Walk completed August 28, 2011

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Angel's Landing, Zion National Park, Utah

Angel's Landing
 With the approach of Halloween, I thought it wise to enlist an angel for protection from ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night. And where better to recruit an angel for that purpose than Angel’s Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park.

The primary rock of Zion Canyon is sandstone deposited millions of years ago by winds when the area was similar to the present-day Sahara, and then buried by ancient seas whose sediments reacted with the sand turning it to stone.  Much of the sandstone has eroded away, and what remains has unusual shapes.  Angel’s Landing is a narrow fin of sandstone rising some 1800 feet above the floor of Zion Canyon. A 2½ mile trail leads to the summit.

The trail starts innocently enough as a wide footpath of moderate grade, providing sweeping views of Zion Canyon as elevation increases. 

Refrigerator Canyon

The trail then enters a narrow riparian slot commonly known as Refrigerator Canyon due to its decided drop in temperature. From there, rapid elevation gain is achieved by a series of tight switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles, emerging at a saddle known as Scout’s Lookout. Beyond the saddle, a narrow, treacherous route steeply ascends the arĂȘte to the highest ridge where angels are said to land.

Angels can be difficult to find, so it’s always a good idea to have some help when trying to recruit one. My help took the form of my wife, Janet, and our two English friends, George and Ann. I knew that George and Ann would be up to the task, because they had previously helped with some of the End to End logistics, and are planning to walk with me a bit in England to be sure that I don’t get lost among the pubs. Janet has quietly followed me around the world, usually putting up with every crazy adventure I’ve conceived, but she has put her foot down when it comes to walking across islands or climbing towards heaven on narrow ridges in search of angels.

As George and I set off alone up the arĂȘte, cheers of enthusiastic support came from Janet and Ann. “Did you leave the car key?” “Is your life insurance paid?”

View from the Top
 Undaunted, George and I proved our testosterone by ascending ever higher along the precipitous route. We imagined ourselves scaling Mt. Everest as we scrambled over areas where even the slightest slip would hurl us to our doom. What valiant souls we were, risking our very lives for the chance to meet with an angel. Higher and higher we climbed – at nearly 5,800 feet, we were far above the highest peak in Britain. Gasping for oxygen in the thin air, we passed over the final ledge to the top. But there were no angels. They had obviously been scared away by the dozens of people having lunch on the summit: old people, young people with small children, fat people, thin people – every one of them oblivious to the sacrifice George and I had just made for the chance to find an angel.

Having failed to find an angel, George and I merely shrugged our shoulders, and descended back to Scout’s Lookout, concerned about the prospect of having to face the Halloween goblins alone.

No Angels on the Summit

© 2010 Ken Klug

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Yosemite's Sentinel Dome

I decided that before winter arrives in the Yosemite high country, I should attempt the one mile walk from Yosemite’s Glacier Point Road to the top of Sentinel Dome – a 500 feet elevation gain topping off at 8,100 feet. This is a walk I was unable to do in June.

North and Basket Domes (L) and Half Dome (R)

Towering 4,100 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Dome is one of literally thousands of granite domes projecting from the great Sierra batholith commonly known as central California’s Sierra Nevada range. Of the dozen or more domes lying within just a few miles of Sentinel Dome, the most famous are Half Dome, North Dome, Basket Dome, and Mt. Starr King.

The Sierra batholith is a huge expanse of granite shaped like a blimp. It has an exposed surface area of about 25,000 square miles, and is thought to have an internal volume of some 150,000 cubic miles. Many years before I was born, plumes of molten magma rose deep beneath the earth’s crust, much like weather balloons might fill an airplane hanger. Their ascent stopped by the impenetrable roof, the magma plumes retained their balloon shapes as they slowly cooled into what we now know as granite.

Meanwhile, the Pacific tectonic plate was bulldozing into the North American tectonic plate, lifting the Sierra Nevada range as if it were a trap door hinged on the west – its western side gently sloping to California’s central valley, and its eastern side dropping precipitously to the Owen’s Valley. Within the trap door, the granite balloons went along for the ride, producing the highest mountain range in the continental United States. Mt. Whitney, near the batholith’s southern end (210 trail miles south of Yosemite), rises to 14,493 feet above sea level. Note:  For anybody interested in climbing Mt. Whitney, you should do so soon, before global warming raises the sea level and correspondingly reduces Mt. Whitney’s calculated elevation.

A few million years of rainstorms and a glacier or two eroded the top 6 or 8 miles of the mountain crust, exposing the Sierra’s great granite balloons. No longer restricted by the hanger’s roof, and having had the great weight of the upper crust removed, the granite, itself, continued to rise, complementing the uplift caused by the colliding plates. Geologists call this process “isostatic orogeny” in a futile attempt to make their science sound sexy. Just as a weather balloon expands as air pressure against it diminishes with altitude, the granite balloons expanded as the weight of the overlying crust eroded away. But granite doesn’t like to expand very much, so it cracked in concentric layers, much like the layers in an onion. A few more rainstorms and glaciers peeled away some of the outer layers, leaving the rounded tops we now refer to as domes.

About the time William Shakespeare was putting the final touches on Hamlet, a tiny seed from a Jeffrey pine was blown into a small crack on the top of Sentinel Dome. Finding some soil that had also been blown into the crack, the seed sprouted. Irrigated by years of winter snowmelt, the seedling grew into a stately Jeffrey Pine whose image was forever preserved by Ansel Adams in one of his famous photographs.

But nature is never finished. In the late 1970s, California was hit by several years of severe drought. Despite the efforts of numerous hikers who hand carried literally thousands of bottles of Perrier to the base of the pine, the famous Sentinel Jeffrey Pine died. It is unknown whether the pine died from the stress of the drought or merely from old age. Or maybe it was the Perrier. I hear that part of President Obama’s stimulus package includes a grant to scientifically prove that the tree’s death was actually a result of George W. Bush’s failed policies. What remains certain, however, is that the tree is no longer emitting vital signs.

The dead tree continued to stand for another 25 years, until 2003, when it morphed into a log. The log still lies atop Sentinel Dome, insulated from fire and far from the forest soil whose critters cause fallen trees to decompose. The primary natural risk the log faces is a well placed lightning strike, an unlikely event since it is no longer upright. In the 30+ years since its death, the once noble Sentinel pine has been subjected to more damage from tourists than from nature. In California’s arid climate, the log will probably remain where it is for 150 years or more.

In the meantime, other seeds have blown into the Dome’s cracks.  Several have germinated – perhaps some are even descendants of the famed Sentinel pine. What are now thirty or forty year old trees may someday achieve the grandeur of their famous ancestor.

© 2010 Ken Klug