Flying over the Utah landscape is always an eye opener for me. I find myself pinned to the window, amazed by the point of view from the air. No matter which way you are coming from there is always some amazing topography to take in. I love scoping out the dirt roads, as you always get a much better lay of the land than when you’re down on the ground, it’s seeing the pieces that tie together a puzzle which you previously hadn’t finished.
Some of the craziest landscape from the air is the canyon country of southern Utah. When the shadows run long it is most intense, but being up in the air over it gives you a unique perspective any time. Looking at it from a jet at thirty-five thousand feet is one thing, seeing it from a Cessna only a thousand feet up is another. When my friends Paul and Tyson asked if I was up to flying down to Robber’s Roost country and getting dropped off and hiking a slot canyon, Blue John, it was all go. When they added that we’d take mountain bikes and set up camp and ride to the trailhead it became an even more unique adventure.
We hooked up with Nadim Abu Haidar, an ex Navy pilot and owner of OK3Air Service in Heber after hearing about the possibility of adventure accessed via backcountry airstrips. Sure beats driving long distance and opens up the possibility of creating custom trips where you get dropped in one spot and picked up in another. A short trip becomes easier to fathom. Options for longer ones remain. Mountain biking, backpacking, road biking, any kind of point to point escapade. Raft companies have done air shuttles for years, why not use it to add some icing to the cake on some other cool adventures?
We meet Nadim at the airport in Heber, and load our bikes and gear for the weekend into the plane, there’s plenty of room for stuff due to the special pod he has mounted on the belly of the plane. Soon we’re airborne. Nadim takes us first on a circumnavigation of Timp so we can check out Tyson’s ski tracks from the day before, a great way to check out all of the shots the massif has to offer.
Our flight takes us over Diamond Fork, across U.S. 6 and we can clearly see the high country of Nebo to the right and the Wasatch Plateau to the left. Then we move across the mining country west of Price, follow Buckhorn Wash down through the Swell and break to the east just north of Hanksville. Going through the Swell we get great views of the Little Grand Canyon and Buckhorn Wash before hitting the San Rafael Reef uplift. Cruising over the Burr Desert between Canyonlands and the Reef we start to see some narrow canyons which cut and snake through the desert plateau in various squiggles and widths. Some of them are too narrow to see the bottom. Robber’s Roost country is legendary as a hideaway for Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch. Canyons twist and wind in a myriad of pathways, some go through, some dead end, some cliff out. Nadim drops down so were flying about 1000 feet off the deck, the views are amazing.
Nadim does a couple of fly-bys to get a good look at our landing strip. Sets her down perfectly and we pull out our three semi-disassembled mountain bikes, a couple of big duffles, a small cooler, a six gallon water jug, Tyson’s pack with the climbing gear, food, and some other odds and ends. We’d been worried we might have been bringing too much but were surprised to find we could have brought more. Nadim flies away and we are suddenly reminded we are in the middle of nowhere. The nearest pavement is about thirty five miles.
It takes a little while shuttling our gear after the drop, setting up camp at the head of Blue John Canyon. Nearby is an old shack that has been rechristened the Motel 6. It’s a trudge hauling a six gallon water jug and food and gear on the bikes so we find camp not too far from the landing strip, a semi- established spot, but off to the side a few hundred yards so we have a decent chance of privacy. We’re not expecting anyone to show up here in the middle of the week and nobody does. The only person we see the whole time is a rancher with a water tanker to fill his cow troughs with when we’re back at the pickup waiting for Nadim two days later.
I’m always brought back to my first trips in the desert when I find myself there again. The quiet stillness. The stars when I’m horizontal before I pass out. The heat beating me during the day. The dehydration I can’t avoid by drinking enough. The shade, the savior we savor. The vastness and nothingness of the place but also the formations, be they fins or spires or walls or washes that turn to slot canyons.
Sitting on the slickrock at camp we’re in a moment of repose. Out of nowhere Tyson says, “Hey guys, the only thing I ask is to not get any grit in my food, I can get kind of grumpy if my teeth hurt. My dentist tells me I have the teeth of a ninety year old.” Due to the fact that sand and dust is rather prevalent in this part of the world, this is excellent fodder for humor for the rest of the weekend.
We have a well built fire ring in our camp, it was key to our choosing it. A fair amount of slickrock and some soft sand for sleeping spots. A big juniper for shade from the afternoon sun. We hike around a bit to get a lay of the land and decide that in the morning we’d ride to the Burr Pass Camp and hike cross country to where the canyon starts to cut in, do a loop down Main Blue John and up the West Fork and ride our bikes back. The book says five to eight hours depending on your shuttle situation. The bikes would be most welcome so we didn’t have to walk the road what we figured was three or four miles at the start and end of the day.
As the sun dips the temps cool and soon the blistering heat of late afternoon turns to a comfortable cool. The bandanas we’ve wrapped our heads with to beef up our hats for face and neck protection are put away. Firewood is easily gathered and we bust out some kabobs we’d brought in the cooler, cooking them by placing one end on the fire ring and the other on a bigger log. When they fall in we start teasing Tyson about the grit he will soon be eagerly chomping. A little dirt goes well with a shot of whiskey in these parts anyhow.
In the morning we ride to Burr Pass Camp and head cross country to the where the canyon starts to drop and narrow. We take a conservative route which will keep our options open until we’re where we want to be- right at the head of the narrows. Tyson’s compass never comes out. Using the only prominent rock formation for guidance we, skirt several washes before heading toward a pyramid peak on the far horizon. We also target a dead tree standing alone on a ridge that looks like it will give a good lay of the land. In about an hour we’re dropping down to a lower rim which is right where we want to be. We down climb into the notch and find ourselves very close to the first rappel, a couple of slings wrapped around a rock with a ring for the rope.
Looking down to the bottom, about 30 feet, we see a weird looking thing that we finally realize is the biggest scorpion of all time, a good four inches across between his pincers, about the same length tip to tail. Realizing he was too incredible to squash by tossing a big rock we decide to work past him, it definitely gets us on full alert. Not knowing much about a scorpion’s climbing capabilities we wonder if he’s trapped in the hole. Talk of putting him in Tyson’s Tupperware and saving him from eventual flash flood doom prospers but we leave him to his resources and pray he leaves us be as well.
Some more short rappels which could possibly be down climbed follow. They’re kind of awkward with their twisty narrow walls but no trouble. We decided we were too far in the middle of nowhere to risk down climbing. All it would take is one twisted ankle and the situation would become instantaneously difficult. Worse than that if a more severe injury occurred. Said Tyson, an experienced mountain guide–“I’d rather err on the side of caution than look back and wish I had.”
After the raps the best part of the canyon was next, about ¼ mile or more of pure beautiful slot, narrow but easily walkable, walls shooting straight up what looked like three or four hundred feet. A perfect southern Utah slot, more perfect because there is absolutely no one else around. When we exit and it widens and becomes a wash again the heat hits us. Head wraps come out and we walk on a while, past several exits, until we get to where the East and West Fork come in. Down Main Blue John another mile or two is a 65 foot rap just below where Aron Ralston got stuck, and famously self-amputated his hand. That would be a through hike into Horseshoe Canyon. We find a shady spot and contemplate checking out the rappel and ascending back up but the day would be getting late and we opt for heading back up West Fork.
West Fork is mellow. Basically a wash with a couple of tighter spots and a few short ups climbs. At one point there is a fork and we opt left, which eventually forces us to travel cross country instead of intersecting the dirt road which will take us back to Burr Pass camp. We realize we goofed so we head in the obvious direction. After about forty five minutes we crest a slight rise and see the rock formation we began the day with. It makes for easy reference and we bee line across the flats toward where we think we need to be and walk up a little wash right to our bikes. A casual ride back to camp and it’s Himalayan delights for dinner, a couple of beers which are still just cold enough and a relaxing end of the day.
In the morning we haul our much lighter pile back to the pick up point. Nadim shows up on schedule. The sky is clear on the way home and we can see the Wasatch all the way from the Swell. On the way back we’re talking about where we should go next time, the possibilities are endless. Before we know it we’re landing in Heber, an hour removed from the Roost and the complete solitude that it provides.
OK3 AIR is owned and operated by Nadim AbuHaidar, who spent 10 years as a pilot with the United States Navy-a “Top- Gun” pilot. They offer a full line of services, including charter, flight instruction, and aircraft maintenance. Operating out of Heber City Municipal Airport OK3 AIR is twenty minutes from Park City and forty minutes from Salt Lake City. Nadim’s 2004 six seater Cessna Turbo 206 is available for scenic flights, aerial adventures, and charters. It can access backcountry airstrips throughout Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming. A couple of Nadim’s favorite backcountry places to fly to are the Ibex Hardpan southwest of Delta, a great climbing area which is a 45 minute flight from Heber. “I had a great trip with my six year old Jack out to Ibex last year biking and scrambling and bouldering There are so many places to land a plane in the backcountry of Utah, it really opens up a whole new world of adventure options.” Another of Nadim’s favorites is a landing strip a couple of miles out of Boulder, Utah, a beautiful spot on the south side the Aquarius Plateau where there are a bunch of options for exploration. In Idaho he loves Cabin Creek and Soldier Bar, two backcountry airstrips in the Frank Church Wilderness. If you’re interested in doing an aerial adventure think about what you need to bring and what else you might want to bring if there’s enough room. The staff of OK3AIR will get you there in style and their expertise will provide guidance with any questions you may have.
Also available is a 2006 Cessna 172 for instruction/rent.