In October I had a conference to attend down in Tucson, so I decided to drive. My plan was to find a place to run somewhere in the middle of the drive and I chose an obscure canyon that gets easy access to the Colorado River. It is Soap Creek Canyon, south of the 89a and the Vermillion Cliffs. The night before I couldn’t sleep so I just hit the road around 3:30 AM – arriving at the trail-head around 11ish. When I pulled off the highway and saw just how remote this was, I had second thoughts – but forged ahead in any case. You open a gate in the fence, close it behind you, drive over some desert to a makeshift parking lot / trailhead. And, then you head down the canyon. It begins as a shallow wash, slowly deepening. Eventually you enter the south fork of the canyon proper and soon have a lot of canyoneering decisions to make. There are no places that require all-out rock climbing, but lots of small drops and cliff faces to navigate. There were cairns to follow, but I had lots of concerns about heading down the wrong drop. At one point, there was even a rope descent. I passed 2 guys heading in the opposite direction – they had camped down at the river. That was comforting because I was becoming increasingly aware of how remote the place was. So far the terrain was dangerous enough to possibly cause a break if I fell, but not too bad. The ever-present paranoia of rattlesnakes had me more worried. By the time I made it to the Colorado River, it had taken longer than I had planned, I was getting worried about sunburn and anxious to get back to my car in one piece. I quickly dipped my feet in the river, geared back up, and made my ascent back up the canyon.
About 1 mile back up disaster struck – I rolled my left ankle hard, hearing a pop even. A few minutes later, I rolled it a second time. I had 4 miles to climb, and lots of rock faces to scamper/scale up. This was bad. About another mile up, BOTH of my calf muscles cramped violently. It was debilitating. This was trouble. I slowly made my way up. I eventually caught up with the 2 hikers, and they were glad to see me. Expressing that they were concerned at how little gear I was packing -worried that I would run out of water. I showed them the 2 liters my pack held and they were relieved.
Thoughout the ascent any time I did more than a walk, my calves cramped and brought me to teh ground. So – I walked out the last 3 miles or so. Scarier was when they cramped mid-rock climb up the various 10-15 ft. tall cliff drops. By the time I got to my car I was exhausted and relieved.
10.7 miles @ 13:5 min/mile and 2,442 ft elevation
Looking back, it was probably a foolhardy and stupid route to do solo. I would probably do it again – but only because I know the trial now.
As for the cramping calves…this is an excellent example of stupid rookie mistakes. When I got to my sister’s house in Phoenix later that night (after a great dinner with a colleague in Flagstaff at Satchmo‘s BBQ), I did some googling and quickly deduced that I had run low on electrolytes. I was hydrating, but sweating quite a bit and doing nothing to replenish them. Stupid stupid stupid. Lesson learned.
Panorama of the Vermillion Cliffs, looking North
Looking down the Soap Creek Wash
Weird curled up dried mud all of the creek bed
The Mighty Colorado River @ Soap Creek Rapids. This is just downstream from Lee’s Ferry
Looking up-canyon at the split between the North and South forks. Apparently you can do the north fork, but it requires repelling.
LOTS of climbing up boulder fields like this
Handy rope for a particularly hard section with no good alternative routes