Monday, December 1, 2014


The sun has set and stars are doing a poor job replacing its light as we walk on one of many ridgelines in the area unsure if we are headed in the right direction for our camp. We lost our original footprints in the sand we made from the journey out earlier this morning a half hour ago when we began ascending on the rock. I began making a mental note of the emergency gear in my bag: dry warm socks, long underwear, two puffy jackets, a few snack food and half my water. We can survive the night out here if we have to. It’s been getting below freezing the last few nights, but with our warm gear and maybe a fire we’d be fine. Then we can find where we are with our now useless topography map when we get the sun back and can see the landscape again. I can longer see where the cliff edges are. Luckily they don’t drop off in this section like they were further south so we’ll see the terrain change in our head lamps with enough warning to change direction.  I’m tired and light headed. We hiked for ten and a half hours today and are at 5,500 ft in elevation where the air is thinner. I’ve learned higher altitudes do slow me down starting after 5,000 ft. I choke down panic and focus on the spot on the ground that my headlamp lights up following John’s good directional sense.

We only hiked an hour in the dark before we saw the dirt road and our hearts lifted in an indescribable relief.  We would’ve survived out there, no doubt, but boy is it nice to come back to dry clothes and a very warm fire with warm food after our longest hike of the trip. Escalante-Grandstaircase National Monument, the most wild place of our trip requiring off roading capabilities and map-compass skills. We were never lost here, but there were times we weren’t where we thought we were. Once the light was gone, we couldn’t use the topo map and had to rely on following our own foot prints to return. However we weren’t walking solely on sand which is how we lost our own path. Only hours before we were squeezing ourselves through a slot canyon barely large enough for human bodies. I like this park, it kept us on our toes.

Our Epic Roadtrip
We left November 6th and in the course of two weeks we had the honor of visiting Death Valley, Zion, Bryce, Escalante, and the Great Basin National Parks (I received and Junior Ranger Badge at each one of course).  Each park was stunning and geologically mesmerizing, however Zion and Escalante proved to have the most memorable personal experiences. We came on this trip with one goal in mind: slot canyons. From The Narrows in Zion to two trails called Peek-a-boo, and many inbetween, we accomplished our goal tenfold.
Zion’s Angel’s Landing: 
The top of the peak behind John is the Angel's Landing, and the edge to the right is the trail

This hike has a lot of controversy surrounding it due to the sheer drops offs and is considered very dangerous.  The hike is literally climbing to the top of a tall narrow mountain via its ridge line. There are signs advising you to be safe, watch your step, for 6 people have died here in the last 10 years. To me, less than one death a year isn’t that bad considering the volume of people that visit this park every summer. We lucked out going during the week in November for we had amazing weather, few crowds to contend with on the trail, and the fall colors were in full tilt adding en extra variety of color to Zion bluffs. The lower park of the hike is absolutely gorgeous, steep, and slathered in switchbacks. You’re led to a flat portion called Scout's Lookout that is wide and comfortable, although there is a drop off in a section that required you to rely on your own judgment with how close to talk to that edge. That fall is straight down 800 or so feet.  We walked further on following the signs that said the peak was only .5 miles ahead. I had done no research on this park or this hike. I gathered from the visitor center this is a popular one with all the “I hiked Angel’s Landing” stickers, and was excited to sit in a few minutes and snack while looking at what I’m assuming will be an amazing view.

Then I saw it. It stopped me in my tracks. That .5 miles wasn’t just a wee bit more in elevation, it was a steep ascent on what looks to be an extremely narrow ridgeline and the people look like they are climbing straight up it. The blood rushed from my face, I had to sit down and avert my eyes. While I sat there by a tree we coined later as “shit my pants” tree numerous hikers came to our spot and had the same revelation. “No way I’m doing that”. They turned and left and others took a moment to gather courage before heading out.

I pondered many things in this moment.
1)   This is a popular hike. Lots of people are doing it. Where loads have people have gone before I should be able to as well.
2)   Park service wouldn’t have this trail if it was so dangerous that I am very likely to die going up that.
3)   It is probably easier than it looks.

So we go. There are chains bolted into the rocks and in some places foot holds have been carved out from either use or Park Service to assist when scrambling up the rocks. I looked around at some of the people doing this.. Some where middle aged and don't look like they do much hiking, some were teens with crappy footwear. (Highly discouraged by park service for this hike). When you’re on the ridge, there are a few moments you can tell how high you are and understand if you fall it is certain death, but mostly it was wide and comfortable and has cushion for a drop to the knee if your foot slips. My worry was gone, but I still held tight to the chains, made sure John was close, and calculated each step.
On top we were rewarded indeed. We could see down the valley to the south and up the valley to the north, both speckled with equally tall if not taller bluffs bordering on both sides of the river. It was both beautiful and empowering. I was even a little embarrassed I had the reaction I did when seeing the ridge. We got down it just fine also and were even comfortable enough to take a few photos. Trying to beat the light, we continued on the West Rim trail where the Angel’s Landing trail branched out from, did some off trailing on the edge of a yet another bluff and found ourselves staring straight at Angel’s Landing and the iconic carved out switchbacks leading up halfway.

The following day we hiked in the Narrows, which had been on my bucket list since 2010. We rented some water gear and hiked up a river exploring the depths of this beautiful canyon that has also claimed lives during flash floods. If we hadn’t the water would’ve been extremely cold. We had amazing weather so no worries on rushing water. Pictures don’t do justice for the atmosphere in places like this, but that didn’t mean I didn’t try to capture it.  We also explored a few other trails and found ourselves discovering more and more impressively carved rock in the walls of the canyons we navigated.

Beautiful water in The Narrows

The Narrows
Hidden Canyon, Zion
Hiking up Hidden Canyon

Hidden Canyon

On our way out of Zion we found petroglyphs in the park. There are many all through out the park, but they don’t advertise their existence. Tourists have a bad habit of destroying things, and these carvings are very fragile. The spot, if you know how to find it, has a plaque talking about the images. You can see where people have damaged a few, and even one spot where a huge slab of rock, 15x3 feet or so, had been expertly removed. We studied them, I tried to come up with my own conclusions of their meaning, and then we moved on.
After a day of Bryce exploration and having the temperatures dip below freezing on us over night (I got frost nip on my nose as it was the only thing not covered with the sleeping bag) we got to the park that was the center of this whole trip and why we brought the gas guzzling Toyota Landcruiser: Escalante Grand Staircase. First day we explored all the roads, all unpaved, some not even mapped, and full of ruts and large rocks. John had a blast out there, like letting a kid out to recess. This is what this vehicle is made for! (Story continues after a series of awesome pictures)

Second day in Escalante we hiked out to a canyon I won’t name because of what we found. I feel like the elevation has knocked me on my ass. I was running around in Zion, Angel’s Landing’s 3,000 feet elevation gain was nothing. But here, only 5,500 ft above sea level I’m left tired and breathing harder.  Escalante has no maintained trails. This park is relatively new getting it’s National Monument title in 1996 and is operated by the Bureau of Land Management.  That being said, it operates differently than other parks people would be used to. You have to know what the hell you’re doing out there for one. Our hike this second day was a testament to that. There are trail heads built and a log, but after the sign you’re on your own to determine which direction is the right way for where ever you are headed. Luckily other people have built cairns for us, the one and only time those ugly stacked stones were useful to us. Otherwise people build them as a testament they’ve been to a spot and you find a bunch of rock piles distracting from the natural views. But here, HERE they have a real purpose for others to follow. We walked a ways through the desert admiring the plants and  tracks of animals. We found a baby version of a large cactus John owns that is braving the Portland winter right now. Rocks have eroded in all different shapes and sizes. One spot alone allowed me to find the shapes for this picture:

Strike marks
You feel very small in land like this. You can see large monuments in the distance. You think you’re close enough to walk to them, but the more you walk, they don’t get much closer. We stuck to the upper edge of this canyon we were following. The drop off was a long one and got longer the further we walked. I was definitely challenged with learning to trust my shoes’ grip on the sloping rock as we walked, failing and panicking at times. It was on our way back that we came across a tool making site of Native Americans. People have been living off the land here for thousands of years and we were told there are plenty of petroglyphs and sites like this out there, unwritten about and left as is for preservation.  We were extremely fascinated by the rocks here and stopped often to pick one up and examine it, try to figure out its erosion history. Something smooth and red caught our eye. Our first thought was someone came out here and was breaking rocks apart for fun, until we found more, and more, and more. John, who’s father worked in Petroglyph monument when he was younger and was more familiar with sites like this, suddenly realized what we were looking at. We walked right through it completely clueless. It was our interest in rocks that stopped us. A few pieces of rock even showed the marks of their strikes. That was pretty cool. I examined a lot of pieces and tried to paint a picture of the people who came before us and spent their days making sharp tools to skin an animal, probably socializing while they worked. But we were losing the sun so we had to move. I don’t want the Internet to discover these historic places, nor could I tell you how to find it if I wanted to. I hope the area stays the way it is for many thousands of years to come.

That night we drove out and camped at a very remote spot at the trailhead of the longest hike of our trip. A flat bit of land on top of a bluff, one of the highest points around, gave us the most remarkable view of the sky one could get. No mountains, city lights, street lights, or even clouds blocked our view. Coincidentally, there was a meteor shower the two nights we were camping there that I read about previously. Joke was on me though, we went down to sleep not long after the sun does and the shower peeked closer to midnight each night. I learned that later after two nights of watching the sky for hours in the early evening, confused that I only saw two shooting stars.

Day three we go out on our adventure following a topo map and using a compass. Our outdoors skills will be exercised today and we were excited! We were aiming for two canyons that run parallel to one another called Spooky and Peek-a-boo.  Two thirds of the hike was just getting to the start of either canyon, which required following different drainages (which also turned into canyons) and we wormed our way to the canyons in mind. We weren’t always where we thought, and sometimes we had to use fun techniques to get ourselves through spots. But we were impressed by all the things the desert had to offer, minus stifling heat, so the childlike discovery of everything there kept our spirits high and ready for more tricky ways to get through these foreign places. However, not being 100% confident on our location came into play later when we were “pretty sure” we had entered Spooky Canyon from the North. The footprints in the sand were what gave us a clue, but then again, there was no sign.

The canyon was narrower than those of Zion and more resembling canyons of photos I’ve seen represented in the Southwest. The walls were carved like graceful waves like someone with a serrated butter knife carving an edge in a dollop of whipped cream and it had hardened. If there would happen to be a flash flood (again, clear skies) there would be no way to get out. The ground was mostly soft sand with bits of tiny rocks in it, but eventually we came across a section where part of one of the walls had collapsed forcing us to scrambled over car sized boulders. We didn’t get too far before John, who was ahead of me, pointed out there was a drop off ahead. A big one. In fact, looking down we could see inbetween the boulders and saw they didn’t land on ground, the ground was way below the boulders we were standing on. Are we in the right canyon? It was obvious we weren’t going to make it over the drop off ahead so we back tracked and looked for a way to get under the fallen boulders. There just happened to be a narrow space to wedge your way down, the thing of claustrophobic’s nightmares. The scrapes on the rock indicated others have attempted this so John we down and scoped it out. He came to the conclusion that to continue in the canyon we had to go this way. It took me a few attempts to get through that sliver of a hole, finding the right way to bend out my legs without them getting caught. I was not only squeezing through something tight, but the ground I was aiming for was 6 feet below where I was starting. I almost called the quits right there, but I didn’t. I started filming after I got through that hole which you can watch below. It didn’t get easier after that. The canyon closed in leaving us barely enough room to squeeze through sideways. Our backpacks trailing behind us in one hand we shimmied through the narrowest hallway of my life. If this was not the right canyon and we found more spots that would be impassable, that would mean backtracking and trying to get back out the hole I barely made it through. That thought was scary, but man this place is cool! Let’s see how far we can go! 
Cue 4 minute video
 Then there was another drop off. No tight squeezes for this one but it required dropped down a ways. My crappy knees can’t take a drop like that. So John went to scout to see if it was worth it for me. He can drop down and scramble up anything. Then I was left alone with my thoughts with 127 hours flashing through my head. I heard scrapping noises, like the sound of something rubbing against the rock. John is coming back. But wait, it’s coming from behind me. It’s getting louder. “Hello?” Scrapping. “John?” Then a voice talks back to me but I didn’t understand what was said (left the hearing aids behind to avoid losing them to the elements). How the hell did John get behind me? The canyon loops around? I start talking to John saying just that and head pokes into view: “I’m not him”.  All fears and nervousness completely vanished at that point. We WERE in the right canyon! Other people are crazy enough to be here too!!!! At this point of my awkward relief gabbering with my new friend John returned calling out “Amanda? Are you talking to ghosts?” He heard me calling to him and then talking. He was sure we are the only ones crazy enough to be here that I must be going crazy. Funny enough, my voice to our stranger scared him also for he started in the near by parking lot and was the only one there. He thought he was completely alone also.

I went over the drop off with John’s help, sacrificing to the canyon Gods some of my own flesh in the process and we continued on our spooky adventure. Halloween came late for us this year. We were squeezed and pressed a while longer and popped out to an open area, able to walk face forward again and breath deep fresh air. What an impressive canyon! And we were only half way done. We went back through Peek-a-boo, a parallel canyon with the most challenging entrance. I lost more flesh getting into it, but once we conquered scrambling up the slippery sandstone we were rewarded with a majestically carved canyon with loops and swirls. Oh it was beautiful. It was not much wider than Spooky, but we could at least walk forward, occasionally slipping down and crawling up rock. At one point, being accustomed to staring at the ground to not trip, I spotted a snake that John had nearly stepped on. He didn’t see it and I stopped after he walked by it as it curled in defense and faced me. John had warned me of snakes in canyons saying they sometimes fall in and are pretty upset to be there. Not much food for them, or escape. We pondered if it was a rattlesnake, but it didn’t rattle or even shake its tail. Later, when showing the picture to John’s parents, it was confirmed this was a rattlesnake that lost its rattle, and it didn’t move much (or strike fast) because it was only 50 degrees out, which is pretty cold for the little fella. Luckily I had a means to pass him without getting in biting range, and I even debated attempting to save him some how. But I don’t know snakes, and I didn’t want to risk assuming it wasn’t a rattlesnake or other poisonous snake just because it didn’t rattle at me. 

We hiked on and that’s where we join into my opening story.

The rest of the trip we came across 6 feet tall pictographs (painted pictures), roads built on top of ridge lines, and Nevada desert. We stopped in Great Basin on our way home, enjoying a fast paced hike at our highest elevation yet and exploring the coolest cave I have ever been into. It was a sadness and a relief to get home, for our adventure was over, but access to a hot shower and easily cooked food was a luxury I had missed.  I had one day to pack for both Wisconsin and the adventure "down unda" before I was on a plane to go home and visit my family. When I get back to San Francisco I will have one day to regroup before we get on yet another plane and head to Hawaii for a week for more adventures. Tune in for those upcoming tales.
Lehman Caves, Great Basin

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