Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lightning Part 2: purveyor of fright and flight in the field

Such a cool day for Zion...we had to take advantage of it. A storm system was on its way, pushing thin layers of clouds through the sky. We decided on Coalpits Wash...a site that has been avoided for some time due to its location deep in the bowels of Zion. It is said to be a hot, long hike, filled with marauding deer flies and energy-sucking sand the entirety of the way. We began our hike around 4PM, and to the satisfaction of our souls (at least the satisfaction seems to go that deep), we hiked in coolness the whole way. We knew that thunderstorms were in the forecast for later days, not today, and headed out without rain coats or tents. Having just got out of Currant Creek and running on four hours of sleep, my legs were slow to respond, but I forced them along. We wound our way down into a sandy wash through burnt skeletons of juniper and pinyon pine, eventually, after hiking through remnants of a petrified forest and then an old lava flow, dropped into Coalpits Wash, another much larger sandy wash. Burnt cottonwood trees line the banks. Occasionally a cottonwood giant looms overhead, its main trunk and primary branches bleached ivory white in the sun, while its smaller branches remain scorched-black, appearing as oil-dipped fingers on a pale hand. We pass the edge of the fire. Cottonwoods rattled their green leaves at us as we passed. Not only cool out, but slightly windy too. So perfect for hiking in this country! And no deer flies whatsoever either. Somehow, our GPS takes us off-course, up a large tributary to Coal pits wash. A minor set back...we cross over a small hill to get back on course, only losing 45 minutes. Coalpits "Wash" now turns into a small, narrow stream overgrown with horsetail and other riparian species. Tadpoles swarm every pocket of water...more tadpoles than could be imagined to even exist in the world at any one time...and along with the tadpoles, the metamorphosed toads and frogs are hopping everywhere (nearly every step caused multiple toads/frogs to jump out of the way), most the size of the tip of your pinky finger, many with remnants of tails dragging behind. It is getting late by now, about 8:30, and we still haven't reached our destination, the so-called "amphitheater." The wind picks up in gusts. A crack of thunder shatters the air. The clouds are building behind us. In most canyons in Zion, thunderstorms can be extremely dangerous. Rain that falls on the bare sandstone rock immediately runs off and collects in the canyons. Most of the canyons are narrow, locked between vertical cliffs. The result: flash floods. With vertical cliffs on each side, attempts at escaping the oncoming rush of water, rocks, mud, trees, and other debris is futile, and many lives have been lost in such situations. However, (and this is where you can relax mother), we had wisely chosen Coalpits Wash to venture into because it happens to be a broad valley, with ample escape routes along the entire stretch. Flash floods were not the issue; getting completely soaked, including our sleeping bags, sleeping in the rain (since we did not have tents), and risking getting hypothermia was our primary concern. Our feet quickened pace. Our objective was to find a cliff overhang large enough to sleep under for the night, but as we progressed upstream, no overhangs presented themselves. The eve of darkness had fallen upon us and raindrops had begun to fall. We had to make a decision. Either we keep winding our way up stream and hope to reach the amphitheater where overhangs are likely or we strike perpendicular to the stream and head up the steep, scrub- and rock-infested slopes that lead to the edge of the canyon cliffs where overhangs are possible, but not guaranteed. I voted for the former, the others for the latter. Me being outvoted, we struck up the slope, tearing through scrub and stumbling up sand and rock. The cliff was farther than it appeared, and many times I muttered out loud "well...we're screwed!" To make our tidings worse, somebody realized that we should have filtered water before we had clambered up the slope. Steph was out, Mike had a very minuscule amount, and I had a liter and a half. It was too late to turn back, so we trudged on. A large vertical rock face stopped us from preceding, and I muttered again. A route up a corner slot allowed us to pass, and above that, a praiseworthy site: a cliff overhang. We carefully scrambled up to the overhang and found a four-foot wide ledge, with only room for three people and no more. Perfect. The rain began to fall lightly, and continued through half the night. From our perch high above the stream, we watched terrific blasts of lightning pierce the cloudy sky, lighting up the entire canyon. A thunderous thundering thunder would follow each strike, as well as a "wow" from the cliff dwelling spectators. We had come all this way for an owl, and we weren't about to leave without performing our survey. Mike immediately let out some hoots, and not five minutes later, a retort from the canyon adjacent to our spot revealed the owls presence. We all rejoiced aloud, and spent the remaining time enjoying the lightning show accompanied by a spotted owl calling in the distance. We had just enough room for our stove on the ledge and cooked a meal of Spanish rice and canned chicken. Our sleep consisted of tossings and turnings and grunts (for the rock ledge was not adequately comfortable for such awkwardly shaped creatures as us) and pleads for water (Steph woke me early in the morning, direly thirsty, for I had the only water). Awake at 5:30 the next morning, we packed up and descended down a scree field, filtered water at the bottom, and trudged the long hike out. Upon reaching the car, we rejoiced once again. We were all completely exhausted, but very happy that we had gotten the owl and stayed dry. Mike celebrated his return by treating himself to a hotel and pizza. Steph and I paid a visit to a movie theater and purchased some blessed ice cream.
Today (the day after our return), we relax, waiting out the thunderstorms that are to ensue for the next few days...

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