Wounded Knee Canyon – Colo Wilderness 29 & 30 October 2015
And yes, I did wound my knee, before we even got to an abseil I took a fall on a ledge, could have been much worse (3m fall over the edge), but only suffered a badly grazed knee, hole in my thermals and a few bruises.
Bucks Pass 5 in the Colo, is named Wounded Knee Canyon because one of the members of a group back in 2003 (possibly the first descent), hurt his knee on the way in. It’s a Grade 6 canyon and I’ve been lusting after a trip down Wounded Knee ever since I read about it in Brian Corliss’ book, Passes of the Colo, but it always seemed out of my reach.
For one, it’s a 2 day trip, you abseil all the pitches on day 1, camp on the Colo and walk out on day 2, I didn’t like the thought of walking upstream on the Colo to Pass 1, Crawfords Pass, it’s a long way and can be scrubby. And then there was the reported last pitch of 80m in one guide book, who wants to carry 80m of rope into (and out of) a canyon. And then it was “who’d go with me?” For years, I just didn’t have any canyoners that I knew who were up for an overnight canyon, particularly as the first day is a big one.
Brad and Klaus on the walk in, passing a nice overhang on the way down to the creek.
Then, all the pieces started to fall into place, I remembered the exit at Pass 6, a little over a k from Wounded Knee and a short 3.5 hour trip from the bottom to the cars, and it’s got a great campsite on the river at the Pass. Turns out too that the 80m abseil is really only 60m.
Brad (who I’d told about the canyon after a recent trip down the Colo) sent me an email and said “when are we going to do it”. So, it was just a matter of who’d go with me. Now that I’m canyoning with MSS, the pool is larger, and Rod & John G joined me from MSS, and then Brad, Klaus and Trish N from BWOC agreed to go. With the four guys, Trish and I wouldn’t have to carry the 60m ropes, but we’d be lumbered with a 30m rope and the survival gear and tube tape for the climb out (bonus not having to carry 60m ropes!).
John making his way down the creek just after the junction. One on-line trip report told about lawyer vine that shredded their arms and legs, we were lucky, we encountered a little but not enough to be annoying.
For a while it looked like all the planning would be for nought as the weather forecast was for showers and rain, but gradually it improved and on Friday after talking through our options with Rod, we decided to give it a go regardless. It did sprinkle on the way up to Colo Heights but that was about all the precipitation we got. Brad, Klaus, Trish and I met up with Rod and John at 9am and were soon headed off.
At the jump off point on the Crawford’s Lookout track, John led us to a great spur down to our creek. We had to do a little back tracking when presented with a cliff-line but found a good ramp down with little effort and were soon at the creek junction we were looking for.
A lot of people don’t think Wounded Knee is a “true canyon”, but we decided that a canyon can be classified as such if “it is deeper than it is wide” and “if it has some constricted sections”. Wounded Knee ticked both those boxes. There was quite a bit of constriction and it was very narrow in spots. All but the last two abseil starts were awkward (possibly contributing to it’s Grade 6 rating) and the last two abseils were fabulous.
Abseil #1, about 15m – John going down first
Brad on the first abseil, the first part of this abseil was easy although there was a pool to straddle
The second part of the abseil was more awkward due to our packs getting in the way and the slipperiness of the rock face. Here’s Rod negotiating around the rock-face
After the abseil there was a fairly open section of the creek, with a few small climb-downs or steps.
This section was very pleasant and easy going.
Abseil #2 – about 25m – this was the first time that we brought out the brand new 60m rope and it ended up being a tangled mess, it was amusing watching Klaus and Brad sorting out the knots in it. Note the wall of rock beside Klaus, it was a mass of small native orchids
Close up of the orchids (photo: John G)
Abseil #2 – another tricky start with an inconvenient tree
Rod at the bottom of Abseil 2, for a “fairly dry canyon” there was a lot of water in it.
Abseil #3 – around 28m and a much nicer start!
The bottom of Abseil #3 – this was tricky, you landed on a ledge and then had to turn around, with the bloody pack in the way and jump across to the sand – everyone managed but me, I ended up in a pool up to my waist.
Me before I ended up in the waist deep pool (Photo: Klaus)
John on Abseil #3
Trish on Abseil #4 – around 20m. Another tricky start. By this time the abseils are coming thick and fast, you can see the sand of the Colo beyond the trees.
Brad on Abseil #5 – this was a really nice abseil, no tricky start for a change.
Rod at the top of Abseil #5
Another shot of me, just to prove I was there – on the 5th abseil (Photo: Klaus)
John sussing out Abseil #7 – around 28m. The refrain all during the day was “I think it makes it to the bottom”, one can’t guarantee that a pitch is the length that it’s been reported being.
Rod on Abseil #7 – this was probably the nicest abseil for the whole day (with the exception of #8), you abseiled down with a wonderful honeycombed cave/overhang beside you
Brad at the start of Abseil #8 – the Big Drop. A few of us didn’t want to abseil 60m on new ropes with a heavy pack on our backs so we dropped the packs down to a midway ledge and then dropped them the rest of the way. This probably added on about 30 min to the trip, but I for one enjoyed the abseil much more without having to battle with the pack over balancing me, plus, the start was a little narrow, was much easier without the packs.
Rod on the last abseil all 60m of it (photo: John G). I feel bad for Rod and John as they got the job of getting the packs down, so they didn’t do the abseil in one go, they stopped at the ledge, they’re going to have to go back now and do it again to have the pleasure of that 60m abseil!
We then started our walk downstream to our campsite. In spots there was a “track” put in by someone with a saw, who we’ve nick-named “Saw Boy”, if you found the track after negotiating a sandbank it was easy going, otherwise we took to the river, which was thankfully quite low.
Occasionally though we ran into quick-sand for which the Colo is notorious. Here’s Rod up to his thigh, I heard but didn’t capture it on film that in another section he was in up to his thigh with both legs, Trish was wondering if she’d have to give him a hand to get out.
We started around 9am and were in camp at around 5pm, the walking down the Colo is quite slow in places. All in all, a pretty big day, we were all stuffed by the time we got to the campsite. Unfortunately, it is such a popular place that there’s very little wood around so our campfire was economical.
The water was really pleasant, and most of us had a swim in the big pool by the campsite. Trish and I though decided that we couldn’t pass up shooting the rapids
Using Pass 6 to exit the Colo had always freaked me out, I’ve done it about 4 or 5 times now, there are 3 small climbs that are ok for me with a handline, and then one that is quite exposed and everyone else does without a handline but I usually have one, this time I noticed that there was a ledge going around to the left of it, so I followed the ledge around and lo and behold I was up past the climb, so, no more worries with Pass 6, I can probably use that for years to come now.
Klaus and Rod headed out first sussing out a route for us that wouldn’t involve waist deep water. The sandbank that Brad and I had crossed on 6 months ago had been washed away and there didn’t look like a way across that wouldn’t involve deep water. The guys found a way across though.
Saw Boy and his friends have been really busy here, they’ve cut hand and foot holds and put in ring bolts all the way across this rock block-up. Trish and I needed a bit of webbing to get up this section but other than that it was straight forward.
Rod using some of the hand and foot holds for this section
You could avoid this small pool by going down a rock with a hand hold to steady you. Klaus and Rod took that route but John, Trish and I decided that this way down was better. John (of course) managed to walk down the sloping rock.
Trish and I decided that we’d slide down on our butts, not many foot or hand holds but the only risk was loosing traction and sliding into the water. Klaus and Rod went off the left hand end at the top.
Once across the boulder block up, there is a small shute to negotiate, not many foot holds but a few hand holds have been cut in. We suspect that Saw Boy is a fisherman, no rock climber, canyoner or bushwalker would put in window sash cord as a hand-line, we put in our own tape as we didn’t trust the sash cord.
You have to step across a gaping chasm here, again, foot and hand holds have been added and Bunnings rope has been put in the ring bolt at the top, again we used our own tape. From here there’s a ledge to walk around, quite exposed to the next climb.
John waited for us all to get past the 2nd climb and onto the ledge around to the third climb (the chimney), you can barely see us on the ledge, he quickly caught up to us! (Photo: John G)
Trish on the next climb – a bit of a chimney up, easy without a pack, the guys of course all did it with their packs on, a bit of extra height helps too, both Trish and I are vertically challenged.
This is the last climb, you can see why I wouldn’t like it, Klaus is making it look so, easy! (Photo: John G)
Finally we’re up the last climb. I’ve been doing this pass for at least 10 years now and had never bothered to look for a way around this climb, it’s certainly taken all the stress out of using this pass for me. You can see our campsite on the sandy bank below.
From the last climb it was simply a matter of walking up the creek, convenient foot and hand holds where needed have been put in by Saw Boy. I suspect that it’s fisher people, they could easily come down the pass in a couple of hours on a Friday evening, fish all day Saturday and Sunday and then the Pass is so easy that they could walk out on dusk on the Sunday.
Towards the end of our run up the creek, Brad and Klaus took a detour and ended up on the other side of the creek to us, we took a much needed rest while we waited for them to catch up after their adventure.
Once we left the creek, there was a 1m wide track that has been put in which took us straight to the helipad and fire trail. We left camp at 8am and were at the cars by 11.30am, we took plenty of stops to rest as the climb out is quite steep, but I don’t think we could have shaved much off that 3.5 hour walk out. I have to say, although I’m philosophically opposed to the enhancements (takes all the fun out of the wilderness adventure), the track and foot-hand holds that we found really helped speed up the trip.
This is a good trip, we questioned whether it could be done in a day, possibly with a young fit group, no overnight pack and lots of stamina and long day-light hours, you’d be stuffed by the end of it though, and one of the highlights was camping on the river.
So, another canyon crossed off the Wish List, thank you so much to everyone who supported me on the trip with pack hauling and carrying the heavy ropes, couldn’t have done it without you!
As evidence of how infrequently this canyon is visited, many of the logs/rocks were covered in moss. Popular canyons wouldn’t have the moss still on the logs, it would be worn off by now.
A small mico fern (or moss)
This micro fern (or moss) is one of my favourites, the leaves are about 1″ or 3cm in length. The Colo is quite a dry area, but the upper reaches of the canyon had loads of moss.
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