Flying Through Death Hollow

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Nadim Abu Haidar pilots his Cessna 206 with the confidence born from decades at the helm of airplanes. He’s been shot at over Iraq, and landed on decks of aircraft carriers. Once while on the flanks of Mt. Timpanogos, he overflew us, and demonstrated a perfect loop-de-loop overhead, as we gaped in awe. If you want to learn how to do this, he has a tutorial online! Being a former Top-Gun jet fighter pilot makes today’s flight, crossing the quiet, scenic skies of rural Utah, a walk in the park for him.

Normally he and his crew drop adventurers off in Utah or surrounding states’ backcountry and come back later to retrieve them. But in this case, we not only get to fly with OK3 Air’s chief pilot, we’ll spend 3 days hiking through remote and inspiring Death Hollow together. He proves as fun and competent on the ground as in the air. Jim Holland, former US Olympic Ski Jumper, joins us to test gear for Backcountry.com. Paul, editor of the Utah Adventure Journal; and I, mountain guide lost in the desert, round out the crew.

We lift off from Heber Municipal Airport, needing only 1000’ to get airborne, despite packs and gear for 3 days in the desert. This machine can haul up to 1400 lbs., and today it has power to spare! As we arc south past Cascade Mountain, Provo Peak, and finally Mt. Nebo on the right, we see the Wasatch Plateau country on our left. Our eyes, camera shutters, and attention are glued to the windows.

Conversation is inspired by the views below, and we share stories. Nadim and his wife pedaling the Manti Skyline in brilliant fall colors; Jim and his brother sleeping on top of Nebo before skiing corn down the NW Chutes; Paul roaming the Utah Deserts for weeks at a time; and my powdery WPG heli-ski guiding days in the little-known Cascade sub-range of the Wasatch.

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Memories, musings and dreams are interspersed with more serious discussions. We can’t see as far southeast as we’d like, due to a brownish, smoggy haze. Cruising at nearly 13,000 feet, Nadim says he’s seen this cloud more frequently in recent years between 10-12,000 feet. Why would pollution clouds linger over non-urban Utah? Several answers are offered…displaced urban haze, coal plants in Castle Valley, gas and oil production in the Uinta Basin. We’re as mystified as we are concerned, but no one has a valid explanation.

I recount that researchers in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming found traces of smog deposits on glacial surfaces. The organic footprint of these molecules was traced to the Los Angeles basin! It’s amazing that smog could travel that far, in concentrations high enough, to be recognizable. But, if so, this yellow layer, that we see obscuring the desert country of Southeast Utah, could easily be a similar phenomenon.

Winging on south of Mary’s Nipple- a high point of the Wasatch Plateau, Cathedral Valley to the east shows its sheer spires. Looking like a larger version of the Fisher Towers, I vow to visit these mudstone fins in northwestern Capitol Reef National Park.

The erroneously named Thousand Lakes Mountain lies under our belly. Nadim explains that geographers goofed up the early Utah maps by switching the name of this plateau with Boulder Mountain to the south. The high point of Aquarius Plateau, what is today called Boulder Mountain is a vast, 11,000′ plateau bulging out of the desert and still sporting snowdrifts in June. Unlike the misnomer to its north, Boulder Mountain’s landscape is dotted with small glacial tarns in early summer. It’s obvious why it was meant to be called Thousand Lakes Mountain. Sizable, year-round deep blue and emerald lakes also nestle below the plateau’s well-defined rim.

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Nadim, an avid fisherman who loves the Escalante Desert, and has recently built a house there, tells a story of casting flies for trout up to 7 lbs(!) in these high mountain lakes. They fished until sunset, and then rode horses down off the plateau in the black of night. Apparently, the mineral-rich soil on this “laccolith,” or frustrated volcano, grows unusually large leeches, which feed and grow huge trout! He tried to go back with his family to fish these lakes, using the rough, rocky 4WD access roads, but lacked clearance. Since then, he added a lift kit, power and better tires to the now sweet, black Tahoe we see at the Boulder airstrip. This summer, he won’t be denied access to the fishing holes of Boulder Mountain!

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We make a loop around the remote, red-dirt runway to make sure its clear before gliding in and rolling safely to a stop on our oversized landing tires. Nadim has told us about his peppermint-soaked mothball formula to ward off the varmints that have infiltrated his vehicle while parked at the airstrip. He immediately checks, and is stoked to report the pungent strategy succeeded. His rig is vermin-free!

We’ll start our hike directly from this airstrip. What could be better? Jim volunteers to drive to Escalante, the exit point of our through-hike, while Paul and Nadim fly over and pick him up. We regroup at the trailhead, shoulder our loads, and hit the old Boulder Mail Trail less than 3 hours after lifting off from Heber.

Pinion and Juniper forest soon gives way to white, Navajo sandstone, as we skirt the head of Calf Creek and descend to Sand Creek. Water flows year-round in these creeks, since it springs forth from an underground aquifer. We carry a gravity-fed Platypus filter, and can readily replenish our water supply. No need to weigh one’s self down with more than a liter at a time in this blessedly well-hydrated sector of the desert.

Bearing west, and downstream, we follow the winding course of Sand Creek only briefly before climbing out and following the 1910-era telephone line, strung from tree to tree, along the historic Boulder Mail Trail to Escalante. This breaking-down relic from life before cell phones connected Boulder to the outside world. Horses carried mail on the rugged trail until Highway 12 was completed in 1940. We find minor improvements, including stairs that enabled horses to travel a route daunting even to humans. At every turn, we marvel at the fortitude of those beasts of burden and the men who led them.

The last 700’ descent into Death Hollow is as spectacular as it is improbable. At each horizon we see vertical drops to the narrow canyon below, yet astute route finding reveals a line down that never gets too steep or requires a rope. Soon we’re wading into Death Hollow Creek. Lush vegetation and Ponderosa Pines, soaring to 100,’ confirm this creek flows year-round. The route crosses back and forth over the stream, and the best footwear is debatable.

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Jim favors a pair of wetsuit-type booties, Nadim sticks with his porous shoe/sandals, and Paul wears his running shoes right through. I switch to Chaco sandals but find sand gets under the straps on the dry portions, and chafes my wet feet. Frequent sightings of poison ivy further induce me to go back to socks and light hikers instead. This combination proves functional for the entire trek, however in retrospect, I would’ve worn pants in these areas. Poison Ivy takes a while to go away, and Death Hollow has a reputation for it. But I don’t change shoes this evening, because we soon find the perfect camping spot.

It’s a sandy ledge, 10-15 feet above the creek, overhung by a solid-looking sandstone roof, we dub tonight’s home the OK3 alcove. These sorts of “alcoves” are what the Anasazi people built in a thousand years ago, and prove to still be ideal camping spots in desert canyons, so long as the roof doesn’t collapse! Three of us have a friend to whom this actually happened once.

Ron and Marta experienced a rockfall while sleeping in the desert, and both of them were severely injured. Ron had to hobble for miles to get help while Marta remained immobilized. This painful reminder of Mother Nature’s occasional wrath was not entirely random, only in that it happened in March during a frontal passage with a few inches of snow. But I have always kept it in mind when selecting a campsite.

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Beers are made cold in the stream while Nadim catches a brown trout during the evening feeding session, and soon we’re kicking back on our sandy ledge sipping ale and snacking on Paul’s fine appetizer selection: hard salami, gouda cheese and crackers. Tasty Bite entrees poured over rice or couscous is the main course. We wash it down with hot chocolate and a shot of High West whiskey before stretching out for a fine, mild night of sleeping under the stars.

Nadim gets up early the next morning and reels in another fresh trout for our breakfast. He had numerous others skitter away on him before he could even present a fly. These fish are as hard to hook as they are delicious. We supplement our trout taster with a bowl of oats, and are soon heading downstream. While Nadim is casting a fly in every promising pool, Paul and I get ahead. Looking for a good place to wait, we come across a white sand beach next to a deep, blue pool. Lunch in the shade and a swim goes down well as the heat of the day arrives.

Yet the 85-degrees never feels oppressive. Our feet are constantly in and out of the water, and the tall canyon walls keep it shaded. Soon we come upon a narrow gorge that proves to be the trickiest part of the hike. Nadim, who typically hikes with a lit cigar to ward off mosquitoes, goes first. Slipping off the narrow ledge into deep water, he’s soon up to his neck. Although no one has the presence of mind to capture the moment on film, we note that his cigar stays dry, even though the pack doesn’t. Obviously a man who thinks quickly on his feet (or off.)

I use my 50’ of 5 mm rope to lower the remaining packs to Jim after he smoothly negotiates the crux. I climb around it, and Paul swims through. Although short, this intimidating section reminds us that a “non-technical” canyon still has challenges. Because we all climb, rappel and seek adventure, the route-finding and scrambling are pretty easy. But in different conditions, or for someone new to desert trekking, Death Hollow could be daunting.

Nadim tries a few different flies in attempt to catch dinner on the very promising section of stream that follows. It has the perfect combination of pools alternating with rapids. The canyon walls also continue to close in and grow. Its getting late in the afternoon. We pass one small, sandy campsite and keep a sharp eye out for a better one. Sure enough, within the next mile, just around 5 pm, we spot the perfect alcove. A black water streak that defies gravity as it runs down a 135-degree roof marks one side of a cavernous overhang.

We settle in to enjoy another warm, starry desert night, savoring the peace and quiet. It’s hard to beat the relaxation. We’re so far from noise, commotion and conflict. We haven’t seen another human since we left the trailhead, and won’t for 2.5 days. Perhaps we’ve been lucky, but the complete solitude has been tremendous. By the middle of the last day, a mile up the Escalante River from its confluence with Mamie Creek, we finally meet other parties, many just day-hiking from Escalante. Clearly, the 3-day / 2-night / 1-way hike is too much commitment for most. The Escalante is also a broader canyon with a better trail.

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The last 5 miles of our 24-mile, trek is relatively hot and dry. Little water runs in the Escalante River. It’s being used for irrigation upstream. Nonetheless, the hike remains scenic, including a dance hall sized alcove just 2 miles before the Escalante Town trailhead. A short way upstream, we also see our first Anasazi Pictograph. Jim poses for a picture wearing his shirt with a trademark Backcountry.com goat icon next to the Native American-carved goat.

A memorable trip winds down over pizza and beer with Nate Waggoner at Escalante Outfitters. He helped us with our car shuttle and gave us good local “beta” on current conditions. A fishing guide and naturalist, he also offers caching services. If you want a camp or supplies stashed somewhere in the desert, he’s the man to call. If you want a canyoneering guide for a technical descent, he’ll line you up.

Regardless of your reason for going to the desert…climbing, hiking, camping, biking, pack-rafting, canyoneering, skiing or just plain relaxing…flying down with OK3 Air is a classy, fun and green way to go. You’ll burn about the same amount of gas in 1/4 of the time, as you would by driving. You’ll arrive early enough to play the same day, and get back in time for dinner. And you’ll see Utah’s incomparable topography from a bird’s eye point of view.

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