Canyon Tales
Birch Creek Descent
by Brian Cabe

Well, here’s a little something for the ol’ [Canyons Group] database. All flames, criticism, and comments solicited and appreciated.

Kip, may we soar together again as the canyons of Zion provide the wind beneath our wings!!

From my ‘standard’ format ... enjoy!

Brian in SLC

Birch Creek
—   Zion National Park   —

Technical canyoneering descent of Birch Creek. 12 rappels, the longest being 330 feet. Compiled following descent on 23 June 2001.

The information provided herein is for historical reading entertainment and is not intended to be a guide.

Kolob Reservoir, Utah (7.5 minute, 1980); Guardian Angels, Utah (7.5 minute, 1980); and Temple of Sinawava, Utah (7.5 minute, 1980) for the approach to Church Mesa and the initial drop into the head of Birch Creek; Springdale East, Utah (7.5 minute, 1980) for the bulk of Birch Creek.

Eric Brueck provided comforting information on the route up Church Mesa. Rumor of a long drop into the Court of the Patriarchs.

One 100–meter (330–foot) rope, two 50–meter ropes, helmet, small rock climbing rack, rappelling gear, bolt kit, wet suit or dry suit, extra sling and rapid links. 4 liters of water and water purification system.

Getting started:  
Note: all directions will assume hiker is facing the direction of travel. Distances and descriptions are estimates.

—   23 June 2001   —

We left the parking lot at the West Rim trailhead at Lava Point at 5:45 AM. Cool, mindless hiking to the NPS marked campsite number 4 on the West Rim, located less than a half mile from elevation 7330 where the West Rim trail bends from south to east. Walking to the rim from the campsite 4 sign, we noticed the stubby ridge leading down into Phantom Valley.

•  Drop into Phantom Valley   •

We walked out a narrow spit of ridge being extra careful with the thin, fragile edges of sandstone. The first rappel was from a gnarled tree off a sling and rappel ring for 70 feet. Working back and forth on the exposed ridge, with a bit of spicy down climbing, we arrived at a large pine tree with several webbing slings. Rappelling off this big pine for 130 feet, we ended up in the gully to the right and re–rigged our rope off a smaller pine for a 70–foot drop into hiking terrain. We utilized a macramé knot off this last rappel to avoid leaving a sling on the tree.

Scouting the approach to Church Mesa, we hiked cross–country in a somewhat roundabout fashion to avoid ending up crossing some deep canyon slots. Trending around to the right, we were able to easily scramble around potholes and locate a neat sandstone bridge, which allowed an easy crossing of the main fork of Heap’s Canyon over a huge pool. We obtained a refill of our water bottles from these pollywog–infested water holes at 11:00 AM.

•  Up Church Mesa and Down the Main Canyon   •

Working our way slowly up the ridge, we avoided the heat of the day by waiting for cloud cover or resting in shaded spots to keep from over heating. This hike was an easy 3rd class ascent up the north ridge following occasional game trails and obvious weaknesses. At 2:00 PM we arrived at the mesa top and took a lunch and water break under a large pine tree. By 3:00 PM, we finished the climb to the summit which was marked with a short orange tipped piece of re–bar in a small pile of rocks. The views from the top of Church Mesa were great and from our location, the Birch Creek drainage loomed large directly to the south.

Scouting from the rim, we descended to the left down some loose but not too steep slopes and were able to walk into the scratchy head of the canyon. Two short 20 foot rappels in the brushy, itchy creek bed, followed by a 75 foot rappel yielded the flatter section of the long straightaway in the canyon by 4:15 PM. Another five minutes of hiking brought us to an old faded sling attached to an even older Leeper hanger on a Stardryvin bolt on a flat rock in the creek bed. Somewhat dubiously, we tentatively rappelled from this anchor for 80 feet down a steep, jumbled drop. The hiking became much easier as the terrain leveled out. In just over an hour, we arrived at two small brackish pools. We were able to climb around one pool but the other required a short swim and we tyrolean’ed our packs across to keep them dry. Further down canyon, there were many small pools and an excess of croaking frogs. The weather, which we’d been tentatively keeping an eye on, took a turn for the worse and a bit of rain ensued. We wistfully sat for a spell as thundershowers rumbled and rolled through.

Very apprehensive about flash flooding, we waited for a break in the weather. Prepared to spend the night if need be, we started down the drainage being hyper aware of escape options. Skirting a deep pool on the right, we tip toed down exposed slickrock to a tree and set up to rappel back into the drainage. Suddenly, a microburst of rain, sleet and hail pummeled us. Poor Kip’s only shelter was the rain shadow of his partner, minimal at best. From over heating on the approach to freezing in a hailstorm, the day was shaping up to be a strange one. At the soonest break, we decided to trade hypothermia for potential flash flood and rappelled 80 feet to the creek bed. Not far downstream, we rappelled for 60 feet from a single SMC bolt with green 1” webbing whose ends were finished in a distinctive notch and point. This rappel led to the most technical portion of the canyon: a short deep slot.

We climbed an iron hard, weathered root mass and scouted the drop below. The short 15–foot rappel led to a mungy slurry of rotting debris which was traversed for 40 feet to an improbable tree jam, root mass up in the air. Rigging a rap off the root with a sling, this awkward rappel led to a smelly, funky swim over to the upended tree. Effectively blocking the canyon, we had to ascend for 10 feet using strenuous chimney and layback technique with wet hands and muddy feet to the top of a precariously perched root mass. Sticking the rope on the first rappel didn’t help matters and a clap of thunder and sprinkle of rain added to the growing stress of the situation. Bad language may have been used but my memory is hazy on the details. Kip freed the rope and I rigged the rappel off the stump. After struggling to free a stubbornly stuck foot, I dropped down to a small stance at a large deep pool full of aromatic flotsam. Seeing no way to other than swimming to get through, I waded in and stroked to the sandy beach. Kip rappelled down, and, at the small stance, doubled over and vocally paid respect to the canyon. I counted a total of seven intonations, perhaps a lucky omen. Then, Kip magically tip toed past the fetid water hole on an improbable slanting shelf.

Careful again with the weather and at a location where numerous escape options exist, we continued down canyon past a small flood cascading down a side canyon. After a bit of shallow narrows with some small pools and a short rappel off a tree on the left, which placed us on a ramp between two pools, we arrived at the snout of the canyon at 9:00 PM.

•  Big Air Finalé into the Court of the Patriarchs   •

As daylight waned, we scouted the big drop from the rim. Noting a previous descent from a smaller tree root, we re–rigged the rappel off a big pine tree on the right and extended the webbing to the rim. In an attempt to make the retrieval pull easier, we left a carabiner and a rapid link. The ground didn’t appear to be that far beneath us but we pulled out the 300–foot line and rigged for a long drop off this rope with a knot against the link and our other two ropes as pull lines.

As I stepped over the edge, the ropes just appeared to go down and down. A steep,occasionally free air rappel for around 270 feet deposited me on a narrow ledge system. Getting quickly off rappel allowed Kip to proceed and me the chance to look around for a suitable anchor as the ground didn’t seem to get much closer after this first rappel. Looking to the left (climber’s right), I noticed a small tree but an exposed, loose traverse to gain it. In the rapidly disappearing daylight, I spied a rope hanging out to the left, which appeared to be attached beneath me. Kip rappelled down to what turned out to be a two bolt anchor below and on the far left (climber’s right) side of the ledge system.

Getting back on the rope, I finished the rappel for 20 feet to this airy perch. A slanting stance required both of us to be anchored firmly into the bolts. These bolts were studs and did not appear to have been well placed. Beggars can’t be choosy. The rope appeared to be a fixed 600–foot piece of 9mm static line which had blown up and gotten tangled in the cliff out to the climber’s right of us. Now dark, we donned our only headlight and spent a half–hour struggling to finally pull our ropes down from above. Re–setting a new sling on the bolt anchor to extend the rappel further over the edge (and not get our ropes stuck too), I cut loose the useless static line in hopes that some day it might be retrieved.

Our tossed ropes made a whooshing sound but no inspiring impact with the ground was apparent. Stepping off the slippery sloping stance, the headlight beam only illuminated the descent for a short ways before the rope faded into the inky blackness. Oh well, at least there was no big exposure. Gauging the distance by following the pull lines, the rappel seemed to go on forever in free air. Feeling I must be close to the end of the rope, I stopped and pulled up the remainder: 30 feet. I dropped it and noticed the end dance in the air. Uh oh, not good. Thinking I might as well rap the paltry 30 feet left of this 300–foot rope, I headed down. At the end of the line, I noticed that the ground below me was still a good 30 or 40 feet away, but my feet grazed the top of a huge boulder. Able to tip toe across the boulder, I transferred onto the longer pull lines for safety. Careful not to weight them (didn’t want Kip getting nervous), I ejected my pack (which made a loud crash in the alcove) and was able to step down into a steep off width crack and follow it for 20 feet to the ground. Whew! I yelled up to Kip, “Off rappel!” and warned him to “Come into the light” of the headlight and to watch the end of the rope. Soon, Kip arrived and, while I spotted him from below, stepped around to the crack. The rappel line popped through his belay device and he successfully negotiated the awkward crack to the ground.

We pulled down the ropes, packed up, and attempted to negotiate the large jumbled blocks and brush. After a half–hour of thrashing, especially fun with only one headlight, and no easy trail in site, we gave up on thoughts of making the road and completing our day hike. Next to the pleasant bubbling creek, we stuck our feet in our packs, covered up with our dry or wet suits, and caught some shuteye at 11:00 PM. At dawn the next morning, we hiked an hour and a half to the road and caught the first shuttle bus back to our car and breakfast in Springdale.

•  Notes   •

A long hike covering a variety of terrain including the summit of a seldom visited mesa. Concerns with the weather slowed us down for several hours. Due to the very warm daytime temperatures, water was a concern. We carried 3 or 4 liters apiece and were thankfully able to refill in a couple of locations. Although we carried wet/dry suits, we didn’t use them, as the few swims were short. The canyon appeared to be unusually dry and in need of a good flushing so carrying a wet/dry suit seems prudent. At the bottom of the alcove following the last rappel into the Court, there apparently is a good social trail up and to the north, which we didn’t connect with until we were well down the drainage. The hike following the creek below this alcove is not recommended. The main canyon formed by Birch Creek is mostly an open gorge without much in the way of ‘classic’ narrows or potholes. Short sections with some difficulty keep travel interesting.

•  Time   •

    Left the car at 5:45 AM.
    West Rim at 9:00 AM.
    Bottom of third rappel at 10:15 AM.
    Cross main Heap’s drainage at 11:00 AM.
    Arrive at Church Mesa upper rim at 2:00 PM
        and summit at 3:00 PM.
    2 rappels into Birch at 4:15 PM,
        Star dryvin anchor at 4:20 PM,
    Water pools at 5:26 PM
        and walk around rap off tree at 6:00 PM.
    Arrive at snout of Birch Creek overlooking
        the Court of the Patriarchs at 9:00 PM.
    Level ground at 10:30 PM.
    Bivy at 11:00 PM.
    Up at 6 AM, road by 7:30 AM next morning.

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© 2001 Brian Cabe