Thursday, January 13, 2011

To Island in the Sky

I woke up around 6:00 and packed up.  The hotel's breakfast didn't start until 6:30 so I had to wait for that, but shortly I was on the road, headed for the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands.  Here, the Island is a massive butte that sits at about 6000' elevation.  Shear cliffs drop off on all sides (save the North, where you drive into the park) over 1000' to a shelf below.  From there it is another drop or two and another 1000' feet to the Colorado and Green rivers that run on either side of the Island.  Most of the hikes are either very short (no more than 1.5 miles one way) walks out to view points, or much longer and more strenuous climbs that have been expertly routed down the side of the cliffs onto the shelf below.  There, a 4x4 track runs around the circumference of the island and is very popular with mountain bikers in the Summer.  There are no paths down to any lower shelves and to the best of my knowledge, no feasible access routes even for experienced, technical rock climbers.  The views from on top are spectacular, and this is a great place to visit if you never want to do a hike more than 2 miles but still want extraordinary views.

Here I found far more snow than there was just a few miles South in the Needles.  I imagine it was due to the elevation and topography, but whatever the cause, camping was made nigh impossible with my equipment.  Still I entered the park with high hopes and was not let down.

After taking the above pictures at one of the overlooks I headed to the hike for the day.  This was to be a test, it was supposed to be one the easier descents onto the shelf and I wanted to see how feasible it was in the snow and ice.  You can see a picture I took of it below.  This was taken from the bottom: the trail goes up the cliff on the right side of the picture (where you see the trail of snow leading up to the top).  Beneath that picture is an image of the trail from the top (or close to the top) looking down.

It was a little frightening going down it, I'll admit.  A few quick gasps of breath as I slipped or discovered more snow than I expected, but overall quite doable.  The hike and view at the bottom were nice as well.  The multiple layers of this park made for very interesting times, and very pretty ones.  Also, I saw big-horn sheep.

 It was a clear morning, but as the afternoon came, so to did weather.  When I began to climb up the side of the Island again small flakes of snow were falling.  By the time I reached the top and walked a mile or so out to a view point it had turned into a full-on blizzard.  Which was quite disappointing as I had a series of overlooks planned for the afternoon.  I did them anyways and found the weather kept oscillating between blizzard and blue sky.  It was fun when I reached the overlook above my trail that day: in the blizzard with a 1000'+ drop straight down right beneath me, I pulled out my harmonica and blew out some tunes including Amazing Grace.  It might only have been for me, but  appreciated it.  Below is a picture of upheaval dome, taken in one of those blue sky moments.

I went to the visitor center to ask about conditions and weather.  I was told the next day would bring clear skies, but the rangers couldn't tell me much about trail conditions.  It makes sense based on what I saw I guess.  The trail I went down that day was clear of prints after the first few hundred feet, and the one I was to go down the next day didn't even have tracks approaching it, much less going down.

I had a long hike planned for the next day, it was to be my last one and after having been stymied twice I really wanted this one to work.  It was simpler than the first one I planned, and most of it didn't have much that could go wrong, but there was one part that was still up for grabs.  The plan was to head down Gooseberry trail to the shelf below the Island, then walk around on the 4x4 road to Murphy's trail and go up that.  Murphy's was the trail I did this day, so I knew I could do that, and the 4x4 road was, well, a road.  But the trail down, this 'Gooseberry' was reputed to be the hardest trail, and most dangerous one in the park.  It wasn't really dangerous in the summer, or so I was told, but winter is different (as I had adequately discovered in Needles).

All the ranger could tell me was that it could be treacherous, no one had done it yet this season, but they also hadn't closed it (though since no one had seen it I don't know what they were basing their choice on). All this added on to the fact that I had injured my knee, and revived the stress-fracture I got in my left foot years ago on my mission.  Which wouldn't kill me but I knew if I couldn't make it back from my loop there would be no one out there for weeks to find me so I needed to make sure I could go the whole way.  The 26 mile loop wasn't that daunting but there were concerns.  With less light in the Winter, injuries, and hazardous trails you never knew.  Still it was to be my last walk and I decided to go for it.

That night I slept in my car.  It was not very comfortable, and it got very cold, the water bottle next to me froze pretty darn quickly and I ended up without much sleep.  But enough rest because I was ready to go in the morning for my adventure.

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