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A Canyoneering Adventure Gone Wrong In the San Rafael Swell, Utah. Baptist Draw and Chute Canyon.

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A Canyoneering Adventure Gone Wrong In the San Rafael Swell, Utah. Baptist Draw and Chute Canyon.


It was November 2010, and my partner, Norman, and I decided to do a short technical canyoneering trip. I was hoping to get some photographs as well as experiencing the thrill of a slot canyon and some rappelling. We were to hike from McKay Flats in the San Rafael Swell, Utah, and head over to a rock formation known by some as Teepee Rock. Near Teepee Rock, is Baptist Draw, a wide wash that quickly turns into a very narrow, turn-yourself-sideways-and-take-your-pack-off slot. We Set off about 10:00 AM, quite a bit later than originally intended, but then the hike was only supposed to take around 6-hours so we weren't overly concerned. We had waited until later to be sure that it wasn't going to rain. We didn't want to be in a slot canyon if it rained, and Chute Canyon is notorious for its flash floods.

Baptist Draw was a lot of fun. It was narrow, with just one small pool to wade through, and a couple of short rappels or down-climbs. We had to take our packs off to get through the narrowest sections, and had to crawls under some chockstones in a couple of spots. The slot grew deeper and darker as we approached the area where it dropped off into Chute Canyon. At this point we had to rappel down 75 feet into Chute Canyon.

I went down first, which was a little daunting as it was my first rappel over an edge where I couldn't see where I was going, and my longest rappel to date. All went well, and once Norman was down he pulled the rope. It was then that we noticed the wall to the north of the rappel had a warning message on it. It read, NO WAY OUT! TURN BACK! We both hoped it was just some kind of sick joke, but we couldn't miss the obvious signs that someone had camped in that very spot just the night before.

From the junction of Baptist Draw and Chute Canyon, we were supposed to head north up this long, narrow slot, until it opened up a bit and we could find a way out by scrambling up on the benches above. We started up the canyon, admiring it's 200 foot high wavy walls, but were soon stopped by a very muddy and rather deep looking pool. In this spot, the curvacious sandstone walls swept over the top of our heads, and it felt rather like being in a cave. A few tentative steps into the muddy pool confirmed our fear, this pool was very deep and very muddy. With our headlamps we could barely see the far end, and it appeared that at that point the canyon narrowed to maybe two or three feet wide, and it was blocked with a very mud-slimed chockstone. There did not appear to be any place to get leverage out of the pool and over the chockstone. It appeared to be very hard if not impossible to do.

We backed out of the mud and contemplated our situation. We had spoken to some guys the day before that had done this route, but had gone south down the canyon instead of up it. They were very tired, and said that the hike out had been very long indeed. They had also mentioned some pools, one which was a rappel into a pool. These guys had been more than half our age, and THEY were tired. Despite this, we decided to take a look down canyon, and very shortly we came to the rappel into a pool. It was now getting late in the afternoon, as we had been taking it easy and not pushing to go fast. We feared that if we got wet this late in the day, we could end up with hypothermia. It was November after all, and the temperatures were dropping dramatically at night up here on this high plateau.

We looked at the mud pool again, and the rappel again, then turned our gaze to the canyon walls. There was one possible route out, but we didn't have any anchors with us for climbing out, and when Norman tried to climb it, a huge chunk of sandstone broke off in his hand, and he fell about 10 ft to the canyon floor. He tried a second time, but then darkness descended in just minutes, and I had to direct Norman back down with my headlamp.

There were now no choices left, quite simply, we were here for the night.

Benighted, we turned to our packs. Temperatures were dropping fast, and Normans wet feet were quickly getting cold. We decided the best spot was on the one or two foot high sand bank that had built up at the confluence of Baptist Draw and Chute Canyon. We put down the climbing rope as a base, pulled out all our spare clothing and put them on. Norman put my spare gloves on his feet, and we shared clothes. I kept my helmet on in case anything came over the rim of the canyon. We pulled out our emergency sleeping bags, those thin silver things, and got them ready to settle in for the night. In taking stock of our belongings, we figured we had enough food if we ate it sparingly, but water was a concern, we didn't really have enough.

Once settled we ate the banana we had brought and set aside the granola bars and nuts. As were were drifting restlessly into a light sleep, we heard a noise that puzzled us. It turned out to be a mouse in our food. So we dealt with that, then he tried for our last bit of water. I rubbed insect repellent over the tube of my water bladder, and it seemed to deter him. I kept the bladder under my head, and swatted at the mouse every time he made an appearance. Throughout the night sand blew off the rim into our eyes, clouds passed in front of the stars and I feared rain, we chatted a bit, and repaired my emergency bag when it tore in three different places. We used climbing tape, bandages, duct tape and anything we could find to hold it together. Norman snored, and I didn't sleep a wink.

When we headed down canyon in the morning, we had about a liter of water left for the two of us. I was afraid of rapping into the pool with my pack on, for fear of drowning (it looked too much like a repeated nightmare I'd had as a child), so we sent the packs over the pool on a zip line. We both ended up getting a little wet, but not too badly.

Then we started the hike out, down and down the canyon, avoiding the pools as much as possible, and on and on. At one point we found a pool of water on a high bench. It was covered in ice, and tricky to get to, but we managed to get about a liter of grimy, gritty water out of it, and we put some iodine tablets in it. According to the instructions, we had to wait four hours for the tablets to work properly. We ran out of our good water shortly afterwards despite rationing, and started on the iodine water about 3-hours early. It tasted nasty, and each mouthful included a 1/8 tsp of sand or so. Ugh!

It seemed to take forever to get to Fault Line Canyon, our route out of Chute Canyon. From here we had to hike up Fault Line Canyon, and once back on top of the plateau, we needed to head north back to camp. The sun was setting now, and darkness descends quickly in the desert. Soon we were gazing over a huge canyon, and with the moon casting shadows on it we couldn't really tell if it was possible to cross it or not. We tried skirting it, but had picked the wrong direction. Then we got out the topo map, and decided to try going around it the other way. There was no clear edge, and the terrain was a little rough, and in the end we decided to just head straight west across country, to a two-track road that showed on the map.

We found our way to the road, and from there we estimated we had about seven more miles to hike back to our vehicle. Then we couldn't find the vehicle, and after backtracking once, we finally realized we hadn't gone quite far enough. When we saw Norman's Land Cruiser in the moonlight, it was the most beautiful sight ever. We drank electrolytes for we were severely dehydrated, cooked a meal on the tail gate, stripped off our muddy clothes and sank into bed.

We had left at 10:00 AM on a Sunday morning. We got back to base camp just after midnight on Tuesday morning. Our little six-hour adventure had turned into a 38-hour ordeal.

Now we look back on it fondly. The adventure had been a bonding experience. We are looking forward to trying it again some time, but you can be rest-assured, we shall be even better prepared for an emergency next time.

As for those pictures I tried to get. Well, I didn't get any that were suitable for selling. In fact, once we did the rappel into the pool, I had my camera sealed away in a waterproof bag. It didn't see daylight for a while. However, I did get some snap shots of the first half of the trip, and the spot we spent the night in. If you'd like to view them copy and paste the link below into your web browser, to visit my Webshots album:

Bye for now,