Tuesday morning early we set off for the Hellsgate Wilderness. Jeff Neeley, Zane Frentheway, Marc Jackson, Cedar Glasgow, Mason Crandell, Kolter Anderson, Kyler Fackrell and myself.
The plan was to drop off vehicles down at Gisela and have Kent Anderson and Lane Glasgow drive us up to the rim. We discovered, however, that the area had been closed off and we could no longer park cars there. So after a bit of searching we found a spot back in a wash where we felt we could leave our vehicles that would carry us home. Then we loaded up into the two vehicles and zipped up to the drop off. Lane and Kent wished us luck and we were left to ourselves to brave the rugged wilderness that lie ahead.
The hike began with a 7 mile jaunt up and over a mountainous area. There were several fairly steep inclines, one that was particularly memorable as I felt my heart might pound right out of my chest. Our reward for making it to the top? Descending a perilous drop off on the other side to get down to the water.
Thus far in the journey the boy’s spirits were high, they were singing songs and goofing off. Although the hike was tough they seemed to be enjoying themselves despite the difficult terrain whether they would admit it or not.
We made it down to the water around lunch time without much trouble although Marc did lose his walking stick. We stopped there for some lunch and I gratefully removed my shoes and socks and let me feet dry out. Some of the boys swam in the water even though it was very cold.
At this point it hit me that we had no alternative but to continue on to the end. The climb back up that mountain seemed just as unpleasant as the thought of carrying on and even if you did no one would be back there for us. The only option was to get to the cars at the bottom. I didn’t allow myself to dwell on that thought though because I didn’t want to freak out.
One small digression; Mason thought it would be a good idea to up the difficultly level of this adventure by attempting to hike in his underpants. Once we got to the water Cedar joined him in this folly and donned a Speedo for the duration of the day, despite our warning to the contrary. I’ll illustrate later what a bad idea this was.
After lunch, which for me consisted of a protein bar and some jerky, went entered Tonto Gorge.
The first descent into the water was shocking. Although the day was very warm the water was very cold. The first several yards you only had to get your feet and ankles wet but slowly the water got deeper and more of your body was exposed to the cold. I’ll try to be delicate here but when the water hit the region just below your waist let’s just say it was unpleasant. Once you got past that and your body adjusted, by adjusted I mean became completely numb, the water wasn’t all that bad.
At this point in the hike Cedar declared that it was “The best hike ever”. That was the last time this sentiment would be expressed.
Several hours later we took a break on some rocks and a couple of the boys jumped off a cliff into the deep cold water while we older guys rested peacefully. At this point Kyler had lost one of his three water bottles (more on that later).
The bad part about taking a break like that was you get dry and warm and have to re-acclimate yourself to the water, again by re-acclimate I mean numb yourself.
You have three choices going down the Gorge. You can climb boulders and cliffs, rock hop/trudge through the shallow water, or swim when it gets deep. That’s it, that’s the list. Sometimes the canyon chooses for you and you just have to go with it. All of these have their pros and their cons and each is exhausting in its own way.
After several hours of getting in and out of the water I was spent. One piece of advice that I got from Bishop Peterson as he was prepping us for this hike was “Never pass up a decent camping spot”. The reason being is that you never know when you’ll find another one. Well about 4:00 we happened along a reasonably good spot to camp for the night. We met briefly and determined that 4:00 was too early to stop and that we’d make camp at the next good looking area. Almost immediately after making that foolish decision the canyon narrowed and the terrain became even more difficult and unwelcoming. It was nearly two hours before a suitable spot was found to camp.
At this point Marc and I had fallen behind the lead group and I had lost sight of Kolter who was 100 yards or so ahead of me. I kept replaying in my mind the counsel of Bishop Peterson “Never pass up a decent camping spot”. I was cursing myself for being so foolish when I heard the boys talking up ahead as the canyon turned to the left. I was so happy to be able to sit and know that I was done for the day.
After a few minutes I changed into some dry clothes and went to pump water for cooking and drinking for the night and morning. We brought a 5 gallon collapsible water jug for the camp. Cedar and I took turns filling up one and Kyler and Mason filled the other. Then we made our way back up the rocks to our camp site which was a sand bank about ten feet above the water on an incline.
There we dried out our gear. Kyler’s sleeping bag was completely soaked and my bag got wet as well. Another reason to make camp early was to allow things time to dry. Even though we were all prepared with dry bags things still get wet.
Then it was time for dinner. We all boiled water on the camping stoves we had brought. A big ‘thank you’ to Bishop Peterson for letting us use his equipment. We poured the boiled water into our freeze dried pouches and let them sit for 8 or 9 minutes. I had spaghetti and meat sauce. I used too much water but it still wasn’t bad.
We had scheduled our trip to go though Friday. After dinner the first night Kyler looked at me and said “I’m not doing three more days of this.” I couldn’t say that I blamed him. I asked Jeff, our guide without whom we never would have made it, if it was possible to make it out in 3 days and he said “It’d better be because I only brought food for three days.” At that point the decision was made to hike as long and as far as we could tomorrow in an attempt to get out by Thursday.
The sun had barely dipped behind the canyon walls and we were all lying on our beds, which were just a ground pad and a sleeping bag. I had decided before we went that I’d do a nightly devotional that centered around teamwork. I even prepared team building activities. I was a fool to think I’d have to energy for this but still I talked with the boys about team and teamwork before we prayed and tried to sleep foregoing any additional activities.