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

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