The beauty and hazard of winter in Canyon Country

Posted by on 24th Jan 2017

In winter the canyons of the Colorado Plateau exist in a delicate no man's land, between the gentleness of the proper deserts to the south and west, and the undisguised harshness of the high mountains, whose water has over millenia shaped these canyons into being. 

Last week I took a Silvertip, medium wood stove, and prototype (shh) backpack into the Escalante to see what could be seen during the empty season.

There was a lot to look at.  I saw steel grey sky, rain, and snow, several times.  First it almost fell on me, the white tendrils vaporizing into rain 50 feet above and hitting my head as rain.  The second time it also fell as rain, gentle and steady all night tapping against silnylon and the titanium rain cap on my stove pipe.  When I got out the next morning the snow line was a few hundred feet higher, just above the cliffs to my back.  Two inches had accumulated, which proved to be just enough to make my route that afternoon, the only exit out of a canyon up a steep and north-facing slab, impossible.  I spent the second half of a long day walking back, and camped within a mile the place I had left that morning.  Third time was the charm, as steady flakes fell for hours on my walk back across the plateau and slickrock country to my truck.  My neck was cricked, looking just a little bit down to shield my eyes against the headwind-driven storm.

The payoff of the cold and wet had been big and intimate views with no footprints, save the abundant turkey, rodents, ringtail cats, and bighorn sheep.  The cost was in route finding problems, waist deep river crossings in below freezing temperatures, and at the last in a storm just warm enough to melt the snow and turn the uphill access road into a 10 foot wide sandy bed coated with an inch of clay snot.  Without tire chains, and the traction they allowed during prolonged sideways drifts, I (or at least my truck) might have been in for a lonely winter.

No matter where you live winter can be a tough season.  Daylight is short, and the weather often forces a premium on motivation.  Our flagship products were designed specifically to short-circuit some of the least pleasant things about moving around the backcountry in winter, and while being able to dry your socks between dinner and bed is very nice that doesn't much take the sting out of numb fingers and feet cold enough to induce an ice cream headache.  The best approach to winter, and the difficulties it demands, is to embrace it and redefine "comfortable".  It's a mental shift whose benefit will carry over to summer in the woods, as well as days back in civilization.