Picking the Proper Backcountry Outfitter
Before I get into the specifics of what went wrong on our trip, I would like to give you a checklist to go over with your outfitter before you sign on and head out with them, so that you can pick the proper backcountry outfitter for your needs.
- Make sure they have the proper permits for the areas that you are heading into
- When was the last time your Outfitter was in this area with other clients?
- If using pack animals, are the trails suitable for the animals being used? Horses for trails. Mules for more slick rock and unstable conditions.
- Make sure you are clear with your Outfitter what happens if any days are deleted from your itinerary due to weather conditions. (Will they add a extra day on at the beginning or end of the trip? If not, will they reimburse you for the missed day?)
- Is there camping gear suitable for the conditions.? Do they have backup equipment- stoves, sleeping bags, tents, horses or mules?
- What will be your responsibilities as clients- help manage pack animals, packing the animals, setting up camp? If the list is long and you a are paying good money, this might send up a red flag.
- Do a Google search of the Outfitter and see if anything comes up that concern you.
Planning the trip:
Last year, we mailed out camping gear, so that we could do a 3 day, 2 night camping trip in Coyote Gulch outside of Escalante, Utah. That trip was amazing, as we did most of the highlights off of Hole-in-the-Rock road- Coyote Gulch, and the slot canyon of Zebra, Peek-a-boo and Spooky. The one remaining adventure I wanted to complete in that area was to hike down into Neon Canyon and Golden Cathedral, and then, Choprock Canyon as well.
On the trip this year, there would be four us that were heading out for a three week Utah trip. We would spend ten days skiing up northern Utah and ten days hiking down in south. Since we were packing ski equipment, we decided to hire an outfitter for the three day, two night camping trip we had planned down in Fence Canyon. This would serve as our base camp for hiking the two canyons. Some folks choose to do all of this in a day, but we decided to slow the pace down and try to soak it in.
To that end, I did and internet search and camp across Backcountry Outfitter based out of Torrey, Utah. Throughout the winter we exchanged phone calls and emails. Our guide on the trip was to be the owner, Cody Clapp. He explained that because of the effort it required to get down into Fence Canyon with his horses, he would suggest a 4 day, 3 night experience. He would provide this extra day at no extra expense to us. He also said that if he brought a wrangler to deal with the horses, he would “guide” us down in the canyon. We all are experienced hikers and campers,but considered his offer a nice gesture.
Day #1 of the trip:
We had to postpone our Wednesday start date as it had threatened to snow and would be too wet for the horses to negotiate the slickrock. I tried to extend our trip an extra day on the back end, but Cody would not negotiate. This was annoying, but we let it go and moved ahead.
Cody met us at our motel at around 9:30 A.M. Thursday morning. We arrived at the Egypt bench parking lot and trailhead around 11:00 A.M. By the time all the horses were loaded, it was 3:30 P.M. before we headed down the trail. We had never used an outfitter before, so were not sure if this was usual. Already though, I was thinking it would have been quicker and simpler just to backpack down without all this fuss.
When we were finally heading out, it took Cody and his wrangler another 30-45 minutes to find the trailhead meant for the horses. He had done a scouting trip the previous Monday, but otherwise had not been in this area for 8 or so years. Because we had 6 horses carrying gear, it took 3 trips up and down the slick rock section of the trail before we could begin descending the safer parts of the route. At one point, he had a woman friend leading a horse down the slickrock, which unnerved her.
Hiking down the trail, Cody developed a blister on his heal, as he was hiking in running sneakers without socks. We gave him first aide. So far all of these things were minor, though a little suspect.
We arrive in camp and set up tents and gear. We are cooking dinner for all of us, Cody and his wrangler included, as we had made this arrangement for the price we were quoted. I now believe he could not get a cook for the trip. While cooking dinner, I noticed that 3 of his horse are tangled up by their leaders in the nearby cottonwoods. Cody calls to the wrangler to untie them. Before we know it, all the horses have gotten loose and bolted back up the canyon in the dark towards the parking area 4 miles away. After some chasing, Cody and the wrangler agree to go after them the next morning. The cook stove had an ongoing gas leak and at one point we resorted to cooking on an MSR back packing stove. Things did not seem to be going well.
That night the temperature dropped into the 20’s and we all, except Cody, froze in our sleeping bags. The tent zippers worked poorly and the tents had tears at their seams. The bags were Northface and Cody said they were 20/40 bags. If that was the case, the bags were old and had long ago lost their loft. We all slept in numerous layers of clothes, but were still cold. When I heard Cody’s tent zipper the next morning, I went out to show him the amount of clothes I had slept in and told him that we all froze in the night. Cody’s response was, “Well it was cold last night.” Not the response I wanted to hear from an outfitter we were paying good money too. I had hoped he would have more sleeping bags in his truck when he went back up to round up the horses. Not so.
Neon Canyon/Golden Cathedral:
As Cody and the wrangler headed up to retrieve the horses, we head out on our hike down into Neon Canyon and Golden Cathedral. The area down in these canyons is more off the beaten path than the more popular Coyote Gulch, but with guide book in hand, we found our way through the thickets and across the Escalante River to Neon Canyon. The canyon with its bronze colored walls, highlighted against neon green cottonwoods, deserves all of its accolades. Neon Canyon culminates at the terminus of Golden Cathedral. At Golden Cathedral, we were lucky enough to come across NOLS expeditioners, who were rappelling down into the icy waters. A true treat. Later that day, we hiked up on top of Neon Canyon and followed the route that canyoneers use to access this route. It takes some serious effort to rappel into Golden Cathedral.
Camp, night #2:
When we arrived in camp that afternoon, Cody, the wrangler, and the horses had returned. Though we had not brought in any alcohol down to camp, Cody had 2 fifths, one of vodka, and one of whiskey. He seemed to have already started happy hour. He asked us if we wanted a drink and we all said yes. The three women had one drink. Our male friend had 2 drinks. Cody proceeded to finish off the bottle and get abusively, falling down drunk. At one point, he started to tear up and cry, when telling a story. He dominated the evening, which was laced with excessive profanity.I was taking night photography shots, and at one point he stumbled up to me and ask me what I was doing. Really?
Later that night, he fell into his tent with all his clothes on and began to snore like a chainsaw. I decided that I was not going to lose another night’s sleep and proceeded to go over and wake him up. He was out cold. I continued to shake him and then his arm came out and hit me and he yelled, “F**k off!” When I crawled back into my tent, my wife said, “Don’t worry. He won’t remember saying that in the morning.”
This was our last day. We broke down tents, cooking gear and sleeping bags and put them in the designated locations. I wanted to head down in to Choprock Canyon, but Cody kept telling me there was nothing to see down there. I said we wanted to go anyway. He said that he was going to go down to Golden Cathedral, “because he had not been down there in 7-8 year.” We agreed to meet at the Fence Canyon trailhead at 1:00 P.M.. Cody left his wrangler do pack while he went on his own personal hike. After the proceeding days and nights, we were starting to find this guy unbelievable. We were paying this guy to go on his own personal hike?
We hiked down into Choprock, which we enjoyed immensely, but turned around, so that we would be at the trailhead at the prescribed 1:00 P.M.. We arrive on time, but no horses, no Cody. Our male friend waded down river to the campsite to see what is causing the delay. When he arrives that are still packing and they enlist his help to load the horses. The whole crew arrives at Fence Canyon at 2:30 P.M.. We had been waiting an hour and a half! We all felt that if Cody had not gone on his hike, he would have been on time.
Moose, the Mule:
Not a quarter mile up Fence Canyon and Moose, the mule’s 120lb saddlebags come uncinched, and are twisted between his legs. Our male friend holds the kicking mule, while the wrangler heads up canyon to retrieve Cody. Because the mule was so agitated, we tell our friend to let him go, so he will not be kicked or hurt. The mule goes galloping up canyon with 120lbs of gear between his legs. I am not sure, at this point, whether my camera gear is in these saddlebags. Moose had carried them down, but I didn’t know if he was carrying my gear out.
When Cody returns to recinch Moose, I ask him if he has insurance to cover my $6000.00 worth of camera gear. He responded very curtly and rudely that he was not responsible! Maybe he wasn’t, not sure, but was that any way to speak to a client. We all just chalked it up to his being hungover.
The Last Quarter Mile:
The mule resaddled, Cody and the wrangler take off up canyon, leaving us to hike out cairn by cairn by ourselves. As I said, we are experienced hikers, so this did not present a problem. But once again, we were left questioning his judgement and sense of safety. How would less experienced hikers have handled this terrain?
Less than a quarter of a mile from the finish, with the parking lot in view, we encounter Cody and the wrangler heading back down the trail. I don’t even know how to write this, but one of the pack horses had collapsed to all fours and then proceeded to slide off the cliff. The wrangler had tried to restrain the horse, Tramp, until he, too, started to slide off the trail.
Tramp laid dead at the bottom of a 30′ cliff. Cody asked our male friend to go down and hold their horses while they pulled off Tramp’s saddlebags.
We were nauseated and devastated by this culminating event, and felt certain the horse was just tired and stressed from having to make 4 trips up and down the canyon in 3 days.
I wrote a letter to Cody, detailing our complaints and asking for a full refund. He refused. I told him that I thought this was the most unorganized and unprofessional a trip I could imagine having taken. I told him I would be filing letters of complaint with the National Monument and the Bureau of Land Management. When talking with BLM, I found out that Cody had not had the appropriate permits to be down in the Glen Canyon region, even though we had booked the trip in January, and this was now April.
It will be months before I know the results of those certified letters. It is too bad that one unscrupulous Outfitter can altered once memories of a trip so indelibly. I can only hope that there is some action taken, so that a more inexperienced group doesn’t truly suffer harm. I, also, feel that Cody must have other reputable employees working for him and I am truly sorry if this negative review impacts them in any way.