Monday, November 15, 2010

Inside Arches National Park

After the second day of hiking the Fiery Furnace, my knees were beyond recovery, so I forfeited the hikes, bike rides, and strenuous activities offered by the less broken-down baby boomers on this trip. Terry had gone on the dome trip the day before, eleven miles of steep downhill and uphill hiking, his calves were killing him. He opted to come with me on a photo expedition into Arches National Park. I lucked out because he’s a geologist so I learned a bunch about the structure of the layers of sandstone, shale, and the underlying salt dome that is the primary reason for the collapse of the Salt Valley. To summerize, a thick layer of salt got laid down about 300 million years ago, and as uplift and erosion finally etched away the layers of rock above, water was able to seep down and melt the salt away, leaving a huge dome shaped cavern that eventually caved in. The rocks that fell down line the valley, and water has since taken away much of the jumble to expose the rock below.

We went to the Windows area and hiked around a bit there and giggled at a Japanese couple we kept running across; the man took dozens of pictures, every one was of his wife posed in front of this arch, that arch, or some nice rock formation. She posed in exactly the same way, near as I could tell. He could have just photo-shopped her image into each one of the arch photos and saved himself (and her) a lot of trouble. I noted that she’d changed from her high heels to a pair of Keds for the trek around the backside of the windows.

Then we decided to take our gear and hike over to Delicate Arch. We read up on the trail and were informed we would see chert rocks. Turns out there were huge boulders of chert! Some had rolled down from above and scattered shattered bits of chert everywhere. At the bottom of a dry stream bed of brown rocks a lone cottonwood in full golden regalia grew out of a sparkling chert diamond floor. It was magical.

Early morning fog in Arches Nat'l Park
The trail was up an enormous platform of sandstone, fallen at a 30 degree angle, and marked by rock cairns. Above that were more climbs across broad expanses of  sandstone, past steep drop offs and little low lying areas, artfully decorated by nature with local vegetation. At the top, a long shelf along a steep and scary slope blasted out in the 1930’s to provide a wide avenue that would only frighten the most fearful people.  Then, across a short ledge, the most beautiful of the arches in the park. The Delicate arch stands all alone on the edge of a bowl shaped structure. The last time I was there, I never dared to cross the ledge and walk around on the slopes of the bowl. Now, with my newfound but still somewhat terrified courage, I did walk over to the arch, looked over the edge on the other side, and took pictures I’d never have taken otherwise. There were few people in the bowl, and no one was ‘hogging’ the arch, as some tend to do, taking pictures of each other. We didn’t see the Japanese couple anywhere. I think the bowl is exceptionally scary, not because it’s so steep, but because it’s such a long way down, a long slope that would not break your fall for 200 feet should you be foolish enough to stumble and topple over.  

The walk out was nice, the sun low and warming, mostly downhill. One little chipmunk raced all over, which surprised us. It was exceptionally exposed on the red rock and ought to be easy pickings for a hawk.

La Sal Mountains
Then we drove up to Devil’s garden and through the campground there. I’ve always wanted to camp there, each little spot nestled among boulders and outcroppings, but I believe it is first come, first served and during the high visitation season it’s always packed.  There were quite a few campers, many in tents in spite of the low temperature and snow during the night. On the way out, we parked at the Fiery Furnace overlook and got some great photos of the distant LaSal mountains and the formations in the Salt Valley with the setting sun.

On Saturday, Terry felt like going back to the Dome area with Irene’s daughter, a geologist, who was guiding that family on the 11 mile trip. I would have enjoyed hearing her talk, but my knees weren’t up to such a steep and long hike. So on Saturday I was joined by Dennis who had injured his shoulder bike riding. I guess I was the go-to-gal for the gimps of the trip. Dennis and I went to a spot outside the park where some petroglyphs are hidden amongst the rocks. Had it not been for his guidance I never would have known they were there, and they were quite unusual. The sign said that area was a cross-roads for several different groups so some of the glyphs were Ute, Anasazi, and even some Navajo, though how an amateur could tell the difference I don’t know. We then drove to the end of the paved road in the park and hiked into Devil’s Garden. The arch I thought had fallen, the Landscape Arch, was not the one that crashed in 2008, it was one nearby. Signs were posted at its location, with photos of how it used to look.  Ropes and signs keep people out of that area as the rocks haven’t finished the entire descent just yet.
Fins of Sandstone, Finland!!

Beyond that spot the trail led up the edge of a fin. It was not a trail I’d ever taken due to timidity back in 2003 when I was last here. I can’t say I wasn’t initially terrified, but I had a bit more confidence and braved it. Actually the fin wasn’t the worst of that trail, steeper and scarier rocks would be up ahead, but none of it was as bad as the cliff we’d gone down on Wednesday. It was a fine hike through many fins, over ledges, the trail marked with worn rock and cairns. It ended at a double arch, with a large rounded portal above a smaller one. We saw people coming and going, but the trail was not crowded. A much longer trail leads down into “Finland” an area with row after row of tall slim rocks. Off in the distance the land stretches out until it was hard to tell whether the blueish haze was land or sky. While it took most of the afternoon to reach the double arches and return to the car, the distance was only about 4 miles round trip. The last of four days in Moab, one of the finest places on earth.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fiery Furnace

Moab: A little bit about this trip. It's a Los Alamos Mountaineer's trip and as such, one is required to sign a waiver that the club is not to be held responsible if you get hurt or die, and no one is responsible, even if one of the other club members does something to cause you to be hurt or die. You acknowledge that you know what you're doing is dangerous and potentially fatal. The fact that I signed all the little initial places and then my full signature at the bottom kept coming to mind as the first day progressed. But I'm here writing, with some sore upper body muscles, bruises, and scrapes. I'm here still. 

Thursday, I'd planned to go out when the sun came up to photograph the red rocks in the snow before it melted off. It was snowing when we got back to the house Wednesday evening and was supposed to snow during the night. I'm sequestered in a little bunkbed in a nook of the stairwell, like a Harry Potter room.... There are 24 people in this huge house, built like a 3-story quad but all hooked together. It's possible to rent 1/4 or the whole thing. Beds are everywhere. What looks like a cabinet for a large TV is really a Murphy bed in the living room, every couch flops out into a bed. All the people are outdoorsy types who bike, ski, rock I'm in a whole new community as an outsider, but made to feel welcome. It's very cool. They do this kind of thing often. I'm going to do more with them when I can. I'm already signed up for the 2011 4th of July trip to a hut in the Colorado Rockies. 

The day dawned without snow. What I'd seen on the cliffs the night before was already melted, steamed off in foggy puffs that hung suspended in the canyons. We drove into Arches National Park, gratis since it was Veteran's day, and headed toward the Fiery Furnace. I'd driven past that area but never went inside. It's basically fins, one after another with garden like areas between. Bill and Tom brought ropes, just in case.......of course. The group was larger, we'd been joined by Irene, David and their son Lee, Kathleen and her daughter, Elena. 

Elena has quite a crush on Tom, she's 13. She does that cute pre-teen flirting......accidentally bumps into him, pelts him with snowballs gathered from little icy bits still clinging to tree branches, prances up ahead glancing back often. Tom, who's forty something, easily regresses to 14, and flings dirt clods back at her.

We parked in a little pull-off near the fins and followed a stream bed to the base of the sandstone monolith, where everyone walked up a narrow shelf and around a huge boulder with barely a place to put your feet. I took one look at that obstacle and in spite of the thorough thrashing my fears and ego had experienced the day before, I balked. "I'll stay here and just take pictures." Tom would have none of that and pointed to a crevice I could just walk up, so there I was, on top with the rest of them. 

That area is spectacular. From the top one can see miles in all directions. The La Sals covered with snow and capped with clouds, red, brown, and green canyonlands between those mountains and our position, blue sky shining through arches off in the distance, cliffs behind us to the west. We were at the back of the fins, and could walk out easily onto the tops of them and look down. Most were at least 10 feet wide so the fact that the drop off was forty feet or more wasn't intimidating. I should have run the battery down in my camera I took so many photos. We hiked to the very edge of the Furnace on the east and after a nice little lunch break headed back toward the cars. On the way somebody spotted an interesting arch formed on the inside of a fin with the hole pointing up to the sky, instead of the hole going through the fin like they usually do. The mountain goat people scampered up to the top of that fin and looked down through the hole. More nice photos. 

We found our own footprints in the damp soil and easily made our way back to the cars. Elena found a better route which most took, but I'd already slipped down into the crack I'd come up. Everybody was waiting for me at the end, stiffling their laughter. The way they'd come down was an easy walk. It's now named the Sherry Crack. Oh goody. 

Kathleen, Elena and I left early to go grocery shopping. It had been my plan to make a Thai meal, but the best laid plans.......often go awry. I'd brought my own skillets, anticipating the kitchens would not be well provisioned. I was right. Our kitchen was lacking a large soup pot, pots big enough for all the rice, etc. However, the group has the entire house, so we raided the three other kitchens for pans, dishes, bowls, and wine glasses. We managed to make a pretty good dinner. It just took a long time and when the whole group was there, it was crowded. The dinner came out in stages, and between times everyone drank wine. The laughter got loud and the food went pretty fast. It was a great end to another fine day in Slickrock Country. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rock Virgin

I seem to be losing my virginity a lot lately. In October, I was an IKEA virgin, now I have an IKEA desk set up in my bedroom at home, the perfect size for that nooky little space next to the bathroom door. Yesterday, I lost my Rock Virginity. Actually I may have lost it once before, in highschool with John Melanson when he and Norman Farquhar dragged my ass up to the top of this enormous boulder and then dropped me off an overhang. But it's been 40 years since then, I'm re-virginated. 

Fearless Leader Bill

Yesterday was a Top Ten Day. I not only lost my virginity, I didn't lose my life......with the help of 4 very competent men, three of whom were good technical climbers. At least three times during the course of the day I thought, "If I am not absolutely careful, I'm going to fall down this cliff and die."

The day started with Bill, the leader of this expedition telling me we were going for a hike. There might be some rock scrambling. I had a vague notion what that meant, but I'll never be so innocent again. They were taking ropes just in case we needed them. Right. 

Tom, a tall lean soft-spoken man from Santa Fe, was the best of the teachers, so calm and organized. Terry was not very experienced either but was ahead of me in the conquering fear department. And Martin was the quietest man I've ever met. I'm not sure I even know what his voice sounds like, but he smiles a lot, and was silently helpful all the time.  

I had an inkling that things would not go well when, ten minutes into this hike we met a wall of rock and these guys just went right up it, like monkeys, hand over fist, feet on invisible nubs. It looked so easy. 

Ok. So with the exception of Martin, they were all 6 feet or taller, Martin was not far behind. I'm barely over 5 feet. They are men. I'm not. My legs simply do not fold up to my chest, because, frankly, my chest gets in the way. They broke out the climbing bag with lengths of nylon flat rope which I'm sure has some technical term, 'beaners', and made a 'swami' belt for me. But unlike John Melanson, they did not haul me up the rock, they simply allowed me not to die if I were to fall. Tom stood under and directed where to find the invisible nubs for my shaking boots, kept insisting I stand up straight and not hug the rock for dear life (how do you stand up straight when all you're standing on is an invisible nubbin of rock??). He said things like "don't use your knees!", after I got to the top finally by heaving a knee up over the edge of the cliff. It was good advice, my knee ached the rest of the day.

For a while, we 'scrambled', climbing up uneven staircase-like rocks that presented moderately easy passage in a vertical direction. There was a large arch, the kind of formation Moab is famous for. After a lot of posing for pictures the plan was to go up a 'fin'. This is a narrow slice caused by erosion of parallel cracks in the monolithic mass of sandstone that constitutes the entire region. It's tall, thin, and the only way up it is to hold onto a cable, thoughtfully installed by someone crazy enough to get up there without it. Of course, Tom and Martin just walked up the thing without touching the cable, and threw down a rope for me. 
Bill coming up the cable on the fin.

At this point, I should mention the weather. When we started out, it was overcast and cloudy, chilly but not cold. The wind was intermittent and not strong, but enough to drive the chill through fleece jackets. Bill had sent me a list of things to carry in my backpack, one of them was gloves. By the time we reached the arch, the high thin clouds had moved on, the sun was out. The temperature was pleasant, and I was grateful for that. I can't imagine all this exertion in hot weather, there's no way I could have carried enough water to sustain the day. 

Terry told me the best way to go up a fin is to ignore the fact that it's only a few feet wide with terrifying dropoffs on either side. Actually, he never used the word terrifying. He did mention that at home, he can walk easily down a length of rail on a railroad and not fall off. This is the same thing. Just focus on the place you can put your foot and don't think about what's on either side. It's true, our minds are our worst enemies. I can walk a rail too, but I'd be crazy to walk a rail 200 feet off the ground! I followed Terry's advice and just focused on holding the cable, leaning back a little, which I must say is sooooo counter intuitive. Turns out, it was way easier than I'd thought. The cable had little burrs in it that would have cut my hands, but Bill lent me some leather gloves. A burr did catch my pants though, and tore a hole. So I now have 'canyon' pants as a souvenir. They would become even more souvenir-like as the day progressed....

At the top of the fin, the land leveled out. This is not to say it was like the great plains of Texas, it was simply humpy without any more forbidding cliffs. We were on top, finally, of that massive sandstone formation that makes up much of the Colorado Plateau. The views were spectacular. Off to the northeast was a land of many fins and humps of eroded sandstone resembling the backs of enormous turtles. Beyond that, pristine snow covered the La Sal mountains, so aptly named with the Spanish word for salt. In the opposite direction we looked down into the canyon from whence we came, to the wide Colorado River in its deep, serpentine canyon, the almost maroon walls bordered by gold leafed cottonwoods. 

Bill had it in his mind that we would 'get out' by going north. He had a map but it wasn't terribly precise, and there were no marked trails other than the occasional cairn. After a while, there were no more cairns and we were bushwhacking, headed toward the canyon he and Tom could see from the highest vantage points. They had spotted a couple of possible routes they called Plan A and Plan B. I'm not sure which one was chosen, but it led to a cliff with an impossible drop, a sheer rock wall. It was now about 2:00 and the weather had changed from sunny to cloudy, from mild to chilly, snow was on its way. 

We backed uphill and took the alternate route which involved going down a narrow canyon between two fins. Even though this is normally hot desert country, the land between the fins gets all the water that runs off them during rain storms and the microscopic bits of rock that weathers constantly from them. It's positively lush down there, full of Mormon tea, tough stickery juniper trees, grasses, flowers, rose bushes, and lots of damp sand. Bushwhacking through the little canyon was slow work. At one point the only passage was past a juniper with a branch that had grown sideways and then bent as it hit the fin wall. The guys moved the branch aside and slipped past it. But the branch was right at chest level for me, and even with my pack off, it was downright painful to get past it, felt like I was being molested by a tree!
Plan A or Plan B???

The little canyon opened out onto another cliff but this one had a few narrow shelves and larger 'stairs' that led to the final major obstacle, a 30 foot drop. Time to get out those ropes again. I was terrified. This was the worst moment of the day, and after 5 hours of scrambling, climbing and hiking, I was tired. I didn't trust my shaky knees anymore but there was no other option. We could see the jeep trail at the bottom of the canyon. The way out was clear, just simply not accessible, in my view. The four men showed no sign of turning back, and I wasn't about to suggest it. I doubted actually, if we could have found our way back to the exact fin with the cable, and that was the only way down on that side. 

Bill set up a belay and this time he wrapped the rope around my waist. Martin simply scampered down the shelves and then slipped down a crack 'chimney' and was on the ground at the bottom. Well, bottom might be a misnomer, he was at least off the cliff. The canyon bottom was still far down a talus slope with a few more shelves to traverse. I sat for a few minutes and just tried to calm down. My heart was beating itself out of my chest. I don't think I've been this scared in a long time. I was looking my own demise in the face and there was no option but to trust these men and the ropes. And hope my knees would hold up. This time, it wasn't easier than it looked. 

Tom and Bill set up the belay with Bill noting there was nothing to brace himself against. Tom suggested a little sapling tree barely surviving in an inch of soil. Bill pushed against it with his feet and it toppled right over. Oh good, I'm going to be held up on the side of a cliff by a guy without a rock to brace against. But Bill dug in his heels and decided his weight alone would keep him from sliding off, in the event that I fell. I took off my gloves, now damp from the sweat of my palms. Just writing this, I'm having to wipe off my hands!

Set up to go, I inched my way down the cliff, hanging onto tiny crevices of rock, placing one foot at a time on the sandy, slippery shelves of rock. In reality though, the sand was damp, held well, and the shelf was wider than it had appeared to my terrified mind when I first looked down. The drop from the shelf to the skree below was still 30 or more feet. That aspect of reality had not changed a bit. The worst part was coming around the corner where Tom was standing. The 'corner' was an overhang of rock with quite a step from my shelf to the one he stood on. He told me exactly where to grab hold of the rock and then he put an arm around my back for support and I inched over to his shelf. There was barely enough room for both of us, but a wider platform, the top of a tower of rock, was below and I got down to that. Terry was already there. The rock we sat on had a gap between it and the sheer wall we'd just come down, forming the chimney. Since I had the rope on, I got to go first. Bill was still way up at the top belaying me. Tom dropped down to the platform and talked me down the chimney. After the terror subsided of being suspended in a crack with just a sloping slab of slippery rock below me, it was kinda fun. I had both hands on the rock opposite the one my back was pressed up against. There were some visible foot holds to stand on and lean against, but at the bottom, there was empty space bounded on one side by a very steep slab of rock. Martin was down there, he held onto the toes of my boots as they slid down the slab. I pushed my back into the wall and inched my way down. I could feel the rope tighten and knew Bill was doing a fair share of holding my weight as I slid. Eventually there was not a thing to hang onto and essentially Bill lowered me to the ground. It was only a few feet and Martin was right there. I had feet flattened up against the slab but they would not have had enough friction to support me if Martin hadn't been bracing from below. Finally I was on the real ground once again. I collapsed into a heap over with the pile of packs we'd lowered earlier.  Terry got down faster but it was a struggle for him too, belayed by Bill. Then Bill had to come down from way up above and Tom belayed him from the platform I think (I've since been corrected, Bill was NOT on belay! It's kind of embarrassing to be belayed if you're a real mountain guy. Not being a guy, I'm spared such ego, I'll take it when I can get it.) It dawned on me after a little bit to take some photos, so I got Bill coming down the chimney , and then Tom who slid down with what seemed like little effort and no rope. Monkeys. They're all monkeys. 

The rest of the way to the bottom of the canyon was a relative piece of cake, though it was steep and sandy with little angular rocks mixed in. It felt a lot like skiing. I tried to stay in the men's footprints so as not to create too much disturbance of the cryptobiotic plants that keep desert soils from eroding. Martin and Tom went on ahead at their faster pace to get the cars. At the mouth of this canyon the paved road leads back to where we'd parked a couple miles beyond.  I deeply appreciated their willingness to 'go the extra mile'.

We walked out on the sandy and sometimes quite rocky jeep trail that followed what is often a raging river, a periodic tributary to the Colorado. Evidence of high water was everywhere, plants mashed over towards the mouth of the canyon, some small trees along the edges with exposed roots, flotsam jammed up against boulders, and slick exposed rock on the river bottoms. It began to rain, a cold spitting rain. I packed according to Bill's list so I got out my rain jacket and was comfortably dry if not exactly warm on the walk out of the canyon. By the time we reached the paved road, it was snowing, small icy splats of snow that didn't stick, but would shortly. We waited under a shelter for about twenty five minutes before Tom and Martin showed up with the cars. This incredible day was finally at a close. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"too" Boulder

After the almost fatal drive from Laramie to Ft. Collins a week ago, I thought I'd better get new tires. Winter is coming and I don't want to be caught in another situation like that with less than wonderful tires. There's a place my friend Dan Day recommended and he called ahead to get me the 'family' discount. While they put on the tires I took a little walk in the glorious fall weather; trees golden, red, and some still green in every direction, the little creek with a sidewalk along it full of squirrels dashing about, children playing in the park across the street, a lovely area. And I spotted a bakery. I don't eat grains anymore but the smell of fresh bread would ease my soul and besides I could pick up something for my mom who is feeling deprived traveling with me and my austere diet.

The bakery was in a small house with little Tibetan flags in the flower bed, nicely landscaped front yard and a large sign: Fresh Baked.

I stepped in through the door to no smells whatsoever. Inside the darker room when my eyes adjusted there was a conference table off to one side, the room had a tall desk with two people behind it who looked at me questioningly.

"Oh, this isn't a bakery?"

"No", said the slim young woman, "It's a dispensary."

There were no shelves full of product, nothing 'for sale' that I could see. Now my curiosity was beside itself. "A dispensary of what?"

"Medical Marijuana" she said, "Welcome to Boulder!!"