Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Near epic in Waterholes Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on May 8, 2009

Lower Waterholes Canyon, (thru-trip to Colorado River) 4BIIIR
4.1 miles
Navajo Nation, tributary of Glen Canyon


The number of phone calls, texts and emails in the planning for our full descent of Waterholes Canyon to the Colorado River, blew past a dozen on its way to losing count. A full descent of Waterholes Canyon is serious business and can be a logistical nightmare.

The reason for this is the canyon involves a 400- foot sheer vertical drop to the alcove below, known among some as the “Big Rap” and the fact that the canyon ends at the Colorado River miles upstream and on the opposite of Lees Ferry (the starting point for rafters of the Colorado River). Thus this canyon requires the use of some sort of boat to get from the bottom of Waterholes Canyon to Lees Ferry. Fortunately, Eric had a large inflatable river raft and a small kayak. Our solution was this: the day before we used the rafting company, Colorado River Discovery to shuttle Eric, his raft and kayak to the bottom of Waterholes Canyon. Eric then stowed his raft safely on shore and kayaked back to Lees Ferry. The following day the raft would be waiting for us at the end of the canyon. That is of course if we survived the “Big Rap”.

Waterholes is a beautiful Colorado Plateau slot canyon with sandstone fins creating a natural tunnel of art. While soaking in the beauty, negotiating tricky rappels, down climbs and squeezes, the thought of the Big Rap was always in the back of my mind. The first difficult technical challenge came when we tried to avoid getting wet in a pothole filled with cold green sludge. Mike took one for the team getting wet while crossing the pothole and then with my assistance set up a tension line over the pothole. With this line everyone else on our team crossed above the pothole and avoided the slime below.

Shortly after the pothole we hit the top of the alcove and the Big Rap. With a 325- foot rope and hundreds of feet of other rope we had options on how to make the descent of this sequence. During a survey we spotted bolts on a series of ledges on the side of the alcove. We had heard about this potential route. After exploring this area more closely a group decision was made to attempt this descent as opposed to the more traditional descent straight down the watercourse.

Five hours later we reached solid ground on the canyon floor. The route took us down three rappels off of ledges with exposed traverses and belayed down climbs through loose rock to bolts that were partially hidden in a buildup of sediment. We suspect this route had not been previously used in a decade or more. Later we talked about how we felt like we had gone back in time resurrecting the route. Everyone in our group got through the sequence without major incidents, but this was during five stressful hours. Fortunately the bolts appeared relatively solid and we had a bolt kit if necessary. I feel a responsibility to say that I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS ROUTE.

Just before sunset we reached the Colorado and Eric rowed us to Lees Ferry below the massive cliffs and darkening sky. The mood was celebratory with an intense feeling of having just experienced a near epic adventure.


**** To see a video produced by Mike Schennum of our descent down Waterholes, along with a hike to the Wave and a trip through the Egypt 2 and 3 slots from the same weekend go to the post “The Egypts – Not for those who weigh more than 200 pounds”.


One Response

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  1. […] canyon was calling me to come back. On the previous descent, the route we took avoided the big drop by rappelling down a series of ledges along the side of the […]

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