Utah - Part 1: Boulder Mail Trail, Escalante, Utah

In April my old friend and hiking partner Bob visited for 10 days of backpacking around the canyonlands of southeast Utah. I know this doesn't exactly qualify as Backpacking North, but we wanted to go somewhere different. We'd been to Norwegian mountains and hiked through Lapland, but Utah attracted us because there is nothing like it in Europe.

The desert was calling us.

After a two day drive to pick Bob up in Denver, we set off after a brief supply stop in REI over the Rockies. I'd been planning the trips we'd take once we got to Utah for several weeks, but I left it open enough so we could adapt and change at the last minute. We'd planned to start off in Escalante, but as the drive was taking longer than expected, we decided to hike a quick overnighter on the Boulder Mail Trail from Boulder to Death Hollow.

As you can see, Bob is not much of an ultra-lighter. Fortunately, in early April, the weather is quite pleasant - not as scorchingly hot as later in the year, and still quite cool at night. Around midday, we set of on our first mini-adventure.

After a mile or two of gentle descent through sagebrush and ponderosa pine, we arrived abruptly at the desert proper. The rest of the trail - as for much of the Escalante region - consists mainly of vast areas of slickrock. Trails are marked by cairns, but weathering and water runoffs mean you have to keep your eyes peeled.

There are very few reliable water sources in the area, so it's important to always carry enough water with you just in case. I stacked up on hardcore platypus bladders having had a bad encounter with a plastic bladder and a cactus in the Badlands. But four litres of water is a heavy burden, I can tell you.

Another thing to be aware of in the canyonlands are storms. Even if it's not raining near you, a storm a few miles away can result in torrents of water raging down the canyon washes. We were pretty lucky during the entire trip, but nevertheless we always camped well above the canon bottoms, just in case.

The Boulder Mail Trail follows the rout of an old telegraph line running between the small towns of Escalante and Boulder. I don't know if mail of any other form was taken along this route, but if it was, I wouldn't want to be the postman.

The landscapes threw up spectacular view after spectacular view. It really is a different world.

We didn't see much in the way of wildlife on the trips. I'd hoped to at least hear some coyotes, but silence prevailed every night, save for the wind howling down the  canyons.

On the other hand, I suppose we can be grateful we didn't have to contend with scorpions, rattlesnakes, or tarantulas.

After 8 miles (I said it was a mini-adventure - but then again we were at 6000ft) we began what seemed like a nice gentle descent into Death Hollow.

But you know, places don't get named

Death Hollow

because they're a nice place to sit down and have a cup of tea.

What we have here is a 1000ft vertical drop off into the canyon, and visiting hiker with vertigo.

We wondered how in hell we were going to get down there. The cairns led us along a narrow ledge along 45 degree slickrock, while on our left side the chasm plunged open, ready to receive us.

We tentatively stepped along the ledge, trying - and failing - not to look down.

 Pictures, of course, don't do it justice, but I didn't feel particularly comfortable hanging around trying to get the perfect shot. However, just to the left of the image above, is nothingness.

The path wound around the edge of the cliffs, marking a remarkably safe route which I began to dread climbing again the next day.

We could see a few trails down in the bottom of the canyon, and thought that would make a good campsite.

Knees-knocking, we continued down.

It was much cooler in the shade of Death Hollow. Some lovely campsites at the foot of a cliff had already been taken, much to my disappointment. But we found a spot a little way away under a pine which I hoped would be above the level of any flash floods. From what I could tell by the debris collected in the low branches of bushes and trees we'd be safe barring a torrential downpour.

We set up my way-too-heavy, but trusty and reliable two-man Haglöfs Genius and discussed whether or not we were ready to move to using tarps. I've been moving gradually to more lightweight gear, replacing what I could with much lighter versions. But for two person trips I was still burdened with a heavy tent. It had to change. I resolved to order a GossamerGear SpinnTwinn when we returned. My shoulders would thank me for it.

Sadly, most of the water in the US is contaminated with giardia and other nasty side-effects of over-industrialised capitalism (grrr), so it's always necessary to purify or filter water. I carried my MSR Sweetwater filter, another annoyingly heavy (though advertised as light) item of gear. I'd had trouble with it before - the filter gets easily clogged, and although it's possible to clean it in the field, it's kind of fussy. I could, to be honest, do without the hassle. How I miss Lapland with it's clean and plentiful water supply (providing you're not downstream of a dead reindeer)! I made another resolution for my return - find another water filtration system and solution. After I opened it, I found a small problem - there was mould growing on the filter cartridge. Bugger. That's what happens when you a) don't dry it properly, and b) don't check it before you leave. Decisions, decisions. Sod it, I'd just give it a decent clean now and hope for the best. Not necessarily the wisest course of action, I know, but hey, I'm still alive. (And as far as I know so is Bob.)

Food then. We decided to try what I thought sounded potentially dreadful - a dehydrated Shepherd's Pie. However, we were both pleasantly surprised. I've added it to my list of gourmet backcountry dehydrated gunk.

Team B, as we rather ungenerously called them, returned from exploring the canyon. A couple of couples, we left them to their own business. They didn't seem particularly interested in hanging out around the campfire (which we didn't have) and cooking s'mores (which I don't know how to make).

I rolled out my neoair - a full-length indulgence for my giant-like frame - slipped into my lovely WM Antelope and had a good night's sleep.

While Team B still slept, we made our oatmeal, and packed, ready to head back out for our next adventure.

Not being super fit, I was dreading the climb up. In the past I've watched Bob striding up the sides of mountains which I clutched my pounding chest, sucking in air, praying that the killer stitch in my side would stop stabbing at my liver. The though of a 1000ft vertical ascent at 8 am was not high on my list of things I want to do before I die - especially as the dying part could also be achieved at the same time.

I had a suspicion though that it wouldn't be as bad going up as coming down. I was correct. The simple fact that when ascending you are looking up changes everything. The big drop-off was behind us, and before we knew it - quite literally as it turned out - we were out. Bob thought we still had the worst yet to come, and didn't believe me when I insisted he'd just crossed the narrow ledge of certain death. We were in the clear. Onwards and upwards then.

Another problem with walking in the desert is sand. It's godawful to walk on at the best of times, but in the heat with a heavy backpack it's murder. A lot of the soil in the canyonlands is covered with a slow-growing combination of biotic material called cryptosporidium. It is forbidden to walk on it as it takes years to recover, and is one of the main sources of soil creation. The sandy path wove its way through tons of crypto, so our only choice was to trudge slowly along, swearing a lot.

As I mentioned, you can occasionally see the old telegraph wire along the route. It's quite fascinating to think that this was one of the technological developments that transformed the West. So vital was it that they found a way to route it across the harsh landscape of the Box-Death Hollow. As I walked, I wondered what messages it had carried; lives lost and born, Indian attacks, news of the Civil War. I wondered if, trapped in it's molecular structures, traces of the electronic voices of history still remained.

Cairns. Route markers. Path finders. Signalling the safe route. Who placed the first stones? Who found the first route? Grand Staircase Escalante - our next destination - was the last area in the USA to be mapped, and contains the last river to be named.


was the most famous explorer of the region, but who came before him? What Native Americans walked the slickrock long before? What paths did they take?

For us, our first journey into the canyonlands was almost over. We trekked back to the trailhead, ready for more adventure. That afternoon we would drive to Escalante, and check in at the Visitor's Center to refill water for a three-day hike through Coyote Gulch and Hurricane Wash.

Later, while staying at Escalante, we discovered a description of the route we had just taken in a canyoneering book. I'd done plenty of research into routes and destinations, and everything I read said this was a moderate to strenuous route.

This book, however had other ideas:

Death Hollow, one of the most spectacular canyons in southern Utah, should be on every hardcore canyoneer's tic list. The operative words here are death and hardcore; this canyon is difficult throughout and many epics have unfolded in its deepest recesses. Luckily no deaths have occurred, but it is only a matter of time.  Death Hollow is not a canyon for the newcomer who may not appreciate what it has to offer. It is a canyon one aspires to, a reward to building skills and experience over several seasons.

Ho hum.

To be continued...