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DEATH AT DELICATE ARCH

 

Winter still had its icy grip on Salt Lake City in late March 1972. We were growing weary of shoveling snow, and cast about for some place within long-weekend range where we might find some hint that spring was on its way.

Arches National Park, near Moab in eastern Utah, seemed a good destination--about four and a half hours away, and we remembered that on an earlier trip to the park at this time of year it was delightfully free of snow; cool but not chilling temperatures, and yes! Even a few brave wildflowers peeking out of the red sand.

 

 

 

 

 

Delicate Arch, at Arches National Park, Moab, Utah
Copyright 1999-2002 Dale Meier

 

 

 

 

The weatherman was on our side; once east of the Wasatch Mountains we found no snow along the roadsides, and by the time we drove down into Moab it seemed almost balmy to us winter-bound dwellers of the Salt Lake Valley. The high plateau and mesa country east of the Wasatch Range had been a monochrome of grays, tans and blacks, unrelieved by any bright green of trees along the watercourses. The trees wouldn't be leafing out for weeks yet. But only a few miles south of Interstate 70 the first evidence of the "color country" ahead appeared. Off to the east, looking like the towers of some long-lost city, were outcroppings of brilliant red sandstone formations.

The highway dove down to Moab and the Colorado River, following an ever-deepening canyon whose walls were monstrous cliffs of layered vermillion sandstone. The sudden change from a dull to brilliant landscape was almost blinding to the eye. By the time the car reached the bridge across the river at Moab, we had to crane our necks to see the top of the colorful cliffs--like Major Powell, a century before, we were in the canyon of the Colorado.

Saturday morning, we left our Moab motel before dawn, wanting to be up in the park when the first rays of the sun would turn those sandstone arches and turrets to burnished gold. Some national parks unfold their scenery for the tourist with little drama, but whoever chose the entry road for Arches had a sensitivity for what makes good "theater." It is easy to miss the turn-off into the park and its visitor center, for they are tucked underneath a rock wall of pale pink and white. Most tourists probably don't believe that their car will have to climb up that canyon wall to enter the wonderland of rock above them. As you negotiate the hairpin turns and the switchbacks, taking you ever higher on the side of the canyon, you still have no idea of what awaits you.

Suddenly, the road has no more turns and you find yourself literally on top of the world with marvelous vistas opening up for you. The Colorado River can no longer be seen--it's hiding deep down at the bottom of the canyon 700 feet below. Off on the eastern horizon are the snow-capped La Sal Mountains--and beyond them, the neighboring state of Colorado. In front of you are huge red sandstone "reefs," pinnacles and towers, stretching off into the distance. If ever there was a place that could tolerate imaginative names for its scenery, this is it. Looking down into the long wash known as "Park Avenue" and on to the "Courthouse Towers" where "The Three Gossips," "Sheep Rock," and the "Tower of Babel" are located, it is impossible not to be enchanted by the beauty carved out of these rocks by wind, sand and eons.

This first vista of Arches still doesn't reveal its most unique feature--the myriad of wind-carved sandstone arches for which it was named. It is seven miles beyond "The Three Gossips" before the first cluster of arches appears, and another eight miles to reach the northernmost group, where 306-ft long "Landscape Arch" impresses those who make the half-mile walk to its base. It's not a dull drive between the clusters of arches--far from it! The park road dips down across broad desert washes, climbs up to sky-wide panoramas and along the way there are tempting side excursions to other rock formations, to the "Balanced Rock" or the "Fiery Furnace" which tourists are advised to enter only with a ranger to guide them.

It is eighteen miles from the visitor center to the end of the road near "Landscape Arch." These are small distances compared to Yellowstone or Yosemite parks, but so much scenic beauty and natural wonders are packed into those few miles. Arches has always seemed a very accessible park to me--intimate in size, with easy trails leading to rock formations that invite you to scramble over their smooth surfaces. A park where you can find solitude, soul-soothing vistas, and scenery--and be back in Moab for an early dinner. This day, we were to learn that this benign-appearing park had a dark side as well.

We got our sunrise photos, spent the day hiking in other parts of the park, and saved the most famous sight of all, Delicate Arch, for a sunset visit. Delicate Arch is not only the icon of this national park; Utah is so proud of it that its picture appears on their car license plates. Unlike the other 1,999 arches that have been cataloged within the park, Delicate Arch stands in solitary beauty, well east of the main road, and perched on the edge of a deep bowl eroded into the sandstone.

The back side of the arch stands pretty much on the edge of thin air--just below the arch there is a brief series of 4-foot high narrow rock ledges, then the vertical wall drops straight down several hundred feet. It would be hard to judge the size of the arch from the license plate picture, but a man standing under the arch is completely dwarfed. With a height of 46 feet and "legs" six feet thick, the description of "delicate" might seem misapplied to this piece of sandstone, but in the scale of its setting, the arch does indeed seem delicately sculpted from the surrounding rock.

Delicate Arch is a "walk-up" not a "drive-up" scenic attraction. The trail winds a mile and a half up through sandstone boulders and over slickrock. The last portion of the trail was blasted out of a cliff and you never see the arch until you round the cliff face--again, the trail designer had a flair for the theatrical--the arch appears so suddenly, a surprised "wow" escapes from your lips. We got to the trailhead about an hour and a half before sunset, plenty of time to hike up, enjoy the sun's last rays on the pink sandstone and have enough daylight left to hike back to the car.

 

Barbara at Delicate Arch, March, 1972
Copyright Glenn Halliday

 

After reaching the "wow" point at the end of the trail, we found several women, all of senior citizen vintage, leaning on a low rock wall, enjoying the sunset vista and the arch beyond the wall. Small warning signs were posted along the wall saying, "Danger! Do not go beyond this point!" We joined the ladies, watching the sun sink lower by the minute and dutifully staying behind that rock wall.

After a few minutes, one of the women said, "Well, I wonder where that boy is? We should have seen him by now." They chatted with us, mentioning that they were a seniors photography club from the Salt Lake area, and they were on a guided photo tour of the park. Their guide was the "boy" in question--actually a 35-year-old professional photographer.

To lend scale to their sunset photos of Delicate Arch, he volunteered to stand under the arch. To do this the photographer went back down the trail 100 yards, where a spur trail leads over to the west edge of the deep bowl in front of the arch. This is a popular spot for creating one's "Kodak Moment." Leaving the photo spot, he hiked below and around the bowl, then climbed up those 4-foot ledges to reach the base of the arch. In spite of those warning signs, this must be a common practice. Delicate Arch photos grace many a calendar, and usually the tiny figure of a human can be seen standing at the base, between those mammoth "legs."

There were several men in this party, and most of them were standing on the lip of the bowl at the "Kodak Moment" spot, waiting for the "boy" to appear at the base of the arch. Two of them must have followed the photographer's trail to investigate the worrisome delay. Suddenly, one of the men called back across the bowl, "Something's wrong! Jack must have fallen!" With that, the ladies, Glenn and I all started back down to the spur trail.

One of the scouts had returned, reporting that when they got out to the ledges, they could see the still form of the photographer, lying on a narrow ledge above them. He said Jack appeared to be unconscious. Later, the conclusion was that Jack must have lost his footing as he was climbing up the highest ledge and fell to a lower one.

 

 

 

Sandstone "Bowl" below Delicate Arch
Copyright 1999-2002 Dale Meier

 

 

 

 

 

 

Was Jack badly hurt? That was a question the men couldn't answer. They saw no movement, but neither had yet attempted to get up to the inert man.

As the group discussed the situation, the sun proceeded on its usual path, and dropped below the horizon. Days are not very long in late March. Glenn and I had made a quick survey of the tour group--we obviously were younger by at least 20 years. We offered to have Glenn stay with the group while I went for help.

As I started back down the trail this park no longer seemed so intimate or so accessible. I had to balance the need for speed with the need to keep my footing on the slick rock. Other than the group at the top of this trail, I was now the only one who knew there was someone in trouble at Delicate Arch. They were depending on me to get help as fast as possible. In late March, tourists were scarce and we were the only ones in this suddenly remote part of the park.

When I was about 200 yards from the parking lot, I saw a park ranger truck arrive and slowly circle the parking lot. I yelled, and waved my arms, trying to catch the ranger's attention. But, he never got out of the car, and with the motor running and the dimming light, never spotted me. He slowly headed back out to the main road. I knew then that it was unlikely there would be any one else coming to the trailhead this night, and to get help I would have to go all the way back to the visitor center--which now seemed a very long 13-mile drive away.

It was almost dark by now, and I saw only one car on the entire trip--a beat-up VW van was coming up the road. Signaling the car with my high beam lights, the van stopped and the driver, a longhaired hippie-looking young man, leaned out his window, asking, "What's the problem?" I told him my tale, and asked if he would turn around and follow me down to the visitor center. I wanted to be sure someone else knew there was an unconscious man, and a group of mostly elderly people at the arch, just in case I had some problem along the way. I was thinking of those hairpin turns and switchbacks on the first part of the road! The hippie and his companion, a young woman, were on their way to the campground at the end of the park road, but they immediately agreed to turn around and follow me out.

The visitor center was all locked up when we got there, but the head ranger's house was nearby and he was there, eating his dinner. He went into action, phoning the Moab jeep volunteers to come to his home, ASAP. At one point, he turned around, looked speculatively at my new hippie friend, and said, "Well, son, you look pretty husky--wanna come along and help us?" By now, I was thinking only good thoughts about this young man, and was pleased to hear him say, "You bet!"

Arches Park was getting larger by the minute in my estimation, while Delicate Arch, Glenn, that still figure lying on the narrow ledge and all those worried senior citizens seemed almost beyond reach. I suppose the jeep posse actually assembled very rapidly, but it seemed an agonizingly long time before the string of jeeps, headed by the park ranger and followed by me and the hippie van, actually started driving back up that switchback road into the park.

When we reached the trailhead, to my surprise, I could see Glenn coming down the last few feet of the trail, followed about 100 yards behind by the rest of the tour group. Glenn filled the ranger in on what had happened at the arch after I left:

The scout had soon found a way to crawl up on the ledge, and knew enough first aid to check for a carotid pulse in the photographer's neck. There was none. Glenn also worked his way around to where he could see the fallen man, about ten yards above. Realizing he was dead, probably from a broken neck, the two went back to the group. It was agreed that nothing more could be done for Jack, and with darkness and a chilly March night fast approaching, the best action was to start back along the trail.

 

 

 

 

 

The sheer cliffs behind Delicate Arch
Copyright 1999-2002 Dale Meier

 

 

 

 

Like me, Glenn now had good reason to consider this "friendly" park a dangerous place. No one had expected to still be at the arch at dark--and there was not one flashlight among all of us. Everyone's clothing was adequate for a March day, but not for a March night! The senior citizens, now Glenn's responsibility, were naturally very shaken by the deadly turn their shutterbug outing had taken. None appeared to be used to hiking or rough trails. By the time the group left the arch it was definitely night and they had a mile and a half of rough, slick trail to negotiate. The portion of the trail carved from the rock had a very intimidating drop-off below it too. Maybe it was just as well the group couldn't see how far down they would drop!

When they were beyond the most dangerous part of the trek, and on more level terrain, Glenn decided it would be better if he hurried ahead to the trailhead to meet the rescue group. They would need to know that they didn't have to take heroic measures to reach Jack, who was now beyond their help.

When the tour group and the Jeep posse had met and exchanged information, to our surprise, the ranger decided they would still go up and try to retrieve the body. By now, it was 11 p.m. and pitch dark beyond the Jeeps' headlights. Even more surprising, the rescuers didn't take off on foot, with a stretcher, hiking up the trail toward the arch. No, they all got in their Jeeps, and drove straight up, across that slickrock! Having just been up and down that trail, Glenn and I couldn't imagine how they could reach the arch by vehicle. The hippie couple and we decided there was no more we could do, so we parted ways--they off to their postponed camping, and we back to our warm, safe motel room in Moab. The photography club stayed at the trailhead, keeping vigil.

Our last sight of the posse was just a line of headlight beams breaking the blackness, pointing up, up toward beautiful, but deadly Delicate Arch.

 

POSTSCRIPT

We've returned to Arches Park several times in the intervening years, and have admired Delicate Arch from other vantage points. But we've never again hiked that trail. I suspect many others have ignored those warning signs, and crawled up those ledges to stand between the arch's legs, giving "scale" to others' pictures. I hope they all made it safely back. Jack probably felt confident that he could master the slickrock. He was in good shape, wearing waffle-soled shoes for good traction on sandstone and no doubt knew the area well.

Arches is a beautiful and accessible park--close to the top of our favorite national parks list. But at Delicate Arch we learned, in a very tragic way, that like all wild places, the park can be unforgiving to the unprepared or overconfident.

 

Barbara Halliday, July 5, 2002

 

Note: I don't know the photographer's actual name. He was from Salt Lake City. "Jack" was just used for ease in description.

With thanks and appreciation to Dale Meier, who gave me permission to use some of his photographs on this page.
To see more of Dale's outstanding photography throughout Utah, go to: http://utahpictures.com/

Unless otherwise noted, text and photos are the property of Glenn and Barbara Halliday, 2003