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Know the West

Dry-hiking in a desert awash with history


At 61, mountaineer and academic David Roberts can’t resist the chance to rack up another first. Comb Ridge is a jutting sandstone escarpment that runs from Kayenta, Ariz., to Blanding, Utah. One hundred miles long from end to end, the ridge was one of the few remaining hikes that no one had completed. But Roberts pulled it off, and lived to tell the tale in his new book, Sandstone Spine.

Roberts sets out on the epic hike with two friends, wilderness guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt and photographer Greg Child, who is also an accomplished rock climber. At 47, Child is the youngest of the three.

Roberts paints himself and his friends with all their blemishes, detailing their fallen arches, aching backs, and sometimes grumpy and competitive relationship. The three middle-aged men impose a one-dollar fine each time anyone mentions the word "beer" — a rule that proves increasingly expensive for Roberts as the days of arid hiking stretch on.

The three compete to spot interesting Anasazi artifacts, which Roberts illuminates with well-researched historical tidbits. He notes that the ruins of granaries, structures used to store corn and other food, are often found at the end of frightening climbs that intimidate even these experienced outdoorsmen. Roberts explains that this was one way the Native Americans defended their food from raiders, an often-devastating reality of their everyday life.

It’s clear this hike will hold a lasting place in Roberts’ heart: "Moments of the most piercing happiness came over me during those eighteen days, moments whose joy was all the keener for having shared them with two of my best friends."

Sandstone Spine

David Roberts

240 pages, softcover: $24.95.

The Mountaineer Books, 2006