Canyon Tales
Truly Mind Bender
by Stefan Folias & Nat Smale
“By the time we reached the crux section of the canyon, we had been enveloped by a blizzard; the snow that whipped through the canyon stung our eyes and froze our hands. The crux was truly a mind bender; the narrow slot gave way to an abrupt drop over the 155–foot–high mouth of a huge cave. We spent an hour rigging our ropes. With no secure anchor points, we ended up burying a sling under a pile of rocks at the bottom of a large pothole and attaching a rope to it.”
— Steve Allen

NAT  •  Last September I went down to the Roost with my friend Stefan to do Mind Bender as well as a couple of other things. The weather forecast was 30% chance of rain for Salt Lake and only partly cloudly for southern Utah. We drove down Friday night and camped near the head of Blue John. It drizzled a bit over the night and was pretty cool.

STEFAN  •  I wondered what tomorrow would hold. Rain tends to worry me. But I often push the worry aside the night before and remain hopeful until it’s time to make the decision. Expectations were high on my part for we were planning to descend the fabled Mind Bender Fork of Robbers Roost Canyon obscured in Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 2. He speaks of constructing a natural anchor at the 155–foot exit falls—it sounded intriguing.

We woke up to a sky of dense, low–lying clouds consuming the way to each horizon. I didn’t know what to think: The NWS called for partly cloudy, hmm. Well, it was raining last night. Is this the tail end of the rain? Should we not go? We have to get ready and still have a bit of a drive. Lots of time yet for it to look more promising.

NAT  •  The next day we drove to the head of Mind Bender. It was very cloudy, but I didn’t worry about flash floods; it was after the monsoon and, anyway, it was a system coming out of the northwest, usually not a big weather producer for the south.

STEFAN  •  With the sun higher in the sky, the day seemed a little brighter—the clouds not as thick as they appeared before. Since I had to be back in Salt Lake earlier than Nat, we had two vehicles. We parked Nat’s at the end of the road where we would exit, deciding that we would also camp there, and then we parked mine at the drillhole site and entered the Mind Bender fork. I still had some unvoiced concern, but we did have until the first rap to change our minds. So we entered the canyon and continued on. We decided to rap in and, as we made progress down the canyon, the sky made progress towards that partly cloudy projection.

Soon the sky overhead became a gorgeous blue, the sun was shining, and we continued on. Things were looking up and I started to worry less. I have been infected with a concern for flash floods since I was young, as it was a frequent warning at parks, in the news, and amongst the folks in Utah.

After a downclimb through a descending crack and down a vertical wall, we exited the penultimate slot into a very short section of relatively wide open canyon. As I came down first into this expanse, my immediate thought was, “This would be the best place to be during a flash flood!” It’s wide enough to handle lots of water with higher ground for safety. The shallow water course meanders a short ways then drops sharply into the final slot. This final slot begins with a downclimb into a bombay, making it a good challenge to reverse. We continued on and marveled through the sculpted chasm. I don’t remember well but I think the sky had started to cloud some by this point, though not worryingly so.

NAT  •  By around noon we reached a short drop before the final rap, 150’ out of the slot. I had Stefan go ahead to check and see if there was still a rock pile for an anchor in the pothole at the last drop.

STEFAN  •  There is a 10–foot drop into the last section of potholes, which are beaded in tandem. I could see the lip of the final pothole a short ways ahead. The setting is intimate with the walled potholes forming a short undulating hallway to ... to ... WOW ... a void of space.

Each fork of Robbers Roost canyon delights those who wander from the main canyon with beautiful, towering navajo walls, narrows, alcoves, and light—each a special place. Tributary systems are wonderful to explore, a main vein providing ingress to a profusion of narrowing canyons, often more intimate than the main canyon. Each tributary meanders its way farther and farther into the block of layered rock, each with its own character and mode, like the limbs of a tree reaching for the sun—the high ground from which water flows.

In remarkable transition from the shallow washes of the relatively flat highlands to the deeper tributaries, narrow slot canyons develop and carve their way downward through the rock, often as frenetically as the water that flows through them. And it is often the case that these slots don’t descend steeply enough to meet the canyon floor, instead ending precipitously in falls sometimes hundreds of feet tall. And so is the case in Mind Bender, with the tallest of falls in Robbers Roost Canyon.

Once on a backpack trip up the main fork of Robbers Roost, I had walked to the falls of each and every tributary of the canyon, each blessed with a lovely slot above. I stared up at this slot in the Mind Bender Fork, perched very high above, with a grand cave beneath. It was hard to imagine being up there, but here I was now—the meeting of the two worlds, a collision of two perspectives. I revel momentarily ...

At this point it was very cloudy again and the wind started to pick up. Not seeing any boulders exposed, I started to dig into the sand below the lip. Deeper and deeper and side–to–side, there were no boulders. Hmm.

NAT  •  “Nope,” Stefan called back. “Nothing there.” I spent the next half hour transporting about five 50lb boulders from above down to Stefan, which he carried to the drop. We then constructed the anchor. [45 minutes in total.]

As Stefan started the rap, there was a sudden crack of thunder, and I noticed that it was very dark out.

STEFAN  •  This was a very eerie rappel. I enjoy the tall rappels, looking down with nothing but air and dangling rope below, looking around the vertical world of this would–be dead end. The sky was now a frightening shade of purple and the wind was blowing the limbs of the trees that sit nearly in the path of the rope.

NAT  •  Stefan hurried down, and as I started the rappel, it started to hail. I got to the bottom, and pulled the ropes. I STILL wasn’t thinking about flash floods. I wanted to get under the alcove to have lunch out of the rain.

STEFAN  •  Hail! It was quite windy at this point and something was moving through quite quickly. As we made our way to the alcove, the hail turned to rain and the alcove provided a splendid shelter for lunch. At this point the rain became very strong, and the resonating alcove magnified the experience. It was now an all–out downpour.

Our timing would appear uncanny.

As we were eating, there was a sudden, loud crash and a strong commotion. The reverberations of this alcove befuddle the mind. With an inkling of what I might find, I stood up and walked out towards the mouth of the alcove and peered to the left to see an enormous waterfall thundering its way down from a short slot in the rock face, crashing upon the rocks below. Momentarily speechless, I gazed in wonder and terror. Our slot is next?

I turned around to look at Nat, and, I think, I tried to yell what I had seen. It was so LOUD. I walked back to our spot and told him of the waterfall. He pulled out the map and saw the very short slot converging. How long would it be before our slot flashed?

NAT  •  20 minutes after we finished the rap, a rocket of water shot out of the slot that we were just in.

STEFAN  •  We waited in anticipation, staring up at the alcove above us. At first there was a dribbling of water coming down. Our eyes were now glued on that spot. Suddenly, a voluminous streamer of water rocketed out of the slot, in the shape of a half rainbow, and crashed like thunder on the trees, pool, and ground below.

NAT  •  We sat there in awe for the next half hour watching the falls, wondering what would have happened if we had still been up there, if it took longer to construct the anchor, or if we had started half an hour later.

STEFAN  •  What if ... this was REALLY too close for comfort. Just a 20–minute dose of rain was enough to ... to ... what? Propel us off a 155–foot drop? What would we have done? It was exciting to watch the powerful water pummel the earth as it fell, to peer from underneath, safe and sound, to bear witness to the drama of nature, unscathed. But, oh boy! This was just too close!

And what of the anchor now? Perhaps, as we had found no anchor, this flood would erase the one we had built. We figured the sustained forces surely would have dismantled an anchor of vertically stacked rocks.

At some point the rain let up, but the waterbow continued, as strong as when it started, for probably an hour, before slowly letting up. We envisioned the expanses of slickrock about the Mind Bender Fork collecting and draining the whole of fallen rain, initially filling each pothole and depression, giving way to a large hydraulic front that barreled its way through the canyon. To witness, from within the alcove below, that ephemeral moment as the front was flung from the drop was special—a moment of respect for the intensity of this seemingly passive desert landscape, a moment of realization for how close we came to being in there during its turbulent fury.

NAT  •  Finally, we left and hiked down to the Moki step exit and back to our car at the end of the road. We drove back to the entry trailhead to get Stefan’s car ... Uh oh; there was another car parked next to his. It looked like someone had entered the canyon after us.

STEFAN  •  “Oh s**t,” I exclaimed aloud. Up until that point, I hadn’t considered the possibility of someone being in the canyon behind us. What happened to them?? My mind reflected back upon that widening before the final slot—that wide refuge. That would be a good spot if they were at that point.

NAT  •  We drove back to the end of the road to camp. While drinking our margueritas, we would look at the exit wondering if the other party would come out, and wondering what we would do if they didn’t. Drive to Green River and call SAR? Tonight or tomorrow morning? Eventually, we saw 3 hikers come up the hill. They came over and we had an exciting chat. They were in an open section before the final slot when it started to rain. They climbed up a ways, the canyon flashed, and then they waited 2 hours until the waters subsided before continuing.

STEFAN  •  The group was from Colorado, two men and a woman. This was the woman’s first time in a slot canyon! How fortuitous for them to have been at the ideal location when it first started to rain. They made a very wise decision: It’s raining. This is a safe spot. Let’s wait to see what happens. They watched the powerful flow jut out from the slot upcanyon, open into a wide, turbulent river, then disappear into the bombay slot beyond. They waited and waited as the afternoon waned. Although there was still some flow, they decided they couldn’t wait much longer and continued on.

NAT  •  When they got to last drop, they saw our sling coming out of the water and rapped off of it. Yikes!! I’m not sure how they could have checked it.

STEFAN  •  No kidding. If I remember correctly, they could see a sling from the 10–foot drop, and the woman, who was a climber, went down to check it out. She relayed back to them that there was a sling that looked new and a solid anchor still intact. They tested the anchor and rappelled down the waterfall.

How difficult would it have been to move boulders from above and down the 10–foot drop, across the section of potholes to the lip, while tip–top full and still flowing?

It was a relief to know that we all made it through safely, with a round of close calls that left us quite a bit more cautious about the potential for rain, even when the previous day’s projection suggested otherwise.

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So this is how we came to know the Mind Bender Fork of Robbers Roost and—I can safely say—the canyon truly lived up to its name.

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2004 & 2007 Stefanos Folias & Nat Smale