“At least we’re not on Everest!”
That little phrase had become something of a mantra for us on this trip to Utah’s canyon country.
It was our refrain when confronted with some minor inconvenience: a slow leak in the air mattress, battling fatigue during the 11 hour drive from Montana, forgetting the box of wine at home, or a fast exhaust leak on the Jeep.
We were inspired by Anatoli Boukreev’s harrowing account of the infamous climbing disaster on Mount Everest in 1996, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. Audiobooks are our favorite method for whiling away the long hours on the road, and Boukreev’s intense counterpoint to Jon Krakauer’s more widely read Into Thin Air was just the ticket for this adventure.
It is inevitable that things will go wrong. The unexpected shunts your plans, lets you know you are not in as much control as you thought you were. But really, how bad can it get? We’re not freezing to death in some rock fissure below the Hillary Step, right?
Canyonlands National Park’s White Rim Road is one of the most iconic off-road travel experiences in North America. Built by uranium speculators in the 1950s, the 100-mile White Rim Road is now one of the only ways to reach some of the more remote parts of Canyonlands Island in the Sky District. It’s not particularly technical, and it is well-trod by backcountry enthusiasts of all stripes, from Jeep pilots, to mountain bikers, to hikers.
This is for good reason. The scenery, the jump-off points for exploration, the vast expanse of wilderness, and careful management by the National Park Service mean that you can dial in your own expedition without feeling crowded. It’s easy to feel like you are discovering all of it for the first time.
But, like Everest – the highest, easiest mountain with the most people on it – the White Rim Road can lull you into a sense of effortless adventure. The sun is shining, the way is dry and welcoming, and you’re two-thirds of the way to the top.
In mid-November the trip started uncertainly (even before it began) with a check engine light in the Jeep late on the day before we were supposed to leave. A minor exhaust leak in the manifold had become a major one, and an oxygen sensor had failed. $60 and a cold hour on my back in the Montana darkness solved the sensor problem, but even after a liberal application of JB Weld, the leak persisted.
Itching to get on the road early the next day, I glumly resigned myself to tolerate the fractured exhaust. I was frustrated because I like our vehicle to be fully prepared and in top shape before big trips. The leak nagged at my subconscious and disrupted my sleep – it seemed to portend only more problems.
After a restless night, our friend and frequent partner in adventure, Zach joined me and Julie the next morning. With the comfort of coffee and bagels, the three of us steeled our resolve and our backsides for the loud 750 mile drive ahead of us.
As we droned south on Interstate 15, the booming and popping of the exhaust faded gradually into background noise, and my dark mental cloud dissipated as the snow-capped ranges of southwest Montana unfolded before us: the Flint Creeks, Anacondas, Pioneers, Beaverheads, and Tobacco Roots.
On the stereo, Anatoli Boukreev recounted the myriad dangers of the high Himalayas – frostbite, pulmonary edema, collapsing seracs in the Khumbu ice fall. Falling.
Hey, this Jeep may be loud, and we’ve got a long way to go, but at least we’re not on Everest.
At lunch time, tacos served fresh from an old school bus in Dillon, Montana energized us for the road ahead.
We feel guilty about Utah sometimes.
Living in Montana, we are surrounded by over 27 million acres of public lands, more than enough to explore for a lifetime. And yet, we find ourselves drawn to the desert Southwest at least twice every year. Why do we subject ourselves to the highway haul and the extra expenses of time, money, and effort? Just for a change of scenery?
It goes deeper than that – the desert inspires us in ways that mountains and forests do not. We are desert seekers, and even the long journey itself is part of the process. If deserts were easy, would they hold the same appeal?
After pizza in Price, Utah, we roared in late at Green River State Park. I winced as we idled noisily past our neighbors in the campground at 11:00pm, searching for our site. But sleep came easily after the marathon day at the wheel.
We were greeted the next morning by the volunteer camp host, an affable retiree from Mississippi in a straw hat and a polo shirt. He and his wife traveled the country in their RV volunteering in state and National parks. The Oregon coast was their next stop, but we were packing in too much of a hurry to linger over conversation. The canyons called.
After a grocery and gas stop in Moab, we doubled back north to route 313, the Island in the Sky Mesa, and the White Rim Road. A quick check-in at the ranger station yielded a fair weather report (20% chance of scattered rain), and a thumbs-up on the road conditions.
We had secured our travel permit online for the White Rim a few weeks earlier. This is an important step – the Park Service manages the traffic on the Road to minimize impacts and ensure a bit of solitude for everyone. I signed in blue ink on the “Trip Leader Agreement” line, Permit No. 2015-8842.
Did that make me the “trip leader”? I suppose it did. As I aired down the tires, the big blue cube of late autumn Utah sky welcomed us to the depths of the canyons.
The first two days of our four day trip on the White Rim went mostly as planned – we had the thousands of acres to ourselves, taking hikes to explore the rock formations and side canyons, soaking in the sunshine and silence, and enjoying leisurely stops for photographs, snacks, and just plain old gawking at the scenery. Conversation fell away, and we switched off Anatoli’s harrowing Himalayan narrative. We entered that state of easy communion with the landscape and the light that only the desert offers.
There were problems – there always are. Our air mattress developed a slow leak, necessitating midnight refills; we discovered that we forgot the box of wine on the counter at home; and the MacGyver fix I attempted on the exhaust at Airport camp failed after half an hour. Minor inconveniences. At least we weren’t on Everest.
Candlestick camp is one of the most spectacular places you can rest your head in North America. Perched on the rim of a plunging undercut canyon of the Green River, it takes in 360 degree views of the northern district of The Maze, the Buttes of the Cross, the Candlestick Tower, the rugged ridge of the Walker Cut pass, and over the hill to the south and east, the Turk’s Head. It feels like the end of the earth, and that feels good.
What’s the well-worn sailor’s saw? “Red sky in morning…”? Dawn light on our third day revealed a few strands of high clouds to the west and a noticeable drop in temperature. I offered Zach the wheel for the day, his first crack at serious four-wheel driving, and with a little instruction he navigated the steep and challenging Walker Cut pass like a natural.
Our third day was a short one – only a dozen miles separated Candlestick camp from the final tent site of our White Rim expedition: Hardscrabble camp on the banks of the Green River. We poked around in slot canyons and white-knuckled our way down the west side of the Walker Cut, where slippery mud and early winter puddles mingled with the shelves of gritty sandstone on the shaded roadway. As the day wore on, those strands of clouds we saw in the morning began to coalesce into something more significant.
With the brief transit time on our third day, we planned a longer hike to Fort Bottom, and the Anasazi ruin perched at the far end of a significant promontory on the Green River. Likely a watch tower or a signaling tower, the structure was built approximately 750 years ago, near the end of the Anasazi Period. It has a commanding view of the river and the surrounding country. Early white settlers believed it was a fortress, hence the name.
In hindsight, it almost seemed inevitable – our day at the beach was closing down quickly, and we were facing a dramatic change in circumstances. The red sky that morning turned dark and grey, the swirling winds tore at our coats, and all at once late summer changed to winter.
Halfway through our trek to Fort Bottom, the rains started in earnest and the prevalent mudstones that dominate the stratigraphy near the Walker Cut – the Moenkopi and Chinle formations – turned more mud than stone. We marveled at geology-in-action as the runoffs carved deeply into the soft layers of the ancient seas, and we hurried to camp with caked and heavy boots.
What transpired in the succeeding 12 hours belied the forecast of “20% chance of scattered showers” we had received at the ranger station just two days before. This was shaping up to be a real storm.
It had been raining steadily for an hour by the time we regrouped at the Jeep at Hardscrabble camp. By then we had received neighbors in the campsite up the road – a group of mountain bikers and their support vehicle that we had passed earlier in the day. They looked miserable and bedraggled after a long pedal on the steep pass, and the weather wasn’t helping.
The sun seemed to retreat much faster beyond the high cliffs to the west of the Green River than we had remembered the day prior, and as darkness descended we began to prepare supper for our final night on the White Rim. I was hopeful – surely this was an intense but quickly passing storm?
The three of us bunched together under the kind shelter of the Jeep’s rear hatch as we slurped pasta and debated our options. How would we navigate this shift in fortunes?
Already the rainfall had transformed the White Rim Road beyond our camp into an impassable morass of axle-sucking sludge. Moenkopi mud sticks to everything but itself, and the previously parched arroyos bisecting the road raged in muddy anger.
The water pouring from the mesa above started to inundate Hardscrabble camp. Julie and I had already pitched our tent that afternoon in a cheerful space among the sage and tamarisk, and now small rivers were flowing under and around it. The floor of the tent – thankfully waterproof – pulsed and moved with the rhythm of runoff.
Then it started to snow.
Zach said, “Well, I think I’ll sleep in the Jeep.” And who could blame him?
We were bracing ourselves for a long, cold night when we noticed it – headlights high on the cliff face to the east of camp where the Walker Cut descends perilously from the pass. Someone was trying to drive through the storm and the falling dusk on that narrow track. The lights stopped, started, and stopped again. Doors slammed and headlamped figures moved around the vehicle in the shadows. The lights clicked off, and the vehicle vanished.
What to do? We were in no position to drive up the road to offer assistance without putting more people and vehicles in peril. We were contemplating hiking up the pass with the shovel when the lights reappeared again around a bend further down the road. They seemed to have freed themselves and had made progress.
All that was left to do now was retreat to our windblown and sopping tent to wait out the storm. But, hey, at least we’re not on Everest.
Sheets of rain and sleet pummeled us, and the rain fly snapped and shivered in the wind gusts. We were warm and (mostly) dry, but my mind flooded with doubt as I ran through the possible scenarios. Cut off from outside communication in the deep canyon, we had no idea how long this storm would last, and the travel conditions were a serious concern. A handful of mud holes and stream crossings would pose no problems, but an entire road’s worth?
We had less than 15 miles to reach the National Park boundary and the more consistently maintained BLM road that accessed the top of the mesa, and eventually the highway. If the rain persisted, did we dare risk the chance of getting mired? We were one vehicle, and while not completely alone on the road, we couldn’t necessarily rely on others to help out in the event we were well and truly stuck.
We had plenty of fuel, warm clothes, food, and a filter should we need to pull water from the river. We could stay put for quite a while if required to, at the risk of terrifying our families who were expecting us home late the following day.
The White Rim was feeling more and more like Everest – it always seems like the storm engulfs doomed climbers when they are nearest to accomplishing their goal. I tried hard to catch at least a little sleep as the snow swished down the sides of the tent.
I was dreaming hard when I woke suddenly. For the first time that night, I was seriously cold, so I pulled my hat over my ears, and burrowed into the depths of my sleeping bag. In half consciousness it gradually dawned on me that something had changed. I propped myself up on an elbow and listened hard.
It was no longer raining. The wind abated. The temperature had plunged at least 20 degrees, and our breaths had painted a rime of frost on the tent’s ceiling. I fumbled for my glasses and quickly unzipped the tent door and rain fly.
Stars! Countless millions of them danced across the narrow slice of sky above the canyon rims. The Milky Way! The storm had blown out, and the back edge of the system had dropped a heavy block of icy air behind it. It was 4:45 in the morning.
I was pulling my coat on and struggling into stiff boots when I made a second discovery – all the mud and quicksand that had enveloped the campsite the night before had frozen completely solid. Our tent was glued to the sand with a layer of ice.
Time to go.
We roused Zach and broke down our tent in record time (peeling it in crunchy shards from the icy ground). Our little triumvirate huddled once more around the stove beneath the hatch of the Jeep drinking tea and waiting for the first rays of light to spill onto the White Rim.
The plan was simple: make a mad dash for the graded BLM road and the Horse Thief Trail road on the mesa 1500 feet above us before the sun could rewarm the saturated ground, leaving us potentially stranded.
The dry washes cutting across the road between Hardscrabble and Labyrinth camps still flowed hard and swift with knee-deep runoff. And not all the mud had frozen solid. We spun our way through half a dozen bogs in low range – one deep enough to kiss the differentials and skid plates, one nearly 300 yards long. Momentum, momentum, momentum.
The sun was gradually warming the canyon walls, and we were losing time testing the depth of stream fords and walking the mud pits, picking the best line through the muck. Solar energy on the mesa top was sending more and more runoff into the canyon.
Finally, around a blind curve, the sign for the National Park boundary greeted us, along with a wide and graveled road bed – the BLM road to Horse Thief Trail.
A final obstacle loomed – the precipitous pass from the river bottom to the top of the mesa. We had left most of the mud behind, but the pass was still hidden in shadow, and water flowed heavily over the layer of ice that coated the road.
But the way was wide, and, except for a few tricky switchbacks, finding traction was relatively easy. Fifteen minutes later we emerged onto the plateau muddy and tired, but feeling relieved. We brewed more tea, took in the sunrise, and bolted a quick breakfast before getting organized for the long ride home to Montana.
Traveling overland in the backcountry will always pose a certain amount of risk. While we were never in too much danger during our foray into the canyons of the White Rim (we weren’t, after all, on Everest), factors outside our control certainly made for some challenging moments.
Of course, venturing into the unknown is the appeal of this kind of journey. If it was predictable, we’d probably stay home. No matter how much you might prepare for the unexpected, it pays to be self-aware and realistic about the potential hazards of any kind of adventure travel – whether it’s around the world or just once around the White Rim.
For us at least, the allure of the unknown is what keeps us going back to wild places both close to home and far away. Maybe even to Everest one day.