I don’t think you’d call me a cavalier, “throw caution to the wind” type of person, especially when I’m heading out into the backcountry. I doublecheck lists, check the weather, and seek out all the information I can find about wherever we’re going. I’m pretty sure I can be a real pain in the patoot about it, too.
So it was kind of strange that before our first backpack trip into the canyon country of Southeastern Utah I was pretty much winging it. We’d decided to hike into Grand Gulch via Kane Gulch. I’d read the hiking books, and it sounded like a straightforward, not particularly difficult, out and back hike. I did pay enough attention to know that we needed to think about flash floods, but that was about it. In hindsight I think I was lulled into nonchalance by the fact that this was definitely a grizzly-free zone.
All would have been easy as pie if we’d just stuck to our plan to go both down and up by the Kane Gulch trail.
But it turns out that both Bill and I really dislike retracing our route.
Usually not a problem.
We hiked down Kane Gulch to Grand Gulch, and then continued to the junction where Todie Canyon enters Grand. We spent a glorious two days exploring up and down Grand Gulch. On the third morning we decided that we didn’t want to hike out the way we’d come in. We had maps, and could see that we could go out Todie Canyon and not be too far from the car at the end. I even vaguely remembered reading about the Todie Canyon route.
What I didn’t remember was that Todie Canyon “offers the most challenging route into and out of Grand Gulch” and that because of the “exposure to steep dropoffs” it is only recommended for “experienced canyon hikers.”
The picture at the top of the post is the bottom of Todie Canyon. At this point the canyon is pretty wide, and the walking up canyon is not difficult. The next photo is the very rewarding view from the top of Todie Canyon. The part where I managed to not fall hundreds of feet to the canyon floor is in between these two pictures.
As you head up Todie, the canyon gets narrower and narrower until it is just a boulder and shrub-choked chute. Finding the route involved lots of scrambling and rock hopping. Not easy with a full backpack. It’s just a couple of miles from the bottom, but we probably spent 2 1/2 hours trying to find the right route.
There are plenty of rewards along the way: hidden ruins that are accessible for exploring, and soaring sandstone cliffs with ravens calling to each other across the canyon.
But it was exhausting. And I knew we somehow had to get up and over those soaring walls.
We started up steep, winding, rocky switchbacks. There was indeed “exposure to steep dropoffs”, but there were shrubs along the uphill side, so even though a mis-step would have been really bad, I was doing OK. Even in my exhaustion I was feeling pretty good.
Bill was about 50 feet ahead of me. He rounded a corner, and all I heard was “hmmm.”
Now, lest you misunderstand, my husband is – to say the least – not prone to hyperbole. I knew that his “hmmm” is equivalent to my “holy crap – are you f-ing kidding me!!??”
When I turned the corner, he was standing at the bottom of a huge room sized boulder. There was a cairn at his feet and another one at the top of the boulder. The canyon floor was 800 feet below us – straight down. My stomach is dropping right now as I write this.
The boulder is curved enough so that it is possible to “friction walk” your way up it. But there’s nothing to hold on to, and nothing to stop your fall if you panic. And trust me, I was already panicking.
We discussed turning around, but man….it was hard going to get this far. And Bill was confident that he could do it with no problem and then he could lay down and give me a hand. So – to my amazement – I agreed to try.
Bill scrambled up without a problem and then actually came down again and went back up with my pack. He then stretched out on the rock and I was able to get up a couple of feet by myself before grabbing his hand. I thought my heart would pound out of my chest, but we’d done it.
We took a a couple of pictures of the route from the top of the boulder, but I don’t think they show how utterly terrifying this was … at least for me.
Surprisingly, given that I’m such a chicken, we’ve hiked many, many more times in canyon country since this. And I’ve learned that many hikes include “exposure to steep dropoffs.” I just make sure that we can always retreat if the dropoff is steeper than I want!