I pushed through the Tamarisk thicket on my hands and knees, being careful to avoid puncturing my air mattress, then waded out up to my waist in the cold, brown, swirling water, my shoes sticking in the mucky bottom, and while wearing a backpack, tried to get on my yellow inflatable mattress. It was an awkward moment. Peter and I had discussed practicing the technique in advance, but since Boulder had been cool and rainy, and we don’t like being cold, we skipped that part. So this was our first try – it was not going to be elegant no matter what – so nothing to do now but trust our plan, lunge up onto the mattress, and start paddling across the Green River.
We started as far upstream on Queen Anne Bottom as we could get, having first rappelled down a short cliff band, and were aiming for Millard Camp on the other side, after which the River pushed up against more cliffs, making an exit from the River impossible, and a much, much longer River trip probable. I kept wondering how Peter was doing behind me, but never turned around – we really had to make that one exact spot – if he didn’t make it there was nothing I could do about it, and vice versa, so I looked toward my spot paddled for it. The Green was running 14,740 cfs, so I was “ferrying” – pointing myself slightly upstream in order to get as far across as possible while the strong current pushed us downriver. It was going to be close. The River turned left here and we were aiming for the right bank, so the water was moving much faster on this side – I paddled harder – hmm, really need to make this I thought, but the current was really strong now. A wedge of rock stuck out in the River, I figured there would be an eddy line behind it – yup, still 15’ from shore but the eddy line grabbed me just as I was being swept past the exit point – made it!
I scrambled onto the rocks, took off my pack, and looked for Peter. He was on the same line as me – he narrowly made the eddy line but recirculated twice before managing to get out, as his arm strength was too far gone.
Not too bad. Our plan worked. It was 10am on the first day of our planned 3 day, 100 mile trek in Canyonlands National Park.
I named this route the “Triple Trek” because it transects all three sections of the Park: Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Needles. Most of the route is on trails and jeep roads, and it goes thru fabulous country, but nothing like it had ever been done because of that little problem of the Green and Colorado Rivers getting in the way. The Maze is on the west side of the rivers, the Needles is on the east side, I-Sky is in-between the two, and it’s a monstrous, 8 hour drive on tough jeep roads plus long hikes to get from one bank of the river 300 meters to the other side. Or you can swim across. So my route makes a lot of sense, sort of.
Peter and I wore shortee wetsuits for the 55 degree water, as the air mattresses leave us partially submerged, and draped them over our Fastpacks to dry as we hiked out the Millard jeep road. Normally we like trails but hiking on this road isn’t bad, as while this was the 5th time I’ve done it I’ve only seen one vehicle, ever, and zero anybody else, so road vs trail doesn’t really matter. It’s one of those places I like to term, “You gotta like the desert”. There isn’t even a bush for 18 miles, let alone a tree. It might have looked odd to see two people carrying wetsuits up the Millard Benches, but the Gecko’s didn’t care.
There was time to reflect. Memory and meaning complete and experience – as CS Lewis said, “A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered” – and I had plenty to remember.
I first tried this route in 1998. After a winter of pouring over maps, a plan emerged, and I gave it a try on Memorial Weekend that year. My technique then was to wrap a 3/8″ ensolite pad around my torso, hold it in place with a tight-fitting surfer shirt, seal the cuffs and waist with strapping tape, put my gear into a dry bag and tow it from a cord around my shoulder while swimming across. The strapping tape needless to say didn’t work, but I made it across, and launched up the Millard Benches in blazing heat. I made it all the way to Land of the Standing Rocks, where very fortuitously I saw a ranger in a Jeep and begged him for water. This was a big help in more ways than one, as he was a hard-core backcountry guy, so I chatted him up trying to obtain the little secrets he knew. Most significantly, he heard of a way off the White Rim Sandstone into Horse Canyon, which I had gone entirely around, so I marked that on my map. (Read on).
Sometime after dark that day I made it down to Spanish Bottom, which is less than halfway. This trip was over, kaput, done. I spread out a Trails Illustrated map (tear-proof), laid down on it, carefully spread my other map on top of me, and went to sleep, content there was not much else to do at this point. The next morning I hiked 3 mi up to the Confluence, flagged down a passing motor boat, swam out to it, asked him for a ride back upriver which he generously granted, along with a cold beer, and hiked back up onto I-Sky and my car. Looking back, it was a ludicrous attempt – I was trying to do 100 miles of mostly unknown desert in one day, and didn’t come even remotely close to finishing the route. But by virtue of not dying it may have been one of my finest accomplishments. And I learned a lot.
Learning is good. It adds meaning and memory. And long ago I realized what I really like is to learn nature, to learn a place intricately, and to be able to move in harmony with the natural world. I also like races, but to have thousands of signs pointing which way to go, telling exactly what to do, when, where, and how, just doesn’t engage much of who I am, so isn’t that interesting.
So after all these years I’m back out here with Peter. Peter is the best partner in existence, as he’s strong, intelligent, experienced, and mostly, brings great presence to the moment. And I must say, I wanted someone like Peter to verify this route. We had set the record on the Colorado Trail in 1999, which popularized that route, the John Muir Trail the following year which set off the strong FKT interest there, and we pioneered Gannet Peak via the west side which now is the standard FKT route, and numerous other backcountry standards, but my Triple Trek, which I thought was a great route, had never so much had gotten a mention let alone a second attempt.
So we’ll find out. We’re now approaching The Drop. This could be the crux – for 30 miles the White Rim Sandstone is unbroken and completely impassable, except for this one exact spot – which that ranger told me about back in 1998. Standing on top one can see verdant Horse Canyon down below, green with cottonwoods and the liklihood of water, but if you can’t get down, it’s another 15 miles on top with zilch for water. It’s spitting rain as Peter and I approach – very bad for a technical down climb – I guess super-classic routes must always be formed with mythological circumstances.
In 1999 I went back determined to do the route. I motored down off I-Sky, found the hidden cleft that provides passage to the Green River, swam the darn thing, and started marching up the Millard Road once again. Once again it was way too hot to run – there was no way I could exert myself and maintain a reasonable core temp and carry enough water. It was in the 90’s, full sun, and the wind was blowing hot and dry, as I arrived at the White Rim lip in hopes of finding the passage the ranger said he thought might exist. It was a committing situation. I was in the middle of nowhere, alone, the wind was so strong pieces of gravel were hitting me in the shins as I walked back and forth on the rim looking for a way down. I was out of water, and another 15 miles would have turned me into a raisin. I considered that option while I still could, but then re-committed to finding the passage, and finally did. 50’ on an easy 5th class slab, another 1,000’ of 4th class, and I was at the blessed canyon bottom. With spring in my steps I went downcanyon to where I saw cottonwoods from above, whipped out the little plastic drinking straw I always carry on desert adventures, and slurped water for the next 10 minutes out of the 1/2” deep seep.
Then it was time to keep moving as I needed to get across the Colorado River before dark. The Maze is spectacular, but I moved through it with determination, popped out at Chimney Rock, and picked up the pace through the Doll House then down the trail to Spanish Bottom. Which I reached after dark.
Hmm … very interesting again. The hot weather brought the high country snow down, and this thing was raging … in the moonlight I could make out the dark shapes of tree trunks floating downstream … I could hear the roar of Brown Betty, the first big rapid in Cataract Canyon, just around the next bend. This route was constantly presenting me with mythological dilemmas. It wasn’t me leading the action at all – this route was telling it’s own story – I was just one of the players.
Technically speaking, swimming the River at night wasn’t actually much different than swimming it in the day. But after 17 hours of continuous movement, alone with the energy of this huge body of water swirling, churning, and rushing inexorably to the ocean right in front of me, the thought of immersing my skinny, frail, sensitive little body into that cold dark mass of energy was emotionally non-comforting.
What to do? Re-commit or back off? YOUR suggestions welcome – please Comment!
PART TWO TOMORROW.