By George Watson, Craig Grad (2015)
Since my spinal cord injury in 2014 and my stay at Craig, I have spent a great deal of my time exploring the limits of the cranky mobility I was gifted by my injury. Ever since my very first lurching steps, I have sought ways to challenge myself and find the edge of my new envelope. This is very much in accordance with the adventurous and committed nature that brought me to this point and delivered me the curse and the gift that is my injury.
In keeping with the urge to “find the edge” post injury, I have embarked on a series of increasingly challenging excursions into the wilderness. The first big one was my return to Peru and the site of my injury to help complete the archeological work I had begun there. Despite the challenges of learning to keep my bladder and bowels managed in wilderness conditions at extreme altitude, my journey was assisted by our marvelous group of arrilleros (literally horse handlers or porters) who carried all of my personal equipment and cooked all of our meals.
After this trip, I wondered if it would be possible for me to move independently in the wilderness on a multi-day excursion where I would have to carry my own food, shelter and clothing. Wilderness backpacking: a pursuit I had loved since my early teens.
Prior to my injury, I had made an excursion to a desert feature called “The Wave,” a unique and iconic formation of wind-carved sandstone (as often seen as a Microsoft desktop background). At one point during the trip, my companion showed me the entrance to a slot canyon called Buckskin Gulch, which is considered to be the longest slot canyon in the world. We couldn’t attempt it at that time, so I resolved to come back and traverse the canyon, a two-day trip involving 13.7 miles of hiking to reach the first possible camping site (also called a bivouac).
After my post-injury completion of the Peru expedition in 2017, I began thinking about Buckskin Gulch again. Once called “the most dangerous backpacking trip in America,” I became obsessed with being able to safely coax my balky legs through the entire 21 miles. The initial 13.7 miles to the bivouac must be done in a single day-long push because there’s no place to safely camp due to the flash flood danger. The second day is far gentler at half the distance and on easier terrain.
Most notably, the first day’s journey has a challenging obstacle: a large 40-foot-tall chockstone right in the middle of the slot that one usually has to lower oneself down unless a small tunnel underneath called “the rathole” is open.
To accomplish this journey, I needed a safety person with me who would be familiar with my needs and challenges. My son, Ian, agreed to join me, and we got to work. I took increasingly long hikes and increased the weight in my backpack until I could confidently carry the 25 pounds I would need. I also used a weighted vest to increase my strength. I could do none of this without my walking sticks, so they became my constant companions, helping me maintain my balance over terrain that was challenging. I then began to build my endurance, going longer and longer distances to get my legs used to the effort. Many nights I would lay awake as the spasms and pain coursed through my lower body following these workouts. I often thought of abandoning the effort, but I kept at it, determined to bear the challenge.
As the departure day approached, we obsessively checked the weather, watching for any sign of the rain that could bring flooding. We chose early November for the trip when the weather was starting to turn cold but was quite stable. While picking up our permit in southern Utah, we got a final report from the ranger that the slot was quite wet, meaning there would be many fords of cold, muddy water, as well as significant quicksand. These were just the conditions that I was concerned about because soaking my legs in cold water renders them stiff and far less useful. Plus, the quicksand and the invisibility of the bottom would make for difficult and unsteady footing.
We woke up at 5:00 a.m. and ate coffee and oatmeal in the cold. I dressed in thermal tights, which was a compromise between my intense neuropathy (making fabric on my legs feel very uncomfortable) and the need to keep my legs warm to reduce my spasticity. I was concerned and uncertain, not knowing how much water would be in the slot, how difficult the obstacle was going to be and whether or not I would have the endurance to get to the bivouac in one try. I was well aware that there was no escape from the slot except by turning around or finishing, so the midpoint of the hike was the point of no return. We had a satellite emergency device, but I knew it would be useless in the vast majority of the slot. We loaded up and set out, and I continued to struggle with feelings of doubt.
The first couple of miles were dry and easy, so I began to relax a little. However, as we dropped into the narrowest part of the slot, we found water. To cross the first few fords, we changed from hiking shoes to sandals and back, but as we continued, we realized that there were so many fords that the stopping and starting would cost us too much time. We decided to stay in sandals until the water abated. That never happened.
As we continued, walking through a total of 32 fords (several waist deep) as well as quicksand, I was worried about my footing. Finally, in one particularly deep ford, as I moved slowly along an underwater path I could not see, I fell facedown into the water with my heavy pack weighing on top of me. With all the force I could muster through my core, I flipped myself over to be able to breathe. I made my way to a dry spot and assessed: I was a bit shaken, well-soaked and now very nervous about continuing. However, I decided to keep going. I had to move quickly because the air and water temperature in the slot was about 35 degrees and I was soaking wet. I had to start moving to maintain my core temperature and re-warm my now extremely cranky legs.
The trek through the slot was incredibly beautiful. It’s no more than three feet wide in spots, and the walls can get up to a couple hundred feet tall. We passed driftwood lodged 10-15 feet above our heads, a reminder of the floods that we were anxious to avoid, and the carving of the walls resembled the flow of the water.
About two-thirds of the way through, we arrived at the giant chockstone blocking the slot. Ian spotted that the “rathole” was open. We doffed our packs and Ian dragged them through, and then I got into the entrance and crawled the 30 feet through the narrow muddy passage. Once we passed this obstacle, the amount of water in the slot dropped dramatically, and we were able to make good time to the bivouac.
We reached the camping spot as the sun was descending and the temperature was dropping, and I couldn’t have been happier about the nearly 14 miles of difficult conditions that I had successfully traversed. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t even set up my shelter as I had practiced, so Ian took care of the tent. We stripped off all our wet clothing and crawled into our bags to make dinner. That night, my legs spasmed continuously as if they were hitting me back for the difficult journey I had just put them through.
I crawled out of my bag the next morning to find that my feet were in pretty bad shape. I had unknowingly collected stones and other detritus in them, unable to feel when the stones had damaged my toenails and cut up my feet.
We set out for the junction of the slot canyon with the Paria River where we stopped to make muddy cups of coffee. I felt remarkably good: my legs were not trembling or too stiff, and I was able to move fairly well. After about six more miles, we spotted the white triangle formation that marked the spot where our car was parked. I was starting to struggle from fatigue, as was Ian, who is able-bodied but does not have a huge amount of wilderness experience. When we finally made it to the car, we were both dead tired. Upon removing my sandals, I discovered that the daylong trod through the river has caused more damage to my feet, and that I would definitely lose five toenails.
That evening, I collapsed into my hotel bed and spent the night with my legs jumping every which way, but I was thoroughly satisfied that I pushed myself to the edge of my ability and had managed to make it home.