Ordeal heightens interest in canyon
Aron Ralston’s incredible experience is transforming Bluejohn Canyon from a “hidden gem” to a highly sought curiosity among canyoneers.Bluejohn was already on the map for its scenic, narrow sections among people who use climbing skills and technical gear to negotiate rugged canyons. A Web site called Climb Utah cites Bluejohn Canyon for having “premium narrows and enjoyable desert hiking.”But since news of Ralston’s story of survival has circled the globe, the National Park Service in Moab has experienced a surge in inquiries about that particular canyon, according to Paul Henderson, a spokesman for Canyonlands National Park. Many people who aren’t familiar with the desert southwest fail to grasp the enormity of the area and its remoteness, he said. Once they learn that the trailhead for Bluejohn Canyon is more than 25 miles off the nearest paved road, their curiosity erodes, he said. And when they hear what it takes to negotiate the route, many surrender any thought of visiting it. But Ralston’s story has piqued the interest of serious canyoneers with the skills to tackle such terrain. Henderson said it’s impossible to tell how many people follow up on inquiries with actual visits.Bluejohn Canyon is outside of Canyonlands National Park, although it is sandwiched between Horseshoe Canyon to the north and the Maze to the south. Both of those areas are part of Canyonlands. Bluejohn is on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which doesn’t track visitation to the area. After Ralston’s ordeal, park service workers in Moab started debating how often the canyon was visited. “Everybody was confident in saying fewer than 100 people visit” the upper part of the canyon during the year, Henderson said. The lower part of the canyon sees more visitors because climbing skills aren’t necessary. In addition, it ties into Horseshoe Canyon, an easily hikable route that holds some of the best rock art in Utah. An Aspen Times reporter and photographer visited the area via the lower canyon this week to get a better feel for where Ralston was trapped. Eight miles of relatively easy hiking in Horseshoe Canyon and lower Bluejohn Canyon led to where Ralston had to rappel down 50 feet from a small natural platform in the sandstone. Behind that platform was the mouth of the slot where Ralston was trapped for five days. That slot is described in guidebooks and Web sites as about 400 feet long and dark enough to require a headlamp. Generally, it’s about 3 feet wide, but that constantly varies. The slot isn’t a clean cut through the Navajo sandstone. It twists and turns at the same time it’s burrowing down. There are several places where the slot floor abruptly falls 6 feet in what’s called chimney drops. Water has rubbed the terra cotta-colored walls smooth in many places. But debris, such as tree limbs worn smooth from erosion and rocks and boulders of all sizes, clogs the route. The slot has a northwest to southeast orientation so it is doubtful that there is ever direct sunlight for long in any one spot, such as where Ralston was trapped. While sandstone retains heat, slot sections of canyons rarely get a chance to warm up. The weather records at the Hans Flat Ranger Station in the Maze, about 20 miles from where Ralston was trapped, show that the high temperatures ranged from 59 to 67 degrees during his captivity. The coldest night was 40 degrees. Fortunately, there was no rain while he was trapped. A big spring shower could have doomed Ralston because all the water from the upper network of Bluejohn Canyon and its branches funnel down through the slot where he was trapped. That slot is like the pinch point in an hourglass. Above that point are rugged canyons with numerous narrow sections and places that require technical climbing. That’s what makes it popular with canyoneers.Below the pinch point the canyon widens to the width of a football field and the sandstone cliffs rise 200 feet or more off to the sides. The hiking is easy in the dry, sandy streambeds. Ralston was trapped by a boulder about 100 feet up the slot from the rappelling platform, according to Henderson. Once he freed himself by severing his arm, he negotiated his way down a couple of chimney drops and through the twisting chute to the small ledge located about halfway down a steep cliff. That cliff is part of a vast amphitheater that separates the upper and lower canyons. A bolt and hangar are embedded in the rock to assist canyoneers. Straps called webbing are attached to the hangars, climbing ropes are rigged to the straps and hooked into harnesses worn by the canyoneers. Purple webbing that looked new and unfaded was still visible on the platform. The Times team found a harness about one-eighth of a mile downstream. It was discarded in the streambed. Ralston’s family confirmed that the harness was Aron’s.Once he rappelled to the valley floor, Ralston faced a hike of about 2.5 miles to where Bluejohn enters the larger Horseshoe Canyon. From there it was another 2.5 miles to the popular destination in Horseshoe called the Great Gallery, which features an incredible wall packed with pictographs and petroglyphs. His rescue at that point by helicopter saved him from an additional 3.25 mile hike with a 750-foot climb.A park service crew retrieved Ralston’s hand and lower arm, and the boulder that smashed it was stabilized.”Obviously we didn’t want to leave it out there for other people to run into,” said Henderson. “It would probably have ended up on e-Bay.” The boulder is still covered with blood and will remain so until the next rain.
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