The World’s Greatest Mineral Rush: Uranium Minerals of the Colorado Plateau

My experiments proved that the radiation of uranium compounds … is an atomic property of the element of uranium. Its intensity is proportional to the quantity of uranium contained in the compound, and depends neither on conditions of chemical combination, nor on external circumstances, such as light or temperature — Marie Skłodowska Curie, Polish/French scientist who won 2 Nobel Prizes;  her doctorate thesis was the first to show that radiation came from an atom, not from environmental conditions.

When rock blooms yellow and Geiger counters rattle - uranium! From a National Geographic Society publication, 1953

When rock blooms yellow and Geiger counters rattle – uranium! From a National Geographic Society publication, 1953. Click on any figure for a larger version.

The theme of the 2015 Denver Gem and Mineral show is “Minerals of the American Southwest”. The theme evokes images of colorful copper minerals from Arizona, gold and silver from Colorado, red beryl and champagne topaz from Utah, and perfect fluorites from Bingham, New Mexico. The four states have a rich mining heritage with boom towns, barons, and villains. The influence of the American Southwest on the modern mineral collecting hobby is also outsized – from personalities of famous collectors and mineral dealers to mega mineral shows, perhaps no geographic region is more influential. The southwest was also the site of the greatest mineral rush in history, but is largely unremembered – the great uranium rush of the 1950s.

My father and I visited many of the uranium mines – mostly the abandoned ones in Utah – in the early 1970s, and I collected a boat load of  “yellow smears”.  I learned how to read the x-ray diffraction films from studying samples I prepared for identification.  I was cautioned to store these treasures in the barn rather than my bedroom because of issues with radon or radioactive decay.  I never really built a systematic collection, and my specimens were eventually disposed of for environmental reasons, but I was fascinated by the story of the uranium minerals.  In 1974, I read Edward Abbey’s book Desert Solitaireand was deeply affectedly by his descriptions of the joy of  isolation and the beauty of the canyon country and mountains around Moab. I also saw in this book the tremendous loss that we experience when we destroy wilderness.  I was asked to talk at the 2015 Denver show on minerals of the southwest, and it was assumed I would wax on and on about the silver minerals…but I decided to revisit uranium!

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Small crystal clusters of carnotite, largest cluster is 0.7 mm across. San Juan Co., Utah

The launch of the Manhattan Project in 1939 suddenly made uranium a valuable commodity, but established mines were few globally; in the US only a few mines in western Colorado were producing any uranium (mainly as a byproduct of vanadium mining). Leslie Grooves, director of the Manhattan Project secretly purchased the entire stockpile of  Vanadium Corporation of America, which was stored at Uravan, Colorado – but that was only 800 tons of ore. Once the war was over the US had less than 100 pounds of enriched uranium (U235), and development of domestic uranium mining became a government priority. The newly minted Atomic Energy Commission announced remarkable incentives for new uranium discoveries: a price of $3.50 per pound of uranium oxide, and a $10,000 bonus paid on the delivery of 20 tones of ore that assayed 20 percent uranium oxide. By the early 1950s there were more prospectors looking for uranium on the Colorado Plateau than ever mined gold in the history of California – in fact, there were 30 uranium “rushers” for every 1 ’49 rusher to the Sierra Nevada.

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Hundred’s of articles appeared in the early 1950s publicized the “rush” for uranium. Many of these articles were funded by the AEC and suppliers of geiger counters.

The AEC incentives worked — by the mid-1950s there were about 800 major uranium ore producers on the Colorado Plateau, and ore production was doubling every 18 months.  The rush made more millionaires than the great Colorado silver rushes of the 1870s or the Arizona copper rushes of the 1880s.  Moab, Utah was dubbed the “Uranium capital of the World”, and had 20 millionaires for every 250 citizens.  The AEC cancelled the bonus for uranium production in the early 1970s, and eventually the mining industry declined to a subsistence level.  However, the rush to the Colorado Plateau had a huge impact – from 1949 to 1971 the mines produced about 400 million tons of ore that yielded 200,000 tons metric tons of uranium metal.

Coincident with the great uranium rush, mineral hobbyist clubs and minerals shows exploded – the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies (AFMS) was founded in 1947.  Although it is a stretch to directly connect the great uranium rush with the rise of mineral collecting as a hobby, it is obvious that the heavy promotion of uranium prospecting peaked the interest of many Americans, and rock hounding entered a golden age.  Many collectors purchased or collected uranium minerals from the Plateau, and these prizes sat in places of honor in the collector’s cabinets.  However, as the hazards of uranium mining became understood in the 1970s, collectors began to dispose many of their specimens.  Today, it is almost impossible to find a fine Colorado Plateau uranium mineral specimen – and the heritage of an amazing American event has faded from the public memory.

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Map showing the location of uranium mines in the US. The data is from a EPA data base, and does not show the size of the mine. However, the density of the mines is a good indication of the richness of the deposits.

A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau Uranium

The history of uranium on the Colorado Plateau begins a half century before the Great Rush when prospectors were looking for the more valuable commodities of radium and vanadium.   Settlers in the Paradox Basin in southwest Colorado knew of a yellow, powdery material found in sandstones before 1880; it is likely that Ute and Navajo Indians collected this same material as a pigment for hundreds of years. By the late 1890s various prospectors had collected a few hundred pounds of the material, but did not know what it was, nor could they find a market. In 1881 Tom Talbert discovered the same yellow material in Montrose County, and eventually this material found its way to Gordon Kimball in Ouray. Kimball sent samples to Frenchman Charles Poulot (residing in Denver) in 1898, who determined it contained both uranium and vanadium. Poulot gave the material to M. M. C. Friedel and E. Cumenge (of Cumengite fame) who determined an approximate formula: K2(UO2)2(VO4)2·1-3H2O  Also in the samples were significant amounts of radium – which is a decay product of U238.  This coincided with Curie’s discovery of the element radium, and she began to purchase carnotite from Colorado for research.  Radium became the vanguard material for worldwide research on radioactivity, and a number of mines were staked along the Colorado Plateau.

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Colorado radium played a very significant roll in the lab of Madame Curie, and was essential to define the unit of radioactivity, the Curie.

Aside from staking claims, nothing of substance happened in carnotite mining until 1910 when a new medical market for radium developed — it appeared to have a dramatic effect on certain cancerous tumors — and southwestern Colorado became a major supplier.  However, the outbreak of WWI completely quashed the demand. As the demand for radium dried up, the demand for vanadium increased rapidly. It was discovered early in the 20th century that adding a small amount of vanadium increased the strength of steel. In 1905 Henry Ford was introduced to a vanadium rich steel, and was so impressed with its characteristics, he used it in the chassis of his Model-T.  By the end of WWI the carnotite mining shifted from the focus on recovering radium to vanadium, and by 1922 radium recovery ceased all together.  Although the demand for vanadium was cyclic, by about 1935 it had become an important enough metal that Vanadium Corporation of America purchased most of the former carnotite mines, and founded the town of Uravan (contraction of uranium and vanadium).

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Location of the carnotite deposits mined for radium and then vanadium before WWII. From Chenoweth, 1981.

After 1936 there was a steady increase in prospecting and development of properties along the Utah-Colorado border targeted the Morrison Formation (Jurassic age), in particular, a fluvial sandstone/mudstone unit called the Salt Wash Member.  With the outbreak of WWII steel became essential; vanadium was declared a strategic metal, and more than 600,000 tons of vanadium ore with a 2% grade was produced.

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Mine and mills at Uravan, ca 1935

The modern era of uranium exploration and mining on the Colorado Plateau began when the Atomic Energy Commission was established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.  All  functions of the Manhattan Project, including the acquisition of uranium, were transferred to the ACE at mid-night, December 31, 1946. The AEC set up a procurement shop in Grand Junction, Colorado and begin devising schemes for securing uranium. At the time there were only 15 mines operating on the Colorado Plateau, and uranium was still considered a lesser product than vanadium. The AEC was the only buyer of uranium, and thus, set a price they thought would incentivize production; it soon became apparent that the AEC also had to be involved in the milling of ore, and provided bonuses for uranium oxide concentrations. The very first procurement contract was signed with Vanadium Corporation of American on May 28, 1947. The AEC demanded a rapid expansion of exploration and mining efforts, and provided assistance by undertaking geologic surveys and providing free assay services.

Between 1948 and 1956 the AEC and the USGS tasked several hundred geologists to scourer the Colorado Plateau and make their maps and drilling core results freely available to prospectors. The AEC also built more than a thousand miles of roads across the plateau to promote access to the most remote regions. Prospectors and weekend treasure hunters flocked to Utah and Colorado, and later to New Mexico and Arizona.  Some of these prospectors struck it rich, and lived life higher than the biggest copper or silver baron of the 19th century.  One of these “lucky” prospectors was Charlie Steen.

For two years Steen roamed the area around Moab, Utah and “barely” subsisted with his family in a trailer and tar paper shack. Using his experience in the oil industry, he was certain the uranium would collect in anticlines – sort of like an oil trap – and he drilled haphazardly. On July 6, 1952, Steen drilled into an incredibly rich deposit of “pitchblende” (uraninite) at 200 feet depth, and over the next year developed the Mi Vida mine. The fact that the ore was uraninite – not carnotite-  in a rock type previously not shown to carry uranium, and at a depth that similarly unexpected, caught the government geologists by surprise. Steen became a multi-millionaire, and his find electrified the country – and greatly accelerated the rush to the plateau!

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Charlie Steen underground with his son at the Mi Vida Mine, ca 1955

Geologists began to understand the nature of the Colorado Plateau uranium deposits in the late 1950s. Garrels and Larsen (1959) published USGS professional paer 320, Geochemistry and Mineralogy of the Colorado Plateau Uranium Ores, and it became clear that hydrology was the most important factor in localizing the uranium in vast  columns of sedimentary rock.

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Uranium deposits on the Colorado Plateau in 1959 with a size of more than 1000 tons.

Uranium is found in more than a dozen sedimentary strata on the plateau but the Morrison formation of late Jurassic age and Chinle of Triassic age account for 95% of the produced uranium. The Morrison was formed from the erosional sediments derived from a highlands called the Elko that existed along what today is the Utah-Nevada border. These sediments were deposited in floodplains, river channels and swamps, not unlike the Mississippi delta today. The Chinle is dominated by eolian (wind-driven dunes) deposits with smaller river channels cut during intervals of more precipitation. The uranium appears to have mobilized by ground water; dissolving and moving sparsely concentrated uranium and precipitating and concentrating that uranium when structural or chemical boundaries are encountered. The deposition of the uranium occurred millions of years after the deposit of the sedimentary rocks — perhaps 100 million years later.  The deposition is most signifiant where the sediments contained trapped organic materials – logs in river channels or organic ooze in swamps. In fact, there are many examples of petrified logs that have been completely replaced by uraninite or coffinite.

The real key to the Colorado Plateau deposits is the long term stability of the sediment column.  This stability has allowed dilute solutions to build these diffuse deposits.  This is not the best environment to grow beautiful crystals, but small variations in chemistry has allowed for a wide range of uranium minerals.  Through 2010 the Colorado Plateau has produced more than 600,000 tons of uranium oxide – and today contains 15% of the worldwide uranium reserve.

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High purity uranium “biscuit”. Uranium metal is not known in nature.

Colorado Plateau Uranium Minerals

The mineralogy of uranium is a fascinating and complex topic – the nearly ubiquitous presence off U in the environment, its large atomic radius, strong affinity for oxygen (lithophile), and high solubility in certain valence states leads to large number of secondary uranium minerals. The lithophile nature of U also means that 4.5 billion years of Earth evolution has concentrated the element in the crust; the statistic abundance of U in the crust is 2.7 ppm, as compared to 0.075 pm for silver and .004 ppm for gold. In other words, there are 675 atoms of uranium for every atom of gold in crustal rocks!

Figure1_OriginEarth

Relative abundance of elements from cosmology, normalized to the abundance of Si. Note that uranium, as expected with its large Z, is much rarer than lighter elements. It is a few orders of magnitude less common than gold. However, uranium is strongly lithophilic, and has been concentrated in the Earth’s crust to the point that it is more common on the surface than either gold or silver.

The fact that uranium has been so strongly enriched in the crust is also one of the reasons it is so ubiquitous – traces can be found in every rock type, soils and water. Uranium is a “5f electron” element, which controls much of the way it behaves in the environment. 5f refers to the electron configuration, or the distribution of electrons about the atom; uranium is an electron donor and has four different valence states depending on environmental conditions. Two of these states, U4+ and U6+, are stable in geologic environments. In igneous environments the +4 valence state prevails, and uranium is one of the last elements to form minerals in a magmatic or hydrothermal fluid. By far, the most common mineral to form in igneous environments is uraninite (UO2).  However, once that uraninite is exposed to a humid and oxidizing environment the surface of the uraninite undergoes oxidation and the U4+ → U6+; the higher valence state is incompatible with the uraninite structure, and the uraninite decomposes, releasing the U6+, which rapidly binds with two oxygen atoms to form the uranyl ion [UO2]2+

The uranyl ion has a linear structure, with very strong bonding between the uranium and oxygen, and it is highly soluble in ground water.  This high solubility leads to extraordinary mobility of uranium, and a key contributor to Colorado Plateau deposits.  The uranium mined today in Grants or Paradox Basin did not originate anywhere near those locations; it likely was deposited in minor uraninite deposits during the billions of years of mountain building in what has become the North American Plate.  Decomposed, oxidize, and transported through great distances, the uranium was concentrated when subtle encounters with ground water chemistry changes.

changingvalence

Paragenetic sequence of uranium minerals — from primary uraninite with a +4 valence to hundreds of uranium minerals with a +6 valence (from Plasil, 2014).

The mineralogy of U6+ is very diverse because of the uranyl ion; it has a linear, dumbbell shaped structure that cannot be easily substituted by other high valence cations. The uranyl ion will most commonly attach to tetrahedral anion groups; SO4, PO4, AsO4, SiO4. Any charge balance is then accommodated by other cations. The figure above is a generalization of the paragenes of uranium minerals; at the top is the primary oxides and moving down the chart shows the minerals that form as uranyl migrates away from the primary source. Typically uranyl carbonates form first, and vanadates – like carnotite – form far from the original source and after many generations of mineral growth and decomposition.

There are about 160 different uranium minerals known, and 61 have been reported as coming from the Colorado Plateau, and 12 have the Plateau as their type locality (there are dozen uranium minerals yet to be characterized for the Plateau deposits).  The names are mostly unfamiliar to collectors – things like Becquerelite Ca(UO2)6O4(OH)6 · 8H2O,  Schrockingerite, NaCa3(UO2)(CO3)3(SO4)F · 10H2O and Rabbittite, Ca3Mg3(UO2)2(CO3)6(OH)4 · 18H2O.  They have colors that span the rainbow, although bright yellows and deep greens are favored.  Those minerals that contain the uranyl ion all fluoresce (although U4+ minerals do not), and differences in hydration – and loss of water with alteration – changes the fluorescence. Unfortunately, the sedimentary deposits of the Plateau do not lend themselves to environments in which large, distinct crystals grow.  Below is a gallery of some of the more important uranium speciemens:

Carnotite K2(UO2)2(VO4)2 · 3H2O

Carnotite.HappyJack(BYU)

Carnotite, Happy Jack MIne, Utah. BYU collection.

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Carnotite crystals, to 2 mm. Monument Valley, Arizona. Stephan Wolfsried photograph and specimen.

Coffinite U(SiO4)1-x(OH)4

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Coffinite, Mount Taylor deposit, Ambrosia Lake area, Grants District, McKinley Co., New Mexico. Field of view is 3cm.

Uraninite UO2

uraninite.bigindiandistrict.sanjuanco.utah

Uraninite, Big Indian District, San Juan Co., Utah.

Tyuyamunite Ca(UO2)2(VO4)2 · 5-8H2O

Tyuyamunite.paradoxvalley

Tyuyamunite, Paradox Valley, Montrose Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plante photograph.

Zippeite K3(UO2)4(SO4)2O3(OH) · 3H2O

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Zippeite, Big Gypsum Valley, San Miguel Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plante photograph.

Unknown Uranium Carbonate

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Slick Rock, San Miguel Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plante photograph.

The uranium minerals were intimately associated with vanadium minerals – often these carried some amount of the uranyl complex.  The Colorado Plateau vanadium minerals are as unique as their uranium counterparts, and often even more colorful and unusual.  A few are featured below:

Schrockingerite NaCa3(UO2)(CO3)3(SO4)F · 10H2O

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Schrockingerite, Monogram Mesa, Montrose Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plante photograph.

Metamunirite NaVO3

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Metamunirite, Burro Mine, Slick Rock, San Miguel Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plante photograph.

Metahewettite CaV6O16 · 3H2O

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Metahewettite, Hummer Mine, Uravan, Montrose Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plante photograph.

Pascoite Ca3(V10O28) · 17H2O

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Pascoite, Big Gypsum Valley, San Miguel Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plante photograph.

Metarossite Ca(V2O6) · 2H2O

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Metarossite, Arrowhead Claim, San Miguel Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plante photograph.

Hewettite CaV6O16 · 9H2O

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Hewettite, Hummer Mine, Uravan, Montrose Co., Colorado. Dave Bunk collection, Jesse La Plate photograph.

Paradise Lost

The Great Uranium rush was over by the early 1960s.  Many lone prospectors roamed some of the most desolate and beautiful country in the world in search of radioactive treasure.  Uranium mining in the 1960s was controlled by large corporations, and huge open pit mines like Jackpile east of Grants, New Mexico supplied tons of uranium.  By 1971 the government had more uranium than it could possibly use, and cancelled the incentives.  By 1980 the world market drove the prices for the silver-colored metal to prices that shut down even the largest producers.  Today the prices occasionally spike, leading to much discussion about reviving mining on the Colorado Plateau.  However, the heavy environmental toll has a very dark legacy.  It is unlikely that there will ever be another uranium mine in the Triassic and Jurassic sandstones that make the plateau look like the landscape of Mars.

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Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii: A trail run in the Valley of the Rocks with a nod to John Wayne

Monument Valley is the place where God put the West. John Wayne, American Actor, circa 1950.

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Post card from the 1950s, part of a series celebrating the icons of the United States. This scene of the Mittens and Merrick Butte in Monument Valley defined the American West for a generation. The Monument Valley ultras follow a course around these iconic sandstone buttes. Click on photos for large versions.

The southern half of the Colorado Plateau stretches from Lake Meade in the west, to Cuba, New Mexico in the east, and is a stunning desert highland of pastel colored bluffs, and exotic wind sculpted rocks. The land is both beautiful and desolate; in more than 80,000 square miles there are only 250,000 inhabitants (more people live around Lake Meade and Flagstaff that the rest of the southern plateau combined), but there are 10 National Parks and 17 National Monuments, 10 Wilderness areas, along with another half dozen parks in the Navajo Nation.  It is also the land that American geologists wandered in the 1860-1880s and their observations shaped modern thoughts about geologic time and the extraordinary patient, but always persistent, force of erosion which eventually grinds even the highest mountains to dust. John Wesley Powell navigated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and Clarence Dutton mapped the geology with remarkable insight; these geologic giants were the vanguard of the American contribution of “the second age of discovery” that transformed the mystery of nature into a science.  I love visiting these desert lands; in a crowded and noisy world the Colorado Plateau imposes it’s will of solitude and reminds one of man’s temporary significance. Ulta Adventures runs a series of ultra runs across the southern Colorado Plateau that they call the Grand Circle.  Last year I ran the Ultra Adventures Bryce Canyon 50k – and it was a spectacular run!  The geology was great, the UA staff are wonderful, and course was challenging.  This year I decided I wanted to run the UA ultra in Monument Valley held in mid-March.  No other piece of real-estate has defined the American psyche of “the old west” than Monument Valley.  You would be hard pressed to find any baby boomer that would not immediately recognize the “Mittens” — sandstone bluffs in Monument Valley — as the movie backdrop to scores of films.

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Scene from the 1939 production of the film Stagecoach. John Wayne played the Ringo Kid – a criminal that makes good, vanquishes the real bad guys, and of course, gets the girl.

Monument Valley is a tract of canyon lands located about 100 km west of the Four Corners along the Utah-Arizona border. Within the valley there is a 140 square mile park – the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley Park — that was “discovered” by film director John Ford in 1939 with the release of the classic western Stagecoach. Ford chose Monument Valley because, to his mind, the desolation and isolation of the bluffs and red sandstone captured the essence of the hardscrabble life of the wild west. Ford cast John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, a gunslinger. This roll is largely credited with making Wayne a film superstar – and forever he is pictured across from the Mittens.  There is a creation myth about how John Ford found Monument Valley — it starts with Harry Goulding, a sheep herder and owner of a trading post in Monument Valley packing up and heading to Hollywood with photographs of the scenery as an act of desperation during the crushing poverty of the great depression.  Goulding showed up at Ford’s offices and somehow, against all logic, convinced Ford that he should film his upcoming western in the corner of Arizona that was hundreds of miles from the nearest train station and only accessible by a dicey dirt road.  Ford eventually filmed parts of 6 of his most famous movies there;  other directors followed, and Monument Valley has appeared in more than 100 movies!

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Forrest Gump ends his epic run back and fore across the US at Monument Valley. This scene, as Forrest stops, and his followers are baffled, was shot on Hiway 163 looking south to the bluffs of Monument Valley.

It is only appropriate that the rich movie heritage of Monument Valley would collide with ultra runs. The 1994 movie Forrest Gump is the tale of a man’s life that serendipitously criss-crosses 40 years of tremulous American history. I saw the movie in Flagstaff, Arizona when my wife was working on the geodetics of volcanoes at the USGS field office – we loved the movie and it remains one our top ten favorites ever. In the movie, Forrest starts running on October 1, 1979 to ease the pain of rejection by his true love. He ends up running for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days and 16 hours, and covered 15,248 miles (crossing America at least 4 times) – no ultra runner has ever equaled the trail brazed by Forrest. Forrest ended his run at Monument Valley – he just stopped, and decided the run was over, and it was time to go home.

What a perfect setting for an ultra run; geology, history, and the termination point for the greatest ultra run ever.

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View from the start of the race — the day before. The west entrance to Monument Valley is guarded by three erosional remnants. From the left, West Mitten, East Mitten and Merrick Butte.

Running on Ancient Sand Dunes Monument Valley refers to a large swath of landscape along the Arizona-Utah border, but most people associate the name with a modest 3 by 5 mile drainage basin. This basin stretches from the world famous Mittens in the north to Wetherill and Hunts Mesas in the south. The name “Monument Valley” first showed up on maps in 1917.  Who exactly was responsible for that moniker is lost to history, but the name is appropriately descriptive; the view down the valley is filled with monoliths and buttes that are the erosional remnants of a thick layered cake of sedimentary rocks that were deposited by water and wind nearly 200 million years ago.  The Navajo name for the valley is Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii, which translates approximately to Valley of the Rocks (at least my Navajo friend tells me this – others have slight variations).

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Satellite image of Monument Valley. This is not a false color image – the land is reds and browns, colored by the strained sedimentary rocks that were deposited on an ancient continent during Permian times.

The Colorado Plateau is one of the most unique geologic provinces on the globe. A huge, broad plain or basin was formed at the margin of the primal landmass that today we call the North American Continent. This “basin” captured the cobbles and shards that resulted from the erosion of the ancient continent. Sometimes the basin was beneath a shallow sea filled with corral reefs and marine life. Other times it was at the edge of an uplifted and rejuvenated continent and was covered by a system of deltas cut by meandering rivers – not unlike the Mississippi delta today. Still other times it was a massive wasteland covered by sand dunes. Over a period of 500 million years this broad area we now call the Plateau accumulated a lithic layer cake; thousands of feet of alternating sandstones, limestones, shales and conglomerates. About 20 million years ago this layered rock cake was uplifted, and subjected to the same erosional forces – wind, water and ice – that had ground ancient mountain ranges to dust.

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The stratigraphy of Monument Valley laid bare in Merrick Butte. The lower apron is the Organ Rock Shale, which gives the Valley the ubiquitous red dust. The steep cliffs are the sandstones from the DeChelly formation, and the butte is topped by the Shinarump conglomerate.

The slice of this great lithic cake that is exposed in Monument Valley dates from the Permian Age. The rocks exposed on the Valley floor are the oldest – and are known as the Organ Rock shale (about 280 million years old). This shale was deposited as muddy clays in deltas and swamps. Above the shale is the rock that builds the monuments, the DeChelly sandstone.  The DeChelly is an amazing rock – it is a nearly pure quartz grain sandstone, that is tough and strong, and can maintain vertical cliff faces hundreds of feet high.  The DeChelly was formed from wind blown sand dunes.  The modern day analogy for these type of sand dunes is the Namib Desert along the southwestern coast of Africa.  The desert that made the DeChelly sandstone was long lived — probably 25 million years of blowing dunes. Finally, that desert yielded to a more hospitable environment and rivers returned depositing sandstones and shales, which we call the Moenkopi formation.  About 230 million years ago the last of the rocks exposed at Monument Valley were deposited on top of the Moenkopi, the hard cobbles and boulders of the Shinarump conglomerate. The Shinarump is the “cap stone” on the mesa in Monument Valley, and reason that the softer rocks below have not completely eroded away.

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Carving Monument Valley. (from Abbot and Cook, 2007)

The landscape of Monument Valley today is only a shadow of what it most have been a few million years ago.  In a few more million years, there will be no sign of DeChelly sandstone, and all the steep cliffs will have been reduced to rubble.  The unique monuments are a result of the layered cake geology; the Shinarump conglomerate is a difficult rock to erode, and for millions of years protected the “softer” rocks below.  However, joints and zones of weakness in the Shinarump eventually yielded to the relentless rains, frost, wind and gravity, and began to erode forming small washes exposing the DeChelly sandstone below.  The DeChelly is relatively easily eroded, but forms steep cliff faces, making for spectacular canyons.  Eventually these canyons cut down to the soft Organ Rock shale which is rapidly washed away.  The canyons then begin to undercut the DeChelly, and the stout sandstone collapsed in rock falls and avalanches. What is left are isolated buttes, mesas, and rock towers. When you run through Monument Valley your view is one of the distant past.  The vertical cliffs demand your attention; they tell a story of time when huge sand dunes moved slowly across the edge of a continent.  There not many fossilized bones in the DeChelly, but there are numerous fossilized track ways of Permain Age creatures (both vertebrate and invertebrate).  The ultra runner today may find the course difficult, but the arthropod racers of 260 million years ago had it much worse.

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Sunrise over the Mittens, moments before the start of the race. The runners started the run with a traditional Navajo prayer, facing east to the rising sun and the start of a new day.

Race Day The Monument Valley Ultras — 100 miles, 50 miles and 55 km — all start near the Monument Valley visitor center that sits on the lip of a small cliff overlooking the iconic Mittens.  The runners gathered at 6:45 am for a traditional Navajo prayer welcoming the new day. The prayer, the approaching sun rise, a perfect temperature of 39 degrees, and the energy of the runners creates an emotional aura.  Two weeks before the race, Monument Valley received a record snow fall during a late season storm.  There was some question as to whether the race would follow the traditional course as flooding from the melting storm closed much of the Valley.  However, everything reopened days before the race;  the 55 km course followed a quick descent along a sweet single track that looped around the West Mitten before joining the main Monument Valley tour road.  For the first couple of miles I run a pace of about 9;45 minutes per mile – a little faster than I want given the long day ahead, but there never is any way to calm the emotion! One of the biggest surprises to to me in the first couple of miles is seeing the Mittens from all angles.  Although they look like large buttes, they are actually very thin monuments.  Viewed from the start of the race the West Mitten is a couple of hundred meters across, but  when I pass the western extreme I see that the West Mitten is only a few 10s of meters wide. Although the race started in the glow of pre-sunrise, soon the sun is lighting up the cliffs of DeChelly sandstone.  The reds and browns glow – the promise for a great run.

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The rising sun lights up Mitchell Mesa – the runners will have to climb that Mesa later in the day. Picture is from the main Monument Valley tour road, about 3.5 miles into the run.

There are a few tour vans on the Valley road, and tourists are busy taking pictures in the early morning light.  I roll into the main aid station, called Hogan, at 58 minutes.  The total distance covered is 5.75 miles, so I am feeling pretty good.  The 55 km course is shaped like a 4-leafed clover with the Hogan aid station at the center – I will pass through it four times today.  I am trying to run the course today with minimal aid station support – I only want to refill my water bottles, and I carry all the food I will need.  Turns out this is not a great idea – the food looks pretty good at Hogan!

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Running into the Hogan aid station — the hub of the 55 km course. I end up visiting this aid station four times during the run.

After a quick fill of my water bottles (and longing gazes at the food – I decide to stick to my plan, and eat a lemon wafer I am carrying), I start the second clover leaf, a relatively short 5 mile loop, almost all on a wonderful single track.  I roll back into the Hogan aid station at 2 hours (10.5 miles), and began a much longer loop towards Hunt’s Mesa.  The first couple of miles are along the Valley road, and pretty easy.  However, the course then begins to follow a very sandy trail/road route.  I had hoped that the recent snowfall would have made the sand semi-compact and easier to run.  Wrong.  The fine grained sand does not hold moisture, and it is a leg burner!  The course passes a series of slender monuments – the tallest of which is called the Totem.

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Standing in front of the Totem – a slender monument, about 14 miles into the run.

I ponder the fate of the Totem; it is an inverted pendulum, and will eventually fall.  It is clear that there has not been any significant earthquake activity for a couple of thousand years near Monument Valley, or the precarious nature of Totem would most certainly have caused it to tumbled.  I guess it will stand for a few thousand more years.  Assuming there are ultra runners in a few more millennia, they will not experience the Totem. Miles 14-18 are sandy.  The cliffs of the DeChelly sandstone are rounded by the abrasion from the winds.  Today is a rare and fortunate day – little wind.  The wind of Monument Valley picks up the fine gains of sand and silt that had eroded from the Permian sediments and slams them into the cliff faces.  This constant assault eventually carves the rocks into bridges and arches.

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Wind is a very powerful erosion agent, and its effects are well represented in Monument Valley along the race course. I first was introduced to modeling saltation (the lifting of particles by bouncing along a surface) 35 years ago in graduate school.

The route takes us to an amphitheater-arch call the “Big Hogan”.  It is a wonderful example of the power of saltation.  The wind has carved an amphitheater, and at the top has cut an arch – like the smoke hole in a hogan, hence the name.

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Approaching the Big Hogan – an amphitheater that has a small arch in its ceiling. Sandy running, but the scenery is great!

The route eventually loops back to the Hogan aid station.  The mileage for the third visit is almost exactly 20 miles.  My time is 4 hrs and 6 minutes.  A little slower than I planned, but considering the sand and all the time I took out to take pictures, I am pretty much on schedule.  Once again, I look at the great selection of food laid out at the aid station and regret my stubborn dedication to minimal support.  Out of the Hogan aid station the last loop is an out and back to the top of Mitchell Mesa — before me is the most difficult climb in the run. The trail leads west along a road cut to support a uranium mine on the the top of Mitchell Mesa back in the 1960s.

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The location of Mitchell Mine, a uranium mine that operated between 1962 and 1965. The last push of the Monument Valley utra is a climb up to the top of Mitchell Mesa on the road built to service the mine.

During the uranium frenzy of the 1950s, amateur and professional prospectors fanned out across the Colorado Plateau in search of the metal that fueled the nuclear age.  There are numerous small uranium deposits located in old river channels within the Shinarump formation.  These old channels captured carbon debris – trees, branches, decomposing leaves, etc. – which in turn served to precipitate uranium out of circulating ground waters.  One of these ancient river channels cuts across Mitchell Mesa, and was mined briefly in the period 1962-1965.  The mine’s operation came to an abrupt end when the operator, Robert Shiver, accidentally backed the ore hauler he was driving over a cliff, and tumbled more than 450 feet into the valley.  The same cliff that took Shiver’s life is the one that we have to climb to get to the top of Mitchell Mesa!

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A sample of the uranium-vanadium mineral tyuyamunite from the Monument #2 mine – located across the valley from the Mitchell Mesa mine, and located in the same ancient river red. The tyuyamunite is replacing a log that had become stranded in the river channel.

The ore from the mine on Mitchell Mesa was primarily Tyuyamunite – a rare uranium-vanadium oxide (chemical formula: Ca(UO2)2V2O8·(5-8)H2O).  Like many uranium minerals it is colored canary yellow.  The picture above is a sample of Tyuyamunite that was found across the valley on Hunt’s Mesa.  I don’t see any sign of mineralization as I grind my way up the mesa…. The climb really begins at mile 23; there is a rocky and relentless pitch that ascends 1200 feet in only a mile.  I had visions that I would bound up the winding trail – wrong.  It takes me 30 minutes to get to the top, and my quads are burning.

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Top of the climb up Mitchell Mesa, looking back at the narrow canyon that the trail runs up. You can see the faint track of the trail along the Organ Rock Shale in the center of the photo. It is hard to do the difficulty of the climb justice with a photo.

The run to the northern end of Mitchell Mesa is physically easy – but the views into the valley are breath taking, and I find myself drifting into tourist mode.  Mitchell Mesa and Merrick Butte are named after a pair of prospectors that were murdered in the Valley in December, 1879.  Charles Merrick had supposedly found three crude smelters built by Ute Indians to recover silver.  Merrick recruited Henry Mitchell to help him find the source of the silver; legend has it that they indeed did find a rich deposit, and the prospectors were heading home with ore samples when they met their untimely demise.  For years treasure hunters have searched for the lost Merrick-Mitchell mine, but it remains lost.

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West Mitten and Merrick Butte from the top of Mitchell Mesa. The views from the mesa are spectacular.

The run along the top of the mesa is only about a mile long, but it is difficult after the long climb.  There are patches of snow in the shade of trees, and I stop twice and fill my hat with a couple of handfuls of snow.  It is now about 64 degrees (at least according to my weather app), and I am really overheated.  The melting snow cools my hot head, and steels me for the last 9 miles of the run.

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The end of Mitchell Mesa and the turn around point, mile 25. The view looks down to the starting and ending point of the race – only about a mile away, and 1000 feet below. Unfortunately, I have to turn around, run a little under 9 more miles to get to the finish.

The turn around point is the end of the Mesa.  There is a hole punch that you apply to your bib, and turn around and retrace your steps back to the Hogan aid station.  The view from the turn-around point is down to the finish line — so close, yet so far.  I am pretty tired at this point, and my pace is slow.  I pass lots of runners still making their way to the turn-around point, and I realize that although I have been pretty much running alone for hours, there are people that are going to finish several hours after I do.  The descent off Mitchell Mesa is much more difficult than I expect – no springy legs hoping from rock to rock for me!  I get to the Hogan aid station for the final time about 7 hours and 14 minutes.  There is still a little less than four miles to go – argh. The last part of the run is completely along the Valley tour road.  Unlike earlier in the morning, the road is now heavy with traffic.  The speed limit is 15 miles per hour, and many of the cars and tour vans honor the limit, which minimizes the dust.  However, every fourth or fifth car comes zooming by, and stirs up a chocking cloud of red dust.  I really hate this part of the run, and curse at drivers that are obvious to the runner’s fate.  The last two miles of the run are a steep climb back up to the lip of the cliff where the race started at dawn.  I finish at 8 hours and 10 minutes by my watch – 40 minutes slower than I planned, but I am just happy to done!  My watch says 33.5 miles, so it is just short of 55 km. Within a few minutes of rest I begin to think about how great the run was, and even the dust of the tail end begins to seem not so bad.  A wonderful place to have a trail run.

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Homage to Gump: Standing near the point north of Monument Valley where Forrest Gump decided he had run enough.

My Forrest Gump Moment I discovered trail running late in life.  Not mountains, geology, the solitude of towering peaks and deep canyons – those have been with me since my earliest memories.  But trail running is a too recent passion, but has allowed me to experience calm even as my muscles ache and I experience true exhaustion.  I am not a competitive runner – oh sure, I wish I was fast, but my age and athletic ability preclude even the allusion of “competitive”. So, why run as hard as you can during an ultra run if you have no chance of being competitive?  Because it is a grand challenge – ultra train races are hard, and pushing your limits are rewarded with the knowledge that you accomplished something difficult.  That sounds a bit trite, but doing difficult things, accomplishing goals, are a reality check on realizing one’s potential.  Like most everyone, I have much grander goals in life than just running long distances on dusty trails;  I want to make a difference in the world, I want to discover, I want to make right.  Those goals are pretty hard to evaluate except post-mortem, and once I am dead I don’t much care.  But doing difficult things allows me to center; accomplishments are mileage posts along the way.

This past January I had my annual physical (I will soon be 59).  Once you pass the half century mark the ritual of the annual physical is aways approached with trepidation.  Most American medial studies define “old age” as an onset of a plethora of symptoms, usually beginning sometime between 60 and 70 years.  The most frightening of these symptoms is the decline of cognitive abilities – slowing down of the brain and gradual memory lose, for example.  Everyone is different, and the decline is certainly a broad spectrum, but just as erosion will eventually wear down Mt. Everest to a nub, brains do wear out.  So, at each annual check up I listen attentively to my doctor hoping to hear that I am amazingly young for “my age”.  My check up in January started more or less as always – I have great heart function, good cholesterol, I seem to have good hearing except when my wife asks me to do something, still have most of my hair, etc.  However, when the final part of my blood test was discussed my doctor said that my thyroid was pretty much kaput.  I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism – an under active thyroid – a little over a decade ago.  I have been taking levothroxin everyday for that decade.  This is a synthetic hormone replacement;  over the years my dose of levothroxin has been increased, so it was clear my thyroid was declining.  I did not receive the news of “kaput” well – I was assured that this is okay, but I needed increase my medication, and monitor it closely.  Hypothyroidism is not particularly rare – a few percent of Americans experience it, and both my parents had it.  But it does have consequences – the thyroid helps regulate many functions in the body (including hair loss, which I appear to be immune to), but to athletes it is the key to fatigue, and to recovery from endurance events.  In fact, there is a mini-scandal in world of endurance racers with the suggestion that some elite runners are using levothroxin to enhance performance.  That has never been my case! But now I began to question if I would be able to truly run, bike or swim anymore.  Was this the onset of old age for me?

The Monument Valley ultra was my first race since my new medicine regime. As I lined up on the start line I could not help but wonder if I could actually do the race.  However, I ran it just fine (well, my legs are not so sure it was just fine).  Unlike Forrest Gump, I am not ready to stop running.

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The Goose Necks – meanders on the San Juan River about 20 miles north of Monument Valley

Climbing the Grand Staircase: An ultra trail run in the footsteps of Clarence Dutton

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.  Edward Abbey, in the Preface for Desert Solitaire

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Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, just a few miles east of the trail route for the Bryce 100. The hoodoos are erosional columns in the Claron Formation, a 30-60 million year old lake limestone.

Los Alamos, New Mexico – my hometown – sits on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau, an expanse of high desert and pastel hued rocks that covers more than 125,000 sq miles.  The plateau is a geologic marvel; the entire geologic history of the Western United States is laid bare from the bottom of the Grand Canyon where 2 billion year old Vishnu Schist is exposed to the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon in Utah which are 35 million year old sediments that were deposited in a great inland lake. The nearly 2 billion years of history is stacked like a layered cake gently tilted on its side, barely disturbed by faults and folds and other signs of geologic trauma.  There is a huge gap in time – more than a billion years – between the Vishnu Schist and Tapeats Sandstone overlying it, which represents a long epoch in which the region must have stood far above sea level.  Located above the 540 million year old Tapeats Sandstone there are younger rocks, which geologists can use as  a yardstick of ocean invasion and retreat.  Thousands of feet of sedimentary rock record the slow grinding of the ancient continents into gravel and dust.  Nowhere else on Earth is the last half of a billion years of history so beautifully preserved.  The western United States has suffered continental collisions, incredible crustal stretching, massive volcanic eruptions, and yet the Colorado Plateau escaped any significant deformation.  The layered cake geology of the Colorado Plateau is clear road map to our geologic past!

I was looking for a 50 km trail run in southern Utah when I found the Bryce 100 (which has 3 different distances to run, including 50 km) – and it looked like a wonderful tour through a high part of the Colorado Plateau.  I signed up with enthusiasm, and then realized that it was in the middle of June.  I looked at the historical meteorological data at a weather station in Bryce Canyon and realized it likely to be as warm as 85 degrees on the day of the trail run.  Trail runs in the heat are very much like the old saw of the frog in a pot that is brought to a slow boil (lethal, but one in which the frog is a willing participant).  However, the idea of running in the footsteps of John Wesley Powell and Clarence Dutton, giants in American Geology, was enough to blind me to the dangers of hyperthermia and hypohydration.

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Paria Canyon is just south of Hiway 89 traveling between Page, Arizona and Kanab, Utah. Around Paria Canyon are a number of incised channels cut through the red colored Navajo Sandstone. This sandstone was deposited on land – and the fabric in the rock was formed as crossbedding is wind blown dunes. This particular wash is one of the most famous “picture” sites that no one knows how to get to on the Colorado Plateau. The erosion across the fabric gives the appearance of waves, and this is called “The Wave”. I visited this wonderful place on my journey to the start line of the Bryce 100.

For me, a trail run is more about adventure than about being in a “race”.  Seeing new places from a vantage point I have not had before, challenges, and thinking about nature are the joy of the trail.  Although I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I have spent far less time in the high desert than in the rougher mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. But I have an affinity for the Colorado Plateau also – the modern portrait of the geology of North America was laid out here by Powell and Dutton, who were inspired by the carved rock towers of Monument Valley and the vastness of the Grand Canyon.  The Bryce 100 was a trail run and a field trip!

Geologic Giants

The 19th Century was the most remarkable period of scientific discovery in history. In fact, the “profession” of science and the term scientist was first coined in 1833. This was a time of intellectual enlightenment, and the concept that laws governed every aspect of nature and life changed  human thought. Gauss, Laplace, Legrande, and Fourier invented modern mathematics; Dmitri Mendeleev invented the periodic table of elements; Lord Kelvin (Scotsman William Thomson) invented the temperature scale and formulated the second law of thermodynamics; Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology in 1830 and established the concept of uniformitarianism; Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and established the theory of evolution.

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Clarence Dutton – geophysical poet, and namer of of the attractions and vistas in the Grand Canyon

Against the heady backdrop of new theories for life and forces governing nature, the empty “space” beyond the 100th meridian drew the interest of the nation.  As the civil war ended, there was pressure to civilize and cultivate the west, but little was actually known about the region.  The U.S. government decided to fund four major mapping expeditions to western half of the country — these were lead by Clarence King, George Montague Wheeler, Ferdinand Hayden, and John Wesley Powell. All these men left their signature on geology, but it was Powell that was truly a visionary.  Powell lead the first successful traverse down the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869, and his follow-on visits to the region lead to the first modern understanding of great arid regions of the southwest.  Powell eventually convinced a  colleague to map the Colorado Plateau in detail – that colleague was Clarence Dutton.  Dutton’s accomplishments are extraordinary, but his prodigious legacy is often overlooked.

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Cover page of Dutton’s classic work on the geology of the “missing” portion of the geologic map of the USA

Clarence Dutton is a hero of mine. He had remarkable insight into “how the Earth works”, and published works on geology, volcanology, and the geology of earthquakes. In 1889 he coined the phrase “isostasy” and proposed why mountains are high and valleys have low elevation. Along with this keen scientific insight came the soul of a poet. Dutton’s words paint vivid images, and he is compared to John Muir in capturing the heartbeat of a landscape. Dutton wrote the classic paper in 1880, and it remains a masterpiece.

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The Grand Staircase – climbing out of the Grand Canyon. The 500 million years of geologic history in the rocks preserves the entire evolutionary record of life on Earth. Figure from the Utah Geologic Survey (click on figure to enlarge).

When Dutton was doing the fieldwork for the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah, he noted that the layered cake geology of the region created a series of steep cliffs and flat terraces that looked like a “great stairway” climbing north from the Grand Canyon. This description eventually morphed into the “Grand Staircase”, the name the region is known as now. The geologic cross section above shows the series of cliffs – there are 6 prominent cliffs as you travel the 150 miles north from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The final stair is the Pink Cliffs which is topped by the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The Bryce 100 is run on and around the Paunsaugunt Plateau – and the top of Dutton’s Grand Staircase!

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A small section fromDutton’s map “Geological map of the district of the high plateaus of Utah” centered on the area of the Bryce 100.

In Dutton’s 1880 work he published wonderful color maps to illustrate the geology.  The map above is a section from Dutton that is centered on Paunsaugunt Plateau and the trail for the Bryce 100.  The course travels along the western edge of the plateau, then climbs up and over the plateau to finally descends to the finish along the drainage of the East Fork Sevier River. The yellow color on the map represents the Claron Formation, which geologically is a series of lake and river deposits – sands, gravels, and cobbles along with a few limestones. The lake environment was rich in iron, and the pink color of many of the rocks is due to iron oxide staining. The rocks of the Claron are easily eroded, and the climate of the high plateau means that frost wedging plays a roll in breaking apart the strata. It is this frost wedging that produces the famous hoodoos (or rock towers) that populate the Bryce region.

Dutton wrote of the very region that the trail run traverses – the course is truly in the foot steps of a geologic giant.  One last comment on Dutton (and another reason he is one of my heroes). He was an early hire into the brand new US Geologic Survey in 1875. After his outstanding work on the Colorado Plateau he worked on earthquakes and volcanoes and was promoted to the chief of the volocanology unit at the USGS.  He eventually became disillusioned with the growing agency and wrote: “Our Survey is now at its zenith & I prophesy its decline. The ‘organization’ is rapidly ‘ per fecting’, i.e., more clerks, more rules, more red tape, less freedom of movement, less discretion on the part of the geologists & less outturn of scientific product. This is inevitable. It is the law of nature & can no more be stopped than the growth & decadence of the human body.” Not only do I get to share the Pink Cliffs with Dutton, but also his views on the crush of bureaucracy.

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The full moon setting over the start of the race. The course heads for the moon, and then wanders around the Paunsaugunt Plateau

The Race

The Bryce 100 — which is actually a 100 and 50 miler along with a 50k — is staged out of Bryce Canyon City. “City” is a misnomer – the town sites at the edge of the national park entrance, and is a collection of hotels and various adventure companies.  I chose to stay at the main hotel, Ruby’s Inn, a sprawling complex of buildings typical of concessionaire hotels in western US parks.  My room is in a remote building, and everyone in the building seems to be here for the race.  As I make my way to my room I pass countless rooms with their doors open – and there are stacks of water bottles, jugs of protein powder, and all sorts of stuff that ultra runners accumulate.  There is a major benefit to having a hotel dedicated to the runners; lights are out at 9:30 pm, and there is nary a sound until 4:30 in the morning!

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The secret to the ultra – stuff. My stuff includes Tailwind formula for my water bottles, stinger gels, Kind candy bars, lots of sun screen, and gloves for the first couple of miles

The runners are bused to the start of the race, about 7 miles from the hotel.  The starting temperature is a brisk 39 degrees, but perfect conditions for running. There are about 135 runners in the 50 km race, mostly 20s and 30s somethings, and most are in running groups.  I am the only person from New Mexico, but as with most trail runs, everyone is very friendly and chatty.  I find 3 different geologists running the race!  Clearly, the attraction to interesting geology is a big deal for this race.  The course takes off to the west and climbs from 7600 feet elevation to about 8300 feet elevation over the first 6 miles.  The first six miles is a roller coaster – run up 50-200 feet and then descend the same distance as the course crosses dozens of small drainages.

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The Bryce Canyon Route for the 50 km — actually 32.6 km, and 5400 feet elevation gain. The course travels to west side of P Plateau, and climbs up and over into a drainage

The first two miles are on a forest service road – not too interesting for running.  However, after two miles the course follows a wonderful single track.  The track is very smooth, a consequence of the erosion of the base rock – the Claron Formation.  The Claron is about 200 m thick on the Paunsaugunt Plateau, and is composed of soft, red colored siltstones and white colored limestones that are rich in sands. These sedimentary rocks were deposited in an ancient lake that was formed due to the rise of the Rocky Mountains some 70 million years before the present. The rise resulted in a basin to the west of Rockies, and Lake Claron filled this basin – at is maximum size it was similar in area to Lake Michigan. The rocks are rich in iron and manganese oxides, which give the distinctive color. Around 30 million years before the present the Colorado Plateau began a period of uplift, and Claron Lake disappeared, and the former lake bottom rocks became exposed and formed the Pink Cliffs.

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Running among the HooDoos in the Claron Formation

Between miles 6 and 7 the trail wanders among some wonderful hoodoos.  In fact, the rocks are so interesting I am having trouble not stopping a shaping photos every couple of hundred yards!  The hoodoos form because the Clarion is relatively soft, but has thin strata that are more resistant to erosion.  Frost wedging plays a fairly unique roll in the hoodoo formation – cracks are filled with moisture, and when it freezes it parts the harder, more resistant limestones leaving small “caps” that eventually sit atop columns and chimneys.

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Graphical explanation for the formation of Hoodoos along the Pink Cliffs. The rocks of the Claron Formation are quite soft and easily eroded – but what is unique here is the roll of frost wedging breaking apart the rock. The frequent freezing in the region causes soil moisture to freeze and expand which “pries” apart blocks of rock. Repeating this process isolates pillars, or the Hoodoos (Figure from National Park Travel)

The first 10 miles are pretty fast.  I roll into the first aid station at exactly 2 hours (the station is 10.4 miles from the start).  I feel fantastic, although it is getting warm – at least to me.  It is 8 miles to the next aid station, and I have a plan to be there a little before the 4 hour mark.  All my life I have loved maps.  I am an expert at reading maps – but I fail miserably on this next section of the course.  I used the course map posted on the website for the race, which shows the elevation at a very corse scale.  I estimated that there would be modest climbing and descending over the 8 miles, but in fact this section of the trail is quite difficult.  There is much more climbing and very slippery descending than I expect.  The first thing I did when I got back to the hotel room was to download the USGS quadrangle for the region – WHAT!  At the higher resolution it is obvious that this section is tough.  I am embarrassed that I let scale screw me…

After the second aid station the climbing really begins.  It is a lot more walking than running for me.  I actually pass lots of people on the ascent of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.  But the course becomes truly diabolical at mile 23.  The elevation has dropped to 7700 feet, and over the next 2 miles the dusty and sandy trail climbs 1400 feet.  Although most of the course up to this point has had liberal tree cover, the Pink Cliffs show no mercy or vegetation. I swear it is 100 degrees, but alas, when I check the weather record at the Bryce Canyon airport station, I find it was actually 65 degrees.

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Looking north on the long climb up the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The Pink Cliffs are beautiful, and steep.

The views are breath taking, but I am toast at the final aid station, mile 25.  I refill both my water bottles with Gator aid, but it is a bit too late.  The trail after the aid station joins a hard packed BLM road.  It is not particularly pleasant running, but the home stretch is afoot.  The first couple of miles of the road actually continue the climb, and finally at mile 26.5 top out at 9200 feet elevation (by my watch).  Then it is downhill!  However, I just kind of amble down the road, and all those folks that passed going up the hill scream past me.  I got road rash from several that passed me at a high rate of speed!  I do meet several interesting people on the descent, and have conversations;  I meet a young man from Monument Valley that has never run further than 13.1 miles before today.  He is celebrating 6 months of sobriety, and was recently baptized – a joy to talk to.  I meet a couple of people from Phoenix that have only been trail running for the last year.  They are very fast until mile 29, and then absolutely die.  The final part of the course is another uphill for a mile, and it is really tough.

It took me just under 8 and a half hours to finish the 32.6 miles (I love that trail runs are ALWAYS longer than the standard amount).  Waiting for the bus back the Bryce Canyon City I talk to the other runners – as always, at the end, everyone is happy.  The relief of finishing, and the any pain fades pretty fast.  My joy was getting to wander through some unique and interesting geology.  I think I will do this again.

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Tower Bridge, Bryce Canyon.