Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Avoiding the forbidden fruit in Upper Stair Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on September 30, 2011

Upper Stair Canyon, 3AIIR
approximately 6 miles
North Wash


The drive from Phoenix to the San Rafael Swell is long; further than many other canyoneering destinations of southern Utah, so we thought a pit stop was in order to break up the drive. Our “pit stop” had us leave the highway that parallels North Wash and head up into the slick rock expanse along a dirt road a dozen or so miles until our modest vehicle could go no further.

The next morning following a short approach hike we dropped into the upper reaches of Stair Canyon as the drainage immediately slotted up so tight at the bottom we were forced to go high. With our backs against one wall and our feet against the other we shuffled down the canyon. The exposure was sustained and considerable, up to 40- feet off the deck in some places. Of course if you lost your purchase and fell you would never make it down that far. Crumpelstiltskinned! Despite this sustained exposure, the moves were rather easy and straightforward, but for me they were exciting enough.

I am still not sure what my take is on high stemming canyons, also known as Mae West slots. One moment I am having fun, finding a groove and the next I can’t wait until it is over. All the while my lower back is getting rubbed ever more raw from the sandstone. In some places it seems so easy or natural to down climb to the canyon floor where the walls may be wide enough to fit for passage for a short distance. The desire for that warm blanket of solid ground at your feet can be convincing. Of course, the walls are only going to slot up again so tight that you would be forced to climb back up to a position where you could continue high stemming, wasting valuable energy in the process. Eric saw me eyeing the sirens’ song of the canyon bottom from my perch 40 feet up. “Stay away from the forbidden fruit,” he said. He didn’t have to tell me, I learned my lesson in Happy Dog Canyon.

In the end I value the experience of these Mae West slots and this will undoubtedly not be my last, (but I wouldn’t count on me making a career of it.) First, high stemming is a definitive part of the Colorado Plateau canyoneering experience. By participating in these descents even the easier ones such as Upper Stair Canyon, makes one a more complete canyoneer. The skills also transfer over to other canyon descents where high stemming is not the main course. Even more important, high stemming like perhaps no other discipline of canyoneering, with maybe the exception of multi-pitch big wall rappelling, not only requires but forces you to have total concentration. Your mind is completely devoid of any thoughts except for the task at hand. Not even the slightest mistake is an option, but unlike multi-pitch big wall rappelling, teamwork does not come into play all that much. Conversation is at a minimum. It is just you and the moves that you make with the walls and the space between them.


2 Responses

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  1. Mike said, on October 3, 2011 at 2:47 am

    Are they called Mae West because of her boobs? I had to look up Mae West to find out who she was.

  2. […] canyons to a moderately challenging level (R-Rating) such as Raven, Inferno, Limbo, Happy Dog, Stair, and the Hogs, but wasn’t interested in taking the risks required in a canyon like Sandthrax […]

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