Deep and Dark in Buckskin Gulch
Saturday, March 8
Coral Pink Sand dunes SP is at a fairly high elevation - near 6000 feet - and several were none too pleased that old snow lined the borders of our campsite. I reassured them that Buckskin Gulch was much lower and wouldn't have any snow. The day, fortunately, had dawned nice and clear, and there's nothing like a cheery bright sun to warm people up. We had gotten up at 6am - not early enough, as it turned out - in order to make it to the trailhead early. We had our longest backpacking day of the entire trip scheduled for today: 20km of slightly downhill walking through Buckskin Gulch.
Early morning at Coral Pink SD
Unfortunately, by the time we (a) got all packed up, (b) drove the 1.5 hours to the Wire Pass trailhead's road's turnoff; (c) shuttled a vehicle to the far end trailhead, (d) completed the drive to the Wire Pass trailhead, and (e) got actually ready to walk at the trailhead, it was 11am. Ugh - not exactly the early start I was hoping for. Hopefully the hike would be straightforward and quick.
Wire Pass Trailhead
The Wire Pass trailhed is one of two main access points into the upper part of Buckskin Gulch (The other being at the head of Buckskin Gulch itself). Wire Pass is the shorter access point, and that is why we took it (From Wire Pass, you are cutting off over 2 miles of the distance needed to get to the Paria River junction).
Eight people in the wilderness is quite a mob, something I realized when I looked through the viewfinder of my camera and took a single-file picture of seven of us hiking away down the trail to wire pass.
Under a crystal-clear beautiful sky, we hike first on the trail, and then in the wash of Wire Pass itself. It was colorful here, with the eroded and weirdly-tilted rocks of the Cockscomb (a pronounced tilt in the rock strata here) forming the beautiful surrounding scenery.
Colorful Strata near Wire Pass
Shannon's first repair stop
Then, the inevitable happened (although I didn't know it at the time). That is, Shannon's feet happened. Not 30 minutes into the hike, she informs us that something's up with her feet in her [brand new] hiking boots. We stop and let her examine, and she proclaims that she's got to do preventative maintainence on a hot spot. In 30 minutes on flat trail? oooo-kayyy.....
The wash started to narrow here, giving a small tantalizing glimpse of wonders yet-to-come. When we continued, the wash quickly narrowed down into a true slot-like narrows, and we enjoyed the fun of heading through dark sections and brilliantly colored and lit wide-open bits. We encountered a few minor 4-foot-ish drops that we easily hopped down. Then, as we neared Buckskin Gulch itself, wire pass narrowed down into a true classic super-slot, and we nearly had to turn sideways in order to pass the last section. This was only for a few hundred feet, though. It then opened into a beautiful orange-hued Cathedral-like section with towering cross-bedded sandstone walls. Ahead, Wire Pass ended at a T-junction with another canyon: we had reached Buckskin Gulch. The real part of our journey had begun!
Pu and Swirly Orange Stone
Tight Squeeze at Wire Pass
Alas, not quite yet. I this point I realized that I've left my map somewhere back on the way in! Realizing that we have substantial distance to cover, and it is already early afternoon, I told everyone to go on ahead without me. I dropped my back and started jogging back up Wire pass, confident that I can find the map and catch up before too long.
I spotted the map after 10 or so minutes of breathless running, and started my way back. Upon returning, 20 minutes later in total, I'm disappointed to find everyone lounging about at the junction. They didn't go on ahead! Then I see why: More Shannon footwork!
Shannon at Junction
Shannon's footwork turns out to be for naught, though. As soon as we started moving down Buckskin Gulch, we encountered muddy pools. And being in Buckskin gulch, the longest Slot Canyon in the world, there was no way around them - the walls are high, sheer and only about 6 feet apart, and the water in the pool spans the entire width. The water was a unappetizing-looking opaque beige. We couldn't tell how deep they were. For all we knew, they could be ankle deep, or they could be swimmers!
Deep, Dark Gulch
I hadn't expected water so soon. By the guidebook's account, there's usually no significant water for quite a while, and I wondered how extensive these pools were. We were here now, though, and it was reasonable to give it a shot. We were prepared for some water: We'd brought our water shoes and shorts.
As we stood about nervously eyeing the first pool, Pu jumped up and offered his services as a human dipstick. The idea of seeing someone else test the depth was a relief, and we watched with a mix of gratefulness and pity as Pu stripped down to just his skivvies. It was pretty cool in here, deep down in a shady crack in the bowels of the earth - perhaps 5 to 10 degrees C, and we were pretty sure the water was colder than that!
With a twisted expression on his face, Pu edged into the first pool, weaving and stumbling a little over the rough bottom. Slowly, the depth increased up to mid-thigh, then levelled off. He made all the way through with a depth no more than that. Doable, I thought. And no drybags or getting gear wet.
One by one we put our water shoes on, hiked up our pants (or switched to shorts or tights) and carefully made our way through the first pool. It was deathly, icy cold. Probably no more than a degree or two above freezing, actually. Upon coming out on the other side, one felt remarkably little - for a few seconds, until your lower limbs warmed up enough to send up a wave of icy stinging pain.
This was how the first hour or so of our hiking in Buckskin Gulch went. A short stretch of walking, then a gloomy looking pool (which Pu usually scouted), and then a procession of careful wading, feeling carefully with poles to try and find the least deep route. Occasionally your pole would discover an especially deep pocket, and we would warn to the waders behind to "stay left" or "stay right".
Finally, some sun
It was a welcome relief to reach a sunny little corner in the canyon, where Buckskin Gulch turned so that the sun could shine directly into the bottom. We warmed ourselves up for several minutes, and hoped fervently that conditions would improve. Our progress was painfully (on more than one level) slow.
More open sections
Fortunately, that was the end of the pools for a while, and for quite a few kilometres, Buckskin gulch was relatively pool-free. Not being distracted by cold wading, we got to enjoy the majesty of the place: At all points huge walls towered above us; sometimes dead-flat and vertical, other times slanting inwards, other times slanting outwards. the walls would sometimes close in in dark, cavelike fashion, angling inwards over our heads, reflecting and filtering sunlight down from above. At other times, the canyon walls would widen out to 20 m (60ft) or so, and we would walk side-by-side down a vast, hall-like space. The canyon sometimes twisted and turned in sinuous fashion, and at other times it would run ramrod straight and then make an abrubt 90-degree left or right-hand turn (in these sections, it appeared the canyon was exploiting existing joints in the rock). And everything glowed some hue of orange: bright and cheery, or dark and nearly black, and everything in between.
Buckskin's Grand Architecture
There were also the reminders. Logs suspended above our heads, jammed between the walls. Bits of twigs and dirt high up in a pocket on a wall. Entire log jams of debris suspend 20, 30, 40 feet above our heads. We would look up as we walked under these things, thinking of the unimaginable hydraulic power coursing through this narrow space to ram that stuff all the way up there. Not a place to experience the power of nature firsthand.
Return to the Dark
We were always confounded with the dilemma of whether we should dry our feet and switch to boots, or keep our water sandals on. Although it was predominantly dry now, there were a few unavoidable bits of water here and there, and it was time-consuming to stop, switch to sandals, wade through, then dry off your feet and switch back to boots, only to find that around the next corner there was another wet spot. As a result, we often just kept the sandals on, although this rubbed quite a few peoples' feet a little raw. Needless to say, there were many "Shannon stops".
Although we were making better progress now, we still had a long ways to go. The only reasonable campsite, the guidebook said, was at the 20km mark, far down Buckskin Gulch near where it joined with Paria Canyon. And there was a named obstacled, called "the cesspool", that we had still to encounter. It was a series of pools, and we had obviously had yet to encounter them (the ones we had gone through thus far were not far enough along to be the "cesspool" ones). I hoped that the "cesspool" was no worse than the pools we'd already encountered.
Big Walls and Orange Light
As the afternoon wore on, our clear skies gave way to some unsettled-looking clouds, and by 3 or 4 o'clock, I started hearing a few distant booms. Initially not believing, it became apparent that yes, these indeed were the sounds of distant thunder. Shaking my head in disgust (the forecast was for sun and clouds and only a 10% chance of precip), I kept walking along, keeping my thought to myself for the moment.
And, as fate and luck would have it, the sounds got a little closer, and it started to sprinkle. The combo of a deep and dark slot canyon, a bit of rain, and some distant booming did not hearten peoples' spirits, and we all quickened pace, deciding for prudence's sake that positioning ourselves next to a safe spot in the canyon would be more desireable. We spent the next 30 minutes at a power-walk pace. the sprinkle turned into a fitful shower, and the thunder, although not really getting any worse, was an unwelcome background stressor.
The canyon finally came to a wider spot that offered the security of some 40 to 50-foot high embankments, and we stopped for a quick snack. We had come perhaps 12km out of the 20km we needed to cover, and it was becoming obvious that we weren't going to get to our desired campsite before dark. We felt we should at least try for the 'middle trail', a spot halfway down Buckskin that allowed the only exit (albeit steep) along its entire length from Wire pass to near Paria Canyon. Based on how much ground we covered, we had to be very close to the middle trail.
Jenn wades a cold one
So, after our little break, we continued on, and immediately ran into more serious pools. Long, gloomy looking pools. Was this the "cesspool" section? If so, we could be very close to the middle trail area.
Pu did some human dipsticking for us, confirming that, at least for this first part, the depth was no worse than anything we had encountered so far, and we slowly started wading our way through.
It was at this point that the rain shower, which had gone away for the last little bit, returned with a notched up in intensity. I made a snap decision at this point, wanting to stay well within our margin of safety, and immediately called for a halt, and a return to the wider safe spot we had 'breaked' at just a few minutes before. I could tell there was some reluctance to give up hard-fought wading, but I felt that we had an opportunity to esconce ourselves in a safe zone, should this passing stronger shower prove to be something more enduring. I had to spend some time yelling around the corner to Brian and Jenn, who just wanted to wait things out underneath an overhang. I insisted until they waded back through the cold pools to us. Better safe than sorry, ok?
Given the time, I quickly decided that the best course was to scramble up the high banks and look for any suitable tent spots, and camp right then and there. We would be safe from any weather and we would be setting up in daylight. And, as it turned out, there were a few very marginal tent spots, high up on the banks, good for 3 very crammed-together tents. Not quite level and quite awkward, they would serve our purposes. This would be our home for the night.
Although not exactly the idyllic expansive grassy campsite we were hoping for, there was a certain adventurousness to our clingy little perch, high up away from the floor of the Gulch. The light sprinkles had ended again, and during dinner a good point was raised (one that I had been toying with myself for some time): What about turning around and going back the next morning? The idea had many good points: Due to our super-late start and many unplanned stops, we hadn't got nearly far enough along (we were only about 12km along a 20km leg), and we didn't know how much and/or how extensive the pools were from here on, so perhaps an option for tomorrow was to just retrace our steps back to our starting point. Given the start-time performance and overall speed demonstrated by our group thus far, it was a stretch to comfortably expect to fit the remainder of the 20km, along with the entire next day's planned itinerary. Going back the way we came was a guaranteed 12 km with well-known obstacles. I therefore agreed to this idea in about 3 seconds. It'd likely improve morale and get us back on a reasonable schedule.
With such a tight amount of sleeping room, we decided to try and squeeze everyone into one less tent. Brian, however, quietly insisted on his own tent, even though he was only able to find a lower elevation platform on the other side of the gulch from our high ledges. Always mindful of keeping everyone together and out of the way of any worst-case flash flooding, I voiced my concerns and said I'd be sleeping with one eye open towards his tent that night.
With the last of the light fading away, we settled down into our cramped, tilted little tent platforms. The light rain showers had returned, and is always the case in the confines of the tent, the sound was magnified, making it seem like it was pouring outside. I dozed fitfully, anxiously analyzing the patter of the drops on the fly, trying to discern whether or not the intensity was increasing or decreasing.
After a couple of hours of this, and thinking of Brian down lower and on the other side of the Gulch, I decided I'd sleep better if I could convince him to come across up to where we were. So, I dragged myself out of bed and shuffled down the steep little sandy path to the bottom of the Gulch and a short ways up to Brian's Tent. It took many shakes and many words to elicit a coherent, wakeful response. Perhaps he was hoping I'd give up and go away.
But no, I'm a persistent bugger, and I kept pestering Brian until he finally answered. Then started the long, gentle argument: I slowly and rationally explained to Brian why it was in his and our best interests if he moved himself up to our tentspots. To which he replied that there were no suitable spots for his tent up above and that he'd be just fine here. Always at a low and respectful volume and pace, we went on like this for about 20 minutes, at which point I managed to badger Brian into at least coming up and looking at the great little piece of real estate I had going for him.
I waited in silence for another 10 minutes for Brian to get up (again I think he was hoping that I'd just go away), and when he finally realized that I would give him no peace, he rustled around into his clothes and groggily appeared from under his tent-fly. To his credit, he was civil and pleasant.
Brian was nonplussed when I showed him his prime 18-inch wide plot of prime real-estate, back-breakingly convex in shape and sandwiched between a thorny bush and a vertical wall. I did some impromptu landscaping with my foot as we continued our slow argument. It then started to clear overhead - the showers had really stopped - and there went the last of my arguing points. We called it a night, and Brian went back to his tent down below. With the showery conditions now moving off (and with the ground having gotten only moistened in total), there really wasn't any more cause for concern. I returned to my tent and slept the rest without worrying about the weather.