Dip in the Dirty


Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey"
May 5, 2012
"I'm not much of a climber."

This disclaimer, delivered two days earlier, loomed in my mind as I looked at the crack in the sandstone. I could scramble a bit and wasn't afraid of using friction. But a Ninja Warrior-style ascent up a rope wasn't a task for which I felt a high degree of confidence.

Yet here it was.

Let's rewind a bit. A few weeks back I received an invitation to get my new Alpacka dirty for the first time. The proposed route would take the party down into the gorge of the Dirty Devil to catch ephemeral spring flow.


I'm leaving specific descriptions of the route out of the text to help keep it wild.


It's necessary to mention though that the loop I agreed to included a roughly 15-foot vertical, rope-assisted climb up a sandstone crack on the way back to the trailhead. Worry about that when you get there, I told myself. It'll be fine.

Under sunny March skies, we dropped off the mesa and began the descent toward the white rim.






The trickling river tantalized. A few minor scrambles made the initial drop interesting.


Once down the initial grade, our route made its way along improbable ledges.




In the shade of a great overhang, we followed antelope tracks and cougar scat (look close for a sense of scale, there are two hikers in the photo below).



On quaking quadriceps we reached the water's edge.


The Dirty has a reputation for sandy slogs. We were lucky, catching it at flows between 120-140 cfs. This meant some butt-scootching but no real boat-dragging.


We stopped short of sunset on a sandy bank. Thistle burrs buried under the sand were like little land mines for those walking barefoot.



Ice clung to my quilt through the cold hours of the early morning. Sun seemed to rise slow on Saturday. We took our time getting on the river. One other party passed by, headed downstream to the same happy little location we intended to visit that afternoon.






Our group broke into pieces above the narrows, as we each explored the open desert.


We reconvened in the lengthening shadows of the early evening.





The almost-full moon illuminated the river as we waded back across, salt stinging dry skin on our shins.


Sunday started with an ascent from the river bank. Boats went back into bags before we began the lung-burning climb.



The path in places veered along precarious cliff edges. Loose sand overtopped shoes, staining socks and insoles a rusty color of red.



We walked the rims until the improbable way up revealed itself: a 600-foot scramble up a pile of rock and sand at or near the angle of repose.


Our goal sat at the top of that pyramid. A narrow crack in the cliff that would allow us back onto the mesa.


You probably didn't notice them on first glance, but there are two people in that photo above. Take a look at a tighter crop.


Huffing for breath, we took in the views from the top. Our first night's camp, that hump of sand in the center of the frame, appeared minuscule from our new vantage.


And at last I had no choice but to confront the task I'd put off: the climb up the crack.

To my embarrassment, the other members of the party scrambled up it with little difficulty.


We passed packs, hauling them one-by-one up the rope. The loose scree above rained down each time someone at the top of the crack moved.

When my turn came I wedged myself into the crack and started slithering upward. Hand went over hand on the rope. I went up five feet, 10 feet. Then I stalled. My too-conservative brain had chosen a place too far into the crack and I came up against a chockstone. I attempted to wriggle out from beneath it.

I'd very nearly made it over the obstacle when weary arms began to tremble. Toes scraped for purchase.

I knew it going to happen before it did.

"I'm in trouble," I announced through clenched teeth. "I'm going to fall."

The consequences of this concession to gravity ran through my brain. Broken bones. Cracked-open skull. No cell service. Where's my SPOT? Can they even land a helicopter here? S**t. This was a bad decision. Why do I suck so bad at this?

Grip released and rope ran through my fingers. My arms, raised over my head to hold the rope, probably protected my skull from bouncing off of the wall.

I landed feet-first on the sand and scree at the bottom of the crack, thankfully avoiding what could have turned into a life-threatening tumble down that 600-foot slope. A quick self-assessment revealed no serious injuries. Some scrapes, a blown-out pocket on my pants, a phone camera that no longer worked, but no skeletal malformation or gushing of blood.

What I did suffer was a flush of shame at my ineptitude, along with a sinking realization that I had to try again. The only other options were a signal to search and rescue (which in my mind was not an option unless I was gravely injured) or a march of shame back down to the river, which I would do with only a liter of water and no food, for a float out to a safer egress.

Now bereft of both strength and confidence, I made a second attempt to scale the crack. This time, I accepted a boost from the last member of the party below and a hand from one of the others above. As much as I pride myself on being a soloist, sometimes it is necessary to surrender that pride.
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Mar 28, 2012
nice! love the creative route to avoid car shuttle.

how's the scramble down from the little saddle in your second photo? I was down there day hiking a couple months ago and looked over this drop, but didn't descend it, and it looked kind of sketch.


Mar 6, 2014
Nice one!

Is the knotted orange rope fixed there?

how's the scramble down from the little saddle in your second photo? I was down there day hiking a couple months ago and looked over this drop, but didn't descend it, and it looked kind of sketch.

Also curious, as the two times I went up I always thought it would be more demanding as a down climb?


Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey"
May 5, 2012
Is the knotted orange rope fixed there?

It is. We actually had a debate about that before setting out as we weren't sure there would be a fixed rope. Question was whether or not we needed to send someone over to check and/or set a rope. A member of our party had been up the crack before and figured he could free climb it if necessary so we gambled. The rope ended up being there.


Aug 18, 2018
Great photos and TR! Kudos for powering through it the second time. You were probably 'happy' after scaling the crack. Thanks for sharing.
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Colorado Plateau is calling...
Feb 3, 2017
Some day I hope to happily visit that area. When I do, however, I am not sure I will be crack ascending.


Feb 7, 2015
Atta Boy Dave! As someone who was not hanging by that rope struggling to get up that obastacle all I have is pride in you for attempting and succeeding. That is why you did this as a group.....to give you support.
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