Canyon Tales
Long Branch
by Nat Smale
“... I thought of the struggle my friend Rob and I had in the Long Branch of Sleepy Hollow—sixteen hours of danger and delight: the green room, the natural bridges, the swims, the rappels, our bloody hands and knees, and how we had hugged each other when it was over. ”
— Steve Allen

Long Branch had been on my list for at least 10 years. Back in spring of 1997, I had done a backpack trip in Escalante, more or less following Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 2—Escalante South route, which took us along the rim of a slot canyon he called ‘The Long Branch of Sleepy Hollow.’ It sure looked cool from the rim and very tight. This was before I had any experience with high–stemming slots, and I wondered how one could squeeze through it.

I planned on getting back down to it, as I was looking for technical slots to do at the time (there was very little beta then on slots). Somehow, I ended up being distracted from this (luckily!) and found other canyons to do. When Steve Allen’s Canyoneering III came out, I was even further intrigued by his comments on page 4. Eventually, many years later, after doing a number of high–stemming slots and hearing a small amount of beta about Long Branch [from Steve Allen’s map notes], I felt ready for it.

•  October 7, 2007  •

We went down Saturday to King Mesa. Got up at 5AM, and left camp at about 6AM with headlamps. It was a little trickier finding our way down to Coyote in the black than I thought it would be, but we eventually got there, and got up on to the slickrock as it was getting light. We headed over to the rim of Long Branch, hitting it at the open section before the final narrows and drop, and then rim–walked it until a break in the canyon where we stashed some water and gear. This is at the end of what Steve Allen calls the first narrows. We then went to the head of the slot and dropped in.

It was difficult from the get–go, with a hard (though not tall) upclimb of an offwidth crack. Mostly high stemming with some difficult downclimbs and a little bit of walking. Just before the break/exit, we had a difficult keeper pothole that we dealt with a pack toss (and unfortunately a swim). The 1st narrows took us just over 2 hours, and we felt pretty good about our time since the second narrows was only slightly longer (judging from google earth). We rested and warmed up in the sun for about a half an hour, then got started on the second narrows.

After a bit, these turned out to be very long, strenuous, and difficult. This section ended up taking us 4.5 hours (including a half hour lunch break on a ledge 50 feet off–the–deck), and we never touched the ground for the first 4 hours. There were long sections with lots of silos and hard ups and downs. Other sections were parallel–walled without footholds and very insecure. The entire stretch involved total concentration.

At one point we arrived at what, I assume, Steve Allen referred to as the ‘green room’ in his Escalante guide. It was a chamber with emerald green, moss–covered walls. We were already pretty high up but, at the end of this section, it narrowed and gave us a very hard, slippery upclimb, with feet slipping on the moss. A ways later, we were resting on a ledge about 50 feet up. After the ledge was a wide silo (wide all the way to the ground). We gave each other horizontal belays across this. It wasn’t that hard but was a bit spooky.

Finally the walls started getting lower, and we eventually came to a 40–foot drop into the wide riparian section. The only anchor we found was a small natural bridge in the bottom of the slot about 100 feet back. We had enough webbing. We rapped down, and Jeff expressed a sentiment that was along the lines of “Finally done!”

I said something like, “Let’s not count our chickens before they’ve hatched,” thinking of the final, couple hundred–yard narrow section before the last rap that we knew nothing about. Then, we found something amazing in the wide section ...

We headed downcanyon and came to the end of the riparian section at a bend. We were confronted with the sight of a 200–yard narrows, which was a continuous string of water–filled potholes. After what we had already done, it was quite a way to finish the canyon. We did some hard climbing around the first couple, swam through the rest with a number of difficult climbs and beached–whales out and one pack toss.

We finally arrived at the last couple of potholes before the final big drop. It looked complicated. There was a pothole in front of us, with a downclimb into it, followed by a 25–foot drop into a big water–filled pothole. It looked like a big rap from the far lip of that. No anchors in sight. Jeff swam to the rim of the 25–foot drop. This turned out to be a difficult (5.8 or 5.9) downclimb—wide stemming shoulders vs. toes—into the big pothole. Before swimming to the far lip, he found an area of the pothole which had dry, exposed sand. We decided, if worse came to worse, that we could bury my helmet as a deadman, so I followed. By the time I arrived, Jeff had found a perfectly placed small natural bridge to anchor the final rap.

The final rap was about 80 feet, although there was a keeper pothole halfway down. We tossed the rappel rope with a pack on the end that allowed us to pull ourselves out of this pothole. Whew, finally down. We got back to the car about 12.5 hours after leaving, 9 hours in the slot. We were totally whooped.

We both thought that it was a great slot, probably the best on King Mesa. A little harder than PINTAC/CATNIP (and much, much harder than Egypt 4 or Big Tony), though we were better prepared this time and had cooler weather (temps in the 50’s) and more water. Because of all of the potholes, it has more varied problems. The high–stemming was also more varied and perhaps more continuously difficult. We cut it a bit close in terms of time, doing it later in the year, but it payed off with cooler weather.

Jeff suffered from the cold after all the swimming. I wore a shorty wetsuit, mainly for body armor. This helped with back and shoulders, but my forearms were exposed, as well as the backs of my upper arms, and these were badly scraped, so much so, that we couldn’t do Bishop on Tuesday (my skin will require a couple of weeks to heal). We just went to Joe’s Valley and did a bit of bouldering today (yesterday we were too tired to do anything). Before going down there, I found some Asic wrestling pads. These were awesome. I put them on at the beginning, and never had to adjust them once in the slot!


Related Trip Account:
PINTAC • Nat Smale
Long Branch • Nat Smale
A Hardest Day & a Favorite Canyon • Jason Kaplan

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© 2007 Nat Smale