Waterfalls Canyon Part I

by Matt Fraker on August 16, 2012

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As I headed out to Colter Bay, I stopped and shot this four member Osprey family on Moose-Wilson Road (the parent is behind the middle child):

Seth, Jessica and I met at the Colter Bay Marina. Once again, there was a boat issue; the boat we needed was out on Elk Island where they take people for breakfast on the Island, a great program. The boat we had available had a tendency to do bad things like…sink…stall…etc. When our captain, Mary, went in to see if we had any other option, another Colter Bay employee started the engine on a little john boat.

“If you all are headed out in that thing, I might as well get johnnie’s engine warmed up…”

Seth and I laughed nervously. He was smiling.

“I doubt she’ll sink; but it will be a miracle if you see the other shoreline.”

I side glanced at Seth and threw a couple of life vests into the boat. Mary came back out with no other options. So onto this poor creature we boarded.

She only stalled out twice on the way over; we had to keep her water-filled engine at slower speeds to keep it from stalling. Later, as we were climbing elevations, we looked back to see Mary and the ship getting towed back to the Marina. We were promised that a different ride would be getting us. This promise came to pass, but not quite like we expected.

The plan was for Seth and I to go to the lower cascade, Columbine Cascade, while Jessica was planning on going to the upper waterfalls, Wilderness Falls, an amazing 310 foot plunging show that starts by shooting out of a granite cleft way above. I had no intentions of trying for Wilderness — I had seen the aerials and the terrain. I was just hoping to see what the Black Swift possibilities might be at Columbine Cascade. Jessica had three mountain climbs already under her belt from last year. So it was all hers.

Once on ground, the first thing Seth and I immediately noticed was the lack of deadfall. Here is a close-up of our route up though the lower canyon:

I kept commenting on how wonderful this was SO FAR, but as the canyon exploration continued, it was to hold true for the entire canyon. The meadows were wonderful and we made great time heading into the canyon. Temperatures were also better than on Tuesday; so all in all, the lower canyon hike was a fabulous mix of meadow bushwhack combined with some forest shortcuts — one early on became quite swampy — and one hard shrub bushwhacking. There was only one because these shrubby thickets grabbed us and held us in place. Jessica actually got tossed in reverse a couple of times, to our amusement.

The three of us crossed a distance in two hours that took Seth and I over four hours to cross in Snowshoe. Yet I still remained conservative. I knew what that upper canyon looked like on the aerials. After a moist ascent through some thick woods along a streamlet, we came out on our first rocky slope.

Our decision was to ascend to the upper north wall of the canyon for two reasons. It would keep us out of a very shaggy bushwhack, and it would get us altitude that we were ultimately going to need anyway. The initial slope was sort of mixed in with the woods and was not too bad. We then exited this gravelly ridge and took a more direct route up towards the canyon wall. This was rougher but still a manageable grade. Near the top of this ridge we stopped to purify and replenish water in a little rivulet that was running in the bottom of the groove whose wall we had been ascending. Here is Seth in my “Seth purifying water” photo series:

and here is a short video of the area with Seth and Jessica:

From where we were at we could see Columbine Cascade. We had made such good time I was now thinking that we should all go for Wilderness Falls. I could see what this would take, and it was as hairy as I had imagined.

The next slope ascent was to get us up by the canyon’s headwall and this was a lot more steep. I was singing some CrossFit praises at this point, because I was hauling along and I felt good. When I reached the elevation for doing the slope traverse, Jessica and Seth were still quite a ways downslope. Seth looked a little rough; he yelled up to go ahead without him. He had started vomiting from altitude sickness. The good news was that he did not have a headache — just nausea. A headache would have required getting him back to the lower elevations. Instead, he just cozied up to a large block shaped boulder that got him out of the sun and took a nap.

Jessica wanted to continue up slope past the slope traverse to check out a little cave way up in the headwall. This was going to put her into some spotty cliff faces above the slope traverse. I took a picture and a video of Columbine Cascade from my vantage point:

These views give some sense of the amount of grade that we would be dealing with on the slope traverse. With Seth bedded down, and Jessica exploring above me, I decided to head on out and attempt the slope traverse that now did not look all that fun. Here is an aerial of my route:

Here is a close up of that aerial:

The red route drops below some spotty cliff faces where Jessica was. She actually yelled down at me and waved from one of the cliff promontories as I was making my traverse. After the red goes below the cliff faces, it angles to the left and goes to a couple of big dark green spots.These are two now dead huge pine trees that come straight out of the slope and curve up, providing huge trunks to lay upon like a perfect slopeside lounge chair.

I have done several scary ass slope traverses in my time. This one has to rank near the top. I had my hiking stick ski-pole for a third leg; it is an absolute necessity. If you misstep on these slopes, you probably are not going to die (unless you fall forward instead of back on your butt); but you will be broken at the end of the tumble. After skirting the cliff faces which gave me something to hold onto with my right hand, I had to go open space traverse to get to the huge dead pine trees. Once I got to the bigger of the pines, I took my seat and rested, seeing Seth “miles” away beneath the boulder and wondering if Jessica was still going to go for it. After dozing briefly here, I decided it was time to go after Wilderness Falls for real. From where I was at I could not see these falls, but I knew they were quite a bit higher than Columbine. So I chose a slope ascent that I knew I could not return on. This is self-entertainment playing with gravity. She puts her hand on your ass when you go up, telling you its ok with a soothing voice; “keep going — it’s going to be fine” she whispers in your ear. But when you stop and look down, you realize she’s a lying bitch and she can’t wait to kill you on the way down. I kept climbing, talking to myself under my breath as always.

“We’re good. Just keep going. We will get down some other way. We can downclimb the shrubs by the waterfall. But we are not coming back this way.”

I climbed and climbed, knowing that when I finally braved cresting the ridge I was ascending, I wanted to be looking AT or DOWN UPON Wilderness Falls — NOT UP. Hence the dramatic elevation in my red route. And when I did finally crest the ridge, this was my glorious view:

It’s a hard feeling to share; never in my mind in any way or fashion did I think I would get to these falls. Now it was just a matter of smart feet to cross the ground between me and Wilderness. I downclimbed through the boulder fields, crossed a beautiful meadow to take another video:

and then ascended the boulder field beneath the waterfalls, and climbed up to the base where Wilderness’s water first hit rock:

Here is a celebratory shot:

and here was my view out:

I took off my pack and nestled into it on the little ledge I was on and napped with the mist of Wilderness Falls blowing on me. When I stirred, I remembered to get Black Swifts back on my brain, and I took a more serious look at this waterfall as a home for these elusive creatures. The habitat was perfect. Yet keeping in mind I might be looking for two to four birds, I felt like getting above these falls to watch over the lake that made them might be more confirming. That would require an overnight. Today I was just ecstatic to be where I was and still unharmed and feeling great. But that was sobered with the realization that I had to still get back down. For now, none of that mattered. I was not going to let any worries soil the magic of the moment.

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