Canyon Tales
Middle Fork
Gem Canyon

by Scott Patterson

Chris Hood from Vancouver British Columbia and myself decided to hook up for a trip to make the first descent of Middle Fork Gem Canyon March 20. Chris drove from Canada and did Davis Gulch (Escalante Utah) the day before.

The canyon is in the least visited and most rugged part of the San Rafael Swell and is in a really unknown area of the Swell. The area is virtually untouched for the following reasons.

1. The canyon is extremely hard to find.
2. The canyon is somewhat hard to get in to.
3. It would take several days to scout the entrance route unless someone gave you precise directions.
4. The canyon is certainly out in the middle of no-where!

This leaves the canyons very wild and only a small handful of people have done any exploring in the area.

The canyon we did was the middle fork of the three–forked Gem Canyon complex These are by far the deepest, highest–walled, and most rugged canyons I’ve seen in the Swell.

We met at Tomsich Butte Friday night. In the morning we arose very early in order to attempt the canyon in one day. Suspecting that we may reach the vehicles well after dark, we made sure we packed headlamps.

We drove to the trailhead in about 4 hours. It could have taken a little less time if I didn’t get lost (but not for long). It was my 7th time (each way) of driving the road, but I somehow missed a trail junction along the 4wd trail. The mistake was noticed when we reached Horizon Arch, and we backtracked and found the trailhead. Normally, I’m pretty good with a topo, but the topos don’t show the roads out here, so it’s a lot of trial and error.

After finding the right place to start, we tried to find the head of the canyon. This area is the hardest to navigate on a topo that I’ve ever been to so far (I’ve been all over the world), and Chris re–affirms this. He works in the diamond exploration field out in the wilds of Canada often up in the featureless Barrens in the arctic, and he could certainly be called and expert with the topo! Navigating across the juniper badlands with all the same looking drainages is always a challenge, even if you’ve been there several times before.

In the attempt to reach the head of the canyon, we ended up at an incredible overlook of Poor Canyon. This is one amazing viewpoint and it was easy to pinpoint our exact location. We started the long and very winding and intricate route in to the head of the canyon we wanted to descend. The head of the canyon is blocked by a huge headwall, and it takes a lot of route–finding and exploring to find a way in. We found the complicated, but almost ropeless route to the canyon bottom. It was ropeless save the last 30–foot drop to the canyon floor. We ‘ghosted’ the drop in order to leave the canyon as wild as possible. There were bighorn tracks in the canyon bottom, so somewhere there must be a ropeless route into the canyon bottom, but I haven’t found it yet.

We continued downcanyon. I had expected a wide but scenic canyon, but we were surprised to find the canyon diving into a deep slot that didn’t show on the topo and is invisible from above. Bonus! One section of the slot is striped and similar to the Zebra Slot in Escalante. There are more varieties and different colored layers of the Navajo sandstone that I have seen in other areas, as the Navajo is not a uniform formation here in color or texture. The Navajo Sandstone is also over 1000 feet thick in this complex, giving the canyon complex a more ‘Ziony’ feel than a ‘Swelly’ feel.

The slot has several drops, but we managed to downclimb all but the final 30–foot overhanging drop. This drop was too hard to ‘ghost’, as we worried about rope retrieval, so we left a sling behind. It was an awkward overhanging start off a chockstone, but we negotiated the drop without a problem. There was a pool in the slot as well, but since I’m 6’ tall, I could just barely span it (with much grunting). Chris is a little shorter and had to wade. The slot ended with a cool log jam overhead.

The canyon was now wider, but still scenic. We were approaching the big drop of the canyon. There was a shallow pothole–laced slot at the top of the big drop. We had brought a 60m, a 45m, and a 30m rope. We were not sure if it would be enough to reach the bottom, but I did know from a previous trip that there was a bench here that we could scramble (albeit with much difficulty) over to another fork of the complex which I had already descended the year before, and which I knew that the drop was right at 60m.

Unfortunately, the angle of the slope made it impossible to see the bottom of the canyon from above, no matter how far we nervously leaned over the drop. Having to jug back up the rope and contouring around to the other canyon didn’t seem very appealing as it was already getting late and we knew that even if the rope did reach that we would already be back to the vehicle well after dark. Chris tried to find an angle along the bench where he could see the bottom of the drop while I scrambled into the shallow slot, lay down, and leaned as far as I could over the big drop. I could see the bottom! The rope would reach or, at least, it would reach to a bench where we could get off rope.

We were glad that the rope would reach, but there was still a problem. The rappel didn’t have a bad start, but we could tell that is it was going to be difficult to pull the ropes at the bottom if we did both drops in one rap. With the start we had, we would have to set the ring as close to the edge as possible, but it would still be a tough pull over a slickrock lip. We could single line the rap using a biner block and retrieval cord, but we were worried about having the biner snag. It was decided that Chris would rap first, down to that bench, and see if there was another anchor to rap off the next drop. No such luck. The drop to the first drop was 50m (165’), mostly overhanging and followed by an overhanging 9m (30’) drop. The 60m would just reach the bottom of both drops, but that would make a very difficult pull from below to retrieve the ropes.

Plan B—I would rap down to the bench with Chris on a double rope where we would set up the second rap and a retrieval line with the 45m and our left over sling along with the single line 60m for the second rap and hope the rope would pull off the very top from the very bottom. Instead of a biner block, two stopper knots were used to tie the rope together that couldn’t pull through the rap ring. Part of the first knot could pull slightly into the ring, but it wouldn’t effect the rap. It would affect pulling the rope, however, so I asked Chris to very slowly fireman belay me down while I kneeled down against the wall at the overhanging part as I tried to put as little pressure on the rope as possible, as to make sure none of the first knot could be pulled at all into the rap rings. I worked on the first big drop, but the second small 30’–drop was an overhang, and we did put pressure on the single line. The rope wouldn’t budge and we sweated much trying to pull it. Dang dynamic lines!

After much exhaustion, we had one last idea. Below us was another drop (which was had a walk down bypass) with a pothole. What if we both grabbed the end rope (with gloves), and both jumped into the pothole while holding the end of the rope? Maybe the shock would loosen the rope. It worked! The rope budged. It still took a lot of arm–work and sweat to pull the rope, but at least it moved after that jump.

The canyon was fairly easy until the confluence. I was now in ‘known territory’ and we knew exactly what to expect from here on, as I had been along the rest of the route the year before. There is a huge ponderosa covered wall just below the confluence, and, though getting late, we just had to pause for a few photos as the sun would be down soon.

We reached the final rappel. Though it’s a short rappel, it is also an awkward overhang. It’s also wet and slippery as it’s a flowing waterfall. To complicate things it was covered in over 1–foot thick ice that overhung the rock even more. The steam flowed over the ice making things very slippery. We tried to throw rocks and break the ice, but it didn’t do much good as the ice was so thick.

After the final rap, it is just an easy, but fairly long walk down the canyon and to Muddy Creek which we followed down to Tomsich Butte. Along the way the sunset painted the canyon walls with an incredible red before leaving us to wade the creek and finish the final leg of the walk in darkness. We also retrieved the vehicles that night just after midnight. It was then a drive to Green River where we had a hamburger at 1AM before departing for home. It was well after 2AM (I live 1 hour 10 minutes from Green River) before arriving home, but what a spectacular day!


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© 2004 Scott Patterson