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Buckskin Gulch – The Delirium

After the Thanksgiving festivities, Amji, Yoshi, Greg, Steve, Sarah, Joey and I took off for another one of our adventures. We were going to attempt to hike the world’s longest slot canyon (~43 extra-long miles) from Buckskin Gulch (or rather Wire Pass) to Lee’s Ferry. We arrived at the border between Utah and Arizona after driving hours into the night and navigating a dirt road full of gashes and holes that required the response time of a fighter pilot to navigate.

We set up our tents around 1:00 in the morning and intended to go to sleep. The forecast predicted that it would get down to 30 degrees that night. All of our sleeping bags were rated to approximately 25 degrees so we thought we were fine. The night sky was SPECTACULAR! I didn’t bother setting up a tent because I wanted to see the stars. I got into my sleeping bag but had trouble getting warm. I stayed up watching the stars and tried to take advantage of friction to keep my toes from freezing over. It wasn’t all the effective. Turns out that it was 10 degrees that night!

Yoshi, Greg and I left camp early to drop one car off at Lee’s Ferry. Greg came along for the ride because his feet were freezing and he hadn’t fallen asleep yet either. It took us three hours to drop off the car and make it back to the trailhead. When we returned the rest of our crew were just getting ready. The hike is one of the most beautiful trails on Earth. I’ve done it before and I was really looking forward to the second day – where the Fountain of Buckskin Gulch jets clean drinking water right out of the canyon wall.

We brought extra supplies and I even brought an inflatable pontoon because on the second day the canyon runs into the Paria canyon, which is filled with a steady flow of clean waist-deep water. We intended to push it a bit with the weight on the first day and float all our heavy gear on the rest of the trip. Steve is a chef and he had prepared all kinds of great meals for us – including steaks, mmmmmmmm.

We explored each bend as the day continued and in the early afternoon we ran into a gentleman that was on his way back. He warned us that there was a section of wall to wall mud ahead that we could not pass through without just going through it. We were hoping that this time of year would help us avoid any of these muddy regions, but we had no intention of letting a couple of muddy spots stop us. So we pressed on. When we came to the muddy spot I took my shoes off, pushed through it, dropped my pack and then came back to ferry the crew on my shoulders.

My plan didn’t work as I had intended. I shuttled Yoshi across, her pack, Sarah, and then her pack, but by that time I was in the second stage of hypothermia. My entire body was uncontrollably shaking and I had cut my toes on some sharp rocks. The guys had to fend for themselves. They all pushed through the cold like champs. Then we took a break to clean up and warm ourselves up. We stopped to eat a really late lunch and then started moving again.

As the sun set I took note of how tired I was. I hadn’t stayed awake this long for years, certainly not on a day that required nonstop hiking. It was already starting to get cold enough that we couldn’t stop moving without getting uncomfortable. Then we came to another muddy spot. This one wasn’t very long. In fact, we had seen a tree that had fallen from above about 10 minutes walk back. So all the guys walked back and heaved the tree on our shoulders and then threw it over the muddy region. All but Steve made it over without getting muddy. We kept on.

We were walking with headlamps now because the depths of this canyon were competely dark. Then we hit another muddy region. We decided to just tough it out and go for it. So we put on our neopryne socks and quickly discovered that we had to traverse the mud without shoes, otherwise we would lose them. Mud after mud after frozen mud. The ice broke on our shins, and the mud stank of left over feces that had washed down the canyon. Our guiding hope was that once we reached the Paria river we could clean up, then make a nice warm dinner with our stoves, and then get into our sleeping bags and warm up (we had hand warmers and feet warmers set aside for this part).

Delerium and exhaustion started to set in. Greg tried to start a mutiny and said he was going back when he saw a dropoff with a section of wall to wall mud of unknown depth on the other side. I said I’ll try it out and if its not too bad then we can keep going. He agreed to this. It was only knee deep. The mud finally let up and we hiked for another 2 hours. Then the mud started up again. At 11:30 it was 10 degrees, we were all in our shorts, rolled up pants, swimming suits, or as in Amji’s case his underwear, covered in mud almost up to our waists, exhausted from the 85 pounds on our backs, thirsty and ready for dinner. The end still wasn’t in sight.

Then we hit the drop off – place where we had to climb down with ropes. The only problem was that on the other side of this ledge a mud lake awaited us – one that was so deep that it would require us to take our packs off and swim them across. The group was devestated. We were almost at the junction with the Paria river where clean water awaited us and now we had to head back. We could not sleep in our sleeping bags like this, we could not hold still for more then 30 seconds without freezing. Our only choice was to head back, through the night, back through all the mud pits!

We broke into two groups, dumped the nonessentials and started back as quickly as we could, hoping that we would reach the end before we reached our end. Amji, Yoshi and I were in the back group. My new shoes were one size to big and with the constant mud they were slipping from side to side with every step. It was impossible to walk fast. We decided our strategy was to walk for 20 minutes and then take a 3 minute break. Over and over we encouraged ourselves waiting for that next break. On the third break we all sat down on ledges that lifted the weight of our packs off our shoulders and instantly we were all asleep. The cold got to Yoshi first and she woke up and revived us. We couldn’t believe that we had all reached the dreams stage instantly.

We pressed on and when the sun came up we began hallucinating. We saw people that weren’t there, I saw huge red dragonflies playing with each other. Amji grabbed my arm and said “We need to keep walking.” I tried to tell him that I was walking but then I realized that I wasn’t. Yoshi was losing all feeling and needed to move faster to warm her body up. She went ahead of us and ended up missing the only turn on the trail. When Amji and I made it to the exit it was hailing on us, Yoshi was missing, and our rescue ride (the first team) was not there to pick us up. We dropped our remaining gear and excuted a plan to find Yoshi. She had pressed ahead and then realized that she missed the turn. She turned back and missed the turn again and walked all the way to where we originally parted. Then she turned around again and this time found the exit turn. She had dropped her entire pack and tried with all her last energy to make it out. We were all very glad to be back together.

Then we waited and continued to freeze. All feeling had left my feet over ten hours ago at this point. After two hours a truck drove through and we begged the driver to take us to the nearest town. We looked like we were covered in shit, and technically we were. He tried to be courteous about our smell, put blankets down over his seats, and drove us toward the paved road. Just as we made it to the road we saw Sarah driving my car towards us. We were happy to finally find out that everyone was safe.

The hotel was the best I’ve ever had. Hot endless water in the shower. Soft beds. Warm! It really helped us see the simple pleasures in life a whole new way! Life is amazing.


 

Comments (9)

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  1. Amjith says:

    Thank you for taking the time to document this monumental adventure.

  2. Joey says:

    Yes! Thank you for documenting this adventure – can’t wait for April – I promise we will all stay together this time :-)

  3. Nice article, thanks. I signed up to your rss feed!

  4. Bill Westerhoff says:

    I’m glad you guys all made it out safe, but wow you really sounded ill prepared for the journey. We do the shorter Wire Pass to White House every year in October or November and have dealt with all the challenges that you described. For the record, the majority of the smell is from basic organic material (plants, etc) decomposing. Though you made a very wise choice to turn back at the rock fall, there are several ways to get past that and though last Autumn did leave quite a pond there as you described, if you climb down via the Moki steps (left side looking down canyon) it was totally dry. It would have been the Paria river that would have really put you to the test. It was quite deep and painful that time last year.

    Another frozen trip report – http://www.climb-utah.com/Escalante/buckskinice.htm

  5. Amy says:

    Thank you for taking the time to document this monumental adventure.

  6. Paul says:

    I’m glad you guys all made it out safe, but wow you really sounded ill prepared for the journey. We do the shorter Wire Pass to White House every year in October or November and have dealt with all the challenges that you described. For the record, the majority of the smell is from basic organic material (plants, etc) decomposing. Though you made a very wise choice to turn back at the rock fall, there are several ways to get past that and though last Autumn did leave quite a pond there as you described, if you climb down via the Moki steps (left side looking down canyon) it was totally dry. It would have been the Paria river that would have really put you to the test. It was quite deep and painful that time last year.

    Another frozen trip report – http://www.climb-utah.com/Escalante/buckskinice.htm

  7. es says:

    Going in January seems really ill-informed. A great story afterward perhaps but an unnecessarily risky adventure, unless that is what you intended. We went on Sept. 26, 2010 and there was zero water or mud anywhere in the canyon, save a few small ankle-deep pools as we neared Paria. It’s all in the timing.

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