“What a great trip! We didn’t get injured or lost!”
While Peter Bakwin enthusiastically agreed with this assessment, I noticed I was defining success not by how fast or far we went, the two usual objectives for runners, but by the fact we didn’t get hurt doing it.
So either I’m getting old, slow, and conservative – which I actually am – or the 5th class scrambling, elaborate route finding, and river crossings on this wilderness route contained enough risk that to have cruised it and enjoy every minute (except for the quicksand) was a worthy enough accomplishment.
Three full days in Canyonlands National Park, traversing all of its four Districts in one 85 mile loop – what’s there not to like?
Well actually, I didn’t like the quicksand. Quicksand really does exist, even though nobody has ever slowly sunk in over their heads like in the movies, but squishing in up to your shin is quite annoying, particularly since it is true that it looks exactly like regular firm sand. So one minute you’re cruising on a flat and fast section of creek bottom, then without warning – squish – you lurch forward, your foot is buried in the muck and your shoes are filled with wet sand.
Indian Creek should have been fast, but quicksand was making it quite slow. We had started the route that morning by dropping off the “Government Trail”, one of my favorite routes anywhere – a highly improbably passage thru a continuous cliffband, that is neither a trail nor endorsed by the government. After some searching we then found a climbers entrance down into Monument Basin, which I had discovered a year earlier on a recon, and proceeded down this outstanding canyon system. We knew there was a pouroff near the bottom, which was reputed to be completely impassable, but we hoped to find a way around it.
This is the nature of the best Canyonlands routes: it’s all about the discovery. Canyonlands is a vertiginous landscape, much steeper and more severe than any mountain range in the world, yet the verticality goes down instead of up. So if you’re looking across the landscape, you can’t see the business; it all looks flat. And there’s almost no water and almost no trails. But “almost none” isn’t the same as “none” – you have to know where to go, or discover where to go, or not go there at all – an ideal arrangement!
Our plan on this second weekend in October, was to improve on the Triple Trek Peter and I did in May, which traversed all three Districts of Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky, the Maze, and Needles. We wanted to tighten the loop – keep the best parts and lose the long grinds. To put together a viable route would require not only crossing the Rivers but being on them longer, and in researching how to accomplish that we learned that the two rivers themselves are an official District of the Park. This is deserved: the Green and Colorado are massive, the interstate highways of water, draining much of the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, and they come together here in the Park at the fabled Confluence. Cataract Canyon is world class rapids, surrounded by world class desert.
So our route would be the Quad Trek.
That first morning we cruised down Monument Basin, delighting in the giant vertical towers all around us, juxtaposed by the easy soft sand at our feet – classic desert canyon hiking. Then we came to a pouroff – our path went from completely horizontal to completely vertical – these canyons are extremely abrupt like that. This was readily passed on a rockfall about 150m on the right, followed by flat and easy again. Then the ‘stopper’ pouroff – over 100’ high and overhanging. This pouroff was too big for our gear, but we saw a side canyon further down which appeared lower, so we hiked over to that, spent a half hour fixing an anchor, and rapped 80′ down to where the Colorado River was waiting.
I admit to being pleased with myself for figuring out the original Triple Trek. It took me three years of exploration to get it done: over 100 miles long, looping the entire Park, and cleverly designed so it could be done with no technical gear. The Quad Trek was tighter and in some ways better, but we had to bring a cord to get past at least one pouroff, and now we were about to deploy our new packrafts.
Packrafts. Ever since these were invented I’ve been avoiding them. They’re costly, heavy, and while some respectable adventurers use them, I’ve always thought they sort of looked like dorks. Like wearing rubber galoshes on a trail run. Like carrying a plastic lunch box with little bunnies on it during an ultra (OK, that one would actually be very cool). Kayaks and Stand Up Paddleboards are sleek and slender, paradigms of hydraulic efficiency, are great sports I really like, but packrafts are basically glorified pool toys.
But … technology continues to evolve, I continue to get older, so instead of swimming the Rivers as I’ve always done we purchased these trick new packrafts that only weigh 24oz. Plus 11oz for the double bladed carbon-fiber paddle. OK, so not a bad deal – these fit perfectly in our Fastpack 30’s.
Me letting go of my disdain for packrafting was possibly necessary, because our route at this point required us to go 1.3 miles UPstream on the Colorado, in order to connect to Indian Creek, the only passable canyon for miles. Swimming upstream was not a viable methodology to say the least, and floating upstream on air mattresses as with did in May would have been impossible (and the air mattresses admittedly, made us not only look like a dorks but idiots as well).
So we slogged thru the occasional quicksand up Indian Creek, finally topping out at dark. It’s always a relief to top out, because due to the remarkable continuity of the vertical cliffbands, it’s never certain if one can get out until one does. We then marched into the night across a featureless plateau, stopping and ‘camping’ about 10pm, heading cross-country for the Needles Visitor Center because it had water. I really like going to the VC, as the next morning I finally washed the darned quicksand out of my shoes and socks, but this section could be eliminated next time for a more direct route into the heart of the Needles (see blue Hayduke Route on the map above).
The Needles District is wonderful. And is also has trails, which means travel is fairly fast. So we made it down to our next crossing at the Colorado fairly quickly, and geared up to paddle across to Spanish Bottom. Inflating the packrafts isn’t as laborious as one might expect, and I began to quite like them at this point – reflecting on the various dubious methods I have used on my four previous crossings here made me appreciate their relatively luxury, even if it would be poor strategy to post a photo of oneself in a packraft on Match.com.
After this surprisingly easy crossing, we powered up the trail into the Dollhouse, and entered the fabled Maze.
The Maze is the best. Experts-only need apply. But once you understand this place, it’s fast, easy, and utterly beautiful and exciting at the same time, in an etheric sort of way. We filled with water at a tiny seep, then motored down the main Horse Canyon which I had never been in because it’s a dead-end: a huge, impassable pouroff at the bottom prevents entry or exit. About 9pm, a single step took me from admiring the stars above us while hiking on flat, hard-packed sand, to up to my waist in quicksand, which ruined my pleasant meditative mood. So we found some high ground under a ledge, and had peaceful second night with the Jupiter-Venus-Moon conjunction keeping us company.
Regarding the impassable pouroff at the end of the canyon we were hiking down: We had spent many weeks studying this route. When I put together the Triple Trek 15 years ago, I did it by repeatedly coming out here, failing miserably, back-tracking, running out of water in the middle of nowhere, extracting myself, and finally figuring it out. This time we sat at desks in front of computers, pouring over Google Earth for hours at a time, looking for weaknesses in the cliffbands that just might admit passage. We researched trip reports, guidebooks, and exchanged emails with other people we knew who were also obsessed with it, all from the comfort of our homes.
This definitely makes doing cool new routes vastly easier. But it also means more people can do it besides me, which I confess, caused me to feel some reluctance. “Whatever happened to the good old days, eh”? I could see myself becoming a crotchety old crank, a total pain in the ass, moaning about what once was. Well, maybe next year I’ll do that.
Because this year, someone had discovered a very complex and intricate route around the huge pouroff, posted it online, and we were shamelessly following it.
Good for them! I’m really appreciating this – I’ll put “become a curmudgeon” on my to-do list for next year. The previous party made a mistake in their route description which took us some time to figure out, but while the day was still young we were successfully down on the banks of the Green, taking really deep breaths, blowing up our packrafts for our third and final River crossing. We had hoped to cross right here and go up Murphy Canyon (our name for it),
but after hours spent with Google Earth zoomed in to it’s maximal resolution, and delineating a potential route up this canyon, once we looked at it in person I didn’t think it would go. I hope someone else tries it, finds a way out, and tells me all about it, but I wasn’t willing to be that person, so Peter and I went to our Plan B, which was to paddle 8 miles down-river to the next potential exit.
Like I’ve already said, Canyonlands is really, really steep terrain – there are far less potential routes here than in the steepest mountain ranges – you have to find each exact spot. Ours was Stove Canyon, which I’ve heard about for decades, so we knew this one would go. The 8 mile paddle was not only interesting, but by now was rather fun – packrafts are not real efficient, and one is sitting in 3” of water the whole time, but it’s significantly faster than just floating, considerably warmer and dryer than swimming, and the views of course, are splendid.
The ascent of Stove was easy, we then bumbled around on top for 45 minutes following cairns that went who-knows-where, then found the track we wanted and turned it toward home. Enough exploration; food and water are virtually gone, let’s get this done. This track turned out to be a real treasure – a crazy old road grade pushed in during the Uranium boom of the 50’s and totally abandoned soon after – it’s in the middle of nowhere, easy to follow, relaxing, and no quicksand. It exited at the White Crack, a surprising passage thru the White Rim sandstone and the only egress for maybe 20 miles in either direction, and soon after we were back on relatively civilized White Rim Jeep Road. We actually saw one SUV on this – which come to think of it, were the only people we saw in three entire days except at the Visitor Center. Only a few miles to go on this, so we put the hammer down in order to ascend the Government Trail in the remaining light. The increasing shadows lengthened to the horizon, finally darkening the distant La Sals, as we climbed out of the land of canyons.
Boom. Done. We were back on top of I-Sky. As dusk softened the rock around us into warm and sensuous feminine forms, the western sky glowed red with promises, while the vast and endless canyon systems below us receded back into their dark mysteries.