I had this urge to do something crazy, so here I am driving to Springdale, Utah, home of Zion National Park, as a massive storm passes through the Western States. My rental car’s windshield wipers can barely keep up with the downpour, and I’m about ready to hit the hazards and pull over.
Until now, the plan had been to arrive into Springdale, put some sunglasses on, go for a relaxed lunch, and then to start the adventure at 4pm, where I would attempt a double crossing of the Trans Zion traverse into the night sky. My plan had been to travel along the west-east traverse alone through the [beautiful, starry] night, and then pick up my friend Meghan for the return ~49 mile traverse. It was about 3:00 right now and it didn’t look like weather wanted me outside in Zion. We heard reports of huge amounts of rain, thunder, and possibly snow up high, and we didn’t know how that would affect the ridgelines and plateaus. But what else would we do? We were here as pilgrims to Zion!
So we head to an outdoors store to fish for ideas on how to salvage our trip. We find one called The Desert Rat in St. George, it just so happens we can see it off the highway. With pure luck, we get to meet Zion trail hero, the man who pioneered the Trans-Zion route– Bo Beck! It just so happens he owns this store, and we walked in at the right moment. Bo is an incredible help, calling up park ranger friends to check conditions, showing us maps and recent photographs, and giving us facts about which parts will be slower-going and swampy. He gives us the encouragement that parts will be slower, but that we will love it regardless, and it’s exactly the information and ammunition we need to give the traverse a go. Meghan and I decide to wait until the next morning after the evening thunderstorms, and just take it step by step. We take off to Springdale and arrive in the dark, wondering what mysterious beauty surrounds us.
At 4am, the Zion Scenic Drive is still a mystery in the dark. After what seems like 3 hours of shuttling cars to the west and east trailheads, (sadly, it is) we arrive at the park’s western frontier, the Lee Pass trailhead, as hail nails the windshield. Due to self-love, we decide to wait five minutes to see if the hail will give us a break. I enter Bo’s number into my inReach, and try to get comfortable with all the tech gizmos I’m trying out… Craig’s app called RunGo, (which is supposed to give offline GPS-based turn by turn directions) Craig’s Garmin watch, a GoPro… Woah. Not used to this much stuff!
The hail takes a pause at 7:30 and we’re finally taking our first steps on the La Verkin Creek trail. Rugged red spires welcome us to the park as we run through and it’s muddy, twisty singletrack underfoot, but that makes it extra exhilarating, taking every bit of balance and coordination. Streams devour our ankles, and we start embracing them, running right through to our calves. Being from BC, this is right up our alley, and we’re pleasantly surprised by the conditions. Intermittent hail comes and goes and Meghan proclaims, “at least hail doesn’t get you wet!”
I’m finding myself feeling very optimistic– conditions are similar to our home turf, and Craig’s RunGo app is actually working, announcing all the key turnoffs along the way, (all without data!) and even corrects us as we make a wrong turn. I am so shocked, and pretty excited for how cool his app is!
The morning is filled with rain, hail, clouds, and some sun, and we even get to meet one other human out there, a Colorado runner who is out running to Kolob Arch. I’m having a blast zigzagging through the muddy, open riverbed in Hop Valley, and then encountering runnable snow along the Connector Trail and into Wildcat Canyon, running through pine forests, golden ferns, never-ending terrain that’s constantly morphing before us. Everything is great, and I start to revive the idea of coming back on my own at night. I start to make note of turnoffs and remember “landmarks”, and I get excited that the full plan seems back on track!
It’s turning out to be a great day!
We’re making pretty good time until we hit Telephone Canyon, and decide to take that instead of staying on West Rim, which was recommended by a friend. It’s our first ugly postholing of the day, with deep, hard snow up to our calves, on an angled slope, with the trail now invisible except to Meghan’s fine trail eye. She and I take turns leading through the mess, but Meghan takes major leadership, following an invisible trail and emerging looking like a cat attacked her bare shins.
I decide I will not take that way back!
Back to running, the West Rim Trail welcomes us into snow-free heaven, opening up to reveal a beautiful red, white, rocky canyon unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Being here on this beautiful ridge, running with such a supportive partner in crime, and given all the storms and the uncertainty about the conditions that tested our dream, all I can feel is a huge sense of gratitude to be here.
As we descend to the canyon floor at the Grotto, I’m feeling more and more excited about my return trip through the Canyons on the way back, wondering what it must feel like to run alone through here at night. Would it be eerie? Beautiful? Exhilerating? Peaceful? I couldn’t wait to find out. It takes us a while to find our next water, but there’s a great campsite spot that offers us forgiveness in the form of tap water.
Finally we get to do the big climb back out of the canyon, which we’ve been anticipating for quite a while. And it’s on this stretch of the East Rim, just after sunset, where my gut feeling takes a turn. Here the trail becomes rock slabs with guidance from small cairns, and I see that this section could be very tricky at night. Suddenly I get a really bad vibe from my gut, and I start to question my plan. It’s so open, and we’re finding it difficult even with the two of us. Suddenly, the feelings of wonder and excitement about the solo return switch to worry, seriousness, even fear. My gut tells me that the situation– the increased risks I’m sensing, the more complex navigation– crosses the line. I start to feel irresponsible, thinking of my mom worrying about me, of Meghan staying up all night, and that I can’t guarantee every part of the journey anymore. I can’t authentically tell my mom not to worry anymore, because I’m not so sure she shouldn’t. And as soon as I admit this to myself, it’s easy for me to detach and to leave part two behind. I tell Meghan, and we have a hug to celebrate smart decisions.
We complete the west-east traverse, running, postholing and hiking over 50 miles that day, and learning an incredible amount about ourselves, each other, and finding that balance between pushing the envelope and trusting our instincts. On the plane ride home, I’m able to interpret what my gut feeling was telling me: without a crew and in the winter, I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was for the increasing risks around me. The risk of getting lost was getting more real, and my original plan of “being visible / chilling in the beautiful canyon / waiting for help” was not viable with the supplies I had. A sweater and gloves is better than nothing, but it wouldn’t have kept me warm enough. A bivvy sack/sleeping bag is my new advice to really enable a great safety plan in a winter night traverse, especially an unsupported one, in a new area, during storms, with more mileage than you’ve ever done before. Oh, retrospect!
I’m so excited to continue to seek this balance in future adventures! And definitely, looking forward to another Zion trip soon…
Some useful links!