Hayduke trail day 20: a study of slickrock/Stevens Canyon

April 6
Mileage: 15
291 miles hiked

I sleep amazing, my bag cinched up with just a little circle of stars, toasty warm, god I love this bag! I wake at dawn and again stumble into the desert to do what I’ve started calling “super pooping”, which can either be a decent experience (not diarrhea, just, um, many pooping) or a terrible one (peeing out one’s butt, basically, which leaves one feeling weak/off for the rest of the day). Whether one has a neutral or negative experience seems to depend on the degree of alkaline salts dissolved in one’s last water source, how much of this water one drank, etc. As we continue on this hike, more and more of the sources are alkaline, and Skurka’s water chart has completely stopped noting this, as though after a while he just gave up.

First thing in the morning we have a two thousand foot climb up wavy pale slickrock lumps, just sort of adhering to the stuff and winding up, as one does. I feel like I’m in a video game where the angle of the ground is constantly changing, and I have figure out where to put my feet. At what angle, exactly, does the tread on a pair of brooks cascadia 11s (which developed holes in the toebox 150 miles in, FWIW,) lose purchase with lichen spotted, sand-colored slickrock? And which have more traction- the siracha-colored lichen spots, or the grey-black lichen spots? And if I slip, will I slide a long ways, or just a few feet?

After the slickrock we climb into and out of some washes filled with deep sand, and discover some good potholes from which to drink. I fill up with enough water for most of the day, so that I can avoid the very obviously alkaline sources we keep passing, including those on the water chart.

We reach Steven’s canyon, whose boring name, it turns out, does not do justice to its otherwordly amazingness. Instead of dropping in to the canyon, which is long and windy, we cotour above it, on a narrow strip of dirt on the super high very angled slickrock (or just on the angled slickrock, no dirt at all)- one slip and we would fall to our deaths in the canyon far, far below. What joy. Oh, but it is beautiful up here! The combination of fear/beauty is putting me in almost a spiritual state.

And then I have my scariest moment on the trail so far. It seems so benign- our “level” of slickrock ends in a cliff, and we must go up one “level” in order to continue around a bend in the canyon. (I’ve been pretending I’m in super mario bros, going up and down ramps/levels, collecting coins.) Logically, we should backtrack until we find a panel of slickrock that’s angled enough for us to adhere to well, and go up a level this way, as the slickrock directly above us is too steep, and what with the sheer drop hundreds of feet to the canyon floor. Instead, we spy a small tree sticking out of the slickrock in a bit of dirt ahead of us, and Dan says “I’ll go up behind the tree, so if I fall I’ll land on the tree.” This is all well and good for Dan, and often Dan does the sketchy thing first, easily, and then pokes around to find the less sketchy route, so that I can go up it, which is incredibly kind of him. But today I watch him scrabble his way up the slickrock and decide to go up that way too, even tho the thing in my brain that uses whatever metric to determine if the slickrock is too steeply angled for me is flashing TOO STEEP TOO STEEP. So I scrabble up just high enough that I can’t turn around, cling to the rock like a gecko, and decide that I am stuck.

Of course there’s no way to say for sure whether or not I am actually stuck. What are these metrics that my brain uses, my eyes/feet/fingers sensing/feeling. How accurate is all of it. If I try to turn around I’ll fall, probably only into the base of tree, but still, and my brain is 100% certain that if I make another gecko-like movement up the rock towards Dan I will fall as well. I think I’d like to have a panic attack right now, but probably I should hold off on that as well. Dan is sitting kindly above me, and there’s nothing he can do. I’m stuck.

After swearing a lot, making myself breathe, and expressing my feelings towards the slickrock, which cares not, I take a step up, daring the palms of my hands and the tread on my shoes to defy gravity and create some sort of bond with the lichen-spotted rock. And they do. I can almost see the schrodinger’s cat situation unfold in that brief moment as another me, in another world, plummets hundreds of feet to the canyon floor and dies. And then after a bunch of these steps I am up, hunkering in a bit of shade behind a boulder, having a wee panic attack while Dan hugs me. Letting out all the fear.

That was stupid, and I learned my lesson. Too steep is too steep, and all the wanting in the world will not make it any less steep. I should’ve backtracked.

I keep my eyes on the ground for the rest of our contouring around the canyon rim, I don’t look down. I let myself be hypnotized by the lizard tracks in the dust.

At last we drop down into Steven’s canyon, for the last few miles of the day. The narrow canyon bottom is so shaped by flash floods it’s as though the world has just been born, and the earth vomited up rocks and boulders and piles of sticks, clear water pooling here and there and poison ivy wending up through everything. The trunks of the cottonwoods are enrobed in flood debris, and everything is bent severly in the direction the rushing water would move. It’s unbelievably beautiful, and very slow going. We’ve been averaging between 1mph and 1.5mph today, making this our slowest full day on the trail so far. I don’t mind, though. I wouldn’t mind if the trail became slower and slower, until I was stopped and forced to live in one of these canyons forever.

It takes us 4 hours to go the 4 miles through the canyon bottom, and right at dusk we reach the Escalante river, silty and green and fast. We find a sandy shelf along the bank and set up for cowboy camping among the tamarisk. I feel feral- what even is life?

Photos on instagram