Thursday, 14 May 2009

Desert Country

Zion - overlooking Wildcat Canyon

In October 2008 we took a 2-day hike down Buckskin Gulch in southern Utah with friends – this spawned ideas for a whistle-stop 5 day tour of the Southwest desert country to take in Zion National Park in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Linking lots of existing trails gives the possibility of a trans-Zion trek of around 50 miles and the ultra-runner way to “do” Grand Canyon for those in the know seems to be a R2R2R. In fact, since the North Rim remains closed until mid-May this is about the only way to see all that it has to offer.Cheap flights, cheap car hire, a light pack and a new Steripen for water filtration and we were good to go!

Of course the logistics are a little trickier than that and we had a carefully choreographed sequence of events that saw us fed, permit’ed and packed ready for our trip by 7.15am on Thursday morning waiting a shuttle bus that would take us to the most remote North Western part of Zion. Our driver was an experienced MTB downhiller with many broken bones on his CV and a wealth of good information about the trails we would be taking – Mountain Lions “oh yes, there’s lots of those”, Rattlesnakes and Scorpions “oh yes, there’s lots of those”, Pterodactyls “oh yes.....”. You get the idea.

La Verkin Creek - entrance to NW Zion

Temperatures as we departed Lee Pass on the La Verkin creek trail were pleasant but it soon hotted up in the valley floor as a sharp contrast to the week of grey rainy skies and 60degree temps we had experienced in San Francisco. Right from the off, the scenery was dramatic – 1000ft sandstone towers abound and the whole is a visual lesson in sedimentary geology – bedding planes, dune formations and the like. Seven miles down the La Verkin and the terrain changes a little for the Hop Valley – around ½ mile wide and sandwiched between steep canyon walls this is a very gently inclined valley used for cattle crazing and sporting a very sluggish stream which we had to cross numerous times. Our first snake encounters occurred here and water was difficult to come by in the upper reaches so that by the time we reached the road crossing at the head of the valley we were silently praying for a tap. No such luck however and it looked as though we might have another 4 miles to the start of the Wildcat Canyon trail before we could get liquid – in the event we were lucky and found a clear cool stream to slake our thirst after only a mile or so. Planning water sources is a serious consideration in this part of the world – especially later in the season as some of the springs dry up. By now it was mid-afternoon, well into the 90s and we were both feeling the strain of little sleep, high temps, many miles in the legs and a rucksack on our back. We continued on until 7pm where we finally found a great little water source and a shaded camp spot. 10 ½ hours had been a tough first day but we were, as planned, poised to start the West Rim Trail on day 2.

At this point the trail starts to become truly spectacular – the sandstone and limestone formation of the main Valley and Wildcat Canyon run almost parallel and the trail takes a high ridgeline between the two. Behind lie igneous extrusive (lava) and intrusive (Granite) formations with columnar basalt and then the whole lot is massively sculpted by the wind and water forces – it’s an almost unearthly sight but with just enough greenery (pine and aspen) to make it beautiful rather than barren.

At first sight the flat valley floor seems impossibly far below and the slopes too precipitous but some ingenuous trails – taking advantange of natural lines of weakness – weave their way down past a couple of late season snow patches to the take-off point for Angels Landing and then directly down a very ambitiously built set of staircases – Willys wiggles – to the valley floor itself. After two 10 hour days and with a big day on the GC coming up we decided to skip the start of the East Rim trail which involves a brutal 3500ft climb out of the valley and instead head for sustenance and then a second nights wild camp by walking back in from the East rim trailhead; almost a full traverse of this stunning and varied but compact park. It’s strange – within 5 miles of exiting the park you are driving through unremarkable scrubland and rolling hills – stumbling on the massive valleys must have been a real eye-opener for the pioneers.

East Rim Slickrock

So – a “rest” day then – pack-up the camp, hike out a mile or so to the trailhead, drive almost 5 hours to the Grand Canyon, get checked into Mather Campground and wait. The 2-way crossing is around 47 miles with around 13,000ft ascent and descent. It is commonly completed in April or October – mid May is beginning to get a bit too hot for comfort so we had a cunning plan; switch the usually 5am start for a midnight start. This should land us on the North Rim at dawn and avoid the worst heat of the day. By the time we deal with minor navigational issues getting to the trailhead and gag down the breakfast buns it’s actually 12.40 at the trailhead and within yards we have bumped into two worried people who ask us to look out for members of their group who are still finishing their R2R2R from the previous day!! As we descend we meet more of the group until we are eventually carrying water, Gatorade and a fleece Jacket for these guys. We finally bump into “Mich”, still a good 2 hours from the top at about 2am. His is going to be a 24 hour epic and, with hindsight, we should have perhaps reflected a little more on what that might mean for us.

The South Kaibab trail is difficult to run – endless log steps make the rhythm difficult but finally we are crossing the Colorado river and tip-toeing past the campgrounds in the base of the canyon. An almost full moon casts beautiful silvery light on the canyon walls and on the ebbing surface of the river. Dozens of bats flit at the periphery or our torchlight and a pungent but sweet smell of night jasmine fills the base of the canyon. As we sneak past Phantom ranch it seems that there are many other people already stirring at 2.30am. The next few miles are enclosed in a narrow section of canyon with massive rock walls rising sheer above us for hundreds and thousands of feet – as the first light of dawn starts to finger its way into the Eastern sky the valley broadens and we reach Cottonwood Camp

The climb starts for real here and it’s another 4000ft to the North Rim – gradually ascending through a veritable rainbow of sandstones hued in green, pink, yellow and a deep red. Some layers crumble and look as though they should bring the whole edifice down. Just before 8am we crest the Northern rim for the obligatory photo shot and a quick snack of trail mix before heading off down trying to beat the heat. As soon as we step into the sun the temperatures rise by 20 degrees and the final 2-3 miles back to Phantom Ranch are suffocating in the enclosed canyon where the breeze doesn’t really reach - the shade temperature down here is 97 degrees. A lemonade at the ranch is very welcome and we load up with 6 litres of water for the climb back out. The first half mile after the ranch is the hottest and does some damage as Lynn is feeling nauseous. We learn though that the only real way out for those unable to find their own strength is to arrange a mule “drag” at a cost of almost $900!

Descending the North Kaibab - starting to warm up now!

Suddenly our schedule is cast aside as we climb slowly but methodically up switchback after switchback in the brutal heat. It’s a good job we did start in the middle of the night – otherwise we may have ended up like so many who have true epics getting up out of the canyon they so easily descended into. Each year that challenge proves a little too much for some and deaths result.

Finally, at around 4.30pm two very tired, dusty but elated runners hit the trailhead, head for the showers and take the 4 hour drive to Vegas for.....a damn good sleep!!

We're done - truly. 15 hours and 40 minutes of hot fun!

Coming up – a few runs along the Western States course and a 34mile “50k” race just outside Yosemite. Watch this space.

No comments: