“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways. ”― Oscar Wilde
It’s a snowstorm that covered nearly the entire country, so impactful they gave it a name: Helena.
When it hit Grand Junction it was relatively tame. Tamed by the mountains of Utah and the protective Bookcliffs, only to crash upon the Grand Mesa at its 11,000 feet to let loose any fury she had left. The school where I teach was cancelled.
And that’s saying something here in Colorado.
Unfortunately, my own kids’ schools were only delayed. So we had a nice leisurely morning, with big breakfasts and playing with kids, and after we deposited them into their educational repository, we hit Starbucks to use the last of my student-gifted gift cards and drive up the snow-packed road to the East Entrance of the Colorado National Monument.
The ranger at the booth gave us the beta on Rim Rock Road: closed for plowing. After a bit of friendly verbal sparring, we headed to park at Devil’s Kitchen after we promised to return with condition updates from No Thoroughfare.
There’s a good reason we chose this canyon for snowy exploration. In the wintertime the walls tend to freeze into sheets of pillared ice, with the greatest pillar of all accessible by the non-death-wishing adventurer being the 100 ft tall seasonal waterfall inappropriately dubbed “The First Waterfall”, which in good ice years becomes a plinth of frozen creation tempting to all ice-climbing fiends.
As we headed down the trail [realizing that snowshoes probably would have been appropriate at least on this section…the snow being 8-12 feet in dry-powdery depth], I got it in my head that now would be a good time to do some exploration.
Consider: we have many times explored this region near to the trailhead, but never the lower wash of No Thoroughfare that stretches between the Devil’s Kitchen trail and Echo Canyon/Old Gordon trail. It the fall it is filled with Cottonwoods, whose heights now laid bare looked more like empty arms of damned creatures raised to the sky begging for relief.
I had recently read THIS article about a nice petroglyph panel, hidden under the lee of a cliff wall, and decided that now was as good a time as any to find it, then hike up the wash prior to achieving the No Thoroughfare trail proper.
And I’m glad we did! Once we found it [I have an instinctual knack for discovering things based solely on a description] we discovered it half-exposed, and half-concealed with snow. We were absolutely delighted! Wouldn’t you be?
We vowed to return on a later date, both with children and the sun to melt the snow.
The lower wash was enchanting as it snaked us dangerously over boulder fields and between at least one tight-squeeze, carved by years of flash-flooding.
Once we reached the trail we were surprised to see a young couple just in front of us, headed the same direction as we were! I shan’t make the mistake again to assume we are the only hearty adventurers with a desire to explore unlikely areas at unlikely times.
We eventually overtook them and found that they were not entirely appropriately dressed or shod, and they didn’t seem to be carrying any water. Even though the temperature easily dropped to 20 or lower in the shade, when you’re clearing trail through shin-deep snow you get quite warm and lose a lot of fluids through sweat and evaporation.
In fact, at one point the combination of the frigid air and my breath caused a light frosting on the tips of my hair.
With Matt in the lead and I following in his steps, we made it to the “First Pool” without too much concern.
Then we saw the stairs.
They were almost entirely obscured by snow.
Nevertheless, we pressed onward, with the young couple following behind in our footsteps. Between the Pool and the Waterfall there are several areas where there is no ‘trail’, per se. As flash floods from the seasonal monsoons re-shape the canyon annually, it becomes a matter of simply stepping where you won’t twist and ankle or fall down.
I can’t begin to express how it took all my trail- and yoga-trained finesse not to fall at least every 200 meters.
Unfortunately, the girl behind me took many, many falls [they told me at one point that they were counting, and the count was up to 35].
The scenery was beyond lovely, with a bluebird day lighting up the cliffs, and the shadowy light of mid-winter creating high-contrasting images in every direction.
When we finally reached the “First Waterfall” we were disappointed to find it only 10% complete, compared to the version of it we saw last January.
My view of the ‘waterfall’ from the frozen pool below.
The snow pile obscuring the sign pointing to the unimproved trail that goes straight up the hill….
Not one to miss an opportunity for a new experience, I decided to wander out onto the ice of the pool and jump up and down. I’d never done that before.
Vertical pano Matt took of me standing on the frozen pool.
The other couple had turned quickly and were already headed back. They were very friendly and I slightly regret not being able to tell them about this website and find out more about them. I guess I like figuring out why they would do what we had just done… hmmm…..
Our trek down was a little more slippery than the trek up, and I must admit that at times I was concerned I would twist my ankle and be unable to extract myself from the canyon. The thought of having to call MCSARGT is horrifying because I’m pretty sure the father of my children would be one of the first to find me and once he realized it was me he would never let me live the embarrassment down. We’re cool like that. Ha ha ha!
[Seriously though, the SAR team is freakishly awesome and I’m super proud that he’s a volunteer. All of Mesa County should be proud of the work they do!]
To pass the time, and because I was extremely exhausted pre-hike from spending more than an hour attempting to clear our driveway of ice and snow this morning, I recounted some of the libretto from “Fiddler on the Roof” to Matt, who has never seen it.
Being a music teacher daughter of a music teacher and classically-trained vocalist, musicals were the bread-and-butter of movie selections in the home of my youth. How can I be expected to share a life with someone who hasn’t seen some of the greatest movies ever- and who has a degree in film?!
[In recompense, he did watch ‘Hello Dolly’ with me later that night. That’s true love right there.]
There seemed to be a few more footprints in the snow of the little critters that thrive in this canyon than there had been on our way up.
As I was taking note of one, a very large shadow crossed my field of vision. I turned and spotted a red tailed hawk perched on a naked branch on the canyon rim, not 75 feet above me.
Matt turned and looked as well, and as we watched, the bird seemed to scoff at us and fly away. I was able to get a shot of him before he was out of sight.
As we resumed our hike, I resumed my musing at the tracks in the snow, my eye following one set to a long-dead invasive species plant that seemed to have a little ball of fur protruding from it.
Upon closer inspection, it became clear: we had found the hawk’s quarry.
A tiny, nearly-frozen mouse, clinging to the branch, balled up to conceal its self.
We got closer. And closer. And Matt said, “I want to touch it.”
“Give it a try,” I replied.
So he did.
Eventually, we turned and looked back up the canyon, only to spy the hawk once again on the naked branch of a juniper tree, watching us.
We retreated several yards down the trail, but couldn’t resist standing to watch if the predator would indeed drop from the sky to partake of its prey. If that petite mouse became a hawk’s petite treat, we didn’t witness it.
But we did make it back to the car, cold and wet and cheerful, but otherwise unscathed from this pristine canyon adventure that we won’t forget for some time to come.