On the last day of summer I joined a trail scouting crew, four of us total, to explore a route through two adjoining canyons in southwestern Utah. I was familiar with one section of the main canyon having ventured into the area some years ago. We were following the directions of a guide-book which was clear on it’s identification of the trail through the main canyon, but more vague on the exit strategy through an adjoining side canyon.
The way in began with some difficult way-finding and negotiating of loose-soil terrain, but graduated to a series of impressive waterfalls, some as high as 45 feet.
One fall required our using webbing to safely negotiate a twisting down-climb. Water flowed through the canyon but eventually disappeared underground, and at mile eight dusk settled in and we made camp for the night. We spoiled ourselves with foil dinners and lay under the milky way watching shooting stars.
The next morning we hiked a half mile to the confluence of the two canyons, dropped our packs, and shot a six mile round-trip route to a river. We passed through four short, but very cool, slot canyons with logs jammed overhead from past flash-floods.
Water began to resurface at some point, and we found ourselves dancing around the flows. It soon became evident that our water supplies were diminishing more rapidly than planned and we used a filter to resupply for the day.
Once back at our packs we finished the last of our food supplies with the expectation of catching a late lunch at a local restaurant. We headed northeast with the intention of exiting through the second side canyon. The guidebook said there was a way, and we expected nothing less as we traversed the steady ascent through this dry gulch. We frequently shortcut the twists and turns of the canyons alluvial debris pressing through brush covered sandbars. When we turned a corner at the end of the fourth mile and ran smack dab into 200 foot vertical walls in a box canyon, we were more than a little concerned. An owl hopped off a tall cottonwood and glided down canyon as I looked back at where we had come from. A bat circled in the deep cathedral we were standing in, and everyone just went silent for a minute. The gravity of our circumstance settled in. It was pushing 4:30 p.m. and the way back the other way was 12 miles of fairly rough terrain.
We reviewed again the guidebook realizing more acutely that the description of the canyon’s exit wasn’t clear. A few minutes of discussion and we were off looking for the “ramp” that the guidebook said was somewhere near by, a possible way out. We didn’t find it, but we did find a near vertical, short, and very steep side canyon that gave us a glimmer of hope. We were thinking to have one person go out this route, without a pack, and try to phone for assistance, and let the right parties know that we were okay, but also questioned the wisdom of one person attempting this alone. We were out of food and had little water remaining. Three of us expected to wait overnight for possible help, but we all knew it was important to ensure that search and rescue efforts were not initiated.
I was thinking that I should be the one to get out, as I might be the most experienced climber, but also had the thought that our group leader would want take this role under these circumstances. He felt that way, and when he was about to go out alone, his wife asked “Do you want me to come with you?” I observed her concern and realized that we would all need to go out together.
The climb seemed so daunting that we considered leaving our backpacks, knowing we would have to return later to retrieve them. Perhaps unwisely, we determined to attempt the 500 foot ascent with our packs. The first real obstacle was a large boulder and dry waterfall that required our using ropes (webbing) to safely control our climb. From there we navigated around sheer rock outcroppings and steep scree slopes trying not to send boulders rampaging downhill. I was ahead and slipped once, sending a large boulder tumbling down and away from the group of three, that were safely behind my angled course across the hillside.
Each of us made our way from point to point, pausing and panting for breath, until we finally ascended the last obstructions of the sheer canyon. We paused on an outcropping of a forested plateau with 20+ mile per hour winds drying our sweat-stained clothing. From this point our maps showed we needed to travel northwest to intersect with a dirt road that would lead us around a canyon and then back northeast to the main highway and our recovery vehicle. Back in range of cell towers we contacted all interested parties, and I noticed a text from my wife informing me that my daughter had some good news. I made the call and learned she had just got engaged. The joy of that information, mixed with the satisfaction of not spending a night without food and water, brought some renewed energy for the final 3.5 mile push .
The fading sun lit the distant cliffs of the Glendale Bench, long grasses bent in the breeze, and rain clouds scattered across the unfolding panorama. Dusk was again upon us, and we were physically exhausted, but glad to know that the first night of fall would be in a regular bed.