Just when I thought I had mastered the art of tracking deer throughout Red Butte Canyon, I was put to the ultimate challenge! This morning our lead scientist Bill distributed data sheets to my team as usual. He then instructed my partner Leo and I to record the snow depths and the number of ungulate trails intersected at over 200 points throughout the southern side of the canyon. I had done this task once before on the northern side of the canyon, so I approached it with great confidence. What I had forgotten, however, was that the southern side of the canyon faces the north and receives little, if any, direct sunlight. Therefore, it’s colder and the snow depth is significantly greater. As a result, Bill didn’t expect us to encounter many ungulate trails, since he hypothesized that deer don’t typically travel through snow over 40cm. To provide proof, however, we had to take measurements and record the data.
After about 100 meters and 20 data recordings into my day, I noticed the snow was getting increasingly deeper. Still, my partner and I proceeded with optimism. Before we knew it, however, we found ourselves on a nearly vertical slope. In mathematics, that would be about a 90 degree angle; in skiing, it would be considered a double black diamond! The slope had small oak trees scattered throughout and was covered with over 2 feet of snow. As Leo and I began hiking up it, our noses were brushing the snow because the slope was so precipitous. We had to grip the oak trees for balance and stability, and dig our toes into the deep snow for support. By the time we reached the top, we had recorded 300 meters of snow depth measurements and not a single intersecting ungulate trail; at depths consistently exceeding 70cm, we were not surprised by this.
Before I let out a sigh of relief for finishing the rigorous climb safely, I glanced at the data sheet and looked up to where we were headed next. The slope was just as steep as the first one, only now the snow was nearly 3 feet in depth and the top portion consisted of nothing but large, vertical rocks. I consulted with my partner before attempting to hike it, and we both agreed that we had to in order for the project data to be entirely accurate and thorough. So, up we went again, this time with a bit less energy. We continued on with our ascent filled with determination, until we approached the rocks. This would be especially tricky, particularly for someone like myself with little rock climbing experience. Once again, I consulted with my partner Leo and learned that he was a well-trained and experienced rock climber. Lucky me! Leo volunteered to climb the first set of rocks so that he could demonstrate the proper way to do it. With a bit of a struggle and the help of a sturdy tree, I followed right in his footsteps and made my way up. The rocks became increasingly challenging, however, and we agreed that it would be best to play it safe and head to our next set of data.
It took us nearly an hour just to get to our next location, because the snow was up to our waists and the slopes continued to be very steep. By the time we finished all 200 data recordings, it had taken us more than double the time that it had taken us on the northern slope. When it was time to hand our data over to our lead scientist Bill, however, I felt the greatest sense of accomplishment that I had felt all week. Not only had I challenged myself to take risks that I had never taken before, but I had put trust in my Earthwatch team member and provided enough data for the scientists to complete their report on designing wildlife corridors.
On our way back to the vehicle, I couldn’t help but feel proud when my lead scientist stated, “Out of all of the Earthwatch expeditions that I have done in this location throughout the past 7 years, this one has by far been the most challenging, because we have never received nearly this much snowfall at one given time!”