Ranger Kathryn's Arches

September 20, 2011

Narrowest, Deepest, Steepest

The Grand Canyon, a mile deep, will always hold the ‘grandest’ honors. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, however, is the ‘deepest, steepest, narrowest’ canyon in North America. When it was being surveyed for hydrological uses in 1900, it ate up wooden boats. All further exploration had to be done on inflatable air mattresses; the walls were too steep to walk along. But surveying was not my purpose in visiting.

It's 2000 feet to the bottom of this chasm. Awfully impressive.

I was there to see Colorado instead of Utah for a change. Mountains instead of desert. Metamorphic rock instead of sedimentary. Rain instead of sunshine. First hints of fall colors instead of cacti. To experience 8200 feet elevation instead of 4100. To shiver instead of sweat.

Don’t laugh, but I was wearing my light down jacket, warm hat, and gloves when we got to the mountains. Desert life has certainly made this hardy Minnesotan more cold-sensitive.

The tent was up, the supper cooked and eaten, and the fire crackling when raindrops began plopping with disquieting portent. My campmate Bill threw an armful of branches onto the flames as we dashed for the car; 45 minutes of rain didn’t extinguish them, after which we gladly absorbed the fire’s heat while listening to coyotes yipping, an elk bugling, and other assorted mountain sounds before retiring.

A Great Horned Owl hooted us awake during the early morning hours, as moonlight invited itself in through the open tent doors. I can’t think of a finer welcome for the new day.

October 5, 2010

Climbing South Mountain

Kathryn working her way up South Mountain

The aspens were peaking, the temperature perfect, and the calendar said GO TO THE MOUNTAINS. Fortunately, if one lives in Moab, the La Sal Mountains are a mere 45 minutes away. I hadn’t climbed a real mountain since, well, I can’t remember when. Ed’s an accomplished alpinist and a good friend, and would escort me to a summit. We camped at 9900 feet, enjoyed a crackling campfire, and fell into a tired sleep.

A band of vocalizing coyotes interrupted the tranquility an hour before dawn. That was the first animal noise heard all night; I was surprised at how silent it was in that old forest. Tea and fruit for breakfast energized us for the task at hand. The preceding evening’s nausea and loss of appetite were gone and I kept telling myself that altitude sickness was no longer an option. I had cautiously trekked at high altitude in the Andes (Cuzco — 11,150 feet) three summers ago, and didn’t want to wimp out here.

Our goal was South Mountain: 11,798 feet. Its bare top lay above tree line, with glorious golden aspens skirting the ridges, and an azure sky setting them off. Bushwhacking through the understory up (up, always up) to a nearby knoll, we came to a saddle which beckoned us across — to a crazy, intimidating talus slope that would take us the final 700 vertical feet. Ed left the ‘Up vs. Down’ decision to me. I admit with embarrassment that I entertained the notion of quitting there; we were SO close, however, that I knew I would kick myself if I abandoned the plan. Up we went. An elk bugled in approval below us.

We were up there. But now we're down.

The ‘How To Walk On Talus’ learning curve is about as steep as the angle of repose. Chunks of jagged sharp granitic rock were all we could walk on in any direction; they seemed delicately balanced on each other, ready at any second to be dislodged and careen hundreds of feet down, knocking others as they went. Some were like dinner plates, poised to scoot sideways when stepped on. It didn’t take long to learn not to put my foot on the EDGE of any rock, and to always weight it partially before shifting all 120 pounds of me onto one sketchy piece. There is a definite technique that we lowlanders need to learn, to lessen the danger of a rock slide:

Movements occur whenever the talus slope exceeds the critical angle. The exact angle at which failure takes place depends upon the materials (e.g., rock type), rock size, moisture content, but dry homogenous materials in a pile generally experience slope failure when the angle of repose (the resting slope angle) exceeds 33–37°.

Slope failure, eh? One glance at the ridge line and I asked Ed if we were looking at a 40-degree slope. “Not quite,” was his answer, “but for sure you want to stay up here on the ridge at all times.” The debris falling away on the sides was significantly more unstable than the unreliable stuff we were already on. Thank goodness for agility, good balance, and the ability to quickly recover when a slab slips out from under your foot. I tried not to walk above or below Ed, as I didn’t want to know what a sharp boulder would do to my climbing buddy’s foot or leg.

At the summit! -- holding a rusty steel spike. Two peaks over 12,000' grace the background.

One spot of tricky climbing got us up over a vertical portion and we soon made the summit, ate peanut M&Ms and apples at the summit cairn, and used the timer function to take this photo of us holding a summit artifact. Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and many other landmarks were easily visible from way up there, despite the wildfires that have blanketed the area with much haze of late.

I have a fresh appreciation for why mountain climbers like to reach the summit. A rich sense of accomplishment (“I’ve earned this by my own sweat and risk”) garnishes the gloriousness and magnificence. It is serene and tranquil and private. Views are vast and incomparable, and nothing is higher than you. (OK, except for Mt Tukuhnikivats, 12,400, and Mt Peale, the highest of the La Sals at 12,700, which I’m saving for another year.)

I heartily recommend this endeavor. Find out what the highest point is in your county, or township, or city block, and climb something. Please leave a comment about some summit you’ve reached, no matter how humble.

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