Quandary Canyon is a well-known, somewhat technical canyon in the San Rafael Swell, which seems to draw more than its share of epics. My own experience with Quandary started with meeting the parents of a young woman killed there in a flash flood.
Below are a few stories about misadventures in Quandary Direct, a variation on Steve Allen's published route going directly through (instead of bypassing) a section of triple potholes. I present these stories to encourage caution in budding young (and old) canyoneers, as a few of us were lucky to escape our ignorance unscathed, and it would be great to help others avoid similar trauma. You can find the final resolution to the below saga in Return to Quandary Direct, a Latest Rave detailing the removal of the troublesome drilled angle.
Got more stories about Quandary or other canyon exploits? Send them to me so we can help caution others.
From my old rating system:
Class 5 PDH: 'Pretty Darn Hard'- up the ante. Bad anchors, serious climbing, difficult to escape potholes, lengthy swims or some other riff-raff barriers included. Ability to place anchors, ascend ropes and/or drill your way out of trouble required. A Serious Commitment.
Any rating given is, of course, only my evaluation in the conditions I found. Many will disagree, up or down. Please be responsible and be careful. Fixed anchors don't last long, so be real careful with any anchors you find.
June 1999. Quandary Canyon. After victory in Knotted Rope Canyon the week before, Quandary was supposed to be cake. At least as described in Steve Allen’s book. Owen and I got up early and headed down.
After a couple short rappels and a nice bit of scrambling, Steve Allen's route exits the canyon up a gulley to the left, avoiding the difficulties below. We were there for the full meal deal, so we looked downcanyon and decided to give it a go. We had a drill, a few baby angles, a full length rope and good solid climber's egos.
First was a small pothole and a 40 foot rappel. I placed an anchor out of sight from the canyon above, to avoid tempting the unwary. We rapped to the slab below. Slabs led to potholes, swims and progressively harder beached whale moves out the other side, another short rappel into a pool and a short, cold swim. Then we came to a thirty foot downclimb into a large pothole, and another rap into a pool out of sight below. The first pool did not look inviting - the lip on the far side looked kind of tall to get out of, and the neck between that and the rappel beyond was pretty slender.
I climbed up a slab on the right and traversed over the pool as far as I could. Thankfully, my little stance was shaded, and I quickly placed a drilled angle in the soft Navajo sandstone. I hoped I got it out far enough to get past the first pool, onto the neck, then down to the second pool below.
It's always scary leaning back on a single point anchor. But it sounded good when I pounded it home, so - down I go. I try to stick the diagonal rappel, but as I get lower, I discover the wall is more undercut that I had appreciated. I realize this and loose my stick at the same moment, so now I'm hanging free. The Alpine Bod is not too comfortable, so I head down into the water, trying to swing along the wall at the bottom to get to the neck, but the vectors just ain't cooperating. I drop into the pool.
The lip is big, and I know we're in trouble. Also, for the first time, the pool is deep enough that I cannot feel the bottom anywhere. So I tread water, try to dump the pack and release the rappel. The swirling motion of my treading tends to wrap the rope around my legs, and the water is cold. Real cold. Hmmm, not going well.
I disengage from the pack and the rope, and swim to the lip. It is about two feet past my outstretched hand, and very smooth. Baby bottom smooth. I surge out of the water and gain another 6 inches. The 70 degree angle of the exit slope makes it harder - it is difficult to get any kind of surge onto it. Owen downclimbs the chimney and drops into the hole. Comes over to join me, recognizes the situation.
My immediate thought is to tie off my pack, toss it over the lip, and use the tension on the rope to get to the lip. I dig out a biner, free up some rope and tie off the pack. I lift it up to toss it, and sink down to my chin. Hmmm. I can toss it about 6 inches - that's not going to work. Owen tries to stick the slab moves, and has success similar to mine. He pulls up on the rope and tries the 5.12 traverse. No luck.
We still have the rap rope above us, but I don't look forward to digging out slings and setting up prussiks. I'm also worried about dropping and losing the drill or any other essential gear. There is a sling around a natural arch at the back of the pothole, near the downclimb. I'm worried about the situation getting out of control. I ask Owen to go back to the sling and get himself out of the water. No use both of us going hypothermic at once. (I forget that I have all the slings, thus inflicting a heel hook and 5.10 resting position on Owen).
I grab the rope and get my torso out of the water, and do some swinging back and forth that, while futile, at least warms me up. I leave the rope and try the lip again. There is a sloping hold about 6" under the water, but it's coated with mud. I work vigorously at scrubbing the mud off. I get a little mantle going on it, but it does not help much. I try again and again - hey, it's something to do. I can get my foot about two inches below the mantle hold, but then I fall out of balance backward. After about 10 tries, I start trying my knee. Better! On the fifth try, I stick it long enough to shoot my right hand up to a ripple on the wall above. "Owen - give me a push". Owen swims over and gives me the best nudge he can. Just enough to hold me in balance - I shoot my left hand up to a sharper edge near the top. Stick! I clutch upward, grab the top, then majorly thrutch onto the neck.
Owen passes the packs up, then we yank him out of there. We rap to the slabs below, and bask in the sun to warm up.
Another rappel, a couple of small potholes, and we return to the "normal" part of the canyon. The rest of the canyon was uneventful.
In retrospect, we were lucky to escape. Yes, I could have prussicked the rope and placed an anchor further left, assuming I set up the prussicks without dropping anything important. Yes, we should have had more gear, and had the gear to jug the rope ready at hand, clipped to the harness. And I should have been more cautious about dropping into the pothole, once I realized I wasn't going to make the neck. Live and learn.
Then I get this email:
i was just looking through your website about some of the canyons you had been through. i started canyoneering in high school as a really impetuous and not very smart kid who loved the desert. well, several years later and some after some tough lessons and so many close calls i am still hopelessly addicted to a deep tight slot.
actually the reason i felt like writing was because of your quandary canyon story. Last September (1999) me and two of my friends had a similar experience, possibly hanging off of your anchors. Instead of exiting at Allen's suggested point, i decided that since there were anchors placed that meant someone had been through so we pressed on.
while i was reading your description of being stuck in the pot hole my heart stared racing and the adrenalin kicking in as i was thrust back to the moment when the first member of our group slipped on that same rappel and ended up floating in the hole. she was shorter and couldn't reach bottom, so i dropped in to help her unhook, then we both spent 30-45 minutes trying desperately to climb out where you did, we didn't succeed though. hypothermia was setting in and i got scared. since i was the most experienced i couldn't show that though. our other friend, who was still above the pot hole lowered down some webbing and helped pull the first girl out. then he and she both helped pull on me (i'm much bigger though) as i scrambled back up out, i had to heel hook that smaller natural bridge where the old webbing was and do un ugly knee lock to squirm out all shivering and exhausted.
finally, after warming back up and making sure everyone stayed calm, i tied all three backpacks to a long piece of webbing which i secured to my harness, i climbed back up to the anchor, hooked in and then threw the three packs over into the next hole with me attached to give me some leverage on the undercut wall... it didn't help much, but slowly, very slowly, i edged out and squeaked over the lip.
i've had some close calls, but this was one of the closest... perhaps, someone would go remove that anchor and place a better positioned one, just so more people don't end up stuck in that hole, i think we were both very lucky. maybe we should be responsible to help make sure this doesn't happen again?
just a thought...
More on the Quandary Canyon saga: Myself and a friend headed down Quandary in October of '99. Like yourself, we decided we were there for the real deal and headed down the throat of the triple pothole section.
The first two were relatively easy--we hand lined the first guy in, moved the packs across and boosted the first guy out the opposite side, then the first lifted the second out. The second hole took a few tries to get the second guy out, but nothing too serious.
Then we came to the lip of the deep third hole. By October, after a dry summer, the hole was very deep, probably 10 to 15 feet from the top of the water to the exit point. And the water was of unknown depth. With low water we could see that it was overhung, with sheer, smooth, vertical walls. The pool was so deep that it had started corkscrewing itself down into the rock. We could see the corkscrew fins, under water when you were there, but now exposed. Beautiful but deadly. If we both went in, the best we could hope for was to ascend back up our rope. Even if the water was only a foot deep (unlikely) I doubt I could have reached the exit point standing on my friend's shoulders.
We saw the anchor you had placed and puzzled over how it could be used. With the low water, it made no sense to us at all. What could you possibly do with that anchor to help you cross?
Finally, wisely (or luckily) we decided that the anchor was of no use. There was no going forward through the pool and no backing up--we had not set ropes in the upper pools and the high side exits were unreachable when in the water. The walls of these pools were baby-bottom smooth (to use your terminology), almost vertical, and our feet were muddy and wet.
Our only escape was up--climbing without protection about 40 feet up the west side wall of the canyon and over the shoulder of the wall onto a wide ledge. Fortunately we had our climbing shoes with us, and they were dry. Rhett, being the more experienced climber, got the unenviable duty of making the ascent. Portions of the rock were crumbly, adding a little difficulty to the climb, which was in the 5.5 to 5.6 range. Once up on the ledge, Rhett set up a belay for me to climb out. Total time at the pool: probably in excess of an hour and a half.
From the ledge continuing down canyon was easy. We went up onto a wide relatively flat slickrock area and worked our way downcanyon along the rim. Once past the deep pool, we looked for another entry point and soon dropped back into the dry canyon bottom. We encountered more obstacles on the descent, but most could be passed with no rope or a hand line. Only one rappel remained, and that one was a mostly a low angle descent.
We considered ourselves lucky. After we got back home, I purchased the new edition of Kelsey's San Rafael hiking guide. In it he states that to continue down into this area is certain suicide. After reading yours and Myke's reports, I feel even more fortunate to have gotten out that day. Perhaps we were lucky that the water level was so low that we did not even consider entering the deep pool. Sounds like your experience wasn't much better than ours. For those not able to climb, reaching the pool in low water would certainly make that spot impassible. Smart hikers would await rescue, the unwise might attempt the pool and not live to tell about it.
From: "Tom Jones"
Sent: Monday, April 10, 2000 12:00 PM
Subject: Re: Quandary in Quandary
Thanks for the whole story.
Actually, I think smart canyoneers would carry a bolt kit and engineer their way out of difficulty.
I'm not slagging on you, but I would like to know, because it is a common problem: what were you doing, heading down an unknown canyon ill prepared (no bolt kit, no hooks)?
(And I did the same thing this past weekend, having left the hardware sitting at my desk. But my not-too-reliable information said the canyon was fixed, and it worked out, though the hardware is in terrible shape and we just barely made it .
To: "Tom Jones"
Sent: Monday, April 11, 2000 12:00 PM
Subject: Re: Quandary in Quandary
Our case was similar to yours. We had read accounts describing Quandary that made it sound very passable without the need for a bolt kit. And it would have been if we hadn't missed (or ignored) the route that bypasses the potholes. Once we got to the third pothole I don't believe a bolt kit would have helped us much anyway. Perhaps we could have used bolts and aiders (etriers) once inside the pool, but I wouldn't like to stay in the water that long, even with a wet suit.
I don't have any problem with the anchor you placed. Hey, everyone needs to rely on their own judgement and skills in the canyoneering world. I just wanted to relay another story about the "fun" of that section of Quandary.