In which we scale an ice cascade

There are many things in nature that go predictably. It does take a while to hike a long distance with a pack. There are rocks that you need to either go over or around and even occasionally under. Weather is a lot more extreme when you are actually out in it. Most of these things are temporary obstacles that pass with time and leave you feeling appreciative of what you have and accomplished at where you have been and what you have live through. There are some things however that take a disproportionate amount of time for what in retrospect seems like very little accomplishment.

In this particular episode, I took a trip with my buddies to the Needles district of Canyonlands in January. The needles district is aptly named in that it has a bunch of standing rocks that are, in a descriptive word, needlelike. The landscape is otherwise a neat mix of slickrock, a few very determined juniper trees and shrubs that have created their own soil after sinking a root into a microscopic crack in a rock, extensive patches of cryptobiotic soils, and a patchwork of snow that covers anything that does not get enough sun to warm up the rocks.

The car camping the night before the hike was chilly as one might imagine in January in a high elevation desert. I slept in the car with the added benefit of easily turning it on to replenish some heating while the others drove in late and ambitiously enough to even set up a tent. Breakfast was leisurely since winter hiking pretty much mandates the opposite of the must-start-as-early-as-possible-because-its-summer-in-the-desert-and-the-sun-will-bake-you (as in an oven). We started in high spirits and trekked along taking pictures as you do more at the start of any adventure than in any subsequent day. Gatorade snow slushy took up a disproportionate amount of my attention as I tried to make the former out of the latter and ended up with a delicious frozen concoction.

Rest stops feature food that gets more delicious with the miles and new found phrases like “right in the cryptos” that arise when someone inadvertently steps on a thousand years worth of microbial engineering. Oops. We came to camp early enough to choose sights, set up tents, and even explore the area a bit and reflect on the…um…interesting naming of features like “Devil’s kitchen”. The second day proceeded much as the second except that the scenery is ever different in that way that there are no words to describe. We wandered in and out of slot canyons, around needles, and across valleys with natural monoliths rising around you in the most outrageous ways. The big debate of the day was where to camp, and having settled on Elephant Canyon, we trudged resolutely and cheerily if not as lightly as the first day.

The end of the second day featured us dropping our packs in said elephantine canyon to take a short side hike to the Druid’s arch. The name and canyon are easily enchanting enough for any Arthurian legend with a southwestern American twist that reflects the trunks of the tenacious junipers that surround you, and it became intertwined with the Norse mythic expanses of ice and snow. There is a strange amount of trust you put in stepping out on a sheet of ice even when it is only two inches above the bedrock, and you find magic such as fallen leaves that collect just enough sunlight and heat to melt the ice in a perfect reflection of their shape while all else remains solid.

Then we came to the ice cascade.

One of my friends spent a lot of time on the trip comparing the differences of winter to his last trip, and this was the grandest of examples. It wasn’t actually a very impressive feature as things in the epic wilderness go, perhaps twenty or thirty feet at a very gradual slope. It was, however, covered in ice, and that makes all the difference. While in any other season of the year it would be a mere scramble of less than a minute, it was a nearly insurmountable obstacle for us.

I scrambled up fairly efficiently, being able to use the side that was not a slick sheet of ice, my frequent activities rock climbing/scrambling, and just a little bit of recklessness. It also turns out that I had shoes that are more sticky-on-rocks than supportive-of-feet. The others had the opposite kind of shoe, were coming just off of knee surgery, on their first backpacking trip, and oh, I had made the surface more slippery since I was the lucky first one up. Oops.

We went into emergency strategy mode of throwing hiking poles to lower to others (worked for one person though trusting the weight of a full grown person to an adjustable piece of aluminum is not on the top of suggested strategies to climb things), tossing water bottles up to free hands for climbing (which would have worked if the slope wasn’t getting more slippery by the passerby), attempting any little side crack to try to find a way around (which worked after some engineering and three places that cliffed-out), and otherwise spending a lot of time trying to convince yourself that you are not going to plummet to your doom if you slip. The cascade almost looked like the perfect sledding slope (It’s not. This is proved by the clattering of water bottles that are mis-tossed. It just looks that way).

Eventually, the best solution was to use one of the side cracks and toss not one but two fallen trees into a crack in the rock face to create a ladder of sorts. You know you are determined and just a little desperate when scaling a brittle and twisted trunk of a long-dead juniper is a far better option than the solid bedrock covered in ice.

We managed to make it to the arch for sunset, which was sublime, and back down the tree ladder to wind our way back to camp under a hunter’s moon and all the enchantment of moonshine on snow. Headlights were not even necessary, and this can now be added to one of the better memories etched into my mind. It only took 40 minutes to cover as many feet of terrain.