Monday, April 5, 2010

Zion West Rim Trail - Rich & Jay's Grand Adventure

I had a hard time deciding what to title this post. Drop, Stop and Roll. First Tracks. Post-hole-athon. Failure of the Swiss Knot. Or simply, Rich and Jay’s Grand Adventure in Zion.

This Easter weekend I had the pleasure of running the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park with Rich McDonald. Our original plan was to start at the Lee Pass trailhead on the west side of the park and run to Zion Canyon, 34 magnificent miles of trail. Running this trail has been a long-standing Easter tradition for Rich, and this year he invited me to join!

I’ve not had the pleasure of running with Rich before so I was looking forward to this run with great anticipation. For several weeks I had been resting my injured hamstrings, knowing that 34 miles would be pushing the limit on what was prudent for me. A two-hour run earlier in the week in Red Canyon left me convinced that this was too long of a distance for my broken legs. The night before our departure, I called Rich to deliver the news that I couldn’t run with him. Rich’s response was, “No way dude, we’re doing this together. We’ll just run the 20 miles from Wildcat Canyon to Zion Canyon.” My response was, “We’re on!!”
As we drove up to the trailhead we were surprised to see how much snow still remained. We received an additional surprise when we found the road closed due to snow approximately two miles before the trailhead. And for a final surprise, we were the first people on the trail since it had snowed more than a foot 2 days earlier! So off we went, making first tracks on what we thought to be the direction of the trail, convinced there had to be less snow on top where the trail would be exposed to sun most of the day.

We were fortunate in that the previous day had been sunny and the night had been cold, resulting in a frozen surface we could run on. Well sort of. The breaking point of this one-inch thick frozen crust was somewhere at about 200 lbs of impact. Rich at 160 lbs would drop through the frozen surface into the underlying powder about every 14th step. I at 140 lbs, experienced a 22-step ratio. We coined the action, Drop (for breaking through the surface and dropping 10-14 inched into the soft snow beneath), Stop (because you came to an instant stop with all of your weight grinding your shin into the edge of the frozen crust), and Roll (because the only way to prevent a face plant was to roll). During one of the rolls Rich dropped his handheld bottle. We watched gravity pull it, clackety-clacking over the ice down a steep embankment and finally disappearing over a precipice. This was going to be a long day.

While we had both been on the trail before, everything looked quite different under 3-4 feet of snow. Navigating became a challenge. Since we were the first people on the trail there were no visible tracks to follow, and neither of us had bothered to bring a map – a good part of our conversation that day became, “my recollection is that the trail….” Well, sometimes recollection doesn’t quite cut it. Let’s just say we pioneered a new West Rim route that is not as direct as the established trail. For a while we consoled ourselves with the notion that our route was more scenic than the established route. But after a few rock scrambles and glissades that were not in our “recollected” memories, we realized that maybe it would have been a good idea to bring a map.

Once we were up on the rim we were treated to the views and majesty of this spectacular trail. We ambled along indulging in the beauty of the landscape, celebrating being the only people on the trail and making first tracks in the pristine snow, and relishing that we were able to share this experience together. We repeated almost as many times as we post-holed, “this is f’n awesome!!”

At about the Telephone Canyon trail junction the sun had warmed the snow to the point where we could no longer stay on the surface. Almost every step resulted in a drop of 12-24 inches. A post-hole-athon at its finest. The next 2 hours we only covered 4 miles! As our legs plunged into the snow, so plunged our spirits. Bloody shins. Frozen hands. Diminishing quantities of liquids and calories. An untied Swiss Knot. Silence (for those of you who know Rich – it takes a lot to get him to shut up). We soldiered on...

As we began the drop into Zion Canyon we finally saw our first dirt, and first people. We had been running (a euphemism used here to mean ambulatory movement over a distance under one’s own power) for more than 6 hours and had not seen a single person or any evidence of a person on this popular trail. You could see the perplexed look on people’s faces as they tried to figure out where we were coming from. Clearly we could not have traversed the West Rim trail.

We finished in a little under seven hours. Our estimate for the Rich/Jay West Rim route is about 22 miles. Not a record pace, but a pace that allowed us to become thoroughly dehydrated, scrapped and scratched, sunburned AND good friends. Thank you Rich for this Grand Adventure in Zion.

Post script – my hammies feel the best they’ve felt in weeks. Go figure???? And, failure of the Swiss Knot (see post below); Unusual to say the least and seemingly in the face of MANY miles of evidence supporting its invincibility. Stay tuned for further thoughts and analysis. See Rich's post below for great photos of the West Rim in snow!

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