Surprise Canyon Loop
April 9 thru April 18, 2015
This map (above) shows our overall route.
Click on photos to see larger image.
I want to begin by stating that this was the most difficult week of backpacking I've ever had. But I'll save the details for the daily descriptions that follow.
Last October, Ben Mahlab, Dave Marcus and I made our first foray into this extraordinarily remote and wild country. We hiked into Surprise Canyon via Twin Spring Canyon. The first and last days of that trip were along uninspiring dry creek bed. I wondered if there was an entrance option that would avoid the dry slog in Twin Spring Canyon. A couple of months later, Rich Rudow detailed a loop trip he had recently completed. He said it required 2 or 3 short and easy rappels, and a climb to the rim on very steep slopes that required a bit of Class 4 climbing. It also required a swim through narrow slots filled wall-to-wall with cold and sometimes deep water. It sounded to me like a fun adventure.
We planned for 8 days total, which would allow, we thought, two layover days.
Ben wanted to do this hike from the start, but he was a little uneasy because he had never rappelled before. Ben and I asked about 5 or 6 people to join us. Fortunately (for them) they all declined. So it would be just the two of us.
Because of the diverse terrain we would cover, we needed to bring some special equipment, including 60-ft of 8-mm static rope, carabineers, webbing, a rappel device, rappel rings, wetsuits, and dry bags. We grappled whether to bring the wetsuits. They were only 1-mm thick, but still weighed 2 lbs. In the end we decided to bring them.
Our plan: Ben, who had been hiking and backpacking in New Zealand for 5 weeks, flies to Las Vegas and takes the shuttle to St. George. Ben had previously sent me a package containing his food. I drive from San Cristobal. We meet at the shuttle office on the afternoon of April 9, pick up a few last minute items at a super market before driving the 100 miles of dirt road to the "trailhead".
The first 80 miles of dirt road are in excellent condition, but from there on it deteriorates rapidly into a true 4X4 road. We drove my Toyota 4Runner which was equipped with new all-terrain tires, two spares, tire repair equipment, tow rope, two jacks, and a variety of tools.
Our goal was Shanley Tanks, where we were told the road would become impassable beyond. We got there with a couple of hours of sunlight left, so I decided to attempt to drive all the way to Dinner Pocket, an additional mile. The first few hundred yards were rough, but not really much worse than we had already encountered. The road mostly runs through Piņon-Juniper woodland, where from my experience the roads are seldom truly horrendous when dry, but the problem in this part of the Arizona Strip are the patches of lava deposits. We creeped over a few sections of lava and eventually reached Dinner Pocket without too much trouble.
We set up camp at Dinner Pocket and poked around the ruins of an old cattle operation, as well as Dinner Pocket itself -- a large waterhole in basalt rock at the beginning of large drainage heading down to the Sanup Plateau. The temperature dropped below freezing during the night, making it difficult to keep warm.
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