Monday, November 30, 2015

Moab in Winter, and whither cairns?

I have long known that the real prime time for Moab is winter; yes, in the spring the temps are warmer and it's been so long since we've ridden/run/climbed in the dez, and the fall is glorious (though fall is glorious most anywhere), but it comes with the price of crowds.  Between the jeepers, the national park tourist crush, and mountain bikers the town seems like a bit of a zoo for about 8 months a year.  But from November through February Moab is pretty quiet but still very much has all of the fun stuff that's present in milder temps; you just gotta bundle up a bit.  Given the state of the Wasatch - not enough snow and cold temps - we opted to blast south, if for no other reason than - paradoxically - the La Sals have more snow than the Wasatch.

Several years ago Moab seemed to (finally) wake up and realize that "real" mountain bikers were going to Fruita and St George to ride those places' singletrack; the allure of the Slickrock Trail and mostly-jeep roads was limited to tourists who loved the vistas and the reputation but "didn't know any better".  So Moab as a community decided to throw down and start cutting new singletrack to get the mountain bikers back, and they have done an amazing job, putting in entire networks like the Bar M, Klondike/Alaska, Amasaback/Ahab, and Mag 7, to the point where there are now probably (low) hundreds of miles of super fun singletrack in the area.  And this year they added the Navajo Rocks/Horsethief trails; as we've driven out to the Island in the Sky/Dead Horse Point area I've often looked on both sides of the road and thought "that looks like good trail terrain", and so it is.
there's a great mix of slickrock interspersed with singletrack. 
Though it can seem a little contrived with little loops as lobes off the main road:
You can put together bigger loops, and by incorporating the out and back on the 7up trail to the Horsethief area we were able to keep ourselves very entertained for 4 or 5 hours.  
this was a mildly-spicy side hill; glad that "slickrock" isn't that slick!
it's apparently Christmastime in the desert
We then had the opportunity to tromp around the La Sals with the local avy forecaster and old friend Eric Treanbeth, with the added bonus that the Utah Avalanche Center's Drew Hardesty and his able sidekick Zinna were in the 'hood and keen to ski as well.  We were actually able to find some powder on top of a good base:
I shoulda tilted the camera a bit!  
But it was a good reminder that the La Sals are challenging; much of the snow that had come in to give them their "base" had blown off towards Colorado, and between the steep, convex high terrain with commensurate wind-loading opportunities and sometimes-long periods between storms it's challenging to get nice moderate skiing; it's either so safe that it's short and pretty low angle or it's super spicy.  But there's virtually no competition for either, and it was great to get some turns and interesting to watch the two old avy dogs sniff each other! 
We had planned on "butte-inyeering" Elephant Butte the next day (a hike to the highest point in Arches that requires a rappel on the ascent, some steep slickrock scrambling, and a rap down in order to make a nice loop) but overnight snow made friction-based scrambling less appealing, so  - in keeping with the concept of the wintertime lack of crowds - we headed for Canyonlands' Island in the Sky to go for a chilly run.  
We headed for Upheaval Dome, since the park guide said that it was the most popular area in the park and we'd probably never go there unless snow and cold was keeping the crowds away, and there's a nice 8-9 mile loop with side trips that made it add up to about 13 miles.  As always, we remembered that there's a reason that national parks are so popular:  it's really awesome out there:

Not a great person shot; you can see the little purple gal just off center.....
One aspect of this little jaunt that I didn't anticipate was the ridiculous number of cairns on the trail.  I am all for cairns that indicate routes - especially in the desert where "trails" are slickrock routes - but it appears that in national parks cairns are inexplicably being used to indicate actual trails:
Um, thanks for that, but the trail itself is actually pretty indicative of....the trail.  
It was pretty crazy; in places there were cairns every 10-20 feet, with some doubling up to make sure that they were seen:
So I did what....anybody? would do, and went on a one man cairn-destroying mission, and literally knocked down probably 50-100 of them (stubbing my toes and clocking my shins in the process). 
In an area like this, cairns were helpful
but when the trail actually has stairs, I think that cairns to find our way aren't really necessary!
Ash pointed out that me knocking them down  - especially on switchbacks, when I was above her - was more annoying to her than actually seeing them, and asked me why I was doing it, which was good because I had to rationalize my visceral reaction to the innocent little stacks.   I think it came down to this:  it's kind of natural litter, or grafitti.  If you are out in the woods and you see a Snickers wrapper (it seems like litterbugs prefer Snickers) it's a little annoying so you might (hopefully) pick it up, but the truth is that a candy wrapper will blow away realistically is not going to harm the local environment in a noticeable way.  But still, it's the point....that we respect the naturalness and don't sully it up, and interminable little unnecessary piles of rocks are sort of geologic candy wrappers.  And it's kind of a persistent reminder that this little micro-adventure is...even less adventurous than it seems because clearly hordes of joeys have been here in the past and have taken the time to build hundreds of stupid little cairns that do nothing but indicate that "I've been here".  
being driven mad by cairns!
It actually has become enough of a phenomenon that it's making national news; here's a story that ran on NPR this summer.  Maybe I'm being too uptight and callous, but hearing someone say that making cairns "provides an overwhelming sense of peace and a connection to oneness" makes we want to connect with my inner redneckness and kick them even harder!  

But whatever; despite the cairn-o-copia I was still able to have fun doing my own posing:
On the edge of the crater
And Ash swallowed her annoyance enough over my obsession with cairns to indulge me with her best Anasazi big guy pose:

and I channeled my inner Colter with the artsy nature photo of snow on cactus:

All without the hordes and heat of the 'better" seasons.  Wintertime Moab is pretty sweet.  


  1. Looks like another great Deigel/Patterson adventure! BTW- Mr. Appling would be proud of your cairn clearing effort. Keep it up!