Southwest Tour, Part V: Zion & Angels Landing

The ‘true’ summit of Angels Landing. Photo courtesy Charles Young 2012.

Once again, we were up early, and headed away from the Grand Canyon, north towards Utah and Zion National Park. Shortly after leaving the forest road we had been camped on, we came across a marvelous sight: Buffalo. We stopped so I could film a brief bit, then returned to our drive.

As we drove, we debated about the legitimacy of paranormal experiences, more specifically, ghosts and UFO’s. I love a good debate, so I enjoyed our banter about this subject.

We stopped in Fredonia, Arizona to re-fuel and then headed north into Utah.

As soon as we drove into Kanab, a charming town just across the border, I got the strangest sensation. Looking around at the mesas and cliffs with modest homes sitting right at their bases, I immediately fell in love with the area. The further we drove into Utah, the more this emotion grew in my chest. This felt like home, and we weren’t even in the spectacular areas yet. I saw trailhead after trailhead off the highway, and I just knew, right then, that my family and I would be living here in the not-too-distant future. Charles also had the same feeling about the region, and we later laughed about the possibility of both of us living here.

We turned off Highway 89 onto Highway 9, heading west towards the park. Huge mesas rose dramatically above the sagebrush desert, and I started filming from the car. Then the cliffs took an even more dramatic turn and I could sense that we were now quite close to the park boundaries.

Once inside the park, my jaw, quite literally, dropped. Staggering sandstone mountains towered over us at every turn. The beauty was beyond description, beyond compare. It was love at first sight for me. I stuck my head out of the window and tried to take it all in. Incredible. As amazing as the Grand Canyon was, to me, Zion was even better. Despite the desert setting, these were mountains, real mountains, not just bluffs or mesas, but towers of graceful sweep and grandeur, peaks rising up to narrow summits. I could feel my heart swelling. Of course, once you get up high here, you realize that the view from the valley floor is a bit misleading. The true tops of most of these peaks, are, in fact, flat-topped mesas, but by the time I realized this, it didn’t matter on iota to me.

Pointy summits abound.

We drove to the South Campground and found a site, our base for the next three days and nights. Once we had settled in, it was time to go on an adventure, and for that day we had already picked out Angels Landing. This crag, while not one of the highest in the park, has a very adventurous path to its summit, adventurous enough that several people have died from falls there. Charles had been itching to climb it for many years, and while I hadn’t been dreaming of climbing this particular peak for as long as he had, I was nonetheless excited to get up there.

We took the bus to the Zion Lodge first and charged Charles’ videocamera for about fifteen minutes in order to have just a little bit of high-def footage (in addition to my GoPro), then headed to the trailhead for the hike/scramble.

Angels Landing from the trail.

Charles went ahead at his own pace while I took my time in order to film and take it all in. Besides, after our grueling march into and out of the Grand Canyon, I felt no need to hurry on such a short hike. It was going to be hot no matter what. Throngs of tourists came and went, but even at my more leisurely pace, I still passed numerous people. The trail meandered until it reached the steep face below a notch, and at that point, the switchbacks began. I would hike for a few minutes, then stop, take some pictures and shoot some film. It was pretty hot already, but compared to what we had experienced in the Canyon, it wasn’t bad at all.

View from the Angels Landing trail.

After the initial set of switchbacks, the trail enters a narrow canyon with towering walls, and it was nice to get out of the direct sun for a time. I loved the way the canyons looked here. Such incredible beauty, a unique place with so many colors – red, orange and white, with green trees and shrubs giving a dynamic counterpoint. I loved it.

In just a few minutes I had traversed through this narrow defile and began the infamous ‘Walter’s Wiggles’, a series of numerous switchbacks that lead to the spine of Angels Landing. I set my GoPro on time-lapse mode and recorded my ascent up this marvelous trail.

When I arrived at the upper saddle, where the ‘trail’ ends and the chain-protected scramble route begins, I found Charles waiting. The route ahead was visible and we hurried on, excited to be getting to the exposed, adventurous section.

Viewing the route ahead

We charged ahead and eagerly began scrambling up the sandstone. Chain handrails gave security to those unused to the exposure, but even then, many of the people we passed were clearly intimidated by the drop-offs, which, I must admit, were quite considerable. If you slipped in certain spots, you wouldn’t stop for over a thousand feet. I must also admit that the scrambling was much more involved than I had been imagining. I had an expectation of some chains here and there, but in fact the climbing goes on for hundreds of feet. It is a really enjoyable climb, too, with the spine of the ridge appallingly narrow in spots, with thousand foot-plus drops on either side and occasional steep sections to climb.  It took us about half an hour to scramble up to the broad summit area, where we enjoyed panoramic views and fended off an overly-aggressive squirrel who was obviously used to getting handouts from pilgrims.

On the way down, Charles pointed out a pair of large owls in a tree just off the trail, and we stopped to admire the large, calm birds.

An owl along the trail

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and resting. Tomorrow would bring another day, and even more adventures.


Southwest Tour, Part IV: Reverse Mountaineering

The Mountain That Sleeps. Photo courtesy Charles Young 2012

The Native Tribes called it ‘The Mountain That Sleeps’. In truth, it is more like The Range That Sleeps. Like an inverted massif, the Grand Canyon is so vast, so massive, that it seems like the human mind cannot really take it all in. I was now at the bottom of this huge hole, and I still had a 4000 foot climb over seven miles to get back out. And, considering that I had hiked 21 miles the day before, I was spent, and was now facing yet another grueling test.

Staggering Beauty. Photo courtesy Charles Young

I purposely started out slow, knowing that I had a huge day ahead of me, but we made good time reaching a water filling station. Soon after refilling our water bottles, Charles asked permission to move ahead at his own pace, and I agreed. A short word on Charles: He is 65 years old, a marathon runner and one of the most incredible athletes I have ever had the privilege to be around. He is incredible. Within a few minutes I had lost sight of him and had the canyon almost completely to myself.

The elevation gain occurs almost entirely in the last four miles, switchbacking up along ledges blasted from the rock. I made good time, but not nearly as good as Charles was making. Luckily we had started early, so we never experienced much heat at all. Nevertheless, it was still exhausting and difficult.

The hours went by, and when I was within a couple of miles I felt my stamina start to fade. My pace fell off. I tried listening to an audio version of John Stewart’s Earth: A Visitors Guide, but found it made me laugh too much, so I had to shut it off. Several mule trains passed by, and I enjoyed watching the animals and their riders heading down into the canyon.

When I was getting towards the top, I stopped to blow dust out of my nose, but to my horror, it was blood that started coming out, not snot. I grabbed my first-aid kit out of my bag, found a wad of gauze and stuffed it up the bleeding nostril. While I waited, a voice said “Hi  Don.” and I looked up to see a Grand Canyon Volunteer approaching. Charles had told him to keep a look out for me, and we talked for a time. He made sure I was alright before heading out, and when I had the bleeding more under control, I started back up. I wasn’t worried about the bloody nose because my family (on my father’s side) has a prolific history of them. In fact, when I was younger and living in California, I used to get one almost every day. Several of my siblings have had to get their noses cauterized, so frequent were their bloody noses.

Fifteen minutes later I arrived at the top of the trail, completely worn out and looking awful with gauze stuffed up my nose and blood all over my t-shirt, but I had done it! Charles and I drove back to the North Rim Lodge to enjoy a well-deserved cup of coffee.

The North Rim Lodge at the Grand Canyon.

We rested at the lodge for a while, and when we had recovered (somewhat), we decided to head out and check out some of the other amazing views along the North Rim, namely Cape Royal, Angel Arch and the Walhalla Glades Native American site. All of these spots have very short walks to reach, which is all I was capable of at that point. We spent the rest of that afternoon taking pictures, filming and enjoying the stellar views. When evening came, we retired to a camp off the Forest road to eat dinner and get a good night’s sleep. We had earned it, but in the morning we would be getting up early to leave the Grand Canyon behind and head north to Zion.

Southwest Tour, Part III: The Big Day

Standing at the Colorado River after 14 miles and close to 6000′ of elevation loss. Still had 7 more miles to go. Photo courtesy Charles Young 2012

This was going to be hard, that much was a given. Just how hard I could not understand. How could I? I have done some brutal hikes and climbs in my life, the Grand Teton, a 19-hour climb on Mt. Shuksan, and an 18 mile day in Winter on snowshoes in the Sisters Wilderness. None of them came close to what I experienced in the Grand Canyon on June 18th. Either that, or else my memory, out of necessity, wipes the memory of extreme suffering from my head after the fact. Maybe that is why I keep doing these crazy adventures.

We had found a wonderful, private campsite outside the park off a forest road, and woke up at 3 a.m. in order to arrive at the trailhead by 4. We had to beat the heat as much as possible. Soon we were hiking down the dusty, forested path, stopping after about fifteen minutes to shed some layers. The views were stunning.

Early morning views in the canyon

The first seven miles went by quickly and easily, but then, it was all downhill at that point. That is why so many out-of-shape tourists get into trouble here – going downhill is a piece of cake, but returning…It took us less than three hours to arrive at Cottonwood Camp, where we had reservations for one night. We dropped off our heavier camping gear, refilled our water bottles and headed out again. We still had another seven miles to go to get to the Colorado River, and by that time the temperature was already in the high eighties.

One of the many bridges along the trail

Our camp at Cottonwood

Spectacular views abound along the North Kaibab trail

From this point on, the trail was nearly flat, instead of losing over 4000 feet from the rim to camp (in 7 miles), we would lose about 1600 feet in the same distance. Also, it would be hot (did I mention that it gets hot in the canyon?) We hustled along the trail, passing occasional, suffering hikers. Soon the walls of the canyon drew closer, and we were able to traverse much of the remaining miles in a fair amount of shade. I drank as much water as I was able, using a 3-liter water bladder that really ended up being a Godsend. I consumed close to a gallon of water that day.

Starting to get hot

We arrived at Phantom Ranch, the quasi-resort complex that awaits weary travelers at the bottom of the North Rim trail. Charles went inside and I joined him for a moment, but the sounds of people playing board games and being social was not what I wanted to hear, so I stepped back outside. When Charles was ready to go again, we hiked the final 3/4 of a mile to the Colorado River.

Mule train above the Colorado. Photo courtesy Charles Young 2012

By this point the temperature was well over one hundred degrees, and we decided to hunker down and rest and avoid hiking the final seven miles during the worst part of the day. I soaked my blistered feet in the brutally cold river, then found a shady spot to get out of the relentless sun. Guided river groups came and went, along with a few mule trains crossing the bridge. After four hours of surreal heat, we decided to start heading back.

Yup. 120 degrees. Right before we left.

The last seven miles return to Cottonwood Camp was the single hardest thing I have ever done. I couldn’t go more than a half-mile without having to stop and rest. My heart was pounding, my head ached and I felt faintly nauseous. I told Charles to keep a close eye on me, and I was seriously concerned that I was on the verge of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I started praying to Brook, to our kids, to everyone who cared about me, asking for strength to carry on. It must have worked, because after a time, I did begin to feel better, my pace increased and I managed to stagger back to camp. We arrived at 8 p.m.

Southwest Tour, Part II: Driving and Arrival

Sagebrush landscape in central Nevada

We left Roseburg a little after 8 a.m. on Saturday, June 16th. My partner Brook had driven me to meet Charles in the Fred Meyer parking lot, and we said our emotional goodbyes. I would be away from my family for over a week, and I especially was torn about leaving our littlest one, Julia, since I had not spent a single night away from her since she had been born the year before. Nevertheless, we said farewell and Charles and I got in his Honda to embark upon an epic trip to the southwest region of the United States, specifically, to Grand Canyon, Zion and Great Basin National Parks.

We drove south on Interstate-Five, arriving at Mt. Shasta City three hours later to head east towards Susanville and eventually Reno. The hours passed by quickly as we talked endlessly about a myriad of subjects. We took turns driving, stopping occasionally for gas, bathroom and stretching breaks. The sun set when we were in the near-center of Nevada, and we were able to witness a glorious end to the day:

Sunset in the Nevada Desert

We drove on. As night fell, and I took my next turn behind the wheel, I experienced something I had not expected: Deranged, suicidal Jackrabbits. The first one came charging out of the sagebrush, and I do mean charging. I yelled in surprise, but had no chance to take evasive maneuvers before I ran over the poor guy. I am not sure why they do this, but the one I hit really seemed to be trying to attack the car. Unfortunately, he was not the last one we struck. Charles hit two more that night, including one who hit the side of the car.

The night passed in surreal stages, lack of sleep and non-stop driving making the experience bizarre and dream-like.

We arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at a little over five in the morning, just as the sun was rising. I was, of course, stunned by the beauty of the canyon. I tried to put my feelings on video, but for once in my life, I was at a loss for words. I didn’t want to speak at all, so powerful and overwhelming was the experience. I walked around in awe at the Lodge, going on short hikes to take in the beauty. I was also completely exhausted, having only gotten a couple of hours fitful sleep during the drive. Luckily we had all day to rest and recuperate before we descended into the canyon.

Southwest Tour: Part I

Morning light in the Grand Canyon

Some raw data from our trip:

Miles driven, roundtrip: approximately 2300

Miles Hiked, RT: approx. 60

Elevation gains & losses: approx. 13,000′

National Parks Visited: 3 (Grand Canyon, Zion, Great Basin)

Mountains/Crags climbed: 3

Slot Canyons hiked/waded: 3

Animals: 3 suicidal jackrabbits, 1 herd of Buffalo, 4 Pronghorn, 2 owls, plus lizards, hummingbirds, ravens, squirrels, mule deer, wild turkey, Canyon Wrens, etc.

Highest temperature: 120 degrees in the bottom of the Grand Canyon

Highest estimated windspeed: 80-90 mph on Wheeler Peak

Highest/lowest elevations: 13,053 feet on Wheeler Peak, 2400 feet at the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

Wheeler Peak in Nevada. Photo courtesy Charles Young 2012.


Off to the Grand Canyon

I haven’t written much on this blog over the last few days, but I have been working on a new guide to the Honeycombs rock climbing area. Maybe tomorrow I will finish it, but if not, it will be a week and a half before I can finish it. I am leaving for the Grand Canyon in something like 32.5 hours. Not that I am counting. So, while I will be off for a time, I promise to come back with some epic shots and video from the Grand Canyon, Zion and maybe even Bryce Canyon. It should be awesome!