Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Henry Mountains (Days 20-24)

Written 4/24/08

I camped on the Poison Benches at the base of the eastern slopes of the Henrys, not far from the cache. I could see the early morning traffic of boats and trailers headed for Bullfrog Marina for a day on Lake Powell. Not me. I was headed for the Henry Mountains, the last discovered mountain range in the lower 48.

Approaching the Henry Mountains
I packed up early and set off across the dry shrubland of the Poison Benches, elevated fingers above the rolling Burr Desert. On either side of the bench, gullies carved at the rock, cutting the fluted flanks of Mancos shale. Massive gusts blew me sideways, my pack acting as a sail. At some points, I was leaning into the wind with my entire weight. The strong westerlies sent an armada of clouds racing across the peaks all day.

I spent the day gaining elevation and moving in and out of different ecotones. I started out in shrub steppe, with salt brush and purple prickly pear; and was soon walking through stately pinon and gnarled juniper woodlands. The dirt road climbed higher up the east flank of Mt. Ellen, up Crescent Creek where I found myself amid ponderosa pine, Douglas firs and quaking aspen. Oregon grape covered the forest floor, and patches of Gambels oak still held their fall leaves. It was a total grind of a climb, and for the first time I found it difficult to fuel the furnace within. I couldn’t eat enough.

I soon reached the snowline and found myself postholing past my knees. The snow still lingered where the road turned into the shaded recesses of the cool canyons. A tree exploded nearby, sending my heart racing in my throat. I had startled a grouse from its perch as it noisily took off through the trees. Deer had been following the roads, picking their way through the snow. They didn’t seem to be faring any better than I was in the soft snow, their narrow hooves worse off than my clunky boots. Snowshoes might have helped, but there were enough bare patches that it was hikable without them. I made camp at Wickiup Pass at 9200 feet, the high camp on the trail. That evening, I watched the near full moon rise through a grove of naked aspen. It felt good to be in the alpine again.

Mt. Ellen south summit - 11, 419 feet
I got up early to take advantage of the frozen crust from the cold night. My nalgenes froze again, and I had slush in my Camelbak, but the freeze made walking the snowbanks easier. Past treeline, I turned up the summit ridge and hiked the sloping shoulder to Mt. Ellen’s south summit at 11,419 feet. Normally, there is quite a view from on top. But the high winds the past week had churned the desert into a cloud of dust, and practically cut visibility to the foothills. Disappointed, I ate my lunch behind a snowdrift and tried not to get blown off the mountain. A few wind-whipped firs grew below the ridgeline, completely branchless on the windward side. Contorted and bent, they looked like haggard evergreen flagpoles blowing in the wind.

I began my descent down the south summit ridge, with views of impressive Mt. Pennell and Mt. Hillers, the next peaks in the range, to the south. The ridge was strewn with alternating piles of colorful granite talus: champagne pink, steely blue, rusty iron. Burnt orange and lime green lichens clung fiercely to the rocks, spread like bacterial cultures. It was a gravity descent down, and I had to choose my footing carefully or else risk falling down either side of the mountain. I soon reentered pinon and juniper forest and picked my way through the Sweetwater Creek drainage. The small creek carried the snowmelt from the peaks above, and lived up to its namesake. Walking through the brush, I found a broken coyote skull, and the ribcage of a bison protruding from an embankment. Wild rose grew on the slopes, sticking me with their thorns. My knees and wrists were sore from the 5000 ft descent. As I rested, a black-chinned hummingbird landed on the tip of a nearby branch, flashing its brilliant gorgette, the twig barely bowed beneath its weight. I watched a spotted towhee peck in the dust beneath a juniper, while pinon jays chased each other above.

I made my way off the mountain, and onto the sloping crest of Tarantula Mesa. Looking back from the rim, you could really see how the granite intrusion that became the Henrys forced their way through the sandstone crust, forcing the top layers aside like broken plywood. To the west stood the awesome ridge of Capitol Reef. Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth’s crust, stood on end across the horizon. I could see the white teeth of Oyster Shell Reef, and the pale humpbacks of Capitol Dome. Stretching to the Reef were the spidery fingers of Tarantula Mesa. As I walked across the mesa top, I found shot-up gas containers, spent .22 cartridges, and empty beer cans (domestic only) along the roadside—welcome signs to redneck country and the all-purpose BLM public lands.

Halfway across the mesa, I came across almost a dozen people standing around in the road, and five silver Ford F-series two-ton pickup trucks parked in the middle of nowhere. Walking up, I took them all by surprise having arrived on foot. They turned out to be a group of folks from the BLM, DNR, Sportsmen for Wildlife, biologists, ranchers, and locals who were working together on a rangeland improvement project. Back in the 1960s, bulldozers chained half the mesa top, clearing out trees to improve grazing for cattle. But lack of water left the wanton destruction for naught. Uprooted trees now litter the landscape like a graveyard. The joint project is to drill a 350-ft well to feed a cattle trough, to improve conditions for animals on the arid range. The hope is the new water source will attract and provide refuge for wildlife, cows and the wild bison that roam the Henrys.

Swap Mesa
They offered me a cold beverage, and I gladly accepted. One guy asked me, “What happened to your skis?” in regards to my trekking poles. The ranchers got a good kick out of that one. When asked where I was headed, I told them Waterpocket Fold—the immediate response was, “There aren’t many ways off this here mesa.” They were right. Tarantula Mesa drops clear off on almost all sides. One of the ranchers suggested an alternate route. He turned out to be the ranch manager of the Sandy Ranch below the mesa on the Notom-Bullfrog road. It was a bulldozed cattle path he had helped improve, but it took me too far north off the route. Still, it was nice to have an alternate plan in case the route I was taking didn’t work out. I thanked him heartily for the valuable advice, and wished them luck on their project, and took off.

Crossing overland, I navigated to the entry point at the end of a rocky spit. I was a bit nervous about the route down, and with due reason. Looking over the edge, it was a 500-foot sheer drop to the canyon floor. The book describes the route off the mesa as having a lot of ‘exposure’. But that could mean a lot of things. I guess what I was most anxious about was just not knowing what to expect. Hiking solo out here, there is little room for error—you are your only safety net. Fear, I realized, is a natural response to the physical challenge of your capabilities. Without fear, we would’ve all died long ago. But if you are rational about it, you can harness your anxieties and channel them into a tool to help you succeed. Thus, fear can become an asset, and not a hindrance.

Mt. Ellen
I entered the drop point and it wasn’t so bad. The route was cairned, and it traversed some benches down a sloping shoulder, before descending a loose scree slope to the bottom. I only had to lower my pack in a couple of places, but in reality, I thought there was more exposure descending the ridgeline of Mt. Ellen. Loose dirt filled the tops of my boots as I glisaded down the scree field, kicking boulders out of the way. Looking back up to the khaki rim, I safely got off the mesa.

I picked my way around the base of the cliffs, hiking around the heads of deeply cut drainages on Swap Mesa. I walked in and around hoodoos and slabs of fallen caprock from the rim above. Broken arrowheads littered the ground, as well as frail rusty cans from old mining camps. New types of iron concretions began to appear. Bowl shaped, they resembled empty walnut shells, birds nests, and abalone. Some were formed into flat washers, while others were split spheres, ranging in size from a bottle cap to your entire head. It’s crazy what you find out here.

I descended off Swap Mesa into Swap Canyon, where I soon crossed the border into Capitol Reef, the third national park on the route. Dodging rolling tumbleweeds, I made it to the massive switchbacks of the Burr Trail, where the road climbs the sloped back of Waterpocket Fold. Named after an old rancher in the area, John Atlantic Burr built this trail to get cattle through the reef. Apparently, he died of a urinary tract infection, after he tried fixing it himself with (ahem) a rusty piece of wire. Don’t try this one at home, kids. Them ranchers were hearty in those days.

Burr Trail
From the top of the switchbacks I could pick out my entire route down from the summit of Mt Ellen, and across Tarantula and Swap mesas. What a view. I spent a day at the top of the Burr Trail, organizing food and gear for the next leg of the journey. Next up, the Escalante.

Section mileage: ~49 miles


Logan said...

So Ryan, do you carry a thesaurus? A bird book? And a plant book? I love hearing about people you meet. Still wondering if you are receiving mail at any point on the trail...

God be with you!

Kolkata said...

I liked this blog its very nice!