Ape Canyon is a major canyon just east of Mount St.Helens.The name is derived from Sasquatch sightings in the area. It is steep and narrow involving at least 20 rappels. It was formerly listed on ” The Seven Undescended “ page on this website. It has been removed from that page after we received news of its first documented descent. The trip report describes the main canyon, the technical portion of which is about a mile long. There is a prominent tributary canyon that comes in on the north, about a half mile down from the top. This side canyon has many high falls. Not much else is known about it. As the trip report makes abundantly clear, this is a long canyon. Allow plenty of time and be prepared to bivouac. Many thanks to Benjamin Hoffman for providing the photos and an informative and exciting trip report.
Map: USGS quad ; Mount St.Helens
Take state highway 503 to Forest Service road 90. Turn left on to Forest Service Road 83 and follow it to the Ape Canyon Trailhead which is about a quarter mile before the end of the road.
Follow the Ape Canyon trail 234 five miles to the head of the canyon at the Plains Of Abraham (good camping). The lower end of Ape Canyon Creek crosses Smith Creek trail 225. This can be followed south for two miles to the Lava Canyon trail 184 which can be followed uphill three miles to your starting point. This loop would involve about 10 or 11 miles of trail walking not counting the canyon itself.
To do the as yet undescended north fork of Ape Canyon, follow the directions for the main fork. At the Plains Of Abraham walk north about a half mile to where a small stream drops off down steep slopes. Follow this downhill as the creek entrenches itself into a deep canyon with high waterfalls.
Ape Canyon Trip Report
October 7-8, 2011
The Cast: Benjamin Hoffman (the author of this report), Sam Kellogg, and Erik Lundgren. None of us had any technical canyon experience. Erik is an eagle scout and a WFR, Sam did a NOLS semester in Australia, hiked the AT, and has climbed a number of technical routes in the Cascades and the east coast. I have done a NOLS mountaineering course, am a WFR, have mountaineering experience in Canada’s coast range, the Juneau Icefield, Colorado, the Cascades, and the Bugaboos. I have some whitewater kayak experience. Erik is 19, Sam is 22, I am 20. We go to Lewis and Clark College.
The setup: Being intelligent, able-bodied, and youthful, Sam and I decided that our fall break would be best spent canyoneering. Having never canyoneered, the most reasonable decision was to attempt a first descent in a fairly remote part ofWashington. We picked out Ape Canyon and Lava Canyon as potential options. Erik decided to come along at some point. On Wednesday evening, we left Portland and drove to the Lava Canyon trailhead. We squatted stylishly next to a picnic table and awoke early the next morning in order to pay for parking. We walked up the Ape Canyon trail to try and scout the canyon. Unfortunately, the canyon was hard to see into because the scree-covered edge sloped inwards for a long distance. We bushwhacked down about 750 feet, and, still unable to see into the canyon, bushwhacked back up 750 feet. As a last ditch, I climbed up a nearby butte and was able to see at least a few of the drops in the canyon. They all looked well protected and fairly dry. After walking down, we decided to have a friend contact search and rescue late on the evening of the 7th, had we not returned. If we got stuck or injured in the canyon, we wanted a very small window of time before help arrived. We packed our equipment and drove down to Cougar so we could get cell phone reception. After getting a little lost on the road back, we camped again at Lava Canyon.
Gear: Wetsuits, dry bags, some dry clothes, food and extra food, water purification, harnesses, 150 foot static rope, about two sets of nuts, a small set of hexes, four tricams, an ample supply of webbing and cordallette, prussiks, helmets, pfd’s, one bivy sack, two space blankets, large first aid kit, trail runners, headlamps, one set of climbing shoes, extra socks, neoprene gloves, rain coats, among other things.
And now, the trip: We awoke at seven to a beautiful foggy morning. Ate some dinosaur oatmeal, donned our packs, and headed once again up the Ape Canyon trail. A couple hours later, we arrived at the head of the canyon. There is a creepy old moldy bag of rescue equipment and a big metal winch at the top. We were later informed that this is to rescue snowmobiles that fall in the canyon in the winter. We took advantage of a very nice anchor and rappelled fifty or sixty feet into the head of the canyon. It was about two hundred feet deep, thirty feet wide, and dry. I rambled on down to look at the next drop, and, seeing that all was clear for a long while yet, told Erik to pull the rope. We were committed.
The next several drops were strewn with boulders, and we easily down climbed them. My memory is kind of fuzzy on exactly how each rappel went, but we roped up for a few more drops, ranging from twenty to fifty feet (or so). The canyon got deeper, and water started to seep out of the ground. Soon, we were walking next to a small stream. The stream got larger and cascaded down what would be the biggest drop of the canyon: a seventy-five foot waterfall. We weren’t able to see the rope hit the bottom, so I pulled out one of my fancy new rappel rings and we let down the full 150 feet of the rope. We tied the other end to an equal length of accessory cord wrapped around a peanut butter jar, and threw the jar down. This was the first waterfall I’d rappelled down, and it was sure exciting. Gee whiz. As one might expect, the rope was exceedingly difficult to retrieve and we spent a good thirty minutes pulling on the accessory cord and whipping the rope around.
We ambled down a couple more drops in ever-deepening water. We soon put on our pfd’s. The canyon bent to the right and looked like it was about to widen. Ah, how cheery we were. But all for naught! We were greeted with five or six rappels in rapid succession, each of them down thirty or forty-foot waterfalls, and all sparsely protected. Erik had a little adventure when one of them spun him upside-down mid-descent. He kept his wits about him, and found his way down. An especially long rappel took us next to a huge tree trunk that was propped up against the cliff. We had to climb out over the wet tree to get in position to make the drop. Finally, the cliffs relented and we were able to walk and down climb for a spell. However, it was about four in the afternoon when we passed the purportedly wetter tributary coming in from the north. It was indeed wet, but no more so than our canyon. Perhaps August would be a dryer time for these sorts of adventures… In any case, four in the afternoon was much, much later than we’d expected to cross this tributary. It turns out that canyoneering is quite time consuming!
With a quickened pace, we started again downstream. We down climbed increasingly slippery and narrow ledges, until we met a drop that required an anchor once again. It was frustratingly short--only ten or fifteen feet perhaps--but sheer, slippery, and into a shallow pool of water. Several more of these drops followed. We were looking for an escape route at this point, but none were present. We floated unwittingly into the dark of night. Our options ticked away. My headlamp wouldn’t light, and Sam and Erik’s couldn’t penetrate the darkness past the next waterfall. We were in a stretch of the canyon about a hundred feet long and ten feet wide, bounded by waterfalls above and below and cliffs on either side.
We considered three options: Continue to descend, hoping for an obvious escape route to present itself; Stay the night there, without sleeping bags or a significant amount of dry warm clothes; or climb out. Sam saw a way he could climb, and I consented. He took the rock protection and trailed the rope. When he got to one of the trees above us, he would build an anchor and belay Erik and me up. It would be about forty feet. He would place gear if he got the opportunity. The climbing looked easy--5.4 at most—and well within his comfort range. However, the rock turned rotten ten feet up and he fell. His helmet, PFD, and my spotting broke his fall. The fall, however, broke our resolution to escape. We looked down the canyon, and could see nothing but water. We would have to spend the night.
We found a patch of ground about three feet by five feet that was lightly sheltered by an overhanging rock and was only moderately damp. We placed the rope on the sand, then our backpacks, then our PFD’s. We covered this wet mess with a space blanket, and climbed into our dry clothes. I was delighted that I’d brought chocolate chip cookies, two pairs of socks, and long underwear and fleece pants. I climbed into my bivy sack and inserted myself next to the wall. Erik spooned up next to me and Sam next to him. It would be fair to say that this was the most uncomfortable night I’ve ever spent. Though one side of me was warmed by Erik, the other side was squashed against a wet slab of basalt. The rock formed a low ceiling, and I found I could not bend one of my legs. The space blanket deformed beneath me and exposed some of our wet gear. The bivy sack didn’t breathe well, and my clothes got damp. I tried occasionally to massage out one of the knots that were forming in my hips, but touching my wet pants made me sad.
At long last I opened my eyes to the dull gray of dawn. I waited until I could see color, and then roused my sleepy companions. They told me to sleep a little longer. ‘Are they insane?’ I thought, and grumbled to my immobile self for ten minutes. Then I made such a fuss that they got up. We chewed on a couple of chocolate bars, talked ourselves out of trying to climb out again, put on our wetsuits, and began the lovely descent once again.
Distance-wise, we were pretty close to our destination. But we had several more rappels to make and some mysteriously deep pools to cross. What ended up being our final rappel was eventful. I had to leave a lil’ pink tricam as an anchor, which was sad. Since I was first down, I went on ahead to scout the next downclimb. I found, to my delight, a fertile valley covered in volcanic soil. A perfect place to build a mighty nation, or to get out of speedy-like. I returned gleefully, only to find that our rope (at this point named Candy, a suitably kinky name) was very well stuck. I lost rock-paper-scissors, and so had the pleasure of prussiking up a thirty-foot waterfall. After I had descended a second time, we retrieved the rope, scrambled down a last waterfall, and found the end of the slot canyon proper.
The creek continued to drop over an odd waterfall occasionally, but we took the liberty of walking around these drops on the wonderfully dry ground. We made a speedy egress and found the Smith Creek trail in an hour or two of shwacking. A wonderful break atop an old landslide took us out of our wet gear and put some real (=chocolate+peanut butter+graham crackers) food in our stomachs.
Now, the astute reader will recall that our friends had been informed to call search and rescue had we not returned by the previous night. They were now suitably worried, had called my roommates, our college, search and rescue, and our parents. The dean of the college called our parents. Though we knew none of this, we’d been expecting a helicopter for several hours now. So it was no surprise when we rounded a bend and found two friendly men in red jackets. They halted the helicopter, which was about thirty seconds from takeoff, and speedily escorted us to the trailhead. We were sat down by a sheriff and given a stern talking to. Then let off scot-free. We didn’t even have to pay our overdue parking fee. This was very strange, and we plan on making a sizable donation to the volcano rescue crew. Though they found us in good spirits, had we been less lucky, they very well could have saved our lives.
In the end, quite an adventure. Now that I’ve counted how many missing slings I have, I’d like to set the record at about twenty rappels all told. This number is probably the minimum necessary, because we down climbed pretty much everything that looked down climbable. You should take sixty to a hundred feet of webbing and a small rack of small tricams or hexes. Some of the anchors get a bit dicey and hard to find as you get farther into the canyon, at least for my taste. The descent could probably be done in one very, very, very long day if the party went earlier in the year, rappelled in at first light, moved efficiently, and were willing to make the hike out in the dark. Apparently canyon-folk have a rating system for this kind of thing. Ape canyon would probably be a 4-C1 R IV, whatever that means. Thanks and apologies to our friends and family members who worried over us. And thank goodness we’re alive!
October 9, 2011
A superb topo map of Ape Canyon was created by Ira Lewis. Click
here for it in PDF form, or here if that doesn't work.
The following photos were provided by Benjamin Hoffman.
Ape Canyon, 1906.
Ape Canyon: Photo by Matt Bannon. The North Fork is on the right. The Main Fork is on the left.
The following photos were provided by Deanpaul Russell.
The following photos were provided by Ira Lewis.
The following photos were provided by J.D. Osborn.
The following photos were provided by Neil Wilkinson.
The following photos were provided by Steve Abercrombie.