Memorial Day weekend called for something epic. A plan emerged to make the first visit of the season “up the hill,” to the big canyons of West Fork of Oak Creek. Barney Springs Canyon was the canyon of choice, and four of us assembled at East Buzzard Point ready to take on the canyon.
Mother nature, unfortunately, had different plans. We had enjoyed beautiful weather all through the month of May, unseasonably cool for Arizona. Temps in Phoenix hovered around 70-80°, a far cry from the usual 90s or 100s seen this time of year. The downside of the beautiful weather was frequent rain rolling in, and we monitored the rain all day Saturday as the forecast got worse and worse.
On Sunday morning, we called it. Intermittent thunderstorms and rain were highly probable during the time we’d be in the canyon. The risk of flash flood in these canyons is relatively low, with loose absorbent soils upstream rather than the slickrock surfaces that make flash flooding so likely elsewhere. However, the “sneak” exits for these canyons usually involved travel straight up the walls the canyon, which would turn into slippery messes in wet weather. I was game to try (I love the epic stuff) but the group was not. We evaluated other options. Fortunately, we had cell service in camp, which meant that we could check the forecast to find out that the storm was slow moving. Although it would hit the Flagstaff area today, it would not hit the Camp Verde area until later in the evening if at all. So we decided to move the party to West Clear Creek instead.
After a bumpy drive in over a rotten 4WD road, we arrived at the sneak entrance for Wilber Canyon. We quickly dropped into the canyon and suited up in wetsuits. The upper part of the canyon features lots of little drops that we used basic downclimbing and partner assist techniques to deal with.
The upper canyon itself was gorgeous. I know the narrows are the part that get everybody’s heart racing, but I appreciate the more mellow sections of canyon just as much. The mossy walls and riot of greenery looked entirely out of place for Arizona.
Before too long, we arrived at the big rappel, an 80-foot drop down a fluted wall.
Once the rappels start, they don’t stop. It’s one drop after another through incredibly beautiful narrows.
A huge log sat in one swimmer section. Mike descended first, then wrapped a rope around the log to pull it closer to the wall, stabilizing it to make it easier to balance on.
Towards the end, we reached a short drop that could have been downclimbed, but we decided to rappel it. A rock wrapped with webbing had been left out in the open, so we added a quicklink and buried the rock under a cairn to form an anchor. Fun stuff. This anchor led into a frigid hallway filled with water.
Beyond the hallway was a final drop into the waters of West Clear Creek.
We ate lunch at creekside then traveled 10 minutes upstream to the sneak exit.
After climbing a short distance up this exit, you had a choice. You could go up a drainage, or climb straight up a wall. I opted to get the hard work done as quickly as possible, and shot straight up the canyon wall. I had to free-climb some little cliffs on the way, but nothing difficult. However, I overshot and kept going up when I need to bend to the north, and ended up on the opposite ridge of where I needed to be. The group hollered at me to join them, and so I had to drop back down and climb up to meet them. On the way, I stumbled across an indian ruin.
It’s possible that these were just some rock walls a hiker had decided to build as a windblock around their tent. On the other hand, I’ve seen dozens of indian ruins in and around Arizona that look just like this, so it just as easily could have been a ruin. Given the remote location - nowhere near any trail, and off even the sneak trail out of WCC that few use – it’s unlikely that many people have ever laid eyes on this. It was a fine way to wrap up the trip.