May 8, 2012

San Rafael Swell: Mexican Mt. Wilderness

I've been thinking about what to name a loop like this and can't come up with anything that makes any sense so that's fine.
The naming process will remain just as wild and wooly as the trip was.
Anyway it happened in that order. We left town, as usual too late, and finally parked at the end of a 4x4 road on Box Flat in the middle of the night. After lots of leisure the next morning we walked into Mexican Mountain WSA and set out, with a map, among other stuff, across the trail-less pinion and juniper country north of Mexican Mountain. The views were big and almost too much to understand in one eye-gulp full. We had lunch on the edge of a bottomless chunk of stone looking out at Mexican Bend of the San Rafael River.

Following what the contour lines said to do, with no back talk, we got into the head of the North Fork of Spring Canyon.

Day 1

Down we went slowly through the geologic layers of Navajo Sandstone and the Kayenta Formation of the Glen Canyon Group. Upon reaching the top of the Wingate the toil began. I took off my shoes and sat on the edge and marveled at the yawning abyss below. Definitely one of the biggest dry-falls I've ever seen in Utah. Right here in the San Rafael Swell that everyone blasts right on past en-route to someplace else.

Kayenta Ledge Traverse

I had a couple route descriptions that I remembered reading about, but took really bad notes so I didn't really know what we were going to do. I knew from my time in Escalante that sometimes (not always) the Kayenta ledges will sort of "work out" to traverse between the more formidable layers of the Navajo (above) and Wingate (below). I'd heard there was a descent through the Wingate at the end of the point that forms the mouth of the North and South Forks of Spring Canyon. Something about a "Walker Trail" if you know what I mean. The contour lines looked like a strong maybe so we took our chances and set out on a three hour traverse of the dizzying Kayenta ledges, several hundred feet above the canyon floor of the North Fork. We finally came to the top of the descent through the Wingate. It was evening now, and we could see the invitation of the green cottonwoods, and the trickle of water in the canyon below. The low angle of the sun made the big walls look even bigger with the entire canyon engulfed in shadow. Another hour of down brought us to our camp for the night. 8 hours and 10 miles according to the GPS. We filtered water and set up shop under an old juniper tree in the lee of a nice wind.

The next day our task was to go out the mouth of Spring Canyon, up Nates, around something about another big-ass dry fall, out on the rim of Nates then route find a couple miles through the Navajo Domes into the mouth of Cottonwood Wash.

Day 2

It sounded terrible actually, but once underway it was very fun. It'd been several years since I'd challenged myself with route finding and it was confidence inspiring to succeed at the tasks, which all linked together, formed the essence of backpacking in my not so humble opinion. I think just about anyone can slog down some trail, but to combine the physical challenges of carrying a heavy pack, with the mental challenges of route finding adds a special element that only a trail-less wilderness like this can afford.
Finally got in gear after lots of coffee under the juniper tree. Headed out to where Nates runs into Spring, up Nates to the so called exit. The water supply in Lower Nates sucked at best so we only filtered a quart to carry as an emergency supply on the dry crossing into Cottonwood Wash. The exit from Nates involved getting up into the Kayenta ledges again, crossing the top of a dry-fall then scrambling up through more Kayenta and finally through a do-able notch in the Navajo. It was sketchy, but worked out best by taking a deep breath and just carefully accepting some exposure.

Out on top it really started to feel like no-mans-land. No foot prints...anywhere! It was obviously something that people seldom did, which wasn't confidence inspiring to think that we were the only idiots out here doing this route. Oh well, we were miles from the car by now and there wasn't any turning around. With some careful map reading we made our way across the wild empty of the Navajo domes and into the greenery of Cottonwood Wash. Cottonwood Wash was a lovely green canyon with big walls and water all over the place. We went about 2 miles from the mouth to near the head of where the water was running and found a place to set up camp for our last night.

We guessed correctly on where the water ran out. 10 minutes after we left camp the next day we were in a dry wash bottom again. Originally I read about a route that went out the top of Cottonwood, over a divide, and into Big Hole Wash then up onto Box Flat, but I had a different idea. Not quite to the top of Cottonwood I was checking out a spot on the south wall that looked "soft". I thought that if we could get out to the rim then it'd be a quick jaunt through the Pinion/Juniper covered Navajo across Jackass Flat back to the car.

Cottonwood Wash Exit

We would avoid a bunch of up and down, which, although a great workout, was kind of getting old. The modified route would also eliminate a few miles of sandy road walking back to the blazer. It made sense on the map and it worked out slick as a whistle. The map usually doesn't lie. It was another wonderful challenge of crossing impossibly isolated country. No foot prints...anywhere.

It was a fun trip, although very intimidating at times. If we'd have made any mistake the consequences would've sucked.....but sitting around in town worrying about what may go wrong sucks worse. The terrain was the most varied, in the shortest distance, that I can think of, of any trip I've done before. The Swell is amazing and in places completely un-touched. If you go, please take care of it, or your karma may well just take care of you next time your out there. Not to worry, no secrets have been told. What I've written about here is widely published in guide books etc.

cottonwood wash exit

1 comment:

  1. Nice! Way to be creative and see something different- looks brutal but also stellar! Kudos.