When we last left our intrepid team of trekkers, they were setting off across the desert in the dark…
Part II: Up, over, around, and down
With our gaiters firmly in place and the desert air still dry and “cool,” we crossed Terlingua Creek (which was exactly as technical as Lewis nudging a rock into place and us skipping across), walked the dry tributary creek bed, and out on to the clay flats.
The expanse of soft clay felt like we were walking across a macaroon, leaving easily trackable footprints that we would later appreciate. The clay also radiated heat that it had been holding from the days before. Suddenly we all started doing math in our heads, wondering how it would feel to walk the flat in the scourge of the afternoon sun on our way back to the car.
My guess was that it would feel really hot. Like if you were put in an oven. Satan’s oven.
The open flat was soon interrupted by a stubble of desert plants. Mesquite, all thorn, prickly pear, lechuguilla, ocotillo, cholla, and the particularly sinister claret cup. Everything in the desert wants to kill you. Or rather, it wants to keep you from getting close to it, which I respect. Since some unfortunate childhood experiences, I have given cacti a wide berth. While my gaiters did reduce the diameter of my bubble, it was soon popped altogether by invading spines.
We got up close and personal with some very surly plants.
Bruja is a slot canyon, like a stab wound in the side of a Mesa de Anguilla. Standing on top of the mesa it would have looked like a fissure running across the ground. From where we stood on the plain, the vertical face of the plateau’s northeastern wall loomed, Bruja was just a void. A crack in the wall.
We picked our way through and eventually scrambled up the rocks at the base of the wall, still dodging the “pokies” as Jenna named them.
Then it was time for the adventure to begin in earnest.
The grade of the wall varies from report to report, but it’s in the high 4’s or low 5’s, if that means anything to anyone. There were some moments where those extra inches of arms and legs that the boys had on us girls really made a difference. My own first hurdle came somewhere near the bottom of the wall when it was fingers,toes, and pokies between the ledge I was on and the ledge where I needed to be. There was a rope too, but we were not tied to it.
The little white dot is Colin on reconnaissance.
In life, I’ve made a habit of saying “one, two, three, go!” and jumping off of things. Or cutting things. Or pushing buttons. I can count to three and shut off my brain. But lunging at the next hand hold or sloped surface requires, “one, two, three, quickly-do-the-next-thing.” That’s harder.
Our feet on the first ledge.
Jenna on the other side of the gap.
So we needed a new chant. Fortunately as I hung there quivering, Colin said, “Trust yourself!”
And then I was on the next ledge. The rest of the wall was no problem, not simply because I now trusted my feet, but because it really was a lot easier. We just walked on up the sticky rocks.
From there we walked two miles along a ridge that was like the rim inside the rim of the canyon. This was pretty thick cactus habitat, but we were high on life after a quick ascent.
At the back of the canyon we had snacks in a cave with burn marks on the cieling, and little Native American grain grinding holes outside. We were like ancient peoples…with Camelbacks, a decided evolutionary advantage.
From there we dropped down into the canyon itself. It was a fairly mild drop, just sliding down the smooth walls of the shallowest pool, which happened to be dry. From there we would slowly work our way back to the plane, dropping from pool to pool via rope, wiggle, and hopping.
We moved along in full sun, finding shade along the edge or in crevasses where we could. We were almost to the highlight, the big rappel into water, when came to what would be, for me, the scariest moment of the trek. To get to our rappelling point for the first major drop, we first had to clear a gap. Colin suggested we take a running leap.
“Um…I don’t do run-and-jump,” I said. Playing the one princess card I would allow myself. I don’t. It’s one of those “one, two, three, be coordinated” moments that I avoid. Whenever I try to run and jump, I second guess myself at the last second, try to stop mid-flight, and fall.
Aborting this jump would end in death…or paralysis…and waiting to be rescued…in the heat.
Colin is setting up the rappel on the other side of the gap…while we pretend not to worry about the crossing.
So we figured out another method, which still required leaning across the gap, hands on one side, feet on the other, and pushing off into a precarious hand hold. But “trust yourself” did the trick and we all made it safely across.
From there Colin rigged the rappelling system. I say rappel. Really he lowered us into the pool of water beneath. There was little rappeling involved. Somehow even this uncomplicated plan still found me with my bare feet above my head, butt against the wall. Laughing too hard to help myself.
Once we were lowered into the pool, and safely past the floating cactus on the other side, we watched Colin actually rappel, put our boots back on and continued.
Before long we would rappel again. This time the drop was far more dramatic, into a bigger pool. The boys swam the pool with the packs on their back, keeping them amazingly dry while Jenna and I cleared cacti from the exit of the pool.
Just before we exited the canyon I got to rappel one more time, thanks to a particular feature of my anatomy wedging itself so tightly into a hole that everything from my ribcage on down was dangling in mid-air. I wiggled back out and opted to go over the boulder, rather than have a distinctly female reenactment of 127 Hours.
We polished off the snacks, and made a mad dash for the mouth of the canyon, stunned at our quick pace thus far, and now just going for a quick finish. So many of these adventures fall apart in the last hour.
Ours did not. We were quiet, yes. My trudging was more trudge-like. I’d been wrong about what the clay flat would feel like in the heat of the day. Not an oven. A griddle. Satan’s griddle.
We ran out of water about 1,000 steps from the car. Part of the strategy game that is desert trekking is rationing water, and we were shocked at how well we’d done.
We soaked our top layers in Terlingua Creek (long sleeves are a must in the desert, in one of natures cruelest ironies), and made the final push to the car, where the beer was still cold.
Campsite number two, 1,000 feet higher, 10 degrees cooler.
That night at our 10-degrees-cooler campsite in the Chisos Basin, we marveled at how well the hike had gone. No injuries. No water shortage. And we all still liked each other.