One Day of Winter and Three Days of Spring in the Fins

Bill and I had already made two attempts to backpack into the Fins area, which is part of Ernie’s Country in the Maze District of Canyonlands NP. Spring 2010 was abnormally snowy and Fall 2010 featured torrential rains, both times making roads impassable. This time — Spring 2011 — the weather cooperated. Also it was great to have John Veranth along; he has awesome hand-annotated maps of the area and a second truck provided some margin against mechanical problems or stuck vehicles.

First Day

We left SLC around 6:15 AM and had 3.5 hours of driving before leaving pavement about 20 miles north of Hanksville. Incredibly, at this point we still had 3.5 hours of driving left. Big lobes of sand had blown across the road in places and by the time we got to the ranger station at Hans Flat, the wind was really going and (as the pictures make clear) there was a lot of dust in the air. After picking up our backcountry permit, we drove down the Flint Trail, an amazing piece of road that goes through one of the only breakdowns found anywhere in the Orange Cliffs. Happily, the Flint Trail was not only bone-dry, but also it had been bladed recently and was in excellent condition.

Once below the Orange Cliffs, we quickly got to the top of the Golden Stairs, a trail that drops through the next set of cliffs, giving access to the top level of the Maze District. The alternative to hiking this trail is a long, extremely rough drive around Teapot Rock, which neither John nor Bill was eager to do. At the bottom of the Golden Stairs we walked on the road for maybe a mile and then dropped into Range Canyon, which has two springs that were used by ranchers and improved by the CCC. We skipped the first one and camped near the second, getting there around dusk. Around midnight the wind started to howl, blasting the tents with sand and pebbles and trying to push them over.

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Second Day

Despite the rough night, the winds were down in the morning and (atypically for the desert in March) it was quite warm. After breakfast we walked over to the actual fins, which are massive and amazing. We had lunch in an alcove at the top of the canyon containing the fins and then poked into some side drainages on the way back. Back at the tents the winds had picked up again and everything, including inside the tents, was covered by a nice layer of grit. I ate a lot of sand on this trip.

Before dinner John and I climbed a nasty little 4th-class ramp to the level of slickrock above the canyon bottom near our camp. This gave access to a beautiful expanse of slickrock above the spring; clearly a lot of exploring would be possible there, but we failed to find an easy way out to the canyon rim.

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Third Day

After breakfast we packed up to avoid exposing unoccupied tents to another windy day. We hiked up the canyon that is in between the two springs in Ernie’s Country. It contains a nice surprise: a slot canyon. However, before we had finished exploring it, it started to rain and rule #0 of slot canyons is you are not in them when it rains, so we backed out in a hurry. The rain continued on and off all day, eventually accumulating in pools on the slickrock, but it never rained hard enough to be unpleasant. Whitmore arch is up near the rim of this canyon, easily accessible by a slickrock ramp.

Near the head of Range Canyon there’s a great Anasazi granary and a very short slot canyon. After poking around this area for a while the weather started to look worse and we decided that if it snowed much overnight, we’d have trouble getting up the steep sandstone fin that provides access to this canyon. So, we exited and camped up on the rim. During dinner the drizzle turned into sleet so we turned in early and I read for a while before bed. Although my sleeping bag is rated to 15 degrees, it is not that warm so I slept in most of my layers. Fortunately — unlike my last two backpacking trips — I didn’t spend a miserable, sleepless, shivering-cold night.

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Fourth Day

The weather system cleared out during the night and the morning was cold and spectacular — our first clear weather of the trip. The cool morning was welcome: no need to carry much water up the Golden Stairs. A couple of steep spots on the Flint Trail held snow when we got there, but not enough to cause trouble. After getting to the top we took a short detour on the road to the Big Ridge up to the point where there’s a campsite at a narrow neck between two massive canyon systems: Happy on one side and Cataract on the other. From there we turned around and got back to SLC by 8pm.

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As a backpacking destination, Ernie’s Country is great. Pros:

  • Diverse and excellent scenery, even by Southern Utah standards
  • Springs make water a non-issue
  • Easy walking, heavily cairned routes, and constrained area would make it hard to get seriously lost

Cons:

  • Getting a broken vehicle towed from anywhere under the ledge would probably cost thousands of dollars
  • Some red tape associated with being inside a national park
  • A fairly crowded area relative to its remoteness

Gear for Getting Outside in Winter

Since I’m not a big skier, I didn’t get out a lot in winter during my first few years in Utah. When springtime came, I would just tough it out and get into shape the hard way — go on a few long hikes and suffer appropriately. This worked because I was in my 20s. Now that I’m close to 40, that strategy works very poorly so I try to stay in shape all year. This means having some reasonable winter clothes, which is what this post is about.

The basic ideas behind putting together a good collection of clothing on a modest budget are:

  • Waterproof items are expensive and almost never necessary. The main exceptions are hard rain (rare in Utah) or spending a lot of time wallowing in wet snow (rare outside of self-arrest practice sessions).
  • Items should be multi-purpose. Many pieces of outdoor gear are things a person would want to own anyway, just to shovel the driveway or whatever.
  • Everything can be found for at least 30% off retail price (and often quite a bit more) if you are patient.

I’m posting this since it took me a while to come up with a system that’s warm, comfortable, and durable.

Basics

These are all you need down to about 5°F, as long as you keep moving and there’s little wind. More layers are needed (see below) to provide margin against getting lost or hurt, to stay comfortable over a lunch break, or when there’s weather.

Pants

Soft shell pants are awesome: stretchy, warm, and breathable. The Mammut Champ pants I’ve used for about three years are not showing much wear and are comfortable in a wide variety of conditions. They seem to be a great choice.

Top

Layering is not needed: a single breathable, windproof, stretchy top is what you want. My top is a Sporthill “zone 3” model and it is excellent, though getting threadbare after 4 years of use. Many other companies make similar gear. The idea is to keep it simple: the shirt is a pullover with no pockets, hood, or any of that.

Socks and Boots

Smartwool socks are my favorite, and not too hard to find on sale. Otherwise anything that isn’t cotton should be fine. Boots don’t seem to matter that much, you just want decent treads. I’m not partial to Goretex boots but they’re hard to avoid unless you go to heavy leather boots.

Gaiters

Everyone in the Midwest and Northeast of the US has a hat and gloves, but most people who visit us from those regions have never heard of gaiters. I don’t understand this because gaiters are the best thing ever: they keep snow (and sticks and leaves) out of your boots and they keep your legs warm. I’d rather go snowshoeing in tennis shoes and gaiters than in a good pair of boots without gaiters.

Gloves and Hat

The “windstopper” kind of fleece seems to work well for a light hat and gloves. Gloves last a few years and hats last until you lose them.

Extras

For trips longer than an hour or two, or for non-benign winter weather some extra gear is nice.

Balaclava

Even with a good hat and temperatures not much below freezing, windy weather can easily lead to numb cheeks, neck, and chin. A balaclava solves this problem; in winter I almost always hike/run with a Smartwool balaclava in my pocket, it weights almost nothing and is really warm and comfortable. I also have a heavy storm balaclava but don’t use it that often.

Long Underwear

Backpacking in crappy weather taught me to love wool long underwear: it stays comfortable and doesn’t get (extremely) smelly after wearing it continuously for a week. Mine is Smartwool but there are several other brands like Ibex and Icebreaker that are probably just as good. This stuff is so comfortable I wear it around the house in winter.

Headlamp

This is a good idea for winter day hikes, and mandatory for evening hiking. I used to use a small headlamp with 3 AAA batteries inside the unit; these are awesome for emergency use and for backpacking trips, but don’t provide enough light to illuminate a trail if you’re moving fast. My current headlamp has an external battery pack, which is annoying, but it’s far brighter and can be used for trail running at night.

Poles

I usually hike with poles in winter, they provide extra points of balance on icy hillsides and make it much easier to self-extricate from a snowbank.

Shell Pants

As I said, these are seldom necessary unless it’s very windy or rainy. But still, it’s nice to have a pair. I bought cheapo goretex pants about 10 years ago and they still work.

Puffy Jacket

A puffy jacket is great to pull on as soon as you stop moving. The one shown here is a Montbell UL thermawrap, which I love because it’s light and small and fairly close-fitting, so it layers well under other stuff. Since it’s thin, it’s not very warm by itself.

Shell or Soft-Shell Jacket

One of these is nice for the crappiest conditions.

Serious Hand Protection

You definitely want some heavier gloves than the ones I showed above. I also have a pair of pullover mittens, mainly for insurance. You can’t actually do anything with your hands while wearing the damn things but I’m pretty sure that (pulled over warm gloves) they’d stave off frostbite in most conditions found in the lower 48.

November Snowshoeing

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I make it into the Uinta mountain range less than once a year, on average, even though its near end is only an hour from SLC. Yesterday, taking advantage of the early snowfall, Bill and I snowshoed up the Norway Flats trail a few miles east of Kamas, UT. Actually we didn’t even put on the snowshoes for most of the way up since a snowmobile had been up the trail, but on the way back we dropped off the trail and that was more interesting. It was good to get outside, and it was also good we went on Saturday since here’s my back patio tonight:

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Angel’s Landing

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Earlier this fall while visiting Zion NP I did the Angel’s Landing hike with friends. This route climbs the spine of a sandstone fin that sticks out into the middle of Zion Canyon, with thousand-foot drops on both sides. This video captures the feel, though the use of a wide-angle lens makes it look worse than it really is.

There are a few unnerving spots on this route. However, the subjective hazard is quite low since chains have been rigged any place where a single misstep would lead to a big fall. Routes I’ve done like Borah Peak and the traverse of Devil’s Castle have much thornier combinations of exposure and easy climbing moves, and of course have no chains. The worst thing about the hike was the presence of a large number of children — some of them looked no more than three and it really freaked me out watching them negotiate the exposed spots.