A Brief History
The San Rafael Swell is one of the wildest, remote and rugged areas in the lower 48. Located in West-Central Utah, running north to south across the Interstate 70 corridor, the striking protrusion of giant, egg shaped sandstone domes pitted against an otherwise benign landscape of traditional desert fare is a sight to behold. Beyond the domes, a swath of canyons slice through the barren rock like shooting cracks on a melting lake, mostly hidden from the highway goer’s eye. Some 60 million years old, the Swell was a result of rapid and intense geological activity(1) where fault lines shattered and old layers of rock muscled their way to the surface. According a well referenced Wikipedia article on the topic,(2) this is “analogous to a series of blankets draped over a box.” The dramatic vertical relief, intense erosion and nature of the Swell’s birth makes it home to an impressive variety of rock. Layers include Jurassic Navajo, Jurassic Wingate, and Permian Coconino Sandstones(2) as well as many younger and less resistant (weak) layers. The Swell is home to rushing rivers, dramatic canyons, slot-canyons, adventurous traditional climbs and alpine vistas that provoke more of an alpine than desert feel. Here you will find absolutely no paved roads, no trail signs or mile markers, no ranger stations, cell phone service or potable water. We were hunkered down four total days and saw far more lizards than people. For the adventurer that loves getting lost and compass navigating across miles of barren washes, poorly protected climbing on unpredictable rock, decade old rappel stations with tattered webbing and smashing their vehicle through hours of dusty slabs and tire swallowing sand to get there, the San Rafael Swell is a mighty fine place for a vacation.
Take One. A Head Game
Our adventure in Baptist Draw was a black and white tale of two days. Our first successful attempt came at the hands of great stress, diluting the experience to adrenaline rushes and cortisol induced tears. Bobbi struggled to wrap her mind around the last of three rappels. I couldn’t blame her the slightest. The 75 foot partially free-hanging drop into a narrow five foot wide slot would raise eyebrows on even the finest canyoneer. Even with a bombproof three bolt anchor, just about as reliable as they come in the climbing world, the descent path was counterintuitive and the sheer vertical relief of the claustrophobic sandstone corridor was dramatic. Slot canyon rappelling is a far cry from the Grand Teton alpine terrain I’m used to, typically direct fall-line with infinite amounts of air around. In Baptist Draw, I regularly felt like a jumbo carrot being squeezed through a juicer. Bobbi panicked when she saw the unrelenting exposure, the sandy floor nearly 100 feet below and the awkward crack she’d be forced through against her will. Ordinarily I would’ve simply offered to re-trace our steps the way we came, but an earlier rappel left us stranded between a series of massive cliffs; imagine a terraced waterfall. To risk ascending the walls without a proper climbing rack of protection was far too risky. With a pounding heart and tears streaming from her eyes I rigged a pulley system to lower her to the ground from above, like a bucket of water into a deep, deep well. I heard screams and sobbing but eventually words of relief as her feet touched the ground. I quickly followed suit, falling once on my back-up friction hitch to protect my face from an awkward slip under a small roof. Ultimately, our first day in Baptist Draw could be summed up as a mostly safe clunky mess. We opted for the shorter exit out Upper Chute Canyon instead of continuing down canyon, reaching the car in near silence.
Ultimately our debacle in Baptist Draw was a two-fold fandango of psychological head games and calorie depletion. While the commanding terrain got my attention and heightened my awareness, I was able to negotiate the situation calmly because of my extensive prior experience. Three bolt anchors are the prized standard of the climbing world. As long as standard rappelling safety measures are in place, including knots in the end of the rope and backing up your break hand with a friction hitch, there is no possible way to hit the ground. At this point rappelling becomes a head game, basically just weathering the natural human fear response to heights and remembering basic movements, slow and steady, leaning far backwards and being mindful of dragging the rope over sharp edges. Bobbi had rappelled enough cliffs with dramatic exposure to execute in this terrain. Later conversations uncovered a severe lack of fueling and most likely hydration, which regularly leads to delirious thoughts in mountain athletes. Emotions can run wild in the absence of adequate blood sugar. Was it a lack of experience, unfamiliarity of systems, calorie depletion, dehydration or just general fatigue from four hours of strenuous canyoneering that produced a mental break? It’s hard to say. Regardless, the situation can be paired down to two core fundamentals of all mountain pursuits, fueling and preparedness. The final factor worth mentioning was the very little route information we possessed. The San Rafael Swell is a far cry from Zion or Canyonlands National Park. There was hardly any information available on the internet. All we had was one page of a primitive 2008 guidebook void of pictures or drawings, meaning we really had no clue what we were embarking on despite needing 50 meters of rope. In the words of Dr. Kerr L White, “good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.”
Day Two: The Power of Preparation
To say I was surprised when Bobbi proposed a redemption lap through Baptist Draw was an understatement. She floated the idea over a bowl of hot oatmeal the next morning claiming she replayed the tapes, identified weaknesses and was prepared to give it another shot. With the slightest air of skepticism I was very excited. I am a huge believer in second chances and have myself felt tremendous joy when overcoming obstacles in the great outdoors. The added incentive to explore Lower Chute Canyon, a less technical extension of Baptist Draw, got my flames percolating. With our bags still packed from the day before, we doubled down on calories and headed with swagger for round two.
Baptist Draw is a beautiful sandstone slot canyon with a characteristically cavernous nature. The sustained constriction keeps it’s occupants shaded for the whole day besides high noon. Two small but awkward rappels provide a great warmup for the big boy mentioned above, with several interesting down-climbs, crawls and stemming sections spliced in. The narrow sandstone hallway increases rapidly to a staggering 200-300 feet, creating an intensely captivating environment. Baptist Draw is not the place to get caught in a flash flood. I can only imagine how quickly the tight slots could fill and the subsequent currents generated. An errant rainstorm could, and most likely would, be catastrophic.
As we approached the three bolt anchor marking our sore spot from the day before, I couldn’t believe the shift in Bobbi’s mentality. She was well fueled, hydrated and rested, spiritually armed and springy as could be. There was a bit of timidness as she tied in to the anchor, but when I clipped her rappel device to the rope and fastened the backup friction hitch, I could visibly see her harnessing and channeling the underlying fear. Calmly and confidently she set off into the void, slipping effortlessly into the tight crack and dangling slowly to the ground, even stopping to flash a smile just before the edge. The polar difference between our first attempt was astounding. I was elated, following quickly to join her below. We celebrated, pulled the rope and with plenty of time in our day, forked south for a further adventure in Lower Chute Canyon.
Travel through Lower Chute Canyon was much faster than Baptist, blunted only by 4-5 rappels not to exceed 23 feet, with most in the 5-10 foot range. More confident climbers could likely down-climb a handful of these. The canyon was wider, more of a highway than a hallway, with no shortcomings in excitement. The walls continued to increase with each step and several interesting macro-slots presented along the way. As we walked I daydreamed about the rushing river that cut these canyons and how amazing they would look in a veil of blue. Towards the end, a massive school-bus-sized chockstone was wedged between the canyon walls creating a magnificent natural arch. I imagined the chunk of resistant sandstone detaching from the wall, only to be caught in an earth shattering wedge for millions of year to come. Slot Canyons definitely inspire child-like thoughts of wonder, mystery and deep introspection.
Our retreat from Chute Canyon was not for the faint of heart. We navigated east by way of Faultline Canyon but unfortunately missed a northwesterly fork. We traveled many miles down a faint footpath in “who the heck knows” canyon. In other words, we were lost and had not the slightest clue. After about an hour I discovered our mistake, pulling out my GPS and pinpointing the van. We were over three miles away, with several canyons to cross. Several hours of dusty slab scrambling, ridge walking, tree aided down climbing and inefficient compass navigation lead us on a painfully slow goose hunt through sweltering ninety degree seas of cacti, amphibians and juniper. How any living entity survives this environment is a true testament to the power of natural selection and evolution. We planned ahead with plenty of water, reaching the car relatively comfortably in 8-9 hours. All things said, Baptist Draw and Chute Canyon were highly memorable adventures for the record books, a must do for any ambitious budding canyoneer. Though not detailed above, Upper Chute Canyon is a gem in it’s own and makes for an excellent non-technical return from Baptist Draw if a shorter loop is desired.
Gear Check and Beta:
A list of the technical gear we brought for Baptist Draw, Upper Chute and Lower Chute Canyons:
- 60 meter rope (the guidebook recommends 50 meters)
- 30 meters of 6mm rope (optional, but we found it useful for a few short handlines in Chute Canyon)
- Standard rappel gear and backup anchor building equipment
Some other things to note if you are gong to attempt Baptist Draw:
- Unless recently flooded, Baptist Draw does not hold water
- Baptist Draw has a high flash flood danger with Chute Canyon more moderate
- The second rappel is multi-directional and has a high likelihood of snagging your rope. On our first day we got our rope stuck and had to reascend to free it. Take care to position your re-direct on the left side of the chockstone
- The final big rappel drops directly left into the gut of the narrow slot. Do not attempt to rappel straight over the face. Lots of tilted slabs make this a dangerous place for a large pendulum swing. Consider taking off backpack if you are a larger person and lowering it down beforehand.
- Curtis, Rachel L. “Geology of the San Rafael Swell.” ArcGIS StoryMaps, Esri, 4 Mar. 2021, storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/5a5705c963b54005820793a3a54bf01e.
- “San Rafael Swell” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Rafael_Swell
Guidebook: Technical Slot Canyon Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 7th Edition, Micheal R. Kelsey
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DISCLAIMER: This article is offered as a story and for informational purposes only. Conditions in slot canyons change dramatically with erosion, flooding and time. Any and all information in this article is subject to change and should be treated accordingly. If you decide to attempt Baptist Draw or Chute Canyon, you are doing so at your own risk.