Canyon Tales
Cable Canyon
by Mike Dallin

Dianne and I drove out from Boulder, CO on Thursday evening, and met Margie at the Green River Arby’s around 9 that night. We quickly packed and headed for Hanksville. Our goal was to camp along the Factory Butte road and tackle Cable Canyon in the morning.

Amidst the usual catching up and chatting on the drive, we noticed strange lights coming from Hanksville. We guessed the light was some sort of airport beacon reflecting off of the clouds, but as we neared it became obvious that it was something else. A single beam of light shot skyward, then broke into four beams whose pattern rotated wildly in the overcast sky. This repeated continually, and when we reached Hanksville we saw that the light show was coming from the south side of town, out of our way. Instead we turned towards Capitol Reef and, after 10 miles or so and with the help of a map, found the dirt Factory Butte road.

We stopped at a BLM sign to plot our course. We wanted to camp near the turnoff of the Salt Wash 4–wheel drive road, but none of us knew precisely where it was at, especially now that it was completely dark, aside from the Hanksville light show. We studied the quads and programmed the relevant UTM coordinates into my GPS. Then we were off and, thanks to a recent road grading, we made excellent time. We camped just shy of the turnoff. The night was windy, and as the clouds cleared the moon cast a white glow across the desert.

We woke early, packed our gear, lathered on sunblock, and began our trek. We opted to hike down the 4wd road, as Dianne’s van is only a 2wd vehicle. This added several miles round trip to the hike, but it was easy going. Half way to Salt Wash we realized the road was recently graded and was likely passable by 2wd vehicles, though after a rainstorm or two this likely would not have been the case. We discussed having one of us retrieve the van and drive it to Salt Wash to lessen the hike back but, in the end, decided against it.

We continued down the road, past interesting small clam shell shaped rocks and white rock outcrops, until we reached Salt Wash. We crossed the wash, which had a surprising amount of water in it—we expected none with the dry conditions—and aimed for several cottonwoods between a break in the ancient reef. After consulting several maps, we realized this wash was the end of Cable Canyon, so we hiked up it. The canyon walls soon rose and, when we reached a large slickrock ramp that matched Kelsey’s description, we knew we were in the right place. We cached several bottles of water, and continued up canyon.

Soon the canyon narrowed. Not wanting to hike up the boulder–strewn narrow canyon, we exited to the left and climbed to a steep slope above. At the top of the slope was a continuous cliff band. We saw a desert bighorn on the slope, and we followed the trail he made. We traversed across occasionally loose dirt and then made our way up the slope. We climbed through a break in the cliffs and reached reasonably flat ground. We enjoyed the view of Factory Butte and the Henrys from our perch atop the canyon.

We hiked along the rim along a substantial side drainage. From the map we could see that the side drainage petered out above, so we hiked higher. At a shallow point, we crossed and found an old USGS marker. We made our way to the rim of Cable Canyon proper and enjoyed the views of the narrows far below. Unfortunately, we could see the occasional jumble of tumbleweeds in the canyon. Margie and Dianne had survived a canyon several months earlier that had tumbleweed piles several feet deep, and (barely) lived to tell about the heinousness. Were we in for a repeat.

We continued along the rim. Eventually, at the top of a steep and loose gully, we encountered a large cairn. I dropped into the gully, traversed to slickrock slopes, and looked for a safe way down. I found a few but, like the gully, they looked steep and loose, potentially dangerous stuff. Margie joined me, but Dianne hiked up the rim a bit and tried to match what she saw with one of Kelsey’s hand–drawn maps. After a short time, she called to us; she found a possible way to the canyon floor!

Sure enough, it matched what we saw on Kelsey’s map. I tentatively picked my way down slickrock ledges below Dianne and traversed into an obvious talus–filled gully. This was the way! Dianne and Margie followed. After ten minutes of boulder hopping we reached the floor of Cable. A few minutes later we reached the first rappel.

Hiking reigned supreme below the rappel through a pretty narrow section. We downclimbed the occasional boulder problem. We reached several shallow potholes, filled to the rim with tumbleweeds. We stemmed over and climbed around the sharp beasts. Though we didn’t think of it at the time, a friend later remarked, “What if there were snakes in the tumbleweed piles?” Great, something else to worry about!

We reached the first technical section, a rapidly falling succession of potholes. Someone left a half–inch fixed rope anchored to a chokestone above. The rope was old and stiff but still usable. It obviously crossed several of the potholes, but we could not tell if it was anchored to anything on the opposite side. We decided to play it safe and assume it was not fixed as a tyrolean traverse. Dianne clipped into the fixed–rope and dropped into the pothole, and I followed. The rope was so stiff that it took great effort just to fit it into my rappel device, and, as I rappelled, the rope’s friction against the device made loud squeaky noises. We found an abraded section of rope, which we tied off; luckily we found no other spots like that! Dianne used my shoulder as a stepping stool, climbed out of the pothole, and rappelled into the next one. Margie did the same. They anchored the rope and I jumared/climbed up to meet them.

Dianne rappelled into the next pothole. Using the stiff fixed–rope, her rappel device emitted a piercing ring, much like when one makes a wineglass ‘sing’. We soldiered on though the potholes. We rappelled in, then mantled, and occasionally took boosts out. Each pothole was completely dry. At the final drop, we saw that our instincts were correct. The rope was not fixed to an anchor, so it was not set up for a tyrolean traverse. Below the final drop, Dianne pointed out a pretty small natural bridge, high above on the left.

After a quick break, we reached another drop. Dianne lowered me down and I spotted her from below as she climbed down. Margie traversed across scary looking slickrock ledges and easily downclimbed a burly–looking route to meet us. Below were more narrows, again choked with tumbleweeds. We reached another drop and ate lunch. We discovered old webbing and, after digging, realized it was not anchored to anything. In fact, it was deposited there by a flood. In the end we didn’t need any webbing, as we downclimbed a narrow chimney. I cut it away and packed it out.

We reached the second, shorter technical pothole section. Again, somebody left a fixed rope behind, but this one was in better shape. Once again each pothole was completely dry, but they seemed easier to escape from. We had another rest as Margie fixed a small tear in her pants. At the end of the potholes was a shallow pool of black water. Normally, it seemed to us, people would just downclimb into the water, but the water was too low. The fixed rope ended at the top of the drop. We tied a bight of rope at the end, hooked a quicklink and used it as a rappel anchor. The small pool chamber was amazing, with an arch above. Light through the arch illuminated the room with delicate red light. We took our time packing the rope to prolong our stay.

Five minutes further down the canyon, we reached a large drop. Dianne rebuilt the existing anchor and rappelled, followed by Margie. The landing brought us into a large pothole. On the other side the rappel continued down a second short drop. Below that easy scrambling brought us to what was easily the technical crux of the canyon.

I waited above as Dianne descended into what is normally a swimming hole. Margie and I chatted a bit, but were interrupted by ...

“Oh, shit!”

We scrambled down, and met a soaking wet and very unhappy Dianne. Behind her, in a dark and narrow slot, we saw a deep choke of tumbleweeds.

“I tried to cross,” she said, “but the water below the tumbleweeds turned out to be deep, and I fell in further than I expected.”

Water? Beneath the tumbleweeds? In the swimming hole? Uh oh.

I had a look. Sure enough, four or five feet of tumbleweed mass rested upon black murky water. More tumbleweeds were below the surface. The smell of rotting tumbleweed was putrid, and the three of us agreed we had never smelled anything as foul in a canyon. And I’ve descended canyons caked with rat shit and rotting animals. The canyon was narrow and no sun shone through.

We couldn’t go around. We couldn’t stem above. We had to go through. We donned gloves to make removal of the razor-sharp tumbleweeds easier, and set up a ‘bucket brigade.’ I went first, removed clumps of tumbleweed, and passed them back to Dianne. Dianne passed them to Margie, who piled them up behind her. This went on for several minutes as I slowly made a dent in the tumbleweed mass. I stepped into the putrid water and realized that, indeed, a large amount of tumbleweed remained below the surface. As I put my weight on them, they compressed and I slowly sank into the filthiest water known to man. Additionally, as they compressed, they released some sort of gas and, for a few brief seconds, the water in the entire pothole appeared to boil vigorously. I stopped sinking, and I was waist–deep in the pool. Thoughts of large reptilian creatures beneath the surface gave me pause.

I handed more tumbleweeds back and took another step. I was obviously not touching the bottom but, instead, walked on a compressed layer of rotting tumbleweeds. More gas was released as I walked, and again the water appeared to boil. A few minutes and several skin lacerations later I reached the other side. Eager to leave the stench behind, Dianne and Margie soon joined me, and we quickly headed for open canyon below. One more rappel brought us back to the land of the living and a nice hike out.

Near the bottom we came across an obviously recent rockslide that blocked the canyon. After a few rains, we predicted, quite the murky swimming hole would develop, à la the landslide in Zion’s Mystery Canyon. But the rock fell recently enough that no water had collected. Yet. We climbed up and over the landslide. We reached another drop, with a substantial number of tumbleweeds below and opted to go around. We climbed up onto the slope where we saw the bighorn earlier in the day, traversed beneath the base of the cliff band, and hiked back to the ramp where we retrieved our water cache.

The hike out was uneventful, aside for a stop at Salt Wash to clean the rotting tumbleweed stench from our clothes. We hiked back up the 4wd road and reached the van 11 or so hours after we started.


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© 2002 Mike Dallin