How to be Stupid in a Slot Canyon and Live to Tell the Tale
Buckskin Gulch, Southern Utah
The Setting: My usual biannual hiking, backpacking, jeeping, photo safari to southern Utah, the Mecca of red, red rocks, solitude and good hard fun.
The Target: Buckskin Gulch, reputedly the longest Slot Canyon in the world. This hike was to be a loop with a short mountain bike shuttle at the end. The beta said it could be done in one long, but more usual two, days and a permit was needed. Oh, yeah, good weather conditions a must, no rain and high temps due to cold water wading.
Here’s what happens when you get some of the ingredients right but ignore the rest…
I really, really wanted to hike Buckskin Gulch. As a lover of slot canyons I wanted to experience it firsthand. I had read several Utah hiking guides to get the skinny and as I headed to Utah from Southern California in late spring 2001, I had the warm weather I needed and the right gear to get me through. I decided to do a 20 mile loop down Buckskin and up the Paria to a shuttle with a mountain bike. I was solo this trip so the bike would come in handy.
I stopped at the kiosk outside the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) outpost for the Paria River area. The posted weather called for decreasing thunderstorm chances; 40 percent that day then down to 20 percent the next. I wasn’t planning on starting my hike until the next morning to see if the weather was settled. Descriptions of conditions in the gulch were good, the deepest pothole wading about waist deep in the “Cesspool” and dry below the Middle Route trail, one of the only exits/entrances in Buckskin, approximately midway in the hike. Of course, I also needed a permit which I didn’t have (hey, I paid all day hiking/parking fees!!)
The next day dawned cloudy but dry and the sun was peeking out. I decided to chance it, after all, what could happen? If nothing had, I wouldn’t be writing this story. With my pack waterproofed, camera in hand and boots to sacrifice I started out at Wire Pass trailhead.
It’s all about the light and the dark
After downclimbing two small dropoffs and crawling through a tight spot, I checked out bighorn sheep, petroglyphs and turned down canyon into Buckskin Gulch. Right away it was get in and wade, only thigh deep at most in murky water. Hiking was good for a period after that, pretty dry and firm in the cobbled hallway looking up at a thin strip of sky. Several wide spots offered a potential campsite at about three miles along, and some bouldering where large stones had cleved off the sides. At times it seemed you would walk into a wall then take a 90 degree turn right or left and go on. It was incredibly beautiful and confining. I almost stepped on a small rattlesnake; he was very lethargic and couldn’t rattle.
The clouds were coming and going, gray then some sun. The section containing the Cesspool was gothic and gloomy. Dark convoluted walls overhanging, very little ambient light and a cloudy pool of water stretching wall to wall out of sight for at least 50 yards. It was freezing ass cold too (if you are ever at the trailhead read some of the comments by gentlemen hikers on effect to male anatomy) and chest deep on me. I couldn’t get through fast enough.
Almost to the end and what did I hear? THUNDER! Well, that was just great. By the time I got to the middle route the sun was out again and I dried out like a lizard on a hot rock. I considered exiting here, above would be a dry camp and it was unknown if I could complete the solo ascent safely. From below it did not look too difficult but I elected to hike fast and get through Buckskin Gulch.
I roped my pack down and scrambled down the rockfall, no more pools to be found. As soon as I got my pack on the rain began, slowly, gently, then pounding. I marched on and before the confluence with the Paria River canyon the rain was cascading down the walls in small waterfalls, gorgeous but terrifying for me. I gave new meaning to the term “speed walking”, with a 30+ pound pack on.
The rain stopped suddenly at the confluence as I turned up canyon. Here was bad decision #5000; I could have camped at the confluence campsites, safely above the wash bottom. But oh no, I didn’t have a permit, it was too early, the ground too wet, I didn’t feel like stopping. I felt strong and thought I could get to the Whitehouse campground by dusk given my pace and how I felt. I had stopped to take pictures along the way but had made good time as it was still early afternoon. I stopped to take pictures at Slide Rock and admire the tall pink and salmon colored walls and eat some crackers. I continued up canyon on cruise control, the sun out and dark clouds behind me.
This creek bed was totally dry about 10 minutes before this photo was taken
I kept an eye out for spots to climb up, I don’t know why, except instinct. Not 500 yards from exiting the narrows I heard, quite literally, a roar ahead of me that I thought was a low flying jet, this area being in the east/west flight path. Then I heard a rock roll as if kicked and saw a small brown wave about a foot high roll around a corner in front of me. I ran back about 10 feet and ascended a natural ramp to a ledge about 10 feet off the deck and none too soon. In a blink that water was 3-4 feet deep and hauling butt, making waves and whirlpool eddies along the undercuts in the canyon walls. It was rising and full of debris, a deep reddish color. I was able to climb about 25 feet to a wider ledge, drop my pack, clean out my pants, and take some pictures. The noise in the confines of the canyon was incredible. I sat and picked a spot out on the wall to see if the water level was fluctuating. It stayed level and I decided to climb out.
After getting over my fear of heights the hard way and learning new belay techniques for my pack, I reached a sandy plateau below the cliffs of the East Clark Bench. A little trudging in the fading light up a few sand hills put me at a great campsite in soft sand with a few handy junipers to hang wet clothes on and a great view of the Paria River flood plain below. What had been dry was now wet and gleaming in the low light.
I actually spent a good night in my sleeping bag sans tent, with Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) and water and life was good. Serenaded by the local coyote clan at dawn, I packed up and finished my hike out through the Paria mud flats. A local ranger took details of my story down as they were attempting to make sure all in the canyon could be accounted for after the flash flood came down (“Did ya see anything in the water? Like bodies?” Ahhh, no).
Moral of this Story: Don’t got slot canyon exploring if there is even the slightest chance of rain anywhere in the area. Listen to your instincts and don’t think it won’t happen to you!