Andy and Stewie Do the Zion Traverse 50 (in the Dark)
September 1, 2012
The brief and vulgar summary of our 50-mile Zion Traverse
I wanted to do something adventurous with my move from Boulder to LA. Lucky for me, there’s a lot of America between point A and B, and between a recommendation from Liza and the cover story of last month’s Trail Running magazine, Zion National Park seemed like a good place for an adventure. There’s a 48-mile trail with roughly 10,000 feet of elevation gain that stretches from the park’s East Entrance, snakes through the breath-taking canyons and then takes you in a nearly straight line up to Lee’s Pass in Kolob Canyon in the park’s northwest corner. From my research, it was originally run in the early 1990s by Terry Tucker. It was then “rediscovered” in the late 2000s, most notable by ultrarunning living legend Karl Meltzer. Since then, it’s been run off and on over the years. It’s a popular two-day trip for hikers, but running the full Transverse in one day isn’t super common.
I first pitched the idea a few weeks prior to Matt Stewart (referred to henceforth by the names Stew, Stewie, Stewball, Stewart and/or Dr. Little Biscuits), who is increasingly becoming my masochistic partner in crime with such running adventures. Late August/early September still seems like it would be a little early considering the heat. A week out from the run, a quick check of weather.com, confirmed this suspicion with a string of high-of-95-degree days. While I was wondering what to do, Stew just shot me back a link to a website displaying phases of the moon. September 1st: full moon. Done. We would run the Zion Transverse at night.
As far as I could tell, we were the only ones to think about doing this. And in the end, we kind of fudged it. I had never been to Zion before, and I didn’t want to miss all the beautiful landscape everyone was talking about. So in the end we settled on a 2am-ish start so we’d still get to see a lot of the park. We also decided on a westbound route.
Andy Skurka has a website with tons great info for anyone interested in running the route. And he makes a good observation: Although there’s about 400 extra feet of elevation gained by running the westbound route, you hammer through the vast majority of the climbs early on while your legs are still fresh and then have a nice rolling descent for the entire second half almost all the way to the end (with the exception of the final climb up to Lee’s Pass). Having done the route now, I’d second that recommendation. Gutting out the canyon climbs on the east side of the course would’ve been brutal at the end.
One other thing we decided on/were forced into was a self-supported effort. We’d carry everything we’d need for the entire run on our backs. The great part about Zion is that there are a number of natural springs along the route that provide you with water (as long as they are running). And we assumed we could fit enough food in our packs too. We checked with rangers, and the springs sounded like they were running well so we decided to gamble and not leave any food or water cached anywhere. Truly self-supported.
So it was set. Thursday afternoon, I met Stewie up at Lee’s Pass, dropped my Jeep, and we made our way all the way across to the other side. By the time we made it to the East Entrance, the sun was starting to set. We found a small parking lot right at the trailhead with a nice picnic table and plenty of “no fire/no camping” signs. So naturally, we posted up shop. With our early start, we settled on the plan of getting a good dinner in us right there, organizing our gear and then napping for a few hours before we took off. A very nice ranger rolled in as we were assembling our packs and we sweet-talked him with some medical talk and said that we were just about to take off on our run (leaving out the bit about napping for a few hours). He bid us good luck, and we finished packing. I hung a hammock; Stewie curled up in a sleeping bag on top of the table, and it promptly began to pour buckets. We huddled in Stew’s car and tried to doze off as the sky cracked with lightning and a deluge of water.
Base camp at the East Entrance
Around 1:45 my alarm went off. The rain had stopped so we grabbed our gear, crafted some quick PB&banana sandwiches and brewed a quick cup of coffee. Then, we were off. It was 2:30am.
There’s something pretty thrilling about night running. You can only see what’s immediately in front of you, illuminated by your headlamp. It feels a little more dangerous, a little more unusual. And despite usually being slower going, I think you tend to cover more ground simply because you can’t see how far or fast you’re going. You just go. So go we did.
We quickly began to climb up the canyons, snaking around a far amount along East Rim Trail. Even in the darkness, you could get this sense for the immenseness of the canyon walls and drops. In some ways, it’s even more magical because you can only barely make out the monoliths, and your brain feels in the rest with fantastic details.
Unfortunately the moon didn’t cooperate like we had hoped. Our full moon has almost entirely covered up by a layer of cloud cover that rolled in with the storms earlier in the evening. It was really a shame during the night, but we were lucky later on when the cloud cover clung on well into the afternoon, providing relief from the sun’s assassin rays.
Stew and I twisted up and down and around various canyons. The climbs weren’t really all that bad, but there were certainly a few gnarly descents. In the bottom of one canyon, the trail turned to following cairns across slickrock, which was a fun game to play with our headlamps. Spot the Cairns. At a certain point, they just seemed to disappear. We climbed up to improbable routes and dropped down the canyon farther but couldn’t find any sign of a pile of rocks. Cairn-spotting is definitely tougher at night. After wasting 10 or 15 minutes, we finally spied one that was hidden a few hundred feet away and we continued on.
At one point, the trail dropped down into a narrow canyon that ultimately turns into a small creek. It doesn’t feel like it could possible be the trail since it seems to run smack-dab into a wall of rock, but sure enough it was. The canyon walls narrow and narrow as you run through the narrow creek until just when you think the walls will crush you, it spits you out into a new open canyon.
This is the most trafficked section of the park because its easy access and spectacular views of things like Angels Landing. Unfortunately it also means that back in the 1930 the CCC poured concrete over several miles of the trail. Very hard, uneven, cracked concrete. So despite it being the most beautiful part of the route, it was one of our more hated, just for the nastiness underfoot. The other bit that sucked was the fact it was 5am by the time we hit it, well ahead of any sunlight that would let us see the views. Oh well.
One last cup of coffee before shoving off, time: 2:30am
Into the wilderness
Basically what running for 5 hours in the dark looks like
From the end of this section, you’re spit out on a road. You run this about two miles south to The Grotto, where the real climb begins. Along the way, we saw countless mule deer in the dark, their ears reflecting back at our headlamps. Curiously, they were all stags with big collections of horns set above their heads. We also caught a few ringtails scampering away from our headlamps and into the brush. (If you don’t know what a ringtail is, it’s sort of a cross between a cat, ferret and a lemur. Pretty wild looking.)
Twelve miles, we stopped at The Grotto parking lot to refill our hydration vest with the water spigot there. Then, it was off to the climb.
Mule deer bucks looking on curiously
The climb is a monster one, just over 3,000 feet in 3.7 miles. You follow the poured concrete up impressively constructed switchbacks a few thousand feet above you. The thing is truly a marvel of engineering but also just a lot of elevation gain. Stew and I power hiked most of it in the darkness, muttering to ourselves. The upside was that we didn’t have to deal with it at the end of our run, like we’d have to do if we were running eastbound.
The climb plateau momentarily and we caught out first glimpse of moonlight. But there was still plenty of climbing left to do, as we snaked along canyons more and more. Finally we made it a split the trail. There was supposed West Rim Cabin Spring here. We spent about 5 or 10 minutes looking for it, but couldn’t locate it. Oh well, we figured, we’d just filled up a few miles back, and we should hit Potato Hollow Springs in a while. We should be fine. So we didn’t worry about it.
Traditionally, the Zion Transverse takes the shortest path at this split and goes down a short section of Telephone Canyon Trail. But Stewie insisted that the 3.4-mile West Rim had far better views of the canyons below. Plus, the extra mileage would round our run out to a near perfect 50-miler. It was hard to argue with logic like that, so we turned left. Right as we hit the rim, we started to get out first bit of sunrise, and the canyons below us glowed red and orange and white with their stratified layers in the early morning light. Matt’s logic was right. We had been making pretty good time, and the sunrise gave us an extra pep in our step as we joined up with the main trail headed northwest.
As we turned away from the rims, the landscape quickly changed to scrubby fields and trail to gravelly patches. The miles were starting to finally take a little toll. Twenty miles in is understandable I suppose. But we were looking forward to Potato Hollow Spring.
Sunrise to the east
Fiery morning sky
Running along the West Rim at sunrise
Looking out into Navi/Harry Potter/Narnia land
Lots of white sandstone in the upper layers of rock
Lots of tongue
We’d been told the spring was running pretty well, but that wasn’t the reality we found. It had probably stopped running a week or so prior because there was still water in the small natural basin, but it was a still pool covered in patches of green scum. We were 0 for 2 on springs. (Really 0 for 3 if you count the Stave Spring at mile 5.6 that we couldn’t find in the darkness but didn’t fret over too much considering we had just started.) This middle section had been our concern with water. After the next spring, Sawmill Springs, there wouldn’t be another spring until 6 miles from the end. And all those miles would be on exposed trail in the baking late morning and afternoon sun. So our confidence in the spring was starting to waver. We were running low. Sawmill Springs had to have water or we were toast.
The 6 miles from Potato Hollow to Sawmill were long ones. We’d been running for nearly 6 hours at the point, and were starting to drag. Also, the section was just sort of uninteresting. That middle section of a long run or race that’s just ugly. It happens every time, and it always bums be out a bit. But we grabbed a quick bite of PB&banana sandwiches and pushed on. Six hours. We’d covered a marathon, and it was just 8:30 in the morning.
Right around mile 27, we saw a sign to Sawmill Springs, 0.3 miles off on a side trail. It had a fairly steep descent, which meant a steep ascent climbing out, but we were starting to get in desperate need of water. Our hydration bladders were totally dry.
At the very bottom of the trail we found the spring, which did indeed have flowing water, even if it was a little trickle pouring out of a small log. Bees and wasp buzzed about, enjoying the only water source for miles. We dipped our bottles, drank and filled our packs. It was a lifesaver and a good excuse for a little breather.
Running along Potato Valley
The sweet trickle of Sawmill Springs that saved our lives
But soon enough, we were back at it, our packs suddenly much, much heavier than they had been minutes ago. The scrubby landscape gave way to more forested stuff as we entered Wildcat Canyon. The canyon isn’t as beautiful as many of the other in the park, and the quality of the trail was super rocky. Several sections were covered in a terrible mess of volcanic lava rock that drilled my feet mercilessly. I cursed that stupid lava rock many a times.
This was the point that we saw our first people, around 30 miles into our run. (They looked shocked when we answered their question “Where are you guys coming from?” with “The East Entrance.”) We also happened upon another nameless spring along the side of the trail that was flowing very nicely. But generally, this section was somewhat dismal. The miles were starting to set in.
Luckily, the rocky trail turned into a few soft piney trails and even began to cut across some grass fields. Even better, the climbing was over. We’d reached the high point and would essentially roll downhill for the next 20ish miles until the climb up to Lee’s Pass at the very end.
Looking out towards Wildcat Canyon
Old lava flow
The scenery started to up open. We say big towering rocks in the distance and even began to run over some slickrock. That got us going again. Slickrock is always fun.
But slickrock turned into sand quickly, and we soon found ourselves in a wide-open desert. Red and yellow and white wildflowers blurred by on either side. And off in the not-too-distant distant angry storm clouds churned. We didn’t particularly want to get caught out on this exposed Connector Trail in a lightning storm, but there was no other course of action other than just following the course.
Despite its amazing beauty, this section also gave rise to two other issues: sand and heat. Some bits of sand were so soft, we were slowed to a walk because it was like a beach. And as much as I love my New Balance 110s, their biggest flaw is the uncanny ability to take sand in through the toe box, and sure enough, I was soon running about 2 inches taller with all the sand that they’d taken it. I had to stop a couple of times to dump out my new sand collections.
The heat also kicked in at this point. It was 11:30, and the temperatures started to soar. All day we had been kicking ourselves a little because the 2:30am start felt like overkill. The temps had been nicely regulated by a blanket of cloud cover and remained unexpectedly cool. But as soon as we felt the energy-sapping power of the heat, we were glad we’d decided to minimize our exposure to it.
Riding slickrock down to the Connector Trail
More slickrock ripples
Open desert on the Connector Trail
Rojo y amarillo
The state of the feet at mile 37
I think this is the point where we started to get a little loopy. On 3 hours of sleep, we’d been running for 9.5 hours and covered nearly 40 miles. I broke out my camera and performed a little interview with Stewball as ran about all the things we were going to eat when we were done. It didn’t make a lot of sense.
The trail drops down from here into Hop Valley. Hop Valley is essentially one big, long 3.7-mile wash. Giant rock walls rise up hundreds of feet on either side, with a narrow strip of grass/sand/rancid water/cows in the middle. There’s really no trail to follow other than just going straight up the wash. And as a result, your feet have no solid footing. It’s all just sort of mud and goo and sand and cow crap. We stumbled along for a while. And then the sky opened up and started to drench us. The unsolicited shower actually worked to our favor because it cooled down the air and hardened up the sand to help our footing just a bit. A bit.
What didn’t help were all the cows. Hop Valley is their grazing area, and up towards the top, they were everywhere. And they had calves with them. And that made them kind of aggressive. We got some pretty mean looks from all of them, and a few even started to menacingly lumber towards us. Our defense of choice was a pair of big sticks and lots of yips of “Burgers!” and “I am vegan, but I swear I will eat your ass up, cow!”
So, we finally made it out of Hop Valley, but it cost us a lot of time. Much longer than 3.7 miles should’ve taken. In some ways, that was the toughest section of the whole run (surprisingly).
Descending into Hop Valley with walls on either side
We climbed up and out of the valley only to drop down into another one, this one much more typical and cow-less, following alongside the La Verkin Creek. We also started to see human beings again. Although less popular than the other side of the park, people hike down into the Kolob Canyons from Lee’s Pass. We were getting close.
We also came on our final spring, Beatty Springs. This one was a huge roaring spring (in my memory), and we merrily filled our packs and downed a few bottles. We grabbed a nearby log and scarfed our last bits of food (a delicious PB&J made with apricot jelly that Stewie had preserved himself) in anticipation of our final climb up to Lee’s Pass.
The wall at La Verkin creek
The wonderful Beaty Springs by Campsite #7
Six miles left. We set off, and I felt flipping great. We were flying, just charging along the La Verkin. I was ready to finish strong. A thousand miles climb in the last four miles? No big deal.
Yeah right. The flat trail took a sharp turn right, and we knew we were headed up the valley on our final approach. Valiantly I kept up my pace, bombing up little climbs, hiking where we had to, but I felt like we could just grind it out.
A mile and a half in, my naivety caught up with me. The bottom dropped out. I had zero energy left in the tank, and my legs were shot. Stewie, who had been lagging behind (probably knowingly) took the lead and soon pulled away. The climb is a relatively constant one, but the trail is continuously criss-crossed by the dry bed of Timber Creek, which means you have to drop down and climb up short hills every few thousand feet. And in the open, baking sun, I was just about done. But there was no option but up.
We must’ve looked pretty rough because a couple of hikers stopped to ask us what were doing. I shot back, “How far away is the trailhead?” I think the answer was 2/3 of a mile. So I just looked back down, put my hands on my knees and kept power hiking.
And then, suddenly, there it was. The trailhead marker. We ambled up to it, tagged it and then collapsed on some nearby rocks.
The long climb up towards Lee’s Pass
Tagged the sign at 3:19pm, 12 hours and 49 minutes after we started
We’d done it. A somewhat unorthodox Zion Traverse, 50 miles, in 12:49. Absolutely nowhere near the new record recently set by Luke Nelson of 7:48:47. (Granted, it was supported.) As far as I can tell, Andy Skurka owns the unsupported FTK in 9:27. Doing it again, I think we’d be able to post a much better time now that we’re familiar with all of the trails idiosyncrasies and variation in springs. We also didn’t push it too hard. We were just too idiots out in the middle of nowhere having fun.
Awesome and ouch
Two idiots out in the middle of nowhere
I was actually pretty please with our planning, considering it was so improvisational. We both did our food exactly spot on. I took a PB&J and PB&banana, an organic candy bar, two Cliff bars and four gels. In the end, I only had one gel left. So we made it through just fine without carrying anything extra.
For anyone looking to do one incredible run, Zion is it. Although I would recommend doing it in late spring or early fall so you can beat the heat and actually see some of the amazing formation in the daylight.
Next up, Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim. Yippy ky yay.