I am often so proud of myself when I have left the four-wheeler garaged and walk to the fields to feed the farm animals — hobby animals I like to refer to as farm animals. I am now ashamed to admit that a fellow classmate no older classmate, Thomas Mabry, did the unthinkable and probably inconceivable a couple of years ago when he conquered hiking the Black Canyon to the Gunnison River in Colorado. By the way, Knox the Fox wanted no part of this trip, ever, fox or not.
If you are thinking it’s not a big deal, read on. First of all, Thomas, aka, Badger, is hiking after 15 previous orthopedic surgeries including ACL reconstruction, a fused right ankle due to lower leg reconstruction and a left hip replacement, but maybe he is a bionic man. I think his secret weapon though is Kitty Myers, aka, Rock Sprite, who is keen on figuring the logistics of their trips.
Rock Sprite Kitty determined that that their best bet for getting to Gunnison River in the Black Canyon was the Echo Canyon Route, a 1.89-mile round trip that dropped approximately 1,800 feet to the Gunnison River. A route is not a trail; there are no trails to where they wanted to go, which was to get up close and personal with The Narrows, which at one point is only 40 yards across and 166 stories to the rim.
Badger Thomas recalls Ranger Gina explaining the potential hazards when he requested a wilderness pass for Echo Canyon.
She stopped and said, “That one is not advertised. It is a Level 4 or 5 hike. I take it that you’re used to extremely steep scrambles and climbing” to which Badger Thomas responded that they did those hikes in the Linville Gorge in North Carolina. Her final comment among others as he completed the Wilderness Permit was “This isn’t the Linville Gorge.”
The National Park Service disclaimer: “Routes are difficult to follow, and only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes. Hikers are expected to find their own way and to be prepared for self-rescue.”
To sum up Badger and Rock Sprite’s “no trail” hike down to Gunnison river, Badger recollects a considerable amount of butt-sliding and cliff-crawling as he discovered 10 future “problem areas” to be encountered when they would have to get out later in the day, and that was a worry, because there’s no bailout in Echo Canyon.
Badger said that Inner Canyon area of the Black Canyon is nothing short of spectacular on both counts and that he has seen the Grand Canyon, but nothing rivals the sheer walls and depth of the rock spires surrounding them as they traversed the canyon.
The two had a moment to eat and drink, as per the recommendations to have plenty of food and at least a gallon of water and they would learn on our way out, they would need all of those resources and more to climb out.
The estimated time for ascending the canyon is 4-5 hours for just the two of them and their day packs, a rope and hiking poles. They left the river at 2 p.m., which allegedly would give them plenty of time to reach the South Rim before darkness at 8 p.m. Remember that word “allegedly.” When the day ended, they found it’s one thing to get down and quite another to go back up.
This account from Badger Thomas of the last of the hike is nerve-wracking to even read:
“I’m not sure I’ve ever been more exhausted on a hike than at this point in Echo Canyon, and we still had 750 feet to climb as darkness was now a factor. We stopped several times, but our water was low, then gone. Even with our headlamps, the places to gain traction were difficult to see. Finally, we saw through the Douglas firs a shining light over Rock Point, and knew immediately that the nearly full moon would help guide our way out.
“We then noticed that the moon was moving in ways that a moon doesn’t move. Initially thinking that the wind in the trees was causing the light to waver, we finally realized that was a headlamp up there on Rock Point way above our location.
“We then heard a human voice from 200 feet up asking, ‘Are you OK down there, you don’t have that far to go.’ We yelled, ‘yes, but we are out of water, and it’s slow going!’ The light was from Ranger Riley, who went for some water and electrolytes while we continued up and further up, until we met him on the trail portion a quarter mile and he helped guide us out.”
As Badger Thomas recalls the end of the trip, Rock Sprite Kitty went ahead with more energy with Badger apologizing for his slow pace caused by a pesky ledge but then he heard Kitty shouting she had reached the trail next to the parking area.
Ranger Riley’s reply to Badger was, “Sir, you’re making it out on your own power, and not everyone does so, and besides I’m on overtime so when you didn’t get back before dark, I came to check on you two. I’m an EMT with Search and Rescue, and Echo Canyon is where we practice our skills. It’s probably the most dangerous canyoneering outside of the river itself. Glad you prevailed.”
Remember my friend’s bionics here, and how I began the description of this adventure with the adjectives as unthinkable and probably inconceivable? It was indeed the adventure of a lifetime and so glad they didn’t shatter their cameras on the butt slides!
I have included these incredible photographs captured by Thomas and Kitty during this trip to show the magnitude of the adventure they took.
See other photography by Thomas Mabry: Thomas Mabry’s Studio
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