In the weeks leading up to the run I got a little obsessed with checking for trip and weather reports for Zion National Park and the trails of the Zion Traverse. I was most interested in what the West Rim Trail and Wildcat Canyon Trail were like on the West Rim as these trails are notorious for holding deep snow late into April.
If they had too much snow when I went there to run, the warm temperatures of spring would make the deep snow too soft to move through quickly and potentially impassible due to extreme post holing and fast moving creeks, not to mention that I may not be able to find the trail with potentially 10+ miles of deep snow (...worse case scenario).
There were a few conversations on forums about people wanting to hike the traverse in April but not much to go on for actual conditions of the trails. The Zion National Park website has a page that shows supposed 'current conditions' of the trails but their most current report was from April 8. I left for Zion on April 22, they still had the same report posted and it was wasn't really to be trusted in my mind because the way they wrote it. It sounded like it was regurgitated from prior years of the same time in April and wasn't detailed at all...really not much help. The one thing that was consistent from all the reports was that there was most definitely snow up on the West Rim Trail and Wildcat Canyon Trail...just not how much.
Then I got the call...
I had talked to a canyoneering friend, a few days before I was to leave to go to Zion, about if he knew of any reports about snow levels from canyoneering folks that had tried to access the Subway (popular canyoneering route in Zion) from Wildcat Canyon Trail yet this spring. He said that he hadn't heard anything yet but he would let me know if he did.
Well... the day before I was to leave to go to Zion he called me and said that a report came in of someone doing the Subway from Wildcat Canyon Trail a few day prior and they reported waist deep snow on the trail. He also got a report that there was snow on the West Rim Trail all the way down to campsite #8 in Potato Hollow. With these two snow reports it would mean that I would be in potentially 2-4 feet of deep and super soft snow with raging creeks for 8-10 miles!
To say the least, I was stunned and a bit depressed. It seemed too dangerous to me to push through those kind of conditions in the speed I was hoping to travel and with so little gear. Maybe if I wanted to do an overnight trip and get really wet and miserable it would be a go, but to run with just water, food, a few extra layers of cloths and no more to protect myself from the elements and having a potential overnighter... that just didn't seem very smart to me or fun.
After some more frantic scanning the web for more recent trip reports and coming up empty, I started the downward slide into accepting that it would not be a good idea for me to 'force' doing the Zion Traverse on this trip. I mean, the real goal of the run was to go fast and light and not only get a rad 48 mile and 10,000+ elevation gain training run in an incredible place but also try and get a fast PR on the Zion Traverse. I wasn't going to accomplish either of these goals by pushing a borderline overnighter epic because of horrible conditions.
That night I went to bed a bit shocked, depressed and trying to be o.k. with giving up on the run (something I have a hard time doing...).
The next morning and the day we were to leave for Zion, Susan and I discussed our options in more detail. We were on a climbing trip around my run so I always had that to fall back on and I was getting adjusted to that being all it was. Then, Susan surprised me and started talking out the options of if I still wanted to try and do the Zion Traverse.
At first I thought it a bad idea to even bring it up in light of the reports I just got the day before, but I entertained Susan with a discussion about it anyway. There was a part of me that was really bothered by the fact that I hadn't seen the trail conditions for myself and it was making me still hold on to the hope that maybe the reports were over exaggerated and the trails would be o.k. I wanted to still hold on to some hope...
After some good discussion, Susan and I agreed that there was no reason not to at least do part of the run. We were already going to be there, I was itching for a good long run and we figured out a plan that would work even if there was too much snow. Plan was as followed...
I start at the East Entrance (as planned) and run the 20 some miles down into Zion Canyon and then up onto the West Rim and the potential deep snow. Then, if I can't push forward because of conditions then I would have time to turn around and run the 10+ miles back to the bottom of Zion Canyon (which I will have already run through earlier in the morning) and catch a shuttle to the Visitor's Center and call Susan. As long as I made this call before 3:30 pm, she would still be in the area to pick me up.
If I continued on because of some miracle of good conditions, then Susan won't get a call from me before 3:30 pm and she will drive the hour or more around to the Kolob Canyon Entrance on the Northwest end of the park (no cell service..) to pick me up upon my completion of the last 20 some miles of the traverse.
A great plan...as long as I am smart and give my self plenty of time to make it back down to cell service at the Visitor's Center before 3:30 pm if faced with bad conditions. I planned to MAKE SURE under any circumstances to either make it through the potentially bad snow sections in reasonable time or bail early if things weren't good. I (and Susan) didn't need to push this and have an epic. I needed to be smart.
So, it was settled. The run was still on and at least there was still hope to complete this thing with some smarts and safety built in.
On to the run...
At 3:15 am, Saturday, April 25, Susan and I woke to light rain, camped just out side of the East Entrance to Zion National Park. We then drove the 15 minutes to the East Rim Trailhead, parked and discussed the bad turn in the weather. Today's forecast was to be partly cloudy and warm but this was anything but that. Instead, it was raining (a bit harder now than when we woke up) and it only added to the worries we already had with the snow. Could there be flash flood dangers too now? What next?
As I got prepared to start the run we decided to add one more thing to the plan. Susan would wait and sleep in a bit at the West Rim Trailhead and not leave for at least a couple hours in case I couldn't make a stream crossing on my way down into the bottom of Zion Canyon because of flooding danger and had to come back to the trailhead.
So, with a fair bit of worry and fear of the unknown (but, with at least a good plan in place for escape) I started my run in the dark, with 40 degree temps and rain, at 4:30 am.
Often, when I start really long runs like this the first hour or two is filled with fear and excitement for what will come. This morning, as I ran along the sandy trail in the rainy dark I mostly had a fear brewing in side of me. I felt from the start of this run that my survival instincts were in full effect.
I usually don't have these kinds of feelings until most the way through a long run when I am beaten down and everything is raw. At that point my body is beaten down enough to go into survival mode. This time I felt that my mind was already prepared for the 'potential' for some serious survival mode action so it decided to just kicked into the mode right away for good measure. Good thing...as I felt I needed to be really sharp on this run so that I didn't make any bad decisions with all the crazy conditions.
The first few miles went really well. It was raining pretty good but I was running on a sandy trail and it actually helped to keep the sand a bit firmer and easier to run on. It wasn't until after I crossed my first stream (it was low which was a good sign) that the trail turned a bit messier.
For the few miles leading up to and after Stave Spring on the East Rim Trail the trail was a muddy mess. I was either dragging a 1/2 inch of mud stuck to the bottom of my feet or running down creek filled troughs (the high running creeks would love to channel into the trail and flow down it in many sections...).
Once I reached the East Rim of Zion Canyon things got better. The slick rock nature of the trail in this section made for easier travel. With the added bonus of the first hints of daylight and the rain stopping, things started looking up for the moment.
I made it all the way down through the awesome Echo Canyon to Weeping Rock and the floor of Zion Canyon still in good time and growing good spirits. I even saw a runner headed out of the Weeping Rock parking area and up into Echo Canyon, lifting my spirits more. I didn't feel quite so alone in my effort after seeing some one else out running on a day like this.
In the canyon bottom, the weather conditions were pretty good. Drying ground, cloudy skies but no rain and the temps felt like they were in the 50's. Also, looking up at the West Rim, I couldn't see any snow. Hopefully, that was a good sign and there wasn't a ton of snow just out of view...
I quickly make my way down the road that links Weeping Rock to the start of the West Rim Trail, gathered water, saw my first tourists of the day and then headed up the West Rim Trail.
It didn't take long to start my first section of walking on the West Rim Trail. I had run pretty much everything up to this point but, as anyone who has hiked or ran up to Angel's Landing can tell you, this trail is simply ridiculously steep and I have no problem power hiking it as opposed to destroying myself trying to run it. Too many miles to cover still anyway...hopefully...
Not long after passing a bunch of tourists on the trail and the turn off for Angel's Landing, things got quiet again and no more people...except for a couple guys hiking with packs. When I saw them ahead, my first thought was to ask them if they were going up onto the West Rim to camp and if they knew the conditions.
When I caught up to them and asked if they were hikers, I not only found out they weren't hikers but I found out that I knew one of them. It was Nik Berry, a super strong climber that I used to know in Flagstaff that now lives in Utah. We had a short conversation where I found out that he was going to drop in to climb on a route on Moonlight Buttress. I told him of my intentions to try to make it to Lee's Pass near the Kolob Entrance if the snow wasn't to bad. I would have loved to talk to him more but felt a lot of internal pressure to keep moving, so I did.
After getting back from Zion, I found out that he did the First Free Ascent of an aid route on that wall called Lunar X (now a free climb at 5.13) that weekend! Awesome! Here is his report. Congratulations, Nik!
The rest of the climb to the West Rim of Zion Canyon I mixed power hiking with running and made descent time, feeling good. I made it to the West Rim (Cabin) Spring feeling a bit thrashed from the climb but in better spirits about what lay ahead.
I had only seen tiny patches of snow in a few shady spots so far and the rain was still holding off. My cloths had all dried from the earlier rain and I was feeling warm and good.
I filled up on water at the spring and continued up the West Rim toward what ever may lie ahead; deep impassible snow, smooth sailing or something in between. I was going to find out sooner than later...
It only took another mile of travel before I started to run into difficulties on the trail. Because of all the rain and melting snow, the trail was a muddy mess and flowing creek in many sections. Most of the 5-6 miles from the West Rim Spring to a bit after Potato Hollow was mud and water with the random patch of snow. Every once in a while the trail would dry up and be incredibly wonderful running but that was often short lived. I noticed for the first time on the traverse that I wasn't making quite as good of time as I would like. Negotiating the water, mud and bits of post holing through snow was definitely slowing me down.
The bright side was that I was starting to get grand views of the high country as the clouds started to lift. I noticed that I could barely see any snow on the West Rim for as far as the eye could see. Things were looking up. Maybe, just maybe, things were going to work out and I would be able to snake my way through this thing. Even better, a mile or so past Potato Hollow, I got a couple mile section of smooth sailing with a super dry trail and even a bit of sun shine. I really savored this section.
Also, a bit after Potato Hollow, I got my first good view of Lava Point (above where the West Rim Trail and Wildcat Canyon Trail meet) and it looked like the snow up there wasn't deep. In fact, where I knew the wildcat Canyon Trail went away from Lava Point looked mostly free of snow. After seeing this, I had one of those HOLY CRAP moments where I realized that I was going to be able to work through what ever lie ahead. Even if it was a mess, I would be able to make it work as it was the deep snow that was my biggest worry coming into this.
A short while after this realization, I came across a couple guys hiking the Zion Traverse and they confirmed my suspicion that the rest of the West Rim Trail and all of the Wildcat Canyon Trail are passable. They said that there was a fair bit of mud, running water and snow but it was all workable. I WAS PSYCHED! We all wished each other a good trip and I continued on knowing that I was not turning around.
The next many miles of West Rim Trail and Wildcat Canyon Trail DID prove to be pretty bad though. Not impassable by any means, just bad.
It was super sloppy in many sections, a lot of it was flowing water and there was some pretty deep snow to move through at times. Luckily, all the snow sections went pretty well (considering how deep some of it was) because a few hikers had already been on the trail and kicked steps through it. As long as I stayed in their steps everything went pretty well.
Not to say it was easy. Pretty much the whole section of Wildcat Canyon Trail went pretty slow. I pretty much hiked/ran it because of all of the snow, mud and water. But, at least I made it though! I was just glad to not have had to turn around and head back. I was continuing forward.
While trudging along Wildcat Canyon Trail, I ran into some more runners that were doing the Zion Traverse in the opposite direction. We discussed trail conditions and said our hello's and then continued on.
This interaction was probably the most mood improving 'run in' with people on the whole traverse as not only did I see hikers earlier that said the whole distance was doable but other people had just run it today moving quickly! If it was already run today then I knew for sure that I could do it too. It was just that bit more confidence that started to feed on it's self to help get me to the end.
Once I reached the 4 mile Connector Trail that leads to the final 13 or so miles I was in super good spirits. I was below snow level and the trail quality was great again. There is a lot of sand to deal with on the remaining miles to Lee's Pass and the end but it was going to be heaven compared to what I had just been through. I was just loving the the novelty of dry trails.
After some colder and cloudy sections earlier on Wildcat Canyon Trail, the sun was poking it's head out a bit more often now too. I was really enjoying myself on the Connector Trail.
Then I got off trail...
Arg...I was half way across the Connector Trail and then it just ended. I saw some surveyor tape in a bush about 50 yards out in a field but couldn't find the trail again beyond that. Maybe this section got washed out by spring run off, I don't know, but I didn't remember it being hard to find where to go on this section of trail last year...
I went just about every direction looking for where the trail continued and then ended up following a faint trail with foot steps down stream near a creek for a little while until that vanished too.
Luckily, I knew where the trail ended a few miles away and connected with Hop Valley Trail so I crossed the creek where I was and bush whacked my way toward the far away point.
After 10 minutes or so off trail, after crossing the creek, I ran back into the Connector Trail and, very relieved and a bit frustrated, continued.
I was pretty frustrated with myself for not finding the correct way and going so far off trail. I wasted at least 20 minutes wandering around off trail trying to figure out where it went. What a dork.
Once back on trail, I put my focus on finishing strong and when I hit the Hop Valley Trail I knew I had about 13 miles left and I felt pretty good. All of Hop Valley Trail is runnable and I did my best to run it.
I would say that the Hop Valley section is one of my favorites of this trail. There isn't much of a trail through most of it...you just follow the creek through a beautiful and peaceful, cliff rimmed valley. Crossing the creek many times is mandatory but almost hoped for as the water just trickles along over a sandy bed and makes for easy crossing and the rest of the travel is along the grassy banks with wild flowers in bloom. Really cool place to be.
I started seeing people again once I made it down to the popular La Verkin Creek Trail and campsites. I filled up on water here quickly and tried to push as hard as I could muster to finish out strong. I only had about 7 miles left to Lee's Pass and the end and I was at 9 hours and 15 minutes on the watch. I really wanted to finish under 10 hours before this whole thing started (under normal, good trail conditions) and was pretty excited to still have a chance to finish strong after all the traverse had thrown at me.
I was able to run most of the finish except for the very last steep bit to the end and ended up having one of those sections that running these things is all about... I had about a 4 mile section where I was running everything; flats, hills, creek crossing...everything and I felt great doing it.
I was just running along, having fun, feeling no pain, taking in the surroundings and what I was accomplishing...BIG TIME runners high. It was really a cool feeling to have near the end of a huge run like this (I usually don't feel like this until I stop moving...or only earlier in a long run where my body isn't broken down too much yet...).
Well, I enjoyed that fantastic feeling for as long as I could and then to my surprise I was power hiking the last steep section to Lee's Pass and I was done, standing in the parking lot. When I looked at my watch it was 3:16 pm. I had done the Zion Traverse in 10 hours and 46 minutes.
Very satisfying after all the doubt I had of if it was even going to happen at all, the mud, creeks and snow difficulties and then also getting off trail. A lot working against me on this one but some how I found myself, here, in the Lees' Pass parking lot, finished. I had done it.
What a great adventure!
A bit thank you to Susan, for her calm problem solving leading up to the run and for believing in me and trusting that I would make good decisions during the run. I am very lucky to have her in my life. With out her, I don't think that I would have even taken one step onto the trail for this one.
The rest of our Zion trip...
The rest of the trip was spend relaxing for me and climbing for Susan. We went to one of our favorite crags, Black and Tan, near St. George and she got a bunch of pitches in and I even climbed a 100 ft. 5.10 in my flip flops (I couldn't wear my climbing shoes because me feet hurt too much...). It was a great day to finish the trip with but Susan and I both agreed that we had a hard time coming back... now that's a great trip.
I got inspired again to run hard in the wilderness the moment I got home from our trip and opened my computer to find that Darcy Africa smashed the Women's R2R2R record only a few days after it was just broken by Krissy and Devon. Awesome!
Oh yeah... I should have brought the camera on the Zion Traverse! Sorry for the lack of photos...I could have gotten some good ones.