Subway from the top

Stephen Fischer Photography

Rating: 3B-III

This is one of the most difficult and arduous hikes that I have completed. The combination of technical canyoneering, cold and wet conditions, difficult route finding, a combination of errors and mishaps along the way, and an extremely long hike, all led to an effort that I still look back on today and laugh.  Due to these complications and my primal desire for taking pictures, the route ended up taking me over 12 hours to complete.

Myself, Randy Campbell, and Don Van Dyke were shuttled up to the trailhead at Wildcat Point off Kolob road by Cliff Hall early in the morning, leaving our vehicle down at the Left Fork trailhead, our final destination.  Given the canyoneering route would require some signficant amount of swimming, and it was early November, we brought along dry suits in addition to our regular canyoneering gear and camera equipment.  The plan was to head down canyon to the east, intercept Russell Gulch to the south, and follow this down to the Left Fork of North Creek. From there we would follow the Left Fork through to the North Pole, drop down into the Subway from above, and then follow this canyon all the way to the trail exit point for the more used Left Fork trailhead where our truck was parked.

The first problem we encountered was was mistaking a different canyon for Russell Gulch, and not realizing our error until half way down, and with no easy way back. Given the limited rope length we brought in comparison to a longer rappel requirement for the canyon we mistakenly entered, we ended up having to perform a difficult down climb part of the way down in order to establish a suitable anchor point within rope distance, and then descend the rest of the way on the rope out of this predicament. This ended up delaying our progress by at least an hour from the original plan.

Moving on, we were able to intercept the Left Fork of North Creek, swimming through some extremely cold water along the way (see image 6).  One source of delays in these situations is the time required to put on the dry suit, taking at least 15 minutes, as hiking for long distances in one when there is no water can be a real pain.

Eventually after more swimming, down climbing, and a couple of short raps we reached the leaning log coined the name the North Pole by the infamous photographer Michael Fatali (cited by the parks service for lighting a duraflame log under Delicate Arch to get a better light source). 

At this point Randy and Don moved on ahead of me while I stopped for more photography along the way.  Randy left the rope for the final rappel on the anchor point above the Subway for me to use and gather up before moving on. After my descent, I instinctively pulled one end of the rope down to gather it up.  But unaware, Randy had tied a knot at the other end of the rope out of concern that one of the photographers down below may accidently pull the rope out of the anchor above.  Thus the rope was hung up on the anchor ring up top when it reached the end of my pull. With no easy way to extract it without an ascender, I had no choice but to reach as high as possible and cut the rope, leaving the top half behind and moving on.  Talking about this afterwards with Randy, the conclusion was in situations like this to tie both ends of the rope together.

After removing my dry suit, its protective coveralls, and canyoneering harness, I stowed everything in my pack, topping off at over 30 pounds with the camera equipment and dry keg to protect it from the elements. The rest of the hike with this load, criss-crossing the left fork a couple of a dozen times while also clawing through brush along the way was a real bear.  At some point half way along this leg of the route, I realized the protective coveralls that I had strapped to the top of my pack came loose and fell off.  Given they were rental equipment with a "who-knows-what charge" for their loss, I doubled back in search of them.  I ended up hiking about a mile back up canyon before finding them snagged on a low hanging tree branch.

In the end, I got back to the truck well after dark where Don and Randy were patiently waiting, and possibly wondering what pitfall did Steve stumble into, and who would have the difficult task of hiking back down the canyon in search of me? In the end, it was a real character building adventure, and yet another positive learning experience in which to build on for my future canyoneering endeavors.  In the future based on what I learned here, and going earlier in the season using a wet suit instead, along with a quicker camera setup without the need for a dry keg and tripod, it should be possible to shave the time on this route down to about 8-9 hours.

More technical details for this route can be found here.


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