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.
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, 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 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, San Rafael Swell-- From the 4wd approach road after I had climbed the peak via its southern and western ridges. 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, one of the highest peaks of Cathedral Valley 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). 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. Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park-- Seen from the Notom-Bullfrog Road near the Burr Trail 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 2-- shot from very close to the spot of the above photo. October Gold and the Fremont River 3 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, 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--
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. The summit block of the outcrop above. Devils Kitchen, Colorado National Monument-- a cool collection of sandstone pinnacles not far from the road but seemingly a world away. 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. 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, 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. 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. 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. 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. 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, 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 own a Nissan Xterra and have driven it and several other vehicles in true four-wheel drive conditions without losing or destroying the car. I have been on nasty rock crawls at the edge of what a stock vehicle can handle, deep snow, deep sand, and mud. I know what I can and can't do and what I will and won't do, and I know to check things out first.
• For most stream crossings, including any stream crossing wider than my car is long, I get out and examine conditions before plowing through, even when I can see the stream bottom and am pretty sure of the depth. This has included a barefoot ford in sub-freezing temperatures just to test water depth and current strength. Muddy Creek was no exception. Water depth, current, stream bottom-- check. The water was shallow enough and the bed rocky enough that I figured if I failed to get up the embankment at first, I could just start again right from the streambed. Flooding the engine was not going to be a concern.
Another view of Factory Butte
Ruling out an alternate crossing obviously used by ATV riders because it looked-- ha ha-- too muddy, I got in, started the engine, put the car in gear, and started.
But alas, 175 pounds is not the same as 5000 pounds, and as I was about to plunge into the stream, I had one of those realizations that is among the worst for a driver-- the car was sinking. That surface that seemed plenty firm turned out to be nothing but goo just inches underneath, and I was getting in deep before I even hit the water. Realizing there was no stopping and reversing, I pushed the gas to try to reach the water, where the bed almost certainly was firmer, nice and rocky as it was. But no luck. I was stuck.
Now, anyone who gets himself into one of these situations has initial near-panicked thoughts along these lines: "Oh shit! How the hell did this happen? What the hell am I going to do? I am a day's walk from the closest town! What am I going to do?"
Also: "There goes that big flat-panel TV I was going to get; the towing bill will more than see to that."
And: "Well, at least I might not have to go to work on Monday."
I pulled out my cell phone and was about to dial my wife when I realized that all it would do, if I could even get a signal, was worry her. Maybe she could have called the police or gone online to find a wrecker in Hanksville and relay my location, but I had a little more pride than resorting to that-- yet.
So the little wave of despair went on by, and I got my shit together and made a plan.
The closest paved road was 11 miles away and mostly easy walking. Hanksville was maybe another 14 miles from there, but with any luck, my thumbs or waving arms would help. While the unpaved road to the highway was lightly traveled, the paved road between Capitol Reef and Hanksville, while no city boulevard, received steady enough traffic that I ought to have been able to get some help. Also, I had passed a group of guys in pickup trucks about three miles before the ford and hoped I could reach them before they moved on. It would take less than an hour to get to where they were.
Into my pack went the essentials and the valuables that would fit in. With enough food and water for two days and that thin blanket, I set off, hiding other valuable items, such as my laptop, as well as I could. No rain or other storms were in the forecast, so I wasn't too worried about a flash flood sweeping the Jeep away. Besides, what would I be able to do if that even happened, turn Hulk-like and lift the car from the water?
Good fortune was on my side that day, for less than a minute after I began walking, those guys in the trucks arrived. They were hunters from Montana and planned to cross Muddy Creek and go on to Goblin Valley. To me, they were angels in their massive diesel-powered Dodge pickups. And I figured that if they couldn't help get me unstuck, they could at least shoot me and end my misery.
They were nice enough to claim that they'd seen much worse, and only a couple of them laughed, though not in a derogatory way. One of them took some pictures, and if you're wondering why I didn't, I just wanted this whole sorry episode to be over and to have no mementos of it. I don't think you had to be there to understand.
One of them got a rope out and tied his truck to my pathetic excuse for a Jeep and started to pull. And his tires just spun and spun in the dirt there. Not good. But pride, though it can be a terrible thing, can be a wonderful thing as well, for I could tell that after several failed attempts to get me out, he was not quitting. This was no longer about helping your fellow man; it was a battle between him, his truck, and the mud.
Shovels came out, one of the guys and I did a lot of digging, and then there was more fruitless pulling. That pattern repeated once or twice before someone got a chain and hooked up the other pickup to our stalled procession. After more pulling, digging, pulling, digging, pulling, they finally pulled me free. Christmas in Utah delivered from Montana in October. I'll take it.
They probably got many a good laugh out of the whole thing, but that's fine; those laughs would have been both earned and deserved.
All too often, though, men are stubborn and foolish creatures, so moments after pulling me out, talk turned to attempting to cross the creek. The man who had waged war against the mud was positive
he could get through but was curiously reluctant to try it, and he became more reluctant the more his friends goaded him. He still might have made a go of it, but I piped up and pointed out that if he got stuck himself, my weak vehicle would probably be no help in pulling him out. This seemed to convince him not to go the way I had, and that probably was a wise decision.
So attention turned to that alternate crossing. It was more water travel, but the bed was good and rocky there, too, and the near bank was in good condition. On the other side, though, was the wide muddy section that had deterred me from trying it before. Realizing I was right about my car being no help if someone got stuck, they tried to convince me to go first, but I was finished with Muddy Creek for the day. They didn't seem too disappointed. We chatted a bit about Montana, I gave them alternate directions to their destination, I offered them some beer money (which they declined to accept, saying that helping each other is just what neighbors do), and we all left.
After getting lunch in Green River, I walked by a homeless man with a sign asking for anything to help. Normally, I don't give money, but this time, I gave the man enough to get a good meal, maybe two. Maybe he just poured that money down his throat, but I don't care; I needed to do something
to help someone
, and I had to do it that day. And unfortunately, I hadn't come across a beautiful woman with a flat tire.
Back in Grand Junction, I cleaned the hell out of that Jeep in advance of returning it the next morning. The dip in the mud apparently resulted in some rocks getting stuck in the left front wheel, though, and that vehicle that had just 200 miles on it when I picked it up and had the new-car smell going as well sounded like some godawful heap about to collapse. I told the guy at the rental counter about it and said someone probably would have to remove the wheel to get it cleaned out, but I sort of forgot to tell him how all this had occurred. After all, the rental contract clearly stated that driving the vehicle on unpaved roads was forbidden.
Someday I have to go back to that crossing and get my revenge. I just do. But for now, being some 2000 miles from Muddy Creek is okay by me.