Canyon Tales
West Fork
Gem Canyon

by Scott Patterson

On March 22, 2003, five West Slope Chapter Colorado Club members set off to make the first documented descent of Gem Canyon in a very isolated part of the San Rafael Swell.

Participants were Scott Patterson (trip leader), Mark McCray, Kent Beverly, Penny Martens, and Garry Baker. Kent, Penny, Scott, and his wife Kimberly and son Kessler (9 months old) along with Storm and Star (Kents dogs) scouted both ends of the canyon out for the first two weeks prior to the trip.

The car shuttle between the two trailheads was completed on Friday took 3½ hours and was 63 miles of mostly rough 4wd roads. When looking at the map, it was noticed that the straight line distance between the two trailheads was only two miles! But we took the scenic route, it would take ten hours of hiking and 3½ hours of driving to cover those two miles!

On the morning we all set out to find the head of the canyon. Our scouting trip two weeks earlier really paid off; it took us only ½ hour to find the head of the canyon vs. two hours the first time.

The excitement began right away with much scrambling to get down to the canyon bottom. It was then a walk down to the first of the technical sections. There were three short rappels, then much chimney work and scrambling down through the slot. The slot section ended in a spectacular free hanging rappel from a chockstone and down through a crack.

The canyon opened up after this and it was a mostly easy walk down to ‘Scorpion Falls.’ This was one awesome site; the entire canyon shot over a 200–foot alcove and dryfall. We all ate lunch at this spectacular place, many of us hiding our nervousness and anticipation about the big rappel. This would be the highest rappel for some of us in the group. An albino scorpion hanging on the cliff face was spotted part way down the rappel by Penny. We all sighed a breath of relief at the bottom of the rappel while some of us photographed this special place. It was so beautiful.

The next section of the canyon was also spectacular and contained a nice surprise. There were several huge Ponderosa pines lined up against the huge north facing cliff face in this section of the canyon. This is a really rare sight in this hot desert area.

The final obstacle was a 15–foot rappel over a flowing waterfall. This was the shortest rappel, but also the trickiest, because it was over an awkward overhang. We all practiced our klutziness on this one. Some of us tried to see how many limbs we could get straight into the air while on rappel. We then enjoyed the cache of treats that was left here by Kent the week before.

The first documented descent of Little Gem was a done deal. It was then a pretty easy walk along Muddy Creek down to Tomsich Butte.

Scott Patterson

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© 2003 Scott Patterson