Ski Mountaineering

Slot Canyons and Backcountry Skiing

April 30-May 4, 2019

Reiner Stenzel

In Spring time one gets restless to go back to the mountains. Backcountry ski tours are one option, but I got interested in going underground and to explore slot canyons. The Staircase-Escalante National Monument is famous for river gulches such as the Paria Canyon. Equally exciting, shorter and still permit-free is the Coyote Gulch, whose stream feeds into the Escalante River which in turn flows into Lake Powell. There are many more canyons and I sampled also dry canyons such as "Spooky" and "Peek-a-Boo" Slots and other attractions. So here are the details:

The first comment is that it is a formidable long drive from the Bay Area to southern Utah and back. Second, a four wheel high clearance car is a essential to reach the interesting trailheads. Whatever is easy to reach has lots of visitors around holidays. Spring and Fall are the prime times since you get fried in summer and the chill in winter.

Although I would have enjoyed companions for this adventure I could not find anyone for this commitment. Better solo, than none, I mad a large loop trip from SF via Las Vegas to Escalante, returning via Salt Lake City, Reno to San Mateo. My Subaru Outback was ideal, fast on highways, handled backcountry dirt roads like a jeep, and provided a comfortable accommodation in rain and desert winds.

The first surprise was the drive through Red Canyon, on SR12 between Panguitch and Escalante. It was a taste of Bryce Cyn with exotic spires and rock formations. In Escalante I got valuable information from friendly rangers. Amazingly, no fees, no permits, camp anywhere free, probably because of the vastness of the land and few people compared to a million in Yosemite Valley, CA.

In order to reach Coyote Gulch I had to drive 40+mi on the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a bumpy dirt road. The last 10 mi was on the Fortymile Ridge Road and could only be handled with AWD and high clearance cars. Among different trail heads I chose the "Jacob Hamblin Arch" trail since I had no car shuttle. Thus I did a day hike down and up the central and best section of the Gulch. An overnight trip woud be possible but the access to the Gulch involved a class 3-4 rock climb on a 40 deg sandstone canyon wall which I did not like to do with a full pack up and down. It had rained all night long and the sand on the slope made the rock slippery. But to my surprise someone had left a fixed rope. The simple anchor suggested not to put much weight on the rope and use it only for balance.

Once at the bottom the huge J-H Arch and the 300' canyon walls were truly amazing. Coyote Creek was flowing strong, the canyon was green, mostly wide and with a trail. I hiked downstream along the meandering gulch formed by a strong river grinding the sandstones over long times. I had to cross the stream many times. The yellow water was cold and washed sand and small stones into the shoes. Occasionally one runs into quick sand where panicking and hiking poles don't help. Another natural arch was found, small waterfalls were found, but time called for a return. On the way uphill a boulder started to roll down and hit me which was a wake-up call for being super careful alone and in unknown terrain.

By 3pm I was back at my climbing wall. The ascent was easier than the earlier descent. Then there was a 2 mi cross-country trail through terrain which looked like the Wonderland of Rocks. In the late afternoon I drove out to sleep near the trailhead for the "dry" slot canyons, named "Spooky" and "Peak-a-Boo". In the morning I hiked down to the canyon entrances. Peak-a-Boo had a lake below the climbing entrance, so much for a dry slot. Then I headed for Spooky which narrowed so much that I would get stuck, hence tried Peak-a-Boo from the opposite end. The canyon was a pleasure to hike but soon was again filled by water from the recent rain. Other hikers also turned back and reported the same experience in other "dry" slot canyons. The slot canyons were still a nice contrast to the much wider and higher Coyote Gulch. In the afternoon I returned and drove out of the Monument, on the way taking some nice shots of rock formations in Devils Garden. Then I drove on the I-15 and I-80 across the Salt Lake Desert till I got tired and stayed near Wendover between NV and UT. Driving in Utah is fun since the speed limit on interstates is 85mph!

On Fri, 5/4, I started early to enjoy the sunrise over snowy mountain ranges in Nevada. I chose the northern route via the I-80 to cross the Sierra Nevada where there is still plenty of snow in early May. Thus, I stopped at Donner Pass, got my backcountry ski gear out and made a tour to Mt Judah and Lincoln. On this clear sunny day the summit views were wonderful. There were skiers, snow boarders, even two snow mobilers on Mt Lincoln, the peak for Sugarbowl Ski Resort which closed in May. The Mt Pacific Crest Trail passes on the southwest side of the ridge but was completely snowed in. The ski run down was ok since there was no corn snow but bumpy sun cups.

In the afternoon I drove home enjoying the typical Fri evening traffic jams on the Bay Bridge. Enjoy the pictures.

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