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Other Return to Shop Creek, AR!

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by Rory King, Apr 17, 2015.

  1. Rory King

    Rory King

    Technical Holler'n: The Shop Creek Odyssey

    "Good judgement is the result of experience, experience is the result of bad judgement" - Mark Twain

    It wasn't a first descent, or even a second, but I get the sense that Michelle and I added our names to a very short list of people who've been through the canyon-proper of Arkansas's Shop Creek. I'd been itching to get down it ever since I stumbled upon Rick Inlo's mythic trip report on the Canyon Collective message boards. And after all, the canyon is right next door to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch where Michelle and I were camping and climbing for the week. Nearly impossible to resist, right?


    Around noon on Tuesday we decided to go for it. That morning we'd gotten out on the rock before the crowds, but were starting to lose our early bird advantage. Also, the forecast was as good as we were likely to get for the week: high 70's and sunny, no storms in sight. Stuffing almond butter and jelly sandwiches as we worked, we scrambled to switch gears from climbing and pack all the canyon-specific gear into daypacks: the neoprene and wool paddling clothes, loads of webbing, retrieval line, quick links, 10 essentials kit, etc.

    We dropped the car at the takeout, where the Buffalo River Trail (BRT) crosses Camp Orr Road and started hiking up to the top. One thousand feet, give or take. The looks we were getting from all Boy Scout families on the road were priceless. I suspect Michelle's getup and mountaineer's coil were to blame. Half an hour later we were working our way through some thorn patches, down through a steep powercut, and eventually to the origin of the canyon.

    Staging our descent was pretty tense. Although the canyon is almost entirely included in the Buffalo National Scenic River boundary, the access to Shop Creek does fall on private property. Rural Arkansas private property. Michelle and I kept very low and very quiet while we changed into our cold water gear and I rigged our first rappel. Something about the atmosphere of secrecy, the black neoprene bodysuits and technical gear, and the fact that all of this was taking place in backwoods Arkansas was really funny to me.

    R1 (35'): Just to the side of the first waterfall we found suitable tree to ghost in on. Ghosting is the canyoneering technique of descending a rappel without leaving any anchor materials behind. Not only is it good Leave No Trace ethics, but can also be useful to conserve anchoring gear when venturing into a wild canyon. We had the thing rigged in no time and were on our way down. About 10 feet below the lip, a small spring comes gushing out of the cliff, directly in the path of the rappel and totally unobservable from the top. Very cool and very cold!

    R1: "Hole in the Wall Rappel"

    R2 (80'): The best rappel of our trip was just downstream. There the creek drops over a steep ledge about 10' or 15', then cascades down a some VERY slippery, tiered Arkansas rock for the remainder of the rappel. At the lip there was a nice tapering bottleneck for a knot-chock or a stopper, but we opted to sling a huge boulder on the opposite side instead. Michelle rigged her first 'biner blocked single strand rappel and dropped in over the edge. Midway down she stopped, and just beaming shouted back,"I'm so HAAAAPPY!!" Just priceless to me. Meanwhile up top, I had managed to fall through small sieve that was concealed by some twiggy debris. Kind of funny that while she was having a moment of pure waterfallin' joy, I was struggling to pull my leg out of a miniature Burmese tiger trap.


    R3 (35'): Around 150 yards downstream you enter the canyon-proper. As the gradient steepens, the canyon outgrows its narrow, boulder-strewn creek bed and starts cutting aggressively into the rock below it. We found another party's anchor on some deadfall, but opted to use a standing tree nearby. The rappel ended in a chest deep pool formed by a rock that had wedged itself into the narrow channel. Under normal circumstances I would have called this the first committing rappel...



    Unfortunately, that's where the good beta ends and where our day really begins to get interesting - the odyssey part. I climbed out of the pool and onto a little ledge to check out our next move. There was a sturdy tree to anchor for the next rappel, but that was the least of my worries. I tethered myself to it and looked around. This was the heart of Shop Creek, and the next few moves would be full on. The creek really just plummets at this point. It's steep, narrow, twisty, and altogether spectacular. I've been running around the Boston Mountains of Northern Arkansas since high school, but have never encountered or imagined anything remotely as severe.


    There was a big decision to make. The drop into the pool immediately below [R4 (35-40')] was very straight forward, but 100% committing. That wasn't the problem. Anchoring the the fifth rappel at the end of that pool would have required some creativity and probably a chockstone that we would have thrown down from our ledge. That wasn't the problem either. The fifth rappel itself would have been a real gamble though. Just beyond the pool, the bottom drops out and the creek dives and twists its way down to the canyon floor. I'd guess there was about 80' of rappel to the bend, then who knows how much beyond the bend and out of sight. We were perched about 200' above the canyon floor, and it looked tauntingly close. But, we only had 100' of rope.

    In case it came up short, I'd have a set of nuts and all the webbing necessary to build a traditional climbing anchor midway down R5. The thought of hanging down there in the cascade though, trying to build a worthy anchor on slimy, chossy rock just terrified me. Almost as much as the thought of not finding any placements or sticking the rope....

    Michelle came down R3, made the swim, then climbed up to where I was and tethered herself to my tree. We left the rope on R3, ate a couple energy bars, and I explained the situation while she shivered. I've come to the conclusion that Michelle has an unhealthy degree of trust in me. She was totally unperturbed by the nightmarish sequence I just explained. And I was the one to bail. Hearing myself outlining the plan was all the convincing I needed.

    So, Plan B: we do our best to climb out river right, traverse down canyon across steep talus, then rappel tree-to-tree back down to the first pool below R5, and continue along the creek.

    The climb out was really nasty. Probably only 4th or low 5th class terrain to the first sizable tree, but all on shifty talus, and a "game-over" tumble through the next rappel if I was unlucky enough to miss the pool. Put myself back on rappel and used an autoblock to capture progress. The pendulum would have been really bad, but it would guarantee that I'd swing back into the pool, and not do any "unroped descending." (as an afterthought, a belay from Michelle would have made things easier and achieved the same result).

    The whole hillside was just falling apart beneath my tevas and fingertips. Even with all four points of contact, I'd be steadily slipping as the shale and dirt broke free from the canyon walls. It was the diciest thing I've done in a long time. I reached a tree, teathered myself to it, pulled the rope, coiled half of it, and tossed it cleanly to Michelle. She tied in, and I belayed. We repeated this sequence for a few more pitches: I'd climb unprotected, tether the first available anchor, toss the rope, belay, and so on...

    Except for one incident, and the constant fear of tumbling to the bottom of the canyon, our system worked pretty well. I was about 40 or 50 feet directly above Michelle and tried to scamper over these two big boulders. Both shifted. I dug in and they ground to a delicate stop. There was no way to advance or retreat without dislodging them, and Michelle was right in the warpath. I tried not to budge, explained the danger, and told her to untether herself from the tree. Then simultaneously, I kicked one to the left and shoved the other to the right, and dove back into the wall to re-establish myself. Both passed right by her and thundered down the canyon. Really scary!

    Now that we were off-course and trying to traverse downcanyon, we were loosing daylight rapidly. The terrain never made it safe to go off rope (at least I couldn't bring myself to risk it when we had it right there...) and advancing in 50' sections wasnt helping either. I think we spent almost three hours on that wall. It was at once the extreme low point and the richest experience from the trip.

    We felt the low pressure wave of an oncoming storm front and watched the sky turn grey, then black, then tornado green. We were running out of daylight anyway, but the storm really accelerated things. The wind was picking up. Solid anchors were rare or nonexistent - tufts of grass were by and away the most secure thing on that hillside. Of those countless rappel anchors, two (maybe three) passed my confidence test - we just tried to keep the weight on our feet. There was very real, yet unspoken, urgency. I don't think Michelle and I communicated in anything besides climbing commands the entire time.

    And yet, there was magic EVERYWHERE! Canyoneering in Karst topography is just unreal. Think of the canyon as thousand foot cross section into that underground labyrinth of caves, springs, and seeps. Water was pouring out of almost every pore in the rock and cascading down the walls from every height to join the creek. What's more, the slope we traversed was covered in peppermint and the air was thick with the alkaloids from all the leaves crushed under hand and foot. Totally unforgettable.

    The storm blew over, only dropping a few fat drops on us. The sky cleared just as it got dark and just as we made it back to the canyon floor. We hugged and kissed and hollered with the sincerity of two people who've just cheated death, or a the very least, bivouac. Then the headlamps went on. Thirty or forty minutes of boulder hopping and I spotted some stone stairs that could only be the BRT trail crossing. Salvation!

    Safely back at camp, the emotional weight of the whole odyssey hit us hard. It was really late now, but we were both just revved from the experience. We built a huge fire, knocked back some cervezas and tequila and just relived the entire thing. In the canyon almost all communication was tactical, but now we got to marvel at every other aspect of the day with the only other person in the world who'd been right there, right then. What it's all about anyway, right? Pura Vida and safe canyoneering, friends!

    Sorry if there's any formatting issues, copied from the the blog at:
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2015
    ratagonia, townsend, Ram and 5 others like this.
  2. Kuenn


    It's like you stumbled onto the Promised Land! Milk and honey above and below.

    Very nice report, looks like you had a great time - thanks for sharing it.
  3. Andy Eastman

    Andy Eastman

    We go climbing down at the ranch quite a bit and I have often thought of visiting some of the canyons that descend down to the Buffalo on the other side of hwy 74. I'm going to have to convince some of my climbing friends to do this with me.
  4. ldeleze


    Looks like the secret of Shop Creek is getting out. I'm a transplanted Arizonan living in Arkansas and I've been beating around the Ozarks since I've been here. I went through Shop Creek in 2012 ( in drier conditions than those described above. If anyone ever finds themselves in Arkansas and wants to go through Shop Creek or any of the other hollers in the region, drop me a line (
  5. townsend


    Plano, TX
    Great trip report! When you wrote the following:

    "Rural Arkansas private property. Michelle and I kept very low and very quiet while we changed into our cold water gear and I rigged our first rappel. Something about the atmosphere of secrecy, the black neoprene bodysuits and technical gear, and the fact that all of this was taking place in backwoods Arkansas was really funny to me," I was thinking of two movies: 1) Deliverance; and 2) Southern Comfort, and glad your trip report didn't descend into "southern [dis]comfort." Might want to pack a bow and arrow next time . . . just in case.;)
  6. rickinlo


    Sweet. Sorry my info from my trcwas lacking. 80 foot rappel? Does not sound familiar but I have been wrong before
  7. Gobo


    I also live in the area (Northwest AR) and I'm out climbing and exploring a lot. If anyone's passing through let me know and I'm happy to show you some fun places: 479 202-4301
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