Mayventure Day 3: Fiery Furnace

Kyle and I arrived at the Arches National Park backcountry desk just as they were opening at 7:30am. We were about the sixth in line and we received permits 43 and 44 out of 50; six more people ahead of us and we would have been looking for an alternate adventure. But it was mother’s day weekend and all of the camping around Moab had been full the night before, so the fact that this will known beginner-friendly adventure was almost sold out was hardly a surprise. We paid six dollars each for our hiking permit, topped off our water and drove the 10 miles to the trailhead.

The fiery furnace is the name given to a small section of Arches National Park where a series of parallel sandstone fins forms a life size maze roughly a half a square mile in area. Young and old alike wander in to spend hours exploring narrow passageways, looking for breaks in the towering walls that will allow them passage to deeper levels of the labyrinth. The only thing missing is David Bowie. Despite the name, which is derived from the maze color’s resemblence to the that of an active furnace, the Fiery Furnace is a bit of a desert oasis: flora like juniper and poison ivy abound, as do the smaller fauna, birds and lizards, and much of your hike is spent in the cool shadows and even the dark recesses between towering fins.

From the parking lot we headed north first, eventually finding our way out onto open sandy desert where we headed toward the western edge of the maze. We attempted to head back south down myriad parallel valleys but continuously found ourselves “cliffed-out”. Twice we encountered webbing and rappel ring anchors which gave rise to us questioning the logic in our decision not to bring full canyoneering gear (and pull the accompanying permit.) Once we even descended a convoluted slot by down-stemming some 75′ to reach a disappointing conclusion: this would be an ideal place to rig a chokestone anchor and rappel free-hanging out a hole in canyon bottom, had we had the foresight to add webbing, harness and a belay device to the rope we were carrying in case of emergency. As it stood our only choice was to stem back up and out of the dark and sandy slot, which we quickly did to escape our disappointment. Then we laid on the rocks there at the head snacking and talking.

After gaining several fins to get a lay of the land and to practice forearm stands and take pictures flanked by the snowy La Sals, we made several simple (class 3) downclimbs and one class 5 stem of about 8′ to reach the lowest part of the Fiery Furnace. We began to spy other visitors who had started in the lower part in an attempt to do the opposite of us: work their way through to the top. As far as I can tell this requires some technical climbing. We did not attempt to navigate back to the west to get a look at the bottom of the three rappels we had seen earlier.

Instead, we returned to the car feeling satisfied with our four-hour adventure, successful in having passed through the Fiery Furnace end to end, though admittedly much of this time was spent backtracking. There, I sat on the sidewalk cooking us eggs and toast in the unsettled May overcast as the tour returned and visitors young and old smiled at me, the content desert rat, as they dissipated back to their cars.

We soon dissipated too, leaving the park and opting for the scenic drive up 128 to return to Colorado. Bikerpelli was going on and I excitedly jabbered to Kyle about what it’s like to spend 3 days mountain biking 150 miles thorough the Colorado’s rocky river benches into Utah’s high desert and finally over a shoulder of the La Sals to finish out with the most epic 26 miles of downhill mountain biking ever to grace God’s green earth, the Porcupine Rim, all the while being fully supported with food, beer and your camping gear. (It’s a good time.) My jabbering was derailed when we saw two guys gawking at dark mineral-stained slabs of toppled sandstone high on a hillside above the biway. “That can only mean one thing,” I thought,  and I had Kyle turn around. Sure enough, there were Fremont and Anasazi petroglyphs chipped onto two sides of a square black boulder, a veritable roadside billboard for the ancients.

We got a good look and then finished out the last few miles of our scenic drive up the Colorado River gorge to discover billowing dust blotting out the modern day billboards of the I-70 corridor. Sustained northerly winds peeled dirt and plants from the ground. Greenery tore up and tumbled across the highway. Orange constriction barrels blew over and rolled across the lanes they were not supposed to impede, and we watched a portable electronic sign detailing the closure blow off the shoulder and into a ditch, probably incurring severe damage in the process. Dirt streamed from the hillsides and was carried away in a life-size diarama of fluvial erosion. Kyle frowned as the dirt pelted his new car’s paint.