Monday, December 09, 2019

All of the Utah snow

In the hours after I returned from my bike trip around the White Rim, hard rain turned to sleet, then heavy snow. I planned to spend an extra day in Moab, mainly because I had so much work to catch up on. But as I watched white flakes accumulate outside my hotel room, I knew I needed to carve out some time. Sleepy and sore from all of the saddle miles, water hauls and mud carries that filled the previous week, I sat down at my laptop and pried my eyes open until 2 a.m. I knew when daylight returned, I'd want those extra hours to visit Arches National Park. 

Some of my earliest outdoor memories are from Arches — camping beside the redrocks in the family's beige Coleman tent, crawling on sandstone, renaming landmarks and balking when something that clearly should be "The Three Wise Men" was called "Three Gossips." When I was a teenager and my world was still small but my library research of philosophy literature was extensive, I concluded that consciousness turns inward after death, thus we all essentially choose our own heaven. My heaven, I decided then, would be a quiet, snow-bound winter day in Arches.

 By the time I was college-age, I'd read "Desert Solitaire" and understood that tourism ruined Arches, and that humanity ruined pretty everything else that was good and pure in this world. Friends and I would escape to the parts of the desert that few people sought, at least in the late 90s — corners of the San Rafael Swell at the end of long and bumpy jeep roads, obscure slot canyons far from an already seemingly abandoned Highway 95, and plenty of wilderness study areas. By then I mostly snubbed national parks — these were for the hoards, the masses, not for enlightened 20-year-olds who only seek the good and pure. As you can imagine, these arrogant ideals faded, but by then Arches and I had drifted apart. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've been in here as an adult. 

And, despite my teenage convictions about heaven, I don't believe I've ever visited Arches after a snowstorm. Snow is rare here, even in the depth of winter. Late-autumn squalls are especially unique. That's why I didn't want to pass up this opportunity. Although my ambition had me setting an alarm for 6 a.m., it was well after 7 when I finally boosted myself out the door with a deadline to be back at the desk by 11. It wasn't a lot of time, but it was enough.

The road hadn't been plowed and was slick as snot, which I suppose isn't surprising — not many snow plow crews based in this region. I crept along and stopped at several pullouts to take photos, then turned off the main road to visit the Windows section. Here is the spot I possibly remember best from childhood. My memories recorded an expansive place that required interminable walking to see all the many dozens of arches amid a virtual city of sandstone. Imagine 40-year-old Jill's disappointment when I realized it's really more like four or five arches, and a loop of every available trail nets about two miles of hiking.

I had fun breaking first tracks on the primitive loop. The footing was extra dicey with crusted powder over glare ice over sandstone. I was wearing my studded shoes and still slipped once on a steeper slope, landing hard on my right hip. You know what's funny about that incident, though? My lower back had been bothering me after the bike ride, and it stopped hurting altogether following this hike. Chiropractic care, courtesy of gravity.

When we were kids, we called this "A-OK Arch." I learned its real name is Turret Arch.

Double Arch. I have a less-clear memory of naming this one "Spaghetti Arch."

Looking back toward Windows. I was enamored with the sagebrush snowy puffballs. I think about five inches of snow accumulated, but it consolidated quickly in the sun. Temperatures still weren't all that warm, about 35 degrees.

Afterward I had a bit more time, so I drove to Delicate Arch trailhead to see if I could cover the three miles out and back in 45 minutes or so. Seemed doable, but I was not prepared for the trail to be inundated with humans. I know, I know ... if you don't want to be inundated with humans, don't go to Delicate Arch. The crowds were discouraging but I still made break for it, jogging the flats through ankle-deep slush and wending my way around people — mostly families with small children — often wearing wildly inappropriate footwear. My Dad later asked if I saw anyone wearing cowboy boots. None of those, but there were plenty of fashionable tennis shoes, Uggs, cheap plastic-soled snow boots and at least one pair of open-toed sandals. I also passed countless children bundled like that poor kid brother from "A Christmas Story" and whining at their parents, "I'm hot."

Trail conditions were dicey. The sandstone had mostly dried in the sun, but that only made the shady spots even more deceptively slippery. I felt vicariously nervous for the other humans with their small children and wildly inappropriate footwear. But that didn't really stop me from (safely) shouldering my way through tight spots and scrambling up sandstone outcroppings to dodge what had become a molasses-like flow of tentative hikers.

Then, there it was. Delicate Arch surrounded by snow. Worth it? Yes, worth it.

Strava selfie! This photo happened seconds before one of those people in the background ventured onto the black ice to attempt to stand beneath the arch. Inexplicably she had veered quite low, where the sandstone sloped steeply toward the lower bowl, and she was walking like a deranged chicken with her butt low to the ground and her arms straight out. Nearby, people she presumably knew called out, "You can do it Karen!" A guy next to me turned and said, "It's a bad time to be a Karen" ... presumably referring to that internet meme about entitled middle-aged women who want to talk to a manager. Either way, I couldn't watch anymore, so I turned around and left. I figured there were enough people around to call 911, and I couldn't bear to watch Karen's seemingly inevitable demise. Karen's name never turned up in the news, so I presume she made it. But it's sad to note that just three days later, three people fell and two died in what sounded like this exact spot.

One last Arches shot. Everything was quite muddy and slushy at this point in the morning, and I think I annoyed some people with my shameless splashing as I ran toward my impending deadlines. I again sympathized with the roasting children whose parents dressed them for blizzard before they climbed the steep, sun-baked sandstone.

The following morning I expected the snow to be gone, and was surprised when it was not. Temperatures were still just 35 degrees in town. I headed to Moab Rim to squeeze in a run before heading north to Salt Lake in a brief window before another forecasted storm.

I was feeling fierce. It surprised me how fresh and snappy my legs felt, as I expected to need more recovery time following the 300-mile ride. I think my body was just happy to not be bent over a bicycle, although my hip was sore following the previous days' icy sandstone slap.

Because of that hip pain and the memory of what caused it, I didn't run all that fast. Footing was tricky for me, and I took extra care to manage each step through the snow-covered sand and ice-covered slickrock. Also, I spent too much time gawking at scenery. It was a beautiful, quiet morning, though. Moab Rim is one of the most popular jeep trails in Southern Utah, and I didn't see a soul.

I understand why Moab became overrun with humans. And I also understand why they drift away when the cold and snow arrive. I understand, but I don't relate. My world may be a little bit bigger and my understanding of philosophy more nuanced these days, but this is still as close to heaven as any place I've found.

While I was playing in that skiff of desert snow, Beat was buried under nearly three feet of snow in Boulder. His truck slid into a ditch while he was plowing the road, and he couldn't even snowshoe through the heavy powder. He was essentially stuck at home for the holiday. Meanwhile, I skirted a similarly large storm in Northern Utah. By Thanksgiving morning there was a foot and a half at my aunt's house. We enjoyed dinner and other Thanksgiving traditions that have changed little in 40-plus years. On Black Friday, the day that my sisters indulge in shopping traditions, my dad and I have formed our own — hiking to the top of Gobblers Knob. Thanks to this storm, that wasn't possible this year — avalanche danger was just too high. Instead we opted for snowshoeing to Desolation Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

The "hiking" was a little ridiculous, but fun. Dad let me do most of the trail-breaking, since I'm the one in training for such silliness. There were long stretches where I sunk to my hips, even wearing snowshoes. For a mile or so we connected with a well-packed skin track, and felt so zoomy that we passed several uphill skiers. The skiers veered off toward slopes and we continued in the mire of the valley. At one point Dad used his 130-centimeter trekking pole to test the depth of fresh powder to the base, and it almost disappeared. So four feet of snow.

It was serene up there, to a degree. As you can see we're on nearly flat terrain, but the base underneath us collapsed several times. That eerie "whomp" is the worst sound. Along the steep bowl surrounding the lake, we could see several natural slides. Eek. Even on low-angled terrain far from run-out zones, I felt terribly uneasy.

Heading back, the storm picked up ferocity. Snow was blowing and accumulating at an impressive rate as we charged downhill, shivering amid the windchill. When we returned to the trailhead, Dad said, "That was almost epic!" ... but the adventure was just beginning. A steady stream of traffic was creeping down the canyon. Visibility was close to zero, and we couldn't see the row of brake lights until we were almost on them. Then traffic stopped. We sat. For hours. I pulled out my phone and scanned for news updates, and even recruited Beat at home in Boulder to dig around for more information. The best info we received were vague Twitter reports from UDOT, followed by hilarious replies from others stuck in the same traffic. At one point UDOT tweeted that the accidents had been cleared and traffic was moving again, please drive home safely ... and we sat in place for another 45 minutes. At this point my Dad and I were wet, cold, hungry, thirsty, shutting off the car engine to save gas, and terribly irritable. We're both impatient people who can't bear feeling trapped. It was pretty much Twitter that saved one or both of us from a temper tantrum. One reply to UDOT's disingenuous "updates" had Dad roaring:

"You sit on a throne of lies!"

Twitter is the best and worst of social media wrapped together, in my opinion. The site is home to so much meanness and inanity and misinformation, but it also offers the most up-to-date news and instant community in any situation. I joined others in the 280-character commiseration. Eventually traffic did begin to flow and we emerged from the canyon at 7:33 p.m., four hours after we left the trailhead. Four hours for nine miles. We hiked through four feet of snow faster than that, but not by much.

The following day, I didn't want to go to the mountains. Avalanche danger, traffic, Saturday crowds, no thanks. But Dad knows his Wasatch Mountains, and he had a good idea about where we could travel a through a relatively safe valley away from the hoards — Bowman Fork in Millcreek Canyon.

It was a gorgeous morning — cold and clear until more storm clouds moved in, but these only gave the skyline an ethereal quality.

Early in the trail we were passed by a lone hiker moving at a fast clip. A couple of miles later we caught up to him, and I figured out that he was breaking fresh trail. I hung back a little, as he seemed so gruff and determined when he passed that I didn't want to bother him. But as we approached, he just stopped and stood in place. There were a few seconds of something like a standoff, and then I broke the ice: "I guess we should take a pull." I moved in front and commenced punching through the hip-deep snow. The lone hiker followed behind us and chatted amicably with Dad for the next mile.

The thing about breaking trail through four feet of snow is that it's incredibly strenuous for the person up front, and of course so ridiculously slow that the people following behind are cold and bored. At White Fir Pass, the stranger turned around without much of a word about it. Dad and I opted to continue on with a spring as a hopeful destination, but we only managed about another half mile of ridiculously futile effort. I was climbing an interminable Stairmaster, punching through drifts as deep as my stomach and flailing as though I was swimming. Dad was understandably bored with my sub-mile-per-hour pace. We had lunch at a trail junction and turned around.

Hints of autumn clinging to the maple trees.

The descent and commute home went much more smoothly, and we made it home with plenty of time for a long-standing family Christmas tradition of dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory and touring the lights at Temple Square. With the crowds and chaos of my six nieces and nephews in tow, it was overwhelming at times, but I'm grateful for these traditions. 


  1. Captivated by the 6th photo in your post with the arching punch marks thru wind packed snow, the sun glow centered above an almost ominous cloud draped horizion, washing the foreground with a somber cool mood with worn and defiant stone hulks standing proudly on the ridge line. Very cool shot...great framing. IMO

    Jeff C

    “Always in motion is the future.”
    — Yoda, Jedi-Knight

  2. Jill, I (East-Coaster) have been to Canyonlands and Arches once, hiking and biking, and I know I will visit again. They live on in my heart, as do Bryce and Zion. Thank you for these stories and incredible photos over the last few days. Some of them will find their way onto my computer wallpaper at work.

  3. You take beautiful pictures and write beautifully as well. Thanks as always for your post. I don't comment very often at all, but sure do enjoy your postings.

  4. In October I explored Arches. I recognize all your pictures especially the one that shows the 200ft of vertigo inducing trail right before you see Delicate Arch. Thank god it was not ice or snow packed for me!!! I couldn't believe all the people on that trail and I hit it early as well. Luckily my son & I are in great shape as we ran up and back down. Totally worth it though when you get to see the Arch! Just beautiful!!

  5. Good times. You have some solid adventure partners :) I've only been to Arches with sis and my nephew who was about 3 or 4 years old, so I need to get back and do a proper outing. What a great place.

    "people — mostly families with small children — often wearing wildly inappropriate footwear" -- So, just the like the Flatirons! lol. When you look up at 45° mountains in the winter in your fashionable shoes and say "Yeah, I got this!"

  6. Simply stunning photography Jill! I definitely want to go back and now probably in late Fall. ;)
    I laughed at your 'gravity physio" visit as I had a similar occurrence in early 2018. I had a problem with my left shoulder which was severely impacting on my AZTR training, until an accidental encounter with a 4" log hidden in long grass that almost put me over the bars and in doing so, wrenched my shoulder 'right" again!


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