The Outdoor Junkie
The Outdoor Junkie is a blog by Ann Driggers, a backcountry bon vivant who lives to hike, run, ride, ski and climb in the great outdoors, and is most often found roaming through the red-rock canyons and mountains of Western Colorado.
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By Ann Driggers
Monday, June 22, 2009
Spotted Wolf Canyon. Head of Sinbad. Old Woman Wash. Little Ocean Draw. The names of the features of the San Rafael Swell are as varied and interesting as the terrain. From towering red rock walls, mesas, wind-weathered buttes, plateaus of grassland and deep slot canyons, the two thousand square miles of some of wildest and emptiest country in the lower 48 is a diverse and stunning display of nature.
This last weekend saw Chad and I, and friends Pete Harris and Holly Malone, set up camp to explore this remote and lightly traveled area. Of course two days doesn’t even begin to make a dent but did give us a good flavor of this very special place. As we drove across vast grasslands to the start of our hike, we felt as though we were on safari. Pronghorn antelope darted across the double track in front of our vehicle while in the distance a herd of wild horses galloped playfully, swooping up and down the sides of a hill. At the end of our safari treat we parked the truck and began our hike across the pristine landscape, following narrow trails forged only by the local inhabitants of the four-legged kind.
The only evidence of man was a few rusted cans under a pinyon tree - an old cowboy camp. Headed to a remote slot canyon we relied on map and GPS to navigate our way through a series of draws cutting through grasslands dotted with pinyon and sagebrush. Refreshed by the overnight rains the earthy smell of sagebrush wafted around as we made our way downwards into a gravelly floored canyon. Gradually the canyon walls closed in and after three miles of hiking we arrived at the narrows.
As the slot twisted and dropped its way through the rock, we slithered through, contorting our bodies to follow the shape of the earth. At times we removed packs passing them along the line as we squeezed through a really tight spot. The previous night’s downpour had collected in deep pools requiring cold wading.
As we moved slowly into the bowels of the canyon we cast our eyes to the ever shrinking slice of sky above. This particular canyon has a large catchment area and is highly susceptible to flash floods. As we noticed clouds building we began to question our continuing on. To complete our planned loop would require another 2 hours in the slot and several rapels from which it would be impossible to return. There were also many unknowns ahead - perhaps deep pools requiring swimming or a chockstone or debris blocking our way. In the face of a potential storm we quickly came to a conclusion: although it is a lovely place to visit, none of us wanted to be flushed into Lake Powell. It was time to backtrack.
Having climbed upstream and exited the narrows we stopped for lunch and dryed off our feet and clothes. We slowly made our way back, taking time to investigate every nook and cranny along the way, experiencing the beautiful land of the San Rafael Swell to its fullest. As we hiked up the draw we were rewarded with a close encounter with a beautiful mare and her foal. Although they wouldn’t let us get too close they were quite inquisitive and followed us for a while.
Further along we found more evidence of sheepherders or cowboys - a very old cairn, spotted with lichen and moss, standing sentinel over the valley below.
Even the drive back along the interstate is so spectacular it blows the mind. Here the road cuts through the 'reef' at Spotted Wolf Canyon as it heads back east, less than two hours from Grand Junction.
By Ann Driggers
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Lift, tap, kick. Lift, tap, kick. Every time I made a step, I had to tap my boots together to knock out the fresh snow balling up in my crampons. This wasn’t part of the plan but if I didn’t knock the snow out, the crampons front points would fail to find purchase and I would be sent sliding down the 40 degree slope. The extra tapping was tiring and slowing my progress up the 1,800 foot couloir. And time was of the essence.
An hour and a half earlier at 5 a.m., I had started up the Grays Peak trail. It was barely covered with a skiff of fresh snow. But as the moon set and the sun rose, casting the surrounding mountains with alpenglow, it became apparent the previous night’s heavy thunderstorm had dropped more than a few inches. It may have been mid June but the weather was more like winter. The clouds under lit by the rising sun scudded across the sky and swirled around the high summits. The wind howled down the mountain sides sending vortices of snow spinning across the willow flats and blasting ice particles into my face. Every few minutes I had to stop and brace myself against a particularly strong gust and cover my eyes from the needles of ice.
My goal was to climb and ski an aesthetic line on the east face of Torrey’s Peak called the Dead Dog Couloir. As I hiked closer and the 14,267 foot peak loomed into view, I could see it was plastered with fresh snow. I made the decision to keep moving and assess conditions as I went. If luck was in the cards I would ski the couloir in fresh powder - pretty epic for June. But I needed to be quick. I was racing the sun.
I headed to the base of the Dead Dog, stopping to put on crampons and helmet and swapping out a ski pole for an ice axe. Starting up the apron, the fresh snow was only 6 inches deep but covered the blocky debris of old avalanches. I made good progress at first. But quickly the snow became deeper and started balling up in my crampons. Each step I now tapped one boot against another to remove the snow. Slower, I continued climbing. Lift, tap, kick. Lift, tap, kick.
Settling into a quiet rhythm I ascended the ribbon of snow as it threaded its way up the rocky east face of Torreys Peak. As I climbed I continued to assess the safety of the new snow. It seemed to have bonded well with the snow underneath and there were no signs of dangerous wind slabs. I kept on climbing. Lift, tap, kick. After an hour of increasingly deeper snow, my calves and quads were screaming for relief.
I exited the Dead Dog and walked the final hundred feet to the summit where the wind was biting cold and the snow as hard as rock. It was a little after 8 a.m. But in the sheltered couloir I knew the sun was taking its toll. Just one week from the summer solstice, the June sun would be superheating the snow. The slightest trigger could send it crashing down. I was too late. I no longer felt confident the Dead Dog was safe to ski and decided to take a more mellow route down Torrey’s south ridge. In a whiteout of blowing snow I slowly skied the rocky ridge to the base of Gray’s Peak, Torrey’s neighbor. In the absence of skiing the Dead Dog a second 14er for the day would make a good consolation prize. I put the crampons back on and scooted up the ridge to bag the summit of 14,270 foot Grays Peak. From there its broad north east flank provided creamy dreamy turns for 2,000 feet back to the base of the Dead Dog. Looking up into the couloir I saw a recent sluff covering my uptrack. I had made the right decision and would live to ski another day. In any case June powder is quite special whatever the line. And on that high note I am hanging up my skis for the summer.
By Ann Driggers
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Top of the World is a trail near Dewey Bridge on the way to Moab. Starting from the Entrada Bluffs Road it is 5 mile grunt one way, climbing 2,000 feet up a rocky 4WD double-track. Wooed by the reportedly 'killer' views that would 'make your knees weak', I glossed over the section of the guidebook which described the trail as 'technically and physically difficult to downright masochistic.' I decided it would make for a lovely Sunday morning ride. It was. Or at least the summit views and the downhill sections were. The way up was a sufferfest. I used the designated trip photographer excuse frequently in order to catch my breath. Here Chad grunts up a smooth but steep section. The Bookcliffs are far off in the distance.
After over an hour and a half of steady climbing we reached Killer Viewpoint, a very apt description of the Top of the World. Although my knees were severely weakened by the climb, my legs buckled even further, as promised, when I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and looked over the edge. Immediately below were the Fisher Towers and a little further off the Colorado River meandered its way through Professor Valley. The 360 degree views stretched from the Uncompaghre Plateau in Colorado, to Utah's Canyonlands and beyond.
The trail down was plenty of fun with lots of slickrock and ledges. This one was the crux of the climb as well as the descent.
In the interests of preventing even further damage to my knees :) I walked this one and took pictures.
By Ann Driggers
Monday, May 25, 2009
Given that the season for riding H20 in its solid state is about fully cooked, I figured I might as well get after it in its liquid form. The Colorado River is officially cranking, as it takes our snowpack (and hopefully some of the dust) off to the west. Running just shy of 30,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) and about 8 miles per hour, a speedy float of the mellow but beautiful Ruby Horsethief section seemed like a good way to spend Memorial Day.
Chad and I put our two man ducky in at the Loma boat launch around 10 a.m. The river was heavily swollen with snowmelt, laced with debris and fast. Although we dipped our paddles only to steer, we zipped right on through to Black Rocks in time for lunch. When done as an overnighter, Black Rocks is the main camp spot, being around the half way point and very scenic. It also has plenty of sandy beaches, rock outcroppings for sunbathing, and a good viewpoint of the small rapid that provides the most excitement of the trip. This time, with the high water, the rapids were washed out and the beaches submerged. More than adequate compensation though, the wildflowers were blooming superb.
Having enjoyed sunshine for the first part of the trip, we noticed dark clouds were quickly building. We cut our lunch short and jumped back on the river in the hopes of making it to the take-out before being struck by lightning or battling brutal headwinds for which the next stretch is notorious. Despite a few sprinkles, we escaped electrification, sailed over the Utah state line and reached the Westwater take-out in short order. Total trip time was four and a half hours which, for 26 miles of river and a lunch stop, was really cruising.
Sweet! River days are here.
By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I'm back in England seeing family for a few days and in comparison to my normal outdoor activities, taking it rather slow. I have tried to get out as much as possible, either running or hiking, but the outdoor lifestyle is a little different here, though still good. For one, the weather is very changeable and unpredictable compared to Colorado, especially at this time of year - sunny one minute and cold winds and showers the next. I would set off on a run under blue skies and within 20 minutes I would be drenched in a downpour. Secondly, when one is reunited with family, there are large get-togethers celebrated with somewhat excessive amounts of eating and drinking. However we always justify the indulgence by playing a game of croquet or going for a long walk after a big feast, weather permitting. Walks are a big part of the english country lifestyle and I am fortunate that my family live in a very beautiful part of England, the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. One walk we did was up a valley called Farndale which is famous for its daffodils in the spring. Since the weather was rather cloudy my scenic shots didn't turn out so well. So I took pictures of some entertaining signs along the way. At the beginning of the walk we were advised not to 'injure daffodils' otherwise a fine of $5 would be incured. Incidently there was also a sign saying the fine for not picking up after your dog was $1,000! Perhaps it was $5 per daffodil?
Although the walk was only two miles one way, the food incentive was needed to coax people along the hike. This sign was posted on a fence in the middle of the hike.
Unfortunately the cafe was closed when we arrived and we were concerned that we had been without food and drink for at least two hours. Fortunately there was a pub serving traditional english fayre and Black Sheep ale, a few steps away, and we were able to reach the finish line in strong shape. Although all these walks seem rather tame, there is one family activity which is more on the extreme side.
The phrase 'only mad dogs and englishmen' came to mind as I watched my father prepare his gyrocopter for take off. Luckily this particular contraption has only one seat so I happily watched from the sidelines as he performed a demonstration.
He landed safe and sound, by the way.