After hitting up our canyons in Zion, the second half of our trip was to head to Escalante, Utah. We had plans to hike in and camp out at Neon Canyon for 4 days. We took off from Zion and took a 3.5 hour drive further into canyon country. We stopped in Escalante to get supplies and food for our stay on the Escalante River, then headed out to the spur that would take us to the trailhead we’d need to hike down.
Quick story here, I have no idea what Jared and I were thinking when we bought our food supplies. For some god forsaken reason we thought that planning a Mountain House or Backpackers Pantry for every meal would be a good and simple idea. Yeah….this was soooo not a good idea. One: those meals have so much sodium in them! And they are heavy heavy meals, almost too much for two people to split one. Definitely not meant for every meal of the day if you can help it. Two: since they are basically all kinds of dehydrated craziness, it really messes with your system. And when you’re in the backcountry, a messy system and be…err…messy. I remember sitting there on day 3 with all the meals we had left lined up and staring across camp and being completely envious at the goldfish crackers and Top Ramen my friends had brought. Lesson completely learned.
As we hit the spur that would take us out to the trailhead we were stopped by a park ranger coming down the road in his truck. Turns out where we were headed was a National Monument. So guess what? Yup, that was closed too.
Ugh. The reason for venturing to Neon Canyon was to save the very best for last. Neon Canyon ends in a rappel that drops into ‘The Golden Cathedral’. Yes, it’s as magical as it sounds. The landing of the rappel is a pool, and when the light hits that pool in late afternoon, it lights up the cathedral ceiling of the canyon in a golden wash. Heavenly. But the dream of reaching that glorious canyon light just crashed and burned to the ground.
The ranger did inform up that Egypt 3 canyon did not fall into that jurisdiction, so we were free to go there. The trailhead to both Neon and Egypt 3 canyons were at the same place, so we drove on once again trying to figure out our next move.
Stopping to be canyon creepers and check out Egypt 2 on the way to the trailhead
We arrived at the trailhead and all got out of our cars to figure out what to do. There was concern that if we were just to say ‘fuck it’ and head out there, that the Ranger could come look for us in Egypt 3, not find us and know we were not where we were supposed to be. But, if there government is shut down, would he really bother coming after us way out here? We had no idea. As we were talking, a small beat up Ford Ranger pulled up, parked and seasoned, gray-haired man got out. This was Carl.
“You ain’t gonna listen to what that Ranger said are yah!?”
“I live in Grand Teton National Park and I never listen to them. We’re leaving in 10 minutes.”
So, 10 minutes later, we left. And Carl led the way.
Turns out Carl was a 60-something wedding photographer and property manager from Wyoming who comes out to this area of Utah 2-3 times a year all on his own. He hikes out into the canyons for the sheer pleasure and solace of it…and to also take pictures of something other than wedding parties. He had been to Neon Canyon numerous times and knew the trail like the back of his hand. He was headed out to Choprock and offered to guide us to the spot along the Escalante River that we needed to be. So we followed him, but not before he snapped a few pictures of us, in true wedding-photog style.
Photo: Carl Oksanen
Photo: Carl Oksanen
Carl leading the way
First river crossing. Photo: Ben Varner
Crossing the river again into camp. Photo: Ben Varner
The hike was around 4.5 miles in, over sand and rock with a couple of river crossings. It was hot, beautiful and totally eerie to be in a place that looked somewhat the same in every direction. I could see how it would be so easy to lose your bearings and get lost. Carl left us at the first river crossing with a promise that he’d come find us and camp with us the second night. We thanked him for his company and knowledge and parted ways at the river. After another river crossing and some trail navigating, we found and made our camp in a prime spot at the mouth of the canyon right before dark settled in. We had dinner and went to bed as the next morning we would get an early start, gear up, hike along the top of the canyon to find the entrance and start our day traveling towards the Golden Cathedral.
Taking a rest at the top of the ‘more fun’ entrance before wet-suiting up. Photo: Ben Varner
Photo: Ben Varner
And so we rappelled ourselves in, thus starting our venture through Neon. This canyon was huuuuuuge with large, carved walls that were hard to fathom how they got shaped the way they were. There were so many cubbies and keyholes to explore, it felt like giant game of hide-and-go-seek. We meandered through swims, curving walls and rocks, in and out of the shade and sun with the bright blue sky always overhead. It was amazing having that place all to ourselves to revel in.
Photo: Ben Varner
And then….it happened.
We hit a down climb that dropped into a bowl that was pretty slick. Jared and Dusty had gone first. Dusty yelled up to me offering help with a human ladder of sorts as it was too wide to stem across and further down then he had initially thought. My pride got the better of me and I told him, ‘No, it’s okay…I think I got it.’ Right then and there my feet slipped out from under me. I fell and slid along the bottom of the bowl and CRACK. I felt my leg go straight and then pop as it hit the far side of the wall. And I knew exactly what that meant. That sound and that pain was all too familiar and meant a blown ACL for sure. Dusty and Jared had only heard my gear hit the wall and said it was so loud, they thought I had a broken leg at the very least. I sorta blocked everyone out for a minute while I regained control of my breath and my tears and told them that I’m okay, but I’m not okay.
I mean, here was the real test. Here we were in the middle of a canyon we weren’t supposed to be in, in the middle-of-nowhere Escalante. A little too close to a 127-hours situation. Luckily, I know from having torn my other ACL before, that as much as it hurts like a real sorry son-of-a-bitch, you can walk on it and not necessarily do too much more damage as long as you’re careful. But here there is no real place to climb out, let alone walk out. And if you do find a place to climb out, there is still a hike back down into camp which is a whole other obstacle on it’s own. As a group, we decided to get to a spot that at least had some sun to get warm and place for me to sit. I was able to hobble, albeit very slowly, to a rock in the sun where we could assess what our options were and figure out what to do next.
To me, this is where I learned the most about my friends and will never forget how everyone’s resolve was so calm and we all had a collective head about us as a group. Between Dusty, Ben, Mel and Camille there was climbers tape, ibuprofen and Advil. Having done this before, I knew the better I could stabilize my knee the better my chances were of getting out safe without doing any more harm. We made a make shift knee brace out of the tape and I immediately popped 4 Advil. After weighing our options, I elected that if they were willing to help me out, I would rather finish the canyon as it would but just as hard, if not harder, to try and climb out to hike back. Plus, I really didn’t want to miss what lie ahead. The creme de la creme of the rappels in our trip…the last rappel of Neon Canyon into the Golden Cathedral. I felt I could do it, and that was enough for everyone else.
In Part I, I had mentioned about how the cold waters of the canyon saved my ass. And this is where it did. The next leg was the longest swim we had done on this trip and the water was freezing. The combination of being in a compressed wetsuit, Advil, tape and that cold cold water is what I believe allowed me to keep going. My swelling stayed relatively low through the entire canyon and by being careful and getting some helping hands, I was able to mange my way through the next series of down climbs and rappels…all the way to the end to the Golden Cathedral.
Busted. Photo: Ben Varner
The long swim. Photo: Ben Varner
Sneaking in a smile because hey, what else are you gonna do? Photo: Ben Varner
Blurry proof. Boom, nailed it. Photo: Ben Varner
Almost full panorama of the Golden Cathedral
Stupid broken knee. But the bright red walls almost made me forget all of that. Photo: Ben Varner
I had made it back to camp, re-wrapped my leg, took a few more Advil and took a rest. The swelling got worse as the night went on and by morning, it was the size of a small grapefruit. While I stayed behind to rest, Dusty and Ben decided to do Neon Canyon again while the others decided to go try and find the entrance to Ringtail and hike further along the top of the canyon. They all came back pretty early in the day and we headed up to a spot that we deemed our ‘sun rock’ as it was the one place we could catch the heat of the sun for most of the day. We encountered a few other groups that came through that day, one in the morning who had hiked in and were doing Neon and the hike back out in one day. Later that afternoon, we heard some people yelling and calling the name of someone. Two guys came by asking if they had seen anyone come through. We said not since that morning, so they moved on continuing to call out for their friend.
That evening was our last before our hike back out. We had seen no signs of Carl so we decided to try and do our ritual sunset dinner. I was able to slowly make my way up the top the canyon again and we all enjoyed our last backcountry meal together in Utah. We gave a cheers as the sun went down over the desert rock.
Photo: Ben Varner
Photo: Ben Varner
Mel: “Beer! Sunsets! Yay!” Me: “This is a rad sunset. Now how the hell and I going to hike out tomorrow…?” Photo: Ben Varner
The next morning, Jared and I repacked our bags to try and take some weight out of what I had to carry. We taped the hell out of my knee, Jared made me a ‘wizard staff’ walking stick, I popped a few more Advil and we hit the beeline trail straight to the car. I’m not going to lie, I almost had a major break down more than once on the hike back. First came the hike up the sand dune, trying to navigate around stink bugs in your path. Then came the undulating rock and soft sand that made walking with a bum knee just that much more difficult. But here is where we hit a golden streak of luck…again. Halfway back to the car, we can see to the right of us, a group of 6 or so backpackers heading down on the trail we came in on. Looking up to the start of the trail we can just barely make out 3 tiny all black figures with no packs.
We tucked behind a few large boulders and watched to see which way they would go. After a few minutes, we see them start go after the large group to our right. We took that as our window of opportunity and kept going straight on as fast as we (or I) could possibly go. Toward the end of the trail, Dusty came down to snag my pack as I had naturally fallen behind, and we were finally able to get up onto the plateau where we were parked. There it was confirmed, a Park Ranger’s truck sitting empty a few feet from our cars. We had foiled the Government yet again.
We hopped in our cars and quickly made the drive back into Escalante. Our first stop before doing anything was back at Escalante Outfitters for pizza, all you can drink root beers (as well as regular beers) and of course…working bathrooms. We recounted some of the events from our trip and I can truly say I left there with a huge smile on my face. There was no way I could ever be mad at getting injured as I had no reason to be. We all made it out okay, no one, including me, had to really miss any part of the trip. We didn’t get caught by any Rangers or allow the hand of the Government come down on us either. We saw and did some amazing things, and had some crazy fabulous luck despite the knee mishap. Operation Government-Can’t-Shut-Us-Down Vacay was a success.
I cannot wait to go back.
A few weeks after, Dusty wrote an email to Carl and soon got a reply. It was good to hear from him and interesting to hear how and why he didn’t make it to our camp.