Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Moab Diary: Getting there is half the adventure (part three)

Click her for Part One and Part Two

"Jello's" Comments in italics

"Jello" lives no more than two hours away from Denver International Airport (DIA). In fact, on a good day, it only takes him 90 minutes. Thursday was not a good day.

A lot was on my mind while I drove through the snow towards DIA. Was my aid gear from Fish, the gear I desperately needed for this trip, going to get to my house in time? Would we leave for Utah today? Is my car sliding right now? Or is that the quiet sound of snow and ice melting under my tires?

It only takes me a few hours to get to the cell phone lot outside the airport. I get out of the car to take a piss. Freezing wind cuts through my thin clothes, "stupid spring weather." I shiver and return to the car stinging with damp clothes, and I waited for Greg to call. I was impressed when he called twenty minutes later to tell me he was on the ground. As I pulled up to the curb, he shoved, and I mean that quite literally, his bag into my tiny car and we sped off. The weather had gotten to the point where the airport was now shut down and all the highways that would take us to Moab were closed. It was probably for the best because it allowed me to get all my gear together and it meant I wouldn't have to improvise. Greg pressed the imaginary brake a lot on the ride home. Luckily nobody got in my way and got hurt. We only slid once or twice and only came close to dying three or four times - overall pretty standard.

I had just spent an awful past six weeks planning this trip and trying to stay out of all sorts of trouble at work and in life. If it was one thing I was looking forward to was the sunshine. Yeah, the stress relief was high on my list, too, but I find that stress relief is easiest when one doesn't have to worry about the little things. When things such as the weather take care of themselves, enjoying the bolder tastes of life is simpler. And so when my plane aborted its first landing attempt because of white-out blizzard conditions, I was ready to wash an entire bottle of ibuprofen down with gasoline - grade 87. It took us more than three hours to get to Colorado Springs. I've never seen so many cars off the road.

Man do I love driving to Moab. Let me rephrase that. I don't like driving, I like travelling to Moab. The route is scenic, it signifies a descent onto the western slope of warmth, and the road ends in an ethereal landscape of towers, buttes, and mesas of sand frozen in time.

We sorted gear once we got back to his house, and even took a side trip to his boss's house in order to obtain a few more important items: tent, a sleeping pad for me (so I didn't have bring mine), and a few cams and assorted other items of protection capacity. We were pretty well sorted when "Jello" realized that he had left probably one of the most important pieces of gear at his gym: ascenders. These were important because I had already told him that I was only able to aid climb this trip. My ankle wasn't at full strength yet, and this seemed to be the best way to get to the top of something and still have fun. We needed the ascenders for jugging, so this was important.

I've climbed in quite a few places. I think Greg has me beat on major destinations but I might have him beat in out-of-the-way places. Of these locations, the desert is probably my favorite thus far. It's surreal, you can always find a spot where the weather is pleasant. New England and Colorado it isn't. It challenges me in a lot of ways, too. The dirty and broken rock is mentally challenging because it is scary. The climbing is generally physical - crack climbing, which I like more and more as my climbing acumen grows. The desert is intricate and delicate despite it's stark look with it's deep contrasts of soft, red mud and hard, brown stone.

The gym that he works at is about an hour out of the way (if one considers having to go out and back 30 minutes each way). We thought about heading out that evening so we wouldn't have to delay our start the next morning, but the snow was still coming down hard and so we decided to wait. "Jello" and "Iowa" snugged in their bed for the night and I flopped on the air mattress into a deep sleep. I awoke the next morning to pancakes and a foot of snow on the front porch. It was still snowing, too, and we were concerned. But we weren't to be deterred. We couldn't go the day I flew in because I-70 was closed. Route 24, on the other hand, was sure to be open by the time the storm fizzled out. The snow would be long behind us when we would finally intersect with I-70. We noticed that it was cold, but we were somewhat surprised to see on the bank signs that the temps were hovering only in the high teens.

It was now about 24 hours after the storm had begun and the roads were an absolute mess. I'm not talking about side streets. I'm talking about the freaking interstate! Cars were still sliding all over the place. I mean, seriously, you live in a desert (OK - somewhat of a desert) and you can't find any sand to put on the roads?

Forty-five minutes after we left, we arrived at the far end of the gym's parking lot. It was a scene of mixed white and grey tar; spotty with no clear path to safely follow. The road to the back of the building, where the gym is located, alternated between snow, ice, and road. We thought we could make it, and so "Jello" pressed on the gas and - THUNK! WHRRRRRRRRRRRRR...

- What's up?
- Um, what do you mean, what's up?
- Why did you let up on the accelerator?
- Um, so, you notice how we're not moving right?
- Yeah, but that's because you let up on the accelerator. If you would have just kept going -
- So, look out your window.
- Yeah, so. There's a lot of snow here. We could've plowed through it if you had just kept -
- Open your door.

I rolled my eyes, pulled the door handle, and pushed...and pushed...and pushed really, really, really hard. I couldn't believe what I saw. By opening the door I had just pushed about 15 pounds of snow out of the way. I stepped out to get a better look and my leg was instantly buried up to my knee. This was the first time I had ever been in a car that was legitimately stuck in the snow. Seriously, the bottom of the door frame in his car is about a foot off the ground and we had driven into snow that was higher than that. I looked in front of us and saw about six feet of 18-inch-deep snow taunting us to push forward. I looked behind and saw that it was less deep, but we had driven about 15 feet into the drift. Going forward would have meant pushing the car through deep snow, and going backward would have meant pushing the car precisely in the same tracks in reverse whence we came. Fuck! We were stuck.

The gym was about 200 yards down the parking lot and "Jello" knew there were a couple of shovels there. I returned to the car to warm up while he ran to get the tools (did I mention that the wind chill was at zero degrees and that the wind was howling at about 20 mph sustained with the occasional more-powerful gusts?). He returned a few minutes later and we both started to shovel away, except we realized that it was really cold at this point. The wind was constantly blowing snow and cold air on our exposed skin. I was glad I had gloves, but he wasn't so fortunate.

We decided to take turns shoveling, thus making our little detour a little longer on the clock. The snow was the dry, blocky type; it was neither wet and heavy nor light and puffy, but instead it formed in powdery blocks that were difficult to move. We had to use the metal shovel to chop it up first before using the plastic one to move it. To make matters worse, the wind was so strong that we had to throw the snow in the same direction every time. Shoveling the left side of the car was easy. The right side was considerably less so.

The shoveling was hard, the wind was unrelenting, and the traffic on the road that goes past the gym was nearly empty. The only vehicles we saw driving by were the ones we desired - snow plows - but not a single one stopped to give us a hand (we didn't expect anyone to stop, really - particularly the big, state-owned plows, but we hoped a small private owner would help us out. I can't blame them for not stopping. After all, snow season is money season for them and we all have to put food on the table). I chopped and shoveled, and then he chopped and shoveled some more, with each of us using my gloves for work and our jacket pockets for warmth when resting. We got a good deal of the snow in front of the car shovelled away in about forty-five minutes, but there was still a lot to be done. We nearly felt defeated. What was even more demoralizing was that we knew the snow was also pushed to the top of the wheel wells. Getting that cleaned out was going to be a major pain.

But just as things started to get unbearable, just as the wind started to rip through the fleece gloves, and just as the cold began to claw away at the last bits of healthy skin still stuck to our cheeks, the owner of the building drove up in his four-wheel-drive pick-up truck. A cut piece of climbing rope and the ol' heave-ho-with-him-pulling-us later and we were free! We'd left the house at 930am. It was now just after 11am. The whole drive was supposed to take us seven hours at the most, and we were at the quickest a 30 minute drive from the beginning, which was back in Colorado Springs.

By the time we made it to Route 24 we discovered it wasn't great either, but there were spots where it was better than I-25, which is the interstate that leads north to Denver and the road we took to and from his gym in Monument. But we were finally on our way and decided to stop for gas in the town of Divide. We passed the first station because it was more expensive than the second one. Unfortunately, the second one had a hill and a Wonder Bread truck spinning its wheels trying to get up. The third station was priced right, but it was closed and the pumps were turned off. So we turned around to go back to the second station, and just as we started to power up to get enough speed to make it up the hill, a pick-up truck decided to leave the station and take up the entire entrance on its way out. So, the first station we passed, the more expensive one, just for your information, has really good doughnuts and an easy-to-drive-in-snow access road.

The road after Divide was starting to lose its snow, but there were still moments that made both us nervous wrecks. The stretch of road from Buena Vista to Leadville is a two-lane road that splits a wide plain on either side. The sun was out in all of its glory, but that meant the roads weren't plowed and there were plenty of pockets of black ice.

Why plow when the snow will melt? A half-dozen 18-wheelers screaming past us on slick roads later and we were half convinced this whole trip was a stupid idea. At one point we had one car pull out in front of us that forced us to pass him whether we knew there were cars coming the other way or not. He pulled out. We didn't slow down. He didn't speed up. We caught up to him very quickly. There was 50 feet between us, and the gap was closing. An 18-wheeler flew by in the other direction, and "Jello" peered down the road to see if it was clear to pass. A car shot out of the glare and the gap between us and the car in front closed to 20 feet. He started to pull out, but then another car blew by. I felt the car slide when "Jello" turned back into our lane, and I grabbed the oh-shit handle above the window as we approached the car in front. Ten feet...five feet...two feet... He had three choices: 1) ram the car in front; 2) send the car into the gully on the right-hand side of the road or; 3) pass on the left and pray to God that no one else was hiding in the glare and coming the other way. He chose three. I couldn't see if anything was coming because we were too close to the car in front to see around it. I held my breath...

I hadn't really understood why Greg had been so quick to pump the imaginary brake while I was driving until I was in the passenger seat. It's a damn terrifying feeling when on ice because you can't tell if the driver is in control, if they know they're sliding - and I know how bad the tires are. I was able to calm down after a while and also to let Greg know that my car had a 5th gear. It wasn't long until we were on I-70 and on our way to paradise.

We pulled over a few minutes later in Leadville to switch driving duties, regain our senses and, as we discovered upon exiting the car, to knock the remaining massive chunks of snow out of the wheel wells (that took us a good 20 minutes to kick, poke, and dig the brown and white solids out). We stopped again in the town of Fruita for lunch, and we were on our way out of Colorado by the end of the afternoon. We were both glad to be alive, and happy the worst was behind us. The one part of the trip that I'd like to mention that was amazing to drive through was the canyon near Glenwood Springs. That is truly something to see. I'd like to return there someday to explore the area.

After we passed through Glenwood Springs (before lunch), the road was as clear as a desert highway - no snow and devoid of cars. We took the shortcut on Route 128 (River Road) and I saw the canyons for the first time. I had seen desert canyons before, and I had seen desert towers, too. But I had never seen what was before me: there were miles and miles of imposing brown and red cliffs, towers, buttresses, and steep, crumbling slopes looking down upon me. The view wasn't just on the road, either, but instead the expanse was in all directions such that I swore the paths in between the different towers and canyons was endless. It was a claustrophobic version of gazing at the ocean, except the ocean is wild in its exposed emptiness and the canyons seemed a relentless journey of twists, turns, hopeless thoughts of unseen dead ends. It seemed a world of infinite first ascent opportunities. They formed a maze of infinite paths.

I admit that I was a little awestruck when I first saw Castleton's Tower. I'm not a big fan of the desert, but this inspired me. We came across one particular buttress that damn near convinced us to get a first ascent that week. We had it all planned out. "Jello" knew how to get in touch with the main desert-guidebook author for more info and we even pulled over to scout the ascent. Would we need to camp at the base? What about atop the plateau? We realized after a few moments that the moment got the better of us, so we drove on.

Our next mission was to find a campsite. I figured since "Sungam" was already there that we'd just crash at his site. But our cellphone reception wasn't the greatest and we didn't get in touch with him that evening as a result. On the other hand, "Jello"'s roommate, "Texas Flake", managed to get through to us.

*Ring Ring*
- Hello
- "Texas Flake": Hey, are you headed to Moab?
- Yeah, are you guys out there or are you back at Joe's Valley.
- "Texas Flake": We're still in Moab, my transmission went out on my truck, do you think you could pick us up when you get into town.
- *sigh* Yeah, let me call you when I get closer.
- "Texas Flake": Thanks brother.

"Texas Flake"'s birthday is the same week as mine and was supposed to be in Joe's Valley bouldering and out of my way. I was disappointed, but how bad could it be? The sun was getting lower in the sky and is was now directly in my face. It didn't help that my visor has this habit of falling off and, thus, offers no visual relief. And it wasn't all about the sun either; there were cows on the side of the road, too. It was an open range, and one is never quite sure when rolling over the blind hills if a half-ton heifer will be in the way. I wanted to get to Moab, and so I sped around corners at double the recommended speed while pointing out the Fishers and Castle Valley to Greg. I think his eyes were on the road more than mine.

- Hey

- "Texas Flake": Are you in Moab yet?
- Yeah we just got here. Where are you at?
- "Texas Flake": We're in town, why don't you find a campsite first and then we'll talk again.
- Ok, you know where to stay?
- "Texas Flake": A campground near Wall St. There was nobody there when we left.
- Ok, talk to you in a bit.

We discovered that the first two campsites on Potash Road (near Wall Street) were be full. This surprised us since we were driving in on Thursday. But then we remembered that we were supposed to have driven in on Thursday and that it was now fairly late on Friday. Crap. We had hoped to crash near Wall Street because we wanted to meet up with "Sungam" and we assumed that was where he was staying, but since those campgrounds were full, we headed back out to River Road (Route 128) to check all the campgrounds there. We saw about five on the way in, so we figured at least one would have a site. The first one we stopped at was full, so we went on to the second one. That one was full, and so was the third. We thought we had a spot found at the fourth campground, but nope, after a little more research it turned out that spot was reserved. And so we drove all the way out to the last campground...only to find out that it, too, was full.

It was now pushing 8pm and we had a half hour drive before we got back to the end of River Road. I mentioned to "Jello" that I saw a lot of headlights on the other side of the river back where River Road intersected with Route 191. So we drove there and turned down that dirt road. At first we were happy to see that there were loads of people nearby. But then we realized this wasn't a campground but a rafting drop-off instead. It seemed that we were screwed, but "Texas Flake" had told us in another phone call that we hadn't been to the campsite he mentioned earlier. "Jello" and I drove and drove and drove until, counting our blessings, we stumbled across the Bell Campground - and it had one spot open.

"Jello" dropped me off with the assignment of setting up the tent and then he drove into town to pick up the rest of the crew. It took me forty-five minutes to set the damn tent up (there will be a gear review of the Kelty Orb 3 soon, I promise). I was tired and cranky. It didn't help to discover that the sleeping pad we had taken from "Jello"'s boss didn't have an air valve. It appeared I was going to rely on it's un-filled thickness for comfort.

I phoned “Texas Flake” again to find out where they were. Of course it was on the far end of town at some obscure 4x4 garage. I saw their truck, turned in, and pulled a few donuts in the gravel parking lot up the street out of frustration. I counted five people in his posse. My car barely fits four, let alone six. They had gear, too, of course. We tossed the sleeping bags, tents, more liquor than seems required for someone asking for a ride (with two underage kids, too!), coolers, food, and other assorted items anywhere the stuff would fit. I tried to speed off with everyone sitting on top of someone else, but the car lurched - I don't doubt for an instant that it had more weight than it was supposed to have in it. The car bottomed out after every bump and I wonderd if we'll make it back to the campsite.

We made it, but Greg was struggling to put the final touches on the tent. "Texas Flake" borrowed my car to retrieve his bouldering pads and some other stuff. I helped set the tent up, and Greg and I settled in by the smokey fire and tried to talk some sense into the whee lads who came to a trad climbing mecca to wrestle pebbles, all the while poking fun at them under our breath. I'm not someone who looks down on boulderers, as I boulder on occassion myself. It's good for developing strength and can keep my attention for about an hour. But why, for the love of all that is climbing, would someone come to a place with such tall towers, arches, mesas, and buttes and choose to climb things that are small enough to piss on top of from the ground? I asked why they didn't just do some roped climbing in Moab. "We didn't bring ropes and harnesses," they said. You can boulder without a pad pretty safely, especially in Moab but most of the time it's just good sense to bring a rope and some harnesses. By the looks of what they're pouring down their throats, I guess the price of a harness and rope amounts to several jugs of malt beverages. For shit's sake, it's like going to a gourmet restaurant and ordering the house salad, no dressing - the lowest denominator. The hell if I was going to let them interfere with my roped climbing the next couple of days. I wasn't going bouldering unless there wasn't enough interest from my partners to rope up, and considering Greg hates to boulder, well, I knew I'd be staying off the pad.

It was late, and so Greg and I crashed. Tomorrow would be a learning day for him. I didn't anticipate it being a tough day physically, but I needed a good night's rest.

It was 9am when we heard the rumble of ATV's all over the place. We had apparently come to Moab during Jeep Week. There was also an adventure race being held right next to our campground. Welcome to Moab.

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