Canyons in Utah

The further north-west we drove towards Utah, the higher the thermostat rose, with both our sweating, red faces and Sherman’s engine attesting to the fact. We subsequently found out that we were in the middle of a heatwave in the Utah desert, but our blissful ignorance of all news and current affairs left us naively persisting with our fore planned driving and hiking itinerary, before we landed on the best way to beat the heat: in Utah’s many, amazing canyons.

Zion National Park greeted us with awe-inspiring layers of all shades of red, yellow, white and purple rock carved out into the most magnificent array of vertical structures on all sides.

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The main canyon of Zion, with the Virgin River running through the middle

To give you an idea of the Zion experience let me paint you a picture…

According to the Dulux color charts, the range spans from Butterscotch Tempest to Pink Chablis to Iced Cranberry to Razz Berries. There is plenty of Chinatown Orange, Bongo Jazz, and the occasional splash of Mardi Gras.

Even when the main canyon – through which the Virgin river runs – was still some miles away, the cliffs and peaks that withstood the forces of all the tributary creeks and flows over millennia still stopped us in our tracks as we drove the windy roads through the western section of the Park.

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The main canyon of Zion, with the Virgin River running through the middle

We didn’t waste any time once arriving in the main section of the Park, and promptly headed out towards the Narrows – the upper section of the Virgin River canyon, where you can wade through the river – and the crowds – upstream to where the canyon walls narrow. Whilst the canyon was beautiful, we were shocked by the volume of people, feeling as though we’d landed in a theme park, rather than a national park! Fortunately, the further upstream we went, the fewer people we encountered – and soon we found ourselves really enjoying the cool water and the beautiful, deep canyon.

The next day, we woke at the crack of dawn to climb Angel’s Landing – planning to beat both the crowds and the heat – being mildly successful on both counts.

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Up at Angel’s Landing

On the scramble back down from the viewpoint – which gave epic views up and down the main canyon – we met a local adventurer Philip, who’s brain we eagerly picked on all the best local canyons to explore. We’d come over to Utah armed with notes from Jonno’s canyoning buddy, Richard – including a spreadsheet that even impressed Jonno – detailing the type and difficulty of each canyon. Rich had strongly emphasised to avoid canyons that have a particular feature not commonly seen in Australian canyons: potholes. Potholes are basically big holes in a canyon, drilled out to large proportions by gritty water over hundreds of years, with deep, smooth walls that are virtually impossible to climb out of. Canyoneers resort to all sorts of creative approaches to escape these natural obstacles – pack tosses, sand bags, partner hoists to name a few. Many an unsuspecting person has gotten stuck before – and when they’re full of icy cold water, succumbed to hypothermia.

With Philip’s advice and Rich’s notes, we soon found ourselves at the Park’s office, applying for any permits that we could get our hands on for pothole-free canyons. We headed off early the next morning to explore Pine Creek Canyon. The canyon begins on one side of the 1.1 mile long Zion Tunnel, and, after passing beneath it, loosely follows its path until you emerge on the other side. Pine Creek had a few great rappels, some icy swim-through sections, and beautiful tight, etched out walls. The best bit, though, was the huddle of shady and secluded rock pools downstream of the canyon where we could sit in the sunshine, listening to the birds around us, as we could warm up and have lunch.

We had so much fun that we went straight back to the Parks office to see what other permits we could get, and managed to score some for Keyhole that afternoon, and Middle Echo the next morning.

Keyhole is a dry, relatively short canyon, easily accessed from the side of the road with red, sandstone walls that form concentric waves as you squeeze through the narrow gap carved out by the ephemeral creek that at times runs through it.

Middle Echo, by contrast, is a wet – and extremely cold – canyon that, despite our intentions to avoid them, included our first pothole. We had been well reassured that this was relatively easy to escape, but as Jonno stood chest-deep in the frigid water waiting for me (so that he could launch me up and over the rim of the pothole), we both quickly understood why these can be so dangerous.

En route to Middle Echo Canyon, we’d hiked up to Observation Point – which gave a stunning view of the Zion Canyon – and on the way, met a friendly local who’d spotted our helmets and canyoning pack, and proceeded to fill us in on more of the local canyoning gems. Road Trip Ryan’s website was one of these, which contains excellent and comprehensive descriptions of canyoning and climbing routes throughout Utah!

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Recharging the batteries in Springdale Park

We hustled back to our self-appointed ‘basecamp’ at Springdale council park (replete with picnic tables, shady trees, barbecues, powerpoints and an adjacent library with wifi!), to research our next canyoneering adventure: Robbers Roost.

Before we knew it, we were abusing Sherman with a 40 mile jaunt on the most punishing, corrugated, potholed road to the middle of nowhere: Larry’s Canyon.

 

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Sherman’s sunset silhouette at Robbers Roost
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Sunrise and the pink mountains at Robbers Roost

Much to our surprise, when we finally arrived, we found a small camp set up at the entry point! We soon met the gang of fellas from Boulder, Colorado, who’d come over for a long weekend of canyoning in Robbers Roost – and who very kindly offered to shuttle our car to the exit point of the canyon the following morning. We were delighted to avoid the 5 mile hike in the hot, desert sun – and as it turned out, we were incredibly lucky they did.

Larry’s canyon was breathtaking – as with those in Zion, it was tight and deep and the walls etched out to form amazing patterns and textures.

About half way down the canyon, the harsh rock ripped through Angie’s backpack and, as she rappelled down a short drop, the lid of her water bottle that was protruding through the hole was unscrewed by the rock and emptied out beneath her.

Whilst the canyon itself was shaded and cool, by the time that we exited into the wider river bed, the sun was beating down on us to the tune of 115F. The 1.5 hour scramble out of the canyon and up onto the plateau above soon turned into a race to get back to the van and the water inside before dehydration and heat exhaustion struck. We were so grateful to have had the car shuttle, and our big water barrel inside!

Our last stop in Utah was Moab, famous for the slick-rock mountain biking trails that are proliferate around the town. While we were waiting for the day to cool enough to get out on the bikes – and to catch up with our friend Ian who was meeting us there – we headed out to Professor Creek for one last canyon. The road out to the Creek follows the Colorado river to the north of the town, a beautiful experience in itself to wind alongside the fast-flowing water gazing out at the tempting sets of rapids, and vertiginous cliffs on the north side.

Upon arriving at the trailhead carpark, we eagerly set off along a well-marked trail towards what we thought was the entry point into the canyon. An hour later, we met a couple en route to the same canyon, and we collectively realised that we’d all taken the wrong trail – unnecessarily sweating it out in the full-sun, when we should have indeed been following the creek itself up, knee-deep in its cold water!

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Walking through Professor Creek

We all hiked back to the carpark, where our newfound friends decided to abort the mission due to the rising thermostat, while we still couldn’t resist the lure of a day in the cool creek. We followed the creek upstream for around 1.5 hours, before finding the little exit gully. We then had a steep scramble up crumbly rock and scree to the canyon rim, before hiking across the oven-like terrain to where we could drop back into the head of the canyon.

We were relieved when we finally reached the distinctive ‘dome’ like hill that marks the head of the canyon. We dropped down in, and what followed was the most enjoyable combination of short, easy rappels, slippery slides and splashing downstream through the creek until the final, 10 metre rappel down a waterfall.

From there, we followed our tracks back down Professor Creek towards the carpark, lapping up the cool water and the shade. It was a great way to wrap up our canyoneering in Utah…

Tips and Tricks

Road Trip Ryan gives excellent details for canyoneering (as it’s called in the US), hiking, climbing and rafting in Utah. He’s got the website, and an app that you can download. Note, the GPS points are all in UTM format!! We made the mistake of not double checking before heading out…
Mountain Project and MTB project are two free apps that also give loads of info on climbing and mountain biking areas throughout the US, well worth downloading!

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A Wave in the Desert

Angie arrived in LA early on the morning of 10 July, and despite Jonno’s big hopes for a romantic reunion and to regale her with tales of his Mt Logan escapades, she promptly fell asleep and stayed that way for the next two days, battling jet lag and the aftermath of too much fun in the weeks before leaving Australia.

Not dissuaded, with one eye on the road and the other intently focused on Sherman’s  temperature gauge, Jonno drove straight to a small town in northern Arizona called Page, eager to get onto the trail for the first of our long-awaited forays into the American wilderness. Our first was to be to a rock feature nearby called the Wave. As we bumped along a ridiculously corrugated dirt road during the night, Angie marvelled at how Jonno had stumbled across this seemingly obscure and exciting hike for us. Taking advantage of Angie’s jetlag, we woke up at very early next morning and set off in the darkness, with our trusty internet printout guiding us through dry creek beds, across little sage fields and over saddles and rock features in our mission to reach the Wave by sunrise.

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En route to the Wave in the early hours

We weren’t disappointed – the multi-coloured layers of sandstone had been carved out by rock and water into the most beautiful and mesmerising curved walls and patterns.

 

2016-06-12 23.53.40.jpgWe scrambled around the Wave for 45 minutes, delighting in the colours and textures, and commenting on how sad it was that the other couple of folk we’d seen parked at the trailhead probably didn’t even know that this was here.

A few days later, in a chance encounter with another adventurous fellow we met in Zion , we learned that the Wave is in fact one of the most prized features in Utah, and that access is heavily restricted : the Navajo nation in fact run a lottery permit system that people have been waiting for years to come and explore! Yikes!!

Logan’s Run

“We’ve had some great weather lately but today is really something special” says Tom, our Kiwi pilot.

Above the din of the Helio Courier’s propeller Liam and I nod in agreement. For the past twenty minutes our eyes have been silently roaming the jagged ranges and crenellated glaciers of Kluane Park.

Our destination is the Quintino Sella Glacier, the drop off point to climb Mt Logan via the popular King’s Trench route. At 5,959m Mt Logan is Canada’s highest mountain, and the second highest peak in North America. Logan is, however, more infamous for its remoteness, difficult access, and its unforgiving cold. Temperatures are regularly below -20C, before even considering windchill. And it can get very windy indeed. In fact the International Mountain Guides website says that “50-100mph winds are commonplace”.

We are soon deposited on the glacier and immediately set about repacking our equipment for sled carrying, and establishing an emergency cache of food and fuel just in case we needed to descend to this ‘base camp’ and wait out bad weather for several days before we can be airlifted out. Tom arrives soon after with Nick, another Kiwi and the third member of our team, and within half an hour we are roped up for our ‘carry’ to camp 1.

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Nick and Liam starting the grind up the King’s Trench

Thanks to a handful of teams already on the mountain we’re able to follow a line of ski tracks through some tightly crevassed terrain, weaving our way slowly up the head of the glacier and onto the lower tongue of King’s Trench.

The sky is a sapphire blue with the sun out in force, searing any exposed skin and melting the bodies within. The sun stays high above the horizon until well after we have set up our first camp several hours later.

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Liam relaxing at Camp 1

Carrying all our equipment, food and fuel for twenty days we have managed well on our first day. As we tuck into our first foil-wrapped dehydrated dinner we silently congratulate one another on a solid start – many previous teams had waited at either base camp or the airstrip for over a week before having the opportunity to start their journey up the mountain.

Nick, the elder of our trio, is strong and fast, and his pace and walking style matched mine. Nick is a hard-working old-school Kiwi, with – as I will find out in the next week – more than his share of Kiwi determination and grit. Uncharacteristically Liam struggles as we make our way up to Camp 2 over the next couple of days, and confides that he is keenly aware of his pre-disposition to altitude sickness, given that two years’ previous he had to be airlifted off Mt Logan’s east ridge with oedema.

At Camp 2 we meet Rich Paraska, a very experienced mountain guide, and his two clients. With something like 17 years of guiding on Mt Logan, Rich is without doubt the most experienced person to have visited the Logan massif in the last decade, and we feel fortunate that we’ll be progressing up the mountain alongside Rich and his team.

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The continuing fine weather allows us to carry and cache another load of gear at Camp 2 just below King Col – this is to be our primary cache of food and fuel on the mountain in case of bad weather. As we ascend to 4,000m for the first time I feel my lungs working harder in the rarified air. In the afternoon patches of cloud intermittently pass over, interrupting the harshness of the sun, and we feel both weary and sweaty when we pull into camp.

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Liam postholing up the headwall above Camp 2

The following morning we set off early, immediately up the steep terrain toward McCarthy Gap. The headwall involves several hundred metres of steep, somewhat seracced terrain. It is arguably the crux of the entire route to the summit. The snow is soft and I decide to remove my snowshoes and posthole it in my boots. Crampons would make life more comfortable, but these are back at camp (we expected the ramp to have firmer snow cover).

Amazingly Rich is so confident in his client’s ski-mountaineering ability that he decides to short-rope them as they ascend on skis.

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Nick traversing the serac area

Liam finally hits his straps on the route up to Camp 3. He sets a fast pace for the route to our campsite, with Nick and I struggling to keep up. Both of us are surprised at Liam’s turn of speed, but we are happy to take in the majestic mountain-scape as Liam surges ahead. The terrain has become more forgiving and the slopes are less menacing.

Soon after reaching Camp 3 Liam suffers a relapse . Thoroughly exhausted, he curls up in his sleeping bag and waits patiently for some boiling water.

 

 

 

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Liam en route to Camp 3

I visit a large British team that has recently returned from caching food at Camp 4. They welcome me with a hot cup of tea and tales of the cold we can expect up on the summit plateau. Other teams have already been up to the summit plateau this season, but for various reasons only one team has summitted the mountain so far. I leave the British tent with the added knowledge that at various times in the coming days strong winds are forecast up high. Great.

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Nick enjoying the views of King’s Peak en route to Camp 3

A combination of less than ideal weather, inadequate acclimatisation and general lethargy results in us taking an ‘enforced’ rest day and we enjoy the opportunity to lounge around in our sleeping bags, dry gear that has succumbed to condensation during the night, catch up on journal writing, eat, and rehydrate.

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Liam snuggled up in his -40 C sleeping bag
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Approaching a small handful of snow-buried tents that is Camp 3

The following day is cold but clear and we carry a small portion of our remaining food and fuel up to Prospector’s Col, located above camp 4 at about 5,400m. As we descend Nick, Liam and I agree that Camp 4 is unnecessary. Instead we will jump from Camp 3 straight to Camp 5, and collect our small store of cached food on the way.

The route up and over Prospectors Col is straightforward. We quickly descend from the col into a large basin that is the summit plateau, and hustle along the western edge of the basin toward our fifth camp. The climb to the col has wearied us and we stop to debate briefly about where camp 5 should be.

Rich and his team soon appear behind us. Both clients appear to be struggling. One, Bryan, needs some strong encouragement from Rich. Rich confirms where Camp 5 should be and we scurry ahead, eager to set up camp before the sun disappears the crest of the mountains and leaves us to the mercy of the cold night air. It will be -25C tonight.

The following day we wake early and don our summit gear. By 7.30 we are plodding up the north-western flank of the massif, and an hour later a stiff breeze is hitting us in the face. The sky is overcast and silvery, and visibility is limited to 200 metres. Half an hour later we make the decision to turn back. Nick, who has spent his life working off the south west coast of NZ and is used to doing things in terrible weather, is unhappy but abides by the majority views of Liam and me. We agree that if the weather improves, we will try again later in the day.

Just after noon, we begin our second attempt. We are approaching the peak directly from the north-west, where we intend to summit the West Peak and then traverse the snow slopes on the eastern side to reach the main summit.

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Liam changing gloves just below the West Peak

Mindful of our late start I push on in the lead. After a couple of hours we meet Rich and his team on their way down from the west peak. He does all the talking. His team are silent. They are spent.

We push on up a ridge to the base of the west peak. Suddenly I feel very weak and tired. I am unable to remove my snowshoes in order to replace them with crampons. I tell the guys and they are both understanding. Liam in particular shares my view that it is getting too late in the day to continue to the main peak and I decide to descend. Liam joins me.

Nick believes that the route to the summit is achievable and says he will take it on alone. Liam and I know that this game of ghosts is a very personal game, a mental game – and Nick is comfortable with the risk he is taking on going solo. Without further ado, we wish him well and begin our descent.

Liam and I chat about the climb with some disappointment – we had made a risk-based call to turn back but had not made it to the summit. Will the West Peak suffice? The more we think about it the more we agree that it will not. We decide that unless the weather is really horrible we will make an attempt on the true summit, via a longer but less direct route, the following morning.

We arrive at the tent about 6pm, eat and curl up in our sleeping bags. I wake up just after 11pm for a call of nature, and less than 500 metres away I can see Nick swaying down the tracks leading to our tent. We welcome him in with a pot of hot tea.

“Yep, it was a fairly long way around to that main peak…and I stuck my foot into a crevasse a couple of times on the way back” says Nick

We are both thrilled for Nick, and with some anticipation look forward to our own attempt the following morning.

Liam and I start our summit bid under a clear blue sky, dropping down to the summit plateau a few hundred metres below, then traversing southward to the foot of as headwall below the summit ridge. We can see four members of the British team ahead of us, and are able to use their tracks to guide the way through the crevasse field.

A couple of hours later, at the foot of the headwall, we stop for a short break and Liam changes from snowshoes to crampons. It takes us 45 minutes to scramble up the steep slope, zig-zagging up the face, half out of breathe. It is hard work. By the time we reach the top the clouds have closed in and we are in a whiteout.

We drop our packs in a saddle, then begin the scramble up and along the short summit ridge. We meet the British team descending – they are all smiles after summiting – but with limited visibility and a rising wind (we can barely hear each other) they are keen to continue on their way down the mountain.

We continue to weave our way along the southern edge of the ridge until, rather surprisingly, we find ourselves atop the summit. Liam can barely contain his excitement and sense of relief at reaching the top – after 4 attempts he has finally achieved the summit. It is cold, windy, and snowing now, so we quickly snap a couple of photos and begin our descent.

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A very tired me enjoying the views of a whiteout from Logan’s summit
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After 4 attempts, a very happy Liam sits atop the main summit

Returning to the saddle we collect our packs and begin our descent of the headwall. Snow has blown into our footprints and all we can see is white. I step down into a bowl of snow and suddenly the ground has fallen away. I’ve lost my footing and within a second I’m sliding on my back down the face. A second or two later I realize that I’m not slowing down, I’m gaining speed. Flailing, I plant my axe and it fails to take. I push the axe in harder, but it feels impotent in slowing my progress. Eventually, after 20 metres or so, I come to a halt and breathe a few big lungfuls of air.

Prompted to take extra caution, we decide to navigate our way down the mountain using GPS, backtracking on our ascent route. Visibility is down to about 20 metres. With some difficulty we locate Liam’s snowshoes and begin the long, slow descent to the summit plateau. Mindful of the crevasse danger, Liam is staring fixedly at the GPS to navigate our route. Meanwhile I am staring fixedly ahead to advise Liam of the undulations in the terrain – the stuff the GPS will not tell us. It feels like the ‘blind leading the blind’ – for both of us. I tell myself that next time I will plant more bamboo wands.

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Liam navigating us back down to Camp 5 in whiteout

After a couple of hours we have descended to the edge of the plateau, and the sun is pushing hard against the cloud cover to expand our field of vision. After nearly 8 hours we are beginning to tire and keen to return to the warmth and security of our tent. We decide to take a short cut.

Suddenly I see Liam has half-disappeared. No more than 20 metres ahead of me he has plunged into a crevasse, and within seconds is furiously wriggling himself out of it.

“My feet were dangling free”, he recounts to me, clearly spooked by the experience. We agree to revert to the original path of ascent. I tell myself that next time we will rope up. And not take short cuts.

An hour or so later we arrive at the tent of the British team, a couple of hundred metres below ours on the fringe of the summit plateau. They welcome us in for an inviting cup of tea and shortbread biscuits. Everything feels good and Liam and I are both very grateful for the hospitality. Liam’s hand is still shaking from his crevasse fall experience, and he struggles not to spill tea throughout the tent.

It is almost 9 am by the time we depart the following morning. Nick is already below us at Camp 3. Liam and I decide that we will travel as fast as we can to get as far down the mountain as possible today. We know we need to be on the other side of Prospector’s Col by midday, as the weather is expected to turn in the afternoon – with an unhealthy onslaught of 100mph winds predicted…

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The following day the weather is beautiful and we descend all the way to basecamp

After an overcast start the sky is clear by mid-morning and we are approaching the col. We can see the British team following some way behind. From the col we descend to Camp 3 in quick time, where we meet a solo Japanese climber and offload much of our remaining food. He is very grateful.

We continue down to Camp 2, but the afternoon sun has softened the snow and made the headwall traverse rather precarious as a result. I take over half an hour to descend the lower part of the face, being cautious with each step. No sooner am I resting at the bottom of the slope than the British team ski the same slope in about 20 seconds and join Liam and I for a snack break at our Camp 2 cache.

Nick has done a great job ahead of us uncovering the caches, making it easy for us to load them onto the sleds and continue our descent. Several hours later, at dusk, Liam and I pull into base camp exhausted but happy. Nick, Rich and others greet us with hugs and a hot bowl of tea – this mountain may have a reputation for being cold but the people help to make it a very warm place.

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The view from the Helio Courier as we farewelled basecamp and the mountain