Monday, October 18, 2010

La Sal Mountains, Part 2

Camp below Mellenthin
A pink piece of surveyors tape on a branch and a small pile of rocks. Those were needless markers for a spot where nature had created it's own exclamation point on the landscape. We had just hiked out of the pines above Geyser Pass and were standing on a narrow strip of grass, no wider than 15', that skirted a massive talus field. The grey granite rocks completely covered the surface of Mt. Mellenthin which dominated the view to our south. I don't know if I had ever seen rock spread so perfectly, so evenly. It looked like a giant backyard rock garden where gravel fanned out along the mountain and blanketed the rolling ground below it. A few sparse trees and gnarled dead wood poked out of the stone, not in defiance, more like remnants of the surface below that were spared by the mountains decaying shroud. The placement of the few coniferous bastions gave the landscape an unbalanced focus, standing there in negative space against the hulking peak above. Other than the damp ground and a sparse trickle of water flowing from the edge of the rocks, we could not see any obvious sources of water. We had reached an abrupt transitional area between rock and wood. We had reached our stopping point for the day. With storm clouds building on the horizon, Lexi and I set up the tent first, then whiled away the afternoon casually setting up the rest of camp and napping. When the rain finally fell, I put out a mug to see if I could gather a little rainwater to drink. While the drops were quite frequent and heavy, it was amazing to see how it yielded less than a teaspoon in my mug.

Lexi enjoying happy hour in the LaSals
After dinner the storms passed and the setting sun fell behind the trees behind our camp, catching us in a damp, cold shadow. I walked up the scree to a line of light that separated us from the evening warmth. Bright green specks of lichen glowed in the sun. Immediately I was warmed and eagerly worked my way up slope to a level spot where a few trees created a sort of oasis in a desert of granite. At the top of this little hill, I could see over the trees that we had walked through above Geyser Pass. Across the western horizon stretched the red blazing canyons and buttes of the Colorado Plateau. I went back down, loaded a small day pack with some wine, the camera, and our SPOT locater and told Lex we found our entertainment for the night. We walked back up the talus and sat on a log where we got a warm embrace from the setting sun and the wine. We looked down at Geyser Pass and the stunning mountains that surrounded us. We could see and hear the cows, their moos echoing off the hills and making us laugh at how happy we were to be away from the cacophony that we struggled through earlier in the day.

As we watched the sun set and an almost full moon rise behind us, I thought of nocturnal visitors. We hadn't seen any major wildlife yet, but the night before at our Oowah Lake camp, signs warned about bears. Just that morning I thought I heard one struggling in the brush across from our campsite. Now, as we left the viewpoint to store our food in a tree away from camp, I thought about how our tent was right in the middle of the only clear path to water, that trickling spring that came out of the rocks.. I kept thinking of some creature coming through for a late night drink and stumbling into an REI Half Dome full of dinner. I know that black bear attacks are rare, but knowing how unnerved I can get by even a rare encounter makes me somewhat resistant to ever camp in grizzly territory.

There was little chance of rain Saturday night, although I expected it to be cold, so we slept with the rainfly on and the vestibules unzipped. As I lay in the tent, to my right was the ghostly bright grey stone of the talus slope, illuminated by a nearly full moon and to my left were the dark jagged shadows of the forest. Unlike our camp the night before, we had the full force of the bright moon shining into our tent, which I kind of liked. The silhouettes of lone trees up on the talus stood starkly in the pale bluish grey of the sky. Not a great night for stargazing, tonight was the moon's moment. I pulled Wallace Stegner's “Beyond the 100th Meridian” out of a ziploc bag and started reading about John Wesley Powell's landmark journey down the Colorado River. It's not unusual for my travels to these stunning western landscapes to inspire my interest in their histories. We were going to sleep early, before 10pm, but the Sunday in front of us would require as much rest as we could get. The day would include a summit attempt of Mt. Mellenthin, breaking camp, and then the long hike back to Oowah Lake.

At 6:30, the alarm on my watch went off from the mesh gear pouch hanging from the top of the tent. A restless night thinking about bears made for tough sleeping, but once sunrise hit, we were done with ursidae concerns and shifted to our concern to time. We wanted to complete our days tasks without having too late of a drive back to Salt Lake. I crawled out of the tent with more enthusiasm than normal and once I retrieved the bear bag, I started prepping a simple breakfast of bagels and polenta. Lexi got up soon after me and we gathered up a few items for my daypack and secured the rest of our camp against any rain that might come. I grabbed my three essential pocket items from the tent: a Fisher Space Pen, my Leatherman and a compass. Lexi joked that while camping, I always needs something with which to “fight, write, and know where I am”.
The skies looked good currently, but a mass of clouds built up in the west. I didn't have any immediate concern from the weather and I figured we still had time to get up and down before any possible storms. We started off around 8:15. We skirted the talus eon the thin strip of bare ground for no more than 5 minutes before we had to plant our feet on the uneven, noisy surface of granite that ascended up the length of Mt. Mellenthin. I led us on a rather straight forward route that took us towards a spine of the north ridge. After scrambling over some steep sections, we gained the ridge and I was disheartened to see a much easier approach on the opposite side; a gentle grade that cost a longer circumnavigation of the ridge. Regardless of our route however, steady footing was not a trait Mt. Mellenthin would grant us. The rocks jammed and contorted into each other; sometimes sticking out like blades. Once we reached the northern tip of the ridge at 11,775', the incline became a more manageable and we now had three directions with which to take in the view. From this point, Mt. Tukuhnikivatz was the start of a clockwise vista that included all but a slice of perspective blocked by Mellenthin. While I wasn't exhausted, the hour of hiking without any sort of mellow section with which to recover did take a toll, especially when we saw nothing but the same loose rock above us. We had been out about an hour and still were almost a 1,000' from the top.

Lexi's frustration was apparent, but only in the quiet way with which she struggled, not because of any vocal objections. This was already the highest point we had reached together and I told her I would have very little regret if we chose to turn back here. I told her this, already knowing it would take much more than this to make her give up. On many of our journeys, we have a superficial dynamic of gaging each others experience. I remind her not to push herself just to keep from disappointing me, continually asking her if she's enjoying things. For her part, she asks if her slower pace is souring my experience. By now though, beneath these sympathetic assurances, we've gained an underlying knowledge that together we'll still manage to make it to whatever goal we've set and look fondly on the experience in spite of the challenges.

Lexi's wardrobe malfunctions on the climb to Mellenthin
Lexi had put on her jacket and convertible pant legs as the wind began coming at us on the exposed ridge. Before continuing on from our halfway rest point, I took a moment to re-zip the legs on for her as Lex, never a fan of the tiny zipper, had misaligned the pull and hiked the last 20 minutes with her bare knee hanging out of a large gap. The fact that she refused to immediately stop when I offered to fix the problem was another testament to her determination. After fixing the wardrobe malfunction, I put on my jacket and wished I had brought pants as well. Her few curses towards the “damn pile of rocks” began to be a minor worry for me as I looked to the west. The clouds I evaluated as we left camp that morning looked more threatening. I still thought we were close enough to the summit to beat any bad weather and Lexi trusted my judgment on that. Plus, these clouds didn't seem like a mid-day heat induced thunderstorm, they just looked like a good old fashioned, low pressure front coming in. The temps had hardly reached a boiling point that would precipitate lightening, which is always my first concern on a highpoint. However, the prospect of descending on wet granite didn't sound good either.

The fatigue of balancing on rocks, scrambling on all fours and having every footstep punctuated by a concentrated pressure point of rock began to sap us, but Lexi marveled at the way I still “danced “ up the mountain. I still felt good and with the summit looking close, I did try to pick the pace up as we started out again. I tried to urge her on with estimates of how soon we would be on the top. Those estimates would have been pretty accurate except that when we reached the western extreme of the summit, we saw the true high point still lay to the east.

Looking west over the Colorado Plateau
From our camp below the mountain, the summit looked like the western side of the mountain. But because the peak ran diagonally away from us, the true highpoint, on the east side of the summit ridge was far enough away to look lower. Between our supposed summit and the true summit was almost a ¼ of flat, narrow mountain top with one more false summits in between. After 10 minutes more of hiking, we finally came to a wide expansive area without any discernible markers, however this must have been the highpoint: 12,645', the 2nd highest point in the La Sals. Now we got all four directions within ken. To our north, across the pasture lands where we could still hear cows mooing, were the northern La Sals. Behind them, you could make out most of the cavernous Castle Valley, it's severe western wall created by the Porcupine Rim and in the valley below that line, the towering monuments which erupted from the red floor. The northern peaks still covered any view of Fisher Tower and Professor Valley, yet now, from this perch, the mass of the La Sals seemed less. From below they looked like these powerful giants that shielded Moab and the Spanish Valley. From above, they were lost mountains in a landscape where canyons and redrock ruled. The area they covered seemed small in comparison to the expansive fissures and mesas that surrounded them. To the east, the La Sals receded into Colorado as suddenly as they erupted. The range never gets more than two mountains thick going east to west, and from where we stood, no peak blocked our view of the dark green basin that drained into the Dolores River. Smoke rose above the rim of a canyon, probably due to a wildfire, and far into the horizon beyond that, the Uncomphagre Mountain range of Colorado faintly pushed into view. To the south we saw the broad stretching summit of Mt. Peale, the highest in the LaSals with a few pockets of snow clinging to it's rocky, steep north face. Between us and Peale was a mile long ridge that actually had green earth poking through on some of the saddles, nude mountain in spots that were probably too steep to hold rock. At the far extreme of that ridge, where the flanks of massive Peale crawled up the the east, a more defined and rounded summit arose to the west. The hump of Mt. Tukuhnikivatz lay on the other side of this junction, and it's position makes it the most visible peaks from Moab. It hides Peale and with its triangular point, the 12,482' peak seems to perfect to be real. My boyhood drawings in Wisconsin would usually have mountains shaped in this fantastically symetrical manner. Finally, to the west spread the never ending Colorado Plateau. We could see the islands of rock in a sea of recessed canyons. There were the Abajo Mountains to the southwest and another awkward mountainous eruption of the Henry Mountains, straight west beyond the cracking surface of Canyonlands National Park.

An incipient perspective superseded the glory of another mountain climbed. This mountain range opened a capacious point of view that I'm sure John Wesley Powell would have valued for not just it's stunning beauty but for clarifying the arrangement of such a cracked and fissured landscape. From deep in the canyons of red rock country, there is little in the way of horizon. The views, while stunning, are often confined to the closest canyon wall. Now, standing 7,000 feet over the Colorado Plateau, I began to pull together the enormous landscape that fascinated Powell. The Colorado River coming in from the east along the chasm of rock that created Professor Valley. The deep, anonymous fissure of the Green River, which descends from high above in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming until uniting with the Colorado in the depths of an area known simply as “The Confluence”. Across the expanse of plateaus that make up Canyonlands National Park, diffused by sun streaking through storm clouds were the peaks of the Henry's Mountains and Thousand Lake Mountain, where I spent a cold fall night a few years ago gathering in the view from the opposite direction. Utah's sprawling wilderness, which exemplifies both the fantasy and reality of the west, could be consumed from this one point. It was the first time I ever stood on the mountain and felt that my geological perch paled in comparison to the earth below me. The efficacy of millennial erosion in the countless canyons below excited me. Were the LaSals here just to give nature geeks like me a great view of one of America's greatest treasures? The pile of rocks I now stood on inverted my view. Instead of seeing a lush, alpine texture continue for miles, I absorbed a spastic eruption of grey granite in a sea of sandstone. Two worlds collide here in the LaSals, and I think that's what I will most remember of this trip.  

No comments: