Monday, June 25, 2012

Hell and Back: Hell's Hole Overnighter

Salome Wilderness

I knew planning a backpacking trip in Arizona presented a new set of unfamiliar challenges, mainly because of the intense heat and lack of water. I thought I found the perfect trip to introduce my girlfriend Sarah to backpacking, and introduce me to this new kind of desert backpacking, to a place called Hell's Hole, in the Salome Wilderness near Roosevelt Lake in the Tonto National Forest. On paper it sounded pretty simple; 12 miles round trip, 2700 feet of accumulated elevation gain. Plenty of shade. Plenty of water. In fact from the research I did in guidebooks and online, I somehow got the impression that water was everywhere, even in the summer. Boy was I wrong.

The trail started out easy, in a pretty forest full of huge Ponderosa pine (my second favorite tree), and even though it was 100 degrees, at least we were hiking in the shade. Early on we ran into a hunter checking a game camera who complained that numerous bears were tripping the camera. Not a great sign, and from then on out I was on the lookout for bears. Especially since black bear attacks were dominating the local news. According to what we read, we expected to have several stream crossings on the trail, some maybe waist deep, but every stream we came too was dry. Although this concerned me, they were very small streams, and even up north it wouldn't necessarily be unusual to see some dry this time of year.

Workman Creek

After an hour or so of hiking we arrived at Workman Creek. This was supposed to be a large creek where I expected we would have to don water shoes and wade across, but it had slowed to a trickle. There were two small pools of relatively clear water, and mint plants growing along the banks. This is where I made a big mistake. Sarah and I both had plenty of water, and thinking that we had plenty to make it down to Hell's Hole at the canyon bottom, I didn't stop to drink or replenish our supply.

Funnel Web Spider den
The further we got into the heart of the wilderness the more animal sign I spotted. I saw fur, coyote and bear scat, and even cat tracks. We saw all kinds of insects including funnel web spiders, beetles, caterpillars and bees.

By the time we started our descent into the canyon we were both tired and dehydrated even though we had been drinking water regularly. I learned quickly that in this heat your body sweats out water faster than your can replace it.

 The closer we got to Hell's Hole, the more bear scat I saw. I started to see signs of bear everywhere: overturned rocks, scratched up trees, and large fresh bear droppings so close together that I thought we might actually be following a bear down the trail. I considered turning around because from what I had seen and heard thus far I was concerned we would run into a bear. I decided against it though because it was getting late, and I didn't want to attempt navigating in the dark. Plus, being that we were so close to Hell's Hole, we were looking forward to taking a swim and drinking some water because we were just so hot and thirsty.

The trail down to Hell's Hole is steep and rugged. In fact it's some of the most rugged terrain I have ever been on. It was slow going and hard work, mostly because we were walking on loose rock and steep terrain, but also because I was constantly on the lookout for snakes, even though I thought it might be too hot for them (which it was, we didn't see any). By the time we reached the bottom we were both thirsty and exhausted, and to our shock and utter dismay, the creek was totally dry.

Descending in to the canyon.

After a quick search of the area I found what was left of this canyon paradise that was supposed to be filled with waterfalls and pools, was a small pool of putrid green water, surrounded by animal tracks with a big pile of fresh bear shit near the waters edge, as if a bear had taken a crap while having a drink. To say that I was discouraged by this discovery is an understatement. My mouth was totally parched and I was already nauseous with dehydration. I did an inventory of our water. Both of our water bladders were empty. Sarah had two full plastic water bottles totaling 1 liter and I had a large 1 liter water bottle full. I considered filtering and boiling the putrid green water in the pool, but I decided against it because it just looked so nasty, and I felt so miserable that all I wanted to do was lay down.

Because we were so low on water I decided it would be best not to cook dinner because our freeze-dried meal needed two cups of water, and I didn't think we should waste even two cups. We tried just snacking, but the high sodium content of our trail mix and dehydrated fruit made us more thirsty. Besides that, it was nearly impossible to swallow with a totally dry mouth. In the end we ate practically nothing, and shared one bottle of water. I poured one liter in Sarah's bladder and the last half-a-liter in my bladder, and that's all we had for the hike out of the canyon the next day, which I was totally dreading.

Before we went to bed I hung our food bag in a tree well away from our camp. I was worried about bears because all the sign we had seen on the trail, and because there was fresh scat in and around our camp. I didn't mention this to Sarah because I didn't want her to worry, but counting the scat I saw near the green pool, there were 5 large piles of very fresh berry-filled bear crap in and around our camp. I already felt terrible about the water situation, and even though she was being a total trooper, I didn't want to alarm her any further. In fact, Sarah was totally amazing on this trip. She was calm and cool the entire time, and didn't utter a word of complaint. I kept thinking how lucky I am to have her. Once when I asked her if she was okay she replied, "Don't worry about me. I can handle it. I'm a Higgins."

Hells Hole camp

That night Sarah fell asleep rather quickly, but for me it was a different story. I kept second-guessing myself and some of the decisions I made on the trip. Frankly I was disappointed and angry with myself for putting Sarah in this situation. I was also worried about bears. The forest in that canyon came alive when the sun went down, and I could hear animals moving about all around us. At one point I smelled skunk, another I heard something drinking from the green pool, and numerous time I heard footfalls in the dirt around camp. I thought for sure I would be seeing a bear that night. I kept thinking of a conversation I had with my friend James the night before. He thought I was crazy because I wasn't planning on bringing bear spray."You're not worried about black bears?" he asked. "Nope", I replied confidently, "up north I only bring bear spray into Grizzly country." And here I was laying in this tent with the love of my life, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and worrying about black bears. I didn't sleep.

I woke Sarah up around 5:30AM and we packed up and started the hike back. Of course we had to skip breakfast because we had no water. Neither of us were in any condition for such a grueling hike, especially me. I guess it's because Sarah has lived in the desert so long that she wasn't feeling the effects of the heat or thirst as bad as me, or if she did she wasn't vocalizing it to me. It wasn't long on the ascent up the canyon that I began to feel sick again. Any second I felt like I was going to vomit. I was taking tiny sips of water (to conserve it) but it wasn't enough. I felt lethargic and sick to my stomach, and moved slowly. We took a couple early breaks. About a mile up the canyon I ran out of water completely, and regretted immediately not taking some water from the green pool. Yes it was nasty and stinky, but It could potentially be a lifesaver. I kept thinking of Cody Lundine from Dual Survival and remembering an episode where he drank from a pool much like the one I passed up, and saying something like, "If you find water in the desert, you better drink it." As I slowly trudged up the canyon my head pounded with every heartbeat, and I felt like I would upchuck any second. Between day dreaming of water I kept picturing myself laid up in the brush while Sarah tried to make it back to the Durango to get help. I would have never forgiven myself if something bad would have happened to her, but physically she was faring much better than me. I kept thinking that I let her down by not being as prepared as I should have. It was a hard feeling to shake.

But we finally made it out of the canyon, which was a big morale boost for both of us. The hiking in the forest was much easier as we weren't going straight up, and the big pine trees protected us from the sun, but the heat was still brutal and we were totally parched. When we reached Workman Creek again I stopped and filtered water. It wasn't very cold, and didn't taste very good, but I drank deeply anyway. We were both glad to see the Durango at the trailhead, and the first store we came to we stopped and bought a bunch of food and drink.

This was my first time backpacking in Arizona and a big learning experience for me, and what I learned was this:

1) Make 100% sure the water source you are relying on actually exists.

2) When coming across water, drink what you already have and refill, even if you think you have enough or don't feel thirsty.

3) If you're out of water and all you have to drink is a green pool of nasty water that smells like shit, make it as safe as you possibly can, and drink it anyways.