The park trail heads warned of ice in winter conditions. Well, this was certainly winter conditions, but the maze of rocks and canyons called us. When we woke up to blue skies and brilliant sun, any doubt about going into the back country left my mind.
The stove refused to work so after a depressingly cold breakfast we headed down the road and into our hike. The trail cut through fields and over small hoodoos. A layer of snow blended the path into the desert. We planned to hike the Lollipop Loop, an 11 mile multi-terrain hike, as far as the winter conditions would allow us.
Remote desert hiking is a risky business. I have hiked this canyon country since I was a baby, but my father was always there when I lost the trail. This trip was my first solo navigation of canyon country, and snow buried the trail and the cairns that marked it. I was learning that the desert possesses a dangerous winter beauty.
The trail disappeared in a creek bed soon after we began. Already it seemed like we would have to turn back, but a few minutes of sloshing up the wash and it appeared mercifully on the other bank. This desert offers an isolation that few other places do. It’s a beautiful feeling, to feel safe from the world but also a scary one. There are no little mistakes in this wild place. You are at the mercy of nature, and she has never proven herself to be kind. The wrong shoes, too little water, or one wrong turn can quickly evolve into an inescapable situation. With the freedom from civilization comes risk.
But the blue sky and sparkling white and red rocks, quickly chased any of these thoughts from my mind. The rocks purified my thoughts of home, untwisting the knots of drudgery in my soul. We speechlessly wound further into the Big Spring Canyon, talking only to find the snow covered mounds that hid our cairns.
The canyon spread out into a wide valley as we began to mount the massive sandstone benches. Ice sent our feet skidding as we chased after the trail. The snow covered maze of canyons below began to appear as we climbed.
Snow and ice completely covered the sandstone. I jammed feet into the rock, hoping the metal spikes would gain some traction. The valley floor lay far below us, and one slip promised to send us on the scariest sled ride of our lives. We scrambled up the last feet to the top of the butte. Red sandstone cliffs towered behind us, and in front of us unfurled a beautiful tapestry of white, greens, blues, and reds. The La Sal Mountains peaked over the horizon. We sat absorbing the view and calming or shaking nerves. Happy to have gotten this far, but only half way through the loop.
The trail dropped down the rock again. I nervously hoped that the next 2 miles of sandstone benches would be passable if not treacherous.
After the junction more ice greeted us, and the trail mysteriously disappeared into the snow and rocks. The promise of two miles of climbing slip and slides turned us back towards the tent.
After 10 miles we returned to camp, collapsing on the rocks in the warm sun. Between losing the trail and slipping off it, my first back country navigation turned into a beautiful adventure.