- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

ESCALANTE, Utah — The layered red sandstone of the canyon walls tower above us. The waters in and under our boots are murky and cold. The March sun has poured out its fleeting warmth and dipped behind the cliffs, leaving us shivering in sodden clothes and looming shadows.

We have no idea how much longer we’ll have to wade, swim, stem, climb and struggle through Death Hollow.

We’re worried. Our trip to this canyon on the fringes of Utah’s Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument is one in a series of trips my closest and oldest friend, Ben, and I try to make every year. Together and separately, we have climbed most of New England’s peaks, paddled much of its waterways and notched climbs in Wyoming’s Wind River and Siberia’s Lake Baikal mountains.

Ben’s brother Peter — our third companion — has climbed multipitch ascents, fallen down a crevasse, crossed glaciers and struggled with Alaskan flood waters that threatened to wash him away.

In short, we are not inexperienced.

We decided to come here based on Peter and Ben’s trip the previous year to another Utah canyon. We have chosen the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area for its challenge as much as for its remoteness.

After flying into Las Vegas and driving through the night, we arrive at Escalante, a frontier hamlet that services tourists to the national monument and other sites. We consult with a local outfitter who cautions that because of elevation, sizable snowfall and time of year, substantial water could be flowing through Death Hollow. The outfitter recommends an easier hike or coming back in late spring.

With that in mind, we ask the outfitter to alert rescuers if we don’t return in four days.

We drive up into the mountains of the Dixie National Forest. On our way to the trail head, we find that the last 10 miles of logging roads have waist-deep snow in many places. We set off on foot, but a trek that could have taken us 20 minutes by car takes an entire day of slogging.

The next day, we drop down to the sweeping, savannahlike canyon floors, where arid soils host Douglas firs, manzanita, juniper and low cactus and an almost surreal setting that feels impossibly lonely and strangely mystical. When not wrapped in our thoughts and fatigue, we stand speechless at the solitude and grandeur.

Eventually, the walls heave up into pinnacles and spires and we’re forced to walk on the rounded shoulders just above the snowmelt-swollen river that has carved the sandstone and hewn the canyon over eons. We camp on a ledge by a spring and watch the constellation Orion and the heavens rotate around the North Star until we drift off.

The following day, we arrive at the point where the shoulders disappear, the walls become cathedral ceilings and there is no other way to pass — only through the water at the canyon’s bottom. We had anticipated the narrows and the water, but not this much.

We rappel down and try to stay out of the river. The water is cold, and the lengthening shadows distort its depths. We stem a 50-foot section, which involves bracing our hands and feet on the walls and keeping our bodies near horizontal several feet above the water. It isn’t an easy task wearing a 50-pound backpack. Eventually, we’re forced to wade. At times, the waters are up to our knees, at other times to our chests.

Shivering and watching the fading sunlight, we alternate stemming, wading and swimming. At one point, Ben loosens his pack and swims ahead, disappearing around a corner for what seems an eternity. When his voice echoes back to us, Peter and I loosen our packs and begin swimming.

My pack barely floats and knocks my head into the frigid murk, while my heavy boots pull me down. I panic and begin swallowing as I thrash about, trying to move and keep my head up. Peter, dripping and perched on a dry rock ahead, yells to me: “Come on, Mike. Almost there. You can do it. Keep swimming. Almost there.” Somehow, I scratch and crawl onto the rock, gasping for breath, shaking almost uncontrollably and coughing.

Though our clothing and gear are wrapped in waterproof bags, our packs are heavy with river water. We wade on like pack mules, trying to wring any warmth we can from the few rays of sunshine that reach the canyon bottom.

In the span of several hours, we have gone at most a mile. Ben again swims ahead around the corner, returning some time later to report that the canyon ahead is nothing but water.

We have no idea how much farther we must go. Down here with the river lapping at our boots and the ever-present danger of floods, there is no place to pitch our tent and light stoves, to warm up and change into dry clothes.

We stand on a rock, shiver and drip and discuss our options. The moment is agonizing. Our perseverance has been sapped by our surroundings, our confidence frayed by the unknown and unexpected. Our pride and determination tell us to go on. Our experience and training tell us otherwise.

We turn back. We wade and swim up the canyon a short distance and find what looks to be a sandy ledge about 30 feet above us. We scratch and climb our way up the brittle, sandy wall and haul our gear to the ledge, where we pitch a tent, crawl into dry clothes, sip hot chocolate and have a long, wrenching discussion. Was our retreat an admission of defeat or a prudent decision?

With sleep, food and warmth, our spirits return by morning. We decide to leave the canyon the way we came in so as not to alarm the guides in town. Moreover, if we got stuck again, our food and supplies would not last many days beyond our planned finish — already adjusted by our first day of slogging through snow.

We rappel back into the canyon and retrace our steps. On our way out, the wading and stemming is familiar, and we can see our incoming footprints on the canyon shoulders and the savannahlike plain. The climb to the rim is arduous. The canyons are just as stoic and sublime as they were mere days ago. We have challenged ourselves not at all the way we had anticipated.

• • •

The town of Escalante is 290 miles northeast of Las Vegas (275 miles south of Salt Lake City). The main trail head for the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area begins off Hells Backbone Road, a rough road that curves around the north ends of the canyons.

The main route through Death Hollow is a three- to five-day hike, ending with a hike through a dry riverbed into town, or four to six days if you go all the way down to the Escalante River. The mileage through the canyon can vary with conditions, and the often unmarked trail means a detailed U.S. Geological Survey map is essential; information at geography.usgs.gov/esic/to?order.html.

Backcountry permits are required for camping in the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Areas.

With its ruggedness, remoteness and stark beauty, Death Hollow is one of the more challenging and rewarding hikes in the vicinity of Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. Only experienced, strong and well-prepared hikers should consider it.

The optimal time to go (when there is some water and it’s not too hot) is late spring.

Expect to bring climbing ropes and waterproof bags. Be aware of flash floods, lightning in exposed areas and hot temperatures in summer.

Southeast of Escalante are many equally beautiful and less strenuous canyon hikes, particularly off the Hole-in-the-Rock access road. Many of those hikes make easy meanders down into the Colorado River valley, where the sandstone cliffs and spires are even more spectacular than in Death Hollow. Bryce Canyon National Park is also nearby.

For more information, visit www.ut.blm.gov/monument or call 435/826-5499 for details.

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