I glance back at my hiking partner. We had just walked through the icy cold waters of the Escalante River for maybe the fifth time in the first 30 minutes of the day of what would most likely be hundreds of crossings. A cold front came in the night before and temperatures were near freezing. The cold wind whipping up the canyon and the steep canyon walls blocking the sun only add to how cold our feet and hands feel. I watch tears roll down her face. She states, with a shaky voice, that she doesn't want to walk across the river as we were faced with yet another spot where we need to ford the river.
My eyes start tearing up too - feeling the same fear about walking thigh deep in the freezing water not just this time, but who knew how many more times. I give her a hug, pull a Snickers bar out of my hip belt pocket (the kind with two pieces), struggle to open it with numb fingers for a few moments, give her one piece and keep one for myself.
Standing there, chewing hard with each bite of the rock-solid candy bar at 7:30 in the morning...we wondered - should we go back? Are we going to make it through this day and the next? Will it get warmer? What if I get a cold injury or just an injury in general? Should we have done the Hayduke in the Spring? Why are we doing this?
Memorable Moment # 1: The Escalante River
This stretch of two days on the Hayduke may go down as one of the hardest few days of hiking I have ever had. “Hard” is a relative term. One person’s hardest day could be another person’s “best” or “easiest” day. The excerpt above sets the stage for this memorable moment. I, in fact, did end up walking through/across the Escalante River hundreds of times that day and the next day. I also ended up bushwhacking and crawling through what felt like endless willows on the muddy banks of the river when the water was either too deep to cross or I just couldn't bring myself to get back in. At the end of the first evening, my feet were so cold and wet that it took a few hours for them to get warm in my sleeping bag even with a hot water bottle to warm them.
Let’s resume the story from there...
I awake after the first day down the Escalante in the dark...knowing that if we don't get moving early we might not make it far as we need to, meaning we have to stretch our food even further to get to our next food cache. I feel mentally prepared for what is to come this day because of yesterday. The route wastes no time - a few minutes into the day I step back into the icy cold water again to cross the river. My feet have swollen a bit from rewarming and the tips of my toes are still lacking sensation. Being back in the icy water doesn't help. I hope I haven't gotten any kind of cold injury, but I am constantly reminded that it is just as hard to go back the way I came as it is to go forward. So I push on.
I find it ironic to be in the desert, where, just a few days ago, before the cold snap, I would have given anything to go swimming in the Escalante River. But now I only shudder at the thought of getting into the cold water.
The canyon feels like it is winding endlessly. It feels as if the end will never come. I have to keep reminding myself of the beauty that is around me and the uniqueness of this landscape. I feel relief to see Stevenson Arch. This marks that I am nearing the end. My journey up Coyote Gulch will start soon. I end up walking the majority of Coyote Gulch in the moonlight….what a unique way to end a challenging section.
Memorable Moment # 2: Winter Storm Warning
I got a photo at the Northern Terminus of the Arizona Trail (AZT). The Hayduke walks on the AZT for about 60 or so miles towards the Grand Canyon. I had never walked on the AZT before and was excited for some great trail walking for the next few days…..or so I thought.
Service was spotty where I was, but I was able to get enough to check the weather as I started on the AZT. Turns out, there was a winter weather advisory starting that evening at 5pm...My hiking partner and I decided to make it as far as we could tonight and get our shelter set up before the storm started. The clouds started rolling in. The shelter was up in no time and I was in it - I thought, ready for what was to come.
About 10 minutes later the snow started and kept getting heavier.
Not only was it snowing hard, but the wind was blowing snow into the mid type shelter I was using. It didn’t matter how hard I tried, snow was getting everywhere. Once I accepted the situation as it was - I felt better, ate dinner, and went to bed. The snow didn’t stop until early morning. I woke up to about 10 inches of new snow and the temperatures were cold. With numb hands, I packed my bag and planned to walk 22 or so miles in the snow to Jacob Lake, AZ. At sunset, I hit the highway to town and hitched a ride. After a long day of knee-deep post-holing, howling wind, few breaks, and, once again, numb feet I was ready to be inside.
Memorable Moment # 3: Hitchhiking...In the Bottom of the Grand Canyon!
I woke up. Today, Day 33, was a big day. I briskly walk alongside the Colorado River, glancing back over my shoulder every few minutes to see if a raft was heading down the river. I don't know if I will see one or not. If I do, I think to myself, will I be in the right spot to get picked up and get across? I glance back - my heart jumps - I see a raft party coming down the river. What do I do? I am not in a good spot to get picked up. The river seems really loud here. They see me. I hesitate, get self-conscious, they yell something I can't hear and I wave. They float past and my heart sinks... Jeff, you idiot. There it was, my only chance to get across the river on a raft.
What do I do now...swim?
I keep walking. I still had a few miles to the recommended spot to get across. No other rafts show up while I was walking there. I made it to the spot and stand on top of a rock, glancing back upstream for the hundredth time in the last hour...still no boats. I turn and look downstream...wait...the rafting party that passed me is pulled off the shore about a mile away! They must be stopped for lunch.
Should I go down there? Of course! This is my second and probably only chance!
I hustle down there and stand across the wide Colorado River from the raft party. Once again, I wonder...should I just yell and ask? Would they paddle all the way over to get me and my partner in the midst of a global pandemic? We hesitate for a few moments.
Eventually, I let out a “YEEEEEHEEE.” That caught their attention and I yell, “Could we get a ride across?”
They look through their binoculars and I try to make hand motions that resembled the word “across” in any way. And that was it...it worked. One of their boats paddle over, we jump on, and they gave us a ride. Wow! I can’t believe that actually worked. "Dang! That was lucky," I said to my hiking partner as we high five.
I recently completed the Hayduke Trail with my life and hiking partner, Carolyn. I think it is important to clarify that the Hayduke may be called a trail - but it most certainly is not. The Hayduke is a route. There are no physical signs at any point along the way that reassure you that you are actually on the correct route. You are lucky if you come across another person who may actually know what it is that you are doing. All of this and many more things make the Hayduke an amazing experience! Another Trek writer wrote a great blog on it if you would like more information.
These three moments stood out to me along the Hayduke Trail because they challenged me to dig deeper into my perseverance, tolerance for discomfort, and ability to ask for or give help when it was really required. These moments, to me, highlight just why the Hayduke is such a challenging and rewarding adventure. Each and every person has their own experience along it. Thanks for reading and keep following along with more of my adventures @jeffpod.