers. He said getting over the boulder was like doing a 5:10 climb, or more, and after that there had been a series of pools. When they finally made it out, they were bordering on hypothermia, and felt lucky to have made it. There are many more stories I’m sure.

Now when I look back on this experience, I remember it with fondness. I have to admit that a part of me thoroughly enjoyed it. Had we been in any serious danger I might feel differently, but somehow I doubt it.

When we did the rappel over the pool, I stored my camera in my pack in a waterproof bag, so the shot of the pool was the last one I took. However, I took plenty on he first half of the adventure, and have posted several more below (Please scroll down to view them).

Night view of Norman on the gravel bank

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