A Night On The Reef


Aug 9, 2007
It's been a long time since I've been camping. The longest stretch since probably 2009. 84 days to be exact. Back in November, just two days after the 2012 finale trip through Larry Canyon and Lost Spring, I went in to get some work done on my knee. They weren't quite sure what would have to be done once they got in there. They told me it would be somewhere between a 1-2 week recovery that would have me on crutches for just a few days on up to a massive repair job that would put me on crutches for months and push my recovery far into 2013.

When I woke up from the deep fog of anestesia, a few hours had passed and I was pretty sure I knew which way things had gone. The pain was excruciating. This was my third knee surgery and it had never felt like this before. The nurse noticed my eyes open and came to check on me. A short and rather confusing conversation about what number I was on the pain scale and soon I felt the fade as the drugs flowed into my veins. Back to sleep...

Soon I was awake again and feeling a bit better. The doctor stopped by and told me he had indeed done the more complicated repair. I wouldn't know all the details for another week, but I was told it must stay totally straight and no weight bearing for the foreseeable future. Audra took me home and I spent the Thanksgiving weekend popping pills and eating turkey. The pain was terrible and I ended up actually going through a good amount of the drugs they gave me. In the past I'd never used more than 1 or 2. Not good.

A week later, I went in to see the doctor for a post-surgery follow up. Now the real story. When he cut me open, he was planning on most likely cutting out the torn piece of meniscus. The recovery would have been quick. But upon inspection, it was a very large part of the meniscus. The majority of it would have to be removed from what I understand. So instead, he went to work repairing it. Instead of the standard 3-hole arthroscopy, a large incision was made on the side of my knee. At least 4 sets of internal stitches, some permanent, some dissolving were applied to my meniscus. In addition, holes were drilled into the bones, letting loose a flow of blood into the joint. A healing fluid that would hopefully make the fix work. So that explains why my leg was twice as big as the other and I could feel the fluid sloshing around when we drove in the car...

So yeah. It was a complicated surgery. It took until early January before I was able to start bearing weight on it. Follow that up with a long stretch in physical therapy and next thing I knew, it's President's Day Weekend. Time to go camping! It seemed like everyone was headed off to some grand adventure, but I knew that was too much for me. The most walking I'd been doing was to my truck each day to go to work. So I loaded up Nikita and headed south. She's an old pup and can't get out on many trips, so this seemed like a perfect one for her.

I decided to head to the northern end of the Swell near Smith Cabin and Cottonwood Wash. It always looked so compelling as I drove past on previous trips but I'd never had a chance to explore. My plan was to spend a night there, maybe two. Hopefully hike to the top of the reef the next day, something else I've wanted to do for a long time.

I drove out to Smith Cabin and immediately determined I didn't want to camp anywhere near that place.

After checking out some of the roads nearby, I eventually stumbled into this amazing, but exposed, spot on a narrow neck of land surrounded by cliffs. The views were fantastic.

A deep canyon looking the other direction from camp.

It got dark quick and I got to work with the camera. It had been a long while since I bothered to do night shots. Framing things up before it got too dark.

I setup this composition and I let it run for about 4 hours. The star trail below is only 25 minutes or so. The 4 hours will be used for a time lapse sequence later on.

It was pretty boring hanging out around the fire by myself all night, thank goodness for a couple bars of cel service and BCP & Facebook! I stayed up fairly late considering I was alone and slept in late. It was great. I cooked breakfast and enjoyed the views before setting out for my hike in the morning.

My target for the day was the top of the reef. I knew I could do it from over by Smith Cabin, but I thought it would be fun to just start hiking from where I was at. It took a little scrambling to even get started, but soon I was walking up through some shallow canyons. This looked like it was pretty soot stained but I didn't see any other signs of life except for an old rusted piece of a horse halter nearby.

It felt amazing to be hiking again. And it felt great to be breathing clean air. The winter in Salt Lake this year really took it's toll on me.

So beautiful how the snow melts away in the desert.

The canyons coming down off the reef were a winding maze of washes. At times they flowed together in ways I wouldn't expect. I did my best to head toward where I thought I would keep heading towards the top, but it wasn't easy. Soon I was at a high point, but I could go no further. One canyon to the left...

And one to the right. There might have been a way to scramble down ahead had I been up to my usual hiking ability. But I could tell my legs were already giving out a bit. I took a little break on top before finding a way back down. At this point, I knew I wouldn't make the top, but I was still planning to explore further up into the canyons.

As I started downhill, I realized I hadn't done much of that movement yet and my legs weren't having it. Every step was a struggle and I found myself using my trekking poles almost like crutches.

After getting down the first slope, I realized that the hike back to the truck would be all I could do. Every time I stopped for a moment my leg would tremble uncontrollably. You can see my truck and campsite in the distance. About the center of the photo.

Some pretty rocks on the way back to camp.

When I got back to camp, it was still early in the afternoon. My knee had had enough, but I still had a night to go. Nahhh... I decided to just pack it up and head home. I got what I came for, a night under the stars, some clean air and a great, albeit short hike. First bag night of the year in the books.

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Jan 17, 2012
Sorry to hear about your knee and I hope you recover soon.

I've hiked to top of the reef a few times and I'm always amazed at the amount of washes, canyons, and flats that never seem to end until you finally reach top.


Dec 21, 2012
Glad to see you are on the mend. How did you stay so still for 25 min exposure...passed out from the walking:)


Apr 3, 2012
Glad to hear that you are healing well. Resist that urge to hike farther than the knee will allow and hopefully when I hike the HIGHLINE in mid-late August I'll run into you. I've enjoyed all of those trip reports so far.


Aug 9, 2007
Thanks, everyone. It's amazing how fast things have progressed since this trip. The next weekend we were in Vegas for 5 days so lots of walking. Then last weekend I put down about 5 miles of hiking and then a technical canyon with lots of down climbs. It felt great! I think the walking in Vegas did the trick. Hoping I'll be 100% by the end of March.

Glad to see you are on the mend. How did you stay so still for 25 min exposure...passed out from the walking:)

The foreground of that image is just from a single 30-second exposure and I just happened to hold that still on accident. After I had created my star trails, I took one of the images from the sequence that had a decent looking foreground and layered it in using photoshop.


Desert Rat-Weekend Warrior
Jun 7, 2012
Thanks for sharing some things about your knee. I've been curious as to how that whole thing went.
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