Adventures in Canyonlands

Maybe I should have seen it coming when Bruce the NPS ranger at the Canyonlands headquarters in Moab called me to say that our proposed route was impossible. Maybe I should have listened a little more when he said he felt he should notify search and rescue that we may create a possible situation. Maybe I should have recognized that trying to ‘off the couch’ trek 120 miles in five days over rough, snow covered, water-filled, slick rock-rimmed terrain with two major river crossings was a bigger deal than I was letting on. I definitely should have known that starting after three days of partying in Vegas was a bad idea. Well, OK, I knew that last part was pretty stupid, but the three of us are fit young men and some of my most memorable experiences have been born of activities people have told me I wasn’t ready for. How could this not be a good time?

After sorting through a ton of NPS bureaucracy prior to leaving, which I imagine is in part the result of that whole Aaron Ralston affair, we began our trip in Vegas to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday. Although we made it out of Sin City alive, I can say that Matt, Max, and I were all a little worse for the wear as we crammed into the tiny cab of Matt’s Ford Ranger for the eight hour drive to our starting point near Natural Bridges State Monument.  We tried to make the uncomfortably intimate drive more bearable by listening to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire on tape but after an hour of contrite dribble we all agreed that our friends who love the book (which is every single person we know) are delusional. Please don’t send me hate mail, I’m sure I’m wrong and the book is brilliant. Let’s just blame the narrator and move on.

Nearing Natural Bridges we drove the truck as far up an old dirt road as possible, found a place to park in an old mining campsite, shouldered our packs and took off to pound out some miles before nightfall.  The inaugural slog up the rest of the road was hard; the surface was mud so sticky it made you wish it was balling snow on crampons which could at least be knocked off.  Being so hung over and sleep deprived didn’t help the situation much, and only Max the nordic ski racer seemed unaffected and cheerful. He was destined to remain that way the entire trip, the bastard. The next two days saw us hiking to the top of a valley ridge, back to the valley floor only to climb to the rim again, in the process topping out at almost 9,000 feet and finding the deep snow the rangers had warned us we would encounter. We of course carried no snowshoes which would only add to our load and so we tried to catch the coolest temps and hard crusted snow to avoid post-holing, a strategy that succeeded about 85% of the time.

We consistently fell short of our 24 mile a day goal which the rangers also told us was “not likely to happen.” The 20 degree sleeping bags we carried proved not quite adequate and despite wearing every layer and being exhausted every night I found sleep only in sporadic fits. On day three we dropped into lower altitudes and crossed the southern border of Canyonlands National Park. We picked our way up Salt Creek passed old cowboy homestead ruins, ancient cliff dwellings, cave paintings, spectacular sandstone canyons and towers.  Having been educated by our good friend Edward Abbey about the difference between arches and natural bridges we pointed them out as we hiked on and felt proud. Although the weather was much warmer and Max seemed fit as a fiddle, after miles of post-holing without trekking poles Matt suffered shredded ankles with quiet stoicism, and various sections of my left leg had begun to hurt enough to elicit embarrassing complaints. The trip that was supposed to be a no-big-deal-walk-in-the-woods had become well established type two fun.

On our fifth and final day we climbed through the peep-hole at Peekaboo and crossed over the many slickrock passes toward Squaw Flat Trailhead. Along the way I began to suffer vicious pain in both my left knee and right Achilles tendon and although I didn’t ask them to, Matt and Max graciously carried part of my load. I started to limp dramatically and became depressed at the demoralizing way my body had performed on the trip. I began to see the breathtaking scenery surrounding me only as obstacles standing between me and the finish line and I became all the more sad because of it. I arrived at Squaw Flat, broken and done-in, 40 miles and two river crossings short of our proposed goal. The good folks at the NPS had been right. A few hours later I found myself limping along the road after a ranger explained that I couldn’t hitchhike inside the park.  Matt and Max had previously snagged a ride and went ahead to retrieve the truck, leaving me alone to contemplate the last eight grueling days.

I looked out over the landscape with the rain falling in the distance and took in the stark beauty of the silent desert around me. Our trip had been hard and the effects would be lasting, but along the way we found the beauty that only couples with places so remote.   We discovered the satisfaction of that which cannot be given but must be earned, and that fulfillment is something we all truly seek in the adventures we create. In that moment the trials of the trek fell away and I came to understand how Edward Abbey could fall into the trap of describing these places with such convoluted and verbose language. The desert has a way of getting to you like that. Weeks later, as I sit in my living room typing I can still feel my angry knees and the disgusting creek of an inflamed Achilles tendon. Even so, when it’s all said and done, I think back romantically on those rough-ass five days and smile.

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Brad Miller is an Outdoor Prolink pro and founder of Climb The Planet. You can follow his adventures on twitter at @climbtheplanet. 

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