Friday, May 8, 2009

May 8, 2009 - Dry Gulch Slot Canyons GSENM

Another 15 miles down a washboard dirt and clay road through open range land left our filings jarred and a fine layer of brown silt over much of the interior of the cabin – dust must be blowing in through the rubber porthole gaskets or other vent openings. Off to our right the Kaparowits Plateau grew taller and more awe inspiring as it dominated the views on that entire side of the road. The running boards each held shovels of fine red dirt, and the wheels had turned brown. The camper swayed to and fro as if a child were playing with us in a giant sandbox as we bounced slowly over the uneven roadbed and negotiated the larger rocks and ruts in the road. It felt like we were at times driving across the diameter of a giant sand record, with groves placed just so to harmonize with the springs in our vehicle to set everything bouncing. We slowed to a crawl, and hugged the side of the road in hopes that the soft sand under one set of wheels would help dampen the beating the other set of wheels were taking. At one point a low wash was filled with deep white powdery mineral (like borax, or gypsum) that previous drivers had left parted and rutted like a snow covered road right after a storm. We waded in and immediately felt the sway and drift of the wheels as if they were catching somewhat, but floating somewhat. Keeping the wheels turning, and our momentum moving forward we sloshed through this sand pit without getting wallowed down or stuck.

At last, we came to an unmarked spur off to the left and crossed our fingers that the odometer reading and the advice we were given were both sufficiently accurate to guide us to a trail head instead of some backcountry dead end – or worse some narrow rutted roadbed with soft sandy shoulders from which we would have difficulty backtracking, much less turning around. Almost immediately we came to another fork in the road – both options equally unused. No one had mentioned the second fork. We discussed our impressions, turned the wheel left and launched ahead. Luckily after about 5 minutes we arrived at an isolated opening in the sand and scrub where it was obvious others had parked.

A loosely marked trail led us down over the slickrock to a dry wash several hundred feet below, where other written reports had indicated to us that a collection of slot canyons terminated. Peck-a-boo slot, spooky slot, and dry wash slot all had names on written descriptions, but with no trail markers – or even a well worn trail we needed to follow our noses to find the often hidden openings of these magical routes.
The first slot we selected was called Peek-a-boo Canyon and involved climbing up from the wash about 12 feet over a dry sculpted sandstone overflow where a few footholds had been carved to assist with the entry. Well, try looking up 12 feet, and imagine climbing up near vertical sandstone, smoothed by fast rushing water for a millennium, with no cracks or deformities, using only rounded footholds and no handholds into an unknown and invisible ledge where more gymnastics undoubtedly awaited. I boosted Diane on my thigh, and then followed her up. After reaching the first pour over however, Diane decided she was not going to be able to get down the following pitch, so we retraced our delicate maneuvers and regrouped on the sandy dry pool where we started. I decided I was going to go in and have a look around anyway and climbed back in. While I was setting up the camera for a few shots another intrepid adventurer walked up and told us once through the canyon, we could climb out and hike back to the start over the top. Diane took up a seat in the shade and I ventured forth to explore the unknown vowing to meet up again within an hour.

What I experienced inside this amazing grotto was a quiet, softly lit cathedral of undulating sandstone curves with a sandy pocketed river bed. I climbed over and around finely crafted dry pools, spill overs, and long ago evaporated whirlpool “keeper” holes. The walls overhead sometimes overhung, often sloped in parallel directions, but not vertical, always one tilt or another. The walls were etched with grooves from eons of water and mud rushing down as it accumulated from the mesa overhead, swirling around laden with sand, and stones, and boulders, and tree limbs. All that debris is now gone, and all that remains is the lithographed sandstone telling the tale.

With the walls relatively close together I could usually “jamb” across the narrow cavities to climb up and over the geologic obstacles. Other times I had to “smear” up the smooth surfaces, hoping that just about the time my friction wore out I would be able to reach a sharp enough handhold that I could reset my feet. It was not desperate, but I was alone, and I did not want to abandon Diane for too long.

The next slot we tackled was called “Spooky” slot and it was indeed a bit spooky. This canyon had an easier entrance, but was longer than the previous slot, and rapidly became so narrow that we could only pass sidestepping, with our packs off and held to one side. A few steps like this would have been interesting, but traveling this way for 1/3 of a mile was exhausting. Again, the walls undulated back and forth, in a sinuous fashion, and the warm light filtered down to where we were squeezing without any direct rays getting anywhere near the bottom. Like in a cave, with an open top the air flowed regularly down as if it were water, a mild 60 degrees - cool, but well suited to our level of exertion. Occasionally we came to a swirled out open pocket, where the eddies of water had carved out a spherical or circular pool 4 feet wide. We took these opportunities to rest, drink, eat snacks, and marvel at our surroundings. Often the closely spaced walls were not vertical at all, and we would need to lean over, front or back continuing our awkward sidestepping. Even with this close spacing of the massive rock cliffs front and back, I never really felt claustrophobic. With the fresh breeze blowing, and the warm glow of the light, we would just stop and rest and marvel at the situation we had put ourselves in. Bigger people would definitely feel more constrained. Finally, the slot became so narrow and small we could no longer make forward progress. To boot, overhead falling rocks had filled in the open top making a jumble of chock stones into a 3D vertical maze. Luckily, just overhead, the slot widened a bit – this is of course why the chock stones had gotten stuck in their tumble down the canyon. The way up must be our exit route. We climbed straight up, the growing chimney, moving around one rock, then over and up and around the next, until after a few minutes of exhilarating climbing we emerged into the polar white sun-blasted desert – looking down and back it was hard to imagine there was even room down beneath the jumble of rocks for someone to pass, but as we heard voices, grunts and giggles waft up from the tumble, we were assured that indeed there were people down there, and they, like us, were on their way up to percolate to the surface just as we had. It is not hard to imagine, how one, not informed about this grotto pathway below, would experience the appearance of a human from such terrain as magical.
We found ourselves in a non-descript sandy wash (that drained in wetter seasons through the slot). Searching for a logical way back to our start point without having to reverse engineer our subterranean trip, and spied the remains of soft footprints in the sand and following our inner compass, and the fall of the land, we soon spotted the dry wash from which we had started our journey and merrily hiked back to the mouth.

From 12 May 2009 - Southern Utah

From 12 May 2009 - Southern Utah

From 12 May 2009 - Southern Utah

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