On a spring evening in 1897, the fabled outlaws Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay spurred horses over the rough desert 50 miles south of Green River, Utah. Despite nearing exhaustion, both were grinning beneath their bandanas. That morning, the two had quietly relieved the paymaster at the Castle Gate Mine of 7000 dollars in gold coins while he was still wearing his bedroom slippers. All while hundreds of loitering miners milled about and then watched in dumb amazement as their wages rode off down the canyon. At dusk the duo passed a prominent landmark known as the Flat Tops, and then disappeared into a vast maze of deep canyons and plateaus called Robber’s Roost, the southernmost hideout on the outlaw trail. A place so remote and unforgiving, the lawmen didn’t dare follow in pursuit.
Over a hundred years after Butch and Elzy escaped into the Roost with their saddlebags full of gold, we rocketed past the very same Flat Tops, the Backcountry Subaru kicking up a trail of dust like a pair of great horses. As we approached the GPS coordinates that would signal our drop-off point, Dan began handing out rubber gardening gloves and neoprene kneepads to each of us. As I pondered the necessity of this strange gear, I began to wonder exactly what kind of backpacking trip I’d signed myself up for.
Our assignment for the Robber’s Roost trip was simple: test some of the best backpacking gear of 2014 and bring home a story to tell. And while we wouldn’t be running from Winchester-wielding lawmen like Butch and Elzy, we would be hiding out from computer screens, cell service, and the daily routine for a few days. Our team was small, consisting of the fearless Gearhead Diana, cameramen Kipp and Dan, and myself. We’re all experienced campers, but Dan is the serious backpacker of the group. A fact I became even more convinced of when I saw his custom ‘tent,’ which appeared to be nothing more than sheet of plastic with a few strings attached, and the Jetboil he’d sawed in half to shave a few grams from his kit. Lucky for us, Dan had spent time in the Roost. He knew where we were going, and perhaps more importantly, he knew what we were getting ourselves into.
The landscape is deceptively flat, comprised of drifting sand dunes, broken-down cattle operations, and invasive species of prickly weeds that have replaced the native grasses that once made this country decent range for livestock. The flat land makes it hard to believe a maze of sandstone canyons exists anywhere out here. We check our gear one last time before shouldering our packs and waving farewell to our driver Josh, who, if all goes as planned, will pick us back up three days from now some 20 miles to our west. If not for the GPS coordinates promising a canyon just to the south of us, I’d believe we are walking off straight into the Sahara.
Like an enormous chicken’s foot, Robber’s Roost Canyon splays out into a north, middle, and south fork. The head of the middle fork is our chosen point of entry into the world below. Dan locates the drainage, and we cautiously pick our way down the side of a great geologic toilet bowl. Toward the bottom, the bowl funnels into a U-shaped sandstone tube carved over eons by rare rains. A triangular slab of limestone serves as an anchor, I throw the rope, and one by one we rappel down the rabbit hole. After the first 50 feet, the tube flushes me into a massive inverted amphitheater and I hang in space for the remaining 100 feet of the descent, my core straining to compensate for the weight of my pack. Finally feeling the soft sand of the canyon floor, we pull the rope and are immediately met with a sense of solitude and self-reliance. From this point on, the only way out is several days of hard walking.
In the canyon, every bend we round reveals new sights and discoveries: small meadows of lush native grass never touched by livestock, deer tracks, streaked sandstone walls, gnarled cottonwoods with canopies turned to gold by the autumn air, and a set of ten-inch-wide dinosaur tracks forever frozen in the bedrock of the canyon floor. It’s not hard for me to imagine why Butch would choose to call this secret place home for months at a time. As we walk, Dan tells us about a little-known Robber’s Roost slot canyon called Chambers that he plans to show us the next day. His descriptions of chest-squeezing corridors, exposed chimney climbing, and a payoff of immaculately sculpted sandstone rooms on par with Arizona’s famed Antelope Canyon produce as much apprehension as they do anticipation. And I start to understand why we brought the rubber gloves and kneepads.
Exhausted at day’s end, we drop our packs on a flat sandbar beneath a twisted cottonwood. Our water filtration systems are put to the test in nearby pools of stagnant water, replenishing our empty bottles and our dehydrated bodies. As the evening light turns the canyon walls and a few wispy clouds the same shade of pink, canister stoves spark, water boils, and soon we’re gorging on Mountain House stroganoff and chili mac. Instead of retreating straight into our tents, we use our sleeping bags as blankets and sprawl out on the soft sand, watching the Milky Way span the canyon walls like a great suspension bridge.
While we break camp in the cold morning air, Dan and I comically belt out childhood songs, the sound reverberating down the canyon. Entirely without warning, a dishwasher-sized block of sandstone fractures off the cliff face, exploding in a cloud of dust just 30 feet behind camp. A not-so-subtle reminder that the geologic forces that shaped this canyon are still very much alive and at work, and perhaps to speak more softly. We push hard for five miles. The canyon starts to widen and the Henry Mountains (the last mountain range in the continental US to be explored and mapped) come into view in the distant west. Where the canyon T-bones the murky Dirty Devil River, we drop our gear and follow Dan up and over petrified sand dunes on our way to the slot canyon called Chambers.
All four of us are straddling a 20-inch-wide fissure in the earth that drops to complete darkness. The rubber gloves, kneepads, and helmets are on now, and I’m starting to get nervous. Dan squeezes into the crack, and then slides downward, disappearing into the inky abyss. We have no choice but to follow. Now is not a time to make mistakes, even a relatively minor accident in a canyon like this can be life threatening. Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm after it was hopelessly pinched in a slot canyon by a shifting boulder, endured his epic ordeal just a few miles to the east of us. And he learned all too well that out here, help is a long way off.
Kipp, Diana, and I are all seasoned rock climbers, and as such we have a tendency to try and navigate stone in a graceful way. To our frustration, the squishing, squeezing, and painful off-width climbing required to navigate Chambers are anything but. This is nothing like rock climbing, this is a brutal, scrape-inducing wrestling match. Dan, on the other hand, seems to be quite at home down here. While we sweat bullets and stress what’s coming next, Dan is setting up photos and snacking on Honey Stingers.
After battling through the tight upper sections of the canyon, at times squished between the walls with 20 feet of air below us, placing full trust in the sticky rubber on our approach shoes, our labors are rewarded, just as Dan said they’d be. The bottom of the canyon bells out, and we wander through a series of immaculately sculpted chambers. It’s humbling to imagine the powerful hydraulics that carved out these spaces. Rays of light bounce off the walls, projecting a palette of soft pinks, reds, and brilliant gold. To borrow the language of Jon Krakauer, canyons like this are “phantasmagoric,” meaning dream-like, colorful, and continuously shifting. I start to understand why he called the red rock labyrinths of the southwest the “last great wild swatches of the lower forty-eight.”
The last room in Chambers resembles a wild three-dimensional lightning bolt. Because sunlight enters this space through the canyon’s exit to the west, the colors seem to climax. It’s the grand finale to all the rooms and corridors preceding it. We never stumble upon a long-lost sack of Butch and Elzy’s gold, but the memory of this rarely glimpsed place will be treasure enough. Leaving the canyon, we look back at the dark slash in the cliff face from which we’ve just been expelled. Despite having just left, it’s hard to imagine that passage through such a place is possible at all. To me, the scene looks like something from an Indiana Jones movie.
Calorie-deprived, dehydrated, and a little delirious, we stumble back to our gear, at times being forced to wade in the Dirty Devil’s muck. By the time we reach our final camp at Angel’s Cove, the desert has started to take its toll. It’s all we can do to set up tents and cook the remainder of our food before passing out, utterly exhausted.
In the morning, we all battle the strange soreness inflicted by the wrestling match with the slot canyon. Shouldering packs, we link up with the steep Angel Trail, so named by the outlaws because they felt wings were required to safely navigate it. Except for Diana, who somehow looks as fresh as when we left the offices Monday morning, we’re starting to resemble desert Bedouins. I’m sweat-drenched and sunburned, Dan has concealed everything but his eyes with a neck gaiter, and in an attempt to mitigate a blister on his heel, Kipp is trudging up the steep slickrock wearing socks and flip-flops. Finally, we crest the last dome of sandstone and dump our packs at the waiting car.
Looking back on the iconic desert panorama from which we’ve just come, I reflect on the value of this place. Beyond the Roost, the red rock wonders of Arches and Canyonlands are out on the horizon, the landscapes that led Edward Abbey to dream up his Monkey Wrench Gang. Now more than ever, I understand why he did. As for having to steal solitude, I recognize that steal is a strong word, but I feel it’s warranted. The machinations of the modern world compete constantly for our attention. Experiencing solitude requires a deliberate action on our part, we have to load the bare essentials into a backpack, steal ourselves away from the daily routine for a few days, and take the time to experience wilderness at the humble human pace of three miles per hour. This, I would argue, is the prized virtue of backpacking.
Roughly situated between the Maze district of Canyonlands and the Henry Mountains, Robber’s Roost is a remote backcountry area with a complex system of canyons that ultimately spill into the Dirty Devil River. The canyons can be accessed via the Maze road, which heads east from highway 24, about 20 miles to the north of Hanksville, Utah. Like many backcountry areas, canyoneering or backpacking in the Roost requires self-sufficiency, technical rope work, and excellent navigation skills. And remember, always let someone know exactly where you plan on going and how long you plan on being gone before heading out on any wilderness trip.