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Rotary Dial Canyon: Flash Floods and the Pothole of our Nightmares

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by Austin Farnworth, Oct 22, 2020.

  1. Austin Farnworth

    Austin Farnworth

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    Rotary Dial Canyon is the only canyon that I’ve started and failed to finish. The first trip ended in a sudden, flash flood, the second with a near overnight epic due to a horrendous pothole. Bad luck, bad conditions, maybe some misjudgments on our part, have made for two unique and crazy trips through what is certainly one of the regions best canyons. Our first attempt was at the end of August 2018, with a crew of five. My wife Olivia wanted to bring her 10 year old sister Amanda, who has since done a couple X canyons, but at the time was not quite up for as big of a day as Rotary Dial. She slowed us down quite a bit on the approach, which might have actually saved us later that day.
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    The forecast was sunny with no chance of rain, monsoon season had ended as far as we were concerned. As we put on gear at the head of the canyon, there was a small puff of grey cloud above us in what was otherwise a clear blue sky. The first section of canyon was very scenic with fun pothole challenges, including one very deep one that required two full potshots to get out of. Following the potholes, there was a narrow section that required us to stem over some tight spots. This is where we noticed that the sky had completely changed within an hour, from one small grey cloud, to a blanket of dark sky. This change was so sudden that it could only be one thing, an afternoon thunderstorm.
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    The atmosphere changed, and we started looking for a way out. We had seen a few exits on the approach, so we made for them with that sick feeling you get when you are stuck between two narrow walls with impending doom above. Luckily, we soon made it to a place we could climb out, and started walking the rim out of there. Ten minutes after exiting the canyon, the rain hit hard. Sheets of rain came down and started flowing into the canyon, and lightning struck the plateau opposite of us with surprising frequency. We were glad we weren’t down in the canyon, which had some significant pothole challenges in the section ahead. The intense rain lasted for about 15 minutes before abruptly stopping and letting the bright sun through. It was enough rain to flood the canyon, but we questioned whether it would have been enough to kill us. Either way, it wouldn’t have been fun to be stuck between those walls in a flood.

    On our hike out, we realized that surrounding areas were hit even worse, evidenced by the amount of water coming down the Waterpocket fold in places. The worst hit was the plateau across from the Waterpocket Fold, which was unfortunately where our car was. Soon after starting the drive home, we ran into a wash flooded with water and gradually becoming more intense. We scoped it out and found that it was knee deep and flowing pretty fast. I didn’t want to risk driving through it, but the other two ways out weren’t great options either. We could drive towards bullfrog, but if these smaller washes were flooding, we could count on the Bullfrog Creek crossing being impassible. Taking the Burr Trail out to Boulder was our last option, but that would burn lots of gas with no guarantee that it was passable either. As we were sitting around trying to figure out what to do, a guy pulled up in a big, black, lifted truck and asked if we wanted to work together to cross the flooded washes out of there. We agreed, and he immediately sped up and went straight across the flooded wash. Now it was our turn, and I made sure to get as much speed as possible due the depth of the water. We coasted across the flood at high-speed and flew up the otherside of the wash without incident. After meeting up with the guy in the truck, we followed him across five more flooded washes on our way back towards Fruita. Eating at Curry Pizza in Bicknell later that night, we reflected on what was a pretty terrible day. We had put in a huge hike for only a quarter of what seemed to be a great canyon. However we were grateful that we weren’t deeper into the canyon when it flashed.
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    Fast forward to October 2020, and the opportunity arose to go back and finish the canyon. The Capitol Reef area has been incredibly dry as of recent, so I thought it would make a good day trip. The high for the day was in the upper 70’s, and we weren’t expecting much water, so we left the wetsuits at home in favor of providing more room in our packs for pothole gear. Hiking along the rim of the canyon, it’s hard not to appreciate how unique of a canyon Rotary Dial is, with its snake-like, curvy pattern adding on quite a bit of canyon in a short top to bottom distance.
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    PC: Josh Allen
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    Pretty soon after starting down the canyon, we encountered a pothole full of water, which let us know that we’d be getting very wet today. Early on in the canyon, the first serious keeper pothole is encountered. The water was 10 feet down from the lip and a swimmer, with two full potshots being required for a good escape. Soon after this obstacle, we worked our way through the tight section, and then a series of semi-dry potholes that we escaped via partner assist. We encountered some more keeper potholes that required potshots to get out as the canyon went on and followed a similar pattern to escape each one. Amanda, now 12 years old, was our pothole dwarf, being the first in and out of all the big potholes, meat anchoring the rest of us out after we would jump in. Thomas realized he had left his helmet in the car after we started into the canyon, which he has a knack for, once forgetting his helmet on a descent of Glaucoma!
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    PC: Josh Allen
    We eventually reached the open area before the drop down into the final section of the canyon. A series of down-climbs led to a keeper pothole at the brink of a 30 foot rappel. We escaped the pothole, set up a waterpocket in the same pothole, and rappelled down into the mostly dry pothole below.
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    PC: Josh Allen
    The next obstacle stopped us dead in our tracks. A narrow slide led down and around a corner into the pothole that was probably 25 feet across with an overhanging lip at the other side. It also had a flat runout on the other side of the pothole, requiring any toss to land 10 to 15 feet further down the canyon in hopes of sticking. The distance alone would have been hard to clear with a good stance to throw from, but we definitely didn’t have that. The walls were too narrow to get in a good throwing stance, and the higher up you stemmed, the further back around the corner you were pushed, making a shot nearly impossible. I managed to land one lightly filled potshot on the lip of the pothole, which didn’t get us anywhere. Our only hope was to swim over to the otherside as a group, and attempt to push Amanda up from underwater. Without floatation, this was a difficult, and ultimately an impossible task due us not being able to reach the bottom of the deep pool and push her up at the same time.
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    PC: Josh Allen, the pothole of nightmares
    We had three hours left of daylight, and Josh made a good argument for escaping back up the rappel and pothole we had just come down, to the open area where we could escape the canyon. I agreed with this plan, since this pothole was likely only passable in these conditions with a packraft, though I’d love for someone to go there and prove me wrong. Josh managed to stem up high and access a ledge where he was able to land two solid potshots into the pothole we had just rappelled out of above. I was able to get up the first 15 feet before the bags would start to pull and I’d have to jump down. While in the process of getting a third bag ready for a toss, Thomas made some desperate moves up the rope and managed to keep his profile low enough not to pull the potshots down while he made the moves over the lip.
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    From there, Josh and I were able to climb up to the lip of the pothole, where we were faced with another daunting challenge. The up-canyon side of the pothole steeply sloped down into the pothole and was covered in mud. Initial attempts by Thomas and I to push Josh out of the pothole didn’t even get close to getting him out. I had thought about it when we failed to get across the big keeper, but now the possibility of spending the night in the canyon was more real than ever. I had some waterproof matches, but nothing dry to burn. We were wet and cold without wetsuits, which didn’t make our chances of surviving the night as high as I’d like them. We had to get out, there was no other option as far as I could tell.

    Thomas had a stroke of genius and used the ladder hanging down into the pothole as a brace for him to lay parallel against the water in order to give Josh a solid brace that he could use to escape the pothole. It wasn’t a sure bet though, and Josh struggled to find footing on Thomas as he desperately did the beached whale on the sloping entrance. I was surprised and overjoyed when Josh stopped struggling, safe on the other side. It was a great feeling to know we wouldn’t be spending the night in the canyon. We hauled Sam and Amanda out of the canyon and caught some sun before starting our 5 mile exit out, once again without finishing Rotary Dial.
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    Thinking back on our trip, we chose not to bring wetsuits, which until we got stuck at the final pothole wasn’t a problem, but certainly could have caused problems if we had been stuck overnight. Our crew came prepared to deal with big potholes and did well up until we were faced with something we totally didn’t expect. It was an important lesson to bring some sort of floatation or a packraft when going into a pothole canyon with minimal beta or in an exploration. From what I had gathered about the canyon, I wouldn’t have expected a pothole like that, but conditions change, and in less traveled canyons it can bring out unforeseen challenges. I expect to get out there again in the early spring next year, this time with a packraft and wetsuits, but until then I’d be interested to hear from anyone who does the canyon in hardmode before it fills up again.
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  2. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    It sounds/looks like you only did the lower end? There's lots of good stuff above that
  3. Austin Farnworth

    Austin Farnworth

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    We did everything in the Navajo Sandstone, we didn't do the Wingate above it due to time constraints. In these conditions I'd be surprised if anyone could fit the Wingate in as well in the same day and enjoy it.
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  4. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    If you did all of the Navajo then you did do most of the canyon.

    Did you see this arch?

    979758.

    I was just wondering since you mention a pothole near the beginning. I remember no potholes in the upper part, only high stemming.

    Anyway, good canyon. I did it with Jason and my 11 year old son. It was a long day since we walked all the way from The Post and did the entire canyon. It was one of my favorite canyons.
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  5. Austin Farnworth

    Austin Farnworth

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    We saw the arch, but didn't run into the high-stemming until after the first big keeper. What were water levels like when you did it?

    Sent from my Pixel 4 using Tapatalk
  6. cjhaines

    cjhaines Chris

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    Looks epic! Seeing a pot like that makes me want to get out there even more.

    Sent from my Pixel 4 using Tapatalk
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  7. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    Interesting. I don't remember that pothole. It was several year ago though.

    The water levels were pretty high in the lower canyon, but the upper was dry.

    The lower canyon water was all crystal clear so we could jump a lot of them into deep water.
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  8. Southern Canyoneer

    Southern Canyoneer Desert Hiker

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    Amazing! Makes me want to get in here even more now. Well done!
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  9. Tirrus

    Tirrus Rope rider.

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    It sounds like you learned first hand why the original name for this canyon is "Mostly Harmless". The party stopper at the end could be a killer. Glad your group made it out okay.
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  10. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    The original name for the canyon is Lizard. There is also a picture of the canyon (without mentioning the name of it in the book Rock Glow Sky Shine: The Spirit of Capitol Reef, published on January 1 1978.
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  11. Ram

    Ram

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    Is the name old or is it what you and Jason (Goofball) named it when you descended it?

    I used to remember more about the first recorded descents, so I may be off on who was second or exact timing, but as I recall, Brendan Busch and Jenny West scouted the canyon almost a decade ago. They decided to come back again with a larger group, which I was fortunate enough to be part of, for the 1st recorded descent. Mostly Harmless was Brendan's name and as he was the driving force behind our efforts, we went with that name. Two groups descended the canyon in the next 11 days. I believe Scott and Jason came next, perhaps 3 days later? Then Luke and crew a week after that. Rotary Dial was his name I believe, as the 3rd descender. All three groups had the canyon in their sights and pulled the trigger on it, without knowledge of each other. We discussed it with each other afterwards.
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  12. Ram

    Ram

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    Scott, there is one pothole problem between the black ledges starting area and the medium stemming that makes up the later half of the first section. I saw it bridged at 30 degree angle and a big stretch for most. I have opted for a belay, stem over lower and then getting pulled out. When water is high and this pot usually holds it's water, it would be easy to be missed.

    The pothole in the last section (3rd section) is a serious problem and worthy of respect. We have spread out and kept set the problems leading to that pothole, for escape-ability . A frequent contributor to this group did manage to figure out a throwing stance and was able to toss there. It is not my place to tell the tale, if indeed he/she wants it told, but it has been done.
  13. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    Someone posted on the FB thread that Steve Allen has the canyon Lizard in his place names book. I don't have the book so some else will have to say what page. I assume it is an old name possibly from the NPS, but someone will have to look at the book.

    Jason named the canyon Rotary Dial. I didn't really like the name and on my trip log simply wrote it as a generic "waterpocket canyon" as to not give away any location. It wasn't meant to be a real name, only something I could put in a trip report.

    As for the 1978 book I mentioned, it doesn't name the canyon nor give a location, just has a story. I believe the photograph in there is the last rappel of the canyon.

    Interestingly, us canyoneers are doing the exact opposite of what the story suggest. Here is the story and photograph:

    canyon 1. canyon.
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  14. Ram

    Ram

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    So Jason named it. Not a bad name as the canyon does snake about. Love to hear what Steve says about Lizard. From the 1978 book, that last line can still be sorta true. If we don't publish, this is all out there for each of us to find and explore in our own turn:thumbsup:
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  15. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    There is no entry for Lizard Canyon in the Steve Allen placenames book.

    Tom
  16. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    What is your source for that? It is not in the Steve Allen placenames book.

    Tom
  17. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    Here, but maybe it's wrong? I don't have the Place Names book.

    http://ropewiki.com/Rotary_Dial_Canyon

    Rotary.
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2020
  18. stefan

    stefan wandering utahn

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    brendan's group did it on 4/20/14 while jason told me he, scott and their group did it the saturday after memorial day (5/31/2014) (unless scott disagrees with this date). brendan said he and jenny attempted it after his recon the year earlier but retreated after the potholes hence the name (+hitchhikers guide reference). then when he descended it in full (one week later) with a full crew on 4/20. jason told me he first scouted it with ryan and the first drop they encountered was a keeper that he later found was filled and a walk-through when he returned with scott.

    edit: date should be 4/20/14 rather than 5/20/14
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2020
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  19. Scott Patterson

    Scott Patterson

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    It was 6/1/2014. Jason wanted to do it earlier, but my daughter's birthday party was the first weekend im May and my son's the second. Memorial Day weekend I already had a river trip planned. We did Zero G on 5/31 and this canyon on 6/1. I don't know when Jason scouted it out.
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2020
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  20. stefan

    stefan wandering utahn

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    many thanks for clarifying the date, scott.
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