Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Exploration and technical canyon discovery in the Four Peaks Wilderness

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 17, 2009

Blue Tank Canyon, 2BV/ Hells Hip Pocket 3BV
Tonto National Forest – Four Peaks Wilderness
11/22/09, 12/12/09 – 12/14/09

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The system looked promising on topographic maps, but remote. Canyon Lake and the Salt River blocked it to the south. A large road less area (or least roads that are passable) of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area filled with rolling washes, and rugged canyons surrounded it to the west, north and east.  Did a technical canyon exist within? I decided to find out on what would be one of my first real canyon pioneering adventures.

PART 1:

The first leg of the exploration began partially as training for an adventure race I would be participating in several weeks with my friend and one of my canyoneering partners, John. The adventure race included a section of kayaking. John and I thought it would be prudent to do a trial run in a tandem kayak before the race. A perfect opportunity to get some paddle in and allow for penetration into the canyon system from the bottom. Along with Laura in a single kayak, we made our way across a choppy Canyon Lake and up the Salt River into a direct head wind to the bottom of Blue Tank Canyon. Mormon Flat Dam at Canyon Lake has raised the water levels of the Salt River back into Blue Tank Canyon making for a short stretch of paddle surrounded by narrow canyon walls. After stowing our kayaks on dry land, we continued through the narrows by foot. The walls quickly got higher and tighter and transitioned from beige to blue in color revealing the origins of its name and giving us a beautiful stretch of canyon. A 10- foot dry fall was climbed with not too much difficulty. Before not too long the canyon opened up and became less interesting. John, Laura and I slogged up the canyon, negotiating several easy dry falls and passing an area of crystal clear spring fed pools hidden beneath thick vegetation before reaching the confluence of Hells Hip Pocket. With our rental kayaks due back that evening and the long paddle to the Canyon Lake Marina ahead of us, we only ventured a short distance up Blue Tank Canyon past Hells Hip Pocket before heading back down canyon. Even though I was slightly disappointed that during our ascent we were not stopped dead in our tracks by an un-climbable dry fall signaling technical canyon above, I felt confident there still could be something of note in either upper Blue Tank or Hells Hip Pocket. I looked to return to the system from above as soon as possible.

Laura kayaks into Blue Tank Canyon.

PART 2:

Nearly a month later, with 60- pound packs on our backs filled with a full arsenal of canyoneering gear, Eric and I slowly hiked up Trail 84 to set up a base camp and further explore the system from above. Hiking through mine fields of cholla pods and past wild burros we set up camp near a natural spring alongside a bullet ridden aluminum shack in the shadow of Four Peaks. That afternoon we dropped into the far upper reaches of Blue Tank Canyon. The first mile and half of the canyon were chocked with catclaw, prickly pear and other evil desert vegetation, shredding our legs, arms and hands. Eventually the vegetation subsided and the canyon changed character as walls closed in and the canyon got deeper. We were faced with several moderately challenging down climbs and waist deep pools to wade. We continued to the point where John, Laura and I had turned around a month earlier from below. It was confirmed. Blue Tank though challenging and beautiful does not require the use of ropes for a descent. Finding an alternate route back to camp along a high ridge and adjacent canyon we reached our camp several hours after dark. The following day we planned to descend Hells Hip Pocket and exit the system via Blue Tank.

From camp it took several hours of hiking up onto a ridge to reach the upper confines of Hells Hip Pocket. Along the way we saw deer and javelina. Hells Hip Pocket consists of five branches all draining from the same high ridge. We decided to descend via the easternmost branch, which is the one furthest from the confluence with Blue Tank and on the map appeared to be the main drainage. The canyon was moderately interesting and very different in character from Blue Tank. Certain sections were filled with brush but for the most part the hiking was not too unpleasant. We were able to avoid getting wet and rappelling by traversing ledges and moderately difficult down climbing. We did set up one 35- foot rappel off a pinch point down a dry fall. The fall could have been down climbed but appeared sketchy and under a light drizzle we felt rappelling was the safer option. As we slowly passed Hells Hip Pocket’s adjoining branches under the steady and cold drizzle, a slight level of disappointment was setting in that were not going to find anything of note. Then out of nowhere the canyon rounded a bend and dropped into a deep and dark slot. Eric and I were giddy with excitement as we evaluated the drop and looked for a natural anchor.

With no signs of webbing anywhere we decided on a small, but secure boulder above the drop. The rappel was approximately 40- feet. The canyon walls were beautifully tight and convoluted, undulating in weird angles. About 100- feet beyond the first drop, a second longer drop ended in a deep pool. Again there were no signs of webbing anywhere, so we took our time to evaluate the natural anchor options. Using a pinch point on a shelf above the drop, the rappel was exactly 50- feet into a 75- foot swimmer.

After the frigid swim and very short stretch of tight narrows to follow, the canyon opened back up to its former self. We hit the confluence with Blue Tank and began the long and strenuous climb up the canyon, followed by the alternate return route of the previous day. Again we reached camp several hours after dark. Around the campfire we discussed the possibility that we made the first descent. Though I feel it is impossible to make the claim with 100 percent certainty, the canyon’s remoteness and the complete absence of any signs of webbing seemed that ours was in fact a first descent.

The following morning we slept in and lounged around camp before the backpack out on a crisp December Arizona day. For the first time all weekend all four of the Four Peaks were not shrouded behind clouds. A lot of work had gone into the exploration and approach of this remote canyon that only yielded a short section of technical canyon.  I could not have been more thrilled with the discovery and the process, adding a whole new element to the sport.

-David

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3 Responses

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  1. kelli bricker said, on December 17, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Another great post with excellent photos… I love reading this blog, you guys do an excellent job of sharing the beauty and mystery of AZ’s many canyons.

    – Kelli

  2. Steve Schwartz said, on December 17, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    So when is it my turn?

  3. Tommy K said, on December 31, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Always wondered about this area. Nice to see that your hard work brought success!


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