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.