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UT: Zion Finding Surprises in Zion’s Right Fork Oct 1, 2017

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by ratagonia, Jan 21, 2018.

  1. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    The Right Fork is a wonderful Zion canyon, protected from popularity (for all but the swiftest) by requiring two or three days, thus being a ‘backpacking trip’, which canyoneers don’t do, so much. As I looked back through my canyoneering diary, I realized it had been 10 years since I had Right Forked, so when Rick “The Chief” Thompson invited me on a fall trip, I said YES. Arrangements were made for the first two days of October.


    The Stevenson Alcove is an amazing place to camp, and to get there by dark requires a crack team and a crack of dawn start, especially this late in the year. We did OK on the first point, not so good on the second. Our team, though camped at Lava Point, could muster only a 10 am start. The Team being Aniko Haasz from AZ (picture taker for this Rave), McKinley Goreham from SLC, Richie Schwartz from NYC plus The Chief and myself.

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    Crack O Dawn-ish start

    We marched off down the West Rim Trail, took the usual pictures, and route-found our way to the top of The Hammerhead, the actual top of the Right Fork, and a fun way to get in. A couple of big raps and a couple of small raps, a bit of downclimbing, and the Hammerhead lets out into the Right Fork in an unfortunately rather brushy section. We pushed downstream and it un-brushed eventually, then started to slickrock up and form potholes.


    My intention for this trip was to compare the canyon to my guidebook writeup, update as needed, etc. I tend to walk through canyons constantly evaluating how it compares to my memory and published beta. As we got to the potholes of the Direct section, I was looking for the ledges we had bivied on last time through, and not finding them. Our brains tend to edit and shorten our memories of things… mine especially, being especially poor, and it being quite some time ago.

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    Walking around Potholes

    We got to potholes and walked around a few. Then a few more. The canyon gets tight at this point, so we could walk the rim and feel like we were almost descending the watercourse. Eventually the canyon tightened up more and we pulled on wetsuits, plunged on in, prepared for wetness.


    The original Right Fork descent team (1966) had examined stereoscopic aerial photos of the canyon and noted the long chain of potholes; and decided they might be difficult. On their descent, due to rain, they opted for a bypass route, thus establishing the “standard route” that climbs out of the main drainage, cuts over a ridge and descends the Giant Staircase to get back into the Right Fork near The Turn, below the potholes. The “Direct Route” was a fun exploration for us in October 2002 (though clearly not a First Descent). A few years later, after a trip by Stephanie and Todd Martin, I remember asking Stephanie if they found it difficult, and she said “yeah, Todd had to take his pack off TWICE!”. I have considered it a friendly size – small enough that the potholes could be climbed out of without too much difficulty. Having only been through the Direct twice, one point of this trip was to get another journey through under different conditions. Maybe the conditions I had experienced before were rather easy.



    Still, I was not expecting THIS, and so soon! Perhaps in the past we had always hiked around this section, because what we found was WAY more sports action than I remembered. Conditions were the notorious low-water, but not REAL low, the hardest possible condtion. But there we were, wrestling the big packs down climbs and across potholes. Mr. Richie, out in front, would declare “another keeper pothole”. I assured him it was not a keeper until one tried and failed to get out of it, and thus they were non-keepers actually. The first four potholes threatened, but only threatened. Then the canyon drilled in deeper and the potholes got bigger. Pothole #5 was the real deal. Uh oh.

    [​IMG]
    Down In It

    Richie swam around a corner and stated the obvious: “I think we found a real keeper”. I plopped in to have a look, and yessir, a fairly vertical 3 foot wall prevented exit. I fished with my feet for a bottom, but no such luck. The water was cold. There was a little finger hold about half way up, but too small to get much out of – the rest of the rock was smooth as a baby’s buttocks. We retreated back to the entry downclimb and contemplated our situation. We did not have the “usual tools” as we (meaning *I*) was not expecting this kind of trouble. But we did have big packs, which could be clipped together into a raft, and McKinley started clipping 4 packs together while I tried some throws with an improvised potshot. The throwing did not go so well, being that it was a long throw with a fin in the way and a lousy throwing stance, but it did warm me back up. After a couple tries, McKinley declared the raft ready to go. She and Aniko swam it across. Richie being the small, wiry climber-type was elected to do the climb out using the raft, held against the wall by two swimmers, to his advantage. A couple tries and he was up!!! Way to go Richie!!! (As usual, there are no pictures of this because it was dark in there, and everyone was busy!)

    [​IMG]
    Familiar Terrain

    We got the packs and people across, but it was clear this pothole and this section had chewed up quite a bit of time and energy. We toiled onward. A few more problems were overcome, though not on the scale of that one keeper. We pushed downcanyon, eventually coming to the distinctive arch rappel, then 60′ rappel that I remembered. Not too far past that, we found a wide spot in the canyon that had five places for people to lay flat, and chose to set up camp, a half hour before dark. Spread some stuff out to dry, ate food, blew up sleeping pads.

    [​IMG]
    Camp Visitor

    The next morning did not start particularly early, but we got underway, finished the Direct section, hustled as best we could through the Black Pool and the awkward rappels of the Right Fork proper, waded across the Pool of Dead Rats, eventually coming out to the Stevenson Alcove around noon. As we had suits on, we descended the Flume in the Alcove, and it was wonderful! The waterfalls below that failed to have conspicuous trails around them, and we ended up rapping most of them. Slower, and a pain. But not as slow or as painful as the goat trails I took us on trying to traverse around the gorge… but let’s concentrate on my successful finding of the exit trail up the lava in the dark… yeah, let’s focus on that. Yes, the hike out is long, especially when an errant route finder wastes an hour off to the side. But we found the the steep exit and made the cars about an hour after dark.

    [​IMG]
    Alpenglow on the hike out.

    It was a wonderful trip, with wonderful company, though rather longer and more strenuous than expected. And you know, they are not really “keepers” unless you don’t get out.

    MORE PICTURES AT THE LATEST RAVE
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2018
  2. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    Nice report! I love the Right Fork!

    Interesting. I always understood the 1966 trip report as they attempted the direct route, but retreated because it was raining and the route was more difficult than expected.

    I believe you have the report on your website as well:

    http://www.canyoneeringusa.com/history/right66a.htm

    The next morning, unable to stand the mosquitoes any longer, we dropped into the Great West Canyon along a ridge which finally led into a narrow V-shaped canyon with pools of water in potholes (map 2 )( Photos 5 and 6). In the meantime, the cirrus clouds of the early morning had turned into darker cumulus and a few drops of rain had fallen. The potholes became deeper and bigger and the weather more threatening (Photo 7). We finally reached a point just before the first stream junction on the left where we had to get out the rope and rappel from one pothole into another and then swim across to the next drop which looked even worse. Then it began to rain harder. This was a bad position to be in so we retreated upstream slightly and then to a sloping ledge about fifty feet above the streambed. It was decided that this route was not feasible. When the rain ceased we went back upstream until we could climb up to the top of the ridge (The Shelf) to the west of the stream (see map) which we did. On top, we ate lunch and then set out in pairs to find another route. A gulley halfway along the ridge is passable down to a point 100 feet above the valley floor, where there is a 50 foot deep cleft which could be rappeled. Another pair, however, found an easier route at the end of The Shelf.

    We waited out some more rain and watched The Shelf turn into an active streambed. Soon after the rain stopped, however, it was a highway again and we started down (Photos 8 and 9). The Shelf ends in a waterfall into the main streambed which we belayed down for the first 130 feet. We then traversed to the right and continued down via a series of easy ledges (Photos 10 and 11). The last of these ledges contains a stagnant pool which lies at the base of the true waterfall. From here, we descended the last twenty feet to the streambed by climbing down a fallen tree.


    That's my favorite part of the canyon and I've never tried to bypass it. It is a really neat section.
    hlscowboy and Ram like this.
  3. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Thank you Scott. There I go, using my memory again. I know they did use the aerial photos, ... but perhaps I should have read their trip report again before making the statement.

    Tom
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  4. NevadaSlots

    NevadaSlots

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    Great TR! It's interesting to note, for the benefit of future beta-seekers that even though it more than likely more enjoyable to take a couple days to do right fork, it can be done in one day even in late season. Myself and 3 others did Hammerhead to Right fork direct, in 11 hours and 50 minutes car to car with a lunch break just a few weeks (10-23-17) after this group from this TR went down. We encountered similar pothole conditions, and to be honest it really wasn't all that exhausting. Just an FYI.
    Ram likes this.
  5. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    This is true, but there is a lot to explore along the way. Some of the side canyons have nice waterfalls and other hidden features. Wildcat Canyon also has some nice places to explore and it is also worth some time to hang out in and around the flumed slot at the Grand Alcove. That flumed slot is one of my favorite features of any canyon that I have done.

    Although I am 100% sure that I could do the canyon in less time, I don't think I could ever bring myself to doing it in less than three days. There's just so much neat stuff to see and explore.
  6. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Thanks Scott. I have updated the text here and on the Rave. Here is the portion that talks about examining the aerial photos on the 1966 trip report:

    It was possible to enter the Great West Canyon with confidence, because we knew that the mountaineering equipment which we carried was adequate for the descent of any cliff or waterfall which we might encounter. Stereoscopic aerial photographs of the route had been obtained and studied some months prior to the trip. These we calibrated by the topographic map, so that routes across open slopes could be judged as to steepness. Discontinuities as small as ten feet are distinguishable. In some places, the closeness of canyon walls prevent a stereoscopic effect. In others, overhanging walls prevent any view whatsoever. However, it is possible to judge the vertical drop of an unseen section, and hence to ascertain the maximum height of any invisible cliff.

    The route for the descent into the Great West Canyon, from the saddle between It and Wildcat Canyon, was chosen so as to avoid several potential drops in the streambeds (see map). The potholes which prevented further penetration along the Canyon floor had been only imperfectly visible in the canyon on the aerial photos because of the narrow walls. However, it should be emphasized that the potent feature of the potholes is neither their depth nor the drop between adjacent ones, but the awful number of them. It is quite impossible to expend the time necessary for rope descent of an interminable number of short drops in a position where the slightest rain shower could have dire consequences.

    The decision to take a higher route (on The Shelf) was again aided by the previous photographic study. The more natural-seeming choice might well be the east wall of the canyon, with its apparent traverse at the level of Phantom Valley. However, unseen V-shaped gulleys coming down from the West Rim cut this traverse, in such a way as to make it quite difficult for a party with packs. The route along The Shelf is easy in itself, the only problem being the descent back into the canyon. It would appear that some ropework is necessary at most possible points of descent. The dry waterfall at the end of The Shelf may be the easiest route back into the canyon. This route follows the water for the first hundred feet, where the slope is not too steep, then traverses off to the left before the stream plunges over the final drop. The route chosen rejoins the waterfall at a pool approximately 20 feet above the canyon floor. The last drop to the streambed is a difficult climb even without a pack, but a fallen tree made it much easier. It appears that the streambed might be reached at a point somewhat upstream without any difficulty.
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  7. Ram

    Ram

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    I have always thought of the trip as either a one day trip or a three day trip. The day trip, with the joy of light packs. The three day trip, a chance to enjoy the journey more thoroughly, spending more time at the alcove and other highlights. I think the canyon gets done as a two day trip the most and its still great, but it strikes me as being the worst of the two factors listed above. Beats working.
    R
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