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Off the map
Story by Courtney Purcell
Impressions from 10 years of wandering Zion.
It started like it does for dads from the Midwest, Boy Scouts from Texas and newlyweds from the Bronx: with a hike up Angels Landing, that predictably obvious, narrow fin of orange rock so tantalizingly cast out from Scout Lookout, a benign place to sit and watch, to lunch, beyond that other squiggly, curious haven, yes, Walter’s Wiggles, there in the mind-numbing center of the universe you and I call Zion Canyon. Named for the park’s first superintendent, Walt Ruesch, Walter’s Wiggles was a place my wife and I would later take (and lose) a young photographer who’d heard of my exploits in this, the grandest of parks, and wanted to document my experience in what had morphed into my “native habitat.” Or maybe he just wanted to go out for a hike and instead ended up scared out of his mind for all the snow, the ice, and the endless drop-offs. It was mid-January, after all. In a largely vertical land of dinner-plate choss.
Things got spooky, the drop-offs confrontational. Even the odd, exposed patch of red earth had the blood drained from it. The mood changed. After hours of plowing through snow and delicately skirting across exposed patches of diamond ice, our photographer friend gave up and walked down the hill, into some unrealized dream of a soft couch before a warm fire; now it was just my wife and me. We forged on and made a committing rappel from one horrifying snowy ridge to a narrow, corniced notch and hoped that a bit further, perhaps beyond the unclimbed summit, we’d find a way to get out of there, back to safe ground, back to terra firma. And back to Oscar’s, that Springdale gathering place where burritos and tiny birds alike wait for your tired arrival.
Understand, if only one thing: I’m a hack. I really am. But a determined one, with a wild vision of sandstone furnaces and icy pools of glowing emeralds — the highs and lows of southern Utah. Abbey’s land. The Hayduke Trail. I’d wandered all over the Sierra Nevada, the Tetons, the High Cascades, chasing Celine nightmares and Kerouac dreams, the Canadian and Colorado Rockies, the Alps, the Andes ... and the desert. The beautiful, sublime, supremely transformational desert. In all its Zen emptiness. And Zion, in particular, called me. Desolation angels, Jack’s term.
Unclimbed summits, as if beckoning to be found alive, sirens, all of them. Some 95 percent of the park, so I once read, is inaccessible to man. Angels Landing was a triumph. So, too, in a weirder way, was that icy one, Walter’s Wiggles, where that scared boy said not a word of goodbye but merely skulked off across the snow toward some car untold miles way down below. I was unfazed; I was ready to plunge forward.
Early on in my explorations, I had bought a topo map, shiny and new and eager to please, studied it, spotted an easy-looking peak on the park’s glorious East Side, and set out into a land of stolen Indian relics, bighorn sheep with broken legs, drowned, dying to last another season, and obscure dreams waiting to be realized. I clambered to the top of that next peak, then spotted another, and another, and then another couple dozen from that peak. Slickrock, miles of it, red and orange, yellow and peach. And such mysteries in every fold of frozen earth. Waiting to be found. A petroglyph of a sheep, food for the entire family. A pictograph of an owl, a handprint chipped into a small boulder, cliff ruins. An Indian burial chamber under an alcove. Pristine springs of hanging ferns and clutching moss. Unimaginable clutter of virtue. And also a long-forgotten, secret canyon with pioneer inscriptions, hanging ladders and lots of history, entirely unremembered. (But the guy behind the backcountry desk, that senseless place where the phones are never answered, couldn’t care less when I told him about it, for he might want to notify a park historian. And that’s when I realized nobody really cared.)
In the daily, ever-blissful void grind, those of us who take a moment to reflect, to acknowledge one’s breath, might notice among the bitterness of habit something strange yet comforting about a furtive uneasiness we prefer not to acknowledge. And with that awareness, something sublime presents itself. This, I’ve felt on not one occasion, not even two or three occasions, but on perhaps every occasion.
It starts with the almost imperceptible vibration of the sand and the rocks, a nearly clairvoyant communion with the scrappy shrubs, not the least lovable of which is the manzanita. Around the base of many such bush, on a multitude of occasions, barely recognizable from today or even tomorrow, I’ve delicately tied a piece of nylon webbing, to which I’d attach a rope, and from which I’d entrust my life. That deadpan red bark, the branches stiff and unforgiving, to these I’d count on for future days, step back over that tenuous cliff edge clinging to my rope, and hope that I’d reach the ground below at a speed much less than that which would kill me.
See, in the Zion backcountry, large, deeply rooted, healthy trees, secure and robust, are a rare commodity, a solemn luxury, when you need to find a way off a steep face of crumbling and questionable integrity, as it all is here. More times than not, it’s almost easier, certainly on the back from which dangles a filthy pack, to leave the ropes behind and rely upon your feet, your sense of balance and delicacy, and certainly your overzealous sense of nerve and grandly overstated bravado.
And a tiny bit of all of this applied one night as I drove ignorantly into a storm, dark and drizzly, the unseen depths of a bottomless sky belching out insults, from my home in Las Vegas to the park’s doorstep to grab a few hours of precious and fitful sleep in the visitor center parking lot before … well, I’ll get to that in a moment. I never actually slept; see, if you tried it yourself you’d learn it’s impossible to sleep when you know in five hours you’ll terrifyingly embark on a clueless solo endeavor to climb a peak you can only hope is survivable without a rope, because you’re not bringing one and the steep rock’s too fragile, too heinous, too much like loosely consolidated gravel to trust anyhow, and there are few, nay almost none, of those sweet, little manzanitas around to save your life ... and I conveniently didn’t yet know that it was unlawful to sleep in the visitor center parking lot anyhow. I was languishing in a half-articulate state somewhere between meditation and death when a ranger banged on my window in the pouring rain and told me to get a move-on.
[Hear more: Hear about some great spring hikes in Southern Nevada on KNPR's State of Nevada.]
Can’t sleep here, rules or no rules.
And so get moving I did. Right to the trailhead, and right then off to that bastardly wonderful mountain, whose summit in some miraculous gesture of forgiveness permitted me to intrude upon her timeless solitude. I’d survived the way up and would likewise survive the descent. But I didn’t really do it alone — the rocks began to lightly vibrate, the many-faceted grains of sand of which they are composed to shimmer, and the mountain to breathe — I felt a connection, I felt one with the larger organism, and I was able to flow. Such experiences can be found easily here, and everywhere, if you pause to sniff the rarefied air of eternity.
Nature teaches the mindful lessons. They are many:
I can remember once encountering brush so thick I traveled a quarter mile without ever actually touching the earth. There are other spots, ancient platforms on which to perch and redeem ourselves for all the wrongs we’re certain we’ve never committed but absolutely have. There are places, several of them in Zion, around which the earth actually revolves. Some are easier to reach than others; all will influence the way you view the earth, wildness and, thankfully, yourself. The interconnectedness of absolutely everything is displayed spectrally before your very eyes — and you are not the same person who left the car that morning. There, across a sea of sand and rock, are endless ripples of worlds altogether forgotten or entirely overlooked.
Simply put, Zion is amazing. And so, too, are the people that come.
Super-human types have done incredible technical mega-feats that will drop the jaws of the initiated and stir from slumber even the most veteran sofa king. And there are those waifish runners who travel like deer by trail 50-some miles across the park, from its lonely and forgotten Kolob Canyons entrance in the northwest to its slightly less obscure east entrance, in a single day. Even a punter like me has managed to put together some semi-impressive tests of endurance and triumph over error. One multi-peak enchainment in particular was 22 miles from car-to-car with some 11,000 feet of uphill gain, but the kicker as I see it had nothing to do with human accomplishment, no, it was that I never, ever stepped foot on so much as an inch of trail or found evidence of human influence while doing it. That, my friends, is the actual definition of wilderness.
Wilderness. While you’ve the option of gallivanting through much of this wildness blissfully unaware of anything connected with mankind, the inescapable fact is that you are forever surrounded by the cool and whimsical names given by man to many of the features within the park: The Watchman, Great White Throne, Weeping Rock, Icebox Canyon, Mount Majestic, Inclined Temple, Towers of the Virgin, Altar of Sacrifice. It stirs the imagination and alters the mind. And, my, how an organically unnamed, obscure, isolated peak no one cares about roots itself into your psyche when you have something to call it.
I eventually wrote a book about the park and its wonderful landscape. Shame on me. You see, there’d been little or no information about exploring that rusty wilderness; I’d figured it out more or less on my own, and now I had to tell someone, tell everyone. Granted, I wasn’t the first explorer to lamely wander these stony woods, but I was certainly among the most foolish and arrogant. I wrote this shameful book, a boastful book about the nearly 100 different park summits I’d attained on my way to over 160 of those beautiful, wretched and crumbly things, about a few of the three dozen or so canyons I’d slithered through like some paranoid salamander seeking low ground away from unwatching eyes, and selfishly shared with people I’d never know the secrets the vast Zion wilderness had shared with me. But those strangers, doing what strangers and friends alike do, inevitably (heck, I practically dared them!) wandered and tread and corrupted that unpolluted land with trash and turds, piss and footprints. We all care, though we are usually too ignorant to realize it.
I pulled the book off the shelves, regretted having published it, I shut my loud mouth, and continued to wander. Up mountain, down canyon, fewer granted since the masses took to holes in the ground by rope and by further guidebook, and around into colorful nooks and crannies, following sheep trails and entire herds of elk on their passages from one untamed pasture to the next. An unknown arch perched on the edge of a 2,000-foot precipice, bizarre and inspiring enough to draw tourists by the busload were it not for that seven-hour hike to reach it, there hovering over grooving ground so pointless and unpresumptive — this I’ve found too. Another day exploring the mountains.
So … 95 percent, they said. Ten years wandering those hardened sands, creeping across summits and through shady dells, and I think, through no fault of my own, after all I have benefited from the companionship and technical prowess of many fools and fanatics, I’ve finally crashed through to about 80 percent. Casual work for an average bighorn sheep but pretty spectacular, I think, for a petty human being. Or maybe not. The only thing that matters, truth be told, is how much a human or other animal has grown from the experience. And how much he cares.
Las Vegan Courtney Purcell has climbed, scaled and scrambled up more than 160 of Zion's mountains.
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