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Sand Creek Horse Pack

Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah

October 8-14, 2003

Author: Bill Priedhorsky

Trip Participants:  Bill Priedhorsky, Marilyn Yeamans, Karen Grace, John Meier, Ginger and Karl Buchendahl, Faye and Dave Brown, and Dick and Judy Opsahl.

We are pleased to report another fabulous experience in the canyon country. I led a party of ten into the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, camping for four nights on Sand Creek. We spent 4 nights in camp, comfortably settled with 5 horses worth of gear packed in by Bob and Sioux Cochrane of Boulder Mountain Ranch (435-335-7487). Participants A parallel 8-person trip, led by Kathleen Gruetzmacher, camped nearby, arriving and departing 24 hours before our party.

Seven of us left Los Alamos at 6:30 AM on the morning of Wednesday October 8; the others drove from Park City and Flagstaff. It was raining and dark as we waited for Karen at 6 AM; but it cleared by the time we reached Utah, and the weather was fabulous for the rest of the trip. The drive took about 12 hours, including a two-hour stop for a hike in the dome country along highway 95 west of Lake Powell. We stayed the first night and the last at Jan Belnap's Eagle Star B&B (435-335-7438). She seems to run the B&B on a part-time basis, but was happy to have us as usual. The B&B has four rooms (one with two beds, the others with one). John and I each took a turn on the futon in the recreation room. The charge for the whole house, with breakfast, was $440 per night. We have reserved the same B&B for the nights of Saturday October 10 and Saturday October 17 next year.

Bob and Sioux Cochrane picked up some of the gear at the B&B on the evening of our arrival, and the rest at the trailhead at 10 AM the next morning. The only negative factor the whole trip was Bob's concern about the size and weight of our load. This was complicated by the additional gear that appeared in the morning, after Bob thought the packing problem was nearly solved.

We departed from the Boulder Mail trail parking lot, south of Boulder, at about 10:30 AM. Our route took us about a mile down the trail, to a cutoff established by Bob and Sioux a few hundred yards before Sand Creek. We followed the horses' tracks across the sandy juniper terrain, stopped for a break at a tank in a sandstone drainage, then cut down a drainage on the east side of Sand Creek, approximately 1/4 mile upstream of the drainage that descends the other side from Slickrock Saddle. Bob and Sioux dropped our gear at the top of a small bluff just above Kathleen's campsite. After spending some time looking for an optimal campsite, we choose a smooth-bottomed wash, just above the creek, about 200 yards downstream of the gear dropoff. The haul was substantial, but accomplished with 2 or 3 roundtrips per person. Karl and Bill forced the decision on the campsite by hauling down the first two panniers. Karen and Marilyn had a beautiful campsite atop a little knoll, to which they applied some serious nesting instinct, which went as far as arranging little protective rock circles around the cactus. Bill, on the other hand, just threw his sleeping bag on the rock. Dinner was John's chicken curry.

Because of the late October sunrise, outings from camp tending to start at about 10 AM. We split into groups each day. The first day, the Browns, Opsahls, Buckendahls, Karen, and Marilyn joined with Greg and Dave Scudder, Arne, Glenn, and Kathleen from the other trip, for a hike downstream. The group waded through cold water for about 1/4 mile, but climbed out when they reached a narrows. Dave's radio slid down the slickrock into the cold water, but he recovered it with a quick dive. The party split, with one group roping out of the inner canyon, then hiking up the slickrock to Slickrock Saddle, looking over the top to Death Hollow, and noting a well-worn cairned trail to the north, which probably connects to the Mail Trail. The other party waded the chest-deep narrows, then hiked cross country to the natural bridge (marked on the ma, seeing a rattlesnake, and red and grey foxes . Bill fished solo upstream to the Mail Trail, but was somewhat frustrated by the heavily vegetated small stream, which offered only rare opportunities to cast. He caught 5 brown trout, up to about 11 inches in length. Ginger and Karl cooked pork loin fajitas, preceded by guacamole, salsa, and chips as appetizer, while some of us visited the other camp for margaritas (with ice!).

After dinner, Marie visited our camp to invite us to their campfire. After a while (perhaps this was the margaritas talking), eight of us thought it would be a great idea to hike under the full moon. We hiked up the south fork of our drainage, then scrambled up the slickrock to the ridge above. The views of the slickrock cliffs and domes under the moonlight were otherworldly. Even Ginger made it up a friction scramble that might have intimidated her in the daylight. We sang (or made noises that we thought were singing), howled at the moon, and danced. Dave Scudder forgot his alma mater's hymn, but Bill did not. After a false start towards a slope that looked far too steep to attempt at night, we descended a gentle friction slope that put us in a drainage that, to our surprise a few hundred yards further, turned out to be our main drainage. All individuals except one unnamed proved that they could hike and not fall down, margaritas or no. The unnamed individual completed the hike with the sturdy assistance of a lovely lady supporting him from each side. The unnamed individual thought that two ladies were great, and wondered how much more he needed to drink to get four. The moonlight hike was perhaps the best memory of the trip, both for its aesthetic and the rowdy good time.

The next day, Saturday, was our second full day, and the last for Kathleen's group. Bill again fished solo, hiking two hours downstream, to a point not far above the confluence of Willow Patch Creek, then working his way upstream to a point not far below the narrows. The stream was significantly wider and easier to fish than the upstream segment. He caught 20 trout, mostly browns with a few rainbows, and caught many by casting to a fish that he first located by sight. The fish were wary, and would flee if they saw him even 20 yards distant, but would almost always strike a dry fly if they were unwarned. His largest catch was 13 inches, but bigger fish to 16 inches were easily visible in the clear water.

The same day, a party of about ten hiked cross-country downstream to the natural bridge, descending to the canyon bottom. They climbed high on the slickrock, obtaining a fabulous view of the Sand Creek country. Unfortunately, on the descent, Karl fell about 4 feet and rolled at least 6 feet more, hurting his knee enough to confine him to camp the next day. He stepped onto a ledge that collapsed beneath him. Thanks to his rugby roll, he was not hurt any worse. Karl finished the hike in a knee brace. The hikers saw Bill fishing below the natural bridge and waved, but did not meet up with him. The bridge was below a pouroff, and above a pool which we swam. The vegetation near the stream below was so thick that the water-gathering party could not find each other.

That night the campfire was in our camp. The ravenous party devoured Karen and Marilyn's wine, olive, pepper, cheese and cracker appetizers, and beef stew. The appetizers disappeared from their cans before they could be elegantly arranged on plates (pearls before swine, we suppose). Karen, ex-nurse, diagnosed Karl's knee, and determined that the injury was not fatal. She prescribed a heavy dose of vodka and Crystal Light. he other party took advantage of our campfire to burn all their toxic waste. Greg Scudder's shaggy dog tale was almost as bad as the toxic waste. And Bill forgot almost all his blonde jokes, to Karen's relief.

Water in the desert - a spring-fed drainage that flows into Sand Creek.

On Sunday Bill tore himself away from fishing and led an exploratory hike. He promised a straightforward hike to Slickrock Saddle, with a further exploration of the cairned trail. He lied. The party included the Opsahls, John, Karen, Marilyn, and Ginger. They hiked cross-country to an east-side drainage that entered just downstream of the narrows. Water flowed from a large plunge pool for a few hundred yards to Sand Creek. As always, water in the desert made for a beautiful sight. We crossed the stream opposite the mouth of this side drainage, and worked our way up to the first bench, through the bushes and a cliffy layer. The streamside was moist enough to sport mushrooms. The first bench looked like a dead end, but on closer inspection we found a friction route up from the top of the talus, and an even better short climb of 6-8 feet that could be protected by putting one of the guys on each end. Karen took Ginger's questionable advice and attempted the friction route, which worked well except for some skin lost to a slide, and a lost hat that John retrieved. Ginger ignored her own advice, and took the climb with Marilyn. But she performed bravely, climbing without assistance, through moves that she would hardly have attempted a few years previously. The Opsahls turned back to camp before the climb.

This party then traversed the slickrock below the multi-fingered point, on the west side of the creek downstream of camp. They lunched at the tip of one of the fingers, with a view over the whole Escalante country. The problem now was to find a way to the mesa top, in order to loop back home via Slickrock Saddle.

Lunch was at the end of a finger extending
from the mesa, with an out-of-this-world view.

Descent from the lunch stop eventually required a drop of about 8 feet from a corner seat. The guys jumped; the ladies jumped onto the guys' shoulders and were piggybacked to safety, much to the ladies' relief. Ginger was so worried that she broadcast her weight before climbing on. We'll never tell! The party thought they were home free, until they came across a crack that blocked our passage. Bill leaped to the bottom, committing himself to the passage; Marilyn found an easy walking route to the same destination. The party worked their way up a gulley and a breakdown slope to the mesa top and a bird's-eye view of the whole country. The rocky terrain was broken by the bright yellow cottonwoods at the confluence of Willow Patch Creek.

They hiked north along the mesa top, then descended into the enormous bare rock bowl of the Slickrock Saddle drainage, fractioning down the gentle slope, then dropping down a breakdown slope to a water tank for a dip. Everyone swam, even if they did not linger in the October afternoon. The miracle of the afternoon was that Karen found her sunglasses at the bottom of the tank, after diving in with them on her head. The party descended further, passing several tanks, then cut cross-country to the north, arriving at the canyon edge just opposite camp. The descent from the bench was easy, but the last ten feet through the willows cost Marilyn one of her water bottles. Our last dinner in camp was Judy Opsahl's cashew and basil spaghetti.

Lunch on our hike back to civilization was
in a little glen with a spring-fed stream.

We split into two parties the day that we broke camp. Karl and Ginger, slowed by Karl's bad knee, hiked out the way they came in. They met the Cochranes and their five pack horses en route; Sioux volunteered to bring the gear to the B&B, so the Buckendahls were free to have lunch at Hell's Backbone Grill, clean up, shuttle the cars, and meet the rest of the party at the Escalante River trailhead. Bill led the other eight on a cross-country adventure to the Escalante. They reached Willow Patch about a mile above the confluence, and had lunch in a little glen, with a small stream running over moss and rock into a cattail-fringed pond. The cottonwoods were at their autumn peak. In the middle of the Utah desert, we found ourselves hiking through a swamp. We followed Willow Patch nearly to the confluence, then worked our way up and out.

From the top, our first view of Sand Hollow was otherworldly, with a mix of white and red stone set out in walls, domes, and fissures. A balanced rock was perched just to the right of our route. We followed Sand Hollow's sandy bottom downstream, with a view towards following the water through Sand Creek to the Escalante, but were surprised. Sand Hollow is blocked by a major pouroff in the red formation. Despite John's optimism, it was impassable, certainly so without a rope. We abandoned our plan for Sand Creek and backtracked upcanyon, ascending a ramp to hike below the white dome that is the highlight of Bowington Bench. The next problem was to find a way down into the dry canyon that parallels Calf Creek to the west. This was accomplished via a butt slide down a friction slope that took out Karen's designer pants, and a six-foot step for which Bill had the onerous duty of helping down all the ladies. On the final scramble to the canyon bottom, Dave Brown sat on a cactus. The party's sympathy for Dave's plight was held in check by their general hilarity. After a final small pouroff in this drainage, the party reached the Escalante and, a few minutes later, the trailhead. The 7 1/2 hour hike ended with a rendezvous precise to a few minutes.

Expenses were settled at the final dinner. The packer's fee was $1000, augmented by our 20% tip. The total expense per person was $208, including the bed and breakfast stay.

The party split after breakfast. Karen, Marilyn, and Bill drove back via the Burr Trail (2 hours drive, one hour hike near the switchbacks), and caught the 11 AM ferry (every odd hour this time of year) from Bullfrog to Halls Crossing. The driving time from Hall's Crossing to Los Alamos was 7 1/2 hours. Plans are already underway for October '04, featuring a 6-night camp at the Willow Patch confluence. The theme for the trip will be drinks with umbrellas. The prospect of our future adventure helps temper our sadness at ending this year's trip.

A full copy of this report, with 8 more photographs,
can be obtained by e-mailing bill@priedhorsky.net


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