Slots and Ashtrays
A dayhike in Red Breaks
Sunday, May 1
We woke to a very frosty but sunny morning at our Bryce Canyon campsite. I had gotten up a bit before sunrise and taken a few pictures at Bryce Canyon's rim, and everybody else had stayed wrapped up as tightly as possible in their sleeping bags. There was a hard frost covering the windsheild of our rental vehicle, and the in-dash thermometer registered -11C. Everyone was thankful for the nearby heated washroom facilities.
Pre-dawn Twilight at Bryce
After shivering through breakfast, we headed off. Ewart had lost his spoon, so we spent a few minutes at the Ruby's Inn General Store, where the price of everything seems generously marked-up. Just as Ewart was about to pay over $4 for a plastic cutlery set he didn't really want, I pointed out to him that the nearby coffee dispenser had hundreds of free plastic spoons.
We were well positioned to reach the Escalante region, which was only about an hour's drive further east. As we drove eastward on scenic Utah 12, we could see hundreds of iced-up irrigation hoses scattered across the fields. Apparently hard frosts like this aren't too common for the beginning of May around here.
Iced irrigation equipment
Seeing as this was Jenn's Dad's very first hiking trip to the desert southwest, and in particular to the Escalante area, I wanted to include a wide sampling of the types of interesting backcountry destinations that existed here. Our long backpack did indeed cover many interesting types of locales, but there was one interesting type of locale that was especially iconic of the Escalante area that was not on our backpacking agenda: the slot canyon. Therefore, on the day before we started our backpack, it seemed fitting and logical to do something that involved a visit to a slot canyon.
We rolled into the town of Escalante -- the nearest town to the Escalante River Drainage -- and then rolled right on through. On the far side of town, we turned off onto Hole-in-the-Rock road, a major backcountry gravel road that provides access to a large swath of land on the western side of the Escalante River. Many smaller side roads branch off from Hole-in-the-Rock road, often leading to backcountry trailheads. We in particular were headed to the Harris Wash trailhead, where we would start our dayhike.
The dayhike I had chosen involved a route through an area called 'Red Breaks'. Red Breaks is a moderately-elevated bowl of land that is capped by a small remnant of a particular layer of rock that isn't very common throughout the Escalante: the Carmel Limestone. The redness of the Carmel Formation here and the low cliffs that it forms in this area is what gives this locale it's name: the Red Breaks ('breaks' in this part of Utah seems to refer to a series of cliffs).
In any case, The shallow, elevated bowl of Red Breaks has, because of its concavity, a drainage system running down the middle of it. This drainage system has cut through the Carmel Limestone and into the smooth Navajo Sandstone underneath; the main fork and some of the sub-forks of this system have formed some well-defined slot-canyon sections, and it was those that we would be exploring today.
I had originally based our outing in Red Breaks on a description in my Canyoneering 3 guide book. However, after reading a bit more about Red Breaks online, I modified the outing, incorporating some changes based on some other hikers' experiences. In particular, I was interested in making the outing more of a loop, and I was very intrigued to read about a nearby geologic formation called the 'Cosmic Ashtray' that could be incorporated [into such a loop].
Heading to Red Breaks wash
So, with the morning sun shining brightly and with a moderate breeze blowing, we set off from the Harris Wash trailhead. Soon after crossing Harris Wash itself, we turned left and headed up a smaller side wash - the main wash coming out of Red Breaks. The topography ahead looked very unassuming: there were no high or narrow walls here, and off in the distance we could only see the very slightly concaved terrain of the Red Breaks drainage.
The initial walk up the Red Breaks main fork saw us walking past relatively nondescript desert scenery. The banks of the wash are low here, and we were more intrigued by the large amounts of tumbleweed that had been piled up against south-facing slopes. Clearly there had been a some strong southerly winds recently.
It wasn't too long before some low sandstone walls appeared, and soon, we were walking up a shallow canyon with walls that were about 10 to 20 feet high. We were chatting and not paying too close attention, and as a result I missed the cairns that marked a path that led up to the west side of the slowly rising canyon rim. We ended at a 25-foot dryfall that required a doable but somewhat exposed climb, so we retraced our steps back downcanyon until we could easily scramble up to the western rim, where we joined a well-defined footpath.
Above the dryfall, we continued hiking up the canyon, which again started to narrow and deepen. For now, though, the walking was straightforward and there was no slot in sight.
It wasn't too long before we started to see the characteristic smooth, flowing walls of navajo sandstone and the beginning of a real constriction. We had a pretty good idea that the slot-canyon section would soon start. A good time to stop and have lunch before setting out to worming one's way through the earth.
The first stretch of slot was easy, with a wide V-shaped cross-section and a mostly sandy, easy-to-walk-on floor. We encountered a low chockstone or two, but that was about it. There were pleasant, smooth cross-bedded navajo sandstone walls. Above, the Carmel Limestone caprock gradually rose up on the rim as we walked along.
Starting to get slot-like
Start of Red Breaks Narrows
We soon encountered the first of several water-filled stretches, necessitating a changeover into our water footwear. There seemed to be more water in the slot than usual, based upon the descriptions I'd read. The water wasn't too cold and it was not more than shin deep. There were again a few chockstones, some at the ends of the pools, requiring a scramble from out of the water. However, so far nothing that required any real climbing or help from a companion.
We encountered the first tricky obstacle about 20 minutes after the start of the narrows. A couple of large chockstones had stacked on top of one another in the slot in a manner that created required a tricky slightly overhanging climb to surmount. I took the easy way out and stood on Ewart's back to get on top. In turn, Ewart helped Jenn and Roy do the same. To help Ewart, I got out my 10 metre static rope and, after a couple of failed attempts, managed to unelegantly help Ewart get up and over.