Canyon Tales
The Discovery of
Outlaw Arch

by Scott Patterson

On September 3, 2006, our climbing and canyoneering team consisting of climbing team Adam Pastula, Michael Kelsey, Stephen Ho, and myself had just completed a successful ascent of Outlaw Peak. In addition to climbing the peak, descending (what is now known as) Outlaw Arch Canyon was the main goal and object of the day.

The story starts earlier than September 2006, however. Although I have visited Dinosaur National Monument several times previous, it was my quest for both finding remote peaks and, especially, for finding new slot canyons that opened up the first chapter in discovering the arch.

Putting this route up to access the Outlaw Park canyons systems and peaks is one thing I have been working on–and–off for the last three years. A route from the north proved too rugged and impractical. A route from Mantle Park didn’t work out. There were a few more trips that ended without finding any viable routes to access the area. Finally, in April 2006, we climbed the point on the south side of the river for a good close–up view of Peak 6489. We got off–track and just happened to spot the couloir that would be the key to the lower part of the route. The upper part of the route was discovered mostly by accident when looking for routes into the nearby canyon. The obscure route up to ‘Key Saddle’ proved to be the key that unlocked the door to accessing Outlaw Peak and the nearby canyons.

On our trip in early September, we had the goal of accessing the two canyons around Outlaw Park and hopefully climbing a peak. The routes are complicated and access would not be easy. We had no idea how we would access Outlaw Arch Canyon, but had a pretty good idea about accessing Outlaw Canyon.

•  Part I — The Approach  •

After meeting on September 2, we started with full backpacks and an assortment of all kinds of technical gear and headed down Red Rocks Canyon. We hiked down river to opposite Outlaw Park, passing some nice pictographs and petroglyphs along the way. After dropping camp on the beach we set off to access ‘the canyon with the mysterious keeper pothole’ and to explore around.

•  Part II — Exploration,
Mysterious Missing Pothole, &
an Accidental Discovery  •

The mysterious missing keeper pothole was a fluke but turned out to be a key event in the discovery of Outlaw Arch. Earlier that April, from high atop a cliff, we spied a short but possible interesting canyon with, what appeared to be, a huge keeper pothole (which are always challenging obstacles).

Since this was the first day, and since some of it was used up in the approach, we were after just a short and challenging canyon. We found the route we had spotted from the cliff in April and accessed the drainage we thought the pothole was in. Unfortunately we didn’t remember where in the canyon the big pothole was, so we searched around in vain. No pothole. Where could it be? We spied it from the cliff and it was HUGE. How could we miss it? We explored along the rim up canyon looking for clues.

The canyon looked moderately interesting, but we couldn’t find the pothole and the canyon didn’t look as good as we had hoped. We also checked the next drainage to the west looking for the pothole. We dropped our packs and looked around. At the head of the ‘Missing Keeper Pothole Canyon’ I noticed the notch southeast of Peak 6489. We had wondered if we could climb up to it. Could it be the key to accessing the two much larger canyon systems that we had so desperately been looking for a viable route into for the past few years? Adam took the honors of exploring the ledge system above the saddle to see if it went around the corner. It did and the saddle was accessible! The route wasn’t too hard, albeit very exposed.

We all went to the saddle (now known as the ‘Key Saddle’) and went back to retrieve the packs. I also found a lower ledge system that led to the saddle on the way back.

After retrieving the packs, we could access the saddle and Outlaw Canyon. We also noticed that we might be able to climb Outlaw Peak and access (what is know known as) Outlaw Arch Canyon. This saddle was the key we had been searching for! The fluke of searching for the missing pothole had lead to an accidental discovery.

(It wasn’t until a trip four weeks later that I found the location of the pothole. It does exist, but it’s closer to the river than we were looking and is right above a spring and grotto).

•  Part III — Outlaw Canyon  •

This will be described only briefly since we are now off the route that leads to Outlaw Arch, but is mentioned as a side note. We descended Outlaw Canyon via a rugged chute and rock ribs to the bottom of the canyon. The canyon turned out to be a pretty good one with several interesting obstacles and some nice scenery and deep canyons. We were tired and a bit beat up with some bleeding, but it had been a very productive day.

•  Part IV — Outlaw Peak &
Outlaw Arch Canyon  •

It was time to test the theory. Although one of the group was skeptical, I and another were fairly sure that the key saddle could be used to access both Peak 6489 (‘Outlaw Peak’) and the big canyon system to the north of it.

The next morning we set out and quickly repeated the route to the Key Saddle. We descended the brushy couloir to access a promising ledge system that would lead us into another couloir system that would hopefully lead us towards the summit of Outlaw Peak.

After some rugged territory we reached the chimney system that would be the crux of the route. Luckily the chimneys weren’t too exposed. We climbed the chimney system and could see the goal was not far away.

It was then a relatively easy ascent to the summit of the peak. Exploring the summit of this isolated and grand summit was a real treat. The views were incredible.

After enjoying the summit we descended the route, climbing down the chimneys to another ledge system. We followed the ledge system around a corner and onto a hogsback ridge. It was now beyond doubt that we could find a route into the Outlaw Arch Canyon system.

We found a rugged route into the canyon system and set out to explore up canyon. The canyon was beautiful and had many nice falls, alcoves, and potholes. Adam and Mike explored farther than the rest of the group and filled us in.

•  Part V — Bloodstains on the Rocks!  •

It was now time to explore downcanyon. The canyon was rugged and with much scrambling.

There were some nice obstacles and pretty sections, as well as some rugged sections of the route. We were all pretty beat up by now and everyone but Adam, it seemed, was scratched up and bleeding in several locations, especially our legs and arms. Every once in a while as we were traveling down canyon, it was noticed that someone would leave a bloodstain behind on the rock or cliff wall.

The canyon deepened and became narrower with some spectacular pine trees growing straight out of the cliff. The first real technical obstacle was either a jump or a scary traverse on some ledges. Adam and Mike opted for the scary traverse, while Stephen and I jumped, while being careful. This is not the place to break and ankle!

The first rappel was reached just after this. We climbed out to an exposed ledge where a tree provided a good anchor to rappel into the canyon below. The next rappel was not too far down canyon from this. Unfortunately there was a big patch of poison ivy to skirt before getting to the top of the drop. I hate poison ivy and am highly allergic. There were no solid anchors to rap off. Since I was first to this location, I went back up canyon and began to haul rocks down the canyon so we could construct a solid rap anchor. I piled the rocks against a small bush and buried them in the sand. The rest of the group joined in. It might look manky to someone who isn’t used to natural anchor systems, but it was solid and would be our rap anchor.

•  Part VI — Outlaw Arch  •

I must also mention that from the top of the rap we could see it—Outlaw Arch—there it was, a huge arch hugging the wall of the canyon. Wow. This canyon was already a good one and now another surprise.

We completed the rap down to the floor of the canyon. After descending the rappel we could see just how big the arch was. I didn’t have my camera so I asked some of the others to take a photo. I thought the arch to have a span of 200–240 feet by eyeballing it. We thought it was a spectacular site, but, at the time, everyone’s main concern was getting out of the canyon and back to camp before dark. Since the sun was already setting by then and we still had a long way back to camp, we didn’t have time to investigate it farther.

•  Part VII — We’re Outta Here  •

We finally reached the top of the next rappel. It wasn’t a bad rappel, but the rock is abrasive as we were now out of the sandstone and into a layer ‘carnivorous limestone.’ At the top of the rappel the limestone sliced my leg open neatly. I don’t know why, but the blood trickling down my leg has a nice soothing effect and was pleasant rather than painful. Along with the breeze, it has a cooling effect and the neat cut was certainly a nice change from the jagged wounds and beatings that we had all experienced in the sandstone.

After rappelling down the drop, there was one last ledge to climb over. We noticed an old cowboy–glyph from the 1940’s. The river was only a few minutes away.

It was now a long wade up river and back to camp. The water felt good, but we reached camp right at dark.

•  Epilogue  •

I returned with Jeff Fox on September 30 2006 to measure the arch. I had borrowed an engineer tape and some other items from a coworker at work. Jeff and I chose a more direct but rugged route to the river and opted to attempt the entire trip in one very long day.

To sum it up, the arch we discovered turned out to be the 9th largest known natural span in the world and one that wasn’t discovered until 2006. Finding it and measuring it were both an adventure.

We have found many different things in the isolated canyons in this region. While exploring, we often find an occasional hidden waterfall, numerous hanging gardens, wonderful pools, several arches, etc. We are used to coming onto new surprises, but this one is special and exciting because of its size and the interest in the area it has generated.

It proves that all the exploring in the world is not over yet, that there are still wild and unexplored areas that still await exploration and discovery, even in our own backyards. The area is a real maze of complicated routes. We never know what new thing we might stumble upon when exploring these isolated canyons and peaks.

I must mention that the arch might not be that unknown for long. The arch has been featured in newspaper articles and in one magazine. Mike Kelsey, a member of the original team is also a guidebook author and is going to include the arch in his next book, Technical Slot Canyons of the Colorado Plateau, 2nd edition. Even so, this arch will never become a popular tourist attraction in the foreseeable future. It is a rugged and technical adventure with a very complicated route and in a very isolated area. It will remain visited by the relative few climbers who are out for a challenge.


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© 2006 Scott Patterson