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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 17: arches, fisher towers, capitol reef


Amy: Moab is a cute desert town and a hub for outdoor activities in eastern Utah - from rock climbing, to hiking, canyoneering and off-roading. We ended up camping in the Sand Flats recreation area - a rocky playground for dune buggies, dirt bikes and all sorts of off-roading vehicles that zipped up and down the petrified sand dunes all day. Like the rest of Utah, the roads here are a little rough, but since most of vehicles have 4WD, it’s no big deal. Unfortunately for us, we took a wrong turn down one of these roads and got seriously STUCK. Wheels spinning, we called our friends Em and Dan and they came to our rescue. For two hours, they helped us dig and push and lift the van until we managed to get unstuck. Victorious, we hiked to a swimming hole to wash away our sweat and tears, and finished the day with some milkshakes and fries at a local burger shack. Feeling incredibly thankful for our friends today.

bill: after our rest day, we decided on a beach day in lieu of some of our big desert climbing plans because it was 30c. on our way there, google took us down a wrong road with a big wash in it (where a creek would be if there were water, basically a steep down meets a steep up). on the way there we bottomed out but made it across, but when we had turned around and went to cross it again… the van got stuck. the motorcycle hitch as well as the trailer hitch itself under the bumper had firmly shored up on a rock on one side of the wash while the front tires were on their way up the hill on the other, basically suspending the back tires off the ground in the middle, giving them no traction. we got to digging and got dan's traction boards out, got the tow rope out, but it was no use: just spinning tires and burning rubber. we jacked up the van and put rocks and wood under the wheels, covered them in the plastic traction boards, still no use. after about an hour and a half of trying, we sent em and dan back to our campsite to grab my homemade wooden traction boards (4 foot long 2x6s with nuts and bolts drilled through them). once again, we jacked up the jacks but high enough that we could throw the whole 2x6 under and really get out of the hole, then we snugged up the towrope, and hey! it worked! once the van had something to push down on and grip, the tires didn’t spin at all and we drove right out. all in all we were stuck for about 2 hours. hell of a lowkey rest day. afterwards we drove to the real swimming hole and hung out in the river.

arches national park

elephant butte on the right

Amy: About 30 minutes north of Moab is Arches National Park, named for the 2,000 odd arches scattered across this small patch of Utah. Why are there so many arches? Millions of years ago, an ancient sea covered this area. Over time, the seawater evaporated, leaving salt deposits, which were then covered by layers of sedimentary rock. These layers of rock shifted, compressed and eroded over millions of years. The salt trapped between the layers eventually washed away, leaving behind long skinny ribs of rock. Over many seasons, rainfall seeped into all the tiny cracks in the rock, froze and expanded, creating large holes - which formed into the arches we see today!

We got our first taste of Arches National Park by hiking/climbing up to its highest point: Elephant Butte (pronounced bee-oot, not butt as I mistakenly thought). It was a half-day adventure that involved hiking, scrambling, route finding, a little bit of climbing and some fun rappels down the steepest sections. We were rewarded with a spectacular view of the whole park. In the afternoon, we hiked to the delicate arch, a giant picturesque rock marvel that is featured on Utah's license plates. It looks small, but this arch towers about 50 feet! Afterwards, we drove out to a gorgeous camp spot right on the Colorado river.

bill: in our research about what to do at arches we came across an interesting post on mountain project; a 300m 5.3 canyoneering route to the highest point in arches national park, up atop elephant butte. the map was literally drawn on a napkin. this seemed like a much cooler endeavour than just more single pitch climbing , so we set out tuesday morning to climb the butte. this is exactly why i got into trad climbing; i don’t need to climb 5.11 on gear, i just want some protection against catastrophe while i try to climb to the top of cool stuff. the route was almost entirely unroped, mostly 3rd and 4th class scrambling up sandstone slabs, but with a few tricky roped 5th class parts. the slab scrambling can be a bit scary at times because there are no handholds and no rope so you are just solely relying on the friction in your shoes to keep you from falling, but we all made it out okay.

slab up to the summit block

it took a few hours to make it to the top of arches national park, and the view was incredible with the the snow capped mountains in the background.

a few rappels were needed throughout the journey, including one completely free hanging rappel which was very fun. overall an excellent expedition and the best way to beat the crowds and get the best view in the park, and only scary at a few points. very fun routefinding through the various ribs and canyons, up and down the sandstone formations.

in the afternoon we hiked to see the delicate arch, which was very beautiful but overrun with people (i had to photoshop like 20 people out of this photo)

delicate arch

fisher towers

bill: the fisher towers are probably the most sinister looking “rocks” i have ever seen. they are actually mostly just piles of dried mud, which is super friable and oh-so incredibly not bomber.

i have been eyeing a climb here for a few years up a tower called ancient art, the route is “stolen chimney” (trad, 4 pitches, 120m, 5.10b/5.8 a0) and it finishes with this amazing summit up on a tiny corkscrew tower that looks otherworldly (the highest point on the left in the picture). to get to the tower, after a few pitches of sketchy mud chimney climbing, you have to walk across this one foot wide catwalk with nothing but 600 feet of air on either side with no protection, beached whale yourself up the diving board, and then climb the tower. amy decided that this was too scary for her and so em stayed behind with her and dan and i went up it. the first three pitches were fine if not a little sketchy, all the “rock” sounds hollow and mud debris rains down the chimney as you climb, and the anchors are all the worst bolts i have ever seen.

dan chilling on the ledge at the top of the second pitch

the final pitch was incredible, but also the most terrifying thing i have done in my life. the scariest moment wasn’t even my own climb, it was dan leading and mantling onto the diving board. the diving board sits at about sternum height, and there isn’t a bolt until after you walk the 20 feet down the catwalk and then climb the diving board, so a fall would be a really bad thing and we would both be going for a big ride off the side of the cliff. dan's first try he jumped up onto his stomach but didn’t get high enough and slowly peeled off, landing back on the catwalk. next he tried to get a high foot up on it, again unsuccessful. he then tried the beached whale move again, but with more force and ended up higher on the diving board, but it turned out his knot got stuck on the lip of the board. the next 30 seconds of him trying to pull himself up were probably the longest 30 seconds of my life, just picturing what would happen if he couldn't make it up and slipped off the side. after what seemed like a lifetime of squirming and pulling, dan made it up and to the first bolt and the rest of his climb passed uneventfully. my climb was mostly uneventfully since i was following and didn't have to worry about the lack of protection on the catwalk, except my rope became very twisted over the course of the first three pitches and needed to be untied to straighten it out, so i clipped into the anchor at the top to untie my rope and in my adrenaline-high state forgot the first rule of untying: always tie another part of the rope to yourself so you don't drop and lose the rope. if the rope had slipped out of my hands while i was untangling it, i would have been stranded up on the summit for a very long time. thankfully, i remembered and stopped and tied the rope to myself then continued to the summit. it was very very cool on the summit but dizzyingly exposed with 600 feet of air on every side, and i am so stoked i never have to even think about doing it again.

here is a video of the final pitch:

Amy: I opted out of the tower climb in favour of a much more pleasant hike. While Bill and Dan hauled themselves up the muddy spire, Em and I did a small out-and-back trail to a lookout around the Fisher Towers. We arrived back just in time to watch the full spectacle: Dan leading the way and successfully planking on the tip of the tower, and Bill following up. We reunited at the bottom and bid adieu to Em and Dan - they’re off to climb more, and we are keen to keep hiking.


bill: amy and i hiked the devil’s garden trail, a 14.7km 600m hike through the desert to a huge number of arches. very cool.

Amy: First on the agenda: back to Arches National Park! We were both captivated by the landscape, so we decided to do the park’s longest hike through Devil’s Garden. This trail took us past more than 10 arches of all shapes and sizes. The landscape arch was long and thin; the Navajo arch had coniferous trees at the mouth; the double O arch was stacked two arches high. My favourite was the Partition Arch - a round hole in a giant red rock wall that framed the surrounding desert perfectly.

landscape arch

partition arch

balanced rock

canyonlands - island in the sky

bill: took a quick tour of the various lookouts and vistas that canyonlands high country had to offer. a very different experience than being down in the canyons in the needles district, this was a lot more akin to being at the grand canyon, but almost better since the vistas are somewhat smaller and more comprehensible and the crowds are fewer.

Amy: The next day, we explored the north part of Canyonlands National Park. We stopped to see the Mesa Arch - a small (compared to the other arches we just saw) arch, framing the vast canyons below. Then we visited the Green River Overlook - a giant crack splitting through the earth. This was one of the most beautiful vistas we’ve admired in Utah. We sat for a long while here, watching the clouds and dappled sunlight move across the canyon. After that, we hiked a small section of the White Rim Trail, which followed the edges of the upper canyon and had great views all around. We both felt pooped after this, so continued onwards toward Capitol Reef National Park.

the moon

bill: utah has had a very surprising landscape. i was anticipating nothing but sand, dead, empty land, and red sandstone cliffs, but it turns out that it is lush and green, there are cedars and grasses and all kinds of shrubs, flowers of all shapes and sizes. there are giant red sandstone cliffs, but they are contrasted to a green carpeted desert floor and snow capped mountains behind them. a very beautiful place.

on the other hand though, there is the blue valley. a badlands between canyonlands and capitol reef. nothing grows here. there are only grey piles of dried mud and these giant grey mesas and buttes. it really feels like being on the moon.

factory butte - it looks nothing like a factory and yet when you see it, you can't help but say "yeah thats definitely factory butte"

we wanted to check out this canyon overlook but the van wasn’t going to make it down the road, so we took the bike (after i fixed a stuck killswitch on the side of the road). very, very cool to sit and watch the sunset over the blue valley. it also helps that there is nobody here. very happy to have a dirtbike with us today.

Amy: Months ago, Bill showed me a video of the Blue Valley. Here, the earth drops off into a sprawling, steel grey hole in the earth. Vein-like trenches are etched into the mud hundreds of feet below. We were both stoked to visit the moonscape - until we saw the the road in. Ruts, potholes and sand galore. We opted to leave the van behind and take the motorcycle in (a wise decision). Driving in, the landscape was flat, grey, dry and boring. But, much like the Grand Canyon, the earth seemed to drop off very suddenly into a spectacular canyon. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We walked around the rim, taking it in from all angles. Well worth the stop.

capitol reef

Amy: Capitol Reef is Utah’s lesser known National Park. For that reason, it’s also less busy (woohoo!). After browsing the limited options for hikes we could do without 4-wheel-drive, we settled on an overnight backpacking trip through lower Spring Canyon. Our first tent camping trip! This is one of the park’s top through-hikes, meaning we started at one trailhead and ended at a different one. Good thing we have two vehicles! We packed our backpacks, and somehow squeezed both us and our bags onto the motorcycle. We left the van parked at the trail’s endpoint, and drove to our starting point.

The trail followed a winding sandy wash along the bottom of a canyon. Steep cliffs rose on either side of us as we meandered around boulders, bushes and trees. Turns out Spring Canyon is quite green! We eventually made it to a grassy area where we set up camp and made dinner. After sunset, we laid on our backs to stargaze at the sliver of sky we could see between the canyon walls. In the morning, we trekked out, back to the van. We agreed this little backpacking trip was a great way to see the park.

Apparently it’s called ‘Capitol Reef’ National Park because one rock formation looks like the dome of Capitol Hill, and because the landscape is very mountainous, creating a barrier to travel similar to the Great Barrier Reef in the ocean. Kind of random but ok! After our camping trip, we did the scenic drive and explored the rest of the park. Capitol Reef is home to one of the oldest pioneer settlements in Utah - a little town called Fruita, named after the fruit orchards planted here hundreds of years ago. The trees are still maintained by the community and they make all sorts of tasty treats and handmade goods for sale. Their most sought after item are PIES. They make 30 dozen every day, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. Bill and I managed to get one of the last ones available that day. A delicious way to end our visit.

bill: we are learning that avoiding crowds is the way to go, what is the point of seeing something cool if it is ruined by the hoards of people? capitol reef is supposed to be a hidden gem, it has been on our list for a long time, but instead of doing the scenic drive and the few designated vista hikes, we did what we were planning to do a lot more of when we conceived of this trip: backcountry. we hiked the spring canyon thru hike (16km, 400m) with an overnight in the middle. the spring canyon has these massive sandstone walls, with a million different textures and colours, huecos, sheer faces, dark red, striped, black varnished, white and red spotted. we slept on the base of the canyon and watch the stars through the narrow opening to the sky. very nice to be in the backcountry and away from the crowds.

here is this week's video (plus some zion and bryce canyon from next week):

1 commentaire

David Caughey
David Caughey
05 juil. 2023

Oooooooh that last starry night shot though <3<3<3




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