More than six years after our first descent of Alcatraz Canyon that day still stands out in my mind as our scariest canyoneering experience to date. Not coincidentally, we were a bit noobish at that time and unknowingly dropped in a couple of days after a 100 year flood! Thankfully we escaped Alcatraz with only the shivers. I wrote the following way back then.
After a titillating climb of Temple Mountain in the San Rafael Swell Saturday morning Dominic and I have hopes of spending the afternoon in the depths of Alcatraz, a classic slot canyon located in the remote area known as Robber's Roost in central Utah. The journey begins with more than 40 miles of dirt road, much of which seems to be in worse shape than advertised. Its obvious there has been some rain recently; the ground is wet in a lot of places and a large, intimidating mud puddle threatens to turn us around more than once. Dominic strips down to bare feet to investigate the depth and composition and then I experiment a bit with the truck until I'm convinced we'll make it before we cruise on through.
To say that the road to the trailhead ends abruptly would be an understatement; be careful or you may just drive right over the edge of a 165 foot cliff. This is the head of Alcatraz Canyon! We pull up close to the edge, hurry to pack our gear, and take a breath before making the leap. We know its going to be a bit wet. We know the “possible short swim” mentioned in the route description is going to be a definite swim. We know there will be some wading. But its an A rated canyon (in the beta we have), how wet could it be? We anchor our 60 meter rope to the truck and commence with the 165 foot, single strand, mostly free rappel into the canyon. How’s that for a spectacular start?!
Leaving the rope in place to retrieve from above upon our return we start down canyon and it slots up almost immediately. We stem, bridge, scoot and scrape our way along in the usual fashion to avoid various puddles and mud pits. Things are dandy.
Before long we reach a short drop with a pool of water at the bottom. Dominic elevators down as much as he can and then takes the plunge... its a swimmer! Once he’s clawed his way up the far end I follow suit and he gives me a hand getting out. Hmmm... that “possible swim” wasn’t supposed to be this close to the beginning...
The further we descend the more water there is.
The next notable obstacle is a water filled pothole which the route description mentions may take teamwork to get out of. With some fancy footwork and a lot of nerve Dominic somehow bridges across it without falling in only to find what we had feared: immediately on the other side is a mandatory 25 foot rappel and the recent deluge has ripped out whatever anchor used to be in place. This is the first time we’ve ever been faced with a real anchor challenge in a canyon; in the more popular canyons there are almost always adequate anchors already established.
I find a small chockstone wedged in a bit up canyon that I think is suitable for an anchor but its not the most confidence inspiring thing so I tell Dominic he needs to come back to give it a second opinion. Unfortunately he can’t reverse his delicate moves over the big pothole and falls in... its another swim! He claws his way out, which isn’t exactly easy, and then we go about constructing the anchor. Its not exactly pretty but we’re in business.
Luckily Dominic’s now got the pothole crossing down and his third trip over it to the start of the rappel is another dry one. We’re a little worried about our webbing staying in place on the chockstone and ideally I would stay to observe it as Dominic began to rappel... but I’m concerned about getting out of the pothole by myself so that won’t work. I’m either too short or too chicken to mimic Dominic’s technique. I do a dynamic smearing kind of jump move and Dominic grabs me as I begin falling in so that only the lower half of my body goes under. The ordeal is over quickly and we take turns rapping down.
Once past the rappel everything begins to blur together. There’s now water in more places than not. We’re getting cold and know the situation is a bit on the serious side... wetsuits would be really nice to have right now. We move through the tight confines of the canyon as efficiently as possible. The Mae Westing is even more strenuous than usual because our feet are wet and caked with slick mud. Its a hell of a workout. We wade through bouts of knee to chest deep water, Dominic always going first while I wait to make sure he can get out at the far end.
Its almost pitch black in one section and we eerily squeeze our way forward and downward in the darkness as we continue to thrash through water. We find another swimmer hole but it doesn’t give us any pause; we’re not getting any warmer. Just past that there is a funky constriction that is difficult to climb over, especially because we’re standing in mud and water and getting decent footing to start is pretty much impossible. Dominic gives me his hands for a foothold and up I go. He struggles a bit but is able to work his way up and over without assistance. One more long swim wraps up the torture fest.
At long last the canyon opens up and we wonder what happened to the final mandatory 20 foot rappel from a bolt. Odd. Apparently there was so much water somewhere that a rappel became a slide and swim! Regardless, we’re relieved to be past the difficulties and tromp through mud down the widening canyon.
After returning to civilization we learned that the area had been hammered with RECORD rainfall just three days before our decent. The storm left main roads flooded and closed, dirt roads, dams and irrigation canals destroyed, and buildings in the small town of Hanksville badly damaged. The article I found on the internet said old timers were calling it the 100 year flood! When I go canyoneering I always monitor the forecast, but not so much the weather history. I saw that there was a 50% chance of rain in Hanksville for that day last week but didn’t think much of it. Its no wonder Alcatraz was in such bizarre condition! Lesson learned!