Canyonlands: The White Rim

Sunday, October 8, 2006 Permalink 0

The trip to Canyonlands National Park begins with all of my underwear being stolen in Park City, Utah. I imagine the thief given the demographics of this affluent resort town. He is a strapping six foot four sometimes ski bum utterly disappointed to find my bag filled with performance socks, polar fleece and other various outer and under garments all in size extra small.

After an impromptu shopping excursion in Salt Lake City, we head south to Moab. When I face my first visual of the route we will be cycling, I resort to a habit of rating my abilities and ventures on an outdoor extreme scale from one to ten. Typically, I rank a three: Average Day Hiker. On occasion, I have even climbed to a four or five for small outings that became unanticipated fiascos – like the time an afternoon hike turned into an all-night marathon bushwhack. Or another, when I was dropped off deep in a remote region of Yellowstone National Park to search for “The Holy Grail” – a series of quintessential hot springs rumored to be hidden away and long-forgotten. I cross-country skied and camped in the backcountry of the Park, looking for that god-forsaken hot water for six cold days and long winter nights. “We’ll find it,” my friends Steph and Lawson encouraged as we slogged through the wet, sticky snow navigating over downed bridges and endless stretches of vast, white meadows with no clear destination. The journey might have been classified as a six had it not been for our guide and all the steaming cocoa, toasty hot water bottles and chocolate-covered espresso beans that were provided daily.

Peering down from the precarious overlook, I mentally classify our impending Canyonlands voyage as a four. The “White Rim” glistens far below in the light of the sunset. The name describes a geological feature of limestone rock lining the upper perimeter of the lower canyons of the Green and the Colorado rivers. It is a shelf, and the trail winds along the perimeter of the rim between the two immense parts of the canyon. Over one hundred miles long, the rim has elevation gains and losses exceeding six thousand feet. There is only one way in and one way out.

At the entry, the Schafer Trail plunges down following the contours of the canyon wall. It’s a narrow road folding back and forth against itself and then disappearing over the horizon. Mineral Bottom Canyon, the exit, has more switchbacks, sheer cliffs and dramatic red rock. I take inventory. In contrast to the intimidating circumstances before me, we have a support vehicle filled with gourmet food, a cook stove and plenty of water. We have a partly cloudy forecast. We have beer. Surely since there is a promise of a hot shower and pancakes at the end of the journey, I can get myself out of the canyon back to the comfort of the modern world. “Even though we’re on our way down,” I think, “the trip is really looking up.”

I fasten my helmet, close my eyes and point my bike along the trail that falls over the ledge.

The drops of rain from the first storm dry before they hit the ground, but the next thing I know, it’s coming down in buckets, saturating the earth and spilling over every nook and cranny of the cliff walls. “This must be the twenty percent chance of precipitation for today,” I assess. Thick, red waterfalls and muddy, rushing streams appear from nowhere as the forces of gravity pull all the moisture down the canyon. Little islands and gravel bars in the river below soon disappear. Flashes of light bounce from every direction. Then, just as quickly as the storm rages, it is gone leaving the soaked earth and cyclists behind.

I hang everything I own to dry on whatever precipices I can find. A bush, the tent and my bike all become impromptu clotheslines. A ranger stops by our campsite to tell us the road ahead is washed out from the storm. A maintenance crew is on the way, but he’s turning everyone around. In theory, the road should be repaired by the time we reach it so for some reason he gives us the “go ahead” to proceed.

As we continue the journey, we pass a variety of groups on the retreat. A California 4X4 Club, a small private party from Montana and Moab Backcountry Adventures all move briskly in the opposite direction. Assured that the worst of the storms are over, we forge ahead in the warm sunshine. The desert receives less than nine inches of annual rainfall so we are confident in the bluebird skies above.

We pass all the beautiful sights, the awe-inducing views, the sweeping vistas over far-reaching plateaus and numerous organic sculptures cut into rock and soil with delicate bands of subtle color changing with the dancing light of day. We ride past it all, storms crisscrossing the sky in the distance, reveling in the beauty of the desert.

When we reach our final campsite, we all agree to move on past it and cross the repaired road wash. We’ll chance a space at the last campground before leaving the Park and ascending up the Mineral Bottom Canyon.

Just as we arrive, the heavens blacken and unleash a fury of water and wind.

Boulders tumble. Washes flood. Lightning strikes. Thunder roars.

By the next morning, the road is littered with rock and trenches.

We slowly navigate the trail with deliberation, removing the smaller rocks and carefully passing the larger ones. The support truck gets stuck, and then it gets stuck again. Each time we push and dislodge it from the muck.

Just as the Canyonlands boundary comes into view, the truck sinks into the road. This time, no amount of pushing moves the vehicle. First we begin to dig with our hands because we’re up a creek without a paddle, I mean, shovel. We resort to mixing bowls. Bowl after bowl, we attempt to unbury the front axle, and then as if poetically cued, it begins to rain again.

The truck is nestled between two dry creeks on a little plateau of red mud. The wall of water coming down the two beds is visible about five minutes before it reaches us. Frantically, we dig diversion channels away from the truck. The last thing we need is for the support vehicle and all of our belongings to be swept away into the Green River.

Eventually the rain forces us into an impromptu emergency camp on a small elevated ledge. Here we wait out the storm wondering if the little ditches will divert any of the flash flooding. The skies clear yet again, and we emerge to find the truck still thoroughly entrenched in the clay. The mixing bowls are put back to work, and just before dark we are finally able to budge the truck to safe ground.

By this time I’ve missed my flight back home.

There’s no cell service in the canyon, so I’m unable to let anyone know of our predicament including my tending-to-worry parents, generally obstinate airlines and the film festival coordinators for which I was scheduled to participate that evening. It’s times like these, I think, that inspired the “Shit Happens” bumper stickers.

Our truck dislodging victory celebration is cut short by industrial-strength gusts from another approaching cycle of severe weather, this one clearly being the coup de gras of all storms. As the howling wind continuously slams our flimsy tent in half, a million perilous scenarios flash through my imagination. Will I be electrocuted and burnt to a crisp sporting a new hair do? Swept away in a forceful current of a flash flood? Could I be smashed by one of the giant boulders falling every three minutes from the saturated canyon walls? Breaking free, they plummet to the ground sending a thunderous roar echoing through our tiny camp. There’s a good chance of hypothermia and being found drenched and wandering around camp mumbling incoherently, “I don’t want to die. I want a chocolate chip cookie.” There’s an even better chance my legs will fail and fall off before I’m able to climb to safety. The storm rages on through most of the night, and with every flash of lightning I count silently “One-one thousand, two-one thousand,” hoping the following bellow of thunder will indicate a safe position.

By morning the storm has passed, but we still are stranded at the bottom of the canyon appraising the damage.

It is obvious that although the truck is no longer stuck, it is not going anywhere either.

The road is impassable with all of the boulders, crevasses and lengthy sections of sludge.

We evacuate heaping what we can into backpacks and abandon the support vehicle. At this point, we’ve covered one hundred and two miles. There are roughly eight miles left to travel. Despite the relatively short distance, the adventure is a long way from over.

For the next handful of hours we push our bikes through deep, sticky muck while carrying heavy loads and watching for falling rock. The road traces the canyon walls which are crumbling down at a capricious pace. We encounter two freaked-out rangers who just dodged a boulder the size of a Volkswagen while driving to evacuate a group of boaters.

Finally, the trail begins to climb. My hamstrings moan. I wonder if I might puke a lung or inhale my tonsils. We haven’t even made it to the first switchback, but I can see the light, and I can hear country music. It blares from the brink of safety. I keep pushing my bike up and over broken sections of trail toward Kenny Chesney.

A couple at the top of the rim greet us with music and congratulations. They have been watching the epic climb while listening to tunes and drinking beer. Apparently, that’s how the locals entertain themselves.

Looking back down the trail, I wasn’t quite sure how to rate the past five-turned-to-seven days. I recapped in my mind, giving the adventure a five. After all, what’s a little rain?

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