Trip Report: Spearhead Canyon, Zion National Park

Four canyoneers heading off for Spearhead Canyon

Team Spearhead: Pascal van Duin, Jenny May, Tom Jones, and Steve Ramras

Spearhead Canyon, Zion National Park, Oct 14 and 15, 2010
Second descent (probable) by Steve Ramras, Jenny West, Pascal van Duin and Tom Jones

Prior History
Brian Cabe and I ascended Hook Canyon to the Majestic/Cathedral pass and summit plateau in October 2000, and descended the canyon the next day. We found no evidence of descents in the upper canyon, but the final chimney section (below The Spearhead) was bolted for descent.

Steve Ramras and Steve Brezovec made an attempt a few years prior, but were defeated by the incredibly thick Manzanita thrash-fest on the summit plateau, and descended via Hook Canyon.

In July 2009, after extensive fires burned off the Manzanita, Luke (Bluugnome) from Las Vegas and companion climbed the Behunin Ridge for an attempt on the canyon, but did not proceed past the summit plateau, exiting via Hook Canyon.

Spearhead has substantial logistical difficulties. How do you get to the head? How much rope to carry? Where is there water? Because it is about a day and a half long, perhaps one should do it in high summer with the long days… then again, since it lacks significant water, maybe that is not such a good idea. We decided upon a casual two day trip in cooler weather, with a crack-of-an-early start to (try to) avoid the heat. It had rained torrentially the week before, so we were pretty sure of finding pumpable water in the middle section of the canyon for a bivy.

Last time, Brian and I brought 200 foot ropes and a bolt kit with many bolts; and got lucky in not needing to use it for the canyon descent. This time we brought a 300 foot rope, a lot more experience, and no bolt kit… comments on that later. Again this time, the Fortuna smiled on our party.

View from the West Rim Trail of Upper Telephone Canyon

A mellow hike up… The West Rim and Upper Telephone Canyon, whose first descent was a consolation prize during Brian and I’s attempts to reach the top of Spearhead Canyon in 2000.

Approach
We got an early start, though somewhat delayed by my leaving part of my pack back in the car at the Museum. The hike to Behunin pass in the pre-dawn cool was delightful. Down the canyon we went as the sky lightened. Just as we arrived at the base of Behunin ridge, the day warmed up, so the steep climb up the very loose and sandy lower parts of the southeast-facing ridge was excruciatingly hot. The steep 4th class part at the top was easier than I had remembered, and we were soon enjoying lunch overlooking the impressive dropoff into the REAL Behunin canyon.

View of the upper section of Behunin Canyon

Awesome view into upper Behunin, or The Real Behunin.

We crossed the plateau, grateful for the fire that burned off most of the Manzanita. Wonderful flowers, too. Ram and I were soon examining the far wall of Spearhead Canyon from near Hook Pass. Ram had stood here with Steve B. and failed to see a solution. To me, I could see a small tree down from the rim, and a sturdy ponderosa 200 feet below. EZ. Kinda.

We marked the starting point as follows: 40 feet right of the second of two large snags, perhaps 500 feet from the top of the canyon, the second snag next to a small orange cliff, rap from the rim 40 feet down to a single pine tree (“the Christmas Tree”) on a ledge.

We rapped to the Christmas Tree ledge, then 300 feet to the ground below. Even with 100 lb Jenny rapping, the Christmas Tree flexed a little too much for comfort, but… I kept the upper rope in place as a backup for all but the last rapper, me. The rap was nice down a steep, smooth wall, and well clear of the Ponderosa, which had a sling around it but looked really bad, dried out, tenuous. I was happy to be on the “ground”.

A canyoneer rappelling into Spearhead Canyon

Intimidated? …. Why would we be intimidated??

From there, we traversed the ledge across oak brush down and right to a tree on the edge. We replaced our sling from 10 years ago and rapped 40 feet to a nice ledge place. Looking around, there were little to no rappelling trees within reach. Huh? Our notes said three rappels to 165 feet. There should be a tree around within hiking distance. No such luck.

Steve Ramras looks up whilst rappelling in Spearhead Canyon

Ram on one of the many nuisance rappels, getting toward the end of the canyon.

We rearranged the rope to rappel further, down to a sturdy tree overlooking the next cliffband. I rapped down to there, set a sling and then set up the 300 foot rope. I rapped about 20 feet down to the rollover and looked down to the canyon floor. Ummm, about 280 feet below! Yikes!!! Dropping the ropebag, I rendered my thanksgiving to Fortuna, the Goddess of Luck as the bag hit the floor of the canyon. Down I rapped to find about 8 feet of extra rope. It is good to be lucky.

After the others rapped down, we discovered two large branches on the floor of the canyon at the bottom of the rappel with old slings still tied to them – Brian and I’s rappel anchors from 10 years prior.

The bottom of the canyon again was mild, mostly walking among rocks and sand and brush, with short downclimbs, as the light faded. We walked `til we found a couple pools and had an excellent bivy on the sand.

Morning gave us but a short stroll to the end of the canyon. We began the raps down the final chimney, which I had remembered as being quite a few raps, all less than 100 feet. Jenny and Ram went on ahead using the 300 foot rope, since the stances were small for two people. Pascal and I proceeded down the inside of the chimney, using the short ropes, and having to establish new anchors in two places, as reality did not match my memory. We hit the ground at noon and hiked down to our car at the Grotto.

Recommendations: It was WAY wonderful to visit a canyon of this wild character. However, it was also pretty foolish to visit a canyon this large in scale without a bolt kit. We lucked out twice with the 300 foot rope – the second rap in being about 280 feet, the one to the canyon floor about 290 feet. Also, Pascal and I started down the chimney with 170 feet of rope and pull, and on our second rappel used every bit of it. My memory of shortish 100 foot rappels in there was not correct. Coulda gotten hosed, close to the bottom – that would have been embarassing. Our “Christmas Tree” near the top was far from sturdy. I like getting away with poor decisions, but not enough to consider them good decisions. I would recommend future parties bring the 300 foot rope, but also a bolt kit with knowledge to use it in soft rock. A white ledge 30 feet below the Christmas Tree would make a great place for a two-bolt anchor. The tree anchoring our final rap into the canyon was pretty solid but it is clear that falling debris can take out even large trees in this environment.

Editor’s Note: For the full trip with way more images and blow-by-blow details, go to Tom’s Latest Rave. NW

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About Tom

Tom Jones is an inventor, author, entrepreneur, gear tester, photographer, and, first and foremost, a canyoneer, living in the hamlet of Mt. Carmel, Utah, on the east side of Zion National Park. Tom is also a valued member of the ZAC Guide Corps, weaving in numerous training and guiding days amongst his myriad adventures and responsibilities.
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