Surprises in Zion’s Right Fork Canyon

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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.

Crack O Dawn-ish start

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.

Walking around Potholes

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.

Down in it

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!)

Familiar Terrain

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.

camp visitor

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.

Alpenglow on the hike out.

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.

(Note: pictures may or may not be in the correct order, and the break between day one and day two may or may not be in the right place.)