Los Alamos Mountaineers: Adventures Around Moab, Utah

Delicate Arch, the iconic feature of Arches National Park, is featured on the Utah license plate. The entrance to Arches is just 6 miles from downtown Moab. Photo courtesy Joy Green.

Los Alamos Mountaineers

The Los Alamos Mountaineers are just back from a week of multi-sport outdoor adventure around Moab, Utah. While the Mountaineers are often active around their Los Alamos home, they also love to take road trips. A favorite destination is the canyon country of southeastern Utah, with its expanses of bare rock (slick rock), towers, domes, arches, and fins, and oases where water brings life to the desert. The pursuit of canyon country adventure takes the Mountaineers to some of the most remote spaces in the 48 states. Moab is not one of those remote spaces, even though the country around Moab has all that the canyon country can offer. Its neighborhood includes two national parks, with much more wild land outside the park boundaries.

However, Moab itself is commercialized, expensive, and often crowded. Once a remote mining town, it has evolved into a major tourist destination, with new hotels and developments popping up every year. The Mountaineers’ solution to the crowding is to travel in the offseason, in early November. The crowds are thinner, if not gone. Summer heat is replaced by the variability of late autumn. Days can be sunny, or the snow can fly. On the most challenging day of our latest trip, our hiking party started down the trail on a cloudy day with the temperature of 60°; by the time we returned to the car in mid-afternoon, rain was falling hard and the temperature 37°. Above all, November offers fall color, as the cottonwoods that line every watercourse turn golden.

Cottonwood trees turned to gold in early November, along the cliffs rimming Courthouse Wash in Arches National Park. Photo courtesy Bill Priedhorsky.

The Mountaineers returned to Moab this November, on their 14th trip since 2008. About 20 strong, they stayed together in a 10-room facility, heading out each morning for adventures and returning each afternoon to share dinner and stories. There are many ways to adventure in the desert, and the Mountaineers tried several of them, both technical and non-technical. Hiking was the mainstay of the trip. The Mountaineers roamed in every direction, from the most popular trails, like the route to Delicate Arch, to destinations noted in only the most obscure guidebooks, to unexplored locations worth a visit because they look interesting on a topographic map. 

A classic hike is finding the way through the maze of the Fiery Furnace, which is a mass of parallel sandstone fins, connected by gaps, which allow a zigzag path from entrance to exit. The Park Service requires a permit and attendance at a lecture about protecting the fragile canyon ecosystem. What they do not offer is a map through the Fiery Furnace. GPS does not work in the deep fissures of the Fiery Furnace. The Mountaineers party of twelve indeed found their way through, navigating by hikers’ tracks, the Sun, and intuition. The Fiery Furnace is essentially one big rock sculpture, with other-worldly views at every turn.

Reflecting pool along the mazey path through the Fiery Furnace. Photo Courtesy Ross Lemons

Other outings went out on two wheels, including both road biking along the Colorado River, and mountain biking the backcountry. 

Ross and Nancy Lemons biking along the Colorado River. Photo courtesy Ross Lemons

The most exotic of the Mountaineers’ adventures was canyoneering. Canyoneering involves the descent of a canyon from the top. Much of the descent is simply walking or scrambling down the canyon, but the special thrill of canyoneering comes when the party comes to a cliff or dry waterfall that is too high or too steep to climb down. That is where the ropes come out. Using well-established techniques, carried out with care, the party attaches  their rope to an anchor, usually already established with bolts drilled into the sandstone wall, then descends the rope by passing it through a metal device fastened to their climbing harness. This technique, called rappelling, takes the adventurer down the cliff to solid ground. Excitement peaks at the transition over the brink, as one shifts weight from solid ground to the rope. Rappels can be free, lowering oneself surrounded by nothing but air, or be a walk down the cliff face, but with the body horizontal and the weight taken by the rope, not the cliff face. Once the rappel is done, the party moves to the next obstacle and the next rappel. Great care must be taken to ensure that the rope is long enough for each rappel, since it can be impossible to go back up once a drop has been negotiated. 

The guidebooks list dozens of canyoneering routes around Moab. The most challenging goal of the 2022 trip, Rim Shot, involved a 200 feet rappel down a cliff. This outing was a small group of the most experienced canyoneers; other, easier outings included both experts and those still polishing their skills. Four Mountaineers climbed the highest point in Arches National Park, 5653-foot Elephant Butte. Even this outing requires two rappels that call upon canyoneering technique.

John Davey begins his descent of the third rappel of the Rim Shot route in Moab’s Kane Creek district, while David Hand provides a belay from 200 feet below. Photo courtesy Evan Rose.

The Mountaineers hope to return to Moab once again in November 2023. That trip, like all of their outings, will be announced at lamountaineers.org. The Mountaineers welcome the community to join them as they pursue outdoor adventure for all. Come to a meeting and get to know them – meetings are on the 4th Tuesday of the month at the Nature Center, with holiday exceptions for November (the 15th) and December (the 14th.)