One week before I completed the 48-mile Zion traverse, the last thing I was thinking about was Zion National Park. I was nervously reading news reports about the Camp Fire: the deadliest fire in California history. 86 people perished in Butte County, north of Sacramento, along with 14,000+ homes and 4,800 other buildings (153,336 acres total). At the time, I was at Patagonia HQ in Ventura, CA, learning about new environmental and climate efforts.
Meanwhile, another fire was ravaging just south of Ventura. The Woolsey Fire burned from Malibu into the San Fernando Valley, killed three people, decimated 1,000+ structures and singed 88% of the Santa Monica National Recreation Area (96,949 acres total). It was a precarious time. People in Ventura were having flashbacks to their home fire just a year prior: the Thomas Fire, which burned over 1,000 structures (281,893 acres).
This was one week before Thanksgiving and if you are a trail runner, you probably were thinking about more than just death. Two Saturdays after the Camp Fire broke out, The North Face 50-mile Championship in San Francisco was supposed to happen. Ultimately, the race was canceled due to the devastation of the Camp Fire and the terrible air quality it caused in SF. While feeling very upset and confused about the scale of the fires, my tapered legs relaxed a little. They would not race in the Marin Headlands this year.
I headed back to Colorado and my body’s need to expel months of training and preparation kicked in. I get extremely worked up about anything related to climate change and knowing that these fires were more severe because of our warming planet, I was especially on edge. I needed to put my energy into something tangible. Frantically texting other lady shredders to see what they were going to do in the wake of the race cancellation, there were so many options. Some runners raised money for the Camp Fire by running in Tahoe. Amazing work, raising over $10k for relief efforts.
I waffled between heading to the Grand Canyon or doing something else. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, let alone run across it, so I was almost relieved when adventure partner Anna Mae Flynn decided to call her season. That meant that I would go to my second home: Utah! I texted my good friend Hayden Hawks (and men’s Zion Traverse FKT holder) - I’m thinking of running Zion. Could I get some beta? While in Ventura, a friend, Paul Hendricks, who works at Patagonia had planted the seed of the Zion Traverse and now it was starting to grow with the help and encouragement of Hayden. Little did I know that Hayden and his wife Ashley would become the lynch pins to my Zion Traverse. Also little did I know, three women would best the old FKT Grand Canyon record in just a few days!
Mukuntuweap National Monument
Driving west, I devoured the history of Zion. It contains land that was originally Mukuntuweap National Monument ('straight caynon' in Southern Pauite.) The Native history and more recent Mormon history showcases that with devotion to land protection, it can happen.
24 hours after initially contacting Hayden, three close Boulder friends (Abby Levene, Brendan Davis and Kyle Richardson) and I were dropped off in front of the Hawks’ house in Cedar City, Utah. My Prius was on a flatbed and we got out of the backseat of a tow truck.
Just a few towns north of Cedar City, my ‘new’ ‘08 Prius had blown its engine while going uphill on I-15. The Inept Boulder Crew, as Abby dubbed us, was completely reliant on the Hawks.
To save you a car conversation (sorry to the many people I haven’t spared in the past month), I’ll skip my car troubles. I don’t want a technical difficulty to overshadow the beautiful simplicity of a traverse and adventure, and frankly Zion’s complex micro-ecosystems are so much more interesting. But if you care, read about my car troubles here and learn that checking your oil is crucial life beta.
So we show up to Hayden's. Unscathed, just carless and stressed. After shaking out as the sun set in Cedar City, we reset the tone of the weekend back to run-mode. Abby and I would still attempt the Zion traverse, we'd just be completely reliant on Hayden to help us scout, crew, pace, drive, sleep, eat, think, etc. But seriously, had we not made it to his house, we would’ve never seen Zion on this trip. Hayden epitomizes the power of a good friend with the gumption to make an adventure happen!
Day before the attempt, we scouted the 'issue' of the West Entrance being closed for construction. Thankfully, Hayden knows the drainages of the entire canyon area and we found a place to exit the canyon even though the 3-mile road from highway to Lee Pass Trailhead was all under construction.
Morning of the attempt. We had all crashed in a hotel room that Abby and I stupidly booked thinking it was at the East Entrance. Note: there is really nothing at the East entrance. It's wonderful! The super busy entrance is Springdale and I can see why Hayden, a local, avoids it at all costs during high season.
We woke up and Kyle started cranking out AEROPRESS after AEROPRESS. Hayden laughed at us coffee addicts and we all had a good chuckle at our "cutest little coffeemaker" and we were not talking about the coffee equipment. Precious Kyle already crewing away!
The East entrance was a crisp 25 degrees. I started the run extremely overdressed (tights, shirt, mid-layer, houdini-air, hat, gloves). Abby was better dressed. We took off at 8am. The sand began exactly 6 minutes into the run. Hayden kindly paced us for this section (it gets difficult to tell the carins in some slick rock sections) and laughs, 'yep, the sand starts early.' We were only warned of the sand on the infamous last 8 miles of the traverse, which is a rolling uphill sand trap according to a few reports.
The sun rose above the East entrance, into the gorgeous white and red-streaked canyons. I'm not a geology expert, but if you are interested, read this. The East side has lots of white rock, whereas when you cross the 12-mile mark of the traverse, at the most popular Springdale entrance, the rock turns mainly red with dark red streaks. And then all the way to the West entrance, the rock is deep, soul-searing red. It's breathtaking.
At the 12-mile mark, first aid, The Grotto, I changed clothes after fully drenching my first ones. I used a Porta potty, chugged some coke and got two new soft flasks filled with water + coke, and took a handful of Honey Stinger and Spring gels. Mistake! I should have drank more water and/or taken a 3rd soft flask, because the next section was exposed and feels long. Had it been summer, you cannot attempt this without a water filter, you will need a lot more than two flasks.
I thanked sweet Kyle and Hayden (we had had great conversation: he pointed other trails out and told me about his time serving his mission in Alabama for two years in college), and looked upwards to the first crux of the traverse.
West Rim to Wildcat
Upwards to the West Rim! This winding, seemingly never-ending journey of switchbacks was difficult, but also one of my favorite parts because I went from dodging tourists, whom I was happy to see also enjoying Zion (and sweet Brendan snapping pics), to utter silence and solidarity. After passing Angel's Landing (a viewpoint into the deep valley between the East and West rims), I kept climbing and encountered no one. Just climbing, climbing, following my watch's GPX line (my digital Hayden) when I felt lost, and kept climbing. Before summiting the actual rim, I walked a little, unsure that I could keep the pace I'd started with. I knew the current FKT-holder Joelle Vaught was a strong climber and I didn't know if I was anywhere close to her pace. Thus, I ate a gel, felt sorry for myself for about 30 seconds,then trudged onwards only to find an expanse of alpine-like forest on the top of the West Rim. This place is really cool, I thought. I envisioned what it would have been like to live here hundreds of years ago, as Anasazi, Fremont and Southern Paiute did for hundreds of years. What a home!
I crossed a few backpackers, but no one else. Just miles away from a busy shuttle-filled valley, there's this empty trail snaking westward, rolling down from the West Rim. I was so happy and grateful to be on this journey.
At mile ~26 the blessed second aid of Brendan and Hayden appeared. I was thirsty. I chugged water, took more gels, chugged some coke, and off Hayden and I went for the next 8-mile section. This section felt like I was on an easy morning jog. Hayden has a way with making other runners feel comfortable. We passed over sharp lava rocks on Wildcat Trail, then snaked downwards more. The terrain became sandier and sandier, but nothing too pace-crushing. In a flash, we saw Brendan at mile ~34. I ran into a trailhead bathroom, drank more, took more gels. The aids were like clockwork. The ease of the aids matched the beauty of the trail: honestly, both felt flawless. It was just one of those days!
The last ~14 miles with Brendan exceeded all scenic expectations. First, the sand wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but rest assured: it is not easy to run hard. We bounded downhill on 3-inch deep sand into this valley that felt otherworldly. The deep red canyon walls warmed my soul to its core. What is this place?! I asked Brendan. We both recalled it being called Hop Valley. We could hardly keep our eyes on the faint trail, we were staring, drooling at the drooping sun-lit red canyon walls on both sides of us.
The valley itself was wet. We crossed stream after stream. There seemed to be cattle or something grazing, from the manure and the few fences with spring-loaded gates. But we never saw a cow. Or did we? I honestly cannot remember any livestock, just birds. But, the way the sun hit the sandstone walls is something that I'll remember for the rest of my life as a moment where nature transcended my skin. It crept into my organs, into my heart and warmed me with a permanent memory of how truly magnificent this Earth is, sans greedy humans hell-bent on extracting from it, just quiet and left alone to be perfect.
Then after this love-affair section, shit got real in my body. I was exhausted. I was still moving along at a decent clip, on pace to break 8-hours, 26-minutes ahead of the FKT. I had a few bathroom breaks, but I made them quick. The soft sand was easy to dig into. I stopped eating entirely at 7-hours to prevent more bathroom breaks. I bonked hard, but knew that this is what would be the fastest way.
Towards the end, there are innumerable dry creek-bed crossings, and you guessed it: filled with deep sand. I would ask Brendan, "This way?" pointing at what clearly was the only way across the creek bed to the trail and he'd say, "Yep, I think that's it" and I'd sigh and tip-toe across at the fastest clip possible. Eventually, I became so exhausted from picking the line across the sand pits, Brendan went ahead. Then I passed him, not even realizing he was being helpful. I was bonking so hard. At 7:50 on my watch, I yelled,
"Aren't we there yet?"
Brendan, so kind and patient said, "Yeah, I think we're really close."
Me being a hangry runner on the verge of collapse yelled back, "If you don't know how close we are, then don't say we're close!."
Then I huffed up the last section of steep steps and begged Brendan to go ahead again. "Can you go ahead?"
"You would prefer if I went ahead?"
30-seconds later and I touched the Lee Pass sign, completely spent. 8:01:26, 25-minutes ahead of the FKT.
Within minutes after 4pm, the sun set behind the high canyon walls and we got cold really fast. We couldn't see Hayden and Kyle, but could hear them. They had bushwhacked into the canyon somehow, but we couldn't tell where. We walked on the side off the road, as construction appeared to have stopped for the day. Eventually we were saved from a bushwhack from hell because the nicest construction worker picked us up in his truck and took us down to the highway where we reconnected with Hayden and Kyle. WHAT AT DAY!
Abby had made it to Lava Point and loved it; she just didn't have a long, fast day in her legs. A huge team success because Abby sacrificed doing the whole traverse for my FKT. Thank you, sweet Abigail!
We drank margs and ate Mexican food with the Hawks and left the next morning in a rental. Zion was and still feels like a dream.
Adventures don't necessarily need long planning periods, but if you don't do that, you do need intensive short research, a lot of gusto, and very smart, knowledgeable friends who can tell you basically everything. And if you blow your car engine, consider going on a 48-mile cool off run?
Climate change is making forest fires in the American West (and other places across the world) worse. We must realize that without immediate action on the part of cities, states, and countries, we will live in a world where forest fire devastation is the new normal.
National Parks are amazing parts of what's left of land that Native Americans took care of for thousands of years before any other people stepped foot on this continent. We owe so, so much to Native people and their land stewardship. In turn, we must learn more, acknowledge former land care-takers, and talk to Native experts more. Native tribes across the country have been systematically murdered and repressed by our government and this must be righted. We need to elect good, smart people into office so that climate change is addressed and Native peoples and all people who've been systematically repressed by a few wealthy white men are given back power and representation at all levels of government.
Thanks for reading!
Photos: Brendan Davis