Solo mission
Six days alone, exploring a very special place

Solo mission

The wild interplay of light, sky and wind that can only be found in the deserts of southeastern Utah./ Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Stephen Eginoire - 05/02/2024

Notes from the field:

• Day 1 - Boat and paddle stashed in a pile of bleached boulders and zebra mussel shells, I make an impassioned dash away from the shores of reservoir Powell to the west rim. Marching up the first 500 vertical feet of sprawling slickrock, it feels like my overloaded backpack could potentially kick my ass in the coming miles, which proves correct.  Atop the mesa, it is flat and sandy for miles, strewn end to end with blackbrush and just as many lithics.

The views are impressive. Far below, the remote and once bustling outposts of Halls Crossing and Bullfrog Marina appear miniscule against the surrounding kingdom of canyons, mountains and mesas. Sprinkled along the flats at one of the only breaks in the entire canyon that could possibly accommodate industry, the area is now mostly depopulated, on its way to becoming a relic of a short-sighted, bygone era. Bearing due west, with my back to the reservoir, I pass from one world and into another.

• Day 2 - Beyond the mesa top, the terrain buckles upward, raking the sky at a sharp 45-degree angle. Traversing directly alongside the dip, I marvel at the jumble of slickrock domes closing in around me. My world shrinks to a limited radius, and within a short distance from the wide-open vistas surrounding the mesa, I am completely reliant on map and GPS to find my way. Aiming for an area riddled with jointed rock, I locate a fault cutting a straight line directly through the topographic mess to where I hope to make camp. At first glance, the fault appears unnavigable, its interior pulverized and ground to bits. But as I close in, I am delighted to see all manner of fresh mammalian tracks coming and going from the split. Fox, coyote, hare, bobcat and lion all clearly use this route, and I follow suit. Hemmed in on either end is a slender dune; sand from the ages shifting and drifting within the corridor. I imagine this would have been a good place to hunt, and not a moment after, I spot the translucent tip of a projectile emerging from the sand. Between my thumb and forefinger, I hold it against the blue sky for a better look. After 1,000 years or so in the sand, it’s still sharp as a razor.

• Day 3 - Finding a route to the summit of a prominent free-standing dome, I work well into the night taking photos. The air is utterly still. From this high vista, a narrow canyon below winds like a ribbon of smoke toward the reservoir, its walls revealing swirling layers of sand deposited by wind 200 million years ago. Venus sets over the crest of the monocline. Orion rises over Navajo Mountain. I remain in awe until the last blue light disappears from the sky before heading to camp. This is indeed a place of penetrating beauty and solitude.

• Day 4 - How quickly this relatively small Glen Canyon tributary transforms from a teeming oasis into a dark, inhospitable dungeon is striking. It is so narrow and deep that nearly all of it lies hidden beneath its own two rims. And, as far as I can tell, it is a seldom-visited place. These early days of spring have been luminous and warm, but tomorrow I intend to explore the shadowy realm contained between the walls of this canyon.

• Day 5 - I explode the contents of my pack on various clammy boulders to prepare for full cold-water submersion. It’s just the essentials today: tripod, two strobes, two lenses, camera, headlamp, extra batteries, 100 feet of rope, means to ascend/descend rope, means to escape potholes, sand anchor, harness, drysuit and … unfortunately, the list goes on. My pack is way too heavy.

The water in the canyon is surprisingly frigid, even in a drysuit, and the first slotted-up section is awkward and dark. I have to fight my way to get through it. Half swimming, half floundering against tight, opposing walls, it takes 25 minutes to thrash a total distance of about a hundred feet. Shivering cold but also somehow sweating, I jettison unnecessary items from my pack onto a dry ledge at the first sign of higher ground, including all camera gear, but the camera. I justified a well-rounded photo kit, because you just never know what you are going to see, but that has now lost its appeal.

Buckled into a lighter pack, I climb, swim and squeeze downstream through a long series of dimly lit chambers. A soft breeze blows through the narrows carrying with it the scent of algae and wet juniper. It’s been a long time since I’ve been totally alone in such a place. Quiet, hidden and dark, a warm sense of well-being washes over me. Forty-three years old and utterly absorbed in deep time, my current surroundings are as good a venue as any to contemplate a new life chapter that’s about to begin: fatherhood.

• Day 6 - What is it about a place that calls to us? Since I embarked on this journey six days ago, I haven’t seen a soul. A pang of loneliness rings like a bell, and for the first time, I feel far away. I miss my person and the mango-sized person growing inside her. I cast my gaze south, in the direction of Navajo Mountain, where humanity has evolved alongside this landscape, and one another, for thousands of years. Perhaps what we seek from the places we choose to call home, as well as the people we choose, boils down to a simple sense of belonging. 

I set out before daybreak, homeward bound. 

Congratulations to longtime Telegraph contributor Steve Eginoire and partner, Miriam, who are expecting baby “mango” in September. ?










Solo mission

The Henry Mountains loom over the once bustling outposts of Halls Crossing and Bullfrog Marina. The area is now mostly depopulated, on its way to becoming a relic of a short-sighted, bygone era./ Photos by Stephen Eginoire