Canyoneering in SE Utah's Robbers Roost: November 16-22, 2006

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to Salt Lake City, drive south, over mountains, past canyons, pause to play frisbee in a sleepy town punctuated by the lights of gas stations: Hanksville, Utah. Last outpost of civilization.

Drive dirt roads, dodging kamikaze jack rabbits, park at trailhead. We have arrived.

Wake to brilliant sunrise, mountains, canyons surround. Load all belongings in backpack, repack, repack once more. Tie boots, check map, set off.

Mesa recedes, slickrock appears. Descend step by careful step with the world spread out before you. Eat, rest, cross river, hike on. Our camp is our home.

Explore archways and quicksand. Feast on pasta, made more delicious by hard work. Move to a new camp, wading through the river over again and again. Cold clear nights freeze our boots and reveal stars upon stars.

Rise early, hike, climb, hurry to reach our goal. A darker canyon, narrow and twisting, opens to us. Enter, wiggle, slide, rappel, use caution, exclaim.

This place is ours, we belong to it.

Utah, According to Sam (senior)

After a long day of travel, I quickly fell asleep, and remember mostly a sense of slowly leaving behind all of civilization as we drove further and further into the desert. Long after the sun had set, we stopped to play a night game of Frisbee, eerily illuminated by the harsh lights of a gas station. Finally, after having gingerly guided the vans over miles of dirt road, we found ourselves at the trailhead.

In the morning I had to massage the tip of my nose for five minutes before it felt warm again. For the first time, we could see the desert surrounding us. An enormous mountain range shot up out of the tableland, while in front of us were the canyons. After dividing up the group equipment among the packs, we set off downhill. As we descended down slickrock formations as round and smooth as gigantic popcorn kernels, I noticed that the canyons were a fascinating study in color combinations-- the cliffs rearing above us ranged from rusty to crayon-pink to a glassy black that looked like scorchmarks from a rocket.

The most surreal moment for me came as we turned a corner and found ourselves facing a ridiculously tall, sheer cliff the color of pepto-bismol. Branching off from the main canyon, we hiked a little ways up the side canyon where we planned to set up base camp, and laid our tents and tarps down under the spindly branches of an old tree. The canyon walls leaned in towards us, creating an odd, stadium-like effect.

Since we were hiking up a creekbed, we experienced the entire spectrum- mud that your foot immediately sunk into like iron weights in water, mud that was mostly slippery clay, mud that looked like solid rock but had the consistency of thick chocolate frosting, and this really bizarre mud with a thin pudding-like membrane which slowly stretched under your weight and then broke like a punctured waterbed (we later found out that this was quicksand).

Angel’s Arch was a large circular hole that pierced right through a thin peninsula of canyon wall jutting out like the front of a ship into the canyon. We clambered up through the hole and around what would be the bow of the ship to the top of the rock wall. From here, we could access a strange, globular landscape of tremendous slickrock half-globes.

Once dark had set in we sat down to fix dinner- quesadillas made with three different kinds of cheese. It struck me that almost anything tastes better when you’re cold and hungry. After extensive debate about the days ahead, we decided unanimously to pack up and travel to a new campsite further down the canyon, and then go rappeling from the mesa the next day. I harbored some anxiety about the rappeling-I pictured leaping off some sheer precipice of ungodly height, tethered by a wire-thin cord to a small shrub. But I agreed with the decision, albeit hesitantly.

In the morning we packed up the campsite and headed up the river. We had to cross the Dirty Devil river again, and then immediately cut back across. We continued to switch back and forth like that for a good few hours, at one point hugging a cliff wall to inch along a narrow rock shelf. After a nasty tangle with some quicksand, we ate lunch on a sunny sand bank and made sandwiches.

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In a search for a drinking water source, Aiyana and I ventured up a ravine made up of pink so dark it was almost magenta. The rock swirled into itself so fluidly it looked more like liquid than stone. The ravine was punctuated by deep holes big enough to fall into, which collapsed down into blackness like whirlpools. We found only a tiny pool of stagnant water and mud, and returned to the group with the bad news.

We set up tarps and sleeping pads as the sun began to disappear behind the mesa. We began to realize at this point that we had brought a slightly excessive amount of food. I got very excited about the prospects of an elaborate spaghetti dinner, and coerced several others into frying, mixing, and otherwise preparing the dinner.

Our plan for the next day was to trek up to the top of the mesa and then rappel down a narrow side canyon. Upon awaking, we found that our boots had frozen overnight and were impossible to get on. We wrestled with them until everyone had some kind of footwear on. One by one we tied in and scrambled up a steep slope of slickrock, until we had all assembled just below the mesatop. Finally, we reached the flatlands. It was the first time since waking up at the cars that we had been this high. The sun was suddenly unavoidable and unbearable, and we began to shed. We saw for the first time in days evidence of civilization- tire tracks and beer cans. We stopped at the top of the cliff we planned to descend, and it was somewhat difficult to eat lunch with such a clear view of the impending danger.

We tied the rope to what Chris assured me was a secure anchor (it looked more like a pile of boulder loosely stacked on a slope). Then we all walked up to the cliff, roped in, and rappelled. I had been apprehensive, but the actual descent was quite manageable and even fun- there’s a certain James Bond-like quality to it.

The canyon had become very narrow and twisty, and for the next few minutes we noticed a significant drop in temperature as we made our way down the passage. The clay-colored cliff walls bent and curled like smoke, blocking out the sky and enveloping us in their grasp. I’m not sure if the sinister atmosphere I’m describing was something that I noticed at the time, or what I imagined retroactively, in light of the events that took place afterwards.

We had decided to climb down a short cliff while roped in, with Chris and Aiyana acting as our anchors by bracing themselves against the cliff walls while we climbed down. Michael went first, and then Max, both without incident. The rest of us waited in a loose line, chatting and kicking rocks. Suddenly, everyone around me became very silent. I turned to see what they were looking at. A tiny rattlesnake, as big around as my thumb, was curled up a few feet from Chris. Aiyana whispered to us that we should all calmly and quietly climb down as unobtrusively as possible. Any sudden noises or movements might have endangered Chris.

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After ten minutes of very quiet rock-climbing, we had all gotten down to the bottom, and we could discuss the event in incredulous tones. Chris’s statement on the event was, in my mind, the most descriptive: “I respected the snake. There was respect, but– also– there was fear of the snake. And the fear was that the snake was going to bite me.”

We hadn’t gone too much further before we hit another obstacle- an impossibly narrow, steep passage of canyon that we would have to slide down feet first if we wanted to get through. Again we waited in line to rope up and make the descent. This time I actually found myself a bit frightened by the experience—the sensation was fairly claustrophobic. I did eventually hit the ground, and then we actually emerged from the narrow canyon! Wonder of wonders! We could see the sunset, as well as actual vegetation and wildlife. It was a beautiful sight.

As we followed the canyon bottom back to camp, we kept encountering gigantic, foul-smelling cow droppings, and it wasn’t long before we encountered their source. A herd of cows was ambling nonchalantly down the trail, and quickly spooked at our approach. After this long day, I was feeling a little under the weather, and was inexplicitly missing my headlamp. As night fell, I resembled a zombie- staggering forward uncertainly with my arms outstretched (to ward off branches) and moaning groggily. When we got to camp, I tore off my boots and immediately fell into bed and went to sleep.

After an intensely pancake-oriented breakfast, we crossed the river one last time and took off up a hill, until we finally reached a dirt road on top of the mesa. We arrived at the cars with hours of daylight left, and enjoyed our first free time in days. Dinner that night was quesadillas and whatever we could dredge up out of our packs. We fell asleep next to the vans secure in the knowledge that the next day would require next to no physical exertion.

Click on the pictures below for a larger version.