scouting Big Spring canyon decent to the Colorado River

Dry Fall Navigation (going down canyon, only major)

  1. R near mouth along ledge for a while before reaching a down climb (12’, 4th). Possible cam pro
  2. R on talus then L before lowest pool
  3. L at big drop
  4. L after second confluence
  5. R small stone bench, pro .75
  6. Straight w cam pro
  7. Main event: double rope 8mm plus sling harness plus quick link

Michael and I’s goal was to climb two of the Bridger Jacks but after climbing Easter Island and getting nearly blown off we ended the day early.

I decided that afternoon I’d scout the Big Spring canyon decent to the Colorado River which was Day 1 of my Thanksgiving packrafting route. After my first known decent of Fools Canyon to Black Rocks-CO River [see TRIP REPORT] I knew I needed to scout the decent before heading down with heavy packs and a partner (my dad/Claire). A helpful ranger had informed me that You could descend that canyon by bypassing the various dry falls including the final crux which was protected by a two bolt anchor which used to have a hand line (ranger removed Spring 2018). I wanted Claire to feel comfortable on our trip so I felt I needed to know if we should rappel or just hand line the crux.

Michael and I set out at 2:45 and the canyon get real church real fast. What an oasis! After negotiating two dry falls Michael decided he’d had enough and started back to the car. Michael had both headlamps in his pack and I declined his offer to climbing back up to him and grab mine. “The crux must be soon [mistake!] since I’m almost at the confluence.”

30 minutes later after reaching the confluence with salt creek I realized the crux was in the lower canyon, an unknown distance towards the river. Aware of the dying light I dropped by bag and layers and began running down.

*** ?Does anyone know these towers ? “Unknown Named aka Flintstone Tower” (silhouetted w perched rock summit block) and “Unknown Named aka Salt Shaker Tower” in Lower Salt Creek Canyon ***

After a couple more major dry falls and miles I made it to the crux. I set my 6mm rope with knots for a hand line and started down. I clipped into the high piton midway and used it as a foothold. The rock was of mixed quality and I broke of a two attempted foot holds. After getting to the bottom I reversed it concluding that Claire and I should rappel this next week for safety’s sake and her over all comfort.

If you were coming up from the river you’d have to aid lead this on the two old pitons. I weighted the higher one and it held but visually it looked somewhat sketchy.

*** ?Does anyone know a good point to launch a boat up stream north of Indian Creek, in Island in the Sky? ***

Back up top I started my run back knowing all too well I should have taken the headlamp and now I might have trouble locating the first/highest dry fall down (up on return) climb after dark. It was 5pm.

Returning to my pack I went right at the confluence but after 15 minutes I found myself looking up a huge dry fall I hadnt seen before. Dammit, I was in the wrong fork! I ran back to the confluence and by then it was dusk. Heading up the main canyon I didnt find any foot prints and couldn’t remember a difficult root section. Must be lower so I returned to (down canyon) where I dropped the pack) and not seeing any other potential side canyons, consulted my notes on the dry falls and the next one said “L at big drop.” I had been in the correct fork just forgotten to ascend the west slope before the fall. Frustrated at the lost time my mistake cost I returned up canyon.

I started using my phone light and began to imagine I might get benighted if it died. I had brought lots of layers and water but regretted only hanging 3 bars for lunch and leaving the space blanket in the car. It’d be a shiver bivy for sure. Still I choose to slow down after darkness fell and avoid any risky moves that could greatly exacerbate the situation (roll ankle != self excoriate). I continued to make small navigating errors which I would realize and reverse. Everything is harder when your view is confined to a tunnel of light.

After getting spooked by a mountain lion looking bush I start singing “Sympathy for the Devil” on loop and began to catch occasional glimpses of light on the upper canyon walls? Was I imaging it? Then down canyon I herd a siren wail. Good, Michael had gone for help. Hopefully he had returned to the down climb which as expected I had trouble locating. Once again I went too far up canyon into the dry fall. By this time Mike and a ranger were just up canyon on the ledge. We made contact and I search below while they searched above. Finally my phone died and I had mike drop me my headlamp. After which I found the climb out by moving back down canyon and was happy to be back. Thanks NPS! The irony of my partial rescue when truth to scout to prevent future shenanigans wasn’t lost on me but all had ended well.

After squeaking through two hard adventures that day by the dirt on my chiny chin chin here is what I concluded:

My Mistakes

  • Misunderstanding ranger and thinking all dry falls (inc crux) were in big spring when in fact crux was after two confluences in salt creek almost at the river. Misunderstood length led me to think starting 2:45 and later passing up on the headlamp were okay.
  • Having both headlamps in Michaels pack and not climbing back up to him when he offered it on our parting.
  • Under estimating the time to move through a trail-less canyon which should have been fresh in my mind after Fools Canyon to Black Rocks-CO River [see TRIP REPORT]
  • No map, food or emergency blanket.
  • Going too far up the creek to the dry fall and in my haste thinking I had gone down the wrong canyon (from Salt Creek). Letting my fear of not being able to locate the down climb after dark rush me. I should have consulted my notes and see “L at big drop.”
  • Climbing: not taking extra beyond recommended rack since that assumes I’ll read the route right which i won’t and then will otherwise he force to do the 20’ airy .8 traverse w/o pro. Not bringing my long underwear (always on shoulder/winter multi pitch).

What I Got Right

  • Scouting the canyon before Claire and I did it with big packs.
  • Bringing lots of layers and water.
  • Slowing down after darkness fell and avoiding any risky moves that could greatly exacerbate the issue.
  • Figuring out what had happened when I got lost by looking up the upper (not mine route) canyon for my foot prints, returning to my last confirmed location (where I dropped the pack) and not seeing any other potential side canyons, taking and consulting my notes on the dry falls.
  • “Being part of my own rescue” and keeping a clear head.
  • Staying put once I had got to Michael and Ranger Mark before I got them to drop me a headlamp.

What Michael Got Right

  • Waiting at the TH but sending the last hikers to inform the rangers of the evolving situation (knowing the route had the potential for serious injury).
  • Shinning my brights (car) into the canyon mouth.
  • Hiking back with the Ranger and making contact with me then helping me locate the down climb.
  • He should have brought all the extra warm clothes, food and space blankets when hiking back in case he found me with a broken leg and we had to shiver bivy.
  • He was right to not descend the down climb since he didn’t feel confident on its location/off trail canyon travel. You can’t rescue anyone if you get yourself hurt!

Thanksgiving Figure 8 Complete. Rappelled the technical drop in Salt Creek before the river leaving a quick link on the webbing for anyone coming after me.

Highly recommend anyone doing the 8 take an extra day to explore the Maze. Leave your camp and boat at Water Canyon and hike Shot Canyon - Jasper Ridge - Petroglyph Fork of Horse Canyon to Harvest Scene. Felt like a good way to celebrate Thanksgiving to us.

Decent down Water Canyon is easy but stay on the west rim near the bottom when the canyon cuts into the limestone again. I stubbornly followed a fainter trail I had got on along the east side and we had to do any annoying pack lower and down climb to the bed.