Utah - Part 2: Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase Escalante

Having warmed up our leg muscles, we set off down Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument to hike through the Coyote Gulch and Hurricane Wash canyons.

Hole-in-the-Rock road parallels Fifty-Mile Ridge, a 1000ft raised plateau forming one of the 'steps' of the Grand Staircase. Clouds were gathering over the still snow-covered ridge, but we were heading away from them (we hoped) towards the Escalante River.

We just about managed to force our humble Ford Focus along the terrible road to the trailhead, beyond which the road became a deep, sandy, four-wheel drive only 'road'. More sand to trudge through. Yippee.

Eventually, we crested a ridge and saw a plateau of slickrock below.

As the wind began to pick up, we tentatively headed out, hunting for the small cairns which were supposed to guide us to a safe route down into the canyon.

We didn't plan to make it down that night, but were aiming to find a good spot for the tent up on the plateau. The wind had other ideas.

It came howling down from Fifty-Mile Ridge, cold and brutal. Sand whipped our faces as we sought out cover among the low, rolling terrain. We were getting near the edge of the plateau, and the sun would be setting soon. We didn't want to stumble off the edge.

Eventually we found a semi-secluded spot, but the wind still howled around us.

My Haglöfs tent is supposed to be a pretty bomb-proof, Himalaya-ready design, but for the first time I began to wonder if it would stand up to the wind. The normally rigid poles we bending scarily as we tried to get the fly over, holding on to it for dear life. I was beginning to worry. With the solid rock ground and no trees we had to rely on rocks to pitch the tent and hold it in place.

Thankfully the REI Snow/Sand stakes came in handy, but it was a nerve-wracking night of checking guy tautness and replacing/strengthening rocks. In the morning I was happy that the guys were still pretty tight. I don't think under those circumstances I could have pitched a tarp very securely, so for once I was happy to have something a little more hardcore in my camping arsenal.

The morning was calm and bright. We packed up after some good old oatmeal, and tried to find the trail - but there were no cairns in sight beyond the ones leading to the campsite that we followed the night before. The trail went cold.

I remembered checking some online GPS routes that people had taken on this trail, and noticed that around this point there was a lot of confusion - trails leading all over the place.

What we were looking for was a route called crack-in-the-rock that would take us down into the canyon. it had to be somewhere along the canyon wall, but where...

We split up, searching along the rim. I carefully crawled towards the edge to get a peek over, hoping to see the elusive route. All I saw was a terrifying vertical drop into nothingness. So not that way then. How the hell were we going to to get down?

Eventually I followed a hunch that the route had to be way back where we were camping, further down the canyon rim. After scrambling around and following dead-end cattle trails, I eventually caught sight of another cairn. I hollered to Bob, and there is was - a boulder that had split off from the wall, revealing a narrow crack through which we had to squeeze.

We couldn't get the packs through, so we lowered them over the edge with our high-tech rope ($5.99 nylon from a grocery store). On the other side was a huge sand dune leading down to the Coyote-Escalante convergence, and an enormous otter-like rock which this photo doesn't do justice to.

Sinking our way down the dune, I mentally thanked myself for choosing to hike the route this way. I would have hated to have to climb up 700ft of sand in the scorching sun.

At the canyon bottom tried to get along to the Escalante River convergence, but had to give up near the end. I don't know what we were doing wrong, but the trail vanished up a 50 degree sleek rock which neither of us could comfortably scramble up. In retrospect I think we should have just waded along the river bed, but never mind. Lunch beckoned.

We started trekking upstream along Coyote Gulch. Down in the canyon, everything was different - verdant green pastures, side canyons, natural arches, the distinctive call of canyon wrens echoing. It was a strange, eden-like oasis in the desert.

We decided we'd camp early and explore a little without the packs, so when we found a secluded little corner we set up camp.

Our plans to explore further on foot were abandoned in favour of dangling out hot feet in the stream and relaxing on the warm rocks. The canyon wasn't going anywhere - we'd see more of it tomorrow.

Being a fan of wide-open vistas, I was a little reluctant to do a hike in which I'd be closed in by vast rock walls for days. But it's a completely different feeling when you are down there.

In the wilderness you feel your solitude - you can see for miles, know that you are alone, and it's humbling. In the canyons, you feel a different kind of humility. You are dwarfed by the huge walls. You feel the age of the earth - the millennia is has taken the water to etch out the canyon. You are in the earth, between rock and water. You walk amongst trees and plants eking out a life amidst an otherwise inhospitable area. It is a feeling of intense fragility.

Rocks cling to walls, carved into arched by water and erosion, one day to collapse and be no more.

In these canyons, one goes alone at one's own risk. Early last century, Everett Ruess, a mere 20-year-old slip of a lad with a head for the solitary, went into the canyonlands of Escalante and disappeared. Only 75 years later, somewhere, human remains were found in a remote canyon, the cause of death likely to be murder.

And then there is Aron Ralston, another young adventurer who headed out alone and, by bizarre and horrible coincidence, converged in a slot canyon with a falling rock, which trapped his arm against the wall. What are the chances of that happening? That a rock would, at that precise moment, happen to fall. What did he do? After a week of dehydration and hallucination, he took out his tiny Swiss Army Knife, opened the little blade, and cut off his arm.

Anyway... the next day we continued our hike along the canyon bottom, splashing through the stream and past the willow bushes that the Ansanzi used to strip with their teeth to make into artefacts before pesticides polluted the stems and gave them all cancer of the mouth.

We were aiming to get to Jacob Hamblin Arch, where we heard there was a route out of the canyon that would take us back to the car. We still had a way to go, and plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.

It's very hard to capture the scape of the canyon and the arches in images. You really need a person in the distance to give a sense of size.

When we found the route out, it was pretty much as described in one of the guide books - or so we thought at first. A 45 degree scramble, the first 20 feet of which are the worst.

I let Bob go first to see how comfortable he felt climbing up. He got up about 40 feet and gave his approval, so we hauled the packs up using our technical climbing rope.

It really doesn't look like much of a climb, does it? But as we ascended a little higher, the slickrock became slicker, and the bags became harder to drag upwards. The precipitous height, and the lack of any ledges to stop us should we fall made us more cautious. Eventually Bob's vertigo got the bettor of him, and we discussed our options.

I think with day packs and more flexible, rubbery boots we might have made it. Instead we made a decision to abandon the route, and head out via Hurricane Wash - another eight miles, but eight miles in which we were more likely to stay alive.

Despondent, tired, and concerned for out water supply, we trudged on. We filled up at the end if Hurricane Wash using the now utterly useless, clogged Sweetwater filter. I was worried that we wouldn't have a reliable water supple along the wash - and I was right to worry.

Hurricane Wash turned into a nightmare slog through sand in now high temperatures. Lizards scuttled around our feet, enjoying the hot sand. We did not. After six miles we had to make another decision. We had water in the car, but we  we were not sure if we'd get to it by finding a way out and cutting across the palteau. The alternative was to carry on to the Hurricane Wash trail head and then follow the road to the car - but that was a lot further and we didn't have enough water. So. Only one choice then really. We had to find a way out.

We tried one route, but ended up in a maze of tiny canyons and thoughts of Aron Ralston in our heads. We backtracked to the main wash and continued, increasingly tired.

A little further up we saw another possibility. Bob went to check and thought it would be okay. We clambered up through yucca and sagebrush onto the plateau and saw a beautiful sight. There, on the horizon, was a sparkling light! I checked the GPS - yes! - it was the sun reflecting in the car windscreen!

It was about two miles as the crow flies, but in the canyonlands, the crow is the only thing that goes in a straight line. We could see from the GPS that between us and the car were lots of tiny canyons that would make 2 miles into about 10 miles of diversions.

As we tried to skirt around washes and canyons, I noticed some cattle tracks. Thinking back to my experiences n the Badlands following Buffalo tracks, I began to wonder - should I trust the cows?

I remembered that near the car was a water tank. I thought if I was a cow, I'd probably know the way there. The tracks went off in a different direction, but seemed to veer back towards the car further on. I told this to Bob, and we took a chance. On a cow.

Sure enough, our trusty cattle guides led us on an efficient route directly to the car - just in time, with the last few drops of unpleasantly warm water sloshing around in our bottles.

As a reward, I found something better than water in the car.

And that beer never tasted so good.

It was getting late. We needed a campsite, but found none along miles of pot-holed road where we could drive off without getting shot by ranchers. We saw one spot, already taken, and he and his girlfriend didn't want to share. But he did tell us there were loads more places a little further along the road - not as nice as his place of course, but what we found gave us a good view in the morning.

 The next day followed Fifty-Mile ridge to Escalante, and splashed out on a rest day in the awesome outfitters there, where we read the following about our planned-but-abandoned route out of Coyote Gulch:

One evening my brother Ace, a couple of friends, and I sat on the rim of Coyote Gulch directly across from the Jacob Hamblin Arch class 5 exit slab. the spectacle we witnessed from our high perch still chills me. A group of adults and children were climbing the steepest part of the route - without a rope. We watched in horror as they slowly made their way upward by using shoulder stands, pulling small children up the cliff by their arms, and scratching for purchase on the polished rock.
I remembered a incident many years ago when I had set my pack on a ledge while helping my group (on belay) up this same slab. on of my group grabbed my pack to use as a handhold (whoops). The pack was pulled off the ledge and I watched as it plummeted 150 feet to the floor of the canyon, bursting along the way.
Now I envisioned a small body taking the same plunge, surely shattering as it bounced down the cliff. This exit route, though used by many, is extremely dangerous. All due caution must be exercised. Belays MUST be used.

I began to think it was about time I learned how to belay.

To be continued...