Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mother's Day weekend a few years ago, my friend, Becca, and I climbed to the top of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, sat down along the edge for a snack and took pictures of our feet dangling over the side.  Angel's Landing is about 1700 feet above the canyon floor, so it made for exciting photography. 

I sent this picture out to my friends and family in an email titled, "Cool picture of my feet."  I called my mom on Mother's Day and told her she had an email then listened while she headed over to her computer to check it out.  I got the following response:

"Sarah! That is NOT a cool picture of your feet!  That's like a LAST picture of your feet!  It's the kind of picture they retrieve from your camera when they recover your mangled body."

Despite what you see above, I'm not a thrill seeker by nature.  Angel's Landing is a thrilling hike, but I do it for different reasons.  I must say, however, that scaring the snot out of my mother with this picture was more fun than I had had in a long time.  I vowed that day to do it again and do it often.

(The dropoff you see is actually not as steep as it seems...not that rolling off of it wouldn't lead to my certain death....  My bottom was wedged nicely in a groove in the rock where I sat, so my chances of rolling off the cliff were pretty small.   I took the picture with my camera phone, which allowed me to snap it while only extending my arm.  See, Mom!  It's not so bad!)

So, it's been three and a half years since my mother seriously questioned my sanity and warned me my days on the earth are numbered if I kept up the crazy hiking.  A week without my kids provided the perfect opportunity for me to put on my daredevil hat and make my mother sigh in exasperation. 

The venue this time was again Zion National Park.  The hike: The Zion Narrows.  For those unfamiliar with this hike, I pity you.  And I offer this website for more information.  The Narrows is a breathtaking river hike through the longest slot canyon in the world and, in my hiker's opinion, is the most fun a person can have in Zion National Park.  I had hiked various lengths of this canyon three times in the past, but those hikes all occurred in the summer months, when hiking in water is a very welcome relief from the 100 degree heat of Southern Utah.

The Narrows involves a degree of risk, year round.  Flash floods can strike suddenly and high ground is not available in many sections of the canyon.  This, alone, might have been enough to cause heart palpitations in my mom.  However, because of my conservative practice of only hiking the Narrows while flood potential is low, I knew there wasn't much chance of really scaring her.  I had to up the ante.  It was time for a winter hike.

Hypothermia!  That's IT!

Here's where I come clean and say that we didn't plan to hike the Narrows when we went to Zion.  We didn't even plan to do any serious hiking.  We'd booked the Jane Austen room at the Novel House Inn in Springdale, and were prepared for a quiet two days of Jane Austen know, strolling, reading, needlepoint, pining for suitors too far above our station to ever marry us...stuff like that.  On our way out of town, the Novel House proprietors called and regretfully informed us that due to a complete lack of any other bookings, they needed to cancel our reservation, close for the holidays, and let their staff have time with family.  I was dismayed (I was so looking forward to busting out words like "thither" and "anon"), but before we could say, "Edmond's been sent to London again," we realized this was a blessing in disguise.

Our plan B was the Zion Park Inn, a fairly nice Best Western in Springdale.  We checked in, telling our sad tale to the man behind the desk, who knocked a few bucks off the nightly rate because we were pathetic and he was sweet.  Later, a walk through the lobby revealed that a good friend of mine (who will remain nameless in case her awesomeness could lose her a job) also worked at the hotel.  She decided a few bucks off the rate would never do and promptly cut the price of our two night reservation in half.  Nameless, you're the best!  I will love you 'til the day I die.  (Don't get excited about that, Nameless.  My mom thinks the day I die will be sooner than I think.)

Speaking of my mom...this day happened to coincide with my birthday, so Mom did her birthday thing, calling my cell phone to serenade me (loudly) with the string of silly birthday songs we've been singing since I was a kid.  It was during one particularly precipitous high note that I thought of the precipitous cliffs of the Narrows, realized I'd just saved $200 on lodging, and a plan was formed.  I waited patiently for the final strains of "Happy Birthday To You" to end and then sprung my crazy plans on her aging heart:  "We're going to rent winter gear and hike in freezing cold, chest deep water tomorrow!"

*Cue exasperated sigh*

Am I trying to kill my mom?  Well, of course I am!  Didn't you read that column? 

True to my word, we took our room savings down to  Zion Adventure Company the next morning and informed the adventurous employee of our adventurous intentions.  She didn't look at us like we were crazy, probably because we were offering her job security in the form of money whether or not we died a horrible death in our rented gear.  She sat us down with another family of crazies in front of an informational video about the Narrows, introduced us to the gear we would be taking with us, and then lined us up to size us for our dry suits and fleece.

People, I hiked for hours in water so cold it could have killed me, and the most harrowing part of my experience was having a skinny 20-something try to figure out my size just by looking at me.  I was seriously unsure what would be worse: having to state my weight in a room full of smaller people (rather than have her guess, which she was trying to do), or get to the trailhead and learn I wasn't going to fit into my gear. I settled on the latter, quietly shared my concern that I might be too fat for the size she had chosen, gave her my weight, and died a little inside, to which she replied, "I have a coworker built exactly like you, and this is the size she uses.  I think it will fit great!"  Of course, you KNOW it fit fine and all my anxiety and embarrassing revelations were for nothing.  The woman should work for a carnival.

Since we hadn't brought anything worthy of a hike, we rented a full set of gear for the Narrows.  This consisted of two layers of fleece pants and tops, dry suits made of goretex and rubber, two pairs of neoprene socks each, water shoes worthy of a walk on the surface of the moon, hats, gloves, waterproof backpacks, walking sticks (essential for any Narrows hike), and a waterproof camera case.  We loaded our gear into the car and headed into the park.

Here's what you need to know about Narrows winter gear.  It's crazy hard to get into.  That statement might just be applicable to me, but I'm not willing to sugar coat what might be a difficult experience for someone like me.  Neoprene socks are manufactured in China, having been outsourced from the depths of Hell to save on overhead.  They don't want to be on your feet and fight you on every inch until finally settling just above your ankles, refusing to straighten out, thereby cutting off most of your circulation to your feet.

Dry suits made of goretex and rubber are probably easy to get on if one is not already stuffed into two layers of fleece.  The experience of donning my dry suit was somewhere between trying to put on too tight jeans and giving birth.  Once the suit was zipped and the moon boots were buckled (with ample help from my husband), we tottered to the car, and I learned the only thing harder than walking in this gear was driving in it.  Sitting in a goretex dry suit causes the air in the pants to billow into the top, puffing the suit up around your face like a microwaved marshmallow.  We giggled all the way to the trailhead. Richard took a picture of me, and I promptly threatened to break his phone if he didn't delete it.  (That was when I remembered it was my phone.)

I'm glad to report that after awhile, you can get used to wearing anything.  I won't say the gear became like a second skin the way my usual hiking gear has, but at some point along the trail, it stopped being cumbersome and began to feel useful.  This was probably about the same time we stepped into water that reached our waists and realized we weren't screaming like little girls from the cold.

The weather conditions for the day called for highs of 40 degrees in the canyon with water temperature at about 40-45 degrees.  The boots and socks were not water tight, so we felt some of that cold, but socks manufactured by direction from Hell are actually pretty handy.  As long as we were moving, I never felt my feet get colder than the cool feel of the water during my summer hikes.  The dry suits lived up to their names, keeping us completely dry from head to toe, despite several falls into the water.  (Falling is a normal Narrows activity, and probably the part that makes it the most fun.)

With our walking sticks in front of us to test for water depth and for help with stability, Richard and I made our way through scenery that amazes me more each time I see it.  The beauty of the canyon was enhanced by the winter snow, the juxtaposition of red and white creating a spectacular contrast.  The cold weather provided for a more quiet, contemplative experience than I've previously felt in the summer when crowds of hikers visit the canyon.  The only other people we encoutered were the family of hikers we'd met when renting our gear.

In preparation for our hike, we'd stopped by a small store outside the park for food and water.  Most of what we bought proved extraneous.  We barely finished a half a liter of water between us and left most of the food untouched.  If I had it to do over again, I would still bring along as much food and water as we did, because the Narrows hike is unpredictable and there are hikers who have had to hunker down for a night or two before hiking back out.  Also, jerky and granola bars are good roadtrip food.

We had been warned while watching the video back at Zion Adventure Company to be aware of the signs of hypothermia.  Since I needed a good story to tell in order to continue my "freak out mom" tradition, I kept an eagle eye out for this.  The symptom I focused on the most was "poor decision making."  Any time I found myself pushing against a current more swift than I liked or trying to cross along rocks too slick for my boots, I wondered if hypothermia was setting in.  Every fall left me giddy with delight and then quickly concerned that the aforementioned poor decision making had led to it.  At some point, I realized that most people would consider the entire hike a testament to poor decision making, so any decision within the hike would likely lead to a hypothermia diagnosis. 

We had to have our gear back by 6 pm, so we didn't get too terribly far through the canyon before deciding to turn back.  Heading back to our car on the Riverside Walk, I found that the spring in my step I've always experienced after a summer Narrows hike was just as evident in the winter.  Our bodies were sore, our joints aching and bruised from various falls into the water, our hands stinging from spending too much time in wet gloves, but our faces beamed with the joy of the hike.

We decided Hell could have its socks back as soon as humanly possible, so we stripped out of our boots and dry suits in the Temple of Sinewava parking lot, ignoring the curious stares of others in the area.  The bathrooms at this trailhead are being remodeled, so we used our tailgate for support and pulled each other out of the bulky gear.  Once free of the neoprene and rubber, we decided we'd had enough of the fleece, too.  Jumping in our minivan and shutting the doors, we giggled our way out of our rented clothes and back into our jeans and t-shirts.  Richard used the tiny space between the back seat and the back door.  I wedged myself into the middle bench seat, struggling against Michael's carseat and the remains of a Christmas stocking one of the kids had dumped on their way to their dad's.  At one point, my feet were on the ceiling, and I again considered that we might have hypothermia.  There was a woman sitting alone in a car a couple of spaces away. I can only imagine what she thought was going on.

We got our gear back fifteen minutes before our deadline and high-fived the adventurous employee who helped make our hike possible.  There was a family of tourists in the shop checking out the gear, and we were happy to tell them about the hike and encourage them to try it the next day.  I thought about pulling the daughter of the group aside to tell her how much this would scare her mom, but since her mom was planning on doing the hike, it didn't seem like it would really work.  I should have busted out the Angel's Landing picture at that point, but somehow the thought eluded me.

I think I might have been suffering from hypothermia.

 (Thanks to my mom for being a worry wart and letting me make fun of her for it.)