Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

April 11, 2017

Secret Slot Canyon, Southern Utah

I love the idea of slot canyons.    Beautiful smooth rock carved by water into gorgeous shapes and textures, a little adventure in finding them, and a physical challenge to get through them.  Right up my alley.    I kinda think of them as America's answer to Europe's Via Ferratas.   No two are alike, they have varying difficulty levels, and some of the best ones require being far off the beaten path.   Add in some rock scrambling and route finding and that's why I find it all so fascinating.  Oh, and they are both a little dangerous, and very weather dependent.  

So I do love the idea of slot canyons, but the reality of them is that they are quite tricky to both find and enjoy.   The best time of year to go through them (spring) is also when the water is super cold.  And most of them have water obstacles of some sort, although wading in ankle-deep stuff is a lot different than swimming through murky stagnant water.  Unfortunately, we can't make more of them as is done with via ferratas.   And I'm not terribly good with technical rope skills which means a lot of slots are way out of my comfort level.  

Skinny Secret Slot
I've been eyeing the slot canyons down Hole In The Rock road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for years.   Amazing slots.  Fairly easy to find, albeit navigation is still important.   But this year was a very wet winter, and the normal slots have higher than normal water levels.  Having waded through hypothermia-inducing water in Little Wild Horse slot canyon, we weren't excited about swimming.

Enter Keith of Earth Tours.    Without much experience in slots, we decided to hire a guide...the plus being that he would show us some slots off the beaten path.  Boy, did we ever.  Not only did we not see any other people the entire day, but we barely saw any other footprints!  At least, human footprints.  What we did see were animal prints off all sorts, including fox, turkey, coyote, rat, bobcat, and mountain lion...amazing.

Moki Marbles
The 6 mile loop hike with Keith was slower than our usual breakneck pace, which allowed us to look for prints, enjoy the scenery, and check out some really unusual rock formations.  Keith was a geologist and was able to explain the layers of rock and how they formed, as well as knowing just about everything else about the desert, including the plants and animals.

I was most fascinated but the Moke Marbles, round balls of iron ore, which somehow leach out of the sandstone, group together, and then pop out of the softer sandstone as it erodes away.  We saw thousands of these things all over.   Tempting to pick one up and take it home...but no...we left them for future visitors to enjoy.

We also passed by some really delicate balanced rocks.  A harder layer of rock had broken off from the mesa above and fallen down on the slick rock.  As these boulders somewhat sheltered the sandstone they landed on from rain and weathering, many of the boulders were now precariously balanced on delicate slivers of sandstone.  A toddler could have knocked them over, but it was a testament to how isolated an area we were in that they were still pristine.

Of course, the highlight of the route were the slot canyons, several of them.   One of them, Keith was surprised to see, had a small rockfall where he typically stopped for a lunch break!  He hadn't been through since last fall, and each year rainfall and floods bring changes to the canyons.   The rockfall now formed a small pool instead, but we were able to navigate around it and continue on.

The final slot of the day was appropriately the deepest and longest and most challenging.  So challenging, in fact, that we left our packs behind to avoid dragging them and getting stuck in the rocks.   We would walk back for them later.   The slot had enough challenges for us even lightened of our packs...in fact, I got the idea that most of Keith's clients weren't able to get all the way through the slot, turning around to backtrack at a fallen log blocking the way.  I wasn't going to be deterred, and we inched our way high above a pool of water to continue on.   Of course, the question with slots is that you never know what's coming ahead, and whether you will need to back track.  Without a rope, we knew we always needed to be able to reverse course to safely escape if necessary.

The slot tightened into a really enjoyable deep crevice.  We used all of our recently acquired slot skills, and stemmed, bridged and chimneyed our way along the dark crack.   Eventually the bottom of the slot dropped about 10 feet, with no easy way to work our way down.   This is where we all regretted wearing shorts and t-shirts on such a warm day...we had no clothing left to save our skin!  We wedged an elbow here, a knee there, and with minimal damage and Keith's helpful shoulder, were able to do a controlled slide down to floor level.   Now we were committed to the slot, as getting all three of us back up again would have required a lot of teamwork and a bit more loss of skin!  Luckily that wasn't necessary...the slot ended shortly afterwards into a sandy wash.

Jim and Keith wedge themselves high against the narrow walls to avoid a pool of water
I tried to pare down my photos of the day, but we saw so much amazing scenery that I couldn't decide what to get rid of!   Lots of animal prints and balanced rocks made the cut.  

Keith and his extensive knowledge of the desert terrain made the day very enjoyable.  Plus the weather cooperated and gave us the warmest, sunniest, calmest day we had seen in weeks.

AND....we kept our feet dry!

Where were we?   Keith swore us to secrecy about the location of his slot.  All I can say is that we were somewhere in Southern Utah.   If you do identify where this slot is, please do your part to keep this off the beaten (Internet) path!

Turkey dragging feathers
Rat prints on a sand dune
Mountain Lion

Balanced rocks

A young slot canyon

Frog eggs in a reflective slot canyon pool

Moki Marbles
Moki Marbles in an evaporated pool

Keith and Dawn head into the canyon

April 9, 2017

Little Wild Horse and Bell Slot Canyons Trail

It's been four years since I've set foot in this slot, but I fondly remember it as my first time playing around in slick rock canyons.  It was here I learned the techniques of stemming, chimneying, and bridging my way between narrow rock faces.  Of course, in this canyon, it was all voluntary, because most of the way there is a nice sandy floor to walk down if you choose to be so boring.

This time around, we were going to do the whole 9 mile round trip, up Little Wild Horse and back down through Bell Canyon.   I had only seen a mile or so last time as we had gone slowly trying never to step on the sandy bottom.  This time we powered through the slots while still admiring the views, hoping to get in and out before the wind became fierce at midday.  And those dark clouds, where did THOSE come from...there was no rain in the forecast!?!

These are popular slots for a reason...not too tight, beautiful scenery, easy access, easy route finding, and a nice dry sandy floor.   Oh, wait, WHAT?   After about a mile and a half into Little Wild Horse, murky water suddenly blocked our way.   This was new, but slot canyons are known for surprises, and each year they change in odd and sometimes not so nice ways.   The power of water is unbelievably fierce in flood.

Luckily ahead of us a family was already wading through the pool, showing us it was about thigh deep for an adult...the kids didn't have it so lucky!  (Or the dog).   Perhaps if they weren't there, we might have turned around not knowing what was ahead (swimming, anyone)!   As it was, if a guy in blue jeans could wade through undeterred, we could make it too.  We took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our shorts, and waded in.    Jeez, the water was beyond freezing....hypothermia was going to set in soon.   Tied to my small pack were two pairs of shoes, two cells phones, some socks and a pair of shorts.   I managed to drop Jim's shoe in the water but was very happy to catch it before it got totally soaked and submerged.   Jim wasn't terribly happy about the damp but at least he still had a shoe!

Continuing on was a crapshoot...would there be longer deeper pools up ahead, or could we finish the circle staying dry?  Just that 100-foot wade through freezing water had made my feet numb...I wasn't excited about any more of it.  We continued on.  The scenery continued to be so amazing that we almost got numb to it...too much beauty.   Or it could be that I was getting tired...we had hiked the day before, and oh yeah I have Mono.   I knew I need to keep my heartbeat low, but walking slowly meant taking a longer hike, and that wind, and those clouds....!

Luckily about halfway through the canyon we met a guy coming the other way, who said the trail was dry the rest of the way.  Phew.  Worst case scenarios in my mind were finding horrible deep pools about 7 miles around the loop and having to retrace our path all the back again.  Not so.

After 4 miles we popped out of Little Wild Horse and followed a big rock arrow onto a jeep road.  We had made it all the way through the San Rafael Swell, and after a couple of miles on the jeep trail, we would walk through it again.   Bell Canyon was a little straighter, less "slotty" and less meandering, so it went a little quicker.   As it was, the wind started to fire up (gusts of 40 mph, anyone?), and the skies looked foreboding.   Nowhere you want to be is in a slot canyon with rain threatening...we could see how high the debris had gotten in the trees during recent floods.   We ate our delicious sandwiches on the go, and enjoyed the scenery at about 3 mph.

Families were still flooding into the canyons as we went out...oh, to be that ignorant of the ramifications of rain.   There were rain showers around (we looked after we got back to a place with any phone signal), but fairly minor so I'm sure it was ok.   The parking lot was beyond crowded...we hadn't seen too many people in the canyons but most of them just go in a little ways.   Our time for the whole 9 mile loop was 3:20, and now the wind was really kicking up.  We had covered our faces from blowing sand to get back to the truck!   I was asleep in minutes and managed the rest of the drive back to Moab examining the backs of my eyelids.

April 8, 2017

Hidden Valley Trail

In an area full of supurlative places, Hidden Valley is a little gem, mostly overshadowed by "archier" places but definitely worth visiting.   The trailhead is just south of Moab, Utah near the end of the Prospector Bike trail.

The hiking trail climbed steeply to begin with, causing my Mononucleosis-induced heart to go a little bonkers.   I've been hiking quite a bit with Mono in the three weeks I've had it, but lately it's been forcing me to go a little slower than I'm used to.   Luckily, I seem to have gotten a "Mono-lite" version of the virus, as family and friends scared me with tales of people who missed out on lots of life for six months or even a year.   Me...I feel mostly fine.  Except when I try to push a little too fast up a hill, and my whole body gets the feeling that I better slow down immediately.  I can't really explain why.  

Anyhoo, I really miss running and biking, which I've done none of since being diagnosed, so going on slower than usual hikes keeps me sane.  Plus, it's given us the excuse to go visit some places that normally we bypass to go mountain biking instead.

Once we climbed above the first steep section, the trail leveled out into a flat, grassy meadow.  I guess these two rows of sandstone cliffs got shoved apart, filled with debris, and so created this fascinating little hidden valley.   A couple of meadows later, the trail led along a cliff and then we looked down and saw the real trail that we weren't on.  I guess it forked.  Since this was an out and back hike, we really didn't care.  Plus we saw some cool petroglyphs!

Spot the wonder dog discovered tiny lizards, and peered into every shadow and under every rock to see them.   Given that they are the size of my little finger and as fast as a rocket ship,  I assume he'll never catch one but will happily keep trying.   Also luckily, it was a quiet trail and we could let him off leash occasionally so he wouldn't jerk our arms off (and choke himself in the bargain) by running full tilt at the lizards.