Chasing Waterfalls

In an effort to be more intentional about writing posts soon after they happen, I bring you a post about my most recent work-related adventure that ended about a week ago.

Every August, the Southwest Program of COBS (where I work in Moab), hosts a Canyon Skills Training for staff who work in both the Southwest and Rocky Mountain (located in Leadville, CO) Programs. The training is provided free to those staff who want to go. I went last year and had a blast, and couldn’t have been more excited to return this year for a multi-day canyoneering adventure during which I would be hanging out with my friends in some of the most beautiful places in the world, laughing a lot and learning more things in each hour that I could count on my fingers.

This year, twelve of us (nine instructors/LCs, two trainers, and COBS’ executive director) ventured out into the White Canyon area of southern Utah to run Cheesebox and Gravel Canyons.

August is monsoon season in the Southwest, meaning we’ve been getting a lot of rain, and thus, we encountered our first fun surprise on the drive out to the top of Cheesebox. The trucks had to cross over a normally dry canyon wash to continue down the road, but water was flowing through it. The small river wasn’t very deep, and the trucks were still able to cross, but it was quite exciting to drive through it. Sometimes, driving big trucks on gnarly four-wheel drive roads (as I do occassionally for work) makes you feel like a badass.

The first few days we based camped so that we could do some skills progression days and then run Cheesebox Canyon before backpacking over to Gravel. That first afternoon, we did a slickrock school, which is basically just practicing walking on rolling edges and learning how steep of an angle you can walk on before you fall. We also discussed handlines, using meat anchors (humans) and when to use those (for shorter down-climbs or places where people might feel uncomfortable).

The second skills day, we were doing some hiking around, and had noticed that the clouds started building. Soon, we were graced with the ever elusive cloud-cover. Not long after that, just after we had climbed through a narrow section a very small canyon, it started to rain. We were hanging out underneath a small shelf, and watched as a waterfall started to form slowly off the shelf. Ten minutes later, the spot were we had just climbed down from was gushing water. We decided to don rain gear and walk out from where we were, so that we could get a good view of the flash flood that that definitely occurring at the bottom of the large canyon below us. It was amazing! Waterfalls were forming around us left and right, and the water on the sandstone creates this beautiful shine that cannot be beat. It was kind of a bummer to discover that my rain jacket no longer really works, as I was soaked through, but I was enjoying what was happening all around me too much to focus on it too much. This was the first time I’d ever seen a flash flood form, and it is hands down one of the most beautiful and amazing things I’ve ever witnessed. Flash floods are extremely dangerous to be caught in, which pretty much only happens if you are at the bottom of a canyon, so part of the amazement in witnessing it was the fact that we were in a perfectly safe location, high above the canyon wash.

The next day, we ran Cheesebox Canyon, which was the highlight of the training for everyone, I think. Cheesebox is a long canyon, and it takes a long time for twelve people to move through wet narrows, down-climbs and rappels. We were hiking by 5:30 that morning, navigating to the canyon with headlamps. One of the coolest parts of the morning was the gray fox we saw running along a narrow shelf. I had never seen anything like it, and it was beautiful.

By 8:00, we were donning wetsuits and preparing to drop down into the narrows. Canyon narrows, at the very, very bottom of the canyon, see very little sunlight. The narrows in Cheesebox, like many other canyons, are ‘wet narrows’, and you are swimming in water anywhere from knee deep to over your head, pretty much the whole day. Thus, even if its over a hundred degrees outside, it can be really cold down in the narrows. We had three rappels throughout the day, many down climbs, countless potholes in which we were swimming through, and the most laughs ever. I think I did at least 1,000 squats that day, trying to stay warm. My favorite part of the day was the last narrows section we went through, right before our exit. The clouds had been building all afternoon (good thing we got an early start), and the thunder was starting to rumble overhead. I was last in the line of twelve, and kept hearing people in front of me shrieking. I couldn’t see them, so I was thinking to myself “oh boy, these potholes must be the coldest we’ve gone through yet”. They were cold, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As an LC, I don’t often go into the field for extended periods of time, but I’ve always heard stories from canyon staff about swimming through potholes in canyons affectionately called ‘mank tanks’. Mank tanks are caused by flash floods and typically have one or more of the following things: dead animals (cows, mice, etc.), lots of debris, and an awful stench. This manky section of narrows luckily didn’t have any dead animals, but it did smell awful, and the debris resting on top was at least three inches thick. It made it really hard for a lot of people to swim through, as you had to be constantly pushing debris out of the way, and you couldn’t touch the bottom. It was hard to communicate too, as no one wanted to open their mouth, for fear of getting something awful in it. I think most people thought it was disgusting, but I thought it was amazing! Oh the joy of swimming through inches of debris at the bottom of a canyon in the middle of nowhere, Utah! How many other people had been here and done this? How many people even in just the state would think this was a possibility? Nature is an incredible force and can do some pretty amazing things, and I was in the thick of it! How cool!

This post is getting kind of ridiculously long and entirely too detailed, so I’ll just list a few more training highlights:

– three lightening drills

– sitting in one lightening drill, watching another flash flood form and having waterfalls start forming and flowing right on either side of me

– practicing setting up anchors

– having my friend Jess, read to us in the tarp every night from Down the Great Unknownthe book about John Wesley Powell’s journey down the Colorado and Green Rivers through the Grand Canyon

– navigating overland (really difficult on mesa tops, and not necessarily a highlight, but more of a good learning experience)

– hiking overland on the last day, watching the sign rise over the buttes and mesas and seeing a rainbow form

Into The Winds

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view of the Winds from the south.

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mountain stream.

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smoky views from Photo Pass

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alpenglow, Middle Fork Lake.

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views of Nylon and Pronghorn peaks from Photo Pass.

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sunset camp scene.

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Zak and Chris examine the intricacies of lichen.

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Lucca serves as a table while Chris and I discuss our next move during Euchre.

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approaching Noel Lake

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water flows out of Moraine Lake

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mid-euchre stretch

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looking over the Continental Divide

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Chris and Eleanor wind the clock above Noel Lake.

1235502_673541535501_2085479075_nIn what seems to be keeping up with a recurring trend, I am several weeks overdue for a post on another epic adventure. Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to take a week off of work and venture into the Wind River Range in Wyoming with a group of friends and strangers. It turned out to be an amazing trip, and I’m so grateful I was able to go.

One of my friends and co-workers from COBS had been planning a trip for a long time. Tarn has taken many trips to the Winds with her family, and she has been friends with Zak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

since they met in college, so I got to come along as somewhat of a plus one. We ended up having a group of eight people for most of the trip, and ten for two nights.

The gang of eight met up in Pinedale, WY, a small town at the base of the Winds, in order to sort our gear. Tarn had arranged for a local outfitter to pack in a lot of our gear on mules. This was sweet, because it meant that our planned 16 mile hike in on day 1 wouldn’t be quite as grueling. We were able to pack in most of our food, beer, climb gear and other miscellaneous, yet very important, objects like our backgammon board. Three hundred pounds is a lot of gear, folks.

The next morning we were up and at ’em and hitting the Scab Creek Trail by 8AM. Sixteen miles might sound like a lot, but our total elevation gain was only a little over 2000 feet spread out over those miles, so the tail was super cruiser and we were moving pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, in the backcountry, things almost never go according to plan A. We took a wrong turn and ended up at a lake that was about three miles from Middle Fork Lake, the lake that we planned to base camp at for the next few days. However, we were about two miles from where the horses had dropped off our food and gear, and that location was also three miles from Middle Fork Lake. After much debating, we decided to camp where the packers had dropped our gear and continue to Middle Fork the next day.

We arrived at Middle Fork in waves the next day, according to who got up early and who slept in. After dropping our (now much heavier) packs, a few of us went for a shortish hike up to a place called Photo Pass. Photo Pass was quite beautiful, but the view was somewhat obscured by the thick smoke that filled the air from a nearby forest fire. On our way back down, we stopped to take a swim in one of the lakes. The Winds are dotted with what seems like a lake around every corner. The water is incredibly clear and the most beautiful shades of blue. I think coming from the desert, where the silty rivers take on shades of brown and orange, the lakes look especially beautiful to me.

The next day we hiked from our campsite up to Noel Lake, which as my friend Tarn likes to say, is the highest place to skinny dip in the Winds. It was a beautiful glacial lake, and so cold that I didn’t swim in it, though now I wish I had. On a ridge above Noel Lake, there is a large rock that rests precariously atop the talus. This rock wobbles back and forth if you stand on it. Tarn’s father, who took many, many trips to the Winds throughout his life, dubbed it the Universe Clock, and said that it needed to be ‘wound’, or wobbled, once a year. Tarn’s father, Randy Udall, passed away earlier this summer while on a solo backpacking trip in a nearby part of the Winds, and in many ways, this trip was a tribute to him. We all got up on top of the Clock, held hands in a circle and wound the clock as best we could. Here is a link to a video of us winding the clock, although it is via my friend Alex’s facebook account, so I’m not sure if everyone who clicks on the link will be able to see it or not.

The ridge above Noel Lake is part of the Continental Divide, and after winding the clock, seven of ten humans and 100% of canine group members continued our day hike dropping down on the other side of the Divide. We meandered around several gorgeous alpine, hiked up a ridge between two lakes, and finally back up and over the divide and down into camp. We had hiked around twelve miles, if my memory serves me correctly, and we were all exhausted and hungry, but in good spirits. The crew that had turned around at Noel Lake had made us appetizers, corn tortillas with refried beans and cheese, a favorite of Randy’s. I can’t remember anything tasting so delicious in so long. We sat around camp that night and ate and drank and laughed, but it wasn’t long before we were all exhausted and needed to sleep.

I took the last day as a rest day to just hang around camp. My leather shoes had been shrunken from sitting outside after a previous adventure in a wet canyon and my feet really needed a break before hiking 16 miles out the next day. We all had a leisurely morning, cooking pancakes and some freshly caught Brook Trout from the lake. Tarn, Zak and Alex taught Chris and I how to play a card game called euchre, which is quite complicated, but very fun. You play in pairs, and Alex and Tarn were paired together, while Chris and I together made up one half of a pair with Zak. Lucca gladly served as a slumbering card table for a majority of the game, until she got too hot and had to move into the shade. The game definitely took a while to pick up on, but Chris and I made some pretty lucky plays and our team infuriated Tarn and Alex by beating them soundly. The rest of the afternoon consisted of a refreshing midday swim in the lake, finishing the book I started on the trip, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and snuggling with Lucca. After dinner, it seemed that no one wanted to go to bed, we all just kept passing around a few bottles we had left, laughing, telling stories and discussing the history of Mormon’s in the southwest and their sacred underwear.

The hike out the next day started out pretty cruiser, but I was definitely suffering by the end. I’d never hiked 16 miles in one day before, and with my shoes just a little too tight, my feet were hating me. The hike was largely downhill and we got out just in time, right before a thunderstorm hit. Obviously, we had a celebratory beer and a dance party to Lady Gaga in the parking lot. We had burgers and beverages at the brew pub in Pinedale to celebrate our trip before we all went our separate ways. Zak and I drove to Park City that night, camping along the way, so that we could have time to stop at Trader Joe’s in Salt Lake and still make it back to Moab at a decent hour.