[jump directly to a larger set of photos]
Following our descent of the middle arm of Upper Deer Creek last Fall, Bruce, Bob and I talked about heading down Olo, a canyon that had interested Bob on previous rafting trips.
With input from Todd Martin’s awesome book Grand Canyoneering and excellent advice and beta from Rich, Dave, Dan, Chris, and others (thank you all!), we decided to head down SOB (aka 150-Mile Canyon), cross the river, hit Matkat, Panemeta, and Olo and eventually head back up SOB.
I also planned to do a warm-up trip with a bigger group of friends the week before, taking one of my favorite GC introduction trips, the New Hance to Grandview loop. And so I did. The trip was fun, but threw an interesting wrinkle my way. I got sick as a dog the night before heading down New Hance, and proceeded to sap energy and lose weight through the trip. (Read more about that fun!)
Then, right after exiting from the excitement of the warm-up hike, and while while getting ready for part 2, Bob “dorsied” us, letting Bruce and I know that he had to cancel. Our group of three shrank to two (well, two plus Flat Bob, whom Bruce brought along to enjoy the spectacle). Things just got harder. Bob was our Top Gun rope and climbing expert. But more importantly, he was 1/3 of our gear carrying capacity.
I don’t recall who compared needs of canyoneering in the Grand Canyon to hiking through the desert with scuba gear, but on such a long trip, our already overstuffed packs just got heavier. And depleted from illness the week before, I wasn’t in my usual mule-like state. Nonetheless, Bruce and I decided to plunge ahead, great big packs and all.
After a night organizing mountains of gear at the trailhead and catching a few ZZZs, we awoke to overcast skies which we eyed suspiciously. The reports had indicated the chance of rain blowing away overnight. But here we were looking at thick clouds and hearing a bit of thunder. Not having been down this drainage, not knowing bail out points, and being none too keen about being caught in a slot during a thunderstorm anywhere in the area, we decided to sit tight for a while and see what happened. In retrospect, we could have hiked a few hours before really worrying too much, but you don’t know what you don’t know. We didn’t know!
As the skies started clearing and the thunder ceased, we headed down sliding through the Coconino and resting when we hit at Buckhorn Spring at the bottom to grab a drink and snap a photo with Flat Bob. We didn’t realize at the time that Flat Bob would forget his wetsuit in the slot’s pools and decompose, so we were fortunate to catch this image before his demise.
The approach to SOB’s Redwall narrows involves a long walk through the bed of the drainage in the Supai layers. There is a lot of boulder hopping and some pleasant walking on the sandstone. Eventually, we hit the head of the Redwall narrows and stopped for a snack before jumping in.
Actually, we didn’t jump in. While there is a rappel option that I’d take in the future, we wanted to make sure we understood the bypass we’d have to take on the hike out so we didn’t have to fart around then. (This, by the way, would have been a good idea at one point lower in the canyon, too! Oh well…) Thus we did a bit of a climb down–a fair amount of exposure, but rock was solid, the holds chunky, and we didn’t feel the need for a belay (although we did lower packs down a short bit near the end).
I’ll leave the primary description of the descent of SOB to Todd’s book. Buy it! There are a few things to add. As with any time you’re in a narrow canyon, you must be mindful of the chance of flooding. As you can see in some of the photos here, a flash of any consequence could be problematic. While there are numerous points during the descent where one can reach higher ground, in some places you are at the mercy of rain which you might not even know is happening.
I’ll also add that in SOB there are plenty of suitable camping locations above the Redwall. And smaller groups can find several safe sites between the head of the Redwall slot and the river to camp or bivy if needed.
During the day, it became clear to me that despite the fact that two weeks earlier I’d been near the best canyon shape I’d been in for the past 10 years, the depletion from the week before meant I wasn’t anywhere near 100%. With our late start, and some lolly-gagging just because we were having so much fun (we actually took somewhere near a combined 800 photos on this trip!) we opted to stop well short of the river rather than make a final push.
I’m glad we did. This meant we got to see the remainder of the canyon in the growing morning light with fresh legs and fresh eyes. On this first trip down SOB, it was great to look around and soak it in. What’s the rush!
We worked our way down the drainage, and made our way to the river, bypassing the Muav narrows so that way could better scout the bypass that we’d need to get back out. On that note, we had a bit of fun with Todd’s description. He says to look for an “unlikely looking ledge on canyon left”. That’s funny. We saw dozens of unlikely looking ledges. Hell, they almost all looked unlikely! Starting right above the Muav narrows is the right ledge, which Bruce and I decided was the only likely looking ledge. A bit sketchy with some exposure at one bulge in particular (moreso if you happen to be 6’5″ with a big pack), but it goes.
Hitting beach, we continued the walk up river until we could go no further. There, we deployed pack rafts and paddled across (and captured it in this too-long video!), and slogged once again up river to a drainage just above the beach known by rafters as Matkat Hotel. (“Why cross the river?” you ask. ‘Cuz that’s where Matkat, Panameta, and Olo canyons are!)
Hitting a small drainage above the Matkat Hotel, what a treat to find the cache left for us a couple of days earlier by Josh on a river rafting trip. (THANK YOU, Josh!)
The next day, given our progress, we decided it was unlikely that we’d spring back and be able to complete the whole itinerary as planned. I hadn’t eaten well in a week, and it was impacting my energy. So, we opted then and there to drop Olo, and save it for another trip. (We did return in the Fall to visit Olo–good thing, too, because Olo is amazing!)
This meant that we had an easy middle day just hiking up and exploring Matkat narrows (aka “Stem City”) and scoping out the trail for a loop through Panameta the next day. It was fun, relaxing, and all things considered a good decision on this foray. And it gave us the chance to make a butt dam with, and accept a couple of beers, from a rafting party.
After a nice restful day we were up early to tackle Panameta canyon. First, this involved a long hike up Matkat. That hike alone was worth the price of admission. It’s not technical, but I really like the bouldering, minor problem-solving, and rock hopping up canyon. From the river to the cut off took a few hours, the last of which we again had fun with Todd’s beta. Rather than the unlikely ledges of a couple days earlier, we were now looking for an “obvious break”. Of course “obvious” is relative, relative to the last break. Fortunately, perhaps, we discounted the first few obvious breaks, and went up a nice looking one where, after heading uphill a couple hundred feet, we saw a couple cairns and then those wily burro trails.
An open question for the time being is whether we took the best burro trail–we went a bit on the low side and spent a LONG time contouring around trying to reach the head of Panameta. I suspect there’s a shorter route up high avoiding many of the smaller drainages. Anyone know the short way?
Eventually, though, we made it to the head of Panameta. Dropping down, we were quickly confronted with a deep pool, and the perfect opportunity to put on wetsuits and harness up. After spending the mid-day walking through the sun, the pool looked, and was, inviting.
The narrows started right away with sliding, scrambling, and down climbing. Beautiful and fun. We quickly lost direct sunlight, the slot deeper, and the water colder. It wasn’t very long before we were glad for the wetsuits. Being a tall, hard-to-fit guy, it’s hard for me to find the bargin wetsuits, and I was wearing a very good O’Neil 4/3mm suit–and I was happy to be as we progressed. The further we went, the colder that water got. I hadn’t started with gloves on, but on one point, after one of the swims through a deeper pool, the hands almost stopped working, and it was well past time to put them on. With a lighter wetsuit, I’d have turned purple.
Panameta is pretty slot. The swirling polished limestone is sublime. And you’re awake enough from the FREEZING water to notice.
For those who like the boulder hopping–I do–Panamenta is still a sweet canyon even after exiting the Redwall narrows. Interestingly, neither Bruce nor I have any pictures of this part of the canyon. But the time we exited, it had been a long day already, we knew we were starting to get tired, and we wanted to make it back to camp at the Matkat Hotel before dark. We didn’t make it. We did, though, make it to the cutoff above the Matkat narrows, and walked the last 30 minutes on a decent trail by headlamp.
The next morning brought a deliberately slow start featuring oatmeal and dried pineapple. By deleting Olo, we now had a much easier exit ahead of us, and we settled on a two-day course to get from the beach, across the river downstream, and out SOB. After eating and packing up, the day began with a relaxing float down to the mouth of SOB, just above Upset Rapids.
Deciding that since we didn’t need wetsuits on the way down SOB, we wouldn’t need them on the way up, we laid out all the river crossing gear to dry and scouted the cliff climb (since we hadn’t come down the cliff on the way in–we’d stay higher on the ledge to walk up river).
As luck would have it, as we were packing up, a rafting party pulled in to scout Upset. A couple of crazy guys with micro rafts and paddles caught their interest, and we struck up a quick conversation. They were down a spare kayak paddle. We had a spare kayak paddle. They had the ability to carry some extra weight. We had some extra rye (and good rye at that) that we had no intention of finishing on the way up. It was a match made in heaven! The group very generously offered to carry our wetsuits, rafts, paddles, and garbage out for us. (THANK YOU, Carter!)
Bruce climbed up the 50′ cliff, bringing a rope and cord so we could fix an anchor, belay Mike, and haul up packs. From there it promised to be a pretty straightforward hike/climb out. We did stop for the night before the Redwall slot as was our plan. Perhaps the sketchiest part of the trip was climbing up to a ledge to bypass a large pour-off that we’d rapped down just before we stopped. Now, we heard tell of a bypass that starts further downstream. But we missed that start as we climbed up the drainage. Eventually realizing this, but opting not to walk back downstream, I picked a potential route. Bruce asked “where?”. I said “There!”. He then asked if I was nuts. It turns out, I was. But we tried it, and sure enough the route went–although it went in a way that I wouldn’t recommend. Next time, we’ll look harder for the easy break up to the bypass!
Morning found us up and at it early. We tackled the Redwall narrows, getting up the short-ish up-climbs by ascending ropes in several places that we hoisted into place using parachute cord we’d left behind (another great idea out of Todd’s book). From there it was hopping and scrambling through the Supai, and going up a much easier route through the Coconino than we’d come in on. Apparently we had stayed high too long on our way down. While we followed a trail, cairned in places, it was steep with sliding rocks. In contrast, the way up was gentle switchbacks that provided a smooth steady climb out. Easy on the legs, easy on the lungs, and very little slipping and sliding. Lesson here: through the Coconino on this route, every time you thing the trail cuts up or down, look straight across and you’ll probably find a better way!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t caution you about our dinner stop in St. George at Iggy’s Grill. The beer was bad, the burgers were bad, even the pickle was bad! I intend to be back to SOB. Back not so, Iggy’s!
(Note, several months later, Bruce and I returned, this time with 3-D Bob. It was a wetter trip, and included a trip down Olo, too!)