Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Climbing with the Jacksons

It's a rare treat to climb with Renny Jackson. And even rarer to climb with Catherine. Now, there is a third member: Jane. This October we arranged to meet in Indian Creek, best crack climbing in the world.

Renny and I go way back: both of us are from Salt Lake City, we both worked as climbing rangers in the Tetons at Jenny Lake, and we are now both retired from the National Park Service. Renny worked in the Tetons for years, but in the early 90's he and his wife Catherine moved to Talkeetna, Alaska, where he worked on Denali for a few years. I had just left my post in Denali, so we missed each other there. Catherine Cullinane was the first woman to guide for the Exum Guide Service in the Tetons, so she holds her own in the climbing world. I'm always the junior partner (although older) when I climb with those two! This summer, Renny and his daughter Jane climbed Denali together. This launched her into the climbing world, and she took to it with a vengeance. In a few short months, she rocked upward in her skill level; check out the photos below.

On my fall road trip through Salt Lake City I passed by the Kimbrough's home on my way south to the desert. Paul, Peter, Tom, Barb and others were still up with the lights on at 9:30 pm, so I stopped in for a beer. There was so much energy among the young climbers and skiers; I was hoping some would rub off. They were psyched to climb, so we arranged to find each other during the next weeks in Indian Creek. I would be there, camped at Creek Pasture, as always.
South and North Six Shooter seen from the Second Meat Wall in Indian Creek

At "The Creek", we chose 'The Second Meat Wall' as a climbing area; it would be out of the hot sun through most of the day. We wandered north along the wall looking for an opening; most of the good climbs were already taken by the early risers. Chris and I made our way along until the vestige of the trail disappeared. An owl flew into a tree above us and we stopped to look. The owl didn't seem bothered and sat on the tree for a while; then it flew up a few more feet to a perch on the cliff. Neither of us had seen it before, so we sat down and watched it for quite a while. Chris later identified it as a Long Eared Owl, supposedly a more secretive species, but it hug around for us. Maybe we were encroaching on its territory, and it was just trying to outwait us.

It was cool in the shade, but we were wearing fairly skimpy climbing clothing, meaning expendable. The sandstone rips everything to shreds, including skin, knees, elbows, and hands. We wrapped adhesive tape around our knuckles, put on our climbing harnesses, and decided who would lead the first climb: "Two Timer". Jane was eager to lead; we were eager to follow. I was amazed that in a few short months she had risen from a novice to the strongest member of our party. While Renny belayed Jane up the climb, Catherine and I roamed around taking photos. Renny called up helpful advice on climbing technique and ways to protect the climb. It must be difficult watching a daughter engage in a dangerous sport. My ex-wife said that after a while she couldn't watch the kids climb with me. As I looked at Catherine and Renny I could understand that feeling.
Jane puts on her climbing shoes; Renny gets ready to belay her,
a typical father-daughter activity

Jane gears up for the climb

And checks the quick-draws: carabiners on nylon slings

Jane moved quickly up the crack system as though she had been climbing these walls for years. I was amazed at her fluid and confident motions. I'd been climbing for 54 years, yet she made it look so effortless.
Jane makes the first moves up the cliff

It wasn't easy, but she seemed to figure out every move, stemming on some of the fine holds to the left, climbing the crack directly when possible.
Moving up into the pure crack; a little overhanging in places, and very smooth

As she slipped the cams into the cracks, she seemed to have it all down: the crack climbing technique, the body position, the ease of placing protection. I marveled. Renny issued constructive advice.
As she neared the top of the hundred-plus-foot crack, it got harder; Renny and Catherine called up encouraging thoughts. The crack narrowed, and I remembered how difficult it seemed to me when I climbed it. She laid back against the wall, fitting her smaller fingers into the crack. That's a very Euro approach to the wall, but it worked. If I try it, I only get too tired and eventually flail.
Jane at the layback

As Jane called down a little desperate, I worried, then she figured it out, slid in a small cam, and moved up into the crack without using the layback technique. I was impressed. Maybe her fingers were smaller than mine, I rationalized.
Nearing the finish line

Then she was at the top. Renny lowered her, left the rope through the anchors, and gave everyone else a turn at the climb.
Renny getting a kinked neck from looking up at Jane

Mission accomplished!

Check out those legs

Catherine capturing it all on the camera

First, Catherine breezed up the climb. I watched her technique, always trying to learn something new, even at my advanced age. She made it look easy, but I knew it to be difficult. The breeze blew; Renny was still in a down jacket.
Catherine's turn

Cruising upward...

At the crux
Every once in a while I darted right around the corner to snag one of the other nearby climbs. Eventually one opened up and I got in a lead. It wasn't too hard, but it had a tricky section about two thirds of the way up. Next it was Chris's turn. She had come to Indian Creek with me a few years ago and unfortunately gotten a taste of the brutal crack climbing on the red Wingate sandstone. Somehow it gets in your system and you can't get it out. This year she had come with her friend Noel. It was his first experience on the splitter cracks, and he couldn't get enough of it. Today he followed some other friends while we climbed with the Jackson family.
Chris at rest

I was amazed at how well Chris was climbing, having not been her for quite a while. Lots of stamina, nice technique, and lots of perseverance pushed her ever higher on the climb. Over the next few days she continued to tick off climb after climb.
Chris at work

I couldn't help photographing all day. My favorites were of the knees, brutalized in the cracks after weeks of climbing, wedging, scraping, and grunting upwards. I joked that the women would never find a boyfriend with knees like that. Well, maybe they'd find just the right kind!
And check out those knees!

In the evening, we drove to Cottonwood Creek along the Beef Basin road where the Jacksons and their friends, Peter Popinchalk and other young folks were camping. What a crew!! Just as I had expected, I had been energized by their enthusiasm.
The team: L to R, Renny, Catherine, Chris, Jane's friend , Peter, Jane

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Mystery attends the Anasazi peoples who lived in the Four Corners area from about 700 AD until they suddenly left in the 1300's AD. Who were they? Why did they leave? Were they killed, or did they migrate? Where did they go and what has become of them? Among the many theories proposed, the one I believe is the simplest and most convincing is that the Hopi and Zuni are the modern descendents.

Since I was a young boy, I have been fascinated by the anthropology and archeology of the early peoples in these lands. In college, I had the good fortune to take an introduction to anthropology taught by professor Jesse D. Jennings, the world authority on the Anasazi at the time. Later, in Alaska, I studied and worked with the finest archeologists on the peoples of Alaska. Now, later in life, I had found myself camping and climbing in the midst of the some of the finest archeological resources in the Southwest.

Last summer I discovered a new writer: Craig Childs, whose books on the Southwest were not only authoritative, but also works of literature. I read everything he wrote and dreamed of the summer months when I could follow one or two of his itineraries to the world of the Anasazi. After spending the previous two weeks rock climbing, my body was craving a rest, so I asked my good friend Chris if she was interested in a brief intermission to search for Anasazi ruins in Beef Basin.
Looking north from the Beef Basin road into the Indian Creek drainage

Chris had just spent the previous month on the San Juan river assisting her niece on a geological survey and was keen to go with me in search of ancient culture. Our other climbing partner, Noel had opted to take Chris' car and join the younger crowd who were climbing hard cracks in Indian Creek. We took my 'new' truck up the narrow dirt road the 38 miles into Beef Basin. At an average speed of about 15 mph over rocks, powder-dry dirt, and steep cliffs, it took us about 2 1/2 hours to reach our destination. We drove up to a wide spot in the road at the mouth of Ruin Canyon, parked the truck, and decided to walk the remainder of the road to avoid scraping all the paint of the sides of the truck. As we walked the few more miles, small granaries and dwellings appeared in the cliff bands above.
A small cliff dwelling nestled in the cliffs

Then we spotted "Hilltop Ruin", directly west and on top of a small knoll. We looked for a level spot, set up camp under a juniper tree at the base of the hill and headed up the trail in the late afternoon sunlight.
Hilltop house

As opposed to most of the cliff dwellings nestled in defensible niches among the cliff bands, Hilltop House sits out in the open on top of a beautiful forested knoll. It made me wonder if the function of this edifice might be more cultural or ceremonial than domestic. Many of the larger hilltop ruins in the Southwest have a ceremonial 'Kiva' attached, indicating some religious use for the building. The stones on more than half of this structure had fallen down and were laying around the perimeter, so I couldn't get a good idea of how the building all fit together.
Fallen buildings exist as a pile of sandstone blocks

Chris and I walked around the ruins marveling at the workmanship and detail still remaining at the site. Each of the sandstone slabs fit very closely without much trimming; no cement or mud was used to fill in between the stones, but it would likely have been quite a buffer against the wind, if not against the cold. The walls looked to be about 18" thick, two stories tall.
No mortar and still standing after 700 years

I wondered what my home might look like in 700 years if I just abandoned it. Likely only an overgrown cement foundation would be the only thing left. The panorama from the hilltop gave on a beautiful vista of cliffs, mountains, and canyons below.
Chris at Hilltop ruin

We walked around, checking every angle

Compare Chris to the height and thickness of the walls

Yours Truly at the ruin

We walked down the trail a few hundred yards to the camp on the lumpy sagebrush flat under a huge juniper tree. The sun had only an hour left before setting, so dinner would be next. I went in search of two rocks we could sit on. Other than hiking back up the hill several times, I found only two small ones for stools.
Chris at camp

Chris had volunteered to be the chef on this trip. So, dinner started off with a tin of tiny clams in olive oil on crackers, washed down with a red wine. Then a risotto with a spinach topping: quite the fare for a camping trip, all cooked on a tiny propane backpacking stove. Life on the trail is good!
Chris, the gourmet chef with fine wine and clams

After a cold night in my light summer sleeping bag, I truly welcomed the sun and warmth. We wandered across the sagebrush to find the first sunlight as it hit the slope a hundred yards to the west, clutching our coffee cups. Chris brought the stove, and using a tree as a cupboard, had us caffeinated in a few minutes. Within an hour it was T-shirt weather again. We picked up our camping gear, packed our packs, and headed back down to trail to the truck.

Driving west on the 10-mile loop around Beef Basin, we searched the cliffs and hilltops for more ruins. Since they are all visited regularly, every spur road seemed to hold some cultural artifact.
A small granary on the rim

We hiked to the top of another hill and found a small granary used to hold the corn (maize) for the winter months. They were everywhere. About half way around, I hiked up another hill which held promise of a larger ruin and found a long house-like structure, mostly fallen into the ground. It also sat with a stunning vista of the surrounding desert and mountains. Whether some group of families lived here, or whether this was a cultural center, I didn't know, but I could envision myself waking up, walking out to the porch and reading the morning paper with a cup of coffee. I wondered if earlier settlers to the area used these structures as camps while they herded cattle.
This large ruin is just a few feet above the road

The day was flawless. The sun was warm. The desert made me feel at home. It was tough to leave. Following the dirt road around, we drove slowly looking for more artifacts from the past. Mostly I looked at every inch of the road, full of huge rocks, slickrock, holes, and ditches ready to take the bottom out of a car. My truck was just the ticket for negotiating the place, but even in it, I rarely drove over 15 mph. We arrived back at the Pasture Creek Campground in Indian Creek just at supper time, having traveled about 80 miles. It felt like a thousand miles and a thousand years back.
You could almost put a roof on and move in

Monday, December 12, 2011

Into the Fiery Furnace

It seemed like a great alternative to dying. The morning started great. We drove 50 miles from Indian Creek to climb the Unbalanced Rock in Arches National Park. After climbing seventy feet up a wide crack without finding a single spot to place any climbing gear to protect us from a fall, my common sense kicked in, and we descended. It was a rare event for me. Safe on the ground, Noel suggested we visit the Fiery Furnace instead of climbing. We stopped at the visitor center, paid our fee and watched the mandatory film on proper travel techniques in the delicate desert. The drive through the park was beautiful on the cold, clear, windy morning.

The Fiery Furnace

Driving north on the Arches park road, the fins and towers of the Fiery Furnace appear as crenelated fortress barring the way. However, looking at the geologic landscape you can see how enormous salt domes, underlying the red sandstone strata were dissolved leaving a series of huge valleys over hundreds of miles along the Colorado Plateau.

The creation of a salt valley

The red fins of the Fiery Furnace and the area northeast of Salt Valley are carved out of Slick Rock sandstone. The Slick Rock formed during the Jurassic Period, about 150 million years ago. During the Jurassic, the Colorado Plateau experienced extensive eolian (wind deposited) sand seas, called ergs. The region was located at the same latitude as today’s trade wind belt: hot winds sweep in a south-westerly direction towards the equator, drying up any moisture along the way. This is the same latitude as the Sahara and Arabian deserts. During the Jurassic Period, the climate of the Colorado Plateau would have been like the Sahara. As the earth's tectonic plates moved during the Jurassic, South America was separating from Texas coast; Europe and Africa were drifting from North America. High mountains to the west of the Colorado Plateau were depositing tremendous volumes of sand into the basin that would become Arches and Canyonlands National parks. Today, the Arabian Desert is 30% covered by sand. The deserts in the Jurassic period, the time of the dinosaurs, were formed over 40 million years, and the volume of sand was staggering by comparison. The Slick Rock sandstone cliffs are 200 to 350 feet thick.

The Slick Rock sandstone formation.
Looking southeast across the Furnace into Arches backcountry

The parking lot was packed, but we found a spot next to a park ranger's car. The rangers take park visitors on guided hikes through the furnace, but we opted to explore on our own. Besides, we had Noel, our expert, having been here once before.

Noel descends the Slick Rock into the labyrinth

As the salt domes underneath the sandstone dissolved, the rock cracked into thousands of joints (cracks), towers, and fins. The trail led to the bottom of the canyons, where it broke into a true labyrinth of thin joints. The air was cool, since the sun rarely reaches to the bottom of the cliffs and pinnacles.

Chris on the 'trail-less' approach into the maze

We followed Noel down the rock, avoiding the cryptobiotic soil where bacteria have hardened the fine silt to prevent it from blowing away. Footprints destroy this tiny fortress and allow the sand to disappear in the wind. We kept to the rock and gravel creek bottoms. From time to time I'd check to see if I was leaving tracks. Not many!

Old juniper trees are irresistibly photogenic

My camera stayed at the ready. Every few feet looked new, and I wanted to take pictures from every viewpoint. The stubby junipers, called cedar trees by my grandfather, are the largest plant. From time to time a bit of color from a late blooming flower would catch my eye.

Peeking through a joint into the sun

The joints and canyons narrowed. I looked up and saw a darker blue sky. Where the sun shone directly in, it looked like a floodlight compared to the darkness at the bottom.
A park ranger interprets the landscape to a guided group

As we clambered over the huge boulders, wending our way from maze to maze, we heard voices, the only folks we met during the entire afternoon we spent in the Furnace. It was a ranger-led group. I tried to be friendly, but it was apparent from her comments to us that the ranger felt we were intruding on her territory. I thought of how the park service has changed during the 41 years of my career. She didn't know me, and I didn't say a word.

Yours Truly in the depths

Time flew by. I was mesmerized by the landscape and lost track of both time and location. It didn't matter, because water flows downhill, and we could always follow a waterway to a bigger one until we found the way out.

Phallic towers ring the Furnace

Chris and Noel seemed to be enjoying the area as much as I was. We were three climbers, now reduced to tourists, having stepped back 150 million years in geologic time and back to childhood in our enthusiasm and curiosity.

Noel and Chris on the sandy bottoms

Chris and Noel are excellent traveling companions, up for anything, full of life and adventure. We could have been crying in our beer to be defeated on a climb, but now we had forgotten the bad experience of the morning and were fascinated by the landscape, the narrow canyon walls, the plants, the rock, the lizards, and the scrambling.


I had a tendency to climb up things; at one point I climbed high up a canyon for a view and got my bearings. The afternoon sun gave me a warm welcome, and I bathed in its light for several minutes before made my way back down into the grotto.

A huge monolith towers above Noel and Chris

As I climbed down, we noticed a thin crack that led to the bottom of a joint. I slithered down to the ground, turned around and photographed Chris and Noel as they descended the chimney.

Chris climbs down a chimney-like tunnel

We quickly moved into another corridor and found huge pillars and towers. Climbing over boulders and chockstones, we found ourselves ascending into the Rabbit Ears slot. Huge towers looked like rabbit ears, how appropriate.

Climbing over a chockstone and dropping into a joint

The light pouring through the cracks looked almost fluorescent. It was hard to keep our eyes tuned for the darker tunnels if we stared straight into the bright sky, such was the contrast in light values.
The distance between the walls narrows, and the sun is excluded

Every turn brought a new vista; I couldn't stop taking photographs. Each tower was magnificent, so my portfolio of sandstone towers grew exponentially as the day wore on.
Another tower rises into the sun

It all seemed so static, yet looking at the size of the boulders choking the way forward, you could see that when a tower topples over, or an arch falls, it must be catastrophic. I looked up to see if there were any danger here. It just looked beautiful. During a storm, flood waters fill these joints and cracks with a wall of water, washing everything in their path. Watching the weather before a canyoneering trip is the most important preparation for the event. Over the years I've watched and read of boy scouts and other folks who have been washed away in such floods. It's a terrifying prospect. The sky looked blue above, a comfort.

Noel climbs over a giant boulder to gain entrance into another corridor

From time to time we would dead end in a wall of rock, or a slot would narrow beyond our ability to continue, so we would turn around and find another route, a true labyrinth. Looking up we could see a double arch, like a giant pair of eyes looking at us. I wanted to climb up and out an eyeball, but the rock was steep and overhanging in parts.

Double arch
Even thought the desert is very dry, water would pool into small basins and remain a drinking spot for insects and wildlife. I loved the reflection in this pool and wondered how deep it might be. I thought of Craig Childs, the Colorado author who wrote one of my favorite books: "The Secret Knowledge of Water", about finding water such as this in an otherwise dessicated landscape. What would this water taste like if I were desperate and out of liquid?

A rare pool of water

Time seemed to get away from us; before we knew it, it was late afternoon, and we had more vistas to visit. We tried to find our way out, made only one false turn, and little by little, tracks in the sand and features we remembered guided us back to the car. Had I done only this, it would have been a full day. However Chris and Noel wanted to see sunset from an arch. We drove to Delicate Arch, however the 3-mile hike would be just a tad too long to reach before sunset. So we drove to Window Arch. A cool breeze was still blowing, but a dozen or so folks were at the arch for the same reason; all had their cameras ready. Two German men ran by in shorts, no shirts, apparently oblivious to the beauty, but trying to impress their girlfriends how tough they were. They quickly descended, missing the sunset.

Chris stands under South Window arch

A ten minute walk to the top set us up for a view through Turret Arch as the sun sank. I looked for the "Green Flash" in the west as the final rays of the sun disappeared. A perfect ending to a fine day in the desert.
Sunset near Turret arch