Sunday, May 10, 2015

Zion Traverse

At the trailhead.

May 5, 2015 - After running part of the Zion Traverse last spring by myself, I convinced by brother Jim and nephew Jason to spend four days running in southern Utah this May. The plan was to hit Zion, Bryce, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and get in about 100 miles of running.

Jim and I flew into Las Vegas on Monday morning and drove out to Springdale, Utah, the gateway to Zion, and checked in at our motel. We had made reservations with Zion Adventures Outfitter to shuttle us to the East Rim Trailhead on Tuesday morning at 6:15am. Jason was driving in from Kansas so we had agreed to meet him at the Lee Pass Trailhead so he could leave his car there so we would have a way back to Springdale after we finished the Traverse. 

The Zion Traverse is about a 48 mile collection of trails that connects the western edge of Zion with the eastern edge. Most of it is running in high desert and Ponderosa Pine forest above 6,000 feet with a substantial amount above 7,000 feet. It does feature a drop down into the main Zion Canyon which sits at about 4,500 feet. If you run it from west to east, that climb out of the canyon comes late in your run while if you run it from east to west that big climb is early in the run. Last year I had run from west to east but this year we decided to run from east to west and get that big climb done early, which ended up having unfortunate repercussions for us late in the run.

We caught the 6:15am shuttle to the trailhead and were on the trail at around 7am. We figured it would take us 12-14 hours, depending on how we felt and how much we stopped to enjoy the magnificent landscape. This is truly a great run with some awesome scenery.

While Jim is mostly cured of a fear of heights,
he still doesn't like edges.
The first part of the trail starts around 6,000 feet and ascends to 6,800 feet before dropping down onto the floor of the canyon at Weeping Rock by mile 12. The trail here and up the west side of the canyon is mostly scrambling over the sandstone that makes up much of canyons of the park. After reaching the bottom, there is a one mile road run to the Grotto where there are bathrooms, picnic tables and water. We ate a little, refilled our water bottles and headed up the west wall of the canyon. It started as a nice day with good running conditions (temperature in the 40s up high to start and 50s/60s by the time we were climbing out of the canyon.

By this time of the day there were many making the hike up to Angel's Landing but after we got past Walter's Wiggles the crowd thinned out to only occasional backpackers in the high country. The climb up the west wall ends at 7,500 feet and we had a significant head wind up here and it was clouding over. We knew there was a chance of some scattered thunderstorms in the afternoon and it looked like we might be heading into some rain. The high plateau is very much rolling terrain, and with the altitude, we lowlanders had to take what we could get as far as running pace went.

About 30 miles in we started to get some steady rain and unfortunately we were also low in water so we had to stop at a spring to fill up. We had water filters along because while there are many places to fill up, you definitely want to filter the water at some of them. Unfortunately the spring we were near necessitated a .6 mile roundtrip detour down off the trail to what amounted to a small puddle of water. It took us a little while to fill all of our bottles/bladders and we were getting quite well because there isn't much in the high plateau.

Overlooking Zion Canyon from near
to the bottom of Walter's Wiggles.
Finally we got going again and got to Lava Point where the trail takes a nice long downhill turn towards Wildcat Canyon. The rain had subsided by now and we got some good, albeit muddy, running in. This section passes through a thicker forest with a lot of Ponderosa Pine and is a quite nice section of trail. After passing close to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, the trail drops down into Hop Valley. By this time we had started to have a little trouble. 

Walter's Wiggles.
On the descent past Wildcat Canyon Jason had started to fell badly. In Hop Valley this continued and finally as he started to feel better Jim began to have stomach issues and eventually to bonk. Our pace through this section was slow. The sun had also come out and Hop Valley is exposed and it got very warm. The trail is also mostly deep sand so the going was difficult. As we reached the Kolob Canyon we also had a rude awakening when we reached a trail sign that had the mileage on it and it differed from my GPS by 3-4 miles. We weren’t as far as we thought we were.

Dark clouds were in the sky and now in the distance we could see the rain falling and getting nearer. With about five miles to go Jason and I sought shelter under a small Juniper tree/bush that had somewhat thick branches. The sky opened up and it started pouring and hailing. Jim had been a little ahead of us and came running back and we all huddled under the tree in the bottom of the canyon. Then the thunder and lightning also started. There was one flash a few hundred yards away. It was not a great situation.

The sky got a little lighter after about five minutes of hail and rain and finally the hail (but not the rain) stopped. We decided we better get moving, raining or not, because we were getting colder and it was starting to get dark. I was already thinking about hypothermia and wanted to get back to the car as soon as possible. By this time Jim felt better and he led the way up the trail. This was a relatively flat section so we ran hard on the now muddy creekside trail. We finally made the turn for the last four mile stretch up and out of the canyon to the trailhead. The trail was very muddy by this time and a little hard to follow but we went as fast as we could. We finally had about two miles to go and I knew we would be dry soon. How wrong I was.

Getting close to the top of the Zion Canyon.
We had left the stream a few miles ago but suddenly we heard a lot of water below us and then came to a place where the trail crossed a now swollen tributary. The water was raging. I couldn’t believe it. Two miles to go. What a downer. I took one look at it and didn’t think we would be able to cross it. Also standing there looking at the creek was a hiker, Jihun Kim, in rain gear with his backpack. He was also trying to get to his car at the trailhead.

First Jason and then I tried to wade in the water at different places to see if it would at all be possible to cross. As we got out towards the middle it was just flowing too swiftly that there was no way to pick up a leg without losing balance. It wasn’t going to happen. I was really worried at this time as we were soaked and it was getting colder and darker. Jim went up the stream to see if there was anywhere that could be crossed and our hiker friend, a young Korean studying in the US, went downriver. When I couldn’t see him, I went looking for him because I wanted us to stay together and he probably had a tent and sleeping bag if we needed one. I saw him walking out on a log that was part-way across the creek, using his hiking pole for balance. He got across the log to a couple of big rocks in the middle and then I watched as he used his hiking pole to find some submerged rocks that he might be able to use to cross the rest of the way. Then I saw him actually do it, stepping from rock to rock and finally jumping to the other bank. Unbelievable. 

The problem was he was now on the other side and we weren’t. I ran back and got Jim and Jason. I found a long thick branch that I could use and decided to try it. I walked out on the log, using the stick for stability by lodging it in the rocks in the creek. The problem was that the stick was thicker than his pole and the water just wanted to take it away. I lost my balance a couple of times but managed to make it across. I turned and offered my stick to Jim and Jason but they decided to crawl across the log. I turned and was then able to find the stepping stones, with Jihun pointing at them for me. The one was a long stretch but I made it and climbed out onto the bank. I looked back and Jim and Jason were crawling across the log. I threw my stick to them when they were in the middle and they both used it to come across the stepping stones one at a time.

High Plateau.
Finally, we were all four on the bank. We bushwhacked up a little hill and back down to the trail. We thanked Jihun and started running up the trail again, confident that we he would be okay and we would all soon be back to our cars. A couple hundred yards up the trail we looked in horror as the trail came to the creek again. We were supposed to cross it again! We really couldn’t believe it. We thought we were on the correct side of the creek so that we wouldn’t have to cross again. We looked at the map and verified that we were on the correct side and it looked like the trail crossed the stream two more times. This was not an option. We decided to bushwhack up the mountain and try to find our way back to the trail.

It was pretty dark at this time so we all put our headlamps on and started scrambling up a steep embankment. We knew we needed to head upstream and I had a compass on my GPS so we knew the direction we had to go. We ran into trouble quickly, however, as it was now dark and the direction we wanted to go went down steeply. We did not know the terrain and couldn’t see how steep the drop-off was so we looked at the map again and decided we might be able to find the road by heading up the mountain.

The mountainsides in this area are just covered with these little Juniper trees and they are a major pain to navigate. They were thick in spots and we either had to duck low to get under the branches of the tall ones or step on the small ones to get through them. We continued up the mountain as there continued to be a drop-off of unknown steepness to the north, which was the direction we really wanted to go. After about an hour of scrambling and with the temperature dropping and the rain still coming we knew that hypothermia was an increasing possibility. We weren’t moving fast enough to keep our core body temperatures up. I seemed to be having the most difficulty (I blame my low body fat) and I suggested we setup the tent and try to get warm. 

The descent from Hop Valley into the Kolob Canyon area.
Around this point, I more or less realized that we might not last the night. I made peace with the fact that my number might be up. I wasn’t ready to go without a fight but I knew the situation was dire. I've never been in this situation before and it was kind of surreal. It was a story I've read many times before of stranded people in the wilderness in a storm trying to use body heat to keep each other warm and hoping for rescue. This time it was me.

Jason checked his phone again here to see if there might be any signal and unbelievably he had one bar (we were pretty far up the mountain at this point). It would come and go, however. Jihun got out his “tent” and started setting it up while Jason tried to call 911. Jihun’s tent was actually a ground tarp and basically another tarp with two sticks propping it up for the top. It was open on both ends and not enclosed at all! It was now about 9:30pm.

I felt like I was going to pass out by now and knew I had to sit down so I wouldn’t fall on anything. I am not sure what brought this on (it is normally when I bonk that I can get like this but my energy levels were fine) but I was shivering by now and it was probably related to a lowered body temperature. I sat down and tried to avoid passing out while Jihun finished setting up the “tent” and Jason was actually talking to a 911 operator (Jason has Verizon and the rest of us have AT&T and didn’t have any signal; thank you Verizon). Jason lost her a time or two but was able to successfully communicate our situation and the operator was able to get our GPS coordinates from his phone. This picked up our spirits.

We all piled in the tent, and I do mean “piled” because it was really only meant for one or two persons but that was okay because we needed combined body heat. I was shivering pretty hard by now. The three of us each had a short sleeve shirt, a long sleeve shirt, and a shell on top but only shorts on bottom. All of the layers were completely soaked. Jihun was definitely better off as he had a rain suit on over his other clothes. Jihun brought out a backpacker’s propane stove and lit it so we had a little fire in the tent. We were at least able to warm our hands over this. I lay on the ground and Jason snuggled up and we tried to use our body heat to stay warmer. Jim and Jihun were squeezed into the rest of the tent and reclining on their elbows. Jim’s legs kept cramping.

I kept shivering, teeth chattering, and finally someone asked Jihun if he had a sleeping bag and could we cover up with it. He did have one so he got it out and covered Jason and I. This helped and meanwhile Jason called the 911 operator again and she said the Mountain Rescue Team had been summoned and hoped to be at the trailhead by 11:30pm and then would come get us and walk us out. We were all kind of hoping for a helicopter at this point as our situation was not improving and we couldn’t imagine walking out. At the very least we hoped that they might bring a legitimate tent to set up, a better heater, and dry clothes to put on.

My shivering didn’t stop so I took off my wet shoes and socks and got in the sleeping bag. This helped. After awhile, Jason was getting colder and joined me. We called 911 every half an hour or so to check on the status of the rescue and they kept just telling us to be patient and that they were on their way. Soon Jim got in the sleeping bag also so there were three of us stuffed in a mummy bag (making a Jason burrito) and the poor owner was not one of them. I kept asking him if he was okay and he kept saying he was. He definitely wasn’t shivering and seemed to legitimately be better off than us but I still felt guilty for using his sleeping bag.

Kolob Canyon region.
This whole tent experience was very uncomfortable. It rained hard at times and some of the water got in. The ground was rocky and rooty and there was nothing to support our heads and we were jammed together but the body heat was definitely helping. Even though no rescuers were showing up, I now thought it was possible that we might be able to last the night. None of us slept but just lay there. Jason called 911 back and they told us that there were 9 rescuers and they were definitely on the mountain now looking for us. They told us to yell if we heard anyone. It was now about 2:00am. After about 20-25 minutes we finally heard a whistle and started yelling and Jim used the whistle on his hydration pack to whistle back. It was a tremendous relief to hear voices in the woods getting closer. I stuck my hand out under the tent with my headlamp and started flashing around to help them locate us. Finally we saw the lights on our tent.

One guy said "Get out of the tent, we need to get out of here!" They were rather impatient with us and didn't even really check our condition. I imagine this is a tactic that is purposeful in order to change the mindset of the yahoos who are being rescued and get their minds focused on walking out. It was effective. We got out of the sleeping bag one by one and got our saturated shoes and socks back on and got up. The rescue team did have dry jackets and gloves along so we got those on. I was now shivering again from being back in the elements and one guy pulled out this jacket from a stuff sack and gave it to me. It was the warmest thing I ever put on! Basically like wearing a hug. Jihun got his tent and stuff put back in his pack and we started bushwhacking off the mountain. 

The rescue team had radios and GPS, of course, and some other guys were up on the mountain a long way away shining a light down towards us so we could see where we needed to go. It was still a big climb and there was no trail until we got to the top. Also, the leader told us that we needed to go back down to the bottom of the canyon before going back up to the ridge. But they led the way and knew the terrain and were able to get us down without falling over a precipice. 

It was a difficult slog in the mud and the rain and the snow (yes, there was snow on the ground in places) but having a warm core made a huge difference. My legs actually felt good, my energy levels were good, and I felt like I could go another 10 miles without a problem. We finally made it to the ridge after about an hour of hiking and then actually got to a real trail and just had a short walk to the parking area where a van was waiting for us. The sheriff was also there and took all of our information down (I don't know what will come from that, if anything) and then we got into the van and they took us to the trailhead, only a short distance away, where our car was waiting. We drove back to Springdale, took showers, and around 5:00am crawled into warm, dry beds with pillows that felt amazing. Of course we couldn't sleep long and were all up by 8:00am but it was a deep sleep.

So what is the takeaway from all this? What did we learn? Would we do anything differently?

1. Pack pants. We knew we were running into potential rain and that it would be colder at night and we should have had pants along. I was going to pack them but when I looked at the weather forecast I didn't. I was not planning on spending the night on the mountain.

2. For point-to-point runs, I will probably load the GPS coordinates for the ending destination in my GPS from now on. In this case, it wouldn't have really helped because we knew where we had to go, but it would still be a good idea.

3. We had actually wanted to leave an hour earlier in the morning but we were dependent on a shuttle from the local outfitters and had to fit their schedule. Leaving earlier would have been a good idea. The storms here tend to crop in the evening/night and having more daylight to play with would have been good.

4. We could have made some different decisions during the course of the evening/night that may have got us back to the car without incident. Knowing the terrain would have been a huge help. I think that overall, however, we made decent decisions in bad conditions and did what we had to do to survive. If the evening had presented itself differently, we could have done other things and still been okay.

5. If I did this again, I would be more likely to run it from West to East. In that direction, you have an out late in the day (you could take a shuttle at the bottom of Zion Canyon) and you don't have to worry about potentially swollen creeks late in the day.

That is really it. I would do this run again. I feel like we were prepared in many ways and just got unlucky with the weather and the fact that the trail had to cross that swollen stream numerous times. If Jim and Jason hadn't felt bad for awhile late in the run, we would have been in our car before the storms hit. That is part of ultra running and hiking. There are risks involved in going into the wilderness. I find them acceptable. There are also risks involved with getting in a car and driving down the road. I don't want to live a sanitized life that separates me from nature. The run today was incredible. It was such a recharging of my soul. Being out in the back country, the high plateau, and in the canyons was a fantastic experience. Even after the storm and the trouble it was worth it. I'll do what I can to minimize the risks but I won't stop taking any.

Oh, and if you are in trouble, find a Korean angel. Jihun and his equipment were a very important part of keeping us alive. If he hadn't been there, we had some other options that we could have explored but the way that the night went he was what we needed to survive.

The Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team were also amazing. They are all volunteers and they did their job with professionalism, in nasty conditions, in the middle of the night. All of them have regular day jobs that they had to get to in the morning. Here is a copy of the write-up that the local paper, The St. George News, did on the rescue. It isn't completely accurate (we did have GPS, for example, and only 3 of us were doing the Zion Traverse) but it gives some context.

May 5th, we have now officially had more call outs this year … Than the total calls for all of last year,” Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue posted on its Facebook page Wednesday morning, before the Snow Canyon call came in.

Tuesday morning, four hikers embarked on a lengthy hike called the Zion Traverse, Thomas said.
The hikers started on the east side of Zion National Park, where they embarked on the East Rim Trail, connected to the West Rim Trail, then connected with another trail system that would take them to the Kolob Arch.

The group lost the trail 2 miles short of their destination, Thomas said, adding that while the group was equipped for the hike, they had no GPS with them.

The group started to go up a mountainside when a mix of rain and snow began to fall, soaking the hikers and their gear. They was able to contact Zion National Park for help, but as the park’s own search and rescue resources were not yet up and running, park officials contacted Washington County SAR for help.

The SAR team went out at about 11 p.m. Tuesday, Thomas said, and went through “rain and snow and mud and muck” until they found the lost hikers.

Exposed to the elements as they were, with soaking gear on top of it, the hikers were at severe risk for exposure and hypothermia, Thomas said. Once the SAR team reached the hikers, they provided them with dry coats and led them off the mountain.

While drenched, Thomas said, the hikers came out of the ordeal with no medical issues.
The operation wrapped up at about 3 a.m., Wednesday.

With the frequency of calls the SAR team has received now surpassing last year’s total, Thomas joked that he expected to be called out again before the weekend hits.

Members of the county SAR team are volunteers. Thomas said it’s sometimes a challenge to juggle work and SAR responsibilities, yet he and the other volunteers love what they do.

“We’re all a little strange,” he said, “but when you see the look on someone’s face when we show up – that’s our payment.”

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