Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Travelogue: Death Hollow

The next day, we set out for Death Hollow, a lesser known and much more remote canyon in comparison to Buckskin, but well regarded by a number of trail guides and canyoneering books. We took the Hell's Backbone road up to the Death Hollow access point, a pullout in the road across from a faint trail that plunged straight down the drainage. About 200 yards from the road there was a steel box containing the trail register; I signed in - the last person had been there exactly a week before.

Before I begin, I should state explicitly that this is not a route that that I would recommend doing alone, because of the numerous known small drops (up to 18 ft) and innumerable deep pools requiring swimming. The temperatures for the first 2 days of my trip were high 60s, low 70s, making for a chilly jaunt. In fact, I hesitate to post this at all, because it would be a disservice to the canyoneering / hiking community to suggest that this hike should be done solo. While I was gone hiking, my wife and mother-in-law were reading about a woman who had gotten stuck one drainage over just a few days before and imagining the worst.

That said, I was well prepared with gear: 40' rope, harness, webbing for anchors, inflatable tube (more on that later), etc. It was an amazing trip.

My objective was to hike down the drainage to a small spring (11 miles?), which is the first source of water from the road. I was anxious about making it before dark, since it took many hours to drive up from Paria Canyon in the morning and I didn't start hiking until 1 PM. There was basically no trail, just bushwacking through the forest and then down canyon. After the first mile or so, the grade eased up and it was slow slogging across the bench, littered with prickly pear that kept barbing my legs, or dry, sandy stream bed, choked with large boulders.

The canyon quickly opened up to reveal that it was fenced in with sharp sandstone cliffs that would have been impossible to escape in the event of bad weather. At this point large thunderheads were rolling by with brief, intermittent showers, and I was starting to think that if it got any worse, I would have to climb back out of the canyon the way I came. The Death Hollow drainage is huge and it all funnels into a very narrow draw, so the risk of flash flood is significant. I continued to hike, resolved that if it continued to rain, I could camp the night by the spring and book it back out to the road in the morning.

A little after 4:30 PM, I hit the first small section of shallow narrows, and shortly thereafter rounded a bend and saw the tell-tale streak of brown on the left side of the canyon signifying water. I pumped a few liters and made camp across the draw from the spring. Although relieved to be on schedule, I slept poorly, worried about rain and the challenging day ahead.

I awoke to a chilly, clear morning, happy to be done with the night and eager to get started. I knew that ahead were the narrows of upper Death Hollow, which contained numerous small drops and deep channels, followed by a series of beaver dams after the perennial water started. I had a hasty breakfast, clogged my water filter with the bracken water at the base of the spring, and broke camp.

The narrows started almost immediately and were filled with numerous chockstones, sometimes necessitating a small down-climb. I lowered my pack over the larger drops with a 12' piece of 1" tubular webbing. There was one large stone with an overhanging drop > 10 ft that puzzled me for a bit - I put my harness on and was prepared to rap over it, but discovered a small rabbit hole when looking for a good natural anchor point and was able to scurry down the hole and under the stone. When I finally reached the well-described two-stage drop right before the confluence with the Right Fork of Death Hollow, I followed the cairn over the left canyon wall and bypassed it altogether.
Example of large obstacles requiring down climb

The narrows continued and the water started. The first few pools were just potholes, but eventually I hit a long narrow channel about shoulder width that looked pretty deep. I splashed ahead and after about 10 ft felt the floor of the channel disappear. My pack was surprisingly buoyant and lifted my hips off the ground; I made a thrashing attempt at the breast stroke with the pack on and eventually came to the end, about 100 yards in total. I had all of my clothes and essentials in a large dry sack in my pack, and was carrying the camera in a cheapo small dry bag around my neck, so most everything stayed dry except me. After this brief swim, I noticed a few drops inside the camera bag and had to transfer the camera to my pack. My watch, which Emily had just fixed, was ruined. In retrospect, I noticed the dark water line on the canyon wall indicating that the water had even just recently been 3-5 ft deeper.
Looking back at the channel; my walking stick, ~5 ft long, is on the right

After a few more narrows, I came to the last obstacle, a large chockstone with an 18 ft drop to a deep pool below. After seeing this, I had already decided to follow Canyoneering 3's recommendation to just walk around. After a quick scramble up the left side of the canyon, I could see that the canyon opened up below and lush vegetation began, suggesting the beginning of the perennial water below. I loped down the hill, laid out my clothes to dry, cleaned the ceramic insert of my MSR filter, pumped water and warmed up in the sun. The pool was full of frogs and pods of frog eggs. At this point, I broke out my inflatable tube, a ~ 4 ft diameter pool toy purchased at Target for 5 bucks and intended to float my pack so I wouldn't have to swim with a 50 lb backpack. It did not hold air, straight out of the package. Exasperated, I put it back in my pack, strapped the beast to my back, and charged down canyon.

Below the narrows, the canyon opened up and the walls stretched much higher, in excess of 400 ft. The swimming did not end - there were many beautiful deep pools, most ending in a beaver dam, that made progress slow. I became cold and was shivering until I found small trails onto the bench, which gave me hiking time in the sun and allowed me to dry off somewhat in between pools. I passed a sulfur spring, high up on the canyon wall, that resulted in huge red and brown algae plumes down stream.
Algae plumes near the sulfur spring

After many miles, I passed the western arm of the Boulder Mail Trail, an inland route to the canyon that cuts across the canyon from west to east. This was near the shooting spring, a remarkable jet of water from the hillside that shot out > 6", and an amazing sandy campsite under massive ponderosa pines. I was relieved to be through the obstacle course and knew that I was relatively home free from here on out.
Shooting spring

Poison ivy.

Day 3 I hiked from the Boulder Mail Trail down to the Escalante Highway 12 bridge over about 9 hours. The day was clear and warm, and the hiking was fantastic. From the BMT down to the confluence with the Escalante, the canyon was fantastic, with high walls, soaring alcoves, and a short section of narrows. Much of this was hiked in the stream which ran over slickrock. As advertised, there were thick patches of poison ivy, but these disappeared by the time I got to the Escalante River.
One of many beaver dams.

After about three hours of hiking, I came around a bend and saw these three guys in BYU caps, the first people I had seen since my dad left me at the trailhead. They had hiked in on the BMT and must have camped just downstream from where I stayed the night. While we were talking, one of them caught a 12" trout. I asked them to take my picture. In my defense, I chose to wear clothing that was long-sleeved, would dry quickly, and was bright colored in the event that I had to be rescued, hence the traveling circus outfit.
About 1/2 a mile down from the fishing hole, I encountered the lower Death Hollow narrows, where the river runs over deep slick rock pools. The walls closed in and I had to shuffle sideways on a submerged ledge to avoid swimming in the deep water. This area was spectacular and worth the entire hike.
From there, it was another couple of hours to the Escalante confluence, and then 3+ hours of slogging over deep sand on the benches to reach the Highway 12 bridge / trailhead. The canyon gradually widened and there were expansive vistas, a natural arch, and a natural bridge. About 4:30 PM, I had exhausted all 3 L of water and was super sweaty and tired, so I changed into my swimming suit, took a quick sponge bath in the river, and then started back on the trail. I thought that I was close, but with the loss of my watch and unclear mileage in the trail guides, I was just running on fumes hoping it would end. About 5 minutes from my bath, I met a couple who guaranteed the trailhead was only 20 minutes away, and with that inspiration, I hiked as fast as I could to the end. My shoes were full of sand and my feet were pretty shredded from all of the gravel / sand of the last 30 miles.
Highway 12 bridge trailhead.
After changing into some clean clothes, I drove up US 12 to Boulder and had the most amazing meal: fried polenta and the Red Rock hamburger, a quarter pounder with quac, chipotle mayo, cheese, and fresh salsa. I was so blown away that I could barely move, but somehow I dragged my body into the rental car and drove 3.5 hrs back to Provo through Capital Reef and Dixie National Park. Epic.


Blogger Montana Raymonds said...

Beautiful! What an experiencej.

I love you.


11:57 AM  

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