Welcome to SP!  -
Happy Birthday to Me (and a Fool in the Mud)
Trip Report

Happy Birthday to Me (and a Fool in the Mud)

  Featured on the Front Page
Happy Birthday to Me (and a Fool in the Mud)

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: Utah, United States, North America

Object Title: Happy Birthday to Me (and a Fool in the Mud)

Date Climbed/Hiked: Oct 13, 2009

Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Scrambling


Page By: Bob Sihler

Created/Edited: Feb 22, 2010 / Mar 21, 2010

Object ID: 599322

Hits: 4971 

Page Score: 90.81%  - 33 Votes 

Vote: Log in to vote


A Nice Kind of Birthday Present

While I hope the "story" is at least somewhat interesting, my main goal here is to showcase a few of the nearly countless possibilities that this part of the country holds.

My birthday falls on or very close to Columbus Day Weekend, and as a little treat to myself, I like to go away for a night, or two, or three. Most of the time I go alone; I like to be alone and need to be alone, especially in the mountains, and my wife puts up with this better than most other spouses seem to, for which I'm thankful. Although she always knew what she was getting into, I have heard too many stories of spouses losing or outright dropping that acceptance. Life without going to the wilderness by myself to refresh and inspire my spirit would be a cage for me, and I'm grateful that I have found someone who realizes it even if she doesn't totally understand it. Only others who are this way can really understand it, after all.

Usually, my birthday escape is just a jaunt out to Shenandoah National Park, only a 90-minute drive from me, or down the Blue Ridge Parkway, easily covered over a long weekend, but it occasionally is a bigger affair, such as when I took a Friday flight to Portland, ME, to spend a couple nights in Baxter State Park in order to climb Katahdin.

But sometimes a three-day weekend is not enough, and last fall was one such sometimes. For a lot of reasons that aren't necessary to share here, I felt life closing in all around me last fall and just needed to get away for more than a few days. A working man I am, and thus something summer-like was out of the question, but a week sounded about as nice as reason would allow. Down went the time-off request, out came the pen, and under "Reason for Request" went "Birthday present to myself."

Request approved. And a damn good thing, at that-- in 17 years now at the same job, I have never taken a sick day, so I think asking for four days (since Monday was already a holiday) wasn't too much to ask.

Destination: Utah's San Rafael Swell and Capitol Reef National Park via Grand Junction, Colorado, with a day in Colorado National Monument thrown in along the way.
San Rafael Reef
The San Rafael Swell (actually, the San Rafael Reef) from Spotted Wolf Canyon

Luck was on my side heading out. I had to fly from Dulles Airport in Virginia to Denver International and then to Grand Junction. The first flight left on time in sunny t-shirt weather and arrived in Denver as temperatures there began to plummet and a significant snowstorm was bearing down from the north. With creeping despair, I watched flights north into Wyoming being canceled as the storm moved from Sheridan and then to Casper and further south all the time. As we boarded the little plane to haul us to Grand Junction, reports had the snow in Boulder, just 40 miles or so northwest. Everyone was ready to go, and we were set to pull out early when we learned that by regulation we had to wait for a missing passenger everyone knew wasn't showing up and who never did show up. Visions of cancellations danced, actually thundered, in my head. But we took off, had a smooth flight, and landed in a warmer and calmer Grand Junction less than an hour later. I picked up my rental car, stopped at the liqour store and the grocery store in that order, and headed off into the Colorado midnight for Colorado National Monument and an uncomfortable night in the car. (I had decided to spend my nights in motels but couldn't justify the expense for that first night considering how late I'd be arriving, so it was a thin blanket and a cramped back seat for me, plus the stench of beer, as I'd managed to spill one while rummaging around for stuff in my pack. Why is it that beer in the bottle or the glass smells so good but beer anywhere else smells so awful?)
The Castle
The Castle, Capitol Reef National Park

Dry weather and sunshine most days made for nice hiking and climbing conditions, and I got plenty of both done. The next two sections are galleries of favorite photos from the trip, with explanatory captions. There are no riveting stories to tell of weather gone bad or desperate route-finding or menacing wildlife. In fact, the only interesting story to tell didn't have a thing to do with climbing, and that story is recounted in the fourth and final section of this trip report. Remember, you can always skip sections by clicking on the Table of Contents. Please look and read on...

Shameless Side-of-the Road Shots

No pretending otherwise-- I've posted these here just to show the gorgeous colors and shapes of these parts of Utah. The next section has the proof that I actually did a few climbs.
Bottleneck Peak
Bottleneck Mesa and Bottleneck Peak, San Rafael Swell-- This picture is from shortly after my climb of the former, an enjoyable route-finding exercise with some nice scrambling and exploration thrown in to spice things up a bit.
The Wickiup-- Southern and Eastern Aspects
The Wickiup, San Rafael Swell-- From the 4wd approach road after I had climbed the peak via its southern and western ridges.
Walls of Jericho
Walls of Jericho; Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park-- From the Swell, I took a dustier, more desolate way to Capitol Reef than most others do; I drove from I-70 through the Last Chance Desert to reach Cathedral Valley, for my money the most spectacular place in all of Utah, and from there through the Hartnet to River Ford and UT 24. But I broke up all the driving with a few nice outings along the way, including a spontaneously planned and executed late-afternoon climb of Eph Hanks Tower (see the last two photos in this section).
Needle Mountain
Needle Mountain, one of the highest peaks of Cathedral Valley
Queen of the Wash
Queen of the Wash, Middle Desert-- The sight of this huge bentonite hill will make a lot of people want to ramble up it, and some will be pleased to know that it is not even the highpoint of the ridge complex that includes it, that from the summit it is about another mile over a few more "peaks" to reach the real highpoint. Every step of the route is accompanied by multicolored splendor that amazes even in the low-contrast light of midday (see the next section for a view from up there).
October Gold
Golden cottonwoods along the Notom-Bullfrog Road-- After climbing Black Mountain in the Middle Desert, I headed south for the Burr Trail and Studhorse Peaks, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Along the way were many cottonwood-framed vistas of the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef until the road dropped into lower, drier country and wove through badlands and sandstone.
Cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold
Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park-- Seen from the Notom-Bullfrog Road near the Burr Trail
October Gold and the Fremont River
October gold and the Fremont River 1, Capitol Reef National Park-- To see this, all you have to do is park your car across the road from the Visitor Center and get out. The shattered-looking peak is The Castle, a prominent park landmark even though it is dwarfed by the red walls behind it. From both above and below, I have studied this formation, hoping to find a possible non-technical route to the highest of the pinnacles, but I have not spotted one. This is just one of many reasons for me to return to Capitol Reef.
October Gold and the Fremont River
October gold and the Fremont River 2-- shot from very close to the spot of the above photo.
The Castle and Gold
October Gold and the Fremont River 3
Eph Hanks Tower
Eph Hanks Tower, Capitol Reef national Park-- It was overcast two days earlier when I climbed this peak, but this day (October 14), I was able to get what I thought was some dramatic lighting and capture several nice shots of this formation and others in the vicinity
The Golden Throne
The Golden Throne, Capitol Reef National Park-- The Golden Throne, which as far as I know is a technical-only summit that does not attract many climbers, is one of the most impressive monoliths around Capitol Gorge and really in all of the park.

Face-saving Shots from Actual Climbs

Just to show I did a little more than simply stepping outside the car and going trigger-happy with the shutter button, something very easy to do in places like these--
Off-trail Peak
Colorado National Monument-- an off-trail outcrop near the Serpent's Trail that I spotted from the parking area and decided to go check out.
Outcrop Summit
The summit block of the outcrop above.
Devils Kitchen
Devils Kitchen, Colorado National Monument-- a cool collection of sandstone pinnacles not far from the road but seemingly a world away.
Slickrock Steps and the Bottleneck
Bottleneck Peak from Bottleneck Mesa, San Rafael Swell-- I found a Class 4 descent from here to approach the saddle between the peaks, but the traverse reached Class 5 cliffs that were not terribly high but just high and difficult enough to prevent passage without the safety of roping up.
Crux of Route
The crux of my route up to Point 6495 and Eph Hanks Tower, Capitol Reef National Park-- a single pitch of about 60' that is Class 4 overall with one spot that is more like 5.2. There may be an easier way up-- it is a large massif, after all-- but the path of least resistance, which included plenty of loose rock and Class 3 scrambling, led me here.
Black Mountain
Black Mountain, Middle Desert-- a classic example of a remote off-trail desert peak. Getting to this peak required wandering washes and badland ridges and finally scrambling up black volcanic slopes that give the peak its name. From the top there were views of spectacular desert wilderness in all directions.
Desert View
Studhorse Peaks, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument-- From the road (Burr Trail), the Studhorse Peaks look uninteresting, but the two I climbed yielded some fun scrambling and a little interesting route-finding, and one of them hid a small slot canyon near the summit that I'm willing to bet very few people know about.
Navajo Knobs-- Summit Views
A view of the highest of the Navajo Knobs from the trail-accessible one, Capitol Reef National Park-- I was able to find a Class 4 route up this peak and enjoyed unbeatable scenery and no signs of other people.
Navajo Knobs-- Summit Views-- Monoliths
A view south from the summit of one of the Navajo Knobs-- This is a great depiction of the Capitol Reef backcountry-- a world of sandstone towers and domes, almost all of them unnamed and many unclimbed or climbed only a handful of times.
View to Black Mountain
Black Mountain seen from Queen of the Wash-- Middle Desert. I climbed Queen of the Wash, a wildly colorful and crumbly badlands peak, on my last day, and climbed Black Mountain two days earlier, on my birthday, in fact.

Yet Another Touron Stuck in the Mud

So on my last day out there, after climbing Queen of the Wash, I had to get back to Grand Junction. Instead of taking the paved way via Hanksville, I decided to head back through the Swell by crossing Muddy Creek and rejoining the paved roads near Goblin Valley State Park and Temple Mountain. A few years before, I had driven down to the northern side of Muddy Creek from Little Wild Horse Canyon, and the ford, though marked as "Dangerous Ford" on my Trails Illustrated map, had looked passable from that side, so I figured that since it had been dry recently and water levels were low, it would be in good shape from the south side, too. Plus, this would give me the chance to check out Factory Butte, a peak that intrigued me from maps and online photographs and which I was interested in scouting a scrambling route up (I didn't see one, but I didn't thoroughly scout out the peak, either).
Factory Butte
Factory Butte, an impressive formation in the Utah Desert between Capitol Reef National Park and the San Rafael Swell

Plans to drive across the ford went by the wayside, though, when, lo and behold, there was a Jeep Commander badly stuck in mud there. And by badly, I do mean badly; the front wheels were almost completely buried and the front bumper was resting atop the mud. The driver had no shovel, no boards, nothing of any sort that might help him get some traction and get out. That Jeep wasn't going anywhere by itself until the next long-term drought turned the creek to a trickle and the mud dry and hard.

You could tell from the temporary Colorado tags that this was some out-of-stater who, feeling invincible in his brand-new SUV, had gone out where he had no business being. Kind of like those people who rush out in their trucks as soon as it snows, drive like jackasses, and get stuck. What an idiot.

Oh, but I was the one driving that Jeep.

What happened was really indefensible for two reasons:

• The opposite side was a steep dirt embankment that almost any stock SUV was going to have trouble getting up.
• The Jeep did not have real four-wheel drive, as in being able to go into 4-Low. Instead, it had that lame full-time all-wheel drive that appears in all too many such vehicles nowadays. Whoever heard of a Jeep without real four-wheel drive? Come on! But still, I shouldn't have ventured onto questionable ground without it.

But I will defend myself, anyway, with the following:

• I