Ranger Kathryn's Arches

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.

March 26, 2010

Dinosaur bone put-back

It was bound to happen.

Dino pelvic bone in situ

How many of you know about the Paleontology Protection Act? I thought as much. I’d never heard of it either. Neither had “X,” whose name shall not appear here in order to protect the innocent. His or her gender may have also been changed in this story.

Out on her day off, X went in search of dinosaur bones outside the national park. Knowing exactly in which rock layers they could be likely found, she surveyed local cliffs and FOUND some WAY COOL pelvic bones of dinos, as well as chunks of limb bones. They looked about as big as my own pelvic bones. She brought them to her house, wrapped carefully in toilet paper.

Yes. It's a dinosaur bone.

A visiting ranger from The Maze district of Canyonlands N.P. ooohed and ahhhed over them, and then brought up the Paleo Protection Act. X had no idea that her collecting them was not appropriate on federal land. Fossils need to be left in place. X knew she had to return the bones to their original site the next day.

I went with X and together we climbed up about 500 feet of mostly talus slope. The [unnamed] layer shimmered with petrified wood chunks, which are collectable in limited amounts. It wasn’t until X carefully laid the beloved bones exactly where she found them that my eyes began to see them differently from the surrounding rock.

It was a little sad. I know that the next person who walks past them will pick them up and take them home. It’s illegal, but it happens every day. I’m grateful they are so far up that stinkin’ cliff.

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