Sunday, November 8, 2015

Trans Zion attempt- part four of the US trip

 After a few days in SLC getting myself organised and renting a car, I drove south. I had two real objectives for the last 10 days of my trip: the Trans Zion run and the R2R2R in the Grand Canyon. Both classic test pieces of the trail running scene in the US southwest.

The big hurdle with trying to run across Zion solo was going to be the car shuttle, with the start/end trailheads being about 2 hours drive apart. I was tentatively planning on simply starting out early and trying to hitch-hike at the end of the day, but the prospect wasn't very enticing. I was stoked to learn that a mate of Tom's was planning on doing the run with his brother on the upcoming Saturday. Tom put me in touch with Lars and we made plans to meet at the East Rim TH on Friday evening and do a car shuttle together. Stoked!

On Friday I put in a water/coke cache where the trail intersects with the Kolob Terrace Road and swung by the backcountry desk at the gigantic Zion Visitor Centre, they gave me the latest info on what springs were flowing and I marked all the info on the map. Around 9pm Lars and Thomas met me at the TH and I jumped in with them for the drive back to Cedar City where we crashed at a hotel for a few hours sleep.

With a 4:15 alarm we were at the start of the trail at Lee Pass around 5am. We settled into a steady pace, running in the bubbles of light from our headlamps on the pleasant trail beside La Verkin Creek. It was a shame to miss the views here along the start of the trail, but with the prospect of a long day ahead and hot afternoon temperatures it definitely made sense to be starting at the time we did. I was carrying a topo map and Lars had the route downloaded onto his watch, but we nevertheless managed to run straight past the signed intersection with Hop Valley and continued up La Verkin Creek. It wasn't until we reached Bear Trap Canyon over 2km after the junction that our mistake dawned on us and our early start was made pointless. We backtracked to the main trail until we sheepishly reached the sign, which was indeed quite obvious now that the sun was rising and we could see a little better.

Lars and Thomas heading into Hop Valley just after sunrise

 It says a lot about how beautiful Zion is to note that the section through Hop Valley is renowned for being the least interesting section of the entire trail. It is still pretty amazing! The trail is kind of sandy for a few kilometres which made travel slower and more tiring than it would otherwise have been.

Dodging cow pats in the Hop Valley

After about three hours (I can't remember any of our splits exactly...) we got to the cache and drank a few cold cokes and refilled the water bottles. The next section along the Wildcat Canyon trail featured some pretty scenery and plenty of shade from the trees. The trail very runable and while our pace wasn't fast it felt like we were maybe making up some time we'd lost earlier in the day. Doing the math in my head though I realised we were already quite a bit behind the expected splits.

Lars on the Connector trail

Thomas and Lars on the Wildcat Canyon section

We reached the West Rim TH after about 40km (including our little detour), and Thomas, who had been feeling pretty rough over the last few kilometres, decided to bail and hitch-hike over to Zion Valley. It was a shame that he couldn't continue on with us, but he hadn't been getting too much training in over the past few months and with another 42km left in the heat of the day he wasn't too optimistic about how he'd fare.

Lars and I continued on the West Rim trail. The scenery continued to be beautiful, however I started sagging badly: thirsty and unaccustomed to running in the heat. My water supplies (I was running with one 500ml softflask and a 1L flexi-bottle in my vest), were calculated for a slightly faster pace. But I found myself unable/unwilling to run a faster pace and so I was rationing my water... I was comforted by the knowledge that we'd reach the Cabin spring at kilometre 56 where I planned on catching up on my hydration before continuing on.

Lars somewhere near Potato Hollow

On the West Rim trail

Reaching the spring, my disappointment and shock was enough to cause a string of expletives; I'd envisioned a steady stream of water flowing over some rocks, maybe even a small trough which collected the water... What we found was a shallow trickle of scummy water about 5mm deep on top of some silty mud, which made filling my flask, without also filling it with mud, all but impossible. If I'd been using a life-straw I probably could have got enough to slake my thirst, but I was using iodine tabs...

We continued on but it was obvious that Lars, who is in an entirely different league as a runner, was being slowed to an awkwardly slow pace by my increasingly graceless attempt to run. I was feeling clumsy and foggy headed and I knew that water was the only thing which would set me straight. I struggled for a short while with the knowledge that running long distances on trails is by definition not meant to be easy, that overcoming some temporary struggle and challenge is what it's all about. These thoughts were balanced out by the uncertainty of how long it would take for me to start feeling good again once we reached the next water source at the 64km mark and the daunting prospect of having another 18km with around 1000metres of vertical in order to reach the car. Yet another thing to take into consideration was how much I was slowing down Lars. Running at someone else's pace for 1km is very different to doing that for 30+ km and I felt bad about forcing him to slow down so much. So after a quick chat I gave him the car keys and made plans to meet him in Zion Valley later that afternoon.

The final 10km into Zion Valley along the West Rim trail are mind bendingly beautiful, the scale of the sheer red cliffs really has to be experienced first hand. Even in my weary, dehydrated state I was able to appreciate and be blown away by the immensity of it all. The photos, as they say, don't do it justice, and while mostly I was fantasizing about getting some water and lying down in the river I was also thinking about the next time that I come to Zion and looking forward to running the trail in it's entirety.

The last few kilometres to the valley floor are surreal, with the path carved out of the cliff.

 I reached the valley floor after 9 hours and roughly 65kms, feeling trashed and promptly drank about 4L of water and sat in the cold Virgin River thinking back over the day. Rather than feeling disappointed about not having completed the trail like planned I was feeling grateful for having seen so many incredible landscapes and also for having learned some valuable lessons about running in the heat and not trusting beta on water sources from employees of the US National Park Service.

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