Ranger Kathryn's Arches

July 30, 2013

On the rock again

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 12:12 pm
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Breathing my way through a problem area on "Consolation."

Breathing my way through a problematic move on “Consolation.” (Photo by Dawn Glanc)

Birthdays should be memorable. For my fiftieth, I bought my first pair of running shoes and entered a half marathon. The exhilaration was nothing short of monumental as I crossed the finish line and learned powerful lessons about myself and my limits. I wasted the first half of my life thinking I couldn’t run 13.1 miles, silly me.

Even a smooth-looking wall has tiny ridges you can balance on with rubber climbing shoes. Finding them is the challenge!

Even a smooth-looking wall has tiny ridges you can balance on with rubber climbing shoes. Finding them is the challenge!

Fast-forward to birthday 2013. Fifty-seven isn’t a special number, but there is no good reason to wait for the Big Ones when splurging on oneself because, in case you didn’t notice, life is hurtling at breakneck speed from birth to death.  I’d heard of “Chicks Rock!” climbing clinics for women, and one was happening a couple hundred miles from my home ON my birthday weekend. It was a no-brainer. I signed up.

Take four expert women climbers as guides, add fourteen women from all over the country  — teen-aged to my age, beginner to advanced — mix in some rain, polished quartzite rock, crackling campfires, sprinkle in lots of laughter and encouragement plus a modicum of bruises and scrapes, and you have a mighty fine 72 hours. MIGHTY fine.

Most of you would not find delight in perching on a centimeter-wide lip of rock, groping for invisible hand-holds. But… what if you tried just one new thing today?

September 16, 2012

Atop Owl Rock

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 5:03 pm
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The crack running up the center of Owl Rock is our route to the top.

Perched on a smallish rounded knob one hundred feet above the ground, my hard-won vantage point provided uncommon views of Arches National Park. The camera was down below; I hadn’t trusted myself to get it up the climb intact. I’d etch these sights in my brain instead of on a memory card.

This climb was my first desert tower — a free-standing sandstone spire rated 5.8+, not overly difficult. Craning my neck, I watched Ranger Bobby and Ranger Chris (both excellent climbers) glide up it without much struggle. Each paused at a few sketchy spots, figuring his next move; I knew I was in for an ascent that was at the edge of my ability. But that’s how I like it.

Bobby goes first, placing protective gear which will hold him in case of a fall.

When climbing is done well, it resembles someone dancing up a slab of rock with grace and poise and balance. When *I* was dragging myself up Owl, onlookers saw a desperate individual jamming her hands in any available crack while breathing rapidly and struggling to place a foot where it wouldn’t slip. My sympathetic nervous system (‘fight or flight’) freely dispensed adrenaline, elevating my pulse, dilating my pupils, drying my mouth of all spit.

Seventy feet up, bulbous outcroppings taunted me: “Let’s see you get past.” Gr-r-r-r. I refused to look down, couldn’t see my companions belaying me from above, and when the words “I can’t” formed on my lips, I recalled my dad’s translation of that as “I won’t.” OH YES I WILL JUST YOU WATCH, I said under my breath, and mentally willed myself to inch up the scary bulges one calculated move at a time.

Two-thirds of the way up, on the left edge, I’m rappelling from the summit. It’s really the only way down.

The summit was worth it, a reward that fewer than 0.1% of Arches visitors ever earn. An hour before sunset, surveying the glowing red kingdom, I forgot about the clawing, scraping, grunting pulls and pushes that had unceremoniously gotten me there. In the end, it doesn’t matter; nobody was grading me. My bruises will fade before my memories do. What’s important to me: I SAT ATOP OWL ROCK.

Leave a comment: what hard thing have you done that was so very worth it?


December 28, 2011

Fisher Towers: “The Titan”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:19 pm
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A 900-foot pillar juts from the earth north of here. This rock, near the small burg of Castle Valley, is allegedly the largest free-standing tower in the United States. Impressive in its Cutler sandstone glory, it was the place I escaped to last year when I had a distressing situation that I was trying to process. I needed to go hike. I needed big rock formations to remind me that I’m not in control of every detail of life, much as I like to think that would be a useful thing. Hiking to The Titan did my body and soul good.

The Titan in afternoon springtime light. Fisher Towers, Castle Valley, UT

Such monoliths lure climbers like flames lure moths. It’s a “because it is there and must be conquered” thing, fueled usually by testosterone and a need for adventure. The November 1962 National Geographic magazine chronicles the dramatic first ascent of The Titan by three Colorado climbers; if you don’t have old stacks of those yellow-framed periodicals in your basement or garage, you can just enjoy my photographs.

If you’re lacking an impressive rock pillar in your area, you can find a substitute. A knoll, a rise, a viewing deck from a skyscraper, the high point in your particular county or township section — just pick a destination and go to it. Get a new perspective with your eyes; it may bring new perspective to your mind or soul.

July 21, 2010

Lumpy Ridge at Rocky Mountain NP: “White Whale”





White Whale. See teeny tiny people on the ledge; I was there. (Taken next day from adjacent crag.)

[Note to non-climbers: this piece contains explanations to help you understand the sport.]

I was attached by a climbing harness to a rope 250 feet above the valley floor, standing on a comfortable ledge of granite, gazing at the ever-majestic Long’s Peak. From the top of this first climb, the sheer beauty of the crags and the the mind-assaulting green of the valley stole my breath. Adrenaline rush! It had been a very successful ascent with a difficulty rating (5.7) right in my comfort zone — excellent to warm up on in a new place. I felt as confident as a beginning climber can feel when she doesn’t really have any technique down yet.

It was a rare 3-day break for me and it was time to get out of Moab where the highs have been in the triple digits for over a week. The Rocky Mountains were a no-brainer; my climbing buddy had plenty of experience on rock near Estes Park, Colorado. I’d never been; that’s where we would go. Besides, I’d get to check off one more national park from my see-’em-all list.

Ed selected “White Whale” (an easier route) from the climbing guidebook as it had been a while since I had been climbing, and we were not on sandstone any more but on metamorphic rock. It was also my very first multi-pitch climb, which means it takes more than one rope length to reach the top and therefore intermediate stops are required. This adds one more layer of drama as one must belay one’s partner (i.e., provide the safety rope from below or above as they climb) from a small ledge somewhere on the wall. It’s different from the more straightforward top-roping I had previously done, and I truly wanted to learn. Getting up high on the walls is exhilarating.

Leaning into Twin Owls on the approach to our climb. Man, the pack weighs a lot.

The hike to the cliff base took me by surprise. I was carrying about one-third of my body weight in rope and gear in a backpack, at higher elevation than I’ve been all year, and that 1.5 miles seemed interminable. What kept me going was the wildflowers, the conifer forest smells, the new birdsongs, the cloud formations, the wind whispers… and the thought of getting back on the rocks again.

Ed and his rack -- all sizes and types of protective gear, carried up the wall...

Reaching the base, Ed unceremoniously dumped his huge pack upside down and began assembling his rack. He would climb the route first, pausing frequently to place protective gear into cracks, then clipping the rope on his harness into carabiners attached to the gear. If he were to fall, my belaying from below would stop him, and the nearest metal device in the crack would hold him suspended while he regained his footholds and handholds. The leader must, of necessity, carry a whole lot more gear than is needed, because you never know which piece will work in which small crack. It’s disconcerting when you must place protection and have nothing that fits.

My guide scrambled effortlessly up the first pitch, or first rope length, installing gear as he went. When he got to the top of it and pulled all remaining rope up to his level, tensioning me for safety, I put on my climbing shoes with sticky rubber soles that would help grip the rock. One deep breath, one heave-ho up to the first foothold, and I was on the wall. Learning how to trust one’s feet, learning how to wedge one’s fingers and hands and fists into cracks, are the first tasks when embracing this sport. My job was to clean (remove) each piece of gear as I went up, clipping it to a loop over my shoulder. Soon enough, I found myself on the small ledge next to Ed. I returned his gear, and we repeated the process two more times, reaching our destination in a couple of hours. After taking a few minutes to give high fives, coil our rope, and admire the views, we hiked down to our packs.

The White Whale had been bagged. I was much pleased. But… what would tomorrow hold?!?

March 31, 2010

Climbing Assessment #1

Filed under: 1 — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 5:48 pm
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Nate and Kathryn at Lomatium Rappel #1

Deep in the Fiery Furnace, climbers and canyoneers have devised routes over the years. Arches National Park has never had an official policy governing these activities, and suddenly one is wanted by a higher-up. Two of the employees who are gathering data for this assessment were heading up into the Furnace today, and took me along for practice with ropes and rappels.

This rope has to be anchored around the large boulder

We were all gratified to see that, other than some rope rubs and grooves at the edges of rappels, there does not appear to be significant resource damage from these activities. What interested me most, however, was that my colleagues — one climber and one canyoneer — had difficulty agreeing on what should be and shouldn’t be permitted in the park. Personal biases are strong forces, and it’s my guess that many policies in place are tainted with these biases. Fortunately, the new policy-makers’ intentions include trying to AVOID bias; several mechanisms are in place to assist with that.

While we’re talking about biases, mine is that the 75 individual permits we’ll allow each day in the Furnace is FAR too high a number. The footprints off-path and through fragile environments caused far more damage than the rope rubs. Rangers who are struggling to give tours on those sold-out 75-permit days report that people are tripping over each other among the fins. That number, apparently, was pulled out of a hat instead of being evidence-based. I would love to see that number slashed to 25; let’s protect that resource, and its rare species!

And yet… (pause) … is 25 evidence-based?!? It’s a number I pulled out of my head. More data is needed.

March 15, 2010

How many of you are (k)not experts?

The length of purple rope lay in my hands expectantly. “Tie me,” it seemed to taunt. I didn’t know where to start.

In my life, I’ve learned how to tie shoes, scarves, and sutures. That is three (3) kinds of knots. Any time I’ve been camping, lashing something onto a car top, or securing something for a move, I either let someone else do it or I end up with the ugliest jumble of untrustworthy ropes and loose ends that you’ve ever seen. Knots have been my nemesis.

It is now time for me to look at them differently.

Ed models the first one, a water knot called a Ring Bend. “This one secures two ropes to each other.” With a few flips of his hands he has a handsome figure of rope that I am to copy, and I enjoy success with this very easy knot. After a number of repetitions, I think I have it, and we move on to something else that should be vaguely familiar — a Figure Eight Follow Through, one I’ve used in the past for rock-climbing. That one boosts my confidence as well, which I think is Ed’s strategy.

Knots can be fun???

We work through the list. Watching someone who’s tied them thousands of times is one thing; I, however, have no muscle memory, nor any concept of what each one is used for. It’s pure mechanics for me: grab bight, twist twice, insert short end through loop, etc, etc, etc.  After each one I review the ones I learned earlier, and am pleased to discover that I have a modicum of retention.

That’s good. My life, and the lives of others, will depend on having strong and correct knots.


[Permission granted by Ed to use opening line of his Knots Class as this post’s title.]

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