Report: Hells Canyon Traverse

On Sat, Oct 24, 2015, I set out for a solo traverse of the Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge (7,993ft/2,436m) in North America. As announced, the masterplan was to start in Riggins, ID, to also climb the He Devil, the highest mountain nearby the canyon, and to finish the traverse in Imnaha, OR. As you can imagine, not everything went according to the plan.

To the Start (Portland to Riggins, ID)

We left Portland at 1pm on Fri, Oct 23, 2015, and slowly made our way toward RIggins, ID. It’s pretty much an 8h drive. We had dinner in Dayton, WA, at the Chief Spring’s Fire & Irons Brew Pub, which always has interesting brews on tap. Pizza is flown in from the pizza place next door.

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That’s where Hells Canyon is. We drove over Lewiston to Riggins, ID. It was a long drive.

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Road-trip snacking. Not Pringles but healthy protein bars.

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Chief Spring’s Fire & Irons Brew Pub in Dayton, WA, always has interesting brews on tap.

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Great beer, good food, and old friends. No questions asked. No answers given.

With a bit of luck we had managed to reserve a room in the Salmon Rapids Lodge in Riggins. It’s a busy time for them because of hunting and fishing season. All other places had no vacancy. Once we finally arrived, I prepared the gear for the planned 4am start. That, according to the masterplan, would get me to the entrance of the Seven Devils wilderness just after sunrise. The night was short and the sleep was restless.

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Gear for the gear junkie. No, things are not lined up in order. 

Riggins to Seven Devils Campground

The alarm went off at 3:30am and I hit the road at 4am while Ursina was still snoring cosily.  My first challenge consisted in climbing about 6,000ft over 18mi from Riggins to the Seven Devils Campground, the entry point to the Seven Devils Wilderness.

The climb was on a gravel road, but since it was climbing, I didn’t mind too much. I had a rough start and it almost took me 18mi to get somewhat into the zone. Shortly before the Windy Saddle, the sun rose. I was behind schedule already at the beginning of the day. Ursina passed me on the way up, not running, but in the car.

I passed many hunters and chatted with a few. One family of four, with even the small children carrying hunting rifles, asked me where I was heading. I told them my story upon which they asked how many days this would take me. I said I was planning on 17 hours.

Ursina waited faithfully at the Seven Devils Campground, where I changed gear and re-supplied. The Seven Devils all had snow caps on, so I packed micro-spikes and warm gear. I also needed enough food to make it to the other side of the canyon (or back, if worse came to worse) as well as some stuff for the swim-crossing of the Snake River at the bottom of the hellish abyss.

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The master-map of the Riggins-to-Imnaha Hells Canyon traverse.

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Elevation profile of the Riggins-to-Imnaha Hells Canyon traverse. The Grand Canyon profile is shown for comparison. hc15_3

It seemed like I was the only moving part in Riggins at 4am.

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It was cold. But it could have been colder. It could also have been warmer. Either way, I didn’t have a choice.

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As I got closer to the Windy Saddle, the sun finally made an appearance…

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…and warmed my suffering soul and body. The vastness of the landscape also became apparent.

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Gear change and re-supply at the Seven Devils Campground (mile 18).

He Devil

While Ursina took off to drive 7h to Hat Point on the other side of the Hells Canyon, I started the climb over the first saddle in the direction of the He Devil with some warming hot chocolate in my stomach. After the saddle, the climber trail soon disappeared into nothing and I had to rely on my route-finding skills, the map, and the GPS. The terrain was steep and as I neared a second saddle on a ridge, I hit snow. The drop down to Sheep Lake over loose rock was not quite straightforward. According to the map, I should have crossed the ridge earlier, but that did not look easier. I slowly made my way around Sheep Lake and then started the real climb of the He Devil. For a while it started snowing lightly and I was afraid the weather might turn earlier than anticipated.

Had I checked the map carefully, I wouldn’t have lost 45min climbing up the wrong ridge first. I was sure I was on the right ridge, but an insurmountable wall made me re-consider my beliefs. So I backtracked, studied the map, and traversed through a big rock field to the northwest ridge, where I should have started from the beginning. There was more and more snow on the ground, and instead of going up the ridge, I decided to go straight up a couloir to the summit. That was only possible because the snow and ice held the rocks together and provided a good hold for the micro-spikes, which I had put on by now.

I reached the summit, enjoyed some great views, signed the climber’s registry, and started my descent since I still had a hell of a day in front of me.

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Climbing up to the first saddle from the Seven Devils Campground.

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After crossing a ridge, I caught a first glance of the He Devil (in the middle of the picture) and Sheep Lake. Even though it looks small here, it is the highest of the Seven Devils.

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I was very glad I had packed the micro-spikes.

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Some more scrambling shortly before the summit. 

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On the He Devil, 9,400ft. The air felt a little thin.

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A first view of the Hells Canyon. The Hat Point on the other side was visible as well. Gem Lake in the middle of the picture. The route will lead me along the lake.

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Climber’s registry.

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The first person on the summit on Oct 24. I saw two groups on the way down, however.

Hells Canyon

The descent led me back to Sheep Lake from where I took another trail in the direction of the Hells Canyon. Most of the trail was very rocky and technical for the first few miles. Then the rocks gave way to trees. I had read a warning on the Forest Service website that hundreds of trees were down in the Seven Devils Wilderness. The message was from early summer, so I had assumed all would be cleared up by now and someone had just forgotten to delete the message. Well, it turned out these hundreds of trees were still there and the message was accurate.

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LOTS of downed trees obstructed an otherwise nice trail.

After miles of tree-hopping, I reached the Hells Canyon rim. It was a very intimidating and jaw-dropping moment. What followed was a grueling descent into the abyss. There was a decent trail at the beginning, but not for long. It disappeared mostly into nothing. Descending into the steep canyon on grassy and rocky slopes without a trail was time-consuming and strenuous.

As if I didn’t have enough things to deal with, the appearance of an increasing number of bear poops resulted in me singing whenever I did not have a good and open view of my surroundings.

As I descended further into the canyon, the temperature rose noticeably, which, in view of the upcoming swim, was good news. But the further down I dropped, the more worried I became about the possibility of not being able to swim across.

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View of the Hells Canyon from the rim. The Snake River can be seen at the bottom. Hat Point is right across. It was a very intimidating view.

The Swim

After dropping 8,300ft from the He Devil, I finally reached the bottom of the massive canyon. I immediately started looking for places that would allow me to swim across the Snake River safely. I had studied the location of rapids beforehand on maps and on Google Earth, but in reality, things always look different.

I ended up running more than a mile upstreams until I found a location that looked safe enough to attempt a crossing. The only challenge was to find the right place to start the swim from so that I would reach the other bank before the next rapids and after the rock wall that would not allow me to get out of the water. I studied the flow for a while and tried to estimate where I would end up.

Before getting cold, I undressed, packed all my gear into a dry bag, and jumped in. It was cold. The Ambit3 registered 63.5F (17.5 celsius), which is not that cold, if this measure is accurate, but it nevertheless felt cold. I had tethered the dry bag to my body and was very glad I did so. The river flow was strong and I had to focus all my energy on the swimming. As often with open waters, what looks like a very short crossing turned out to be much longer. The fact that I was once trained as a rescue swimmer gave me some confidence, but there isn’t much you can do if you get in trouble yourself.

The timing worked out pretty well and I made it to the place after the rock walls where I wanted to “land.” As I got out I started to shiver hard immediately. As quickly as possible I dried myself off with a buff, got dressed with all my layers, and started to move quickly to warm up.

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In search for a safe crossing. Too many rapids here.

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The location I swam across the Snake River. The water looks tame, but it flows faster than it seems.

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Getting ready for the swim across the Snake River.

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I made it across. No time to celebrate. I had to put on layers and get moving quickly to warm up.

Climbing from Hell Back to Heaven

The climb out of the canyon started by following a narrow side-canyon. There was a sign at the entrance that said “Hat Point,” so I expected this to be a somewhat decent trail. I was wrong. For almost a mile I had to bushwhack my way through brushes. I even came across nettles, which I have never seen in Oregon so far. More bear poop also lead to more singing. Finally, what was left of what may once have been a trail started to climb up on the canyon wall.

The climb was relentless. But so was I. The swim had given me new energy, I had warmed up again, and felt good. I took me 3h to climb the almost 5,700ft up to Hat Point. By the time I reached the top it was dark and Ursina was nowhere to be seen (yet). My masterplan did not foresee my arriving at Hat Point after dark, but masterplans can be dead wrong. That’s the reason I had packed a headlamp anyway, without which I would not have made it up to the rim.

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Grinding up to Hat Point.

The Gravel Road

As I reached the Hat Point, I had no water left and only a few gels in my pack. Without stopping, I started the descent on the gravel road toward Imnaha. This was going to be a grueling 22mi stretch with another 5,000ft drop. I really have no clue who had the idea of adding 22mi of gravel road at the end of this traverse!

After a few miles Ursina came driving up the road and I was able to fill up on water. I felt very exhausted and had some broth and hot chocolate to recover quickly. I also changed shoes, which felt good. But overall I felt trashed and more importantly, I was afraid of getting re-injured on this endless gravel road as I felt the old wounds flare up.

Nevertheless, after warming up, I continued for another 7 miles before I decided to pull the plug. It was a decision made by reason.

The total distance recored by the Ambit3 was 51.14 miles with 18,888 feet of elevation gain. The total elevation loss was 14,380 feet. I was on the way for 16:35’03. I quit about 16mi before Imnaha, so the total distance would have been more like 67 miles, compared to the 60 miles my masterplan was built upon. Once again, that shows that masterplans can be wrong.

It took us 2h to drive to Enterprise, where we found a hotel room late at night. Every single restaurant was obviously closed at that time, so we ended up sipping a tepid beer in bed before passing out, snoring all night like pigs, and sleeping in until 6am.

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Elevation profile. Total distance: 51.14 miles. Elevation gain: 18,888ft. Elevation loss: 14,380. Elapsed time: 16h35min.

Last Words

This was a fun and rewarding adventure that, as always, taught me great lessons. While the masterplan didn’t quite happen (yet), I’d say that this modest attempt can go into the books as an Only Known Time (OKT) from Riggins to Hat Point via the He Devil. That section was 43.3 miles and it took me 14h35min to complete it. Clearly, this could be done faster.

So now that I ironed out the kinks of this route, it will be ready for a second attempt…