Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
FREEZEFEST XI — 2012–2013
A Left Fork Christmas
by Ram

I am not sure if it is a tradition or an obligation. A snowy day in Arches, then Kalediscope/Choprock, then Imlay—all on Christmas Day. All with my son. The last several Christmases with Tim Hoover. I guess it’s a tradition but, after the last few years, how do you match it? And should we? So naturally Heaps was the next step up for Christmas. Why? because it will be SOOOOO beautiful. Because it would take precise organization and execution to pull it off. Judgment and concentration without err. Because we have figured out how to do it. Does ‘knowing how’ mean you should do it? I am not sure but am deeply drawn to it. That appeals greatly. I LOVE that part of the equation. I hoped to do Heaps AND to be off the final rap sequence before dark. If I wanted to rappel in the dark I would have taken up caving.

The first blow to the plan was that Aaron would not be on board. Second came a pair of snow storms to the Zion high country. The ‘times’ in our plan no longer added up. Snow and ice in the canyon is one thing. Snow on steep slopes on approach is another. I remember doing an East Leprechaun in the snow with a very seasoned group and doing six rappels. We laughed imagining folks coming later and wondering what gumbies set up anchors at such easy places. So weather realities called for us to find to find just the right challenge for us and, with it, entry into a winter wonderland.

We toyed with many possibilities and what excited us most was to head up and do some variation of the Subway. We wondered if we could even get to it. How deep the snow might be. Considered icy corridors making access to anchors at the little drops, near impossible ... or at least quite time–consuming. How about the cascades section at and below the Subway proper? Would this be ‘the ice capades?’ So we brought lots of rope, lots of thermal protection, lots of hot liquids, some emergency gear, and a healthy caution to match our curiosity.

I spent the day before scouting the approach to see how far up the cars could make it toward the trailhead. It was a stormy December 24th but what I found enchanted me. On the way up the Kolob Terrace Road, I encountered many families on outings: snowmobiles, skis, snowshoes and many a fine snowman. All seemed to be having a wonderful day of it. I was able to make it to the base of the Mahoney Hill, just 1.5 miles short of the trailhead. That would do.

That evening, Tom and I stayed at Dave Buckingham’s place in Springdale. Very kind of him to offer housing for us. We headed to bed at 10:30 PM and my alarm went off at 3:50 AM. Preparing water for the thermoses is a lot easier indoors! We met at the lower trailhead by 6 AM. The crew was Tim Hoover, Tom Jones, Luke Galyan, Jonathan Zambella and myself. Five to go! And go we did at 6:30 AM, in the dark, on a snow packed road, with the temperature reading six degrees above zero.

The hike up the hill did not warm me up. The chill made its way through layers of clothing and reminded us what we knew so well. No mistakes! As soon as we left the road, we sunk in the snow to our thighs. And so it would be for the next two miles. Most folks took turns breaking trail. Cold toes almost led to one of the party retreating. He is glad he didn’t. In a few spots you could guess where the trail was. Other places? Not at all. You just kind of wandered in the general direction of the Left Fork route.

Movement was steady but not rushed. It would need to be that way most of the day. You never knew what your foot would hit or land on, in the deep snow, so you eased into the end of the steps and balanced when you found out. EVERY step is like that, even much later when the snow lessened, it might even have been easier to slip or fall. You can’t become complacent. Every step is important. Little injuries could have dire consequences. I will admit that I enjoy that. The challenge of staying vigilant. A great mental workout to join the physical one. As we progressed, night slowly became day and the snow crystals glistened off the snow, sparkling so brightly that I had to shield my eyes.

When we got to the junction of the Northgate Peaks and the turnoff to the Subway, I had speculated that as we headed down this south–facing slope to lower altitude that we would find less snow. For quite some time, this was wishful thinking. In fact, in some of the bowls near gambel oak, the snow was deepest of the day, coming to the waist. At the junction of the Subway route, Russell Gulch, and the Das Boot route, we found our first bare rock of the day. It was decision time. Out of the wind and in the sun, the temperature may have reached 20° F and yet it felt so cozy. Time had marched on and we were at under a mile–an–hour, with no idea what the canyon would hold. The long slope to Das Boot was snowy and steep in places. The route up to the pass of the normal Subway route looked impossibly snowy and steep. Russell Gulch was at our feet. It became the choice, although I still miss having not seen what the interior of Das Boot would have shown. Russell would make up for it.

We needed rope to get in a short drop one might hop down most of the year. Little sun got into our canyon. Fallen trees had a few feet of snow on top of them. In the drainage, sometimes the ice held you. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes when it didn’t you had to ‘war’ up onto the next plate of ice and it would often collapse as you weighted it. Much work, little progress and the hands in ice water. Sometimes you warmed up quickly. Sometimes not. Just keep that safe rhythm going!

When we got to the big rappels, new surprises awaited. The first one we could not get to the anchor, so we built one out on the side. The others we did get to but that last one, with the short rap to the big one, was ice coated and required great care. At the drops, ice was forming alongside the flowing water. It was not stable and the top of the drops often had these big icicles hanging over your head, in full sun. REAL objective dangers. Each individual moved cautiously, but with purpose, to get out of the line of fire. Ice cones formed, from water dripping, from above, at the bottom of the raps, often over 10 feet high. When we were past the second rappel, the others in the group were ahead of me warring some of the days most challenging break–through ice. They did not hear or see the huge chunk that broke loose and crashed to the bottom. I did. Sobering.

We ate and drank warm fluid on the run, keeping up with the calorie burn. At last, we manage the climb around the last drop in Russell and into the Left Fork. The boulder section is slow, but other areas had been sheltered from the snow. We swim, partner assist up and down icy slopes, and stay on task as the day moves into the later afternoon. The bowling ball chockstone forces us neck deep in the water—packs off. Keyhole falls is easy. The Subway section itself was very snowy and hard. The new anchors saved us much time and difficulty here. The rock, with the water flowing over it, is very slick.

We stopped, ate, and drank at the Subway. A group had come up from the bottom the day before. There was still several inches of snow on the trails, trees, and rocks.The snow persisted all the way to a bit beyond the dinosaur prints. Jonathan was moving out front. I creaked along behind but did not stop. He kindly waited for the others. I gambled on no one getting hurt or in trouble and pushed on ahead. I stopped and changed out of my wetsuit at the start of the hill up and out. The slopes glistened in sunshine behind me and all was well. I raced up the somewhat muddy track hoping to get another dose of sun. I manged to get a few minutes of it just before the end. I changed at the car arriving at 5:35 PM. My clothes froze instantly when they were off my body. Everyone would be up and done before 6:15 PM. Tim and I ran the car shuttle, arriving back to the crew at dark.

Luke went his way to Vegas and the rest of us headed to Springdale, dodging black cows on the Terrace Road. Jonathan went home. Tim, Tom and I headed to Orderville for chili at Tim and Sue’s bed and breakfast. I struggled to stay warm, even inside, and ate copious amounts. Thanks Sue! I stayed at Tom’s house, getting up at 5:30 AM to start the drive to North Wash in a snow storm. It took me 7 hours to get there, but I met Matt Williams at Sandthrax, we being the first two to arrive, set up camp in my little nook, and still have time for a canyon. When we got back, folks had already started to come in. FreezeFest XI was fully under way.

What about next Christmas? I guess we will wait and see. Most important, we will listen to the weather and the conditions and find our adventure somewhere between easy and impossible, apply our experience, hope to be careful and out of the way of things bigger and harder than us. What I have confidence in is that it will be very beautiful and I will have folks I love along side me to share it with


Tales of FreezeFest:
Perfect Beginning • Ram
Escape from Canyon X • Tom Jones
FreezeFest II • Ram
Logjams in the Black Hole • Ram
Fixed Ropes in the Black Hole • Dave Black
Joining the Shenanigans Club • Ryan Cornia
FreezeFest III • Ram
Cheese on Ice • Ram
FreezeFest IX (short film) • Dan Ransom  
Crystal Kaleidoscope • Ram
Christmas in Imlay • Ram
A Left Fork Christmas • Ram
Call of the Wild • Ram
Mysterious Christmas • Ram
Holy Water • Ram
A Christmas Heaps • Tom Jones

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