Ranger Kathryn's Arches

July 26, 2009

Thunder on the Mesa

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:35 pm
Top of the mesa

Top of the mesa

Daybreak brought mottled clouds, with the smell of potential precipitation. Ed was picking me up at 0900 to retrieve the boulder-snagged rope, and the forecast was for possible rain, but we all know that in the desert the R-word is pretty iffy. We parked at Park Avenue and began our ascent up the 45-degree boulder field, grateful for any cloud cover we could muster since it was south-facing. Sun and clouds kept chasing one another here at the south end of the park.

As soon as we topped the mesa, the wind picked up and we could see for several miles in three directions. Rain!!! Off to the north, heavy curtains of rain were falling at The Windows and Balanced Rock. To the south, Moab was still in sun. We trekked across the mesa top to the location of the stuck line, keeping our wits about us. Ed found a large boulder around which he could thread some webbing and attach himself to a 150-foot rope to assist him down one level to where the problem lay. Just as he was knotting the webbing, a thunderclap shook the landscape. We looked at each other knowingly; exposed hikers on a mesa-top, in a thunderstorm?? You’ve got to be kidding. Well — we had a job to do. No rain yet. Let’s hope it stays away long enough to retrieve the line.

As Ed lowered himself down to the next tier, I sat comfortably watching from atop. Then the pitter-pats of small drops began pelting us, gently at first, and then fairly heavily. He got the rope unstuck, coiled it into its mesh bag, and headed up. He would use the rope to pull himself up. Except for one thing.

The rain. This Entrada sandstone has three layers, or ‘members,’ and all our arches are in the “Slickrock Member” of the stone. It didn’t get that name for nothing. When wet, it is unbelievably slippery. So, when Ed came back for the bottom of the rope dangling on the angle above him, he could not reach it because his normally-grippy shoes kept slipping on the slickrock. I could not see, but I could hear, each attempt, and each slide downward. And some muttering of obscenities.

The tiny dot is Ed, retrieving a stuck rope.  See the sloping walls?

The tiny dot in the very center is Ed, retrieving a stuck rope. See the sloping bowl walls?

Finally, “Kathryn, I need your assistance. Can you slide yourself down to the next level and wait for instructions?” More rain. More thunder. I will do whatever he tells me to do. Try to imagine a series of stacked bowls, unevenly splaying out to all sides, smoothed and sanded by millenia of run-off. This is what we are descending — without harnesses or other protection. I realize that if I miscalculate and slide too fast or too far, the bowl will lead downward to the next and the next levels. My boots are not acting too grippy on the wet rock, but what am I to do?

Holding my breath, I decided to try the Butt Slide. Not a graceful move, but a safer one, and I made it down (still holding my breath) and eased myself to the overhang where I could see Ed. “Grab the rope. Flick it outward and to the left where I can maybe reach it.” I snapped it three times, with no advance toward Ed’s hands. “Okay, Plan B. Coil all the rope up and try throwing it to me.” That didn’t work well. “Okay, Plan C. Grab the rope, lean into it with all your body weight, and pull it toward me. Try to stretch it as far as you possibly can.”

I gave it everything I had, realizing that if the anchor above were to let go, we’d both be goners. On my third try, the tail came just within his reach, and Ed grabbed and got it. He somehow managed to scramble up, even with wet rock under his feet. “Thanks for the rescue,” he sincerely offered. We high-fived at the top — our first misadventure, but it came out fine.

The rain stopped. The sun poked out. We decided to head northward to see if we could find a hidden non-technical (needing no ropes) return route, so we wouldn’t have to back-track. Ed had heard from some ranger that there was allegedly another way down, so we went in search of it.

stunningly beautiful mesa-top view

stunningly beautiful mesa-top view

From atop the 250-foot mesa, vehicles looked like Matchbox cars, and people were little ants. We scouted around and stood perilously close to some rounded edges. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking, especially with the clouds altering the usual desert landscape and temperature. It was downright pleasant — maybe 85 instead of 95.

Ed found a descent he felt fairly confident about, and we headed down. It was a little tricky in places, but we were picking our way carefully to see what the prognosis would be. And then the rain came again. And the thunder. We found ourselves on the slope of an ancient petrified sand dune, perhaps about 40 degree tilt to our feet, and this lump began to form in my gut. It would have been dicey in dry weather, but now it was REALLY dicey. He went ahead to scope out any alternate routes and was stopped by a 20-foot slab of sandstone that did not allow him to pass. “We’ll have to head back up,” he decided.

Yeah, right. It was a 40-foot tumble/slide down to a boulder field if I misstepped, and a 40-foot climb up very slippery rock if we were to get out. The words of Dr Suess rang in my ears: “I do not like it, Sam I Am…” There was, however, no third choice. So we attempted to head up, in the rain, on the slickrock.

Ed has decades of experience and trusts his feet. There were only three places that I needed a hand, where I was utterly lacking rock handholds. Let us just say that when we finally reached the top, and found a protected alcove under which to sit for a moment and eat the clementines I had in my pack, it was the most pleasant relief imaginable. Our second misadventure ended well.

Barbie did not fare so well on this climb

Barbie did not fare so well on this climb

And then the thunder returned. He looked at me seriously: “Do you know CPR?” “Yeah.” “Good. So do I. Lightning strikes have the highest percentage of survival if someone does CPR.” “Yeah, but shouldn’t I be hiking 50 feet back of you so it doesn’t take out both of us?” “Yeah. Do you know the squat position, on your backpack if possible?” “Yes.” “Okay. Let’s get the hell out of here.” And off we went, dodging raindrops, counting the lightning-thunder interval, and realizing how extrmely vulnerable we were.

Counted seven seconds. Feet walking quickly. Eight seconds. “Good, it’s getting farther away.” Five seconds. “Sh–,” said Ed. We had to get off the mesa, but the only way down was across. Maybe a half mile. Third misadventure.

sunlight cracks through the rainclouds at a distance

sunlight cracks through the rainclouds at a distance

Well, when your time’s up, your time’s up. I guess ours wasn’t. We made it to the descent route, carefully picked our way down the wet rocks, and across the wash leading to the parking area.

Misadventures definitely make for good adventures.

Nefirtiti (background) and KCB (foreground)

Nefirtiti (background) and KCB (foreground)


  1. Wow. That wasn’t exactly the kind of bed time reading I needed to relax me. I’ve got to say, you had me sitting on the edge of my chair. Fortunately I knew you couldn’t be writing it if you had NOT worked through all the nasties.

    Comment by Mom — July 26, 2009 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

  2. Wow. Quite an adventure. I’m glad you’re okay!

    Comment by Sherrie Hansen Decker — July 27, 2009 @ 1:31 am | Reply

  3. I want to hear about Barbie’s adventure, too.

    Comment by Lisa — July 27, 2009 @ 9:59 am | Reply

  4. Yikes!!!
    Happy Birthday, BTW:)
    Glad you’re still alive to celebrate:)

    Comment by Kathy Lewis — July 27, 2009 @ 12:39 pm | Reply

  5. Your tale reminds me of a misadventure we had with lightning – out on a large lake in a metal pontoon boat when a nasty thunderstorm came up. The Owner/Captain decided to make a run for the marina at the far end of this very long lake rather than head for shore and wait it out. We were down to three second intervals and I was making not-too-subtle suggestions that we needed to get the he– out of there fast.
    He didn’t take my hints but we did live to tell about it – though I’m not so sure our friendship is still at the cozy level it was before this happened.

    Comment by Dad — July 27, 2009 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

  6. Barbie’s foto made me laugh out loud. And your counting seconds between lightning and thunder made me remember one of the first really scary movies I ever saw… was it “Halloween”? Seconds grew longer at the beginning of the movie… SHORTER towards the end!

    Comment by Becky Colestock — July 28, 2009 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

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