Monday, May 18, 2015

Vagabonding around Utah

Southern Utah is an amazing place.  Of all the world this desert is unique.  Its red here.  Not just orange, not only brown, but at times a deep and satisfying red.  The red rock battles with the blue sky, a fierce opponent.  Halfway through the month of May, spring is in full swing, so the red desert is alive and painted with green.  Those are Utah's colors, red, blue and green.

 Millions of years ago the Colorado plateau rose undisturbed by the flux of mountain ranges.  It rose upwards as a flat plateau. Magma infiltrated underneath and in some area it bubbled up.  The Henry mountains, huge monoliths of igneous rock slowly pushed their way up, rising to 11,000 feet and higher above the flat plain.  Now at that elevation they captured the weather, they gathered snow. Snow melt started creeks, it added to rivers, and the soft and colorful sandstone of the Colorado plateau was carved and sculpted.  The Henry mountains surrounded themselves with a great maze of fins and canyons,  The LaSal mountains by the town of Moab did the same.

 The colors are hard to believe, at times your eyes hurt from just viewing the vivid landscape.  Red and orange stripe the maze of rock that you can lose yourself in for days at a time.  Black desert varnish drips down the walls showing where manganese and iron oxide has deposited itself through running water. Green cottonwoods harshly contrast the red walls, sparkling in the breeze by a river, glistening with rain in a desert sun shower.

Utah is a maze.  An enormous and complicated land that you can spend a lifetime exploring without even scratching the surface.  I don't live in Utah but in my American travels I find this place is often on my route, "The Crossroads of the West"  America is an impressive country with scenery that's unbelievable in many places, but nowhere is like southern Utah.  I will always come back here.

Feeling privileged to be back in the remote town of Escalante, I took a drive out a dirt road on the Egypt bench.  The Egypt road runs ten miles east into the desert after driving 17 miles south down Hole in the Rock road.  The whole drive was most likely passable to any 2 wheel drive vehicle, there was just one tricky patch of slick rock to drive over halfway out to Egypt.  If you make it that far you can start the hike from there  

I went out to find the Golden Cathedral, in a place called Neon Canyon.  From the end of the Egypt road you descend dramatically off the bench and head for Fence Canyon which is slightly to your left.  It can be seen from the parking lot  Follow the cairns as best as possible but once you get down Fence canyon the Escalante river will draw you over to it by some magical force.  Most people feel somewhat lost the entire hike.  Go with instinct and Neon canyon is the first and obvious canyon just 1.5 miles downstream once your in the Escalante river.

I saw three prominent canyons in the Egypt area, Fence Canyon, Neon Canyon and then, just another mile or so downstream from Neon... I stumbled upon Ringtail canyon

Egypt has been among the finest backpacking trips of my life, I will remember it always.  These here have been the most dramatic and enchanting canyons I've ever gazed upon.  The maze surroundings which guard the castle fortress known as the Henry mountains are spectacular.  Works of art and sculpture with water as the artist.  If ever the opportunity should arise, if ever you pass through southern Utah, take a trip into the canyons!


Friday, December 12, 2014

Desert in the Sky...

Desert in the Sky...

 I started that morning in a fog of doubt...

I had camped the night before in the back of my truck at Mahogony Flat, the trailhead. Its a great little campgroud, way up above 8000 feet in the high desert forests of Pinyon Pine, Juniper, and scrubby Mountain Mahogany.  The flat space, occupied by the road, four campsites and and trailhead parking lot, is a precariously small platateau sheltered by the shrubby forest.  Its hard to make out through the gnarled branches but you can tell, if not quite see, the views to expansive Death Valley to your east.  The Panamint mountains are certainly visable to the west and all around you.  The Panamint Range is the highest range in the park, carving right through its center from north to south.  It parallels the legendery Sierra Nevadas like a shockwave, but it is a much less visited range, a lonely secret.

 The people at the hotel didn't really think I'd do it, I didn't think Id do it.  Make a winter ascent of the tallest mountain in Death Valley alone?  Too much ice and snow, I have no crampons and its certainly too cold.  60 degrees at the bottom's got the Californians shivering!  Snow covered Telescope Peak beckoned me one fine December desert day, misty and moist in the aftermath of a rainsorm.  I was taking a walk, enraptured by the great wandering cumulous clouds in the huge sky, strolling the forgotton highway where I live.  Panamint Springs Resort, a small, remote business run by a passionate family, stands alone.  Its 38 miles into the desert east of Lone Pine, 66 miles north of Ridgecrest, and us 17 adults and 3 children are the only people to inhabit this 405 square mile valley.  I stared up at that mountain, 10,000 feet above me and countless miles distant.  It was calling my name.  Maybe I can just go halfway up.

 All those misty clouds were still in action when I nervously started up the Telescope Peak trail that weekend.  This is agruably Death Valley's best trail. You have to first drive up to Mahogany flat at 8200 feet, and it does involve a short "four wheel drive recommended" road, but when I did it, it was not too rough. I climbed steadily through the fog, the cold morning fog that left the ground crunchy with frost.  "What a terrible day to waste on this great trail." I thought. "I can't see anything, these clouds are going to ruin this."  I realized quite the opposite was true when I suddenly rose above those puffy clouds.  There was the Telescope Peak Massif.  As though I was looking at a scene from Nepal or Patagonia, it stood as an island in the sky, white and shining, crystalized with snow.  

 I popped above the fog on a famous ridge named Arcane Meadows and gazed out at a sea of frothing swirling clouds choking the Panamint Valley.  They were lit up by the bright desert sun, it was like clouds viewed from an airplane.  The tops of the black Argus Range were visable between me and the ice blue crystals of the Sierras.  Mt. Whitney looked like you could reach out and touch it.  The color palate on that ridge was what you would expect in heaven: the clouds were white but defined by their intense sky blue and indigo relief and the land was gold fading to sparkling white where the snow began.  The clouds had been vanishing over Death Valley and even the tawny desert far below was tinted blue, a filter on the land.

 In sharp contrast to the blue air was the contorted yellow forms in the foreground.  The Limber Pine, its trunk gnarled and sunbleached amber and bronze making patterns that look like twisted candycane stripes.  Finally you meet the nobel Bristlecones, these sentinels have been standing guard over Death Valley for upwards of 4000 years, the oldest one, named Methusela, is 5064 years old. The oldest living creature on earth. Her location deep in Death Valley's White Mountains is kept a coveted secret.

 So if I am seeing them now, it means Im over 10,000 feet in elevation, and sure enough, I'm crunching on snow.  It really wasn't bad though!  I had my trusty ice axe which was helping me balance, but there were footprints to follow.  There was maybe a foot of snow but I could always make out where the switchbacking trail was leading.  It was never too narrow for comfort, the face never to steep where I couldn't perform a self arrest with my ice axe if need be.  Maybe that would be different if there was two more feet of snow...But Telescope is not technical, not exposed. Ski poles or a stick would do just as well as the ice axe. It would certainly be easier with no snow at all, but anyone with the will and the physical ability can do it.  Seemingly anytime of the year. Consult the ranger's station before you go, and If the road's passable, give it a shot!  You can always turn around if conditions get too extreme.

 As I climbed onto the unusually calm and silent summit ridge, again gazing to the west, my view became one of sweeping grandeur the likes of which few things beat.  I was standing on some glorious heaven on earth paradise above an ocean of bright, changing, moving clouds.  The clouds to the east, towards Nevada, were ripped apart and shredded now, revealing the wild colors and psychedelic stripes of the Funeral Mountains far below, and the vast tan floodplain of Badwater Basin.  At 282 below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in north America.  This means you are looking from the summit at an 11,000 foot elevation change to the ground floor, something you can't do in the U.S. outside of Alaska.  You also can see Mt. Whitney above the clouds, the highest point in the lower 48, so from Telescope you view the lowest and highest points at the same time.  That's why its called Telescope, this fantastic view of mysterious eastern California.

 I spent a few hours up there, a few too many, lost in the perfect stillness of that blessed day.  Consumed by the silence completely, warmed by the powerful sun.  But when the wind did blow it blew the warmth away like blowing out a candle.  Then the sun set on me, there was no warmth left, but it was glorious, I actually sat for longer and watched it.  Had to get back to camp now, the mountains and clouds every shade of dark blue to contrast the deep orange horizon.  Fading to black.  Then right after dusk the full moon arrived.  It was blood red and rippled like a mirage slowly rising from the sea, turning  orange as it rose over the desert.