715 miles hiked
Note: if I could go back in time and give myself a pep talk before hiking Saddle Canyon, and if I could give a pep talk to future Haydukers, here is what I would say:
If the entire Hayduke is a course in traversing canyonated country off-trail, then Saddle Canyon is your final. Everything you’ve learned in the past two months has prepared you for this day. And you’re going to need all of it. You’re going to need your route-finding skills, your scrambling skills, your bushwhacking skills, your down-climbing skills. Your upper body strength and your ankle strength. Patience, caution, acceptance, a sense of adventure, a trash compactor bag liner for your pack and an extra day of food (because you aren’t going to make it very far). Also you are going to want to wear pants.
We sleep in our tent outside the cabin, not in the cabin itself. It’s a nice cabin, free of mouse poop, but there’s a book on a shelf that tells the stories of a few tortured young Grand Canyon adventurers who spent time in the cabin before eventually meeting their untimely deaths, and even though there is sage stick and a book of matches next to the book, I feel as though the cabin is full of ghosts. We wanted to cowboy camp amongst the buffalo poop but there are fat mosquitoes, more than we can kill by hand, so up goes the tent with its magic mesh. We sleep sprawled half-naked without sleeping bags. We’ve dropped down a few thousand feet, we’re angling back into the Grand Canyon. How warm it is here!
I’ve started eating caffeinated clif shot bloks when the mornings are warm, instead of making tea, in an attempt to save time. It doesn’t really work. I am still the slowest hiker in the mornings. As long as we start hiking before 8, though, everything is good. Don’t want to mess around with unlucky number 8. Finally- packs lined with trashbags for the plunge pools, ready to go. The sky is clear and blue. Time to hike!
The first mile-ish of our descent into Saddle Canyon is fine. Working our way down an overgrown ravine filled with pokey brush. Enough people have walked through, though, that it’s not inpenetrable, and the mile only takes us an hour. Or maybe I’m just getting used to bushwhacking.
Some smooth sandstone appears, and we downclimb a pouroff or two. No problem. And then we reach our first impassible pouroff, and everything goes awry.
You see, there are multiple sources of beta for the Hayduke. By using all of these sources together, we’ve so far been able to navigate in an incredibly efficient and accurate way. Whether it’s finding an obscure water source or the one single way to drop into a massive canyon, we’ve been able to do it, and without much trouble. It’s funny, but before the Hayduke I thought I was “bad at navigation”. And then I realized, a few weeks into this route, while wending my way over lumpy, unmarked slickrock, that I’m actually good at it. I guess that’s what happens when you do it five months of the year for several years in a row, ha ha. But not today. Because today, all of our sources are wrong.
Do this: when you go into Saddle Canyon, forget the line on your maps. Forget the track on your GPS. Forget the notes in the guidebook. When you reach the first truly impassible pouroff, backtrack to the actial cairn built by actual people, and follow the faint trail up the scree slope and then contour along below the cliff to the ridge that you can follow back down, with the occasional cairn, back into the canyon past the pouroff.
Because if you follow your Hayduke maps/track/guidebook, you’ll end up on a high impassible cliff. With the maps asking you to fly through the air. Which is what happens to us. (The same thing happened to Wired)
We scrambled up an impossibly steep slope of loose dirt and rocks, clutching manzanitas and tufts of dried grass while avoiding prickly pear and agave, and then climbed through a crack in a cliff band using handholds and footholds to get to this spot. I lost one of my brand new trekking poles out of the side pocket of my pack, as well as my fun meter button, which I’d set to “maximum fun,” a setting I was saving just for today. Just one less way to quantify things, I guess. One more way the Hayduke sets me free. Now we’re standing on this pointy cliff, far above Saddle canyon, and all of our data is telling us to fly through the air.
Is this some sort of test? Is the Hayduke laughing at us right now? Is there something to be gained from this meaningless, time consuming detour? Enlightenment, or something like it? We can sort of see a way down onto the ridge where we need to be, and so we set out. To get to the proper ridge, it turns out, takes a great deal of painstakingly slow contouring through more loose, steep dirt, cactus, manzanita and scree. At last we’re on the proper ridge and are able to descend it, following the cairns there, through more loose rocks, cactus, and scratchy manzanita, and lots of scooting on my butt off short rock ledges onto what’s below. I’m sorry, knees! By the time we’re back in Saddle Canyon, beyond the impassible pouroff, we’re scratched, bloody and exhausted, and every muscle in my body feels like jello. We’ve traveled just .6 miles in the last two hours.
And then the fun continues.
What makes something passable, vs impassable? I think, as we scramble up broken chunks of rotten rock, across narrow tilted ledges over empty space, through tangles of thorntrees, and trust sticks and dead branches with the full weight of our bodies (plus packs) in order to get around more pouroffs. If I’m traveling .25 miles per hour, does that make this canyon impassible? Or is speed arbitrary? What if it takes me ten years to go five miles? What if I’m stuck in this canyon forever? Is it the journey, or the destination that matters? We make a little progress through the tangle of the physical world, we reach a dead end, we backtrack. We are able to downclimb some of the pouroffs, wending our bodies around the smooth sandstone dropoffs, doing moves I never would’ve imagined myself capable of before the Hayduke. Time stands still as I work every part of my body to total exhaustion. Often I look at my feet and think, Could I possibly be hiking any slower? Now and then we hear the song of a bird I’ve named the laughing/sobbing bird, and nothing could be more appropriate.
Then we reach the plunge pools. Which are so ridiculous (imagine it: a sandstone waterslide in which you cannot control your speed, into a murky pool whose depth you do not know), that they’re actually really fun. I give up! I think, as I drop into the pool with an epic splash and am soaked to the armpits, pack and all, before scrambling to my feet to discover that the mucky, brown water is only waist deep. I give up! I do not know what hiking is! I do not know what life is!
The obstacles come one after the other- bam! Bam! Bam! There is no space between them, no room for light and air, not one uninterrupted stride. There’s hardly anything to photograph- save for a plunge pool, nothing seems to fit within the frame of my camera. It’s all to intricate, too tangled, too wet, too phsyical. Is Saddle Canyon passable or impassible? I don’t know!
All in all, it takes us eleven hours to traverse just seven miles. We would’ve done better, I suppose, without our two-hour detour on the cliff. But not by much.
We camp on a bit of dry grass above Tapeats creek, just before it turns into a raging waterway that we must ford a half-dozen times (but that’s for tomorrow). It’s actually one of the most beautiful campsites we’ve had on trail. I’ve never hiked so slow in my life, I think, as I heat my noodles for dinner. I’ve never been so exhausted by a day of hiking. But we made it through, by some stroke of magic. We’re on the other side now. The next couple of days will be super hard as well, but nothing, I decide, will ever be as hard as Saddle Canyon, or at least in Saddle Canyon’s particular way.
The frogs serenade us as we lay in our sleeping bags under the warm stars. The frogs have the right idea. They’re not trying to get anywhere, they’re just fucking in the creek. There’s a little sliver of a moon and it shines too bright, casting a pale light across the meadow. I think I passed my final, I think, before drifting off to sleep.
(More perspective: Buck-30’s experience in Saddle Canyon)
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