May 17 - Egypt Overland: Harris Wash to 25-mile Wash
Day 2 of our planned five-day backpack. A clear and calm night gave way to a clear and calm morning. Where our day 1 route had been a pretty standard Escalante walk, day two's walk was more unorthodox. I had charted an "over the top" course from where we were, south over the top of the Egypt highland, and down the other side, into the next major drainage: Twentyfile-mile wash. Twentyfile-mile wash was another pleasant-creek-big-walls type sidecanyon much like Harris Wash. And like Harris Wash, full of good campsites along its length and with plentiful, clean water.
After getting breakfast and packing out of the way, we were ready to tackle this more adventurous segment of our journey. The first few metres of our progress were actually back upstream, exactly the way we had come down the day before. But that was literally for just a few minutes, until we came to the bushy entrance of a side drainage of Harris Wash (coming in from the south). We bushwhacked up through a few stands of oak trees until we were at the base of a blocky, low-angled chimney on the right-hand wall. This looked about right (I had lifted this exit route from a segment of hike 13 of Steve Allen's Canyoneering 3).
Side view, initial chimney
The scramble up this chimney was quite straightforward. Blocky class 3 climbing with essentially no exposure. Atop this, things smoothed out into sloping slickrock. The next bit was more challenging: a 20-foot stretch of steeper slickrock slab, with a bit of a slope to a larger dropoff to the side (i.e. with a bit of exposure). You had to be more comfortable with your boot soles' grip on this one to confidently ascend.
Knowing that there are those in the group more confident on steep terrain and those who were less so, we got out the 60 feet of static accessory cord I had brought along for these sorts of things. Chris, clearly showing that he was in the more confident camp, was soon smearing up the slab with the rope (although without pack). He proceeded to belay me up with my pack on, and then he and I set up a more secure hand line with knot-handles for the rest of the group. It was a fun little activity, and soon we were all up above the steep slab.
I'm-a gettin' outta here!
On our smooth slickrock shoulder, we were on the boundary of two worlds. Immediately below us we could see the tops of the cottonwood forest that filled the winding path of Harris Wash's canyon. Above us we could see the slope leading up to wide-open expanses of slickrock, and high above us, the dry rim of the Egypt tablelands.
Looking back down ridgeline
The forecast was for a temperature high of around 30 degrees C (86F). Not strictly speaking super hot but still perhaps enough to get one overheated. To that end, we sought out shade whenever we stopped for rest breaks.
Our morning climb was a pretty enjoyable thing. Mostly we were hiking upward on smooth, undulating slickrock. Backcountry pavement, really, with excellent grip and easy walking. We noticed that many of the prickly pear cactus were actually in bloom right now (which seemed a bit late, the date being mid-May at this point).
One of the nice things about this segment of our backpack was a different perspective on the Escalante. Down in Harris wash, we were in a closed-in world of canyon walls, the streambed, a cottonwood forest and thick bushes. Up here things were open and expansive, with big views across a big stretch of the Escalante region and beyond. Mixing things up is good!
Resting in the thin shade
By about 11 am we had climbed the thousand feet up from Harris Wash to the rim of the Egypt tablelands / flats. The next bit was not as glamorous, and definitely more tedious. A straight walk across the flats to the Egypt Trailhead, where we would drop off the southern edge of the flats and descend towards 25-mile wash.
We trudged south under a now-high and now-warm sun. The ground underfoot was often sandy, making progress that bit more tiring. Mouths started to get a bit drier as we slowly but surely went through our water supply.
We were in need of a good break (in fact, our lunch break) by the time we had traversed about half of the flats. Fortunately, the pinyon and juniper forest was thicker and more developed here, meaning that it wasn't too hard to find a nice big tree to shade us over lunch. Jenn and Alana were starting to feel a little unwell, possibly from the warmth.
Lunchtime under a Juniper
Our pace picked up a bit as we neared the Egypt trailhead, due to herdpaths and 4x4 tracks. It was a breezy and warm 1:20pm when the parking lot (with a few cars parked) and trailhead sign came into view. We breaked, but not for long. The day was drawing on and yet we still had some significant ground to cover before reaching the shady and watery environs of 25-mile wash.
Departing Egypt Trailhead
From the Egypt trailhead, a path-of-use has been marked down the slickrock towards nearby Fence canyon and from there, to the Escalante River and to such sights as Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral. We utilized only the upper part of this route, though, and then started to veer off to the south, in the general direction of 25-mile wash. The terrain was an undulating mix of slickrock and small fingers of sandier ground.
Our collective water levels were getting pretty low as we strained to find the best path through the terrain to 25-mile wash. This was a bit of a gamble, in the sense that we had to find a spot where we could actually get down into the canyon of the wash. As you can see from many of the pictures from Harris Wash, once one of these side canyons is fully developed, the walls can be hundreds of feet high! I had done some satellite map viewing in advance of the trip, and I thought I had spied something that would go, but that was of course by no means guaranteed. And with water running low, getting rim-rocked was not a pleasant thought.
Heading down into try tributary
Tired and slightly overheated, we presently made our way to the bottom of a small side-tributary of 25-mile wash. It was a well-formed, rounded trench of slickrock, leading straight towards what we could already see was a clump of bright green cottonwoods. And bright green cottonwoods, well, that pretty much meant water.
As we walked down the sand-and-rock floor of the tributary, I stared long and hard at the cottonwoods, framed
against a wall in the distance - a wall that likely marked the intersection of another side-tributary. Framed against the "U" of the canyon, the bottom of the trees looked a little too perfectly cut-off, as if we weren't actually seeing all the way to the bottom of the trees. And that little detail caused a tiny pang of dread... was there some sort of dropoff that was causing this visual effect? And... if so, was it an impassible dropoff?
Deciding what to do
My fears slowly manifested as we drew close to the trees. There was indeed some sort of dropoff, and, as the base of the trees came into view, clearly many tens of feet below us, I came to the edge. Of a cliff. A fifty foot high cliff. And a big dark pool right at the bottom. Crap.
Quite tired from our long trudge across the openlands, we decided to not worry about this for the moment. Rather, we focused on just taking a good long break on the shady side of the tributary, and then afterwards assess our situation. We were all pretty much out of water now, having assumed that we would have reached 25-mile wash at this point and its fresh water. Jenn was feeling nauseous and possibly experiencing a touch of heat stress. Although I could see from the map that we were only about 400 metres from 25-mile wash, our forward progress appeared to be completely blocked by the dryfall. There appeared to be a slickrock ledge off to one side that was reachable via a steep slab and Chris went to have a look, but soon came back not having found anything obvious in the way of alternate descent routes.
The big dryfall
This meant we had to contemplate a retreat. But to where? The closest definitive water source would involve going back uphill towards the Egypt trailhead and then cutting over to Fence Canyon and the Escalante. Probably a long and hot and arduous 5 kilometres. Anything else, like trying to find an alternate tributary with no dryfall, risked another rim-rock. By then our lack of water would get us into real trouble.
Water, really, was the immediate concern. If we had water we could even resort to camping right here on the slickrock above the dryfall and pool. In fact, separated from the facts of our troubles, it was quite a nice spot. It then soon came to me, then, that maybe that idea wasn't so far-fetched. We had a rope, which was more than long enough to reach that pool down below the cliff. and we had my settling bag, which we use all the time to scoop water out of creeks. So why not combine the two and rig up a water haul?
The idea worked perfectly. After tying the rope securely to the settling bag, putting a rock or two in it, a quick toss and it sailed down into the black pool. Soon Chris was hauling up a bulging ten-litre sack of water, which Gino and the others got to filtering.
Escaping the Dryfall
With the solving of our immediate need, our worry dissipated and our capacity for thinking about next steps returned. I was not completely satisfied with Chris' scouting of an alternate descent route, and decided to do a little reconnaissance as the others filtered and re-filled our water stores.
Heading to a way in
A rounded shoulder led around to a wide ledge above the western edge of another side-tributary of 25 mile wash. It went on for quite a ways before I could see it start to peter out into some very steep, impassable slabs. Looking carefully at the slopes down into the bottom of the tributary as I walked, it did seem as if there was a line of terrain up ahead that was less steep, all the way down into the branches of the trees in the canyon bottom. A closer look, and yes... this could definitely work!
I ran back to the others and informed them of my discovery, and after a short discussion, it was agreed that instead of camping here, making a final push to get more distance under our belts would better serve our interest of being in a good position for the next leg of our backpack the next day. So, up came the packs and soon we were ready to move.
The bypass descent into the tributary bottom worked perfectly. It was an easily belayable slip-slide into the bushy canyon bottom. A small stream of water was present even in this side tributary, so we thrashed around in the bushes, exchanging hiking shoes for water shoes.
Now feeling refreshed by the shadiness and the cool water, we began following the watercourse down-canyon. At first, things were good. We followed the little finger of water as it wound down-canyon. By my GPS, I could see we were only about 350 metres (yards) from the actual intersection with 25-mile wash. Just a few minutes, and we'd be there, relaxing and camping and all of that kinda good stuff.