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Choprock and Neon Canyons,

Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah

May 26-31, 2004

Author:  Bill Priedhorsky (bill@priedhorsky.net) for the Los Alamos Mountaineers 

Photo Gallery: Jan Studebaker, click here.

This is a report of a llama-supported trip to the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument by the Los Alamos Mountaineers, written each morning as a journal entry.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Once more we are back in the canyon country. This is a smaller trip than many that I have led here. Eight of us were around the dinner table last night  -  Jan Studebaker, Elizabeth Kelly, Marilyn Yeamans, Karen Grace, Bruce Fabijonas, John Meier, Kristen Larsen, and myself. We were 2 persons short of our plan. Dick and Judy Opsahl were too pressed for time, at the last minute, to squeeze one more trip into their retirement. As I write, on our first morning in the Escalante canyon bottom, the day is warming even before the sun strikes us. The red cliffs glow on either side of the cottonwood bosque. It has taken us some work to get here, but perhaps work more on the organizational than the physical side.

We left Los Alamos at 6:30 AM on the morning of the 26th (Wednesday). The drive seemed slower than usual, thanks to two roadwork stops in Utah, but we broke the long trip with a 1 1/2 hour hike along and above a narrow canyon off the highway just west of Lake Powell. Dinner was at the spicy Cafe Diablo in Torrey, with a great tapa of grilled vegetables to start. I have been cutting down on my eating, starting two weeks ago, and fought off the dessert tray with great effort. But fortunately Marilyn waved it out of sight about two seconds before I would have faltered.

Each time we go on a pack trip, the collection of gear grows, as folks add the latest amenity. Karen's camp chair, complete with umbrella, marked a new high (low?) point of campsite furnishings. She attempted a wishy-washy excuse for her extravagance, claiming not to have known that the umbrella came packed with the new chair. Packing the llamas was the usual tight squeeze, although we had 10 llamas, each good for 80 pounds, to carry gear for 8 of us. We were taken into the canyon by B.J., a guide from Red Rock and Llamas of Bluff, accompanied by Abby in the time-honored role of guide's girlfriend. The llamas were smaller than our previous rentals from Buckhorn Llamas of Bluff/Durango/Masonville, and tired from the previous day's hike, which schlepped Dave Scudder and his 10 compatriots to a camp 1/2 mile up Choprock Canyon, about one mile from here.

The trail switchbacked down the upper sandstone slopes, then up and down the drainages and slickrock towards Fence Canyon and the river. This was the time to catch up with old friends  -  the time to continue conversations that had their start in the Grand Canyon in November, if not earlier. As we approached Fence Canyon, a tired llama (Stephen) sat down on the trail. Tugging on his lead did not help, and neither did leading his llama friends past in an attempt to convince him that he was missing the party. But a swift whack in the rump with a hiking staff did it  -  thank goodness for the less sensitive members of our party. The wade across the Escalante showed us, for the first time, the cool green oasis that hides in the heart of this desert.

Camp comfort, Escalante-style, as modeled by Karen and Marilyn.

It took little more than two hours to reach camp, under a spreading cottonwood at cliff's edge. The canyon bottom was about a quarter mile wide, with the stream on the far side, so that the easiest path to water was up the canyon trail. There we found a water hole and a beach to which we returned to many times. Once the afternoon cooled, we set up a practice rappel of about 25 feet, on a boulder next to camp, readying those of us who had not rappelled for decades for next day's trip through Neon Canyon.

As we fumbled through the practice  -  Jan had set up a tough rappel that required a scary downclimb to get started  -  most of Dave Scudder's party hiked past, exhilarated by their successful descent through Neon Canyon. All but one of their eleven made the descent; Dave himself made it three times before the trip was over. Our dinner started with two liters of not-too-lukewarm pina colada. We sat in our camp chairs waiting for something to happen, dinner-wise, until we realized that the dropout Opsahls had been scheduled for the first dinner. After voting them an appropriate fine, we opted for cold appetizers and dessert in lieu of a cooked dinner. Sadly, the promised dessert, Kirsten's brownies, had been forgotten by at home John. This led to a second $100 fine, this time for John. We went to bed early, seizing a chance for a long night's sleep for the first time since we started packing. The night was warm  -  I have yet to put on a jacket or even a long-sleeved shirt.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The camp is quiet as I write in the early morning, with just a few birds' song breaking the silence. It is a little damp, with chairs blown over and gear askew. Earlier, at quarter to five, the Milky Way was bright directly overhead, and it was so quiet that I could hear the stream several hundred yards away. The quiet of morning, before falling back to sleep, was a thoughtful time. Everything here is so different from the "real"world, and the contrast lets one view that life from the side, almost dispassionately.

But the time between sleeps was not quiet. A violent wind came through at 6 AM. Everyone but I was in a tent. I thought I could wait out the raindrops until the wind hit, but soon found myself putting up my tent in the rain and violent gusts. I was wide awake for a while, but finally slipped asleep until Bruce's 7:30 wakeup call.

The author in the narrows of Neon Canyon, not far above the Golden Cathedral.

Yesterday was indeed an adventure. We left the canyon via a friction slope a few hundred yards south of camp, just above an old campsite. The slope was steep, and just shallow enough that we could all ascend without a rope. We found the old overland trail, which runs from Choprock to Neon Canyon, along the top, and followed it past bluffs and buttes to the wide drainage leading into Neon. The sandstone slopes gripped my boots firmly, promising a walkdown with  perhaps a tough spot at the bottom, but we chose instead to rappel the 30 feet into the inner canyon. This rappel increased my rappelling experience for the last decade by 50%. Before we were all down, Dave Scudder had joined us to guide our trip through the Golden Cathedral of Neon Canyon. The rest of his party was hiking to the tight slots of Ringtail Canyon, but Dave was drawn by a third trip through Neon.

In retrospect, at the end of the day, we recognized the difference between the two parties: Dave's was populated by sensitive, quiet men. Ours was not.

Bruce rappeling into the Golden Cathedral.

The route to the Golden Cathedral began with a rappel into a dark slot, so deep that we could not see the bottom until Elizabeth made the descent and we could see her light-colored clothing, as she waded in the dark, calf-deep water. We swam twice in the just-above-icy water (thank goodness for wet suits), scrambled over the walls between pools, leapt 10 feet into a deep pool, then sat and worried while we waited for the big rappel. The descent was a beautiful drop though a hole into a big alcove, with four feet of water at the bottom. As we dropped, the golden light of the alcove surrounded us. There were two holes in the alcove's ceiling, eroded in sequence as the Cathedral was formed. About half of the 80-foot rappel was free, and the end was squarely into the middle of the pool. It was fearful and exciting for some, and exciting for all. The six of us who made the traverse met Marilyn and Kirsten at the pool. They had hiked up the lower, poison ivy laden stretch of Neon Canyon, past sharply striped walls and 1 1/2 miles up from the Escalante.

We were back in camp by 3 PM, 5 hours after our departure. The rest of the day was a pleasant anticlimax, including a yoga lesson on our beach under the cottonwoods. All 8 of us took part, plus Kathleen from the other party. The postures were vaguely familiar to me after five years of yoga neglect, and the stretching and opening did me great good. I am inspired to resume yoga when I go back to civilization. My hip has not felt this good for months. We swam and washed, but quickly, because the evening was much cooler than the previous day. Pina coladas for all waited back in camp, with a little left over to send with Kathleen to Dave's party. The excitement of the evening was the collapse of John's camp table, jury-rigged at home but not well enough. This occasioned yet another fine. A few of us stayed up late enough to see Procyon and then Saturn set below the canyon rim. There was a distinct difference between the two. Saturn faded much more slowly, perhaps over 2 to 3 seconds, compared to Procyon's winkout.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

John is a notorious equipment fanatic. For example, there is a portable toilet seat parked next to his tent. But he can be very helpful. Yesterday evening, when we were comparing the two bright "stars"(Saturn and Procyon) again, watching the difference in their twinkling and the speed that they winked out at the canyon rim, someone mused that it would be great to have a pair of binoculars. John pulled a pair out of his tent  -  motion-compensated, no less.

An excess of gear leads to a disheveled camp. We self-identified as Escalante Canyon trailer trash, lacking only a Trans Am on blocks behind the cottonwood.

The weather turned much cooler after the front came through yesterday morning. Last night I slept under the stars again, but it was chilly. As I write I have moved my chair into the morning sun, and am still wearing two layers and a fuzzy hat. So today was a good day to cruise along the uplands.

We got a late start after the storm, and met 8 members of the Scudder group going up the Moki stairs near the mouth, along the north side, of Choprock Canyon. Most of us climbed the steps without a belay. Our first objective was a butte, marked 5293' on the topographic map, whose rounded sandstone summit was the high point of the neighborhood. We had to round the butte more than halfway before finding a way up. Eleven of us (four turned back earlier) found a tough route up the north side, while I got ahead of the main party and scooted up an easy, shallow fin on the east side. I rejoined the group one level below the summit, then we all fractioned up a steep-looking slope to the summit ridge. Our lunch spot was atop miles of Escalante scenery, but the weather was still unsettled, with fresh snow on the Henry Mountains and a heavy rainstorm in progress along the Straight Cliffs.

Lunchtime with members of both parties atop a sandstone dome.

We left the summit when the cloud overhead turned uniformly grey and threatening. There was no lightning, which was a good thing, because Bruce carried a 6-foot staff pointing straight up from his pack, which looked to be a reasonably functional lightning rod.

We continued our explore up the west branch of Choprock Canyon, upstream along the upper slopes, then back downstream along the shelf of reddish sandstone just above the inner gorge. The inner gorge was utterly inaccessible, more than 100 feet below. The shelf was not at all flat, but rolled, sometimes steepening so much that we had to detour up and around. Choprock and its slickrock shelf continued upcanyon for miles.

On the way down, Kirsten fell and scraped a large area of her arm, but not too deeply. Six first aid kits appeared, seeming enough for a field tonsillectomy, but the indicated treatment was antiseptic ointment.

We hiked above the Scudder party's south-facing alcove, well over a hundred feet below. The alcove kept them dry during the morning storm. The climb down the Moki steps was harder than up, like most downclimbs. Many of us roped for the descent. We each had a unique style, including my own patented butt slide  -  crotch belay. Once a few of us reached the bottom, we judged the remaining descents on an Olympic scale, up to 10.0, with points for style and deductions for faults.

Our swim cleaned away the day's sweat and dirt. Although the sky was cloudless, it was cool and the immersion brief. Dinner was Elizabeth's salmon fettuccini, universally acclaimed. We went to bed soon after watching winter's Procyon set and summer's Vega rise. Although the moon was just a couple days past half, it made the landscape glow like a non-canyon moon at full.

Monday, May 31

This last morning in the canyon, things are quiet around the camp tables as folks sleep in a little. The hikes were long yesterday, in weather that is still cool after Saturday's front passage. This morning it is 43 F. During our late dinner last night, the temperature was in the low 60's. Even at lunch yesterday (1 PM), out on the shadeless slickrock, it was just 81 F, although it felt too hot to be comfortable.

We had planned for a repeat descent though lower Neon, but yesterday's cool weather, among other factors, put us off. We regrouped and organized a trip to upper Neon, planning to cross in what looked like more subdued terrain just above its branch point, then crosscountry around Ringtail and into the Escalante, setting us up to explore Ringtail's narrow lower section. At 10 AM, we set out up the friction slope to the overland trail. On our second go, it was easier, but not exactly easy, to ascend this sustained friction slope. We worked over to the trail above Neon, past the point of our rappel two days previous. We worked upcanyon through the domes and slopes of the sandstone that fringed the inner gorge, terrain reminiscent of Choprock to the north, a terrain focused around an inner canyon 100-150' deep. At some of the points and promontories we could see the breathtaking drop to the bottom. The only easy way in was along the west branch, although we found another rappel point, complete with left-behind sling, at our lunch spot below the confluence. After lunch we split our party.

Bruce and I headed farther up Neon to see the expanse of slickrock. We found no way to cross the inner gorge, and suspect that no crossing is to be found for miles upstream. Instead of retracing our steps, we branched left on the first major tributary, which finally shallows enough to allow access, and crossed a divide into the upper branches of the west fork of Neon. By staying high above the canyon heads, we could travel more or less on a level following footprints to a long butte that crossed our path, then drop through a series of layers to the shelf above lower Choprock, not far above the Scudder alcove. We following the shelf downstream, and found the old overland trail that gave us access to the lowest section of Choprock. There is a very nice, shaded campsite 100-200 yards above the confluence, big enough perhaps for six, close to the river's water. Our cool river wade refreshed us after the dry uplands, and a quick leap into a pool refreshed us some more.

We were back in camp by 6 PM, but the other six were not back and bathed until 8. They had followed the Neon trail to near its confluence, made an easy descent down the trail to the river, and thrashed up and down the Escalante, hopelessly lost, until stumbling onto the mouth of Ringtail.

Inside Ringtail, the play of light was just incredible on the sculptured walls. Part of the gorge was dark, but elsewhere the red stone glowed. There were obstacles to squeeze over and under, and lots of body stemming. Finallly, the gorge became so narrow that one could not fit into a body stem, with feet on one wall and butt on the other. The water was up to chest deep, and had not the most delicate smell. It was cold. Branches were jammed into the canyon at least 30 feet up, marking past floods. All sang "The Itsy Bitsy Spider"to keep away the plague of spiders that Rick Light had promised us (they never showed).

The air changed from cold to warm as the party worked back towards the river and the light. The round trip into Ringtail took less than an hour. The party turned back at a difficult chockstone, where progress would have required a boost above one's head, just to reach a still narrower section. It all seemed too hard and scary at the tired end of the day.

The Ringtail party recommended that I would be best set for the Ringtail explore once I succeeded in losing my planned 25 pounds.

Dinner was late (John's chicken curry and rice) and we lingered around the camp tables for our last evening in the canyon. Our favorite stars set and rose on schedule.

Datura blossoming just feet from Karen's tent.

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

We are driving home today, saddened as usual by our departure from this wonderful country, and excited about plans for another adventure just 4 1/2 months from now. Our next trip will span the dark of the moon, so we will make it an astronomy trip.

Our departure from the canyon went as planned. The packer arrived on schedule, about 10:30, hindered by the loss of his pack and his girlfriend's shoes  -  and with that, his girlfriend Abby  -  because Dave and company took his daypack away with them yesterday. We loaded our 9 llamas, down from 10 on the inbound trip, and things just barely fit. We had hoped to have more margin after eating all our food, but the trash made up for much of the reduced volume.

It was a quick hike out, not much more than 2 hours, as the view opened to show the country that we had traversed for four days. It might have been a hot hike, but everyone soaked their clothes in the river, and stayed damp for most of the upward hike. Elizabeth rescued a dog that was traveling with thoughtless owners who had the misapprehension that water was just a mile away when it was at least an hour - - too far for a dehydrated doggie. She shared her remaining water with the dog. Fortunately, she did not run out of water herself. In fact, Elizabeth set a hard pace up the last, slickrock section, one that confirmed my inspiration to lose more weight and get back in shape. There was a long dirt drive to the blacktop, 10 miles on the Egypt road and about 16.5 more on the Hole in the Rock road. The rest of the evening unrolled quickly  -  a visit to Bob and Sioux Cochrane to confirm details of the fall trip, a download of a few hundred e-mails from the last few days at work, and a wonderful dinner at Hell's Backbone Grill. Today we had breakfast at 7 AM, left the B&B at 8 AM, and drove via the Burr trail to just catch the 11 AM ferry from Bullfrog. We stopped en route to scramble up a hogback at the base of Capitol Reef, for one last bit of friction adventure on the slickrock.

Goodbye to the canyons - for a little while.

Copyright Bill Priedhorsky 2004


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