Beta - Potrillo Canyon (3A II)

by Brett Kettering

Please note that the bolted anchors mentioned in this report are all painted a brown color so as to blend-in well with the basalt rock and have been installed in locations that don’t flaunt their presence, yet provide for easy rappel starts and pulls. If you want to do this canyon with natural anchors, it is possible. It may take a bit of time to rig a decent one for rappel 1, but the other two rappels have good natural opportunities. The bolted anchors are here for people who prefer solid, redundant, and easy-to-rig anchor opportunities. Irrespective of your feelings on bolting, please do not destroy this work. If you don’t like bolted anchors, don’t use them, but leave them for others.

Potrillo Canyon is a nice canyon with a short deep section that contains three rappels. It also is home to a geologic contact where Cerros del Rio basalt meets Bandelier Tuff. Our local expert Geologist, Steve Reneau, is full of information about the formations, when they occurred, their significance, etc. You can really learn a lot about Geology by going through canyons with him.

The first rappel into Potrillo Canyon is just northwest of the White Rock, NM climbing crag named Potrillo Cliffs. The trailhead is on Estante Way at N35.79362 W106.21015. Follow the instructions on that page, but where it says, “Just past this sign veer LEFT onto a less obvious trail.” you will not “veer LEFT” and you will stay on the obvious trail. That sign is at N35.79507 W106.21373. The trail will meander in a westerly direction until you reach the Potrillo Canyon drainage. There is a “Y” at N35.79549 W106.21543. Keep following the main trail towards N35.79571 W106.21736, where you are in the drainage.

Potrillo Cliffs has climbing routes on the west and south walls. When you start down the canyon you can see climbers on the west wall. As you get further down the canyon you’ll be able to see the climbers on both walls.

This canyon is normally dry or has so little water that you won’t even get your feet wet. It is normally rated 3AII. Occasionally there is enough water in it to give it a “B” rating. During the Monsoonal rains of September 2013 water was flowing through this canyon with a stiff current and waterfalls, probably validating a “C” rating. While I believe it would have been safe to be in the canyon during that flow, it would have been pretty cold water and much more treacherous getting through the narrow section that has a lot of very slick, water-polished basalt in it.

It’s best to get into the drainage a bit up canyon, N35.79571 W106.21736, from the first rappel. Work your way down the drainage towards a very tall drop that on rare occasions is a waterfall, and is the first rappel, N35.79502 W106.21725. Do be careful as there is a lot of very slick, water-polished basalt in the drainage. A couple places look to be tricky down climbs, but if you look closely you’ll see that there are narrow ledges that can be easily walked and stairstep down to the next level.

The anchor for rappel 1 is a two bolt anchor with chain, integrated rappel ring, and a rapide (you can choose to use the ring or rapide or both). It is high on the wall and back from the edge on LDC. It’s in this position to setup an easier pull and be back away from the edge. If you look closely about 5’ back from where you’ll go over the edge, you’ll see that there is a very large crack and the rock you stand on to rappel over the edge will some day not be there any longer once enough undercut erosion has occurred that this rock weight can no longer be supported. Remember that geologic time is now. So, I installed this anchor back in the more firmly attached rock (for now, of course). For the first 15’ or so your feet will be on the rock. Then, it becomes free-hanging for the remaining 80’ or so. This lands you on a very large, sloping ledge. Stay on rappel and walk out to the end of the sloping ledge and down another ~80’ vertical drop. Your feet will be on the face that is made of basalt rocks packed in place with highly compacted mud.

Of course, you could do this as two rappels, but you’d need to build another anchor on the sloping ledge, which is not so sloping as to be very dangerous. One could easily get off rappel and walk down to find a place to build another anchor.

I have always done this two stage drop as one rappel. I use a 220’ rope. There is about 10’ of the rope at the top that I rig with a Figure 8 on a Bight static block (against the rapide as such a knot could easily slip through the ring) and then attach my 240’ 6mm pull cord. I then throw the rope down to the bottom of the second drop in its bag. This leaves plenty of rope on the ground that even as rope is drawn up as the rappeller reaches the sloping ledge one can hold on to it to provide a Fireman’s belay.

The last person should bring the pull cord. Once at the edge of the sloping ledge, I find it convenient to have that person throw down the pull cord bag so that we can keep it untwisted and separate from the rappel rope. Stand way back from the bottom of the second drop and pull is pretty smooth and easy.

If you needed to escape the canyon after this rappel you could pretty easily do so by scrambling up to a ridge on LDC and then following that ridge to the Potrillo Cliffs crag.

Head down canyon scrambling over large basalt rocks. There is one down climb for which short people may need a partner assist, but a taller person (I’m 6’ 1”) should have no problem slip-stemming a short bit to a solid footing. During normal times you may encounter a few small pools of water through here, but you should have no problem getting around them without getting wet.

Rappel 2 is at N35.79378 W106.21720, and could probably be down climbed by more sure-footed canyoneers. It is really a sequence of a few short, <10’, drops with angled ramps between. It takes about 70’ of rope to just rappel over the drops and ramps. It is also pretty slick, water-polished basalt. So, a slip down climbing here could result in a nasty sprain or even a break that would make for a not-so-happy day. Just rappel it to be safe. There is a two bolt anchor with chain and integrated rappel ring about head height on LDC. There is a rather large basalt rock chocked into place in the waterline that has been used with a webbing wrap as a natural anchor. Any time water flows through here, though, that webbing becomes severely impregnated with mud and debris such that it is stiff and needs to be replaced. There’s also an old hanger on a rock in the waterline that has been flattened (I’m not sure if this happened by someone beating it flat or a rock rolling over it) and is no longer usable.

A short walk down canyon from the bottom of rappel 2 puts you at rappel 3.

Rappel 3 is at N35.79339 W106.21725. This is where you encounter the contact between Cerros del Rio basalt and Bandelier Tuff. Steve informs me that more specifically and interestingly is that just past this rappel (or on the it?) you cross the buried side of a meandering 1.22 million year old Rio Grande paleo canyon into basalt that was completely buried by the Bandelier Tuff. As a first approximation, you could say folks are rapping down the contact and down the ancient exhumed canyon wall.

This rappel is about 60’ high. There is a small tree just RDC of the waterline that we have used in the past with a retrievable anchor. There is currently a stretch of webbing between that tree and one about 8’ behind it that one of the local Canyoneers/Climbers installed as a backup to the tree being uprooted. If you use this anchor, you need to sit down and scoot over the edge. Over the edge you’ll find some good footholds (good by rock climbers’ standards) on which to plant your feet and really get on rappel.

Alternatively, there is a two bolt anchor with chains and rapides about 8’ up on the LDC wall that is obscured by an Apache Plume bush growing out of the perpendicularly adjacent wall face. It’s pretty easy to get on rappel standing in the waterline. Cinch the rope up in your rappel device and step out on the face to rappel. It’s a very nice rappel line to the bottom and a super easy pull.

Now you’re in the Bandelier Tuff formation. Just a short distance down on RDC at N35.79330 W106.21741 there is a place that can be scrambled, but you’ll probably need a good climber to go first and put a hand line down for others. It’s pretty loose and crumbly in here. We used this exit the first time through the canyon. Thereafter we went down to the junction with Water Canyon and used a much easier exit.

As I said, it’s better for you to work your way down canyon, boulder hopping and walking for about 10 minutes until you see a large drainage that is Water Canyon intersecting on RDC at N35.79058 W106.21557. At this point the remainder of the canyon is known as Water Canyon and it goes all the way down to the Rio Grande. There’s a cliff bank just before you reach the Rio Grande that used to be an old climbing crag, but no one goes there any more. You could rappel that or walk around either side of it and scramble down to the river. I’ve seen this from the end of a canyon on the other side of the river (River Beach Canyon in the Caja del Rio), but I’ve never gone down that far when going through Potrillo Canyon.

From the Rio Grande it is possible to scramble up the steep hillside on LDC to the bottom of a local climbing crag called The Big Enchilada. From there you can get up on the mesa top and walk back to where you parked.

I have always turned up Water Canyon at the intersection. It trends in a WNW direction. You’ll go WNW for a short distance and then the waterline makes a right angle turn to the right so that you are heading NE. It will make a big, sweeping left U-Turn (take a look at it here). After that it will bend right and then left again. Around this point, N35.79211 W106.21816, look for a good spot to exit the Water Canyon waterline to the right, RUC (Right Up Canyon), so that you can scramble up to the base of the small cliff of the mesa. You want to head to N35.79263 W106.21807 where you can do an easy Class 3 scramble to the mesa top at N35.79295 W106.21805. Work your way northwest along this mesa ridge. Shortly you’ll turn north to follow the ridge and you’ll find a trail that will lead you back across the Potrillo Canyon drainage pretty much on the opposite side of the drainage where you entered to start this adventure.

Find the main trail back out to Estante Way where your car is parked.