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Little Wild Horse Canyon

How Bad can it Get?
Little Wild Horse - Bell Canyon
San Rafael Swell

Written by Shane Burrows

          So you want to hike Little Wild Horse Canyon in winter, after a flashflood and a major snowstorm. The following is a description of what Shauna and I encountered on our hike through a winter wonderland.

          Saturday morning, January 13, 2001, we attempted this popular loop hike after two days of heavy rain in the San Rafael Swell. Friday night it snowed 12" at the trailhead to Little Wild Horse Canyon and 18" at the head of the canyon. The temperature was 19 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived.  We spoke with two climbers camped at the Little Wild Horse trailhead and was told the canyon had a flashflood come down the night before.

          We knew the potholes would all be very full but figured they would be frozen, wrong! The potholes were ice-free, however the pour-offs and narrow slots were rivers of ice. Interesting is a mild description of the spectacular view which greeted us. This canyon should have had a WI3 rating on this day, which is how climbers rate Technical Ice.

          We decided to go up Little Wild Horse and down Bell Canyon because we knew from experience that most the difficulties would be encountered in Little Wild Horse. We were worried about getting past the potholes. I now know it is possible to complete this loop with dry feet if you use every trick in the book and every bit of your outdoor skills. It also requires a tremendous amount of luck.

          Several times we encountered long corridors with 12" of water and ice coated walls. The ice-coated walls eliminated the climbing technique of bridging the corridor. Bridging is done by placing your right hand and right foot against one wall, and your left had and left foot against the opposite wall, then climbing over the obstacle. We traversed these corridors by carrying large rocks and creating stepping stones.

          The icefalls at the pour-offs would have been easy if I had of included crampons and ice axe in my canyoneering gear, maybe next time. Two pour-offs were climbed using a shoulder stand and a rope, which I had tossed in my pack at the last minute.  The pour-off at the head of Little Wild Horse was impressive, 18-inches of snow coating two feet of ice. This 10-foot pour-off is sometimes climbed by piling rocks until handholds near the top can be reached. This technique was not going to work this time, there was deep water at the base and we would need an 8-foot pile of rocks to get close to the top. All of the handholds were covered with ice. Backtracking 200 yards, we located a ledge system, which deposited us on top of the pour-off.

          It took 5 1/2 hours to complete the loop. We were stopped several times and allowed to continue by luck, I hope we didn't use up all of our karma points. I never carry a rope on this hike and put one in my pack as we were leaving the trailhead, without the rope the ice-coated pour-offs would have been impossible. There were two corridors where the water was over three feet deep, for some unexplained reason there was no ice on the canyon walls in these locations. This allowed us to bridge the corridor and climb over the water. At one point we reached a corridor with deep water and ice coated walls, several minutes of searching uncovered a small ledge system which lead to the far side. I guess it really is better to be lucky than good.

          The most interesting item we discovered on this trip was a 3' tall nude snowman, actually snowwoman. The anatomically correct snowwoman was located in an alcove 2/3 of the way up Little Wild Horse Canyon.  I can't explain how a nude snowwoman came to reside in this location, I guess you will have to climb the canyon and check it out yourself.

Little Wild Horse Bell Canyon

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Copyright 2000, Shane Burrows