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Hiking the Lost World of Comb Ridge
On the first ever traverse of the Southwest's sandstone spine, David Roberts discovers the lost world of Comb Ridge.   Photograph by Greg Child
Photo: Comb Ridge
LAST REDOUBT: David Roberts and his trip-mates found this major ruin, built on a ledge a hundred feet  (30 meters) above the Chinle Wash.

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By the evening of September 7, after seven days on Comb Ridge, we had covered 53 miles (85 kilometers)—by my reckoning, about two-fifths of the entire journey we'd envisioned. We had put some really hard days behind us: the temperature over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius), the sun pounding down in all its desert rage, the wind sandblasting us until grit plastered our teeth. As anticipated, the biggest problem was water.

Read the Article  |  Adventure Guide: Comb Ridge

Southwest Game Plans: Dissolve into Red Rock

We went miles without spotting even a one-gallon (four-liter) pothole full of skanky aqua. Despite our pre-laid water caches, on the worst day we carried three gallons (eleven liters) of water apiece—24 sloshing pounds (11 kilograms) of dead weight in our packs, on top of all the gear and food. That afternoon, stumbling up to a low saddle on the ridge with 75 pounds (34 kilograms) on my back, I said to myself, I'm not at all sure if we can pull off this traverse.

But now, as the sun set on the 7th, we were in paradise. At 2 p.m., we'd reached the first spring in all those 53 miles (85 kilometers). We relaxed through the early afternoon, as the slickrock inferno gradually cooled. The generous seep pouring out of its bedrock seam lay tucked in a corner of side canyon under arching walls. Tall trees gave us shade. As dusk fell, with glop warming on the stove and our water bottles filled with cool iced tea, we settled into our blissful campsite.

Geologically speaking, the Comb is a monocline—a single fold in the Earth's crust created by a cataclysmic slippage of deeply buried tectonic plates some 65 million years ago. That upheaval has left a scar slashing across the desert landscape of the Southwest: a sharp ridge of sandstone that stretches almost 120 miles (193 kilometers) unbroken from just east of Kayenta, Arizona, to some ten miles (sixteen kilometers) west of Blanding, Utah.

The scale of the Comb is not colossal: Its ridgeline looms only from 300 to 900 feet (91 to 274 meters) above the plains, and shallow washes surround it on either side. But what the crest lacks in height, it makes up in ruggedness. No smooth arête, the ridge swoops to sharp summits and dips to V-notch cols with relentless regularity. To hike the Comb is to run a gauntlet of up-and-down severities, always at an  ankle-wrenching, sideways pitch. There is not a single mile of established trail in the Comb's reach, which is one reason why no humans, to our knowledge, have ever traversed its length. We thought we should be the first.

Still, the Comb hike promised us more than an admittedly arbitrary wilderness first. From long before the birth of Christ through the late 13th century, Comb Ridge was home to the Anasazi, or ancestral Puebloans. Its cliffs sheltered the last-ditch, hyperdefensive villages the people built just before their mass abandonment of the Four Corners, sometime in the late 1200s—still the greatest of all Anasazi mysteries. For hundreds, even thousands of years before that, the Comb's springs and seeps nourished the ancients, while the back walls of its shady, hidden alcoves served as canvases for the hallucinatory visions of its shamans.

No Anasazi in his right mind would have bothered to try to hike the Comb from end to end. They chose this place to build snug homes in its recesses, to hunt deer and bighorn sheep on its benches, to grow corn beneath its cliffs. Only latter-day white boys such as ourselves would consider it fun (let alone significant) to traipse along the crest, counting up our miles like merit badges.
Yet we planned not to head on some monolithic beeline, but to take our time, dropping our packs as we meandered and looped in search of the fugitive signs of the ancients. For years the three of us had made a fine sport out of cruising down slickrock canyons, mostly in southeast Utah, in search of prehistoric vestiges. But the Comb promised a special bonus, for its first 65 miles (105 kilometers) lay entirely on the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation, in a region all but unexplored by Anglos.

To hike anywhere on the reservation, you must obtain a permit from the Navajo Nation headquarters, in Window Rock, Arizona. This is not hard to do, but that minor hurdle—along with a vague apprehension of the rez as a kind of Third World domain—seems to intimidate many a potential wanderer.

Our group was only mildly intimidated. At 48, Greg Child is one of the best mountaineers of his generation. An Aussie who immigrated to the United States in 1980, Greg lives in Castle Valley, Utah, where he makes his living as an adventure writer. Vaughn Hadenfeldt, 55, is the founder and proprietor of Far Out Expeditions, based in Bluff, Utah. His job involves taking clients to ruins and rock-art sites that he has already scouted. Some of these, such as Monarch and Fishmouth Caves, lie an hour's climb or less from the Butler Wash road, a dirt track that runs alongside the Comb itself. The graybeard of our trio at 62, I had spent considerable time during the past two decades exploring such exotic locales as Svalbard, in the high Arctic, Borneo, New Guinea, Mali, and Ethiopia. Now, however, it is the Southwest that bewitches me.

Good buddies already, the three of us were also pretty competitive. Thus, on September 3, when, only 15 minutes into our day's trudge, Greg burst out, "There's one!" Vaughn couldn't resist exclaiming, "I saw it too!" Greg stooped to pick up a beautiful projectile point, a sharpened piece of milky white chalcedony with jets of red streaking through the stone. We had officially entered the land of the ancients.
 
September 8 was a designated restday, meaning that for the first time we would not break camp and head north. Instead, we would leave our tents pitched for two nights under the shade trees beside the prolific spring. That morning, with only daypacks, Vaughn and I set out, each on our own loop, for what would turn out to be eight-hour excursions among the canyon bends and alcoves, while Greg stayed closer to camp, composing camera portraits of this extremely photogenic stretch of Comb Ridge. Here the chocolate flood of Chinle Wash—undrinkable quicksand—carves its way back and forth through the sandstone crest.

After a week of close company, it felt great to hike alone. Heading south along the east bank of the Chinle, I kept finding signs of the Anasazi: a couple of masoned single-room structures on ledges 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 meters) above the valley floor, a fan of red-on-orange potsherds. Rounding a bend, I spotted three burros on the shelf below, browsing among the grasses beside the Chinle. Their coats were black-and-white, with white ovals around their eyes on otherwise black heads, making them look as though they were wearing goggles. A moment later, three other burros came out of the willows to join them. These beasts were wild; all over the West once tame burros had gone feral, and it was too much work for their former owners to catch them. When the burros spotted me, all six froze, staring up at the two-legged intruder. A couple of them snorted in fear or warning, their strange, rasping honks echoing loudly off the canyon wall behind me.

A mile (1.6 kilometers) farther on, I caught sight, above me and to the left, of a deep, gaping alcove facing northwest. Though it was getting close to turn-around time, I could not resist scrambling up toward that small cavity in the cliff. It was brutal-going—steep plates of sandstone cracked and slid underfoot, then a dense stand of scrub oak choked the whole mouth of the cave. I slithered through it, collecting bloody scratches on my arms and legs.

Cold and cramped, receiving no sunlight all year, the alcove would be an extremely gloomy place to live. But the seminomadic Anasazi who had used the cave before a.d. 500, had no intention of dwelling here. Instead, they lingered only to hide their precious corn and to record the visions of their artists.   
In the fine dust on the floor, I noticed a number of cists, slab-lined pentagons that had served as storage chambers for the corn. The glory of the site, however, was its rock art. The back wall of the cave was covered with a swath of painted figures. Seven bright red handprints on the left balanced six faint yellow ones on the right. A zigzagging orange-red snake crawled toward nowhere.

The panel's masterpiece was its central figure—a finely drawn "anthropomorph," as the experts drily characterize these magisterial figures, in dark red paint, rendered as a Picasso-esque, stylized form that seemed about to slip into the abstract. The arms and legs simply ended in nothing, handless and footless. Down the chest dangled a 14-cornered snake, perhaps, or a lightning bolt as a pendant. The figure's head, detached from its body, was reduced to two horizontal crescents, without a hint of eyes, nose, or mouth. At last I headed back, taking the high road on top of the Comb rather than retracing my steps along the Chinle bench. The cliff top was riddled with dry potholes.

At camp, I swapped discoveries with Vaughn, who had just arrived, red-faced and tired. On an equally demanding loop downstream to the north, he too had found marvels of rock art, including one crowded frieze of petroglyphs—perhaps a hundred different figures—25 feet (8 meters) up a vertical cliff where the ground on which the artists once stood had eroded over the ages, stranding the panel in thin air.
 
On the morning of September 10, we visited a small ruin tucked on a ledge under the Comb's rim, a hidden 13th-century site that had probably housed a single family. After half an hour's perusal of the cramped roomblock, we exited the site via the talus that sprawled beneath it. In the lead, I heard a sudden crashing noise behind me. I turned to look. For the 300th or 400th time on the Comb, Greg had stepped on a boulder. This big rock was loose, however, and it slid and then rolled under his weight. Greg fell awkwardly and screamed in pain; Vaughn and I hurried to his side. Greg was cursing, both hands clutching his right ankle, which he thought was broken. In fact, it was badly sprained; but when he first tried to stand on it, he crumpled back to a sitting position, clearly in agony.

Contemplating our trip during the months before we set out, I had estimated that there were three things that could sabotage or even terminate our trek. The first was running out of water. Faced with too long a waterless stretch, we would be forced to bail off the Comb and hike to the nearest highway. The second pitfall was becoming separated. From the day hikes we had already done on the nonreservation segments of the Comb, we had all learned how bewilderingly intricate the topography was. For me, it was harder to remember the route to a given ruin or rock-art panel on the Comb than anywhere else in the Southwest. The third and most likely hazard was a broken or sprained ankle or a badly twisted knee.

Now we faced a scenario that I had worried about since the first day. Would Vaughn and I have to hike out to the nearest road, half a day away, flag down a car, and arrange for a helicopter rescue? Could this casual mishap spell failure for our entire expedition?

Vaughn fished out his medical kit and gave Greg 800 milligrams of ibuprofen. Twenty minutes later, Greg got back on his feet and hobbled across the talus and up to the rim. He hobbled, indeed, for the rest of the day, his pace about half what we had maintained that morning. Vaughn and I would surge ahead, then stop and wait for our gimpy companion. Greg never complained. Later he told me there was no way he would have accepted a helicopter evacuation. "I once crawled off the top of El Cap with a sprained ankle from a leader fall," he recalled.

Above us, only a mile (1.6 kilometers) northwest, loomed the Mule Ear. The closest thing the Comb boasts to a true pinnacle, this sharp, tilted slab forms a landmark that stands out for miles around. Vaughn, for one, had wanted to climb it for at least 20 years. Though its summit, at a mere 5,111 feet (1,558 meters)above sea level, is not even close to the highest point on Comb Ridge, the Mule Ear soars above its neighboring crests and is the most spectacular of all the "teeth" on the 120-mile-long (193-kilometer-long) massif.

Now, with Greg limping behind, we made our way slowly up toward that graceful spire. When we had almost reached its base, Vaughn, in the lead, rounded a small extrusion in the sandstone and nearly ran smack into a desert bighorn sheep. Only seven or eight yards (six or seven meters) away, the animal—a mature male with a full curl to its horns—jerked his head up in fright and bounded downhill. We watched as it clattered expertly across the slickrock and, in a matter of seconds, disappeared from view.

Vaughn could not contain his murmurs of surprise and joy. An erstwhile hunter of deer and elk, he had stopped going after big game many years ago, but still loved nothing more than watching animals in the wild. Indeed, it was the closest any of us had ever come to a desert bighorn. We attempted the Mule Ear by its south ridge, only to be turned back in the face of a dangerously exposed, nearly vertical arête.  Instead we assaulted the spire from the east, frictioning flat-footed up its smooth (and likewise exposed) 45-degree slabs. Taking three separate routes, we arrived on top within minutes of each other. Then wolfing down our lunch of sardines in mustard sauce, crackers, gorp, and energy bars, we stared at the limitless vistas to the west.
 
From the bench below the Mule Ear, only an hour before Greg sprained his ankle, we'd spotted one of the strangest ruins any of us had ever seen in the Southwest. The temptation was to drop everything and head for it, but it lay on the far side of the Chinle, across a canyon whose steep cliffs on both sides looked like they would take half a day to negotiate. Instead, we agreed to save it for our second rest day, when we would leave camp pitched beside yet another abundant spring in a cozy side canyon.

We got off early the next morning and carried only our daypacks, anticipating a quick trip back to the strange ruin, which was now three miles (4.8 kilometers) up the Chinle. But the going proved much harder than we'd expected, as awkward cliffs forced us to cross the Chinle twice. Between devious scrambling, nasty bushwhacking, and wading through thigh-deep quicksand in the stream itself, the second crossing took a full hour from rim to rim. But for all that thrashing, we gained a mere hundred feet (thirty meters) of altitude and covered a horizontal distance of less than a quarter mile (half kilometer).

Still, what a reward: Up to this point along the Chinle, virtually every Anasazi ruin we'd found had been a cliff dwelling, but here the ruin stood out in the open, bare to the sky, on a peninsula of bedrock thrusting west where the stream below made a sharp bend. The "Fortress," as I began calling it, was a massive,
D-shaped enclosure built tight to the edge of the 120-foot (37-meter) precipice that plunged sheer to the Chinle. Most open-air pueblos crumble over the centuries, leaving little more than tumbledown piles of stones from which archaeologists must deduce the shape of the former village. The Fortress, however, had been so well built that its shape was largely intact. The walls themselves, expertly masoned with fitted chunks of red, tabular sandstone, were an unfathomable two-and-a-half feet (.8-meters) thick. At their tallest, those walls soared ten feet (three meters) high. Yet there were no collapsed timbers indicating that the structure ever had a roof.

The Fortress's predominant feature was a giant enclosure that could have sheltered a small throng and would have been extremely difficult to attack. Small doorways opened into the courtyard on either end of the D, but its defensive aura was heightened by the absence of a single window. Instead, nine peepholes pierced the walls, well-crafted tubes through which the inhabitants—the refugees?—might have spied on enemies arriving from farther east on the bedrock peninsula.

The reasons for building such an easily defensible structure are debatable, but one theory has gained currency in recent years: Tree rings indicate that a severe drought gripped the area in and around the Comb between a.d. 1276 and 1299. Around that time, archaeology shows, the Anasazi turned their backs on a centuries-old way of living—that of largely undefended, open-air pueblos built on mesa tops and river benches—and moved into alcoves in the cliffs, where they walled themselves in defensive villages. It was, archaeologists now believe, the Anasazi themselves who were the enemy. In the face of drought and famine, a good supply of stored corn means the difference between life and death. During the hard times of the 13th century, the Anasazi of one village might raid and kill their neighbors. The best defense against such attacks was an impregnable cliff dwelling.

Yet the Fortress was only part of a prehistoric complex. Just below the rim on which the enclosure stood, a row of small cliff dwellings and granaries occupied every square foot of a fragmentary ledge above that sheer, 120-foot (37-meter) precipice. By hiking east along the cliff edge to a protruding point, we could study those huddled buildings with our binoculars but saw no way to climb into them.
After Vaughn and I headed back to camp, Greg devoted hours to the effort, circling far afield to scramble down to the Chinle itself, then scouting a route up to the secretive buildings. Eventually he gained the easternmost of the structures, then tried to crawl along the ledge to reach the central and more interesting sector of the ruins. As he later told Vaughn and me, in rock climber jargon, "It was like a horizontal off-width with the edge right here." He made a vigorous slicing motion with his left hand that skimmed his hip. "I inched forward, then I said no, then I inched, then no. It was too scary to push."
In all likelihood, then, here was a ruin that no one had reached in the past seven centuries, since the time its last inhabitants had packed up and left for good, shortly before a.d. 1300. How the ancients had first gained the ledge, let alone built and lived there, we could only guess.
 
On September 12, we hiked the last few miles along the Chinle toward its junction with the San Juan River, which marked the boundary of the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation. There was only one reason to look forward to leaving the reservation—a six-pack of beer at our next resupply, an indulgence we had so far done without, because the whole of the reservation is dry. And, to be sure, once across the San Juan, we were all but certain to complete the traverse, for the 40 miles (64 kilometers) that remained were familiar to us from many day hikes from pullouts along the Butler Wash road. Indeed, after seven more days of hiking, we would reach the long ridge's northern terminus in a gentle rainstorm.

Far outweighing the prospects of beer and familiar terrain, however, was a keen feeling of regret. By that morning, we had hiked some 79 miles (127 kilometers) in 11 days, gaining 65 miles (105 kilomters) as the crow flies, completing three-fifths of our journey. I knew that the country we had just explored was by far the least visited sector of Comb Ridge. And I knew now, from the dazzling discoveries we had made during the previous five days, that nothing in the rest of our hike would compare in archaeological richness to the terrain we were leaving behind, where the Chinle snaked back and forth through the Comb, carving a landscape that had once been an Anasazi paradise. 

Read the Article  |  Adventure Guide: Comb Ridge

Southwest Game Plans: Dissolve into Red Rock

Adapted from Sandstone Spine: First Traverse of the Comb Ridge, to be published in March by The Mountaineers Books. Copyright 2006 by David Roberts. All Rights Reserved.


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Pick up the March 2006 issue for more secrets of the Southwest, nine Caribbean adventures, the best gear for runners, and our World Class outfitter trips.








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