The Other Side Of Backpacking:
The Dirty Devil Trip
Russ's StoryThe trail map showed a path leading along the Keyanta Bench and traversing the Great Alcove, a huge depression in the canyon's side. The alcove appeared to be a seamless rock wall, and we wondered how we were to hike across. The question I asked myself was, What am I doing here?
I was invited to go along with this group of desert ramblers to hike the Dirty Devil River Canyon in Southern Utah between Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks. Roger Jenkins has been organizing these annual desert canyon trips since 1980; this was his seventh. I've been with the group twice before, hiking the Escalante and Paria River Canyons. Although those trips were just a stroll down the canyon with some river crossings, this time Roger said the descent into the canyon might be a bit tricky. A little exposure and some talus slope was the way he put it. We are Harvey Broome Group members: in addition to Roger and me, George Ritter, Will Skelton, Samantha Richter, Kevin Pack, Andy Zenick, and Ray Payne. At the Salt Lake airport we join Andy Butler and Sue Fischer, former Harvey Broome Group members now living in Texas and working with the University of Texas at Austin.
A little ice cream before boarding the rental car and van. We then hit a supermarket in one of our infamous raids that keep us on schedule, collecting Coleman fuel, snacks, lunch food for the next day. George and Roger then drive us to Provo, Utah, where we spend the night at a TraveLodge.
After a quick breakfast the next morning, we continue south to Hanksville, Utah, to join John Finger who has driven up from Las Vegas where he has been on sabbatical at, the University of Nevada. We are now eleven. . Leaving Hanksville, the two drivers with John following in his car turn onto a dirt road that leads to Angel Cove Overlook. The vehicles bump over the dirty road and fishtail in patches of loose sand. At the overlook, the Dirty Devil River shows itself for the first time, a muddy, serpentine stream winding its way in a deep gorge that reminds us of the inner Grand Canyon.
Roger begins pulling out bread and cheese and sliced meat and lettuce for lunch. After gorging, we leave the rental car for the shuttle at the end of the hike. Nine of us crowd into the van with the other two in John's car and drive back to the highway, down several miles and then onto another dirt road that leads to Burr Point Overlook.
The road eventually just quits. We unload in a desolate landscape: sand, sage brush, the wind rippling unimpeded across the flat desert, the Henry Mountains behind us, the canyon of the Dirty Devil before us. I look down 1500 feet to the river. It is early afternoon. Somehow bet. ween now and the end of the day, the group must walk from here to there. I begin to have some questions about what I am doing, wondering if, like a branch in a rushing stream, I am to be swept along by more experienced hikers into the abyss of adventure. But that's what I am here for, I tell myself. We load up packs. Take group pictures. And head out.
The initial sand and rock slope is stable, like walking on a beach. Roger and Will and Ray fan out to find the few cairns that mark the 'way. The rest Of us follow, dropping to benches that are different erosional levels in the canyon wall. We pick our way down steep rock slopes, advising each other on the best route down. The descent is made more difficult with the 50 to 60 pound packs that carry a week's provisions. Too busy ,to take a weekend off during the past year, I have not been backpacking since the Paria trip last spring. I'm hardly out of shape, yet I'm not used to carrying the weight; I have to watch my footing or I'll lose my balance. Arriving at the top of a rock cliff, Ray and John and Andy Zenick set up a line down the cliff to lower packs by rope. One at a time, John and Andy tie them on at the top and lower them to Ray at the bottom. I pass them my pack and then follow the others down a zigzagging rock shelf. I'm a little cautious as I make my way down. The clicking and winding of cameras is nearly a constant background noise as the trip is documented. Each of us is an avid photographer; even George with his little Cannon Sureshot, though he doesn't like to admit it. The rest of us carry monster SLRs. There are even half a dozen tripods among us.
Now we have some smooth walking through a saddle separating small buttes from the canyon wall. We arrive at the edge of a sheer drop The guidebook says to stay along the canyon wall, walking along the bench until you cross the Great Alcove that can be seen on the other side of this notch in the canyon. All we see of the Great Alcove is blank wall, a wound in the side of the canyon where rock has fallen away. How can anyone walk across that? Like a herd of horses refusing to plunge into the river, we mill around the edge, refusing to believe. that is the way to go. Our mutual indecisiveness is voiced in cries of "It can't be done," "That's impossible," "The guidebook is crazy." Ray, in his no nonsense way, has dropped his pack and headed off to scout the trail. Ray is the strongest hiker in the group with a reputation for surefootedness; if there is a way, he will find it.
But many of us are doubting even Ray's ability to get across the Great Alcove. A few of us foment rebellion, seriously considering hiking back out the way we came and taking an alternate route. After a time the group grows silent and waits to see what Ray finds. I shiver, not knowing whether from the cool wind that blows as clouds hide the sun or from anticipation of what is to come. All I can think of is needing to get home safely to my new wife,. married two weeks ago. After about twenty minutes of traversing the canyon wall Ray is almost there. He is only a speck now across the canyon. We wait as if for the Rapture.
Ray then steps out, walking along as if on a highway. There must be a shelf that can't be seen because there is Ray on a Saturday afternoon stroll. The' distance has made the wall appear two dimensional to us on this side of the canyon. "Well, if we are going to do it," Sue says, "we'd better start so we can get to the bottom before dark."
Everyone begins to hoist packs and set off. I am still dubious. At some point in my distant childhood, I stood at the precipice; my mother screamed startling me, "Get away from the edge." I've been trying to heed her advice ever since. But now I must yield to the will of the group. I concentrate on following in the footsteps of George who is in front of me. A several hundred foot drop is to my right. I walk on a 30 to 45 degree slope of sand and rock. Looking where I'm stepping, I know I cannot fall. Looking out over the canyon I develop vertigo. So I pull my hat over to the side, using the brim as a blinder. I know I'm missing spectacular scenery. But right now I'm not interested in taking photographs.
In and out on the undulating wall., I hike on the same level, not needing to descend or ascend. Then rounding a bend, I have reached the Great Alcove' Incredibly, there is the ledge stretching across the face of the wall. Maybe not a highway, but certainly a sidewalk. Easy, if I don't think about the sheer drop into the canyon below. Along with everyone else, I quickly cross the shelf, scramble up, and begin walking a plateau. Here I pick up speed able to hike with strength on the open ground, although still unable to keep pace with Kevin and Samantha, who in their late twenties are the youngsters in the group, along with Andy Zenick who is even farther ahead with Ray.
We approach the canyon edge again and follow it to the back end of another notch topped by the Twin Alcoves, our final descent to the canyon bottom. Here is the talus slope, large boulders piled up against the canyon wall. In single file the group works its way down from rock to rock.
I am tired now. My legs are rubber, and I can no longer depend on them to support me as I step down with .the heavy pack added to my weight. I near the back of the line as others catch up to me. The rubble zone goes on and on. Everyone has now passed, even George who recently had bunions removed. To save my legs, I use every opportunity to slide down on my rear. Or when that is not possible, I use both hands, crawling down the slope like a four legged crab. I am scraping knees and hands yet I hardly notice. My attention is not on inconveniences.
Finally I catch up with the others. They are climbing individually down a minor cliff among loose rock. The next in line waits for the one ahead to clear before making the descent. Will, the most experienced climber, is sitting on a rock half way in the descent. He talks everyone down. Andy Butler offers to let me go next. I accept. Something reassuring about having someone behind you. I do the first part of the cliff well. I scoot down a shelf on my rear and traverse around a bush. With Will directing, I then back down a cliff with a few footholds.
One last smooth vertical rock stops me. Easy without a pack. So I decide to take mine off and lower it. I unfasten my waist belt. Slip my left arm out. The pack swings around to my right. It steadies and I begin to lower it with one hand, hanging on to the cliff with the other. I squat and work my hand down to the belt and lower, the pack farther, grasping the last inch of belt. The pack is a mere two or three inches from the narrow shelf where I intend it to rest. I let go. It lands, does a slow-motion pirouette, and goes over the edge. On one especially good bounce, the pack explodes, and like a UPS delivery truck, deposits parcels on its way down the slope. Without the pack, I easily scramble down the cliff gathering the pieces of my survival. Miraculously, the only things broken are the straps on the bottom of the pack that had held on my sleeping bag, pad, and bag of clothes. I tie the straps higher on the pack and pull it all back together. Andy helps, having followed me down; he then passes. I shrug my pack back on. Will comes down the cliff easily and leads the way as I fumble over the remaining boulders. The cliff has slowed our descent. It is late now. Among the boulders the light is fading rapidly.
After dropping her pack at the campsite, Sue comes back up the slope with a flashlight. She calls to Andy. She has missed him in the dim light and thinks he is still on the cliff. We tell her we are the last; Andy is already down. She walks back with us, leading the way with her light. She offers to carry one of my dangling bags. No, I've come this far; I will do it all.
It is dark by the time the three of us arrive in camp. I can just make out the tents that have been hastily erected. The clouds that threatened in the afternoon now begin to drizzle. I barely have time to say to everyone I've made it before I must turn my attention to getting out of the rain. Will and Sue and Andy are already rushing to put their tents up. As I begin to set up my tent, a wind comes up that threatens to rip the fabric from my hands. I straddle the tent as I put in the poles. My neatly laid ground cloth is blown and bunched under the tent. I jam in the stakes and have the tent up. I fasten the fly. It is raining now. I open the tent, throw in the pack, and finally tumble in myself, zipping up the tent and taking off my muddy shoes.
Finding my flashlight, I push the switch. Nothing happens. I remember taking out one of the batteries to keep the flashlight from coming on by accident. I grope in the dark with my pocket knife to open the flashlight, put the battery in, and turn on the light. I spread out my pad and sleeping bag. I pull off my clothes, don my polypros, and scoot into the bag. The wind is fierce. The tent is flapping. I didn't pull the rain fly tight enough; now the wind is under the fly, billowing it up and threatening to pull out the stakes. The tent will not stand up without the stakes. I push anything of weight to the sides and front to hold the tent erect from the inside. The tent is sagging at the foot. If the fly is touching the tent and the inside touches my bag, it will get wet. I pull out a garbage bag I have brought for additional rain protection and slip it over the foot of my sleeping bag. I turn off the light and pull the bag up to my chin. My body aches, I am bruised and wounded. I haven't had anything to eat since lunch. I am dehydrated. It is damp inside. It is raining outside. I have to go to the bathroom. Seven days to go.
Seven days of hiking upstream along the dirty Devil River, laughing and cavorting as we dodge deep pools and boot sucking mud on river crossings, exploring box canyons that contain arches and prehistoric Indian ruins and petrified wood and stair stepped beaver dams, eating dinner at the end of each day with friends who help and encourage, and sleeping through star spangled nights between moonlit canyon walls. Days of peace and solitude, of blue sky and red sandstone. The wilderness experience is a dialectic of taking and giving. Wilderness requires that you come out of yourself to confront rock and water and mud and wind and height and empty space. It then rewards you with newfound strength and confidence, confirming that you are worthy to be in this place, worthy to be 'who you are.
© Russ Manning, 1988; Photographs © William H. Skelton, 1988