Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
Bishop and the X–Men
by Ram

The place intrigued—isolated from any trailhead with the lower canyon boxed in from all sides and spilling into the reservoir, providing no access back to land. What was up there? Some rumors abounded but nothing definite and no one claiming a descent.

After years of wondering, last April our Powell trip took the boat up Willow Creek with the purpose of measuring how much of a swim would be required to connect to a canyon that one could walk out to the road from. Answer was ... 1.6 miles (and with the pool up a dozen feet, probably longer now). That is a long way to swim. There were spots to get out and rest and maybe stroll a bit to shorten it, but having swam the 375–yard swim out from Blastphemy on the trip, it seemed unreasonable. Our boat guy mentioned that he would be in the area come mid–May and that we should stay in touch.

Maybe, just maybe.

The May trip drew near, dates were assigned to varies segments of the trip, and we spoke to the boat guy. Sure he said, I will be in the Escalante that day. A date and time was set: 2–3 PM on the 14th, Mother’s Day, and he would give us a boat shuttle. Now we were forced to work the rest of the logistics. We planned on a car shuttle, out the 40 Mile/Willow system. We would have to find the entry and check out the rumors and the country, plan departure times, gauge equipment needed. Sigh, a day spent on logistics. It didn’t help that the weather had turned hot. Wyoming Dave and myself, in between partners, were elected to scout and explore and the 12th was the date.

Following the map, we looked for the road on the map. It turns out there were two roads an d the larger one is not on the map. So, we played dune buggy on the deep sand, scared to stop for fear of sinking to the hubs. The other road, the one barely visible anywhere but on the map, had deep sand and, when the day to do the canyon came, we walked it anyway hoping the desert would swallow it by it not seeing traffic. But we were stuck further from the canyon than planned and the day turned hot as we approached, the extra few miles stealing the time bought by an early start.

Eventually, we looked down on a slickrock wonderland, punctuated by Navajo domes. We weaved in and out and found our way to a point a tenth of a mile before where the upper canyon dives through the last of the Navajo and into the Keyenta formation. An area often having big drops. What we saw intrigued and frightened us. At a lookout 120 feet above a 90–degree turn in the canyon, we looked both up and down stretches of canyon that looked deep and challenging. Upcanyon we saw a slot with what appeared to be fast dropping raps out of stemming–like environs coming from hidden chambers. Downcanyon, we saw a deep slot dive under huge boulders headed toward a final big drop of unknown height.

From our perch, Dave spotted one of the rumors we had heard. A few yards away in a tiny pothole on the edge of the drop, we found five, I said five, bolts. Not your mangy stardryvin deals either. These were burly ½ inch affairs drilled way into the rock with large hangers on them. No webbing was observed. And why 5 bolts? One could ask why any bolts too. The canyon was nearly over. Who came all the way down here and drilled? And what were they hoping to accomplish?

We climbed up and around on the rim and noted a huge amphitheatre below what appeared to be the final drop. We found an exposed angle from which we could look at the final drop and estimate its height. We gave it a max height of 150 feet. One wondered if one could find an anchor, down so narrow a slot, spitting out such a steep drop. One wondered if one would find a bolt garden there too. Ummm ...

It was time to work our way up the narrow upper canyon. We spied the upcanyon slot and started to rim walk, at least where we could, and then got close to the slot where possible. What we saw was amazing. It looked like a super narrow slot, closing to under a foot or so, way off the ground? Hard to tell. In fact, when we entered the canyon just above here, we found that to be a theme. Was the slot 40 feet deep or 100? Now and again, it opened up to reveal big drops but, even when a few feet wide, it dove so far that a bottom couldn’t be discerned.

After bypassing a pothole side canyon, we sought and found shade behind an outcropping and ate and drank. Water was starting to run low. I strolled over to relieve myself and noted, with surprise, that what looked like a steep slickrock slope may, just may, provide access to the main canyon by the pothole canyon. Seemed worth a peek. I edged down now understanding why we hadn’t noticed it on the way to our break—steep. By weaving a bit, I kept it at exposed 5.1 or so and we were in. A look both up– and downcanyon revealed serious territory, off–the–deck and not a break in sight. We went both directions and found the climbing strenuous but straightforward. We had found a low entry/exit. It would come in handy.

Out again, we followed the rims upcanyon, occasionally detouring around side canyons that entered usually into big, steep potholes. We noted that the section above was 100% stemming. A short break and another 2–tenths section would be 80% stemming and another 2–tenths section would be 60% stemming. Now realize, we are getting up into some pretty flat country and one would expect no stemming at all. But this baby wouldn’t relent. Even in shallow slots, it would force you off the ground part of the time. Why? Does it drop so fast as to dig? Is the rock extra soft? Both of these things? Something else at work? Anyway, we had cleared the top of the Navajo and, red–faced and dehydrated, we slogged up through the sand for another 1.5 hours in the sun, back to the car and our drinks. We had found out a lot. Enough to know that the place meant business.

— Day 10 —

Two days later, the group is assembled. Nat Smale, Stevee B, Wade Christenson, Justin Potholepisser, Bill Wolverton, and me. We set the car shuttle and hike. It is a lot easier when you are on the right road and it is the cool AM hours. We bypass many of the minor slots as we realize time will be a factor with the hard work ahead and the boat pick–up scheduled. We pick our entry. Nat and I go and set up the big rap entry off the bolts spied a few days before. The thought being that some of us, when they have had enough stemming, will exit along the way at the spots we have scouted and reenter lower down for the trip through. Did I mention that there was a LOT of stemming? A few tenths of a mile can take hours sometimes and it is never fast. Anyway, Nat and I return and rejoin the group and we are off.

Off indeed.

Almost immediately off–the–deck and never down again, we are forced so high that we are in the sun often and the temps reach the mid to high 90’s. We are sweating tons and salt stings our eyes. After several hours, we reach the final known exit. It is getting late. Steve decides to probe further on his own. We play rim team. He reports drops of 85 feet into complete blackness. He asks for a head lamp to be lowered. The spot is impossibly steep to access and could we find him, with a lowered headlamp, in the blackness of the inner canyon anyway. He decides to come back to the final exit. I am relieved. I spot him do a series of dyno moves 60 feet up and clutch my throat. This section, below where the rest of the group bailed, is way serious. On our way back to the rap–in spot, we note a downcanyon section, with a room where the wall appears to sweep closed forcing one up to 80 feet maybe. What then? Maybe one can squeeze through lower and maybe it stays narrow enough to allow continued passage, but it’s that type of place one never imagines until one sees it, and then it invades your dreams ... or nightmares.

We send a probe down the rappel, into the canyon, and down to the final drop. The canyon is opening. It is that point where a canyon releases you from its difficulties—but not this canyon! The slot stays formed in the bottom of the widening and deepening canyon. After a bit, word comes back that the final drop has been reached and anchors are there. We all rap in. Nat and I look up canyon a bit. I encourage Stevee to take a harder probe and he reports wonders—dangerous wonders—hard climbing, anchorless drops, and impossibly narrow corridors. We head down to the final rap, a total of a ¼ mile of slot bypassed. What secrets lie within?

On the way to the final rap, it narrows and one must squeeze, stem, etc. past 180–degree turns in amazing lighting. No easy ground here. I am sitting in one of those bends, a leg on each side, and I note a hole below me. A room through a bridge, 10 feet lower and large. In the bottom of the room is another bridge and the lighting reveals another room below it. I have never dreamed of such a place. The next piece of the bolt puzzle reveals itself. There are 5 bolts at the final drop, some of them huge eye bolts. Who did this and why? We do the rap, a lovely affair of 100 feet down a wall and into riparian paradise. We refill our water out of the spring and soak in the beauty. We note that there is no trail and not even much passage downcanyon. This leads us to conclude that our bolting friends take the long cross country trip, do the 2 raps and canyon section in between, then jug back up and reverse their route back up to the road via a long sand slog. Ugh! A wonderful tenth of a mile, but talk about a little bang for your buck!! And why isn’t there much traffic up from the lake?

The reasons for the lack of traffic upcanyon from the lake reveals itself quickly. We fight our way through thick brush, poison ivy all over the place. Finally the brush relents and we find a slabby stream of redrock and green pools, with a tiered canyon and orange, towering walls. It is sublime and you look around and are quickly rewarded by a fast trip to your butt. Boy, is this place slippery!! I found that I was so intent on my footing that I was passing the canyon afraid to look up. I would stop to look—the only way to do so and keep balance.

After 3 miles, signs of the lake abound. Around the corner we go and I find Bill up on the sand. He directs me through a debris–filled section of the lake and over the ridge to my dear friend Ivy, boat and all. We are both more tan than a month ago. The lake is 23 degrees warmer (73°) and we play ‘catch up’ with each other. Stevee is a good friend and he says hi. The others get intros and we are in the boat. He offers the cooler and this red–faced bunch drink, water, lemonade and soda. Nachos and Chips Ahoy disappear as if by magic. The boat moves slowly through debris. We are in the shade, sitting on padded seats, and it is like we were transported somewhere else. Stories make the rounds and it is like a whole different world.

Alas, we still have 7 miles to go and over 1,500 feet of elevation to gain. So out we go, enjoy a full dunking in the warm lake, and say our good byes and thank yous. We meet and say hello to Ivy’s sons and their girlfriends ... girlfriends in bikinis ... and I realize that I have been scratching against sandstone walls a little too much recently. The hike up Willow is a delight— waterfall, the huge Broken Bow Arch, pretty flowing stream, mixed with conversation—and the miles go quickly. Once back at the trailhead, Wade, Bill and Justin head out. Stevee moves into my car and starts playing with all the buttons. Nat, Stevee, and I decide to move up to Egypt for the night. We will start hiking the next day before 6 AM. We will be out more than 12 hours. A date with East Baker is planned. And so it goes.

We saw a lot of country that Mothers Day, but there is more to see. Bishop Canyon sits unfinished. If you decide to go, be careful. Very, very careful.

• Addendum •

A year and one day later, I introduced Steve ‘Spidey’ Jackson to Rick Green and told them there was this hard canyon I could show them. Wyoming Dave and I sat on rim for them and heard amazing commentary from below—hard exposed downclimbs, dark slot requiring headlamps and forcing these two to crawl horizontally through for great distances. Most challenging of all were the two ‘silo series sections’ where they were 60–100 feet off the ground crossing one silo after another, sometimes fully extended, into off–width upclimbs on the backside. After finishing the unexplored section, they jugged out at the bolts and all four of us did the two upper sections together.

This canyon is now rated as one of the two hardest and most dangerous ones known.


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