Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A mystery not really solved in Rock Creek Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on April 8, 2012

Rock Creek Canyon, 3B/CIV
approximately 9 miles
Mazatzal Wilderness Area


In the fall of 2007 I went out for a solo hike in the Mazatzal Wilderness Area. The plan was to loop together several trails for an all day adventure. After crossing over the crest of the mountains I lost the trail as it had all but disappeared after the Willow Fire of 2004 had burned much of the area. Instead of turning around and retracing my steps to find the trail, I decided to forge on and head into a canyon that I knew would drain easterly in the direction of my vehicle. Initially, the decision seemed to work as I was able to make progress, losing elevation and heading east. Here and there things did get a little hairy as steep drop offs into pools blocked my way. However at each of these drop offs slanted layered rock at 45 degree angles provided enough purchase to make negotiation down these pour offs possible. Just for a little context, at this time I only had a few technical canyon descents under my belt. I had no harness or rope with me. I did not know what drainage I was in and Laura, back home, certainly would have no idea exactly where I was, as I had gone off course from my planned hike. I remember processing this last bit of information at the time and knowing that the stakes were high. In other words, take a fall and get injured and you are in big trouble.

I carefully proceeded, safely down climbing the obstacles and wading through the pools until I hit what I remember to be a 100- foot vertical drop. I instantly knew I could not continue down the canyon bottom. Fortunately, I only had to ascend back up the canyon a short ways where I found a way to climb out of the canyon bottom and around the drop off. I continued down the drainage and darkness set in when I hit the remnants of an old jeep road. With no headlamp and GPS I knew traveling cross country was out of the question, so I decided to follow the road in the direction of the lights I could see from cars traveling on the Beeline Highway many miles away. Three hours later, having run out of water long ago I reached a restaurant along the side of the highway that had already closed for the night. I looked inside the window of the establishment and could see a woman counting the register with nobody else inside. I banged on the window and yelled that I had gotten lost on a hike and needed water. She looked at me with a frightened look on her face and said “I’m sorry. I can’t let you in but there is a spicket in the back.” Good enough for me. I walked around back, got on all fours and slurped the metallic tasting water till I got my full. Even though I now knew where I was, I still had hours of more walking along forest roads back to my car. With a few bars on my cell phone, I threw up the white flag, called Laura and asked her to come pick me up and take me to my car.

Laura down climbs the slanted, layered rock as I had in the canyon of 2007.

In the all the excitement of the epic and with much of it occurring in the dark I was never able to say with certainty what drainage I had descended. Years later as I began to hear of individuals descending many of the canyons of the Mazatzal Mountains and having begun to descend some myself, I figured it would just be a matter of time before I ran into my old friend. As Eric, Laura and I planned a descent of Rock Creek Canyon and I studied the map, I thought it was likely that this was the one.

It was great being out with Laura and Eric for an all-day wilderness style canyoneering adventure. It is the same group that will be taking the adventure across the pond later in the year, so we had plenty to discuss. As we drove west on a bumpy dirt road I felt like it all looked familiar. Of course the familiarity was a memory from over four years ago on a moonless night with no headlamp in a dehydrated state.

As we hiked into the mountains through catclaw and burned areas of the Willow Fire, again it all felt familiar. After a long approach we reached the first drop in Rock Creek Canyon. Further down the drainage that same geologic formation of slanted, layered rock cut down the side of the canyon appeared. Just as I had used it to down climb the drops in the canyon in 2007 we were able to negotiate this canyon in a similar way, but by now, I knew this was not the same canyon.

After realizing this was not that place, there wasn’t much left to do but enjoy the rugged scenery, fine company and two distinct sets of technical sections the canyon dished up. Though the mystery will remain unsolved, venturing deep into this territory, I now have a solid idea of where I was. Confirmation will have to wait for another day.

– David