A Day in Butch Cassidy's Neck of the Woods

Posted On
Apr 08, 2010
Southern Utah

By Jim Hilding


Photos Carl Oelerich


Canyoneering, according to Wikipedia, is traveling in canyons using a variety of techniques that may include walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling, and/or swimming.  Just a few years ago, very few people were familiar with the term canyoneering (or Wikipedia, for that matter).  I suspect the good folks at Wikipedia never spent a day descending an impossibly narrow water carved crack in the San Rafael Swell with Brett Sutteer of Moab Cliffs and Canyons, for if they had they surely would have included falling, scraping, flailing and smiling in their definition.


As we drive south from Salt Lake City on our way to Green River to meet up with Brett, the fall foliage across Soldier's Summit is in full pyrotechnical bloom. We descend past the Castle Gate mine north of Helper and my mind drifts from the extraordinary beauty of this place to the history of the people that came through here over the course of the last century. Less than a month ago I traveled this same road with a friend and we discussed how radically things can change in the span of just a few generations.  My grandfather, for example, a man I knew before he died when I was 10, was born in 1892. That is five years before Butch Cassidy hightailed it out of the Castle Gate mine with $8,800 dollars in his saddlebags and two posses hot on his trail. I think about that now since our ultimate destination is a small slot not far from the labyrinth of dusty twisted canyons known as Robber's Roost. In fact, just north of the Roost in the San Rafael Swell where we are headed, Cassidy managed to get those two posses, one from Price and one from Huntington, shooting at each other before they figured out Cassidy was long gone. Of course, we are on our way to recreate, but not so long ago, these very same canyons provided men (and a few women) like Cassidy's Wild Bunch impenetrable fortresses from the law.

Green River, Utah, unlike many other former dusty outposts across the West, seems to cling to its history of mining, outlaws, railroad and cowboys while embracing the necessary change to keep it from becoming an anachronism. We pass a few shops on our way to the very modern and comfortable River Terrace Inn. Owners Lana and Ben Coomer have taken full advantage of a long spread of riverfront property by a placid stretch of the Green to provide travelers with a truly spectacular setting. With all the modern amenities, the River Terrace could be anywhere. Fortunately it isn't.  We grab a burger at Ray's Tavern because..well, when in Rome…and prepare for a day of canyoneering.


After growing up in Salt Lake City (with a mutual friend we quickly learn), Brett Sutteer came south to explore Utah's spectacular redrock country. For the last ten years, he has owned Moab Cliffs and Canyons and guides people through the slots, cliffs and mazes carved by millions of years of erosion. Our destination is Little Sinbad, also known as Zero Gravity, a wet canyon not far from Eardley Canyon on the western edge of the Swell south of Interstate 70. Somewhere across Highway 24, just a few clicks from here, Cassidy spent his days resting his horses and counting his loot before planning his next heist. Not us. We're trying on wetsuits and adjusting climbing harnesses before the short hike into the start of the descent. After Brett demonstrates a few simple techniques, we don our wetsuits and harnesses and prepare to descend. After comfortably hiking to this point wearing shorts and t-shirts, it seems a little odd to be wearing a wetsuit in the desert. But as the walls close in tighter, they also reach higher which means the late fall sun disappears completely from view. I'm certainly appreciative of the wetsuit as we drop or fall into icy pools of dark water. It also provides protection from the sandpaper-like walls which is key as they encroach ever closer. Overall this is not a particularly difficult canyon to navigate, but a few spots are neither for the faint of heart nor the overindulgent eater, and I am equally appreciative of Brett's obvious expertise and reassuring demeanor. Clearly he has done this a time or two before. I struggle to squeeze through a few tight crevasses and wonder how the others in our party, who outweigh me by more than a few Twinkies (which says more about me than them) can manage. But after some challenging sections , we all successfully drop down the final slide and swim across the last pool before the short walk back to the trucks.


About the only thing we might have had in common with the Wild Bunch on this day was sitting down afterwards and rehashing our adventure over a few cold beers as the afternoon sun played across the desert and the shadows grew longer.  We'd been in the San Rafael Swell a few short hours.  The memories of the day will last a lifetime.





Canyoneering, San Rafael Swell, Butch Cassidy