Canyon Prospects Near Newhalem
Newhalem is a small town on route 20 in the heart of the
North Cascades. It is owned by Seattle City Light and exists
primarily to facilitate operation of the dams and powerhouses
in the area. The Diablo Dam Quadrangle Covers the area.
Gorge Creek is located four miles east of Newhalem along
route 20. It is very impressive looking from the bridge over
the creek. There are several waterfalls visible from the road.
The creek is very steep and has two branches. In order to
reach the upper reaches of the creek you must bushwack up
steep wooded slopes on the east side of the gorge An unsuccessful
attempt to descend Gorge Creek was made in August of 2003
by two experienced canyoneers from Utah. In addition to a
late start, they ran into problems with hydraulics at the
base of waterfalls and a lack of natural anchors. They recommended
that those attempting the canyon be prepared to rappel up
to 200 feet and bring bolting equipment. It should be noted
that these canyoneers have extensive experience with using
natural anchors. An early start is advisable. Gorge Creek
is fed by snowfields so the water level is likely to be higher
in the afternoon when it gets warmer.
Ladder Creek has a very exciting looking slot canyon. While
not deep, it is very narrow, as little as three feet in places.
There are six or seven waterfalls ranging in height from 8
to over 50 feet. There is a lot of water and strong current
in the creek. If you rappel a water fall you could easily
be swept over the next one before setting up your next rappel.
In addition there are few if any natural anchoring possibilities
in the slot. It might be possible to preset a series of ropes
from trees on the canyon rim and remove them at the completion
of the descent. This canyon will be a challenging undertaking
requiring considerable planning and skill.
To get there, go to Newhalem. Walk the suspension bridge
across the river next to the power house. The lowest waterfall
is accessed by a very short trail. Continue up and left on
the trail. You soon reach a three foot high fence with a locked
gate and a sign that says “danger”. On the other
side of the fence a faint trail switchbacks up the hill, eventually
leading to an old wooden bridge spanning the slot. Easy open
slopes lead upward to a dilapidated old building on the right
side of the slot (looking up hill). The apparent top of the
slot is a short distance above this building. The remains
of an old lighting system used to illuminate the falls are
found above and next to the canyon. This probably accounts
for the fence and the warning sign. Don’t touch any
wires. They should be easy to avoid and are not in the slot.
This description may sound complicated, but it is actually
quite easy and obvious once you are there.
The following photos of Ladder Creek are by Robert Cobb.
More photos of canyons in the Northwest, Utah, Colorado, and
Australia can be seen at his website Image Events at http://imageevent.com/robertcobb.
On the south side of Gorge Lake there are several steep
canyons on the unnamed mountain. They appear to be dry. Access
is a problem. You would have to cross Gorge Lake in a canoe
or other small boat and then bushwack up steep slopes to get
to the tops of the canyons.
The following trip report on Gorge Creek was provided
by Steve Brezovec and RAM.
RAM was on his 16th (?) day in the Cascades. I had joined
him for the first four (Harrowing! Mt. Torment, Shark's Fin,
Mt. Sahale, and down the Sahale Arm in 3 1/2 days - scary
crap, read RAM's upcoming TR for more info). Now we thought
we'd cap the trip with a canyon descent.
RAM and I are idiots. We assessed Gorge Creek from the Road
and rationalized ourselves capable. Fools. The wetsuit I brought
for RAM didn't fit, so he went without. I wore a drysuit.
We brought one 200' rope. We forgot a knife (we ended up trading
some people in the parking lot a beer for a micro-cheapie
swiss army - thanks folks!) Neither of us had neoprene socks.
RAM had no canyoneeros. Inadequate webbing. No bolt kit (only
had a hammer anyway, we need a power drill).
Fortune favors the brave (and the foolish). We begin up the
ascent route on a social trail, quite a bit past noon (closer
to 2pm?). RAM casts some foreshadowing "I'm sure glad
I won't be coming back down this way"....
1/2 way up, I spot what I think is a sling on the higher
of two 100+ falls. Guess this ain't a first descent, I reckon.
Good sign? We soon find the drainage access - we consider
rapping this less-than- 200' falls slightly to the side off
a tree, but we lack the adequate pull cord. Doh! Would be
beautiful with two 200'. D/C a vegetated nose LDC right instead.
Boulder hop, boulder hop. Wow this is a lot of flow. More
than I was interested in. 100 cfs? Eek. Both of us know we
are woefully inexperienced for these conditions but we don't
acknowledge it outloud.
First mandatory rap off a chockstone, RAM wearing only layers
of capilene stays dry by bypassing the waterfalls over the
chockstone. I do the drainage in my drysuit. Point of no return?
Around the corner. Confluence. More CFS. Main falls is out
of the question. No bolts. Drat. Maybe no one has been dumb
enough to do this before. RAM comments that even though flow
is high, This is certainly lower than the flow normally gets
at this time of year, exceptionally low. I shudder.
Down a flume LDC right. Lower flow than the main falls, but
1/2 way down the rap it receives about 1/2 of the main falls
water volume. Head-pounder. RAM goes first. Hand signals used
to equalize rope length. We tie every single sling and cordelette
together on the pull cord side to get enough rope to make
the pull. We are idiots. Beautiful, fun 150' rappel. Point
of no return? No says RAM, dirt slope up right.
We D/C to what, from the road, looked like a series of short
drops. In the Cascades, glacier run-off flow is lowest in
the early morning and highest at sunset and shortly after
(glaciers upstream have been melting most severely and now
that water is reaching our vicinity). It is near 5pm and flows
are only increasing.
These drops are severe hydraulics. I am no bolter in the
CP, but for the Love of Pete, If I ever come back here, I
am bringing a very big Bosch hammer drill and scores of bolts.
With properly placed bolted anchors, we could have correctly
aligned the rappel routes to bypass the deadly hydraulics
and come down on the edges of flow, though still in the drainage.
The chockstone anchors we had to work with would have killed
us. This rap would have neccessitated someone rappeling down
into a dangerous hydraulic (perhaps inescapable - we were
both thinking "Kolob disaster?"), swimming across
to safety, rigging a tyrollean for packs and then a guided
rap for the second. And there were probably six more drops
like this one. And we were almost out of webbing. And this
one and the next had rock anchors, but the next ones didn't.
How would we pull the rope? When it dropped into the hydraulics
behind us, it would tangle & lodge and we'd be screwed.
Where would we find the next anchor? Building deadmen is fine
and good in dry canyons but no way was that going to fly here.
100 Cfs pumping through a 8'-20' wide slot. Yuk. This canyon
was overflowing. We were underskilled and under equipped.
Wetsuit-less RAM was shivering. We are such idiots.
Run away, run away! RAM suggest a retreat up a dirt slope
upcanyon. I think it looked good he said...
First 100'-200' is about MIA 2+, maybe 3. (remember, MIA
3 = the difficulty of the actual MIA). Nasty dirt, no rock,
loose trees and entire pine boughs that resemble trees but
are actually just broken off branches, tricking you into grabbing
them. 200' up RAM says "we better rope up and trade lead"....er
what for? This is dirt, there's no pro. I rig two cordelettes
and take the first lead. This is MIA 4d - I suggested MIA
5 (hardest know dirt routes) but RAM downgraded when he seconded.
I am clearing off inches of heather and moss, digging holds
in 70 degree dirt. Any rock to be found is easily pulled apart
and thrown down hill. My only pro is a tree 60' above me.
Must make Tree! An eternity later I am setting belay, RAM
follows then takes the next lead on what I thought would be
an easier slope - RAM concurs that it was easier but it looked
like a bold lead to me. One pro (several small plants slung
together as a unit) and than a sketchy rock horn anchor at
the top. I was happy for a belay.
One more dirty, rope-tangling, slings-tied-together-into-a-pull-cord
rappel and were in the upper canyon again. Up a steep dirt
exit that RAM finds (MIA 2+) and we are now reversing our
route, bushwacking the trees to the road. A narrow escape.
LESSONS LEARNED AND FACTS FOR FUTURE ATTEMPTS:
Bring (2) 200' ropes. No pull cords. If your anchor is in
the watercourse, you will have an exceptionally difficult
time pulling your rope as the water will be washing over your
rapide/rap ring in such a way as to make the pull much more
difficult. Using a single rapide would be best for friction.
Bring a Hammer Drill and good bolts and have prior experience
using both: No bolts in the Colorado Plateau, but for Pete's
sake, bolt the God out of this place. Properly placed bolted
anchors here is a matter of life and death, not environmental
sensitivety. The anchors must be correctly positioned for
safe rappels and to prevent drowning. Also, having your rapide
out of the current and hanging free will improve rope pull
and ensure that you get to keep you rope, rather than donating
it to the hydraulics.
Bring good wetsuits/drysuits. duh.
Bring more webbing than you think you need. Duh.
Go in the early morning. Not only does this canyon get direct
sun from 11am to 1pm, but the flow is lower in the morning
due to the increased runoff glacier melt later in the day.
If you could begin descending at 8am-9am,that would probably
be closer to ideal.
Go further uphill before dropping into this canyon. Before
the confluence above the 150' falls (Visible from the road)
looks to be the best part of the canyons, a series of 8 or
more waterfalls cascading down into a series of pools in what
looks to be a pleasantly constricted drainage - probably some
nice rooms, more tolerable flows, shorter drops.
SPECIAL NOTE ON BETA FOR THE NW -
There are a practically infinite number of undescended canyons
up here, and nobody doing them, so there is no secret-canyon
issue up here. The more people out looking for beta and sharing
it, the better. I'll post everything I hear about it, I would
encourage others to do the same. The knowledge base is sparse
and the sport here will benefit greatly from spreading the
Oh and consider taking a whitewater canyoneering course -
As CP canyoneering adepts, RAM and I found ourselves quite
befuddled here. Very humbling. I for one, would like to learn
quite a bit more from those skilled in Class C canyoning.
Being good climbers here did us no good except for allowing
us to retreat unharmed.
Indeed, Stevee got that right. The first of a series
of big air places. Moderate climbing with all day consequences.
Stating the obvious there. Idiots are us. We clicked off each
step and negative along the way. Stayed vigilant about reversibility
and carefully walked and crawled to the edge of danger and
no return. When it came time to get out of Dodge (Old West
gunslinger town for you Euro's!) we did. An hour of daylight
left and some adrenaline surges later, I had a satisfied feel
for what we had done AND what we had adverted.
Some interesting points. There was 5 times more water going
down the falls than flowed on the surface to its edge. The
slide track held enormous flow below the surface and out it
came at the falls. Another variable for one to ponder. The
lower gorge was much more dangerous for it.
My feeling on the canyon was that the problem was more of
when then what. Early in the day the flow is noticeably lower
but it still would be problematic. Water was low for late
July. Kind of August like for the hood. Thinking rather than
bolts, wait for September and October and reasonable flows.
Bring the kit, but better do the place in its right season.
Our escape route was "stomach in the throat" balancing
on steep loose dirt.
This was scary stuff, but MIA 4d is the call. MIA 5 must be
reserved for places like the approach to the 1951 rib on Johannesburg.
The whole experience did not feel like a failure. More a dance
on the edge. That said, Stevee's proposed equip list stands
and will someone kindly make a run at this very excellent
canyon this fall when it is in "season". More details
available upon request, but hear is the beta.
State of mind and state of Washington. North Cascades Highway.
Highway 20. Gorge Creek. Half way between New Halen and Diablo
on the north side of the road. Amble parking. Tourist view
spot. Head up east rim, up to the top of the 2nd 100+ foot
falls. The canyon has split just below and you are along side
the eastern and more interesting canyon. Much canyon above.
Access for the upper canyon is a guess but on the south side
of the upper gorge looks best. Or maybe up the rock nearby
(5.3?). And yes, you can drink the water straight out of the
stream. Early AM start to do the bushwhack. Mid day at the
crux and enjoy.
The following photos were provided by RAM.