Pride Cometh

This is a photograph taken at the Wave, a beautiful geologic wonder of the world. Chambers, striations, passages: it’s hard to describe the wonders of this place. So I’ll be posting photos to show, not tell.

The Wave is in a special administration area, which is rather well run by the Kanab district office of the BLM (Bureau of Land Management, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior). BLM regulations cap the number of people per day at 20, 10 selected by advance lottery, and ten first come first served. BLM regulations also specify that everything packed in must be packed out, including human waste.

When you get your permit, the BLM gives you a kit with a series of maps and photos. There’s no trail as such, and a lot of the hike is across slick rock. But the BLM treasure-hunt kit is great, it shows you photos correlated with a strip topographic map of what you should be seeing each step along the way.

People, particularly photographers, flock to the Wave from around the world. May and October are the most popular months (the summer is just too danged hot and dangerous), but April and November are also good times to visit.

When I got to the Wave, the central area was occupied by three German photographers who were very loud, smoking heavily, and whose gear was all over the place. This was offensive to me. A place like the Wave is the closest thing I have to a church. How would these visitors from Germany have felt about someone behaving in a similar fashion in the middle of a Gothic church in the ancient downtown of a medieval German city?

The photo above shows a side corridor or chamber (you can walk through it) lit by the setting sun. I used a polarizer filter to maximize the color saturation, and an exposure of two seconds at f/22 to get the most depth of field I could.

In Perspectives, I wrote “I have found my center, and know what I am. I can hike the canyon rims, photograph sunset, and come down by starlight.” It’s dangerous to take wilderness casually, and to be over confident. You know what pride cometh before as well as I do.

I stayed at the Wave long after everyone else had left to photograph by the light of sunset, and then to make a thirty minute exposure by starlight of the Wave. Sunset comes early this time of year, and the jumbled country around the Wave would be very dark at night. Still, I figured I’d have no problem reversing the order of the BLM checkpoints using my headlamp.

In the event, I had the light of the crescent moon for the first twenty minutes or so of my hike. Then the moon set, and I lost my way. The route was marked by cairns, which are rock piles, marking the way across the slick rock. I saw one cairn, but not the next. Foolish me, I figured I knew the direction I was headed.

From then on, it was like a bad dream. I was up and over mounds and around dry basins. The land seemed to be driving me to steeper and steeper ground, and it was hard to tell in the light of my beam whether a drop-off was three feet, thirty feet, or three hundred feet. In the best of times, this is confusing maze-like terrain, let alone on a dark night. Pretty soon, I’d forgotten how to get back to my starting point. The shapes of mountains and canyons loomed larger and larger, and I didn’t seem to remember anything like this from the fairly brief hike in.

I’d see a stone ramp, go up, meet an obstacle to go around, find another way, and even my recent history was lost.

I realized that this couldn’t go on. It was very hard to see where I was going. I was getting very tired after a long day on little food, with lots of exertion photographing. My water was low. To continue in the circumstances was to risk breaking my neck.

So the next time I found myself on a platform facing what looked like a precipice opening at my feet, I stopped. I had a down jacket, and knew I wouldn’t die of hypothermia in one night.

But it was so, so cold. I paced all night in a small circle, like Gandalf on top of Orthanc. I used the last of my camera batteries to photograph star trails. I enjoyed the cosmic light show in the sky and tried to ignore chattering teeth. I meditated on being lost in the desert and on whether my life insurance was adequate for Phyllis and the kids. (I spent another cold night vigil on top of Half Dome not so long ago, so I’m actually experienced at this!)

As the pale light of dawn began to illuminate things, I was glad I had stopped. Between impassable crags, a gorge and network of crevasses opened at my feet. I turned around, and began to make my way back down, coming shortly to the cairn-marked route, which I had crossed without recognizing it in the night.

A couple of hundred feet closer to the trailhead, I met one of the BLM people coming in. He said he was running late. I said I was running even later, and told him my story, admitting to feel a bit embarrassed. He told me I wasn’t the first, it happens lots of times (if that’s a consolation). We talked about contacting my wife so she wouldn’t call out search and rescue. He said heck, when he’s in the office, he ignores calls for search and rescue for two or three days because “they usually show up”, and, heck, where are you going to start looking for someone in this crazy, convoluted terrain, anyway?

When all is said and done, I’m thrilled with my time at the Wave (thought not my cold and sleepless night). I’ve many interesting photos to look through and post-process. But in the future I’ll try to be less prideful about my relationship with the wilderness.

Posted in Hiking, Landscape, Photography, The Wave