Friday, October 20, 2006

Epic Storm in Escalante

Adventure Report: Guest author Stefan Folias tells of a 50 year storm in the deserts of Utah, truly an amazing story with even more amazing photos

Two weeks ago, my good friend Nat Smale and I spent 5 days on the Escalante river of Utah to descend some of the narrow, water-filled slot canyons which form tributaries of the Escalante river. We had planned this trip since early May, as autumn is a nice time along the Escalante, with cooler temps and infrequent flash floods, and is at a time when we both have a regular holiday from work. Anticipation for the trip was building as the days approached closer and closer, considering the area is possibly our favorite of Southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau. It was not obvious beforehand that a 50-100 year storm would inundate Southern Utah with raging torrents. Walking these Southern Utah washes for years shows you how and where water is capable of going ... but you are left unprepared for the experience of witnessing it. I was simultaneously filled with horror and excitement---simply an unreal experience.

The Escalante cuts through the structurally weakened spine of an uplift of bowing layers of colorful sedimentary rock, with spectacular side canyons (tributary systems) adorning its entire length, as it makes its way from the highlands of the Aquarius Plateau down to the depths of a section of the Colorado River known as Glen Canyon (Lake Powell). The side canyons meander sinuously as they cut their way through the erosive rock, some wide and deep, some impossibly narrow and beautifully sculpted. Literally, narrow slits in the rock, slot canyons act as constrictive drains for the rain water that falls on the large expanses of mostly barren rock and soil comprising much of this area. Even a short, strong dose of 20min rainfall is capable of causing a deadly flashflood, were one to be caught within one of these slot canyons, many of which have no routes of escape.

The forecast a week before the trip called for relatively good chances for rain, 20-40% as a system would be moving in from the southwest. One of the problems with scheduling trips like this is the chance for it to get spoiled by a sufficient chance of rain. We planned to descend a few slot canyons and thursday-sunday would have to boast good weather to feel comfortable entering these canyons. We hauled our gear to the slender river, which is intrenched in the sandy, cottonwood-strewn flood plain of the Escalante river canyon and, while the water was only calf to knee deep, the depression itself was well over our heads. We made our way into familiar Neon canyon and settled our camp high on a sandstone bench just a shortways upcanyon.

October 4 ~ The slot canyon to the north is a long and difficult canyon, with no escapes for much of its length, and would take the better part of a day to descend. It would be hazardous if there was a good chance of rain at any time inside. A very dark grey mass of thick clouds hung in the sky less than 50 miles to the west, and it wasn't looking good. Upon arrival to the drop-in point of the slot, we decided that we should NOT enter and, instead, spent the rest of the day hiking around. At two points later in the day, rain fell moderately hard. The storm had shifted from its northerly direction and encompassed the whole of the Escalante area. It was clear that we made the right decision. If it rained hard today and it was only 20%, what did 30% have in store for us. It rained for much of the night and I felt the incessant rain on the bivy sack and and the rain jacket covering my face. I distinctly remember, for much of the night and early morning, the sound of a rushing torrent of water just below our sandstone bench filling lower Neon Canyon.

October 5 ~ Without getting up, it was simple to deduce that a considerable amount of water was strongly flowing through Neon canyon and there would be no canyoneering today. At two points during the morning there were intense superpulses of rain, each lasting about 30 minutes, with surrounding periods of strong rain. Large drops of water splashed everywhere and muddy rooster-tailing waterfalls frenetically poured off of the terraced wall behind our camp, feeding the Neon torrent below. A moderately strong rain ensued for some time and eventually stopped during the afternoon. The water level in lower Neon reduced quite a bit, and a sandbar and tree trunk, which we used as a meter, had emerged almost completely. Strangely, a very short time later, the water not only rose again to completely submerge the sand bar and trunk of the cottonwood, but in fact almost completely stopped its flow altogether. Something was damming the flow and holding a significant amount of water in what I fondly dubbed "Lake Neon."

After examining this lake from other vantage points down below we decided to climb up onto a narrow ridge to get a better view. As we reached the apex of the ridge, an untamed scene enveloped before our eyes. The entire Escalante flood plain at the base of the canyon was filled, from wall to wall. The raging water formed rapids over the sand bars, bushes and trees below, as well as whirlpools and wakes in its flow about the many cottonwood trees scattered around the floodplain. The entire canyon resounded with the crashing water of this impressive deluge. Occasionally large thickets of tree snags were carried afloat and often approached the wading cottowoods. Some were capable of bending tall but slender cottonwoods to completely submerge them as they passed over. Others were caught momentarily or permanently on the upflow side of the trunk ... something you see sometimes perched high on the trunks of trees while walking along canyons on the Colorado Plateau. Occasionally, we even saw cottonwoods crack under the drag force these clusters of tree branches/trunks thrust upon them. For awhile we stood speechless at the astounding sight, and it was clear what precisely had dammed the flow in Neon canyon. Nat suggested that this was quite possibly the most astonishing thing he'd ever seen outdoors ... I had to agree.

Essentially the entire Escalante canyon system and its profusion of tributaries ALL were massively flooded and raging...

Click for a more detailed trip report and additional photos



Blogger summitbum said...

Right on you guys are hardcore. Camping in the canyons during those storms must have been intense. I headed south the weekend after these storms and the aftermath was impressive.

10/24/2006 7:51 PM

Blogger summitbum said...

right on that was an intense storm and these are the best pictures I have seen yet.

10/24/2006 7:52 PM


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