Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Bites Back
By: Jud Eades


          Kevin and I have done hundreds of canyons together. In February of 2002, we decided to take a break from backcountry skiing and the Olympic traffic and head to Southern Utah for a little canyoneering. Although we have done hundreds of canyons we had never hiked Buckskin Gulch, but it had always been on our to-do list.

          I talked to some guys that did Buckskin in the winter a few years ago and they told me how great it was. I called the BLM on Thursday morning and asked them about the conditions. They said that there were a few pools of water in the "cesspool" area but you could walk around them and that the Paria River was about ankle deep but could be knee deep in some spots. Someone had hiked it less than two weeks ago and had no problems. I gave them my credit card number for the permit and they said they would leave the permit on the back of their info board.

          Kevin and I packed up later that afternoon and headed south. We arrived at the White House Campground around 11:30 that night, threw our bags out on the ground and crashed. Friday morning we woke up about 7 a.m. It was cold! My thermometer registered about 8 degrees. We ate breakfast then ran over to the Paria River to check its depth. It was less than an inch deep (thought we would be in good shape). We found a good tree to lock our Mountain bikes to (shuttle), and started driving to the Wire Pass trailhead. As usual we drove like we were in the Baja 500, next thing we saw was our 5 gallon water cooler airborne out the back of the truck. This really sucked because the first drinking water in Buckskin is about 11+ miles down canyon at the seeps. We didn't want to take the time to drive all the way back to Kanab for water so we decided to go without water until we hit the seeps.

          A little before 9 a.m. we were on our way down Buckskin. The canyon was unbelievable. The tiny seeps in the canyon walls formed huge icicles. When the sun hit the ice it lit the whole canyon up. Other than the ice hanging from the walls, the canyon was bone dry. Shortly after the rock fall we hit the seeps only to discover they were frozen solid.

Trying to break through the ice at the mouth of Buckskin Gulch.

          We made it to the campsite 1/2 mile above the confluence of the Paria River in about 5 hours from the time we left the trailhead. We had originally planned on camping there but because we had made such good time and had plenty of daylight we decided to finish the hike. About 100 yards from the confluence of the two canyons we hit water. By now we were extremely thirsty and wanted water but this wasn't what we had in mind. The water was knee deep with about an inch of ice on it. It looked as though the pool of water only went to the confluence then ended at some muddy snow. We decided to head for the muddy snow. It was slow going because the ice was just thick enough to tease you into thinking it would hold you, and then crack! You would be up to your knee in ice water. We found it easier to break the ice with our feet and then walk through it. We continued to break the ice in front of us and pushed on. Once we got to the muddy snow we realized it was muddy slush on top of more ice.

          We could now see up the Paria, and it looked like the ice ended a short way up the canyon. It was obvious that somewhere down the Paria there was an ice dam. One would think that in a canyon the deepest part would be down canyon at the dam, so as long as we headed up canyon it shouldn't get any deeper. In fact it would probably be similar to Buckskin. We figured a hundred or so yards up canyon we would be home free. Well, a hundred yards passed and we were still knee deep; then the next 500 yards passed and we were still knee deep. The canyon twisted and turned but we always hoped that around the next corner we would see sand. We kept in mind the fact that we needed to have enough energy to make it back to Buckskin if it didn't get any better.

Kevin trying to get on top of the ice at the Confluence.

          After about 1/2 mile the Paria Canyon narrowed down to 5 or 6 feet wide. As we headed for it we broke through another layer of ice and went up to our chests in water. Oh Baby, that will take your breath away! Turned out that a few nights before we were there it was extremely cold and chunks of ice froze together somewhere down canyon. This stopped the flow and created a reservoir. At night when the temps went down into single digits the top layer would freeze about 1 inch thick. During the day more water would fill behind the dam and then it would freeze. This must have happened 3 or 4 times. By the time we got there we had 3 or 4 layers of one-inch thick ice with about 12-18 inches of water between them. On top of these ice layers sat this muddy snow that was about 6 inches thick.

          We had now broken through all three layers and had been in the water for over half an hour. We could not feel our feet or legs. We thought we were walking on the bottom of the river but the last 100 yards we were actually walking on the last layer of ice. The river continued to get deeper as we went up canyon. We were never in a panic; we kept our cool and decided to go back to Buckskin. (I'm still curious how much further the ice went). We were worried about our legs cramping up so we moved really fast towards Buckskin. We had no feeling in our legs so we couldn't feel the first and second layers of ice as our shins and quads broke through them. Once we made it to the dry ground in Buckskin we noticed our shins were like hamburger. Kevin said, "Remind me to kick your ass for taking me down this easy canyon."

          Under the circumstances all we could do was laugh. We pride ourselves on being careful and respecting the outdoors. We also enjoy pushing ourselves. If we had even a little hunch that we were going to run into layers of ice and water we wouldn't have done it. We both own dry suits and double thick wetsuits but we left them at home because we were sure that we wouldn't need them. Hundreds of people do this canyon every winter without them and have no problems. Unfortunately we hit it during a time of record breaking low temps.

The first ice encountered in Buckskin was about 1" thick.

          Once back in Buckskin Gulch we immediately started a fire and stripped down to nothing but birthday suits to dry off. We had dry tops and bottoms in our packs that we brought to sleep in. We put them on with our expedition down jackets (we carry these with us even in summer for emergencies). We dried out our Schoeller pants beside the fire.

          Even though we had sleeping bags and bivy sacks, we knew that sleeping in the freezing temperature in our present state would most likely cause some major tissue damage. We both knew we needed to keep moving and get to a hotel and soak our legs in lukewarm water. Our legs were in bad shape; we still couldn't feel them. The evening temperatures quickly dropped into single digits again. But the worst part was that we had almost finished the hike if we could have just made it through the ice. Now we had to turn back and go the 13 miles to the trailhead where we started. That's a lot of mileage in one day with a pack full of overnight gear, let alone doing it at night with no feeling in your legs.

          I had a satellite phone with me that I used to host my Outdoor Radio show on KSL in Salt Lake City so I called my wife to let her know what had happened. I knew that if one of us got in bad shape we could call Kanab Search and Rescue and have them meet us at the middle exit trail. It crossed my mind as an easy way out of the situation but we were pretty confident we could make it out on our own. About half way back we cooked up some Jambalaya Rice and put some canned chicken in with it. It normally serves six, but we were so exhausted and hungry we "killed" the whole thing.

At the confluence looking back up Buckskin.

          There was no moon out so it was like being in a cave. All we could see was what our headlamps illuminated. It took us about 6 hours to hike out. We got in the truck, turned the heater on, and drove to the White House Trailhead to pick up our bikes. We both jumped out and almost fell on our faces. That was the first time in this whole ordeal that the pain was unbelievable. The feeling had started to come back in parts of our legs and they really hurt. Getting out into the cold air again caused our bodies to scream, "Get back in the heated truck you stupid SOB!" We struggled over to pick up our bikes and headed to the Shilo Inn in Kanab where we spent the whole night taking turns soaking in the bathtub. We had to keep the temperature of the water somewhere between cold as hell and lukewarm. Any warmer than that burned like nothing I have ever felt before.

          The next morning I hosted the radio show from my hotel bed, lied to everyone and told them I was fine. We then drove back to Salt Lake City to seek the advice of frostbite experts. We ended up in bed for a week with our legs elevated trying to get the swelling to go down. Our legs swelled to twice their normal size, it looked as though the skin was going to tear. They got black and blue and remained numb for about 2 months. Kevin had tingling in his feet for almost a year after that. Even though both of us got pretty beat up, we ended up just fine. We actually had a good time. The canyon was literally unbelievable.

Related Link:
Buckskin Gulch Route Information

Juds legs after 45 minutes in the Buckskin Ice


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