March of 2003
Forrest recently posted photos and video from a trip in the Escalante which made one of my favorite memories even more vivid.
Spring of 2003 was my last semester of undergrad. In spite of taking three seminars/thesis-level classes in three different departments, I really had my shit together. Grinnell College had a two week spring break, a recognition of both our unexciting location and the pressure cooker environment most students chose to live in. With climbing friends Dave, Carl, and Kate I decided to drive out to the Escalante and do a big, 14 day, unsupported backpack, during which we’d see as much of the area as possible during that time.
Our route was ambitious: in Silver Falls, Bench-hop south to Coyote Gulch, up Stevens, down East Moody, road walk to close the loop. Are packs were enormous, mainly because we brought too much of the wrong kinds of food (homemade jerky which molded partway through), and not enough of the right kinds (carby, fatty dinners; candy). Hauling all that plus two gallons of water each south out of 25 Mile Wash and across the dunes towards Scorpion broke us all. That night, dry camped up on the bench, with the other three in a tent and me in a Bibler bivy sack, we all independently realized we wouldn’t make the whole loop. We took a zero day in Scorpion, and agreed to hike north up to Moody, still explore the Waterpocket Fold, and cut the trip short.
Pack weight was an issue. Physical concerns were also relevant, as none of us were ideally prepared to that kind of hike with that kind of weight. As will be explained, I recall Kate’s ankle bothering her, though I think Dave was having similar issues. Most of all the mental side of the trip was tough. M and I had recently started dating, and dayhiking alone in Scorpion on that rest day allowed me to realize that I was very fond of her. The trip had been a dream, and even with an altered plan we were living in it, but part of me couldn’t help but wonder why I was out there.
I recall the river walking going up from Scorpion to East Moody as really tough, even though it’s not very far. Dave and I were the early risers of the group, and my solution to waking up Kate and Carl was to setup the MSR Dragonfly near enough to the tent that they couldn’t but hear it. Hiking up East Moody we were on high alert for water, and 2/3 of the way to the head found a muddy spring under a clump of bushes. The water still looked like chocolate milk after sitting overnight; it settled not the least. Of course, the jumble of boulders at the top of the drainage held a clear spring.
Kate’s foot needed a break, but Dave, Carl and I wanted to explore. We took a Steve Allen route up out of the canyon, but in my exuberance I took us on a shortcut through the cliffs, an exposed easy 5th route on loose blocks which none of us wanted to downclimb. Unconcerned, we kept going, making it all the way to the head of Miller Creek. That view is still branded into my mind, as is the massive crypto crust we couldn’t help but walk on in places. It is still one of the most remote feeling places I’ve been.
Not only had our route up through the cliffs been irreversible, we had haphazardly ran up a series of slickrock ridges to gain the flats which took us to Miller Creek. We did not take enough care to reverse that route, and found ourselves cliffed out multiple times in a maze of domes at the head of George Camp Canyon, eventually getting saved by a bighorn trail which wrapped around the ridge between the canyons in a truly improbable fashion. An important lesson I’ve kept close ever since.
When we got to the slickrock benches above East Moody, we knew where we needed to go, we just had a lot of micro-drainages to head and not much daylight in which to do it. Hurried conversations while walking fast revealed that I had the only headlamp.
Our strategy, when the inevitable happened and darkness found us trying to find the right gully down through the cliffs, was for two of us to huddle in the darkness out of the wind, while the third took my Petzl and explored the gully. From the higher points we could see camp, as Kate had affixed a headlamp on strobe mode to the tent. When it cliffed out, we’d move left to the next gully and try again. The wind was very cold, and when we were all frozen, sleepy, and on the verge of making a fire for the night, Dave (I think), found the way, denoted by moki steps around a pothole. We still had to navigate a big talus field in the dark with one lamp, but that was only slow. We got to camp, woke Kate up to tell her we were alive, ate, and went to sleep.
The next day we were all ready to hit the out button, and pulled a big day to get over and out to the road by early afternoon. We dropped packs and Carl and I walked and ran the 13 miles back to get my Subaru. We still made it out to Boulder too late for burgers, and we all ate too much and felt ill at breakfast the next morning.
That trip wasn’t the start point of developing adult judgement in the wilderness, but it was a prominent point along the way.