Monday 31 August 2015

Utah Backpacking Trip - Escalante Wilderness (Part 2)

After our expedition down 25 Mile Wash, we decided to try a different canyon, Coyote Gulch.  This canyon is the most popular area in Escalante, and for good reason.  The canyon is beautiful and unique, almost beyond description.  Trying to capture the scale of the towering cliffs, overhangs and arches was a challenge.  Despite the popularity of this canyon, we only saw a few people, likely due to the summer heat which keeps people away.

After hiking 20km out of 25 Mile Wash, we parked at the Coyote Gulch trailhead to begin a relatively short walk across the desert.  I didn't research this route (since I hadn't planned on coming here), so we were going in mostly blind, although I had a description of the route from my guide book which I brought along with me.  I knew that the first section involved a walk across open desert for a few miles before dipping down into the canyon.  We began hiking at the hottest part of the day (around 3pm), against all common sense, with the temperatures hovering around 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Escalante Desert
If I have ever been hotter, I can't remember when.  The heat roasted us and I could feel it through the soles of my shoes.  I checked a couple of times to make sure the rubber wasn't melting, but my Merrell Moab shoes held up nicely!  I was grateful that I had packed my bandanna on this trip, it blocked out the sun from reaching my neck and sides of my head.  If someone had succumbed to heat stroke (Jensen seemed close!) we could have been in some real trouble.

Halfway through the hike I found a tiny pocket of shade against a rock ledge.  We sat here to recover.  Fortunately a storm was rolling in, giving us some shade.  I was anxious to move off the plateau and get down the cliff that I knew we had to scale in order to reach the canyon bottom, before the storm hit.

Approaching the chasms of Coyote Gulch
As we approached the canyon rim, I could see the wild scenery of Coyote Gulch, with dark chasms, sculpted rock walls and arches becoming visible, with the approaching storm as a violet backdrop.

As we continued down in elevation, the grade became steeper and steeper until it was nearly vertical! We got into the situation where we had traveled quite deep into the canyon and it was nearly as safe to keep going down rather than turn back.  I was able to get myself and my 50lb bag down the cliff without too much trouble and then went back up to help Kyle and Jensen.  Mike and I, being a bit more comfortable on the cliff, helped the other two get their bags down.  I took only one photo on the cliff the whole time as I was much more concerned with not having one of my friends plummet to their death! Fortunately the rain held off until we made it down, otherwise things could have gotten quite treacherous.

About halfway down the cliff
Once we were down and had found a spot to camp for the night, we took a closer look at the guide book on this section.  It said something to the effect of "This route is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, should only be attempted by rock climbers experienced with belaying techniques and with a 160 foot rope".  Not one of our brightest moments!

Our camp the 1st night
This pair of ravens spent a lot of time grooming each other.  I thought they struck an interesting silhouette against the red canyon walls.
 The next day after resting up, we decided to explore further down the canyon to the east.  As we were leaving, this squirrel was hanging around our camp.  Kyle tried to scare it off, but when we returned, he had chewed into my garbage bag and my "wag bag" (wag bag is the term used for the bag used to carry out your fecal waste, necessary since this is a sensitive canyon with high traffic at other times of the year).  I almost felt bad for the poor guy, that must have been an unpleasant surprise!

This long horned beetle seemed to be contemplating life on this rock in the river.

We had fun playing in the abundance of water (compared with the trickle at 25 Mile Wash).  Small waterfalls could be found, adding a nice touch to the scenery.

Coyote Natural Bridge

Birds were wary of being approached, making photography difficult in the canyon.  Black Phoebes were common along with Spotted Towhee.

Black Phoebe
Spotted Towhee
After a great day of exploring, we planned our strategy for exiting the canyon the next day.  To avoid a repeat of the afternoon in the desert and the cliff, we decided to head west along the river to Hurricane Wash where I knew there was supposed to be an alternate exit route.  Along the way, we passed the massive Jacob Hamblin Arch and a little further on, an enormous amphitheatre formed by an imposing rock overhang.  The birds twittered invisibly from the ceiling, hundreds of feet up, we felt as small as insects  It was awe inspiring, one of the most amazing spots I have ever seen.

Jacob Hamblin Arch - for scale, you can see Mike in the bottom left of the picture.

After hiking as close to the canyon exit as water availability allowed, Kyle and I scouted ahead several miles to try to find a way out for the next day.  We found it, just as the sun was starting to set. The sharp, impenetrable cliffs eventually gave way to gentler slick rock domes that we could climb.  

The next morning, we broke camp in the dark at 5am and exited the canyon just as the sun was beginning to rise over the horizon.

I left the canyons of Utah, content that my route planning had gone so wonderfully wrong.

Sunday 30 August 2015

Utah Backpacking Trip - Escalante Wilderness (Part 1)

   For the past four years, my travelling friends and I have enjoyed an annual backpacking adventure. The first trip was to New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, the second and third were along the spine of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Montana, and in 2015, we shifted gears into the desert and canyonlands of Utah.   

Mike, Jensen and I flew from Buffalo to Phoenix, Arizona where we picked up Kyle who flew in from Victoria, B.C.  We drove our rental car 10 hrs north into Utah.  

I didn't know that the Chevy Malibu was an off-road vehicle.  But at midnight we were driving basically through the desert on what was supposed to be the access road to our trailhead in Utah's Escalante wilderness. I had planned this trip for months, but no matter how long I spend at the computer, in the guide books, or on the phone with staff, nothing can prepare me for actually being on site and things can and do go wrong.  The two roads that I had heard were accessible without 4x4 were in horrendous condition with deep ruts, washouts, lots of sand and pointy rocks.  This unknown X-factor is both the pain and the joy of these trips.   

The daunting start of our trial to get to Early Weed Bench Trailhead
After trying to get down several different access roads, we finally gave up at around 2am and slept for 3 hrs before heading in to the Escalante Visitor Center to get some advice on alternative routes or access points.  We ultimately decided to try to access the same river area by a different road which was further, but in better condition.  Tired but excited, we parked our car at the junction of Egypt Road and 25-Mile Wash and started hiking!  

Smiling...for now.

At first, walking was easy on the dry river bed of 25 Mile Wash.  In this area, many of these river beds are dry for quite a while until a big thunderstorm pounds the area, water flows down ravines and builds into a torrent of water that sweeps the valley clean.  In the process it has smoothed and shaped the red sand of the area into towering cliffs, arches, caves and other unique shapes unlike anywhere else I have seen.

Mike walking between the valley walls of 25 Mile Wash.

I knew that water might be a problem for the first while, especially since we were starting further up the wash than I had previously planned due to our debacle on the access road.  With temperatures near 100 degrees, we were quickly going through our water supply.  We pressed on and eventually got our first signs of water.

Here we got our first taste of what I can only describe as quick sand.  Muddy sand that looked solid on the surface but would give way into sticky slop the second it was stepped on.  Our legs looked like this quite quickly.  This made going very slow and our pace dropped to a crawl.

By late afternoon we were getting tired and a storm was starting to roll in.  We took shelter up on this high "bench" surrounded by higher cliffs.  Seeing debris wrapped 12 feet above the river bottom from the last flash flood made me leery or staying low during storms. 

The storm didn't amount to much and we decided to climb up to the top of the cliffs to see what we could.  We had already walked around 20km and were getting pretty tired.

I spotted this flat area on the other side of the river (centre of this photo) and thought it looked like a decent campsite.  It turned out to be pretty good with an acceptable (albeit silty) water source trickling by.  We decided to make camp here for the night.

We thought about our options and decided to stay at this camp for the next day and scout further ahead without our heavy packs in order to see if we could get much further given our slow progress.

Northern Waterthrush

The below picture is a good example of just how high the flood water gets in these river bottoms.  Look at all the debris wrapped around the trunks of these trees behind Mike and Jensen.  We are sitting still about 5 feet above the main stream channel which is off to the left of this shot.

I saw several hummingbird species on this trip including Black-chinned, Rufous and the bird below which I think is a Broad-tailed Hummingbird based on the orange in the tail and the flanks, but hummingbirds are very tricky to ID and this one may require more work.

One nice treat on our day of scouting ahead was finding this tiny slot canyon that we squeezed into and explored.  It was really neat but the mud was really deep and sticky!

We took frequent breaks in the shade of the cottonwoods to get sweet relief from the heat.

After hiking further down 25 Mile Wash we decided that we would not be able to get as far as we needed in order to complete our pre-determined loop, so we climbed up out of the canyon to the "roof" to see whether overland options were possible.

Cacti were plentiful in Escalante including this interesting pin cushion. 

On top of the slick rock we saw many of these "Moqui Marbles" which I believe are formed by a process of wind and erosion.

 Camp from above

One of many different species of lizards we saw, yet to be ID'd

Following our day of exploration down 25 Mile Wash, we made the decision to leave this area and try our luck in another canyon.  This meant more wading and mucking around!

We made it out in good time after 3 days in 25 Mile Wash.  We had a great time, but it was frustrating not being able to reach the area that I had planned to traverse.  Part 2 of this trip report details our expedition into Coyote Gulch, AKA the desert death march and the cliff.  Stay tuned!