Buckskin Gulch, and Wire Pass…My love note to Utah – Part 2 (Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument)

Coffee! Coffee makes every morning better, especially a morning after freezing your ass off while attempting to sleep on the hard packed ground. Dusty House and I gulped it down like heroin addicts getting their last fix before rehab. Slowly emerging from our sleeping bags, we gathered our belongings, and began our second day on the trail.

Overnight we had decided that our best bet would be to make it to the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and Paria River, here we would have access to a spring with drinkable water. At the start of day two we had a combined 4L of water between us, with roughly 16 miles of terrain to cross. It was very doable, it just felt like it had potential to be rushed (rushed isn’t exactly a good thing when you are a photographer, and trying to shoot extensive video).

That morning was spent navigating the narrows directly below the “The Dive,” a set of red rock cliffs below the West Clark Bench. We were happy being several feet below the surface of the earth, it was oddly beautiful and serene, along with a slight bit of errieness. Entering a long wide portion of the canyon, a couple of ravens began harassing us with their sick sounding calls of discontent. They were pretty ardent about not wanting us there, they flew back and forth above us, mocking us until we finally exited their turf.

 

Below "The Dive," Buckskin can be much wider, and with massive vertical walls.

Below “The Dive,” Buckskin can be much wider, and with massive vertical walls.

 

Real life, Tetris.

Real life, Tetris.

 

Wait, what do you mean, I have to go through there?

Wait, what do you mean, I have to go through there?

 

Debris and log jams are not usual to see high in the walls of Buckskin. This is caused by the raging flash floods that the canyon is known for.

Debris and log jams are not usual to see high in the walls of Buckskin. This is caused by the raging flash floods that the canyon is known for.

 

Navigating the narrows, we both became obsessed with reaching an area in Buckskin known as, “The Cesspool.” “The Cesspool” is a section of the canyon, it never sees daylight, it is cold, dark, and very wet. One portion can at times be neck-deep in “cess,” a combination of stagnant water, mud, and various debris. We came prepared for the worst, we had floaties to float our packs across, and anticipated that we very well may be swimming. When picking up our permits we specifically asked the Ranger on duty about the current condition of this famed section, he confirmed that we are in for the worst, based on the previous week’s flash flood.

We had to be close. The ground was saturated with large puddles, sometimes knee-high. Most were completely unavoidable, this went on for what felt like miles. Every step had to be carefully placed to avoid sliding face-first into the skanky, fowl pools of “cess.” I soon lost that battle while straddling a rock, trying to avoid one of these pools. My pack still weighing a good 50-pounds, shifted on me, sending me tumbling off of the rock, and straight down into everything that thus far I had managed to avoid. With that cherry popped, I quickly learned not to care.

 

The pools of water in the canyon are a telltale sign that "The Cesspool" is nearing.

The pools of water in the canyon are a telltale sign that “The Cesspool” is nearing.

 

A baby Diamondback Rattlesnake in the narrows.

A baby Diamondback Rattlesnake in the narrows.

 

Pure bliss!

Pure bliss!

 

Seeing so much water pooled in the canyon became an instant reminder that we were literally walking in the reason that Buckskin exists. Millions of years of flash flooding had eroded this canyon into what we were now seeing. Thee spontaneous rushing of water had created every succulent curve, crevice, and knob. The fact is, that the creation process is never-ending — essentially, mother nature’s never-ending work of art.

Reaching the bonafide “cesspool,” we concluded that the last mile had rightfully earned the same name – for the “cess” was never-ending. Now not knowing what the actual “cesspool” had in store, I removed my pack, and waded through. The muck sitting on the floor of the pool acted like suction cups, or quicksand, bogging down my feet. Inching toward the middle, suddenly the ground nose-dived several feet. I found myself waist deep before reaching the incline. The water was ice-cold, murky, and had the consistency of a thick stew. None of that seamed to mater, at least it wasn’t neck-deep, and we didn’t have to swim.  I crossed back over; Dusty got her floatie blown up, insisting on posing and playing in the water that we had obsessed over for the better part of the day.

 

"The Cesspool" - No picture that I took truly shows the nastiness.

“The Cesspool” – No picture that I took truly shows the nastiness.

 

Dusty House, shows off in "The Cesspool". If she was to take three steps back it would be waist deep on her.

Dusty House, shows off in “The Cesspool”. If she was to take three steps back it would be waist deep on her.

 

A drowned field mouse on the banks of "The Cesspool."

A drowned field mouse on the banks of “The Cesspool.”

 

The first of our Scorched Secrets of the American Desert video series is all about “THE CESS” – Watch it below.

 

With “The Cesspool” complete, we knew we would be soon reaching an escape route known as Middle Route. This route is essentially a climbers route, and an emergency escape route. The early Native Americans in the region utilized it to cross Buckskin Gulch, as opposed to navigating the potentially deadly flood canal. We really would have liked to have camped here the second night, but with a dwindling supply of water, it was pretty well out of the question.

We believed that we had reached Middle Route when we emerged from the darkness of the slot canyon, and entered an opening filled with bright sunshine. This was the first that we had seen the sun in hours, and after the cold, dark, dampness of “The Cesspool” it was a welcome sight. Our suspicion was verified after seeing a few bighorn sheep petroglyphs carved into the wall on the left.

Suddenly we heard voices from above, yelling “hello!” Two friendly looking people were looking down at us from a large boulder that had managed to wedge itself between the canyon walls. They introduced themselves as Paul and Janet, day-hikers and technical climbers on vacation from Colorado.  They talked with us about the conditions of the route down to the confluence, while we expressed that we needed to get there that evening because we were running low on water. The couple evaluated their water supply, and exclaimed that they had an extra three liters that we were welcome to. As much as we didn’t need to stop for the day, we wanted to, no point in rushing, that tends to take fun out of the equation. We accepted their gift of water, and a Honeycrisp Apple apiece – that apple was seriously the most delicious thing I had tasted in days.

 

Bighorn sheep petroglyphs at Middle Route.

Bighorn sheep petroglyphs at Middle Route.

 

A view from above. Looking down into Buckskin Gulch from Middle Route.

A view from above. Looking down into Buckskin Gulch from Middle Route.

 

In the meantime, Paul and Janet were dealing with an older gentleman named John (names have been changed to protect the innocent). John had been wandering along the rim of the canyon, had gotten lost on several occasions, and was adamant about climbing down into the canyon. Paul and Janet were very concerned about his state, and were hanging around to try to help him. For the first time since we had been there, John made an appearance at the rim. He threw a rope down the Middle Route, and began his descent. It wasn’t long before he became stuck.  Paul and Janet went to his rescue, guiding him safely off of the rocky ledges.

It was Paul and Janet’s patience and caring attitude that day that kept us from finding John lying dead on the canyon floor, or having to babysit him for the duration of our trip. The duo managed to get John safely to the canyon floor, where he proceeded to ramble about how he had done this 20 years prior with no problems. It was obvious from the conversation that something wasn’t right with him.

John only stayed for maybe 20 minutes, and when he left, our new friends went with him. It took them a better part of an hour to get him back on the rim of the canyon, and thankfully they did so safely. We’ve since heard from Paul and Janet, and they managed to get John back to his vehicle several hours later.

 

Petroglyphs that are a couple of hundred feet above the canyon floor.

Petroglyphs that are a couple of hundred feet above the canyon floor.

 

Falling man, petroglyph.

Falling man, petroglyph.

 

Moki steps lead up a nearly vertical rock face.

Moki steps lead up a nearly vertical rock face.

 

I previously stated that Middle Route was a cross-section for the Native Americans, we decided to evaluate this further, finding several additional petroglyph panels on the walls a couple of hundred feet above us. One of the most eye-catching, being the depiction of a man falling from a ledge. Was this falling man carved to remember someone who fallen from this very place, or was it a sign of the dangers of the area?  On a nearly vertical wall, we discovered moki steps. These steps are toe and hand holds that had been hand carved into the sandstone to help the early people climb the vertical terrain. It isn’t uncommon to find these steps near cliff dwellings or water sources across the Southwest.

Thanks to Paul and Janet, we could now relax for the rest of the evening, enjoy our gourmet Mountain House dinners, while watching the stars dance their way across the sky. It was a little slice of heaven.

 

CONTINUE TO PART III

 

BACK TO PART I

 

READ DUSTY HOUSE’S ACCOUNT OF THE DAYS EVENTS

 

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.