Canyon Tales
Corral Canyon
by Mike Dallin

—  August 31, 2002  —

Corral Canyon, San Rafael Swell
Dianne B and Mike D

As we drove back from a successful trip to Cable Canyon and the Lower Squeeze, Dianne thumbed through Kelsey’s San Rafael Swell guidebook. Her eyes locked on the description of Corral Canyon and its neighbors, East, West and Middle canyons.

“He hasn’t done these,” she said. “He says East and West canyons could have good narrows and perhaps even potholes, and mentions a technical section of Corral with 4 big potholes that he skirted around. He climbed out of the canyon and skipped it.”

And thus another canyoneering expedition was born.

As it turned out, we didn’t return for several months. Just us, armed with my new car and full technical gear—hundreds of feet of rope and webbing, full wetsuits (even considering the serious drought the area had experienced), and pothole escape gear (including a Pika Ibis hook attached to a stick clip, plus various other hooking implements), ready for several days of exploring on the remote Moroni Slopes.

Driving from Boulder, darkness set in when we reached Grand Junction. Near Green River Dianne noticed occasional dampness on the highway, which I chalked up to a mirage from recent roadwork and a late drive. As it turned out, she was correct—it had rained recently. We left the highway at exit 97, and the dirt roads seemed passable—mostly dry, in fact.

However, the road was mud where it crossed washes. And when we reached the third muddy crossing, we were worried. Another driver had obviously attempted to push his way across from the other side, but only made it half way before turning back. We scouted the muddy draw, whose 50–foot length was illuminated by my headlights. If I were to cross, it would require a lot of momentum to plow through. We considered all of our options—including spending the night and tackling the mud in the morning—I decided to drive through.

I readied my emergency shovel just in case, and Dianne pointed out some large rocks that could be placed under my tires for traction. I finally worked up the nerve, and Dianne stepped away from the car. I let go of the brake and hit the gas. The car lurched forward into the deep mud and promptly slid. Gobs of silver mud, kicked up by my car’s tires, splattered my windshield and hood. Soon enough the tires caught on some of the small rocks in the center of the draw, which gave me all of the momentum I needed. I plowed into the deepest and most gelatinous of the mud, passed the tire tracks of the fellow that turned around, and slid my way across to the dry ground on the other side. After a quick congratulatory whoop, Dianne joined me in the car and we continued on our way.

Past Cedar Mountain, we turned off on the road that crosses Carlyle Wash. It turned out to be a mistake—the road follows a wash and was mostly destroyed by floods. It had not seen grading in some time, and we found ourselves driving through open wash more often than on the road. We persevered, and eventually reached the gentle dirt road that hugs the west rim of Corral Canyon. Finally, well after midnight, we pitched a camp and slept.

The next morning dawned chilly. We quickly readied our gear and, after watching a rattlesnake—paralyzed from the cold—we dropped into Corral. Gentle hiking and occasional rock scrambling gave way to slickrock. An expected seep and spring ran dry. After a bit of hiking and some easy downclimbing, we reached some Navajo narrows and stumbled upon a pothole, obviously at the point where Kelsey exited the canyon.

The pothole had water in it, obviously only knee to waist deep. Dianne easily skirted along the top of the pothole to a point 5 or 6 feet above the pothole exit. She contemplated climbing down to it—and hence skirting the entire pothole—but couldn’t get the nerve. I tried as well, but the exposure—though not severe—was too much. Instead, we worked out a plan. I would drop into the pothole, she would lower a rope to me, tie a backpack on the other end, and drop it down the other side of the pothole. I could then use the pack leverage to climb out and descend the opposite side.

I slid into the cold water, careful not to hurt my ankles on the submerged rocks. Dianne tossed a rope end to me, and dropped our packs, tied to the ropes, on the opposite side. I clipped my ascenders to the rope, and began an acrobatic escape from the pothole. All the while the rope, which didn’t have enough friction or weight on the opposite end, slowly pulled downwards with my weight. I realized I would have to climb the rope faster than it dropped me down. After much cursing, climbing, and pulling, I made my way up five feet to the pothole lip. Dianne then entered the pothole, as I clipped some slings to the rope for her to use as hand and foot holds. Dianne easily climbed the rope, not even using my strategically placed slings. We dropped down the opposite side. I scouted ahead to the next drop—all of 30 feet away—and discovered that it was bolted, while Dianne packed the rope. I rappelled first, and landed in a muddy pothole. I attempted to climb out as Dianne rappelled after me. Two or three friction moves, facilitated by a handy foothold that would be submerged and invisible should any water be in the pothole, made for an easy escape.

We left the rope hanging and scouted ahead. A short narrow section with easy downclimbing led to a bigger drop, perhaps 20 feet down a slickrock slab. Beyond the slab, the canyon opened up, though it was still confined by high Navajo walls. We speculated that the widening was where canyoneers bypassing the technical section would re–enter the canyon. Satisfied that we could continue down, I returned to the rope and pulled it. I carried it back to the drop, and Dianne tied into an end of it. I wedged myself into the canyon as best I could and belayed her as she expertly downclimbed the slab. I then packed the rope and plucked up the courage to climb down to her.

Dianne and I work like clockwork in these situations—one person downclimbs on belay, then spots the second as he or she downclimbs. With this drop any spot was simply psychological. We both knew that, if I slipped, I’d roll down the slab and there was little she could do to stop me. I lowered our packs down to her and began the harrowing downclimb, seeking out any small knobs or cracks that could be used as footholds. A few tense moves later, I reached Dianne and safety. We shared an apple, donned our packs, and continued further.

We bypassed another drop by climbing slickrock ledges to the right. At another drop we entered a small, scummy pothole, but were able to keep on ledges just inches above the murk. Soon, Dianne led us into a short shallow section of narrows, with a pool in the middle.

“What’s that?” Dianne pointed to the pool below.

A small fin protruded into the middle of the pool, and, looking close, we could see that it formed a small arch. Considering the high water mark—still moist from recent rains—the arch is usually under water. Dianne climbed down to it, and we took the opportunity to photograph our silly grins around the arch, while wading in waist–deep water.

After a short hike, we reached the largest drop in the canyon. The drop had two tiers, and according to Kelsey, required 64 meters of rope to reach the bottom of the second tier. With only 200 feet rope, we might come up a little short. We decided to rappel into the giant muddy pothole separating the two tiers and gauge the situation from there.

But first things first—rigging the drop. Kelsey’s book showed a rope tied around a shaky chockstone. The rope and chockstone were still there, but choked with flood debris. An additional sling, also battered by floods, was tied around a large boulder at the edge of the drop. Neither anchor option looked trustworthy. We deliberated several minutes and tied a sling around a smaller boulder 15 feet up from the drop. Dianne rappelled first. I followed and requested a fireman belay on the awkward start. The rappel soon became free hanging and quite enjoyable.

Before pulling the rope we examined the second tier. In a pinch, we decided a first could downclimb it on belay, then spot the second down. As it turned out my rope, still anchored above, barely reached the bottom of the second tier. I rappelled into mud, and Dianne followed. We pulled the rope and ate another snack in the sun. Cow pies revealed the fact that we were near the end of the canyon.

We hiked a short distance into Last Chance Wash then began the hike upstream. We wanted to find an exit route listed in Kelsey’s guide that would eventually take us to the end of the road on the west rim. We walked 10 minutes, occasionally passing old corral and fence works, we found a steep loose gully that looked viable. We climbed out and started a hunt for the road. We hiked up and down dirt mounds and crossed shallow gullies and finally reached the road. Taking a risk that the car would make it to the end we dropped our packs and took along only the essentials. An hour of hiking led us to my car, and we drove back to retrieve our packs. The road, though passable, certainly scared us in one or two places. After obligatory pats on the back and refreshments, we packed up the car and continued on our way.

So, the beta for ‘Corral Direct’—one pothole is a keeper, but is easily passed with either a pack toss, or downclimbing around it (though this option may make exposure–fearing folk a little nervous). The second pothole must be rappelled into, but there are bolts for anchors. If you can’t climb out a partner assist will do the trick. The exit from the technical section is a downclimb on a slab—it’s not as scary as it first appears. You may be able to sling a chockstone up stream, but don’t count on it. Best to have your best downclimber belay everyone down first, then follow. The 6 meter drop can be bypassed on moderately exposed ledges to the right. At the big drop, sling a boulder back a ways—it will use less webbing than slinging the giant boulder, and is safer to rig. A 200 foot rope might reach all the way (if it stretches enough). Or extend it with a bit of a pullcord (like 10 feet of webbing). The way to the west rim of the canyon works well, but may take some hunting to find the road (the hike is toasty at this point, too).

Bring a map and enjoy the awesome scenery!


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© 2002 Mike Dallin