Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Lower Waterholes Canyon, Part Deux

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on April 29, 2010

Lower Waterholes Canyon, (thru-trip to Colorado River) 4BIIIR
4.1 miles to river, 4 mile pack raft

Navajo Nation, tributary of Glen Canyon
04/25/10 – 04/26/10


This 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 alcove.  I feel this is an unsafe way to go. An abundance of loose rock near all of the anchors makes this route extremely dangerous. I was involved in the decision to go this way so the last thing I am doing is finger pointing, but since that descent over a year ago I felt a strong desire to return and do the descent the right way. Further, Laura, Eric and I had recently acquired pack rafts (small inflatable boats that weigh very little and when deflated can fit into a backpack) that we were anxious to put to use. The plan became to descend the canyon via the big drop and camp along the banks of the Colorado. The following day we would pack raft out to Lees Ferry and hitchhike the 35 plus miles back to our car. Okay, let’s go.

With just three people to divide the 700 feet of rope, pack rafts, paddles, personal flotation devices, wetsuits, sleeping bags, food, water, a water filter and a small cooking pot, our packs were bursting. Because of the weight and bulk of our packs it quickly became apparent that hanging our packs was mandatory to avoid flipping upside down while on rappel. A somewhat skinny section of canyon proved to be extremely difficult with all of our cargo. Never the less, we smoothly made our way through the rappels, down climbs, narrows and a Tyrolean Traverse to avoid getting wet in the pothole that had way less water than during the last descent. In fact we probably all could have skirted around the scum filled pool, but after Eric successfully maneuvered to the other side, Laura and I wanted the novelty of zip lining across.

As Eric lead the way on the final rappel before reaching the infamous Big Wall, I watched in horror as his 50- pound pack fell down the nearly 100- foot rappel, while he went to hang it off of his harness. Eric watched in even greater horror with the knowledge that his iPod Touch of 3 years was stored loosely in has pack. Once down at the bottom of the rappel Eric confirmed that his iPod was in fact a casualty, smashed to smithereens, along with a dented flask and cracked paddle.

After regrouping we started towards the beginning of the multi-pitch rappel down the Big Wall. We followed the drainage proper through down climbing a very narrow section of canyon towards a major drop ahead. Upon reaching the drop-off we could not find bolts anywhere. We did an about face and retraced our steps back up the down climbs which was torture with our huge packs through the narrow walls. At this point, Laura spotted the bolts of the start of the multi-pitch along a ledge canyon right above the drainage proper.

The first part of the multi-pitch is a 100- foot rappel down a very narrow crack. Leading the way I chose to hang my pack, which presented problems as it got stuck on the way down. At the bottom of the rappel where the crack was even narrower I spent several minutes getting my leg and pack untangled. Eric chose to keep his pack on for this rappel, which solved some of the problems I experienced, but he was troubled with not being able to turn around and see where he was going.

The second section of the multi-pitch is a short 15- foot rappel to the hanging station that provides the bolts for the 310- foot drop to solid ground. As I set up our rope for this monster, quadruple checking everything, Eric hammered sticks into the crack on the first part of the multi-pitch to help prevent the rope from getting stuck on the pull. Even after doing this, our rope still got stuck and Eric had to stem back up the crack 15 feet to dislodge the rope.

On the 310- foot rappel I chose to rap out of the bag hanging from my harness to avoid getting the rope stuck in the giant crack that goes down nearly the entire wall. This worked great but was a little scary when I would look down and see 300 feet of air below me with only four feet of rope hanging down during the descent. Once down on the ground I waited for Laura to follow with a fireman’s belay at the ready. Before I could make visual contact with her, my heart jumped out of my chest as I saw a dark object falling towards me. A paddle plummeted down and smashed into the rock next to me, cracking the shaft. Unlike her paddle, Laura safely reached the ground, followed by Eric. The multi-pitch took us two- hours, during which time all three of us were completely void of any thoughts except for the tasks at hand, a rarity in our lives today.

After packing up all of our rope I realized that my paddles were gone. I cannot say for sure what happened to them, but I suspect they fell out of my pack when we initially went the wrong way at the top of the multi-pitch. I was forced to drag my pack through the skinny section back up canyon and since I was in the back nobody would have noticed if they fell out. Though accidental, I feel terrible about leaving trash in the canyon. I always make a habit of picking up trash when possible during hiking or canyoneering and vow to increase this to make up for what I left behind. Further I would now have another challenge of getting the four miles down the river to Lees Ferry without paddles.

A few more rappels and mellow hiking brought us to the Colorado River. We enjoyed a magnificent night of stealth camping just off the banks of the river. The follow morning I woke up early and began devising a system of hand paddles that included small pieces of discarded metal I found and neoprene socks wrapped in the aluminum bags from the Mountain House meals that we ate for dinner the night before. After packing up and inflating our rafts we got on the water.

Pretty quickly it became apparent that my Mountain House hands were not going to work, but between the current, lack of wind and hand paddling with just the neoprene socks I was somewhat able to keep up with Laura and Eric. Keep in mind that they were both working with one broken paddle each. Despite our sorry paddle situation, we reached Lees Ferry much faster than expected.

We were able to get back to our vehicle at the top of Waterholes through a combination hitchhike. The first part was from a rafting outfit bus on its way back to Flagstaff after dropping off a group for their put in at Lees Ferry. He drove us to the Highway 89A and Highway 89 intersection. With our thumbs out for a half hour, a friendly and talkative Navajo man named Clifford came to our rescue and dropped us off at our car.



4 Responses

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  1. Stephen Schwartz said, on April 29, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    DAVID/LAURA: I believe that’s the best hike you’ve posted so far. Beautiful scenery, great challenges. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Abby Segall said, on May 22, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Take me here.

  3. Vaporman said, on January 8, 2011 at 4:03 am

    Sounds like a sweet trip and I can’t wait to fully do this canyon. =)

  4. Marianna Sumina said, on November 27, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    Wow! Just wow! It’s the best trip report that I ever have read! I wish I can join you guys!

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