Daddy and his brothers Chris Tophranklin and Van Johndenbergh packed their bags with lots of cheese, summer sausage, olives, crakers, a couple pounds of guittard bittersweet chocolate, and sleeping gear and headed off to Boulder in preparation for hiking Death Hollow. From Daddy's point of view:
Chris and I drove down together, planning on meeting Van in Boulder. Chris lost a tire:
but that was OK because we both got to pretend like we're manly. We may have grunted a bit while jacking up the civic. Our specialty outdoors-wear amplified the effect; you can't get tougher than loafers over earth-tone socks.
We ate at Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, which was fantastic as always. I spent a considerable time on some goat cheese and beets, then my encrusted trout, then my niece's noodles, then some chocolate riotous dessert, so we started a wee bit late. We loaded into Van's truck and bumped over the Boulder airport to the trailhead, downed a bottle of Pellegrino, then started off. It was getting dark by the time we descended the first major grade so we found some soft sand in a wash surrounded by miles of ripply sandstone. We busted out the stilton and crackers--of course--then spent a considerable amount of the night taking pictures under the full moon, being periodically serenaded by an angry but undoubtedly puzzled bear down the canyon from us.
The troika throwing them up:
Getting on near midnight:
We're a sexy bunch:
Things got a bit rowdy:
At about midnight:
We found a little vernal pool with some Woodhouse's toads in it. We caught one and I harassed it long enough to get some pictures:
In the morning we rolled up our bags and started walking. We had lost the "trail" over a mile of pure slickrock, so we just decided to walk downhill until we met a drainage, and follow that until we reach water. We figured that water would be Devil's Hollow, and if it wasn't it would still be fun anyway.
We quickly found some water:
Yes, my brothers are getting on in years [a disclaimer here: I'm not sure how much they like me saying this, which is exactly why I keep on doing it. But seriously they're not THAT ancient, just that much more than me!].
Chris even discovered a new talent on this hike: shining, radiant biceps.
We spend the better part of the early morning pushing through thick willows and flood detritus. It was slow going, but we were in the water so we couldn't complain. This area is exactly the type of place that calls to me: very, very wild and rugged and harsh but beautiful. The drainage was pristine and wild; Van said he saw fewer invasives here than in any stream south of the Brooks Range in Alaska. We saw exactly one sign of humans along the whole creek bed: a partially used bottle of spray-on sunscreen [which Chris's bicep utilized repeatedly]. But we saw a ringtail [!] and at least 3 sets of fresh mountain lion tracks [!!]. I lived in Arizona [state mammal: ringtail] for 20 years and hiked almost every mile of running water in the southeastern corner of the state and have seen ringtails maybe once or twice, so that was a major treat.
After not too long we started reaching sections where the water got pretty deep:
This became somewhat of a challenge. I brought my camera and 3 lenses and various equipment--about 15 pounds of hydrophobic gear. And all our gear needed to stay dry so we could sleep that night. The bottom of the creek was obscured by the murky water and was composed almost entirely of large irregular boulders. In several places the water would go from one foot deep to well over our heads in a single step. We didn't mind getting wet--in July in southern UT that was welcome--but we also couldn't tread water and hold our gear dry, which meant we spent a great deal of time and effort engineering ways to transport our gear across.
It wasn't as easy as this looks:
We spent several hours of surprisingly challenging planning and execution getting down to our lunch spot: an overhang with cool sand and a great view.
A 30-second timer wasn't quite enough to pull off this shot:
So maybe next time I'll have a remote trigger!
Chris spotted something that I had been really excited to find on this hike: a snake! It was a young great basin gopher snake:
After lunch we spent a great deal of time arranging pictures of him. I was aiming for capturing the reflection of the opposite canyon wall in his eye like a fisheye lens.
So that was very exciting for me. The snake was beautiful and mostly cooperative.
We started off again, but the baggage transportation became even more difficult. It took all three of us at nearly every challenging spot to get our gear across, and it took all of our strength and resourcefulness to accomplish it. It's hard to accurately describe, but having this experience with my two brothers was an incredible and wonderful experience--I'd say it was bonding of the first order but that word has lost too much of its impact. Anyway, several times we were precariously close to disaster, but we pulled through.
Here Van suctions himself to the side of the canyon while Chris tries to get my pack to him. I'm valiantly standing by and taking pictures.
OK, we did have a disaster or two, but they were the kind that didn't result in funerals so it was all good. At one water hole, Chris lost his footing and fell completely in the water. And by this I mean that his entire body went underwater, including his own pack which he was ferrying over his head. We fished the pack out and threw it on shore, hoping that he'd have a dry bag by night time. Then Chris delivered what was possibly the second worst news we could have heard at that point [considerably behind "oops, your camera bag..."]: his glasses came off in the water. The bottom of this hole was maybe 8" of slick muck lightly resting on the bottom with boulders strewn about. At 5' down, the bottom was completely impossible to see. So we decided that Chris would very carefully search around him with his foot. The problem is that he didn't know where he was when his glasses came off, so we were looking at the possibility of him searching a couple dozen square feet blind with his toes. Leaving them there wasn't an option--he's almost as blind as he is shockingly white.
So Chris put his foot down, and... brought up his glasses. Immediately. It was quite something. So we did a certain amount of brotherly yahooing then went on our merry way.
Then we came to a nearly impossible hole. It was long, deep, had perfectly vertical walls, and there were basically no places to step. Chris painstakingly mapped out a route which consisted of hopping from one underwater, invisible, deathly slippery boulder to another. Toward the end of the route there is no boulder to stand on, so he waited there on his tippy-toes on a lower boulder. The plan was that he would boost us over the gap. As long as we put our feet exactly where he said--the boulders weren't visible at all--we should have been able to get across fine. We got all the gear across in this manner except the last bit: my camera bag. I don't know if you can fully appreciate the value of my camera bag to me. Think "like a son to me" and you're getting there. Anyway, Van was ferrying the 15-lb camera bag across, balanced on one hand because he needed the other hand to grab Chris's hand for the boost over the gap. As I watched, about 10 feet away, I saw this--and don't ask me how it got this way, but this is how it was--Van was holding my bag like the Lady Liberty torch, suspended above the water by Chris who was treading water to hold them both up. It was clear that Van couldn't reach the next boulder, and Chris was sinking. It was happening very sloooooowly. So Van said "I'm going to have to throw it." And he did. All my camera gear went sailing across 10 feet of boulders and deep murky water, propelled by a little wrist flick from the end of the outstretched arm of an old man relying solely on my aging brother's water-treading abilities for counterforce and balance. And I caught it. Van and Chris went sprawling into the hole but I got my gear and it was all in splendid shape. So you see why my brothers are my heroes, right?
We had so much fun doing this that we did it until we couldn't any more. There was a hundred-plus foot stretch ahead of us that required ferrying and mapping and that was just too much. We paused for a bit, and I climbed the side of the canyon to get a view. Turns out we were just around the corner from where the creek drains into Escalante river. We decided to turn back and start our way up the river since we hadn't seen a suitable campsite since... camping that morning. Being us, we really hadn't thought about a minor detail: we spent all day going down the river, so how quickly should we really expect to go back up? We were more efficient at going through the holes--we knew each one now and had a strategy to beat it--but when we passed the holes and got to the thickety part of the river, we ran into something that slowed us down considerably: the willows that had futilely resisted our path down were now daggers aimed right at our shins. Boulder had seen a lot of rain earlier in the summer and any high water sweeps the willow branches down until they are all pointing downstream. So just powering our way through the brush was not an option. And it was THICK. Oh yeah, and another thing: it was well past sunset.
By the way, it really was that bad. I've done a considerable amount of thicket-whacking: willow tundra in Alaska, mesquite stands in Arizona, scrub oak thickets in Utah, and dozens of riparian brambles in Arizona, and I've never been in anything quite like this: usually you can just power through and accept the loss of skin or be careful and take your time and arrive relative unscathed. But this hike was the worst of all: everything in the drainage seemed pre-engineered to prevent us from hiking back up the river, like a punji stick pit. We just had to accept a certain loss of progress and a certain loss of skin and flesh.
Eventually we all felt at least a mild amount of fear. We had no way of recognizing our path out of the creek in the dark, we were not on any established path, we were soaked [the 60-degree water that felt so nice in the daytime wasn't so nice when it got chilly] and freezing, we had gone much MUCH further down than we realized and had a long way to go, and the moon was behind the canyon walls so we had no light besides the two working flashlights we had between the three of us. We were facing a very real possibility of being very lost and having no place to set down for the night and get dry and warm. We prayed, we planned, we discussed, and we pushed on. The undergrowth was absolutely brutal, as was climbing up a slippery bouldery stream-bed in the pitch dark.
At one particularly dense thicket, Chris--who had basically gone the entire day without eating due to inflamed tonsils and was running probably a 5,000 calorie debt by this point in the day--got down on his hands and knees and slowly worked his way through willow spears. Half his body was under water and he had to identify and move every one of the dozens of sharp points in his way. He contorted his body to allow clearance under a big stick and, after scraping himself on a rock and getting stuck repeatedly with branches, he managed to get through. I was following him since I had no light and he did. I was too tired to do the whole soldier-crawl thing, so I just tried to power through the thicket. I braced for multiple stabbings and strong resistance but the only thing that happened was I burst through and almost rammed Chris. I said right in his ear "you know, I just walked right through that" and felt almost awesome. I think Chris might have cried. Maybe you'd have to have been there.
Somehow, thanks to Van's internal magnetic orienteering or whatever the heck he used, we found a drainage we recognized from our hike in and went up it and found soft sand. We built a fire--illegal but at this point completely critical--to dry out our stuff. We probably pulled in around 11pm, completely and utterly shelled. It was bad enough that those of us without a dry change of clothes--namely, Chris and I--talked about but maybe possibly didn't quite consider yet [?] stripping down nekkid to get warm and dry. I'm glad that wasn't necessary.
Here's a time exposure of our camp that night, with Chris and Van sleeping, then a picture 12 hours later in the late morning. The moon in the first picture and the sun in the second picture are at very similar locations:
Our hike out the next day was short but plenty hot and bright. The climb out of the drainage was steep but worth it.
When we got back home, we looked on Google Maps [...is the best. True that, DOUBLE TRUE!] and discovered that we had never been in Death Hollow. We traveled all the way down sand creek, and here's a link to sand creek where we met it--we traveled basically all the way down to where it joins a much bigger river [Escalante]: map
The distance measuring tool in google maps is prone to under-estimation, and my tracing of the path put our total trip at 16.2 miles, with about 14 of the miles coming in the one big day through some of the most brutal terrain I've ever hiked in.
Within days my entire body was covered in poison ivy rashes but that's a story for another time. I still have a bruised and swollen subpatellar bursa from smashing my knee on a boulder in the dark, but that's a small price to pay. Thanks for an incredible time, bros!