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? Maybe.

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 beta.

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.

Steevee B


Indeed, Stevee got that right. The first of a series of big air places. Moderate climbing with all day consequences. Soooooo beautiful!


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.

RAM

The following photos were provided by RAM.