Open Road

Open Road

Friday, July 25, 2014

Is my life defined by the number of switchbacks I can do, OR Let's water those seeds, shall we?

April told me after my last post that I do a good job of coming full circle with my stories, so here’s one that I didn’t even have to work at - it just happened that way.

In the past week, I have had the opportunity to do an incredible hike with each of the kids independently.  Jack and I hiked half way down the South Kaibab Trail, down to Cedar Ridge, in the Grand Canyon.  While Katie and I hiked to the top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park.  Both had their own challenges and rewards, and provided me an opportunity to spend some great one-on-one time with each child.

Our first day at the Grand Canyon we hiked the South Rim Trail, and were in awe of the expanse that the Grand Canyon covers.  The earthy reds and soft beiges that make up the cliffs paint a picture that is so softly beautiful that it looks like God has simply hung a giant canvas in front of you.  I honestly felt the whole scene had to be a Hollywood staged illusion and couldn’t possibly be real.

While walking the Rim Trail, I could see trails leading down into the canyon and started wondering how the vista would change from the bottom, rather than the top.  I talked to a ranger who told me: 1.) We should not hike all the way to the bottom of the canyon unless we were planning on spending the night, as it is too far to make it there and back in a single day with the heat we were experiencing; 2.) Even for a partial hike, he recommended leaving first thing in the morning so that we could be back by late-morning; 3.) For the best views, he recommended the South Kaibab Trail, but given the first two points above, he told me we should not hike beyond Cedar Ridge.  Jack decided he wanted to see the bottom of the canyon and would accompany me.

After driving into the park, then catching the shuttle bus to the trailhead, Jack and I started down the trail right at 7:00.  By 7:15 Jack had decided he was going to count the number of switchbacks that we were crossing to make our descent.  Throughout the course of the morning the number grew to ten, then the teens, then the twenties.  Despite the ever changing view, and the ability to see Cedar Ridge from a few of the turns, Jack started to question his ability to go on.  He even “called it” at one point and said he was ready to go back, but I promised him that we were no more than one or two turns from the bottom and that I had packed snacks for when we got there.  Anyone who knows Jack, knows that with this new information (i.e., snacks had been packed) we soldiered on.

We no sooner reached Cedar Ridge and found a nice place in the shade to enjoy a granola bar and some pretzels, when I saw a small crowd gathering at the end of the ridge around a large black object.  I got out the binoculars and saw that it was a California Condor and it was perched on the ground at the end of the ridge.  We made our way out there and ended up getting within about 50 feet before we decided to stop.  There was nothing between us and the bird and we spent a good amount of time taking pictures and video of the perched bird and four others that were circling around overhead.  

California Condors had been near extinction in the 1980’s and had been down to only 22 birds remaining.  Through a program that started by hatching birds in captivity, and then relentlessly tracking and keeping released birds safe from harm, there are now over 400 birds.  More importantly, they are starting to nest again, and produce offspring in the wild.  The California Condor has the largest wingspan of any flighted bird, averaging around nine and a half feet.  Though their bald heads are not the prettiest to look at, they are truly magnificent in flight.  Each Condor will fly an average of 200 to 400 miles per day while looking for food.  Because of their size, they are incredibly efficient fliers.  They seldom flap their wings, and instead use the thermals created by the heat rising from the desert to soar from place to place.  It was the soaring that gave us a magnificent experience on the way back up the canyon.

We lost count of how many switchbacks there were on the way down.  It was easily in the high twenties, perhaps more.  All I know is that they are a lot easier going down, than going back up.  We made frequent stops on the way up, and found ourselves working in parallel with two other families.  Jack and I would charge ahead for a bit until we tired and found a good resting spot, and the other two families would catch up.  Someone else would catch their breath first and start out again to find the next resting spot.  And so it went, switchback after switch back, mile after mile.

We were resting with one of the other families when it happened.  Jack and one of the other boys were sitting on a rock catching their breath, as were the rest of us that were standing.  The corner that we stopped at just happened to look straight  down a decline in the trail that looked right towards Cedar Ridge.  I happened to look up to see one of the soaring condors way off in the distance, but heading straight towards us.  I quick snapped open the video camera that was in my hand, while joking with Jack that he was attracting condors.  As I sat there and filmed this condor, to my amazement, it did not turn away.  It flew straight at us, and ended up soaring straight over our heads.  We keep saying that it passed within three feet of our heads, but in all honesty it was probably five feet.  It was so close that if I had a half way intimidating vertical leap, I could have jumped up and touched it.  In any case, I had no time to think about that, as I was too in awe of watching this rare, and magnificent bird course right over our heads.

Having the close encounter with the condor, made the trip for Jack.  He could’t wait to tell Mom and Katie when we got back to Harvey.  For me, it was seeing how well he did on the trek.  Jack normally doesn’t embrace big physical activities, and when he does he does it with the normal goofing around of a ten year old.  He and I had a serious talk before heading out, that some of these cliffs were going to be high, and that he couldn’t screw around on this hike.  He handled it with great maturity, and during one of our talks along the way, he said he thought he wanted to come back to Grand Canyon someday to do a river rafting and camping excursion.  I might make an outdoorsman out of him yet!

When I had done my cross-country road trip while coming home from my internship, a number of people told me not to go see Zion unless I had at least two days to dedicate to the park.  It did not disappoint!  When April and I re-worked the itinerary a couple of weeks ago, we gave the park two and a half days.  We had a good drive from the South Rim of Grand Canyon, so we used the afternoon after our arrival to drive around the park, find the visitor center and talk to a ranger.  April and I had both done our research on different hikes, but we wanted to get a professional’s opinion.  We talked to a great ranger, who helped us map out a full two days that would see a majority of the park.  The weather was forecasted to be nice, so we took the top off of Toad and set out on our adventures.

One of the hikes the ranger highlighted was one that I had heard about back in 2005 - the hike up to the top of Angels Landing.  A 1,488 foot monolith that juts out from the canyon wall and sits across the valley from a peak named the Great White Throne.  Both were named by a Methodist minister in 1916, Frederick Fisher.  When Fisher saw Angels Landing, he proclaimed, “only an angel could land on it.”  In the mid-1920’s they engineered a trail up the back side of the mountain that leads to the top.  In order to get all the way to the top, you have to scale the spine of a large fin that connects Angels Landing to the rest of the valley wall.  The top of the fin is only 8-10 feet wide in some places, with the trail only occupying about two feet of that space.  If you look off the sides of the fin, it is ~1,500 feet straight down on one side, and ~800 feet straight down on the other.  There are chains in place to help you navigate the climb, but you are not secured to anything and must navigate it yourself.  To add to the fun, there are constantly people going up and coming down at the same time, and both must share the same chains and the narrow trail.

As the ranger was describing the hike, both Katie’s and my eyes lit up.  This is exactly the type of challenge that gets us going.  We picked out a morning to do the hike, that would allow us to connect with April and Jack later in the day to explore more of the park and started our prep.  We filled our camel backs with water, made wraps for lunch, grabbed apples, a combination of pretzels and chips, and the video camera.

For the second time in three days I was facing an uphill climb through more switchbacks than I can count.  The trail first leads you from the valley floor, up a series of switchbacks to a narrow canyon that leads you to the back of the mountain.  Once on the back, you have a  series of twenty-one short, but very steep switchbacks known as ‘Walter’s Wiggles.’  At the end of the wiggles you are on a small plateau called Scout’s Landing that gives you a good view of the valley to the north, including Big Bend and the Temple of Sinawava, but not the whole valley.  That is only available from the top of Angels Landing, and Scout’s Landing is where you jump onto the spine of the mountain that will lead you to the top.

Early in our day, shortly after we had started our hike, we were passed by a ranger who was heading up to Scout’s Landing.  He said he was going to be there throughout the day providing a talk on one of the rarest birds around - the California Condor.  I told him that I had a close encounter two days before with one and we agreed to discuss it more fully when we reached the top.  Since he was in much better shape than Katie or I, he bounded off and left us to slowly huff and puff our way up the trail.  When we reached Scout’s Landing, the ranger had about thirty people gathered around him and he was deep in discussion about condors, so Katie and I decided to continue on to the top and would catch up with the ranger on our way back down.  

The start of the chains is most harrowing part.  I had been carrying my video camera in my hand throughout the hike to that point, and as soon as I saw what we were facing, I put it back in my backpack.  The first couple of hundred feet are going up a fairly steep incline, where the slope is running parallel with the canyon wall.  So, if you slip off you will be sliding straight down to an 800 foot drop.  To further complicate this part, the sandstone is flaking off through this section, and looks like the scales of a fish, and each scale was large enough to put one foot on.  
On the chains to
Angels Landing

As we traversed this section, I felt like I was constantly yelling at Katie, “ALWAYS keep one hand on the chain!”  She would call back to me, “I’m fine, Dad.  I’ve got good footing, and I’m O.K.”  To the amusement of the people around us, I would reply back, “Katie, I don’t need you to hold the chain for you.  I need you to hold the chain for me!”  I loved seeing her step out there on her own, but man the thought of something happening to her was nerve wracking.  More so, I was afraid of what April would do to me if something happened to her.  In the end, I kept one hand on the chain, and my second hand on the handle of her backpack.  I tried to assess a couple of times if that would actually provide me any hold if she slipped and somehow I convinced myself that it would.

Once we made it through the first section, the rest was just climbing over rocks, and figuring out how to navigate the narrow trail with the other hikers that were on it.  Similar to the hike with Jack, we found ourselves in a group of hikers and we would shout moral support to one another as we were making our way up the mountain.  When we finally reached the top of Angels Landing, there is about a 100 yard stretch of rock that is like the peak of a roof - coming to a point in the middle and sloping off to either side.  Fortunately, it is a shallow peak and we could almost run down it to reach the end point at Angels Landing.  From there, we were rewarded with incredible views all the way up and down the valley.  Simply stunning!  The folks that told me to give Zion its due weren’t kidding.  It is a sanctuary.

After relaxing with a couple of apples and a couple of pretzels - we were too pumped up to eat anything else - we started back down.  The hike down wasn’t nearly as bad, and I even got out the video camera a couple of times to record the trek. We quickly made it back to Scout’s Landing and the ranger was just mingling with a couple of other hikers.

Katie and I approached him and I started relaying the events of the hike Jack and I took two days before.  I even stopped and showed him the video I had of the birds and he started telling me just how lucky we were.  He had a condor feather, which was about two feet long, and told us to flap it.  It was amazing how much air you could feel it push as you moved it up and down.  The ranger also told us all about the program that had been set up to repopulate the species, and how they were now getting live hatches happening in the wild.  In fact, the first nest / hatch had just happened this past spring in Zion.  Previous to that, they had all been in the Grand Canyon.

As we were talking to him, another woman approached and told the ranger that she had just had an encounter with a group of condors, and as we talked we realized that she had been on Cedar Ridge shortly after Jack and I had been.  The condors are all tagged, and so Jack and I know that the condor that was on the end of the ridge was ’60’ and the one that flew over us was ’31’.  When the ranger asked her which birds she had seen, she said they were only able to get one number and it was ’09’.  Hearing this the ranger exclaimed, “Well, what was she doing all the way down there?”  Turns out that #9 is the female of the pair that nested, and was raising a baby, in Zion.  Looks like what we were told is true - condors will fly 200 to 400 miles for food.  

So, two incredible hikes - tied together by one of the rarest of bonds.  A bird from one park, showing up at another and making our day at both places.  As I reflected on this, I couldn’t help but think of the distance the mama condor will go to take care of her baby.  Likewise, I can’t believe the distance we have come to provide our children these opportunities to reach and grow.  I hope in both cases, the new generation flourishes!

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