Mystery Canyon in Winter! Zion National Park for Christmas!
Guest Rave: Steve Ramras
Indecision reigned. It was the Christmas day traditional insanity time. Who would go? Many of the past participants felt the reality of the danger of the thing. They waxed eloquently on it foolhardiness. In the end, the same people as last year filled up this year's permit. Where would we go? Observation Canyon? Not Imlay? Fat Man's Misery? Jacob? All would be new to the assembled party. All had strong appeal to some or all. All proved impractical under the circumstances. All had slickrock that would prove treacherous with fresh snow. And fresh snow we had, starting almost to the hour that it had last Christmas, in the morning's wee hours.
So we settled for what sounded safest. The option with the least exposed slickrock. We went to Mystery Canyon. Three of us had done the canyon just 2 days short of exactly 2 years earlier, on a December 27th. So nothing new for Christmas. No new winter landscapes and lessons to be had. Same old presents.. Yeah. Right. Sure. It may have been the same old ground, but it was dressed up in new clothing, for the holiday and it had plenty of lessons to teach and discoveries to be gleaned.
The meet-up time was to be at the Temple of the Sinawava at 5 AM sharp. Tom led in his new truck, down the canyon road. I hung back a minute. Tom's were the only tracks. So it was easy to see where he drove off the road and where he smoothly re-entered the road. The only questions was if those big boulders off the side of the road assisted in Tom's quick "righting" of his course. I would ask a few minutes later. The rocks helped a little and the damage was minimal.
Within minutes and right on time, we were all at the parking lot doing last minute organizing. On board was Tim Hoover, Tom Jones, Jonathan Zambella, Luke Galyan, Tre C Kwan and myself. Tim for the 6th straight Christmas Day adventure, Tom, Tim and Luke, the last 4 and Tre C just her 2nd. I searched around for a place to bury my key and chose not to, in the blizzard conditions. I gave an extra one to Luke to lock in his car and carried the other one through the canyon with me. I never do that, but practical today
All piled into Jonathan's BIG truck and I expected to stop in a minute at Weeping Rock for the hike up. They drove past that trial head, hopeful of driving up around to the top near the Ponderosa Lodge. I missed the memo I guess,....but I was not unhappy to stay in the warm car and to risk getting stuck in the snow drifts up top verses making that 2,300 foot ascent up the icy East Rim trails, now being covered by fresh snow.
We could not get to the trail head up top. We stopped less than a mile from it when the snow topped 8 inches deep. In the pre dawn blackness, we trudged forward, breaking trail. The moon shown, ill-defined, through a cloud and the driving snow. With first light, a deep gray with blue tint, marked the world, as we hit the start of the Death Gully.
Shorts? I thought I was hiking up from the bottom!
On with the wetsuits or coveralls, depending on your taste in such things and then down, down down the gully of death. We slid, skid, romped down the slope, which was about a foot and a half deep in snow. This was the easy part. A lot of snow is better than a little going down. When the slope angle eased, it became a two limb passage rather than the easier 4 limb slide. More dangerous too. easier to drop into a hole and do an ankle or foot or knee. GREAT caution and concentration was demanded. It actually started snowing harder. A downpour of snow? Seemed like it.
We had several places where there was crusts, down in the snow banks. Two of them in fact, defining the boundary of past storms. Braking through occasionally, we trudged on. Fresh snow is often unconsolidated and it is much more slippery. Then we came upon something remarkable. The big walls that guard the east side of the canyon, before the rappel series were a continuous mass of movement. Snow slid down the full breadth of the walls. Even more came down the shallow depressions on the walls. The spin drift avalanches were constant motion. Like looking into a kaleidoscope. And then an larger slide would occur. Snow from above would catch up to snow sliding ahead of it and it would twist and twirl into and upon itself, like the swirling clouds of a gas giant planet. The whitish colour of the snow would instantly turn the colour of gray black soot. It would get notably darker below the roiling snow, coming down to the ground.
When the wash came near the walls, the snow got very deep. Once my 4 foot ski pole and my 3 foot long arm probed the snow and did not touch bottom. It was stunning and awe inspiring. In the near silence, one saw constant motion as snow came down the walls. Then it snowed even harder, adding to the blanket of white we were navigating.
With the nuisance raps both necessary and challenging....anchors had to be dug out of deep snow or rebuilt, edges were dangerous to approach and the raps extremely slippery and more so with each person passing, we reminded each other to pay special attention to each and every choice and motion.
The rappel series itself, was actually an easier section, as beyond the very first anchor, rap anchors were easy to reach and generally safe locations. The small down climbs between raps proved more challenging. What is easy when dry, requires help and care when snow plastered. There was much talk, bordering on dread, as per the landslide lake, which was deep water in November. It took a long time to approach it, in the snow covered boulder filled wash, in a blizzard.
Alas, there was a collective sigh of relief, when the lake was frozen solid and draped in deep snow. Under the shelter of the colorful rock wall scar, from the landslide, we found a place to sit that was free of snow and had lunch and more hot fluids from the many thermoses brought. Even out of the wind and with all our layers on, the cold quickly penetrated us. It was 12:30 PM, we were 6 hours in and much lay ahead.
Down the backside of the landslide talus field, it was particularly poor footing. My shoulder was tweaked and I was reminded of the need to come through the passage whole. Between this spot and the Mystery Spring rappel, there is but one anchored rappel. We rappelled 4 times in this stretch, so snow covered and treacherous was the footing. As we neared the big rap, a patch of blue sky showed and the sun shone on the snow plastered slopes above us. Out of our reach, we still played in our frozen shaded world. The sun was soon gone behind cloud, but those slopes it by it, had snow that melted, that flowed into other snow and melted it and soon we note a waterfall forming and coming down right to the staging spot for the big rap, just as we arrived.
It was decided to take the fixed line over the snow and ice to the exposed perch. Tre C went first. I went third and was scared. Very scared, traversing over to the station. Without the hand line it would have been beyond me to get over there without sliding off into the abyss. I just tried not to shock the old slick and ice-encased line. Swimming the spring was of no concern, a relief really. I was just thrilled to be down from that dangerous wall above.
The couple of tenths of a mile between the spring rap and the last rap into the Narrows was surreal. Less snow, a short swim, a small rap into that swim, wetter snow clinging to branches and the hanging garden vegetation. The tension released a bit. Maybe released a lot. Still, all were focused for that slip-slide rap to the bottom. Only one group of folks came by hiking the narrows. Pictures were taken and we were on our way.
Lots of people on the one mile sidewalk in all kinds of shoes not even close to being appropriate for the ice coated walk way. Seems to me, that all these folks, grandmas, to little kids, to non hiker types navigated the ice fine. I nearly slipped and fell 6 times. I don't know how people do it. Must not be as hard as it feels to me. We were back in solid daylight, which for our little X-Mas tradition, the exception, not the rule. Jonathan's vehicle would sit in the deep snow for days before being retrieved.
We all met for dinner, prepared wonderfully by Susan Hoover. Talk is already focused on next year. Lots of discussion about the concept of "edge" and how much edge each of us is seeking and willing to accept. It may be folly to seek this particular recreation. The beauty is beyond any other time of year, no question. And by far. Doing something hard for its own sake is also a big part of it. Do it because you can. Do it with others, watching out for each other. Applying the concentration required. It is mental exercise to match and exceed the physical demands. Most of all, for me anyway, it is the discovery. The spin drift avalanches sliding, roiling and boiling down the walls, in different shades. That more snow in the gully is good. That the ice on the edge of the lake froze not level, but sweeping upward and hollow below and much, much more. Only one way to find these things, know these things, file away these things...beautiful variations of what the natural world produces. You gotta go see them for yourself. Another happy holiday.