Evening captures, 416 Wildfire.
The Western Borehole of Lechuguilla Cave: one of the world's great subterranean passages.
Pursuing leads high above Boulder Falls.
A beautiful resurgence cave in the muav limestone formation.
2015 Double Bopper Cave expedition.
A gypsum wonderland in the Grandest of Canyons.
Photos in Colorado's longest Cave.
The Cake Factor | by Stephen Eginoire
My good buddy often points out the similarities between excessive powder skiing and excessive cake eating. Both are extremely enjoyable. Both are fairly hedonistic activities that pose considerable health risks to the participant. Cake eating causes the brain to release pleasurable amounts of dopamine in an almost identical fashion as when one is carving at top speed though deep, blower powder on a steep slope. Both can, and should be enjoyed responsibly, but the lines between risk and reward easily become warped when one is in the midst of a cake or snow bender.
Let’s face it. Most powder days blend together, and we should be so lucky to end a season with even one that will live on in our memories for years to come. The very best days, the ones we really remember, are usually a culmination of conditions, fitness, good partners, and a common objective. We like to believe that we have enough common sense and experience to be able to assess the risks posed by a certain slope, but sometimes it’s hard to deny that second serving of cake.
Two winters ago, my friends Andrew, Alex and I were enjoying over-the-head powder in familiar terrain. The snowpack was in classic mid-winter San Juan condition; Depth hoar on the ground, a few thin slabs on top of that, and a thick slab from a substantial old storm on top of that. And then a few more thin slabs, topped off with a fresh helping of around 3 feet of new, low density snow. It’s what my friends and I like to call a shit sandwich. Potentially catastrophic? Absolutely. Which is why we chose to ski in an area where avalanche starting zones can be easily avoided, and sub 35-degree terrain through the trees can be easily followed.
It was one of those freezing cold afternoons with no wind, and although it had stopped snowing hours before, shimmering snow crystals were suspended in mid-air, filling the space around us. The three of us climbed up our skin track through old growth fir and spruce, back to the top of a run we had just skied down. We moved along the ridge to where the snow hadn’t been touched, and the slope was just a little bit steeper.
Some things are worth the risking your life for, but let me tell you skiing deep snow in trees is not one of them. Even IF the skiing is really, really good. Two seconds after the above image was captured, the entire slope began moving. Several large cracks shot out from my stance behind a tree as the slab shattered like a pane of glass. I had just enough time to scream "Avalanche!!", as loud as I could, hoping Andrew, who had just skied past, would hear.
These are the final images captured on my camera's memory card. My finger must have been stuck on the shutter button as I was ripped from my stance and swept downhill. The first tree I hit rung my bell. The second tree I hit, I thought had broken my jaw, and the third, well, I always wondered what it would be like to die in an avalanche. The snow accelerated with incredible speed over every downhill inch. I was well beneath the snow for a second or two, but emerged back on the surface just in time to slam into the trunk of douglas fir, pinning me and breaking my fall. The force of the snow pushing my helpless body against the tree was outrageously violent, but the pressure began to ease off, and everything stopped moving. The woods were absolutely silent. The peacefulness that followed was one of my life's defining moments. I was still alive. My subliminal state of consciousness was snapped back to reality when I realized Andrew was calling our names. Then I heard Alex call out. Holy fucking shit everyone was still alive.
Alex reached me first, and helped dig me out. His skis were gone, his knee severely blown, and was probably moving on pure adrenaline. Andrew was able to dodge the slide by cutting a hard left away from the slide path to relative safety. Although largely able to self rescue, we were in pretty rough shape and texted a friend in Silverton, who placed a 9-11 call for us.
I arrived within sight of the highway, hypothermic, well after dark. My shoulder was dislocated, I had decent sized hole below my bottom lip and some severe contusions around my tailbone and inner thighs. Andrew was still helping Alex, who was basically post-holing through waist deep snow with his one useable leg. If surviving the avalanche wasn't already sobering, then the sight of two ambulances, search and rescue vehicles, the sheriff, and state patrol, all with their emergency lights collecting in the otherwise quiet peacefulness of the mountains, surely drove it home.
Our friends Susan Hale and Mark Gober, both avalanche forecasters, came to help me walk the final length of hill to the highway, and into an ambulance. I have a lot of respect for their work and their wealth of experience, and I felt terribly embarrassed. An hour or so later Alex and Andrew arrived. The whole show moved to Mercy Medical Center in Durango, where we spent the night in the hospital being x-rayed and dosed with morphine.
I'll never forget seeing Page, my wonderful partner, nervously waiting by the double-doors outside the ER, how happy I was to see her, and how overwhelmingly embarrassed I felt; Skiing in the backcountry, when I knew the conditions were questionable, playing games with my life for some face shots. What the fuck.
Coping with a near miss in the mountains is a real eye opener. The implications raise many questions ranging from how we justify risk to what's most important in our own lives. At the end of the day, I suppose it's all about balance, and for us skiers, it's about not eating too much cake.
Right now, I'm sitting in my house in Tucson, Arizona, far far away from the nearest avalanche prone slope. Page is finishing up graduate school, and we're talking about where our next move will take us. It has been good for me to be removed from skiing, and honestly, I haven't missed it as much as I thought I would. That said, I feel compelled to look at the online data collected by weather stations in the northern San Juan Mountains, and have been reading the CAIC forecast discussions on a regular basis. I guess I have a bit of FOMO.
I do know that right now, typing this very line, the avalanche conditions are in the red with more snow and wind on the way. It's only November, and if El Niño continues to deliver, this season is going to be a good one.
Stay safe out there everyone.
Sistema Huautla 2015 | Sótano de San Agustín
By Stephen Eginoire
My dream of traveling in one day from my house in Tucson to the expedition field house located in a remote mountain village in Oaxaca in a badass take-no-prisoners single-day push quickly faded upon arrival in Mexico City. The dream was simple enough: wake up, take the early shuttle to Phoenix, hop on a three-hour flight to Mexico City, and catch the Estrella Roja, a 12-hour bus ride to Huautla de Jiminez. From there a 30 minute taxi ride would deposit me in San Agustin, a tiny Mazatec village conveniently perched above an entrance to one of the world’s deepest caves.
But after dragging a hundred pounds of caving, camera and expedition gear up flights of stairs and along broken sidewalks to the wrong bus station, I knew I was shut down. It doesn’t help that I know about 20 words of Spanish, most of which are nouns. In my eyes, the Western Hemisphere’s largest metropolis is much more frightening than the Western Hemisphere’s deepest cave, and I likely would have spent a harrowing night scrambling around Mexico City if fellow expedition mate, Steph Davlantes, hadn’t shown up at the airport to take the reigns. She speaks Spanish quite well and traveled light enough to help me carry my duffel, laughing directly into my face when I told her about my “in-a-day” push to Huautla. That would be nearly impossible.
Many hours later we were southbound and well on our way to the mountains. We pulled onto the charming cobblestone streets of Tehuacan late that evening, and as luck and timing would have it, expedition leader Bill Steele and his convoy of fully-loaded rigs heading down from Texas were laying over there. They had booked a few rooms at an amusing Bavarian-inspired hotel and gladly let us crash on their floor, offering us a lift for the duration of the trip to Huautla.
There is no shortage of natural wonders to explore Southern Mexico. Take Pico de Orizaba for example: a dormant volcano, home to nine glaciers, barging through the troposphere to an elevation of 18,491 feet above sea level. The high-altitude summit of Orizaba is less than 70 miles from the marine sanctuaries located along the Gulf Coast. The life zones represented on this mass of vertical relief are found few other places on Earth.
A days drive to the south of Orizaba is a substantial area of 100-million-year-old cretaceous limestone that has been uplifted from the earth’s crust creating a dense area of mountainous karst, particularly in a region known as the Huautla Plateau. The steeply pitched highlands of the Plateau are enveloped in cloud and rain forests, and where the vegetation has been clear-cut, small villages cling to the hillsides.
Seasonal rains, low-level cloud cover, and 100% humidity fuels the tremendous biodiversity of these forests, and one need not look further than a single large cypress tree to witness the astonishing symbiosis between flora and fauna. Branches draped in hanging gardens of moss, vine, and agave grow towards the forest floor, where exposed roots grab onto bare limestone like a giant squid might a ship at sea. Hummingbirds, warblers, and towhees buzz about the forest canopy, vertical streams of ants move en masse up and down the trunk. Vipers, tarantulas, and scorpions hunt for prey in the detritus of fallen leaves where the fruiting bodies of psychedelic mushrooms sprout from the decay. In this place, the word forest is more a verb than a noun, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that if one were to lie down in the same place, a human body would be swallowed up in a matter of hours.
It is the decomposition of this organic matter, along with the persistent moisture of the rainy season that fuels the production of carbonic acids, which dissolves dense limestone like it was made of salt—though on a much slower timescale, of course. Combine a few million years of these processes, and you have entire rivers that disappear into the earth, massive sink holes that yawn perpetual darkness, and entrances to caves just about everywhere you look. With thousands of feet of steep vertical relief spanning miles, this region has yielded some of the deepest cave systems on Earth. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more impressive example of a karst landscape on this continent.
One particular cave system that exists beneath this jungle still remains the primary focus of investigation: Sistema Huautla. Totaling some 43 miles of passage and pushed to a depth of 5,069 feet, it is the 8th deepest cave in the world, one of only a handful of caves known to reach a depth of over 5,000 feet. With 20 individual entrances scattered at various elevations, and their respective caves converging into a “main drain” deep inside the earth, Sistema Huautla has been the scene of some of the most storied adventures in the history of modern-day cave exploration. A typical trip into this underground abyss is defined by intricately sculpted gorges lined with waterfalls, long swims across deep pools of turquoise water, scuba diving through submerged passages, vertical shafts as tall as skyscrapers, stadium-sized chambers, and weeks at a time underground.
Arriving at the very beginning of a six-week long expedition has many perks worth mentioning, but having your pick of prime real estate in the bunkhouse (usually within arms length of an electrical outlet), and being the first team to set foot in an expansive subterranean wilderness are at the top. I have a hard time with crowds, especially ones where many strong egos are involved. Not that I don’t have one of my own, but partnering up with teammates Corey Hackley, Steph Davlantes, and a few days later, Mathew Garrett as a small team to rig some 2,500 feet of rope into the bowels of Sistema Huautla is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had on an expedition. Breaking trail into the ceaseless absence of light, just four tiny little humans deep inside a truly massive cave system is truly a humbling experience.
One of the primary objectives for 2015 was to establish Camp Three as a launch pad for a team of cave divers to explore Red Ball Canyon, the access point of which is situated over 2,300 feet beneath Sotano de San Agustin, the nearest surface entrance. It is a relatively complicated area, a network of beautifully sculpted passages that twist and meander, until the water pours out below Camp Three. To make significant upstream progress in Red Ball, scuba diving through a section of flooded narrows is the only way forward.
Red Ball Canyon is significant in that a sister cave, Li Nita – “little lamp” in the Mazatec language — was connected to Sótano de San Agustín, passing through the same area, becoming the first 1000-meter deep cave outside of Europe. If a scuba team could head upstream beyond the flooded locale, then perhaps a cave similar in depth, exists above. It is a counter-intuitive way to think about cave exploration: moving up, from below, instead of moving down, from above. Unfortunately there is no known surface entrance that leads into Red Ball Canyon from beyond the sumps.
Heading deep into the earth for an extended period of time requires a considerable amount of planning and strategy. The process of packing is time consuming, a test of patience that usually breaks at least one individual in the process. There's nothing quite like observing a hardened cave explorer lose their cool over one too many Powerbars in the food pile. Fortunately for us, packing and preparation went smoothly and we set off without a hitch, armed with a thousand feet of static rope, enough to rig the first segment of Sótano de San Agustín, a section known as the Fool's Day Extension.
Fool's Day Extension is characterized by 23 or so relatively short drops descending downstream, in a long-winded staircase of plunge-pools— quite entertaining on the way in, not so much on the way out. The initial point of access to reach Fool's Day is at the bottom of a steep breakdown slope where a couple of large boulders rest against the wall. Beneath the boulders is a small constriction that howls gale-force wind, either inhaling or exhaling as the cave system attempts to equalize with the barometric pressure on the surface. Continuing on, the passage eventually intersects a fault, where the route goes almost entirely vertical for over 1000 feet. The shaft, a veritable drainpipe, pours into the inner workings of Sistema Huautla like someone running a garden hose over the edge of the Empire State Building. Known as the Bowl Hole Series, it is an absolutely committing section of cave to navigate, humbling even to the most expert caver. In other words: a world-class vertical descent.
With our ropes fixed to a point above the whirlpool of darkness swirling down the Bowl Hole, taking ample pause to absorb the beautiful harmonics of falling water echoing into an oblivion, the three of us retreated back to the surface for sleep, more rope, and enough supplies to grant us a five-day stay underground.
The following evening we were rigged well into the chasm, cold, wet, and ready to escape the vertical confines of the Bowl Hole: the inescapable sound of falling water; the perpetual downward pull of gravity slowly dissolving our nerves as if they were part of the cave itself. The three of us huddled at the top of the last big drop, just 270 feet above a humungous room rife with enough flat, dry ground to accommodate a luxurious camp, staring blankly at a few remaining water logged coils of rope in the bottom of our pack—we had maybe 100 feet left.
"Fuck" was all we could say.
A few bags of equipment, along with our ample amounts of remaining rope, were left hanging off a bolt 700 vertical feet above us, as was my camera equipment, so I wasn't able to capture our first underground camp. Once we settled into the small, wet, sloping sandbar on the far side of a muddy pool, just out of reach from the splashing water, it wasn't all that bad. But if you've ever taken a morning crap next to your partner, while hanging in a port-a-ledge mid-way up a big wall climb, then you can relate to the intimacy of our surroundings.
There really aren't any "mornings" underground, but hot coffee and dehydrated oatmeal set an encouraging tone the following day, and restored a waning motivation to retrieve the rest of our gear hanging at the top of the Bowl Hole Series. Corey surprised us when he discovered an old rope from a previous expedition, coiled and stashed some 200 feet above us. As Steph and I continued up the seemingly endless pit, passing countless rebelays, Corey set to work rigging the final length of rope that would free us from the Bowl Hole.
By the time our feet landed on the ground, we had spent something like 20 hours in the brown drainpipes of the Fool's Day Extension, and we were exuberant upon reaching the mostly horizontal mega borehole leading into San Agustín proper, over 2,000 feet deep. Setting up our second camp atop a spacious boulder, we were joined by Matthew Garret who came in solo, another strong back to help us schlep the rest of our gear through the Upper Gorge, the last remaining obstacle between us and Camp 3.
The Upper Gorge of Sótano de San Agustín is incredible, an area defined by eons of flash flooding. Intricately sculpted and polished as a marble countertop, it is the main conduit of the entire cave system, and the turquoise water that flows within spills over countless waterfalls, circulating through bottomless potholes, creating a timeless reverberation of white noise.
Deep water is unavoidable for a caver heading downstream, and swimming with full packs is mandatory. If one were to become hypothermic, this is where it would likely happen. Your best tool against the cold is to generate body heat by moving quickly through the Gorge, but when you are rigging, things happen at a slower pace, slower than the heat can accumulate in your body.
Already shivering, Matt stood in the spray of a waterfall, staring blankly into a deep pool. "My boot got sucked off," he informed. "Uh, say what?" "My boot got sucked off, but I think I see it," and with that he performed a head-first duck-dive, a rubber Wellington boot on one foot, a neoprene sock on the other, emerging after a few seconds with his lost item.
True to form we nearly ran out of rope, exiting the Upper Gorge with about an arm’s length left. It had taken us three days and around 2,500 feet of nylon to reach this point inside the Earth. Deep beneath the mountains of Oaxaca, it was time to savor our position. Our final destination, Camp Three, sits high and dry in the lower of two gigantic inter-connected chambers. The higher chamber, Anthodite Hall, is as big as a football stadium, it's far walls lined with unbelievable anthodite formations that can only be described as crystal fireworks. For the next 36 hours, we slept comfortably on the soft dirt floor, consuming the rest of our freeze dried food, exploring all we could until the next teams arrived with more supplies to stock Camp Three for the push into Redball Canyon.
What was once far removed from anything human had transformed into a veritable highway of nylon rope, with dozens of cavers moving duffel to and from various staging points along the route. Camp Three bustled with loud voices, and folks busied themselves with various tasks. It was time to pass the torch and head back to the surface. In one long day we ascended the ropes we had so carefully rigged, admiring our work and noting areas where we could have done better.
Arriving back at the surface well after dark offered a gentle emergence from the cave, as the harsh hours of daylight would have surely shock-loaded our brains.
The following morning, the verdant hues and shapes of the jungle were more complicated than usual, the colors more sharply defined. As I began the process of unpacking and cleaning my gear, I overheard our neighbors, a couple of Mazatec villagers conversing in their native tongue. Their words, beautifully foreign to my ears, hinted at realms of discovery that exist above ground in much the same way as they do below.
For a place where "there are no caves to speak of", southern Arizona sure has some beautiful karst. The dense blue limestone exposed amongst subtropical forests of oak and pine adds an exotic flavor to an exotic landscape. In many areas, limestone hides below the rolling savannas of mesquite and chest high grass that flank the mountains. Cave country, indeed.
Where there are caves, there is a certain level of secrecy amongst the local caving community and the forest service to help protect the fragile and pristine environment found underground. Often, it can be hard to breach this secrecy, and it takes time to gain people's trust before much of anything related to caves is willfully revealed. Elitist? Probably. But once you see the harm that is intentionally and unintentionally brought upon these magical underground worlds by visitors, it's easier to understand why "there are no caves to speak of" around here.
Not far from the border of Mexico, we drive up a winding dirt road that leads into the mountains. You can see the border fence in the distance, an unnaturally perfect line dividing an otherwise unbroken landscape. On the craggy slopes above us are large areas of beautiful blue and grey limestone.
We continue up a deep canyon on foot, where flowing water and abundant shade provide a lush haven for sycamores, and hackberry, coatimundi and even jaguar. Fallen leaves have left the trail somewhat indiscernible but eventually we arrive at a small outcrop equipped with a tiny locked steel gate. Humid air, several degrees warmer, blows through. This rather inconspicuous locale is the entrance to one of the most pristine and protected caves in southern Arizona.
Our trip leader has been here many times. He tells us about how the cave used to be insignificant- a shallow hole that led nowhere, until a group of out of town cavers smashed down some cave formations to open a lead. Oh, the irony.
The Dirty Devil. A major tributary of the mighty Colorado, I've been wanting to tour the length of this wild desert river for long time. The canyon itself is little else than a vortex where eons of sand are moved down-steam on a daily basis. Gouged by water and sculpted winds, you can literally see the canyon walls change shape. Many of the Dirty Devil's side canyons are highly developed slot canyons that create a branchwork system that would take lifetimes to explore. With only a long weekend to work with, myself and two other buddies set out to paddle down the main river channel and explore a few select side canyons along the way.
Within the rugged hills of Southern Mexico is Sistema Huautla- an underground abyss that redefines the scale of the subterranean world beneath us. Currently explored to a depth of -5069 feet, it is the deepest known point in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth deepest cave in the world. With numerous separate entrances and more than 40 collective miles of surveyed passage, Huautla is the subterranean Grand Canyon. Geologically speaking, it is a natural wonder. The sheer vertical relief and the degree to which this subsurface system discharges large volumes of water through its complex of veins and arteries is rarely found anywhere else on earth. The water that flows into the system will not see the light of day until it comes gushing out of the caverns nearly eight surface miles to the south and well over 5,000 vertical feet below. For cavers, the fact that water enters and exits the system suggests the possibility of a navigable passage from one end to the other.
Some history: In 1965, expeditions to this mountainous region of Oaxaca, Mexico revealed huge potential for deep caves. The following year several dramatic entrances were discovered by a team of Texas cavers near the tiny village of San Agustín Zaragoza. Suspicions of a super cave were confirmed. Since the initial discovery of Sistema Huautla, roughly 30 consecutive seasons of heavy expedition work took place, mapping out and piecing together the system as it is known today. Despite all of the major discoveries, including a depth achievement of -1475m, there is still a major piece missing from the puzzle: a seemingly unattainable 5.5km section of passage that essentially divides the entire system into two separate halves – where the water enters, and where it exits.
Huautla's exit spring, La Cueva de la Peña Colorada, emerges into the verdant Santo Domingo Canyon just over 8 miles away. By dye tracing water flowing through the upper system, Huautla's resurgence was confirmed, but the numerous attempts to link Peña Colorada with Sistema Huautla have proven nearly impossible due to the amount of dangerously remote scuba diving required to pass through flooded chambers, known as sumps.
Approaching the unexplored connection from above, the main route to the sump area is via Sótano de San Agustín, which requires a total descent of 2,775 vertical feet down a dizzying array of sky scraper tall chasms, crashing waterfalls and long swims. Continuing deeper, a series of eight separate scuba dives must be flawlessly executed before reaching the water filled terminus of sump 9, AKA the “mother of all sumps.” This is the furthest and deepest explored point in the upper system, and nothing short of being on the dark side of the moon.
Describing it as "the most remote place yet reached by humans”, Bill Stone and his partner Barbara Am Ende were the first to set foot there . At the limitations of their resources, Stone and Am Ende retreated from the extreme isolation of Sump 9. The year was 1994. Theirs was the first, last and only expedition to reach this point.
In theory, resurfacing on the other side of Sump 9 could be the key to connecting San Agustín to La Peña Colorada, not only completing the one of the biggest cave systems in the world, but creating one of the planet’s most spectacular through-caves.
In late winter of 2013, almost 20 years after Stone and Am Ende’s historic push into the San Agustín sump complex, an international team led by elite cave diver, Chris Jewell, made the pilgrimage to the legendary Sistema Huautla. In hopes of cracking the mystery of Sump 9, Jewell organized a two-month long expedition, utilizing Sótano de San Agustín to reach the flooded passages thousands of feet below the surface. Two decades of improved dive technology and a fresh team of world-class cavers offered a promising revisit to this extraordinary chasm inside the earth.
Myself, and fellow caving partner, Pete, were fortunate enough to join in on what promised to be an unforgettable mission. When we weren't playing sherpa - shuttling 30-pound rubber bags to and from the cave's various staging points - we took the opportunity to photograph as much of Sotáno de San Agustín as we could.
Our journey began in the ancient streets of Oaxaca City, Mexico.
Very low-grade go-pro clips, but I think they get the point across!
Anhthodite Hall was as deep into San Agustín as I dared to bring my camera without proper waterproof housing. Below Camp 3 is the infamous Lower Gorge, which ends at the 840 sump, 2,775 feet below the surface- as deep as a caver can go without scuba diving. The Lower Gorge is tight, extremely wet, very strenuous, and sculpted beyond comprehension. I regret not shooting any photos there, as it was arguably the most dramatic section of the entire descent, not to mention a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the lower gorge - it was a rare chance to accompany a team of elite cave divers attempting the impossible.
The following photos of the Lower Gorge and beyond the 840 sump were captured by fellow expedition members.
As deep into Sistema Huautla as anyone has ever dared to venture, lead diver Jason Mallison descended into the mythical Sump 9 for 81 vertical meters- one of the world's deepest sump dives. The submerged chamber, however, continued deeper still. So deep, in fact, that Mallison saw little evidence for relief. At 5,069 vertical feet below Huautla's highest entrance -almost a mile deep- Mallison decided to terminate his epic dive into the Mother of All Sumps, leaving the mystery of what lay beyond unsolved. Incidentally, after Mallison's push into Sump 9, Sistema Huautla officially became the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere and the 8th deepest in the world, at a staggering -1575m.
While not the desired end result of finding a navigable connection between Sistema Huautla and Peña Colorada, the expedition not only achieved a new depth record, but rekindled an interest among previous Huautla explorers to further map and explore more leads within the Huautla Cave System.
The newly formed Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla has several upcoming seasons of exciting expedition work to look forward to. Their goal is to map and explore other Huautla area caves, as well as achieving 100 km in length- over 60 miles - and to reach 1,610m in depth, a vertical mile.
Treasure hunting in the wild scapes of the desert often requires the pursuer to spend hours slogging through sandy washes and navigating through esoteric terrain with a heavy pack. Oh, the irony when one is on foot, under the weight of blubber-grade neoprene, crossing a hot, dehydrated swath of earth. Sometimes treasure hunting also requires one to pass through land protected not by BLM or NPS, but by those so anciently acquainted to their surroundings that your very being there seems unbecoming. Larry, who was so kind as to pay a us quick visit from his humble stream-side slice of universe, told us to spot our trucks further down stream, should flash flooding render our exit route impassable. Larry was a slender Navajo man with a raw hide face and obsidian eyes, barely visible under the shade of his ball cap. He seemed slightly less than enthused to have his morning interrupted, but his interaction could save him the trouble of having to rescue a few gringos and their trucks out of his backyard. None the less, his helpful disposition put our minds at ease, being the strangers that we were.
As usual, we totally underestimated the length of this particular canyon, and of course, botched the approach of least resistance. USGS quads can only offer you so much in the ways of micro-featured canyon country. With only two full days to travel this wild stretch of desert, it was apparent that the 10 or so hours of daylight we had to work with would be precious. As it was, we managed to descend maybe a third of our intended route, leaving so much to be explored further downstream. Perhaps next Spring we'll dedicate the three or four days required to see the rest of this remarkably wild and remote desert creek.
Buckskin Gulch is the so-called longest known slot canyon in the world. Seems hard to believe, but with 16 continuous miles of deep swirling narrows, canyons of this stature are few and far between. Buckskin is the main tributary to the Paria River, and although the Paria itself is not considered a "slot canyon", it's sheer unbroken walls of Navajo Sandstone surly make one feel small. From the upper wash of Bucksin Gulch, all the way down through the Paria River is a 50 mile desert odyssey that is second to none.
I'm sad to say that I have not gotten my usual dose of high-country backpacking in this year. August has flown by, and the short-lived window that is summer in the alpine will soon be closing. Of course, I have excuses for this lack of quality time spent in the high mountains; hiking with a heavy backpack requires patience for moving at a snail's pace, and the willingness to walk for the sake of walking. My core group of friends are hard workers, and take their fast-action, adrenaline sports very seriously when not on the job. It is increasingly difficult to get folks psyched up to do some some walking. I understand, the backpack is painful. But only at first, and once I find my rhythm on the trail, I'm reminded that miles of walking, all above treeline, is a special thing.
Living in Durango, I'm lucky enough to have 4,000+ square miles of motorless terrain, literally, in my back yard. The Weminuche Wilderness, as it's known, is the largest designated wilderness area in Colorado, containing some of the most beautiful and remote alpine terrain I've ever laid eyes on. To explore here, one must walk.
The Highland Mary Lakes Trail offers some great access to the Continental Divide area southeast of Silverton. It's a quick, relatively easy jaunt to get above treeline, making it one of my favorite spots for entering and exiting the Weminuche. From here, there are a number of high country routes that lead through a vast expanse of alpine tundra broken only by 13,000 foot peaks and deep valleys.
One of the great rewards after a day on the trail is the alpine bivy. Access to water, a magnificent lake, and viewing platforms are all important considerations to make when searching for the perfect camp. A carefully selected bivouac above 12,000ft. is one of my favorite things.
The weather-heavy, late-summer season hints at a productive winter, and if moisture continues into the fall, snow will be here before we know it... And hopefully there will be a few more mountain walks before then.