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The Hidden Southwest:
The Arch Hunters
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The Hidden Southwest: The Arch Hunters
The Colorado Plateau is home to the world's single greatest collection of rock arches—yet only a handful of die-hard seekers ever visit them. Prepare to explore slickrock country in a whole new way.  
Text by James Vlahos   Photograph by Dawn Kish

Photo: Man looking at arch

THE BIG ONE: Is Kolob Arch the longest span on Earth? A group of canyoneers aims to find out.

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Arches Adventure Guide

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The rock arch is lost. It's around here somewhere but could be anywhere; we've searched all morning and gotten nowhere. Picking my way through boulders and gnarled junipers, I reach the scalloped rim of a high mesa and peer over the edge. My stomach drops.

This part of Canyonlands National Park is known as the Needles District, a name too bureaucratically tidy to describe the slickrock chaos erupting from the valley below. There are knobs, blobs, towers, and fins, a euclidean geometry–straining array containing every shape of sculpted rock save the one we're seeking. The arch is lost.

Two men join me on the overlook. The first wears a plaid Western shirt neatly tucked into blue Levi's. Leathery, all limbs and no body fat, he steps nimbly to the precipice. "Did you talk to Alex Ranney?" he is saying.

"I did," replies the second man. Wearing a khaki shirt, shorts, and mirrored sunglasses, he looks like a refugee from a Kalahari game drive.

"Did you get any more clues?" asks Western Shirt.

"Nope, Ranney was elusive," replies Sunglasses.


"Totally. He said, 'I want you to be able to find it yourself and get the
thrill of discovery.'"

The rock formation we seek is a contorted quadruple arch known as
Klingon Battle Cruiser. The first recorded sighting wasn't until 1994 by Ranney, a canyoneer from Tucson, Arizona. Not on any map or trail, it has probably been glimpsed by fewer than a dozen people in the history of the park. Tom Budlong (Western Shirt) and Tom Van Bebber (Sunglasses) desperately want to add their names to the list. These guys are no casual tourists. Rather, they're members of a singularly possessed subspecies of Desert ratus americanus. They are arch hunters.

Few sights are as celebrated in—or as iconic of—the American West as the natural rock arch. Symbolic yet fundamentally unfathomable, monumental but fragile, arches have astounded generations of desert wanderers, from Teddy Roosevelt, who camped below Rainbow Bridge in 1913, to Edward Abbey, who memorably venerated them in Desert Solitaire. America's spans are internationally recognizable wonders on par with Old Faithful and Half Dome, their shapes burned into the collective consciousness by countless photographs and films by everyone from John Ford to Ang Lee.

Rock shouldn't take flight in the sky; when it does, in scorn of known physical laws, people take notice. Arches National Park, America's best known repository of spans, draws more than 800,000 visitors each year from around the world. Yet despite such obvious attraction, few consider searching outside park boundaries—even though the Colorado Plateau has the highest density of rock arches worldwide. There are at least 2,000 stone spans scattered throughout the Four Corners states, a bounty that by and large is reaped only by arch zealots like Budlong and Van Bebber.

The pair belongs to the world's preeminent, and perhaps only, arch-hunting club—NABS, the Natural Arch and Bridge Society. Its 110 members scour the globe by plane, boat, 4x4, and foot. They prowl Antarctic islands, Algerian sands, and the canyons of the American Southwest. Aesthetes, arch hunters worship the limitless ways that rock defies gravity. Obsessives, they study, measure, and photograph every span they see. True explorers, they live for the moment of discovery: rounding a canyon bend to spot a miracle of natural engineering that perhaps nobody else in the world has ever seen.

In the case of Klingon Battle Cruiser, that moment of revelation is proving hard to come by. Van Bebber had invited me along on a week's worth of arch hunting, hoping I might catch the fever. This is not an encouraging start. He examines a map, scratches his chin, and sighs, "It's probably just right below us."

I leave the pair to study their charts and hike several hundred yards along the rim. Looking down at an expanse of tawny rock, I realize I am gazing through it—through a yawning window at the tiny green dots of trees in the valley below. Nearby, I see three additional portals. "Over here!" I shout.

Until this moment my conception of arch shape had been uncomplicated: a single sideways parenthesis, more or less. This one, however, has ribbons of rock that swoop like the curves of a Möbius strip to form a quartet of linked arches. I step carefully from the canyon rim onto the top of the arch and feel a swirl of vertigo. After it subsides I take a second step, then a third, following a rock catwalk into blue sky. Reaching the apex I rotate slowly around, a full 360 degrees, the canyon bottom hundreds of feet straight below.
The birth of an arch: It usually begins with a freestanding fin of rock. Material is removed from the center like a hole being punched to make a doughnut. Many forces can accomplish this (crashing waves, rushing rivers, oozing lava), but another process is behind most of the spans in the Southwest—seeping water. The structural dynamics of fins are such that the lower-central region tends to be the thinnest, weakest, and most crack-ridden. Water works into these seams, expands as ice, and snaps loose hunks of rock. This continues for hundreds or even thousands of years. The lower center gradually drops away; the abutments on either side are compressed and strengthened by the weight bearing down from above; at last a natural arch erodes through what was once solid rock.

Worldwide, arches number in the tens of thousands, and probably no place is better suited to their formation than the Colorado Plateau. The ubiquitous sandstone is porous and erosive. The geological strata are such that harder layers lie atop weaker ones; the softer rock erodes from below to leave an arch standing above. And finally, the plateau is in the midst of a rapid geological uplift. Cliff walls push higher while at the same time rivers and meltwater carve deeper and faster. The twin forces produce the critical fins and cracks.

The process is unguided, the results wildly unpredictable. Arches curve daintily from the sides of bluffs like teacup handles and extend long and straight over mesas like cello bows. They're as symmetrical as the arch of St. Louis or as warped as any design by Frank Gehry. They are named for resemblances to objects—Mask, Needle, Ring, the ever popular Window—and also to animals—Woodpecker, Seahorse, Fire Ant, Camel, Caribou. Many are no larger than footstools; a few are so wide that a 747 could roar through. Quadruple, quintuple, and even sextuple spans exist. Limitless variety is what makes arch hunting addictive. Something unexpected always awaits.
A day after finding Klingon Battle Cruiser, I stand at the base of an undulating mass of slickrock, a natural staircase of narrow benches and tilted slopes. With Van Bebber's outstretched palms providing a necessary toehold on blank rock, I scramble up to the first shelf. After walking along it until I find a low-angle passage, I clamber to the next level of the staircase, and the next. A few hundred yards upslope is my goal: the massive triangular portal of Cleft Arch. The only visible route up to the fourth and final bench, however, is too steep. Frustrated, I follow the shelf south and round a corner to make a startling discovery. Tucked under an overhang, invisible until I'm right upon it, is an Anasazi ruin with three well-preserved walls of neatly stacked stone. Arch hunting, I'm learning, often yields much more than the arches themselves.

The next morning Van Bebber pilots a Land Cruiser across the sprawling country of southern Canyonlands. The NABS president has an open Molson Golden pinched between his thighs, the beer cozy fighting a losing battle against the day's heat. His wife, Cindy Bell, rides shotgun and clutches a GPS in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. Van Bebber, gesturing toward the red-rock bluffs flanking the road, communicates with her in spousal arch hunter code.

"Nav, is that UT 910?" Van Bebber asks.

"Yep, I think so," Bell replies. "Pull over!" She hops out to take a telephoto-lens picture of a cliff-top formation. The couple's goal is to gather information—measurements, photographs, GPS coordinates—about various obscure spans. These details, though, matter less to me. What I'm really hoping for is to find an arch that has never before been reported.

The moment comes late in my final afternoon in Canyonlands. As we drive toward camp, I look out the window and spot something atop the northwest wall of Lavender Canyon. Something that isn't on the maps. It's rare, and virtually impossible to verify, that you are the first human ever to see a particular arch, but it's enjoyably common to be the first in history to formally record your viewing. My excitement mounts even as the veterans advise caution. "When the adrenaline gets going, everything starts to look like an arch," Bell warns. But I'm sure. It's a petite but distinct loop of rock on the horizon. Van Bebber pulls up next to a cottonwood and, after peering upward for a few minutes, issues the confirmation.

 "I'm putting down New Arch. Five feet [two kilometers]."
For years the Guinness Book of World Records contained this tantalizing factoid: "The highest natural arch is the sandstone arch 25 miles (40 kilometers) west-southwest of K'ashih, Singkiang, China, estimated to be nearly 1,000 feet (305 meters) tall." The remote arch had surely been known locally for centuries, but word didn't reach the outside world until its discovery by renowned British explorer Eric Shipton in 1946. His book Mountains of Tartary misdescribed the location, however, and after a Guinness team was unable to find the span years later, the listing was ditched. The world's tallest arch was lost once more, and so it remained until a National Geographic expedition relocated and climbed it in 2000.

It beggars belief that a significant wonder of the world could remain missing in an age of satellite imagery, but there it is. What's more, arch experts believe that many of the widest spans have yet to be found, or at least logged in the record books. According to a NABS statistical analysis, there are an estimated 400 arches in the world with a width of at least 165 feet (50 meters), and only 100 have been documented. This inspires arch hunters like Ray Millar, an Englishman who has traveled to 30 countries and all seven continents to photograph arches. On his last major trip he shot a dramatic double sea arch of volcanic basalt. The location? Spert Island, off the western tip of Antarctica.

Guilain Debossens, meanwhile, claims 1,250 documentations worldwide. In October 2006 the French canyoneer and NABS member mounted his most ambitious expedition yet—a three-week, 150-mile (241-kilometer) exploration of Algeria's Tassili-n-Ajjer National Park. Traveling by camel across the Sahara, he braved sandstorms and poisonous vipers to witness a staggering and mostly undocumented collection of rock arches rivaled only by those of the American Southwest.

The United States, meanwhile, is considered tapped-out for major finds—or at least it was until recently. In September 2006 a group of canyoneers led by Scott Patterson, a 32-year-old from Denver, was exploring Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado when it made a startling discovery. After fording the Yampa River, rock climbing up an unnamed peak, and rappelling into a steep-sided canyon, the team members suddenly realized they were dangling next to a massive arch. It wasn't on any map or known to park rangers; considering the remote location and the highly technical access route, it is probable that the span had never before been viewed by human eyes. Patterson returned later with equipment to measure what his team dubbed Outlaw Arch and found that it was 206 feet (63 meters) across—the ninth longest on the planet.

While Van Bebber and I came across nothing of such import in Canyonlands, I have high hopes for the second half of my trip in Utah's Zion National Park. On an expedition led by NABS co-founder Jay Wilbur, we are hoping to resolve the arch world's most contentious debate: Is Kolob Arch, a hulking, cliff-top giant, the world's longest span? The question hearkens back to the great geographic mysteries of yore—the true height of Everest, the origin of the Nile—and when I arrive at the park, the answer is still unknown.
Rain falls all day, then relents by late afternoon as shafts of sunlight pierce the dissipating clouds. In the middle of a forested valley encircled by rock towers, Wilbur stands by his tent gazing intently upward. I approach him with my skin scratched and clothing soggy. To reach this little-visited corner of Zion, I scaled a steep, brushy slope nicknamed "The Green Monster"; rappelled down half a dozen cliffs; and swam through inky, frigid water at the bottom of a shoulder-width slot canyon. The route was called Icebox Canyon, and, as exciting as it was, the stiffer effort comes tomorrow. I follow Wilbur's stare westward and glimpse, for the first time, the colossal span that I will soon be climbing: Kolob Arch.

Kolob, in Mormon theology, is the powerful star at the center of the galaxy; it controls planets such as Earth and is next to the throne of God. Though Kolob Arch was probably known to local ranchers by the late 19th century, the remote span wasn't named until 1957. "Calling the arch Kolob made sense for a couple of reasons," Wilbur says. "One, it was at the center of some of the most majestic scenery on Earth. Two, it was already believed to be the largest natural arch in the world."

Just how large, however, has long been contested. The first measurement was made in 1952 by one Victor Fritz, who, standing on the slopes far below, gauged the length at 315 feet (96 meters). (Fritz was fixated on Kolob, and he visited on six different occasions. On his final trip, he viewed his beloved span once more, then died that night of a heart attack in his sleeping bag.) In 1953 Fred Ayers, a chemistry professor from Oregon, bagged the first ascent of the arch and estimated it between 290 and 310 feet (88 and 94 meters) long. In the 1980s there were two additional expeditions, both backed by Brigham Young University. The first reported 310 feet and the second 292 (89 meters). The controversy continued.

Wilbur, who has a master's degree in astronomy and writes computer software for a living, says that the past attempts were marred by a lack of scientific formality. As one of his first orders of business at NABS, he helped to assemble a panel of veteran arch hunters, park rangers, geologists, and mathematicians, who, he says, "came up with rigorous standards so that measurements would be accurate and compatible."

In 2004 Wilbur used those standards to measure Kolob's only rival, Landscape Arch, a thin, soaring curve in Arches National Park. It was 290 feet. Now Kolob is in his crosshairs. The plan is for him to remain on the valley floor with an arsenal of photographic, telescopic, and survey equipment, and to use a radio to gather information from the climbing team of Wade Christensen, Josh Heiner, Tim Nguyen, and Craig Shelley, four rock climbers from Salt Lake City. Ours will be only the fifth known ascent. "You guys are going to have all of the fun tomorrow, but I'm going to survive," Wilbur jokes. "That's my compensation."
The chimney is narrow, near vertical, and mossy. Dark boulders, shoe box to boxcar in size, have tumbled from unseen heights, an avalanche arrested. My turn to climb arrives. I clip an ascending device on to the rope that Heiner rigged earlier and work my way up to a narrow ledge. For almost the entire way, the ascender, connected to my harness via a runner, will keep me on a safe, short leash. It's only here at the beginning, 15 feet (5 meters) above the ground, that there's dangerous slack in the main rope, and as I step into a small puddle on the ledge . . .

I slip.

My arms pinwheel and my body swings out from the ledge like a piñata on a string; I drop, smack my elbow against the rock, and land on my rear in damp sand. Whoa. I'm shaken but fine, and the next time across the ledge, my steps are more sure.

At the top of the chimney, a hefty boulder chokes the gap and forms a narrow cave. After squirming through, I emerge in a different world, claustrophobic dankness yielding to bright sun. We scramble up a series of ledges. We thrash through brushy gullies. By early afternoon the team stands at the base of a curving dome of Navajo sandstone. On the next two pitches, I lean back into my harness and walk my feet up the rock, sliding the ascender as I go. It feels like scaling a giant red Easter egg. And then we've made it, to the sprawling, piñon-dotted top of the mesa. Kolob is just to the south.

To measure an arch, you don't determine the length of rock that arcs through the air but rather the straight-line distance it bridges. The complexities of choosing the correct points for your measurement are many, but in effect you gauge the gap. Wilbur needs to know exactly where Kolob separates from the cliff wall behind it, and only a close-up view will provide the answer.

Walking onto the broad top of Kolob feels like stepping onto the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge—if that bridge spanned a sea of red rock and pine. I help Shelley affix a nylon line to a piñon growing from the middle of the arch and lower a red tether ball. The color allows it to be easily spotted by Wilbur, who has a laser range finder set up in the valley below, and the rope is marked for measurement so that we can assess the width of the arch.

Christensen, Heiner, and Nguyen, meanwhile, find anchors for their climbing ropes and prepare to descend. "Don't bounce," Heiner warns. "If you do, you'll cut your rope on the edge, fall, and die." Making the first ever rappel off Kolob, they drop into the abyss, the trio looking like something out of Mission: Impossible. After identifying the precise ends of the arch—something no previous team was able to do—they radio to an ecstatic Wilbur.

As they work, I hike off the arch and onto the mesa behind it for a different perspective. The entire Kolob Valley spreads before me. During the Canyonlands trip, NABS member Tom Budlong surprised me by saying that arches don't matter that much to him. "For me, they're just an excuse," he said. Now I see what he means. You can nerd out on the numbers like Wilbur, or compulsively catalog like Van Bebber and Bell, but these are just the reasons you give yourself to search, linger, and worship. Arch hunting is a convenient pretext to explore slickrock country in an entirely different way.

When we finally make it back to camp, well after nightfall, Wilbur is awake and excited. "We unquestionably have the result," he says. "I just have to do all of the data processing."
Several months after I return home from Utah, a manila envelope arrives in the mail from NABS. Inside is the latest copy of Span, the house organ, and I sit down immediately to read it, only slightly sheepish at how fully I've embraced arch zealotry. A member in Costa Rica relays the legend of an arch built by the devil. On another page, above a grainy photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is the caption "Natural Arch on Mars?" The key item, though, begins on page one and is heralded by 36-point bold type: "Kolob Arch Measured at Last."

". . . Span = 287.4 feet [87.7 meters]."

Yes, right there in paragraph one, 287.4, an arm's width less than Landscape, which could now be confidently pronounced the World's Longest Arch. Kolob is number two.

I feel an initial pang, but of course it doesn't really matter. Wilbur made the Landscape measurement too, so one way or another, he succeeded in his quest to determine the greatest span.

Besides, with major new arches still being discovered, Landscape's reign may be temporary. Arches themselves certainly are. They usually last only 10,000 to 15,000 years and sometimes much less—mere seconds on the scale of Earthly time. When you see one, you know you are looking at something fleeting and precious. Kolob seems sturdy but isn't; the span's connection to the cliff could give within a few hundred years, Wilbur wrote. "At that point, gravity will reduce the arch to rubble. What took millennia to form and develop will be destroyed in seconds."

There will always be more arches to find, though—good thing, since I've contracted the hunter's bug. My eyes linger on the back page of Span, which carries a small but enticing item from Van Bebber. He wants us to track down lost arches—ones that have been reported in the past but whose locations have been forgotten—and he writes encouragingly, "There is still no shortage of mysteries to be solved."

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