Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
Snowy Zion
by Ram

Flat tires! Five of them during the last 12 days down these dirt roads. Patch, repair, spare in, spare out ... guess the tires that came with the vehicle were crap. Sara, the tire lady and canyoneer extraordinaire from Arizona, said so. Knows her stuff, she does. So, after Arizona Aaron and I finished the Arizona part of the trip with a morning descent of Voodoo Canyon, and it was time to nurse my two nearly flat tires (the spare was dead) out to pavement and to the tire store. “Replace them all,” I tell the guy and I catch up on some reading and wait.

New tires on and a long drive yet to go. The book on tape is a good one if a little bit gruesome. Marble Canyon ... I had not seen it in 16 years. Sunset on the way to Fredonia. I call my partners for the next days exploration, planned for backcountry Zion. Nada word from Kip or Matt. Just because snow is in the forecast? Sheesh! They could at least have the grace to cancel the thing if they aren’t going! I hear later they are avoiding the teasing they sense would come with the cancellation. As if these guys don’t give it out more than they take it. Yeah, I would have called them ... well any number of things. You know the cruel posturing that is a part of the way that guys say they love each other?

I call Tom and get the confirmation—no exploration. Now I am supposed to meet Lori and Nancy, two days hence, for Mystery Canyon. Met Nancy once at FreezeFest years back. Lori? Never. Just some e–mails and a near miss in Styx Canyon in Death Valley last February. I call ... they are driving to Zion. I am driving to Zion. I fish for an invite. Ahhhh, got tomorrow available! They bite. We plan our meet up. They land in our planned campsite 15 minutes after I arrive. The forecast is for snow by mid–morning. We toss ideas about and I sign on for what had been their plan. Lady Mountain. Lori eventually heads to bed, while Nancy and I amaze each other on how divergent two theological conclusions can be, while agreeing on most of the basic precepts.

The obligatory stop at the Mean Bean for my new friends. No java for me, thank you. This all after the wonderful experience of standing in line, pre–dawn, at the backcountry desk. Oh joy! My wilderness experience is protected! Got to meet some interesting folks anyway. And watch and listen how this person knows that person, who knows that person, who heard that this happened to that person. Entertaining. But not better than being out climbing or canyoning. Anyway, permit obtained for Mystery the day after, Tom added to our group of three.

We take the shuttle to the Zion Lodge under mostly sunny skies. Is that storm really going to come? Lady Mountain was at one time a prime destination for Zion visitors. The constructed trail to the summit—2,900 feet of ascent in 2.5 miles, led to a great viewpoint—just opposite and above the lodge. The trail was abandoned when the Angels Landing trail was finished. Was this around 1960? Not sure. The rumors from the past were of many an assist needed down the peak from park officials as the exposure froze many a visitor in his or her tracks. What remains is an old track, paint blazes that seem to get a fresh coat every couple of years, and the occasional cut–off rebar that marked the railings on the old trail.

Getting to know new and interesting people is a joy. They answer many of my questions, deflect some, and outright tell me to mind my own business on a few. Nevertheless they seem to be enjoying my dance around the edge of good manners, and I am forthcoming with the truth about the events which helped form who I am. Small talk? There is a reason they call it small. Much more compelling the issues that impact and matter in our lives.

The climb is a lot of fun. A bit tricky following the trail in a few places. Exposed in others. We dispense with the 2nd of the short–roped sections when I notice a cloud coming up into Zion Canyon Valley. It is unusually white, blurred around its edges. I smile. It comes and engulfs us. It is snow. It is the first of many waves that will make its way up that same route today. Lori had put an order in for a blizzard on the summit, still well above us. After we arrive, we wait around for a long time ... I even nap in a wind protected cubby, curled up in fetal position ... and then it finally comes. Sideways snow, coming down hard and blanketing the vegetation. We retreat into the teeth of the wind and off the summit plateau. It is bitter, it is beautiful, and we are laughing.

We are concerned that the ledges would become dangerous if snow starts to stick to the rock. As of now, it seems to melt and then dry very quickly in the breeze and conditions remain easy. Only our concern for the snowy ledges prods us forward. We would certainly linger longer, if we could. Nearing halfway down, another cloud enters the valley. It is larger. Seems denser. It is riding low up the valley. It fills the valley and then starts to climb the slopes of the mountain we are on. We are on a bit of a protruding prow and soon the airy gulfs below us, on each side of our prow, fill with storm. And then it is heading up at us. ... then it is upon us. The snow so thick that visibility is reduced to just a few feet and it is falling UPWARD, riding the drafts of wind on the mountain, and then we are completely engulfed. It moves up past us at great speed. The flakes are the size of quarters and many are a larger. For 10 minutes we stand silent and have it wash over us, occasionally glancing at each other with smiles of wonder. Then it is gone. Another squall or two come, but the best of the show is over. Dinner at Oscar’s. I chat on the phone with the groom–to–be, Phillip. I buy wood and we head back to our campsite and sit at my first campfire of the fall season. We nurse the wood to ashes and head to bed by midnight again.

The next morning, Lori and Nancy drop their car at Canyon Junction, hop in with me, and we head to the North Fork Road junction with Highway 9 where we meet Tom Jones, right on time, for another day’s adventure. He hops in with us and we head to the trailhead. Now this may be the 10,008th Mystery trip report, but it has been about 4 or 5 years since I had done it and we have trace snow at the trailhead. I figure, it is likely to be a bit out of the ordinary.

The bit of snow remaining from the day before has crystallized in the overnight cold and forms many strange shapes. It is very fresh and pretty. Then it is ‘death gully’ time. It tries to live up to is reputation. There is a ½–inch coating on everything. If it were 4 inches or more, it would be easy. This trace just makes it slicker, as the frozen ground offers little purchase. Carefully and slowly we descend the gully. Takes a long time. As the gully starts to relent in difficulty, we arrive at the rappels in the watercourse, adjacent the blocked and closed bypass trails. These raps are fun, prevent erosion, and are sporting downclimbs for those that are drawn to that kind of fun. All but the last one I downclimbed, and I found this fun and not too difficult. I will never be tempted to the sides again.

It is what I found, after the slope flattened and the vegetation filled in, that was the highlight of the day! We were now low enough that the snow was starting to melt. The snow lay delicately on trees that were otherwise showing peak fall colors. The sun had found its way down to us. The world was raining from 20 feet up down to the ground. The sounds of dripping water filled the world. The branches arching upward when enough snow was released. All this in an otherwise silent and still place. A hour disappeared.

We stopped for and ate our 1st lunch and were soon on rappel, sliding the ropes quickly down the opening series, making up for the time spent absorbing the beauty of the upper canyon. Lake Mystery was dry as was most of the canyon down to the Mystery Springs rap. Here Tom gave himself up and went first and set a guided rappel for the rest of us to follow, thus allowing us to stay dry. A 2nd guided rap was set up at the last rap, Tom offering more learning opportunities for Lori and Nancy.

Down at the Virgin River, we pull the ropes and pack it up and then Lori goes to put on her pack ... ahhhhh ... ummmmm ... errrrrr. Not down here. Must still be up at the top of the last rap. An inventory of the impact follows. The car key for the bottom vehicle is up in the pack. Oops. Lori and Nancy are suppose to head back to Vegas now. Wallets in the locked car. Gear 20 miles away near Virgin. Tom’s and my car are up the North Fork Road. Tom does have a wallet. He is also guiding for Zion Adventure the next day. I have nothing. Even my change of clothes are in Lori’s car. I am due to pick up a fella at Rick’s in Escalante by 9 PM to drive him in the Hole–in–the–Rock Road.

What to do?

If you want to stop reading the story at this point and make a list of what you would do, I would enjoy reading about your solutions.

What was done first? It was very important. Lori was right away quite bothered by the gaffe and its impact on other people. What happened first, set the tone for the whole event. Tom heard the bad news. Said “OK.” Shrugged his shoulders. Smiled. Turned and started to walk out the Narrows. All the tension just melted away. On the hike and on the bus, we brainstormed. Everyone with their tasks. Lori asked the bus driver to call in law enforcement rangers to help with her car. She noted that the bus driver took no action and when the seats behind the driver opened up, she was on him again. With further prodding, he took it more seriously and made the call. They were minutes behind her arrival at the car.

Tom headed to the visitor center then walked out of the park, took the bus to Zion Adventure Company, borrowed the vehicle that he was going to take guiding the next day, and drove toward the backcountry desk where he was to meet me. My job was at the backcountry desk, my favorite place.) First of all, it was the first day that they had changed the hours to ... 8AM to 5PM. It was 10 minutes after 5PM. A volunteer was at the desk, behind closed blinds. I knocked. He ignored. I knocked again. He came to the window to motion they were closed. I mouthed that I still needed to talk to him.

Finally the window opened.

My job was to secure a permit extension, for Mystery, into the next day, so that the pack could be retrieved after another descent of Mystery. That is after finding out if anyone was permitted for today, besides us. Such a group could have found the pack. There were, but they didn’t pick up their permit. Also checked to see if anyone was permitted for the next few days. Nada. The volunteer called the backcountry folks. No answer. Then a law enforcement ranger came to talk to me. Very nice was he. Very helpful was he. A makeshift permit was written up on the back of a Red Pass Parking Pass. Then we drove to Canyon Junction in time to see the rangers get Lori’s car open. Ahhhh, a change of clothes. Thanks to the rangers. Everyone was in good cheer.

Tom now comes up with the idea that cuts the challenges in half. He will give the gals his car when we retrieve it. He will keep the work vehicle and they can exchange gear and cars the following evening after he guides and they do Mystery again. Multiple logistic problems solved with one stone. Clever boy! Now Tom announces that it is time to head into town and eat dinner. Wait, wait, wait I gotta go to Escalante! I will have to wait it seems. One has to remain civilized under duress. Poor Mark will have to wait in Escalante for me. Aw well. The Pizza Noodle it is ... after a stop at Zion Adventure, that is, to partially outfit Lori with the replacement gear for what’s left up top on the last rap. I find the Noodle to be an overload of stimuli ... attractive and young people bustling about. A bit dazed, I devour the meal Tom has bought me.

Now it is time to retrieve the cars out on the east side. Nancy has kindly agreed to stay and go through the canyon again with Lori. Lori had been her ride and I guess ya dance with who brung ya! Lori did make several efforts to find a ride back to Vegas for Nancy but to no avail. Also attempted to find another partner at ZAC to accompany the descent. I understand that they had a wonderful time the next day, managing all the systems, etc. This, after checking at the desk to see if any last minute takers for Mystery had signed up that morning. When we got to Tom’s car, he gave them the keys and they loaded the car up and drove it off to the campsite near Virgin. Tom took me to the trailhead, courtesy of Zion Adventure Company. Then he drove home and I headed to Escalante, the new book on tape, A Lakota’s take on Crazy Horse, keeping me awake. Got Mark picked up a little after 11:30 PM and we drove into Chimney Rock and to bed before 1 AM. Didn’t even wake up Wyoming Dave who was snoozing nearby..

When I contacted Lori about writing this story, I cautiously probed if exposing her mistake would make her feel uncomfortable. For many people, this does. I listed off all the wonderful pieces that I thought made for a fun tale and awaited her reply. I thought hard on how to end the story. Then Lori wrote back. I still can’t think of better words than hers:

“For me the trip was so much more about the teamwork developed starting on Lady, then in the canyon, the learning I had on the systems, how absolutely beautiful the canyon was in the fall conditions ... and on top of all that wonderfulness. the very humbling experience of accepting how graciously everyone dealt with my error and how it was overcome with such generosity of spirit as well as generosity in deeds. I wouldn’t want to take away from the overall experience with the part about leaving the pack. It all was so seamless in the end. Nancy and I recovered the pack after having a great time doing the canyon again, met up with Tom, shared tales and dinner yet again, this time on me for saving the $250 it would have cost to get a key made. Good times. Write your story.”

Good times indeed. And the best part is new friends, full of smiles and warmth, made in Sandstone Country once again.


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