Monday, June 15, 2020

Hidden Splendor and Knotted Slot Canyon

It was a speed run, in typical fashion. Ian met me Thursday at noon and we laid out our gear. I had spent the morning installing the Alaska Bag, which allows up to 30 pounds of soft gear in the rear of the fuselage. We had to pack sleeping bags, bedrolls, food, water, and canyoneering gear for two people in addition to the airplane survival kit, tools, and select spare parts. Amazingly, it all fit and with half tanks we were still under gross weight. 

We had to make all of this fit, but luckily I had an Alaska Bag.

Gustavo Helped Us Out

We were wheels-up by 1:30, climbing in the heat of the day towards the Continental Divide. The air was super textured with mid-day thermals at full strength, but the winds aloft were light enough to allow a safe crossing. Rather than take the usual lowest-point over Rollin’s Pass, I headed North into the shadow of North Arapahoe Peak—a foreboding reminder of why these mountains are called the Rockies’. I entered on the up-wind side of the saddle at a 45-degree angle, with an easy dive-out option should we hit sink too strong to climb out of. The ride was actually quite smooth through the slot and we pressed on to the west.

Going Through the Slot

As we flew over the western edge of the 10,000-foot Grand Mesa, the lush greenery of the high country literally plummeted away from us. In a minute’s time, aspen groves gave way to the desert canyon lands of the western Colorado Plateau, which ironically resides more in Utah and Arizona than its namesake. We flew down the over highway 141 to our first stop at Hubbard, a BLM strip (really a double-track road) within walking distance to Gateway Canyons luxury resort. At the Paradox Grille, I ordered the pull-pork quesadilla dressed with pico de gallo and a light drizzle of sour cream. It would be a last meal of sorts, a sharp contrast to what we would endure in the next 24 hours. Luckily for Ian, we would be sleeping under the stars that night!

Landing at Hubbard / Gateway Canyons Resort

A Last Supper of Sorts

Departing Hubbard, we headed down the San Miguel River canyon into Castleton Valley and over Moab, Utah. Seeing the iconic towering red rocks of Fisher Towers, the Priest and Nuns, and Castleton Tower along the way never gets old from the air. I throttled back and opened the window so we could take in the moment, while keeping an eye on the oil temps in the hot desert air. After a fuel stop at Canyonlands Airport we headed high and north to another strip (at 7,600 feet) on Cedar Mountain to get out of the heat. There would be less bugs and nice cold sleeping weather there.

San Miguel River

Castleton Tower

Landing at Canyonlands Airport

Cedar Mountain Airstrip

I laid out my sleeping bag suit under the wing and pulled a shot glass of 100-octane Avgas out of the left tank for the fire. The best fire pit was at the edge of the cliff, and it was already stocked with dry sage and juniper logs. Nothing makes an insta-fire quite like Avgas; something that reinforced the fuel selector’s importance is on the forced-landing checklist. We sipped La Croix’s and watched as the sun painted the Book Cliffs in pastels as it drifted below the horizon. The quiet of the desert was only broken by the crackle of the fire, along with the sweet smell of burning juniper. Above us the veil of night revealed un-countable stars thanks to a complete lack of light pollution. A million tiny dots was the last thing I saw as I closed my eyes in my sleeping bag.

Av-Gas Insta-Fire

The Sleeping Bag Suit

Ian woke me at first light, and we packed up and headed south. We surfed the San Rafael Swell along the way taking a slalom flight path through the shark-toothed anticline Navajo Sandstone rocks of the Swell. At Muddy Creek we turned north, overflying red and white moguls of sandstone to the mouth of its canyon through the Swell wall. Flying up the canyon, white Navajo Sandstones stood like sentries to a dark red sea of iron-rich sentiment north of the Swell wall. 

First Light

Ready to Fly

Surfing the Swell

Navajo Sandstone of the Swell Wall

Sandstone Moguls

Before we landed, we did a lap of the trail to the Knotted Rope Slot and back up to the canyon carved by Muddy Creek. It took all of five minutes to fly what would soon take us over ten hours on foot. The Muddy Creek canyon and rising foothills to the north of the airstrip are tight, but nothing the Husky couldn’t handle as I did a tight approach to the south after overflying the landing surface. I mayhave startled some campers who ignored the active runway signs and camped at the opposite end of the runway. 

Hidden Splendor Comes into View

Knotted Rope Slot Canyon

A man named Vernon Pick in discovered the Hidden Splendor uranium mine in 1952, but after an initial success, it was sold and abandoned by 1957. Remnants of the mining shack and several vehicles are still strewn about the area. We tied the Husky down using rocks and paracord, changed and loaded up our packs, then—luckily—hitched a ride two miles up the road to the trailhead. An ancient Ford marks the trailhead, which climbs a thousand feet up into the cliff band with a class four scramble at the top. From there you down-climb a dozen ledges to the mouth of Knotted Rope Slot (also known as Miner’s Hollow), which is marked by a natural bridge, where a knotted rope had hung for years giving the slot its name. 

Desert Flowers

Starting the Hike

An Old Ford Marks the Trailhead

At the Top of the Rim

A Natural Bridge Marks the Top of the Slot

The slot canyon starts out relatively wide, then narrows and drops in altitude significantly. It begins as a scramble over boulders, logs, and chock rocks of all sizes until you reach the first pothole—a smooth bowl-like erosion hollow ranging from several to many feet in diameter. Some have water in them that can range from ankle-deep to over your head and is surprisingly cold due to the lack of sunshine. The most dangerous are keeper potholes: potholes filled with enough water to sap your body heat that you may need to tread water in with walls to sleep to easily climb out. As a rule, you never enter a pothole until you have a solid plan to exit it, because the energy and hypothermia clock starts ticking once you hit the water. Jumping in is always a surprise because the water may only be a few inches deep or you may be completely submerged.

The First Pothole

The Canyon Narrows

A Proper Pothole

Cold Putrid Water

As the canyon narrowed, we had to wedge, slip, and slither through angled off-camber cracks with the only way out being down. You could often wedge your body in the crack tens of feet above the bottom and shimmy down to the pothole or next opening. Each crack or pothole was a new problem that required a confident solution before committing. As we got lower in the slot canyon, the potholes got more complex and required more creative solutions. Overhanging ledges required rappelling into the potholes and disconnecting while treading water. Once the first person determined the water depth, the exit strategy could be climbing out via a two-man assist or tying our packs off and hucking them over the ledge to use the rope as a potshot.

Slipping and Sliding

A Dry Pothole

On one particularly difficult keeper pothole, I lost my phone as I hit the water. It was in a waterproof bag that was made to float, but it didn’t have enough buoyancy to support the heavy modern iPhone I have. The pothole was over my head in places, which required diving down head first into the cold putrid water and searching in the blind with my hands. As the minutes ticked on, my energy level faded and the onset of hypothermia set it. Shivering uncontrollably, I gave myself one last dive before scrubbing the search mission effort in order to have enough energy left to climb out. Just as I was out of breath, I felt something unnatural, but then I lost it. Frantically grabbing in the blind, I snagged it again as I fought the insatiable need to breathe! Persistence had paid off, but I had paid the price with a healthy dose of uncontrollable shivering and introduced a new threat in my loss of dexterity and mental degradation. I took it easy for the next few potholes until my core temperature rose a little. 

You can see the phone float out of my pocket at the end of this clip.

Diving back in to get it.


After a dozen more potholes and a few long repels the slot canyon spit us out at the base of the Swell. We didn’t have a long enough rope to drop off the last 200-foot rappel, which meant a longer hike out via a detour to the south. The relative cold of the slot canyon gave way to the mid-day heat of the desert and a new slog began as we hiked a dry wash down to the muddy river. As the heat baked us, it was hard to believe I was bordering on critical hypothermia less than an hour earlier—the desert is a land of extremes… And then the flies came! A massive swarm of biting flies engulfed us, which other than maddening barrage of blood-drawing bites, was good because it meant we were reaching Muddy Creek. Long sleeves and trousers mostly protected me, but Ian was in such misery that he opted for more unbearable heat and donned his wetsuit. 

The Potholes Got Deeper and the Rappels Got Longer

The Heat was Oppressive on the Desert Floor

Muddy Creek was aptly named after a trickle of ankle-deep grey-stained water as it flowed over red and grey mud flats. The mud made the last five miles a slog, one exhausting muddy step at a time. You could pick your poison of slippery deep mud or thick river grass, but no path was easy. Long out of food, I was also out of drinking water, but despite having a water filter just incase, I reverted to camel mode to avoid having to filter and drink from the muddy soup. For my younger, fitter self, this would have been a walk in the park, but those years of hard living had taken a heavy toll on my busted up middle-aged body. Having already traveled over double the most miles I’d hiked in the last two years, I tried not to think about how far we had left to go or how much my heavy pack hurt. It was an exhausting exercise in hell that required focusing on one step at a time. 

Brutal Mud or...

...Brutal River Grass

Suffering but Smiling

Ian Swarmed by Biting Flies

Relentless Mud

Ian Cooling Off

If I’m honest, it was utterly fantastic to suffer to brutally. It had been years since I’d needed to dig this deep and despite intense pain of all manners—I loved it! My body was beaten and bruised and a neck filled with cervical fusions and artificial discs screamed out in anguish. I put my head down, compartmentalized my pain, established small goals, and kept my thoughts disciplined. I relished in being in a land of extremes and how something so painful as slogging up a muddy creek, could also be so stunningly beautiful. Canyon walls towered thousands of feet above us, all cut one grain of sand at a time by this muddy trickle of water. It reminded me how insignificant I really am, and how trivial my pain was. We—every human that has ever lived—are nothing but a tiny glimpse in space and time, every trouble that I have ever felt really isn’t that big of a deal…

Finally the Miner's Shack

And speaking of forever, that is literally how long it took to slog up that muddy creek, spiritually awakened and in blissful agony. An eternity later, we reached the abandoned miner’s shack and spotted the Husky sitting at the edge of the cliff. As we climbed up to the airstrip, the temperature rose proportionally with each step. Stumbling into the shadow of the wing, we were elated that the suffering was finally over. Freeing my feet from the bondage of muddy wet sneakers and a replenishment of trail mix and much-needed water was a worthy reward for the suffering. 

Mission Complete--At Least the Ground Part

At 4,800 feet and a surface temp was well into the high-90s making density altitude a concern for takeoff performance. A strong gusting headwind would help our performance, but would also make flying out through the tight canyon a poor choice. Instead, I made a tight turn and we climbed out to the north. We climbed with the windows open until the air temperature was comfortable—about 9,500 feet. It was wonderfully refreshing with the view of the Swell from thousands of feet being starkly different than that hundreds of feet. We quietly took it in, while sipping another well-earned La Croix and snacking on some gas station Twizzlers I’d saved as a treat. 

We made Rifle, Colorado by sunset and wasted no time refueling, but we were loosing the race against darkness. There was no need to force getting home, but I was comfortable pressing further over high country into the darkness as long as I had options. We climbed out within a power-off glide’s radius of the airport to 13,500 feet then I leashed our route to the gliding radiuses of Eagle, Kremling, and Granby airports to minimize our time over “tiger country.” I turned off the cockpit lights so it was virtually dark and used what little ambient light was left of the day to see the terrain below (which we were well clear of at 13.5K). Once my eyes adjusted it was a mix of partial-panel instrument flying (thanks to the Husky’s sparse VFR panel) with visual anchors of the airport beacons out on course. 

As we neared the Continental Divide, the glow of the Front Range outlined the peaks. I used a previous bread-crump track on the GPS to backup my visual navigation to Rollin’s Pass and we crossed the saddle 2000 feet AGL. From there we had the glide to make it Boulder airport and then home should the engine decide to sputter. We landed just after 10:30 pm, but not before flushing a coyote out of the runway lights on short final. It was an epic 36 hours, and not any I’ll forget any time soon!