Eyedropper Canyon, a First Descent in the San Rafael Swell, Utah


Canyoneering first descents are always cherished - we found a nice one down in the Swell, near Hidden Splendor. At last year's SUWA Roundup, I hiked up and scouted this little canyon with Bill Wolverton, thinking it might make a nice, easy, technical canyon for beginners. Having completed it, I guess not - it would be a bit much for beginners. But a fun, dramatic, half-day dry canyon, perhaps for a getaway day, for competent canyoneers.

After a long day leading a SUWA group through Quandary Direct on Saturday, and after the morning SUWA breakfast and staff update, oh, and after a nap and lovely lunch, Everett and Louis from St George joined me for a "short, technical first descent just down the creek". We loaded up ropes and hiked down into the Muddy River Gorge. About 40 minutes from the airstrip, a miner's trail follows the rock layers and zigs up the side of the chasm - we followed this 600 feet above the river to the rim of our canyon.

Hiking the miner's trail above Muddy River

Hiking the miner's trail above Muddy River

We scrambled down into the canyon, an open basin at this point, and traversed to the first drop in the canyon featuring some interesting striped rock. We found an easy way around this on the left and walked down to the conspicuous BIG DROP.


It drops, a LOT!  Standing on the rim, it looked like it dropped about 400 feet straight down! The scale of the top of this canyon is amazing - the gentle basin in the Navajo Sandstone gave way precipitously to vertical terrain in the Wingate Sandstone. My initial reaction was ala Jaws: "I think we're gonna need a bigger rope!"

But... we had hiked all the way up here, so we certainly needed to at least take a good look at it, drop a rope down there and see how far it really is. No anchor presented itself on the rim, but an easy clamber down a crack put us on an airy ledge 10 feet below, which just happened to have a pothole with a large rock in it.  We tossed a sling around this rock and extended it over the edge, and I rapped 90 feet down to the next ledge. Possibilities for anchors were good, and looking over the next edge, it looked like a ways down to the next good anchor spot, but well within the reach of our 200-foot rope.

Louis toward the end of the second drop

Louis toward the end of the second drop

At the back of this ledge are some chockstones that could be slung, but would require an extravagantly long sling to get over the edge. With sand and favorable geometry available, we chose to use a SandTrap instead. With only three people, we loaded up the SandTrap with lots of sand, and let me, the full-size guy, rap first.  Down, down down...  past two ledges then into a crack and down to a sandy ledge - 180 feet total.  Louis and Everett came down - time to pull the trap.  Tug tug...  nothing.  Uh oh, all our ropes are committed to the trap. Finally, with Louis on the rope with ascender, Everett and I applied our weight to the rope and down it came.

For the final rappel, a clean shot down a corner was anchored via a tied off rock tucked under a big chockstone.  About 90 feet.

We scrambled down toward the river, finding a rabbit hole to bypass the final drop, then whacking through the willows out to the river.

It's a dropper!

It's a dropper!

Back to camp for a beer, a fine dinner and a meetup with Rick and Alane, coming in for a Squeeze the next day.  A fine first descent - thank you Louis and Everett for indulging me.

Eyedropper Canyon, San Rafael Swell - 4A II

SandTrap used.  Three rappels to 200 feet.  Could do the long rap off chockstones using 40 feet of webbing.