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Winter Utah: Canyon Solitude

Think slickrock in July and your throat clenches, your skin shrivels, and parched bones rattle in your subconscious. But in winter, the snow sends the tourists and dry desert demons packing, and the frosted wonderland is all yours.

Deep in the night I stick my head out the tent to find fat snowflakes sliding diagonally through the broad beam of my headlamp. In the warmth of a slickrock afternoon it’s easy to forget that canyon country is not true desert. Climatologically speaking, it’s the Colorado Plateau Semiarid Province-typically too high, too cold, and too wet to qualify as a North American desert. This place sees 12 to 20 inches of precipitation a year, most of it in the form of snow.

Blue skies arrive with the sun. We dry our gear on the steaming rocks, then climb out of North Mule, the snowbanks deepening with altitude. Winter hiking hereabouts means you may have to do a fair amount of postholing, and for the next two hours we do. Working hard to find the laziest route, we wander across a labyrinth of concealed gullies, sticking to melted-off south-facing slopes whenever possible.

Sundown finds us pitching camp on a blustery viewpoint overlooking Texas Canyon. The latest storm has subsided, and with the clearing comes high winds. While the elegantly swirled snowbanks turn purple in twilight’s glow, we lash the tent down with a short canyoneering rope to keep it from bucking like a mad bronco. As soon as it’s anchored we dive inside. In summer this tent would be a cumbersome solar oven, useful only against rain or insects. But in winter the lengthy tent time offers a chance to recoup and savor the luxury of a warm dry bag. It also lets you appreciate the fact that you’re a tiny speck in a grand, open place, a point reinforced later that night when I’m gathering snow for melting. After wandering a bit I look back at our lamp-lit tent, and see only a tiny, glowing island in an immense white sea of winter.

There’s something oddly appropriate about traveling these canyons when it’s cold, since ice created them. It’s a widely held misbelief that the deep ruts throughout the Southwest were carved over the eons by the patient trickle of water. The imagery is more poetic than accurate. Other than the huge canyons of the Colorado and Green rivers, most were created in swifter and more violent fashion by catastrophic floods, the result of high plateau glaciers melting in the waning days of the last Ice Age. The glacial sediments these floods left behind allowed the Anasazi to farm and thrive in the canyon bottoms, until the climate dried and the thin soils gave out. When the Ancient Ones suddenly and mysteriously moved on, they left behind the evocative ruins we’ve passed on our journey.

Morning’s light awakens me early. Drew shows no signs of life, so I brew a quick cup of coffee and stumble off to a sheltered alcove to await the thawing sunbeams. Slowly, the sound of dripping water returns to the canyons, as does the hum of a campstove in the distance.

“I think I’ve found the perfect breakfast food,” Drew proudly announces when I return. “Try some.” I do. I gag. It’s instant oatmeal made with black coffee. And I thought my backcountry palate was beyond horror.

We set out and hike for hours along the canyon rim, but deep snow keeps dampening our ambitions. We made a tactical error leaving our snowshoes back at the trailhead, where in the warmth of the tailgate discussions we concluded that the snow wouldn’t be too deep. So much for low-elevation assumptions. Oh well, we’d come looking for winter in canyon country and found it.

Our original plan was to stay up high, skirt Texas Canyon, then cross over Elk Ridge to Hammond Canyon, sampling a variety of elevations and climates along the way. But the snow is just too deep, so we spend most of the day struggling back through our now-hard-frozen, knee-deep postholes, down to where the smarter animals had stayed all along.

North Mule’s sandy wash reads like a scroll of desert life, with the clean tracks of coyotes and cottontails everywhere, and not a waffled boot print to be found. The slickrock pools are covered with delicate plates of ice, fragile artwork etched by frost and suspended like glass tabletops above cold emerald water.

As the sun begins to set on what looks like it’ll be a cloudless evening, we grab our sleeping bags and rest against the most comfortable rocks we can find. Twilight slowly fades and we can feel the dry winter air losing its warmth. Shooting stars slice through the sky before melting in flares of gold and orange, and the pale moonlight turns juniper berries into blue-white pearls.

In this place of ice and beauty and solitude, it’s hard to imagine-much less remember-the tongue-parching season that’s just the other side of spring, a time of year when these canyons will be little more than dust and dreams of cool, refreshing water. But the heat will come. It always does, and with it the promise of yet another winter and the transformation of the land into a white-dusted world of wonder and solitude.

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