A chilling choice to journey deep into a remote slot canyon far in the Utah backcountry delivers a warm bounty
Adventure teaches us to make decisions. It doesn’t sound like much, but we live in a time of unlimited options. More choices for dinner, more choices for work, more choices for clothes, gear, music, ideologies — the sky is the limit and we get lost in indecision. True adventure forces you to break that habit. It forces you to look at your present options and hammer down the gavel.
My girlfriend Nicole and I are speeding down a gravel road with nothing but arid grasslands on the horizon. Dust is settling on the dash. We haven’t seen pavement for over two hours and my van seems to be rattling off the frame from the endless washboard. We’re headed toward Robber’s Roost, an exceptionally remote part of Utah just west of Canyonlands National Park in search of a slot canyon known as the Northeast Spur Fork.
At around two and a half hours, we came to our first decisive moment. The road traversed over a gnarly ridge of rocks and boulders that threatened to tear out the bottom of my van. Too far from the trailhead to hike, but too far into the journey to want to give up, I rationalized that if things went awry, I could ride my mountain bike back out for help. Going at a snail’s pace, the wheels crawled up and over the rough terrain. To my surprise, we made it over without a hiccup.
Continuing on for another few miles the road continued to degrade and progress slowed. It was past noon by the time we arrived at the trailhead, which meant a much later start than we had hoped. But neither of us wanted to turn back, so we packed our headlamps and headed off.
In We Go
The guidebook suggested to shuttle the canyon. But lacking a second vehicle, we decided to complete it as an out-and-back, traversing the canyon and then hiking back along a dirt road for a total of 12 miles. The first few miles of the canyon were incredible. Beautiful rock formations with walls narrower than my shoulders in places. It was unlike anything either of us had ever seen. Choke stones and logs hung over us from past storms and the canyon continued to blow our minds as we strolled downstream. Then we found the water.
The guidebook stated the canyon was relatively dry, but a wet winter left its mark. We encountered more and more water crossings. Attempting to keep our socks dry, the smooth sandstone walls became a game of strategic stemming. Contorting our bodies and smearing our hiking boots, we were enjoying the challenge and laughing at each other for any mishap that resulted in a muddy boot.
For miles we climbed and crawled through twisted waterways as the canyon cut deeper into the surrounding rock. At about halfway we came to a large room with water reaching wall to wall and no way around. The water was very cold and neither one of us were keen to jump in, but we had to decide whether to cross the water or turn back and look for one of the escape routes mentioned in the guidebook. It was another one of those moments of unease, uncertain of the right choice. If we make it across, will there be more? And if we are only half way, do we even have the energy to complete the route?
I decided I would test it and stripped down to my birthday suit. I lowered myself into the water letting out shrieks only a grown man in cold water can make. Nicole laughed from above. I was about waist deep in frigid, and I mean FRIGID, water and began to make my way across the pool. A third of the way across, where the water was about chest deep, I quickly retreated back to warmth. Pure determination gave me the courage to try again. Making it a few feet further than the first attempt, the water peaked at about neck deep and I began to climb up the other side. I threw my photography bag over my head and pushed through and out of the piercing water.
Adrenaline going and my body tingling, I headed back in for another ice bath to retrieve our heavy bag of gear. A foot taller than Nicole — and the best boyfriend ever — I took one more trip carrying Nicole on my shoulders to save her from a brutal swim. As if it was by design, immediately after this pool the canyon opened up wide enough to get direct sunlight on the floor. I stood there nude absorbing all of the sun’s warmth into my shivering body, laughing with Nicole at how absurd and amazing that experience had been.
After basking and putting on dry clothes, we continued into the most beautiful, photogenic part of the canyon. Twisting, corkscrewing sandstone extended above our heads and with unbelievable luck, the high summer sun was pouring warm, beautiful light into the slot, falling gently over the red rocks. It was magical. We explored and photographed, wide-eyed and bewildered by nature’s creation.
Another few miles of challenging maneuvers and interesting features and we were rappelling out of the slot canyon into a magnificent room surrounded by huge cliffs. It was a glorious ending to a long and challenging, but very rewarding canyon. We continued downstream about a mile and turned uphill to scramble up a break in the cliff walls. After finding the dirt road paralleling the canyon, a very long couple of miles brought us back to the van thoroughly exhausted with just a faint glow of the sun on the horizon.
It was a choice to venture into Robber’s Roost, into the unknown. It was a choice to not research the area on topographic maps. It was a choice to head out late in the day. And it was a choice to tackle such a long canyon. Each decision made the journey what it was, the memories what they are and the stories that we will have forever.
MATTHEW SLOAN is a filmmaker and adventurer living in Golden, Colorado. He’s an avid mountain biker, kayaker and skier who lives out of a converted van as much as possible with his girlfriend Nicole and pup Bika.