Saturday, May 26, 2012

Camel's Toe, Moab, Ut

From 2012 Spring trip
From 2012 Spring trip
From 2012 Spring trip
From 2012 Spring trip
From 2012 Spring trip
5/25/2012 - Camel's Toe, Moab, UT

The blazing sun has finally settled  behind the 200 foot red rock cliff adjacent to our camp along the Colorado River off route 279, 5 miles outside of Moab.  There are many BLM primitive, and small campgrounds here, nestled between the river and the cliff with 5-10 sites in each.  We've come here to get out of the hubbub of town, and to capitalize on the high winds over the cool, wide river to cool us while we shelter from the sun under a copse of cottonwood trees in the late afternoon hours. 

 Today was another high wind advisory from the National Weather service, with gusts up to 50 mph and there is a pale brown twang to the sky from all the entrained desert sand pushing out the normal deep blue we have become accustomed to in these parts. We had left our campsite early this morning to use the cool morning hours for the climbing segment of our canyoneering day on the Camel's Toe loop.  It turns out, there really are not printed books describing the canyoneering routes in the Moab area.  Most routes are passed either by word of mouth in the local community, or via some subscription only blog sites on the internet.  We opted for the blog subscription, and evaluated a series of options using the iPad last night while sitting in camp, and selected a fairly "straight forward" tour from the collection of rather extended and more technical choices.

With no clearly marked trail, only  a starting point, and rather grand and vague terrain descriptions  are available to help guide us through the foreign terrain.  We parked at the Corona Arch trailhead, 10 miles from Moab, and chatted up the guys in the car next to us in the lot, full of climbers also getting ready for an early tour.  We were kind of hoping they were heading the same way as us to help ease us into this new world of self-guided canyoneering, but they had other objectives in mind (rigging a gigantic rope swing on the nearby 100 foot high  Corona Arch) so we traded some gear notes and headed off in different directions.    Soon though, after an auspicious start passing by some ancient cliff petroglyphs, we learn to read this scorched and smooth terrain much like high snow covered alpine slopes we more often traverse and make our way through  the rock choked drainages of this incredible canyon.  Let me set the stage, rising above us easily 1,000 feet on each side of the main canyon are polished sandstone cliffs. They have broken and eroded into fantastical shapes by wind and water and have been polished and varnished by eons of exposure.  In some areas there are high tallus slopes where entire towers have crumbled into a heap.  Other places there are smooth terraces and ramps leading diagonally along the cliff bases.  All over there are cross gorges, and drainages confusing the routes. It is spectacular and glorious, and a bit intimidating.    The internet guide offers advice, like: "follow the terraces to the right of the dry falls working your way up canyon avoiding the bigger drops".  We are concerned about the specific BEST alternative, but really, it boils down to picking terrain that works for your specific party, being willing to backtrack if cliffed out, and keeping the bigger objectives in mind while staying oriented in the confusing jumble of rock fall, slick rock, and terraces.

We make a few wrong turns after relying on GPS coordinates which must have been based on a different reference grid, and ultimately tuck the useless device away and work the canyon the best we can.  Occasionally there are rock carins left by previous travelers, and   sometimes we follow a worn path in the sand, but we continue to find our own way, feeling some relieve when it intersects with the other clues, but not driven to stay on some specific path dictated by others.  This is a complicated way to travel, and offers tremendous intellectual stimulation  coupled with the physical exertion of moving through the broken terrain being careful not to step on any undisturbed cryptobiotic soils in the process or kick off loose rocks.

The sun is rising along with the temperature, and we are careful to keep our pace sustainable, stopping to rest in the shade on a regular basis.  We bypass one side canyon and continue upwards, but the canyon walls rise as well, and at times it is hard to figure if we are winded going flat, or actually hiking uphill.  As we crest one dry falls, we spy from the side and above for the first time (just as the guide advised us), the crux of this particular adventure, the hanging pool named the "Camel's Toe" from which we will later need to rappel right at the spill over.   The route continues to trace the rise of the deepening canyon, but we can tell there is a series of ramps now leading down to the actual canyon bottom, a clue that we have climbed high enough and it is time to turn around and begin the downhill journey via the sinuous and ever narrowing water scoured riverbed.   It begins to be more joyous as we skip from one large rock to another moving downhill now returning to water reserves in the car.  In places the riverbed is scoured smooth, with linked sinkholes reflecting the springtime and storm cycles when a raging torrent pushes down this same channel. But, for now, every thing is dry except for a few lingering sinkholes and pools beneath the larger drops where the shaded grottos bring us vast relieve from the otherwise exposed conditions. Then, at all at once, the channel shrinks to a narrow gorge with a polished slickrock floor, swerving first one way then the next in an ever narrowing canyon with walls 20 feet high, then all at once before  us lays the Camel's Toe, a cool and sand bottomed pool at the end of this short slot canyon section, with water reaching from one side wall to the other. Beyond the pool, a  drop-off of indeterminate height.  

 Giddy with excitement, I strip naked to preserve my clothing and footwear, don flip flops and wade into the thigh deep,  clear water.  Following the sandbar towards the center I stay away from the undercut edges of indeterminate depth and reach the sun bleached pour over highly satisfied. I had been so concerned after experiencing the cold water in Zion Park, that this challenge may prove too daunting for my thin frame and stop us in our tracks. Whoops and high fives  all around. As expected, and foretold by the internet guide, there were two solid looking bolts secure in the rock near the edge of the pour over. I gave them each a solid tug, and reported back to Diane that she should follow and that the route was a go! Once dry and redressed after the pool, we put on our harnesses, and double checked knots and gear.  We readied the ropes together, double checking each other and gave the coil of rope a toss, listening carefully for the telltale thump as it hit the ground far below.  Tied off to an anchor, I leaned over the edge to confirm our doubled line had indeed hit bottom, Diane tied on first, and struggled over the sharply undercut lip,.  This deeply undercut falls turned the rappel into a free rappel,  no wall to step down after the first tentative and difficult steps over the edge.   Once over the edge, I could no longer see Diane, so she chatted non-stop to herself so I could tell she was still moving and okay on her way done.  Once she was clear at the bottom, I looked around, double-triple checked the fittings and followed her down.  As she had reported the first five steps were very challenging, but then I was in the shade of the drop-off, and casually looking at the baby's breath ferns growing tenaciously from the seeps behind the falls.

This route is really no big deal, but for us, a big achievement, rekindling old rope skills learned and then abandoned years ago for more tame endeavors.   Once we were both down, I tugged carefully and as planned on one end of the doubled rope and hauled the 60 foot free end back up to the top.  As it slipped unwitnessed though the steel ring we left up top, it came tumbling back down to join us in a heap.  We coiled the lines and stowed our tech gear,and followed the broken and sandy  drainage back out to the highway, using a long and very large culvert to cross under the train track spur crossing the canyon mouth and returning to the highway. A four hour projected tour turned into a five hour tour due to our initial missteps and casual pace, but all in all a great adventure.

Once at the highway, we chugged our remaining water supplies and trudged back to the car in the shimmering heat, anxious to return to camp and shaded reclining chairs for a well deserved siesta.

 If you go: Carry two liters of water a piece, pace yourself, and drink it all in hot weather - don't get behind  Bring a first aid kit - plan on a few scrapes and cuts along the way. Do your route research in advance: has a wide variety of options described - be prepared to pay for the tour details once you have narrowed down your selections Make sure you have the right gear for the tour - and some extra  Bring a compass.... and use it - often.  It is easy to get turned around in unfamiliar terrain Remember as the National Park Service likes to spout: "Your Safety is Your Responsibility"

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