When coming back into a new pursuit it is a good idea to give yourself plenty of leeway, so that the inevitable mistakes don’t seem too big a deal, and so the inevitable stress doesn’t lead to further screwups. I did moderately well at the first, and rather better at the second, during 24 hours out in the local canyons.
Having no reference for how fast the Colorado would be flowing through Ruby-Horsethief my paddling leg was far too ambitious. No bother here; an earlier takeout sent me up an old trail to the top of a plateau, rather than through the canyon system I had planned. No chance of standing water, but enough snow up high I could eke out and melt extra liters, though with a fair bit of effort. My exit from the river could have been better. Floating around the apex of a given bend would have put me beyond the worst of the tamarisk, and probably close to the deer and sheep travel corridor which must have been thereabouts. Instead, my haste had me thrashing, then climbing, and finally crawling to get to the other side, only to meet my first cliffband, which was eventually surmounted by standing on my pack frame to help me flop over the lip of a cave, then reaching down, hooking it with a trekking pole, and hauling it up after me. Effort wasted, but at worst 15-20 minutes added, and no big deal.
The next morning I had 3/4 of a liter, partly frozen, for coffee and however long it took me to get either back to the river or down into a canyon with standing (and not frozen) water. I used almost all of it for coffee, and took the time to scratch enough snow for another full liter. Getting that much water out of 1″ patches of what has been sublimated down to essentially surface hoar takes time, but with cold temps and being well hydrated I knew I would do good for hours.
I read the map correctly and ended up to correct spot to drop down the slope into Rattlesnake Canyon, but did not know the area well enough to anticipate the slickrock slab which capped the transition, and made getting down look like a dicey proposition for 30 minutes of sidehilling and checking out false probabilities. I was getting inpatient, and dropped my pack down the first likely possibility, only to see the drop on second glance as a short but dicey downclimb. Either downpull a leftward mantle over air with handholds facing the wrong way, or beached whale and drop, with no room to roll backwards (without bouncing a further twenty feet down ledges). Luckily, the next corner over held a more palatable downclimb on snow free slab moves between alcoves, and I didn’t have to face up to the consequences of my haste. But I was not happy with myself.
More importantly, I didn’t let that hang around, and thought about specifics of our 2017 pack line while sauntering through the P-J forest, until things got real 300 feet above the canyon floor. The solution was classic Colorado Plateau; a hidden chimney full of sand and rotten blocks led to a vegetated slab traverse and more thin ledges linking down to the wash. Patience is required to not push too many false leads, and optimism to see the subtle way the terrain is telling you that somewhere, there will be a way down.
My favorite backpacking trips have enough ambiguity that you are psyched when you finally reach a human-made trail.
Today I’m a more skilled backpacker than I’ve ever been, but the Colorado Plateau is different enough from anywhere else that reacclimating should not be taken for granted. I’m enjoying the process, seeing old stuff with very fresh eyes. It’s not a position that one gets to easily, and should therefore be savored.
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