Canyon Tales
Buckskin on Ice
by Jud Eades

I have been lying in bed all day with my legs elevated trying to let the swelling go down. I was planning on giving a trip report tomorrow but Pete’s comment about lack of judgment motivated me to get my sorry butt out of bed.

So here’s the story.

My buddy Kevin and I have done hundreds of canyons together. In the winter we like to take a break from backcountry skiing and, about once a month, we go descend a canyon. Although we have done hundreds of canyons, we had never hiked Buckskin Gulch, but it has always been on our to–do list.

I recently talked to some guys that did Buckskin in the winter a few years ago, and they told me how great it was. So I called the BLM on Thursday morning and asked them about the conditions. They said that there were a few pools of water in the ‘cesspool’ area but you can walk around them and that the Paria is about ankle deep but could be knee deep in some spots. Someone had hiked it less than two weeks ago and had no problems. I gave them my credit card number for the permit, and they mentioned they would leave the permit on the back of their info board.

Kevin and I packed up later that afternoon and headed south. We arrived at the White House Campground around 11:30 that night. Threw our bags out on the ground and crashed. Friday morning we woke about 7 AM, ate breakfast, I ran over to the Paria River to check its depth, and it was less than an inch deep (thought we would be in good shape). We found a good tree to lock our mountain bikes to (shuttle), and then drove to the Wire Pass trailhead.

A little before 9 AM we were on our way. The canyon was unbelievable; those little tiny seeps in the canyon walls had formed huge icicles. When the sun hit the ice it lit the whole canyon up. Besides the Ice hanging from the walls the canyon was bone dry. After the rock fall we hit the seeps, they were frozen solid.

We made it to the campsite ½ mile above the confluence of the Paria in about 5 hours. We had originally planned on camping there. But because we had made such good time and had plenty of daylight we decided to finish the hike. About 100 yards from the confluence of the two canyons we hit water. The water was knee–deep with about an inch of ice on it. It looked as though the pool of water only went to the confluence then ended at some muddy snow (so we thought). We decided to head for the muddy snow as long as the water never got above our knees. We broke the ice in front of us and pushed on. Once we got to the muddy snow, we realized it was slush on top of the ice.

We could now see up the Paria, and it looked like the ice ended shortly up the canyon. It was obvious that somewhere down the Paria there was an ice dam. Of course with our vast amounts of schooling :–) we knew that the deepest part would be downcanyon at the dam. And as long as we headed upcanyon it wasn’t going to get any deeper. In fact it will probably be similar to Buckskin—head a hundred or so yards upcanyon and will be home free. Well, the next 500 yards never got shallower, it stayed a little over our knees. The canyon twisted and turned and we always kept in mind that we needed to have enough energy to make it back to buckskin if it continued the same or got worse.

After about ½ mile the Paria Canyon got narrow (5 or 6 feet wide) as we headed for it we went up to our chests in water. Oh Baby that will take your breath away! In the middle of the canyon the river had frozen 3 times as it got backed up. Each layer had about an inch of ice separating 12–18 inches of water. On top of all that sat this muddy snow. We had now busted through all three layers. By now we have been in the water for over a half an hour. We could not feel our feet or legs. We thought we were walking on the bottom of the river but the last 100 yards we were actually walking on the last layer of ice. The river got deeper upcanyon. We were never in a panic, we keep our cool and decided to go back to Buckskin. (I’m still curious how much further the ice went). We were worried about our legs cramping up so we moved really fast towards buckskin. Because we had no feeling in our legs, we couldn’t feel the first and second layers of ice as our shins and quads busted threw them. Once we made it to the dry ground in Buckskin we noticed our shins were hamburger.

Kevin said, “Remind me to kick your butt for taking me down this easy canyon.”

Under the circumstances all we could do is laugh. We pride ourselves on being careful and respecting the outdoors. I make a living educating people on respect and love for the outdoors. If we had even a little hunch that we were going to run into this we wouldn’t have done it. We both own drysuits and double–thick wetsuits, we left them at home because we were 100% sure that we wouldn’t need them. Hundreds of people do this canyon every winter without them and have no problems.

We immediately started a fire. Striped down to dry off. We had dry tops and bottoms in our pack that we brought to sleep in, we put them on and our North Face 750 Down Summit Jackets (we carry these with us even in summer for emergencies). We dried out our BD Schoeller pants with the fire.

Even though we had sleeping bags and bivy sacks, we knew that sleeping in the freezing temperature in our state would most likely cause some major tissue damage. Kevin is a paramedic and I’m an EMT; we went through all this training so we could make such unbelievable medical decisions such as this, haha. We both knew we needed to keep moving and get to a hotel and soak our legs in lukewarm water. Our legs were in bad shape, and the evening temperatures dropped to 12 degrees. For those that aren’t familiar with Buckskin it is 13.5 miles back to the trailhead.

I had a satellite phone with me, I called my wife to let her know what had happened. I knew that if one of us got in bad shape, we could call Kanab Search and Rescue and have them meet us at the middle trail. It crossed my mind as an easy way out of the situation. But we new we could make it out on our own. Calling search and rescue wasn’t necessary.

About halfway, we cooked up some Jambalaya Rice and put some canned chicken in with it. It normally serves six, but was just right for the two of us. There was no moon so it was like being in a cave; all you could see is what our headlamps illuminated. It took us about six hours to hike out. We got in the truck went to the White House Trailhead picked up our bikes and headed to the Shilo Inn for a warm bath and room.

Even though both of us got pretty beat up, we will be just fine. We actually had a good time. The canyon was literally unbelievable.


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© 2002 Jud Eades