Swell or Bust – December 2007 – By Kurt W

12/07 – 12/10/07
(Last Updated 09/29/08)

When a last minute trip, gets a last minute storm… things can’t be going all that well. It’s not that the trip was really all that “last minute” per say, a group of us had planned to do something on this particular weekend for several months. Likewise the storm probably wasn’t that “last minute” either, I just failed to look into the weather until I started hearing about the nasty storm that was expected to blanket much of the Canyon Country with a half foot or more of snow. We had several options in mind for the trip, going to the San Rafael Swell was always a no-brainer, but I’ve longed to get back to the Gandy Hot Springs out in the Great Basin, how to decide? I proposed the ideas to a couple of the attendees; the SR Swell gathered the most interest. That is until the news of bad weather loomed overhead. I’ve never called a trip on behalf of weather, why start now? Cody was in, Jason & Tami were in, John was in, and as always Richard was in. It was officially on, we were headed to the Swell, rain, snow or shine.

Day 1 – Friday – 12/07/07:

Things never go as smooth as they should on a Friday, our 4:00pm launch time quickly became a 4:30, 5:00, etc. We finally hit the interstate right in the middle of the 5 o’clock rush hour traffic, as if that wasn’t aggregating enough the snow was starting to fly. Interstate 15 was bumper to bumper from Sandy to Spanish Fork, the rush hour traffic had us slowed to 50 mph or less for the entire stretch. As we climbed Spanish Fork Canyon the traffic died off and much to the surprise of our convoy, the roads were clear and mostly dry. Our first stop would be just off of Highway 191 in Price. Richard, John and I had caravanned from Sandy, Cody, Jason and Tami wouldn’t be too far behind so we opted to wait and regroup there before moving on. In less than 30 minutes our group was complete and we were moving south towards Ferron on State Route 10. We stopped at the gas station in Ferron still shocked by the amount of snow, more properly the lack thereof. At this point we all believed the weather reports were flawed at best. It was cold alright, but there was very little snow on the ground, different than the 6+ inches the news had reported as falling in the area.

(Horn Silver Gulch Road)

We entered the Swell at Ferron along the Horn Silver Gulch Road and by the time the pavement ended and the dirt road started we were on snowpack, that same 6 inches we had heard so much about. Our group forged through the snow, making fresh tracks all the way to the Fuller Bottom Intersection. There, we continued east another half mile to the intersection with the Coal Wash. My original plan had us continuing east along a seldom used “Jeep Trail” indicated on the topographic maps. The trail started at the same point as the Coal Wash trail, it would be the perfect staging area for our weekend plans, very little back tracking. As it turns out it would be even less back tracking than anticipated, the road was completely washed out near the crest of a small hill. Had their not been a layer of crusty ice on the ground, we likely could have maneuvered through the washout. Given our current situation, we didn’t even try rather opting to camp right at the intersection.

(Camp 1)

With a makeshift fire ring on top of the snow, we had just enough fire to cook some food and warm up before bed. I really need to thank Richard for supplying a weekends worth of wood, it saved the night time fire scene! Following a short time huddled around the fire we retired to our beds, with temperatures in the low teens, it was bound to be a long night.

Day 2 – Saturday – 12/08/07:

Frozen, everything was literally frozen. Water in bottles inside my Land Cruiser, Coal Wash, the stream we would travel down, even the firewood, frozen. Cold mornings always seem to yield a slow start, this morning was no different. One by one we came out of our cocoons, some sleeping in their rigs, some in ground tents and a couple of us in roof-top-tents… while I don’t think any had a clear advantage over the others, the tent heater the both Jason and I were using inside of our roof top tents seemed to take the chill off, don’t leave home without one! We had a lot of ground to cover and with the uncertain trail conditions ahead, we made our move and hit the trail.

(Coal Wash)

The first section of our intended path would take us south along the Eva Connover Road. Our group made excellent time along the way yet still stopping just enough to satisfy our curiosities at the roadside oddities and snap a couple of photos. By noon we had reached Interstate 70 and were ready for a lunch break. After a leisurely lunch we mounted up and moved towards Eagle Canyon, not stopping until we were parked underneath the Interstate 70 bridges that span the canyon. We stopped under the bridges to marvel at the engineering and the shear amount of work that went into their construction. From the bridges we made our way towards the Swazey’s Cabin. Our only worry for the trip was the amount of snow we kept hearing about, if there was anywhere it would stop us it would be Eagle Canyon, specifically the climb we still had to conquer. As it turns out the snow wasn’t so bad, Cody had a failed front hub that gave him a tiny bit of trouble in a particularly steep spot, but the rest of the jaunt went without a problem. At Swazey’s Cabin we spent a minute poking around the 19th century digs, marveling at the life early settlers lived, no cars, no phones, and no freeway intersecting their precious rangeland.

(Eagle Canyon)

(Swazey’s Cabin)

It was time to settle for the night, and I had a perfect spot in mind… the Lone Warrior. The campsite sits just a few hundred yards short of the pictograph that gives the location its name. A perfect spot for a small group, surrounded by rocks on three sides it gave us some protection from the cold wind while still offering some stellar views. We spend the evening huddled around the warmth of the campfire, over shadowed by the red rock walls on 3 sides.

Day 3 – Sunday – 12/09/07:

We woke Sunday morning and slowly shook the cold off, there’s nothing like waking up to below freezing temps outside. Our days plans would take us north, back across Interstate 70 where we planned to run the Devils Racetrack trail, Fix it Pass and over Cane Wash, eventually camping somewhere in the Buckhorn Wash corridor. Quite a bit of ground to cover, but having done most of that route before, I didn’t think it was out of reach, especially considering our loose camping plans for Sunday night and our experienced group.

(Devils Race Track)

Our journey continued by out crossing underneath the interstate, using the tunnels built during their construction, just wide and tall enough for a full-size vehicle. Within minutes of the crossing we were well into the trail. The Devils Racetrack Trail is likely one of the most difficult routes in the San Rafael Swell region, with several intimidating ledge sections and plenty of rocks to maneuver around. While it is pale in comparison to many of Utah’s more difficult trails, one has to consider the amount of gear we had packed for 4 days of winter camping, thus the rigs were heavy and I had a trailer in tow, enough to make a moderate trail reasonably difficult. Add scattered patches of snow to that and we had all the variables for a disastrous day, always a though in the back of my mind. We continued north making great time on the trail, everyone did a great job working through the obstacles and long stretches of snow covered trail, no problems to speak of!

(Fix It Pass)

With Devils Racetrack behind us, we started up Fix It Pass. Again heavy rigs, patches of snow and the varying trail reports had us a bit uneasy. I had never made the journey over Fix It Pass and reports on the trail often include words like “impassible to a 4×4” or “extremely difficult”. We quickly found one section of the trail that was going to take a fair amount of work to get everyone though. I was first to go, with my heavy Land Cruiser and a proportionately trailer in tow I made my way through the narrow rock section. With both lockers engaged and in my lowest gears I wound my way through the obstacles with the stupendous help of a handful of spotters. I continued up the trail through the next switchback leaving enough room for the rest to clear the obstacle. One by one the group worked through the section, the most notable being John in his Land Rover which got a bit tippy with a tire in the air as he climbed a small ledge. Thankful to have that behind us we crossed over the actual pass and hurried towards Cane Wash with dark falling upon us. Cane Wash was an absolute riot. While the speeds were nowhere near that of a true “Baja” run, I still term it “Baja Style” given the ridiculous speeds we were making through the sandy wash that is Cane Wash. Cody and I were first to reach the trails terminus with the Cottonwood Draw Road, one by one the others trickled in and we contemplated our next move, finding camp for the night.

(Calf Mesa)

With the trip home on tomorrows schedule, it made sense to travel north in search of camp. Just after the Swinging Bridge, we veered east along the Mexican Mountain Road. Jason and Tami had a campsite in mind that would have us right down along the San Rafael River. The road was an absolute mess, mud three or four inches deep across the entire width of the road, slick as snot! Not deep enough to stop a rig in its tracks, just deep enough to coat anything and everything with an evenly distributed layer of the sludge. The camp was slightly better, the thin layer of vegetation kept the mud at bay and we were able to enjoy and yet another evening circled around the campfire and chatting about things so random I can’t even remember them.

Day 4 – Monday – 12/10/07:

My alarm clock woke me just as planned… which was way too early. It was a Monday and I knew I’d have a lot of work to do back in Salt Lake, in a brief moment of insanity I decided to get up at 6am and hit the trail towards home. As planned I’d be back in town by 9am, about the time my days normally kick off. I had prepped the Cruiser for an early start the night before, literally the only thing I had to do was stow my tent and climb in the driver’s seat. As I climbed out of the tent and down the ladder I was completely surprised by the frozen ground. The mud had frozen rock solid, literally setting up like concrete. I didn’t think much of it, in fact I was actually happy to think I wouldn’t be heading out in the same nasty mess I had encountered the evening prior. I warmed up the Cruiser while I stretched the cold vinyl cover over the tent, man it was frigid! I did a quick walk around of my rig, making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, everything was good to go so I climbed into the helm. I shifted the trans into first and slowly released the clutch while giving it just a slight amount of throttle. Nothing at all, odd, it felt like the park brake was still set. I double checked, and even felt its release carefully to ensure it wasn’t stuck, felt alright. Again I release the clutch and gave it a bit more throttle, like a massive release of energy the tires broke from their frozen mire and started rolling. To this day I am amazed how glued my tires and the ground had become, I’ve never had a vehicle become so frozen to the ground. I snuck out of camp quietly, trying my best to not wake the others, idling for the first couple hundred yards until I had reached the Mexican Mountain Road. Just as the ground back in camp, the road was solid as a rock, easy sailing. I continued north along Buckhorn Wash eventually exiting the Swell in Castle Dale. I aired up the tires and gassed up in Huntington and had an uneventful drive home, arriving just as planned ~9am. Still too early!

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