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Llama Drop Camp, First and Main Canyon Complex
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

October 6-15, 2006

Leader and Author: Bill Priedhorsky, bill@priedhorsky.net

Photo Gallery: Jan Studebaker, Click here to view.  

Map: Click here to view our hiking routes map (1.95 MB).

Trip Participants: Bill Priedhorsky, Ginger Buckendahl, Karl Buckendahl, Dave Chamberlin, Karen Grace, Kathleen Gruetzmacher, Elizabeth Kelly, Jackie Little, Allyn Pratt, Dave Scudder, Jan Studebaker, Jeri Sullivan, Marilyn Yeamans

The Escalante country has been a perennial destination for the Mountaineers. Why? The answer lies in the square miles of slick rock, the perennial streams, and the llama or horse packers that make for a luxurious trip, which have brought us back spring and fall for several years running.

Our fall 2006 trip was a challenge. We drove into a natural disaster in the Boulder area. The local canyons flooded at the hundred-year level Thursday and Friday before we arrived, as the town received about 3.8 inches of rain in 3 days, nearly half their regular annual precipitation. Deer Creek ran at 3,000 cfs, when its normal level is about 5. The downstream gauge on Boulder Creek rose to 1,800 cfs and failed. Every dirt road in the vicinity was washed out.

We left Los Alamos on the evening of Friday Oct. 6, heading to Farmington for a head start on the 10 1/2 hour drive, making possible a day hike en route the next day. When we called the packer Brian from Farmington on Friday evening, we learned that the recent bad weather was not just a little rain, but serious flooding. BJ, his clients, and their llamas were still missing in Grand Gulch. When we checked again on Saturday morning, BJ's clients had been brought out by the BLM rangers, but BJ, guide Tanya, and the llamas were still in the canyon. Our car - Jan, Jackie, Kathleen, and I - drove ahead to Bluff for breakfast, where the phones and credit card machines were out, then waited for Jeri, Dave C., and Marilyn to catch up. We hiked for an hour and a half in the slickrock west of Hite. In Hanksville, we learned that the road to Torrey through Capitol Reef had washed out, requiring a 100-mile detour to the interstate. The virtue of the detour was our first ever view of the San Rafael Reef from the road north to the interstate, and views of the heart of the swell as we crossed on the interstate. Should this be a destination for next spring? Our 5:30 PM rendevous with the Boulder packers was certainly out the window, but Red Rock & Llamas guide BJ was later than we were. We met BJ for a quick greeting on the highway west of Hite, waving him down when we recognized the Red Rock trailer. Later, he was pulled over on the interstate with a boiled over radiator after the long climb up the Swell. Our last car met him a little farther down the interstate, completely broken down, and picked up Tanya to drive her to Boulder.

With canyons flooded, more weather predicted, and BJ still out, we made a Saturday evening decision to postpone our departure by 24 hours. Brian and I racked our brains for an alternative trip, since our Horse Canyon destination was likely flooded and too far to reach, with the Sheffield Road out. Brian raised the idea of Anton Ridge, but came up with a better idea at breakfast Sunday - the high benches west of the Escalante, a couple miles short of our original destination. While Brian and the packers recuperated on Sunday, we had a lovely day hike in the Deer Creek country, and chanced across Grant, who runs Escalante Canyon Outfitters, at the trailhead. We found and swam in deep turquoise pools near the ridge top between The Gulch and Deer Creek. Six of us drove to dinner at the Café Diablo in Torrey, 35 miles away, for a fabulous dinner.

Our llama trip finally began at the Red Rock & Llamas barn at 8 AM Monday. We were recruited to round up our 14 llamas. Karl, who grew up on a New Zealand sheep station, had llama wrestling down pat. Brian was now proposing plan D or E, camping above the First and Main canyon complex rather than nearer the river, because we could drive only 1.3 miles down the Sheffield road. We set out hiking at 10:30 AM in intermittent rain. We bypassed their first proposed campsite, an alcove in the pyramid west of Red Breaks, and arrived at the Hot Dog tanks above First and Main at 2:00 PM. The campsite was just 1 mile from the end of the road, but about 8 miles from our starting point. Most of the hike progressed quickly, at about 3 miles an hour, down the damaged road. Although I wanted to push closer to the river, Breck convinced me of the advantages of our campsite, with hiking access to the spring to the east, First and Main, and the Red Breaks.

We set up a sun shelter to cover the cook tables, which proved handy as Jackie and Karen cooked a Middle Eastern dinner in the rain. Carolyn, Allyn's sweetie, sent the chocolate chip cookies. Twice the nearby wash ran, advancing slowly from pool to pool, and finally over the drop to the canyon below. This unfortunately muddied our water source.

We crawled out of our tents at about 8 AM on Tuesday into mostly cloudy weather, and planned a hike to the east. It had rained during the night. The day remained partly cloudy, with dense clouds on the horizon. We left camp at 10 AM with a view towards climbing the 5800+ peak northeast of camp, which appeared highest on the skyline. We started up the slickrock ramp on the horizon, with an unnecessary but interesting side trip along a sidewalk on its north. Most of us then descended a big gully, then worked our way up two plateaus and reached the summit for lunch. Hiking the slickrock after heavy rain, we were at a heightened state of awareness. Not only was the rock slippery, it was crumbly - water had saturated it throughout, and it could break. Fresh rockfall was evident along our drive to Boulder, and in the canyons of the Escalante.

After a false start down an eastward ramp, which terminated in a cliff, we backtracked down the way we came up, and found the pool/spring (strikingly cold) for a remarkably short dip. Every time we turned a corner, new slickrock wonders - domes, walls, and acres and acres of bare rock - opened for us. We split our group after the swim, Kathleen and Allyn heeding the thunder and beelining for camp, while the rest traversed a deep gash in the ridge to the south, and cruised along the valley slope through a brief storm, which ended with a double rainbow and glowing wet rock. Post-stew, we sat around the campfire (we had a campfire every night), wrote a personal ad for Dave Scudder, which he was highly unlikely to use, and sang our way through our customized songbook. Karen and I choreographed "YMCA".

After a brief rain, a double rainbow appeared to the east, in the direction of the Escalante.

The slickrock glowed in the sunlight after the rain.

Wednesday dawned perfectly clear. At this time of year, sunlight hits the tents just about 8 AM. I don't remember another campsite nearly as scenic. The buttresses northeast of camp look frighteningly rugged, but by the time the trip was over, we had climbed nearly all their summits. Our Wednesday goal was the canyon system known locally as First and Main, just over the cliff north of camp. Access into the canyons was not obvious. Our first try, down a short steep canyon recommended by Breck, looked too hard to Karl and Jan. We backtracked to a more major side canyon and entered at its head. I expected a long thrash through thick bushes. Instead, the canyon drove into the earth as soon as we passed a large chockstone, and we descended to a world of pools and mossy rock, smelling like a root cellar. Most of the pools could be sidestepped or wedged past, but the final pool required a knee-deep wade and emergence from a tight crack. After at least an hour and a half in the underground, we emerged into the brightness of the sandy (quicksandy) bottom, and had lunch at the corner of First and Main.

Karen emerging from slot canyon squeeze, like Aphrodite from the waves.


Over the course of the week, we reached every summit on the rugged ridge northeast of camp.

We hiked downstream, bathed, then worked our way back upcanyon along a rising ramp, with the intention of cutting back to First and Main. A little rope work and hand-holding took us to the top of the ramp. Dead-ended from further progress south, we frictioned up to the saddle (dotted with shallow turquoise pools), then up a chocolate stairway to the highest peak along the ridge, marked 5844' on the quad but named Little Big Peak by us to honor Jackie's intrepidity. Five of us reached the peak; Kathleen rested her knee in camp, and the rest turned back earlier. It took two hours from the summit back to camp, exiting a ramp that was much faster than our slot entrance. Dinner was Dave and Elizabeth's fresh salmon, rice, and ice cream. With the Moon several days past full, we held an astronomy lecture on the sand. The gegenschein was barely visible - perhaps.

Thursday, October 12 was Elizabeth's birthday. We left camp again at 10 AM, exploring the Red Breaks country between camp and Harris Wash. The Breaks are broken slick rock country, incised by canyons draining south to the wash. The canyons get very deep, with some slots midway, opening again at the south end. We started the hike by climbing the highest peak in the vicinity, a knob of 6015', with surpassing views in every direction. Towards the Escalante we saw a small temporary lake - an odd sight in the canyon country. We proceeded south along the drainage west of 6015, following it to lunch at a junction with a deep slot canyon to its west, then another mile down the canyon with flat narrow sandy bottom and slanting sandstone walls.

We crossed over the mesa to the drainage to the east, descending past hoodoos, then washed in a sun-warmed shallow pool. On the way up, we meet two guys and a dog from Albuquerque, the only other humans that we saw on our trip. We reached the divide via a round-bottomed sandstone section like the chute for the giant ball in "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Back in camp the ladies cleaned up with their sun-warmed sun showers, we ate pasta carbonera and bean soup thanks to Ginger, and read a chapter from Edward Abbey's classic, "The Brave Cowboy", around the campfire.

On our last full day of hiking, Friday the 13th, we descended to First and Main with the intention of hiking west along the bottom of Main - the major E-W canyon - and finding our way out its top. We descended to the canyon via our exit ramp from Wednesday, and the eleven of us (Dave and Jeri remained at camp) hiked about 1/4 mile up West Main. We were stopped by a run of slot canyon about 4 feet wide that was up to waist deep with no end in sight. This was rather too cold for an October trip. We then split into two groups, with Karen, Jan, Elizabeth, Marilyn, Dave, and I returning to Little Big Peak (peak 5844), and the rest hiking down canyon to seek a way around the massif northeast of camp. Jan and I shortcut the long ramp to the saddle by free-climbing an exposed 4th class face. This got the adrenaline going, and took about five tries to get started, but once on the way up we found a fissure whenever we needed one. Jan and I bathed in a pool atop the saddle, then we all hiked to the flat top of Little Big Peak for lunch. Karl's sunglasses were where he left them, in a bush on the summit plateau. We could see the rest of the party near the river below. They were blocked from the Escalante by an immense drop, tried to circle the massif, then turned back and returned the same way they came in.

Our own party worked south along the ridge and climbed each of the four peaks along the skyline. Jan and Elizabeth climbed a block with about 500 feet of exposure in the direction of camp; I started up, but turned back when the rock crumbled under me. We called their high point "Ex-lover's leap", and the little route up "Bill's Boo-boo".

We returned to camp by 5:30, looking forward to Kathleen's chili dinner. A little after 6:00 PM, we were surprised to see our packers, Brian, BJ, and Breck, arrive in camp. It turned out that the Sheffield Road was still closed, leaving us with an 8-mile outbound hike, rather than the 1-hour trip to the end of the road. The chili stretched for all 16 of us. We held a song and dance party around the campfire, energized by Elizabeth and Karen's movement and Kathleen and Dave S.'s voices. Brian and Breck snuck off the bed, and BJ claimed that he was too young to know the words of any of our songs. There were patches of cloud across the sky as we turned in.

That night, the eve of our departure, it rained hard and kept raining all the next day. It most stopped for two hours at 8 AM, letting us eat breakfast and start packing more or less in comfort, but it was raining hard before the packing finished. The wash next to camp was roaring, but Dave S. leaped across it to rescue the sun showers stranded on the far side. The slog out was long and wet and cold - about 47°, and the road the road so muddy it was hard to walk it. The hike took about 3 hours, arriving at the trucks a little after 2 PM. On the way out along the Sheffield road - just a 1.3 mile drive to blacktop - the big llama trailer was stuck twice, requiring us to unload the llamas, jack it up, and put stones and dirt under the trailer tires. We arrived at the motel at 5 PM, having unloaded at the llama barn, much appreciating the warmth of the shower and our rooms, while a 45° rain continued outside. As always the Boulder Mountain Lodge hot tub eased our sore joints and muscles.

It took us almost two hours to drive 1.3 miles out to the highway, thanks to adventures like this.

This was a very physical trip, with hard hiking every day. We averaged 7 hours per day on the trail, although our greatest range from camp was barely more than 3 miles. The cool weather of autumn made this possible, with even the clear days in the 60's. We could not possibly have covered that kind of ground in the hot weather of a May trip. Despite the weather hardship, it was a rare treat to see every pool filled and every wash running. We agreed that we would not choose such raw weather, but it was an experience not to be missed.

The llama services - picking up and dropping off 14 llamas worth of gear, each carrying a net payload of 73 pounds - cost us $260 per person, including a tip of 20%. Red Rock and Llamas can be reached by contacting Bevin McCabe at (877) 955-2627 or rllama@color-country.net; the local lead in Boulder is Brian Dick at (435) 335 7421. Most of us stayed at Pole's Place in Boulder for the two nights before the trip and the night after. Rooms were in the $70 range with tax, and can be arranged by calling the proprietor, Camille, at (800) 730-7422. A few of us stayed at the more luxurious but more expensive Boulder Mountain Lodge, (800 556-3446).

Photo Gallery: Jan Studebaker, Click here to view.  

Map: Click here to view our hiking routes map (1.95 MB).


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