Herb Crimp inched his way towards the top of the narrow sandstone ramp, tucking his toes into tiny ʻMoki stepsʼ chipped into the rock by Native American astronomers thousands of years ago.
As he went, he set removable anchors for the climbing rope, called cams, into the crack on his right. To his left was a dizzying drop into the bottom of a large alcove, once an Indian habitation site. In a few minutes, I too, would be inching up that rope to take a closer look at rock art, pictographs and petroglyphs, that those ancient climbers created on a narrow ledge at the top of this precarious ascent.
What would we find up there?
And, more importantly, what was so special about this place that the Ancients would risk life and limb to make pictures at the top?
Ancient Southwest Indians were accomplished astronomers and some of their rock art panels interact with the light and shadow of solstices and equinoxes.
Most of these were created by Anasazi and Fremont Indians (700-1200 A.D.) and Basketmaker Indians (1000 B.C. – 900 A.D.).
Astronomical panels from the Archaic Culture (4000 B.C. – 0 A.D.) are rare.
This is why I was excited in March 2012 when I figured out that Archaic art in Hellroaring Canyon, near Moab, interacts with the light and shadow of the equinox.
The Hellroaring site has a large flake of stone that ramps up one side of an alcove, then spans the top. There are several dilapidated rock art figures on the ledge at the top.
Once I realized that the art might be part of an Archaic astronomical complex, I enlisted a couple rock-climbing friends, Crimp and Ed Oak, to get me up there. They rated this climb at a difficulty level of 5.6, with lots of air underneath…not hard by their standards, but plenty steep for me. Once they had a rope set, I was able to use climbing devices, called jumars, to ascend.
The Fall equinox was Sunday, Sept. 22. We went up on Saturday to study the art and temporarily fix a rope. On top, we saw etchings and abrasions that are not visible from the ground. I think it likely that some were man-made, but further study is needed.
Descending, I learned that I am adept at a rock-climbing technique Crimp and Oak described as ʻgrovelingʼ.
They went back up Sunday morning to watch the Equinox sunrise, probably the first people to do so in thousands of years.
The Moki steps impressed all three of us. Ages ago, people clung to that crack with one hand while the other hand, holding a hard stone, laboriously pounded new toe holds into the ramp.
What compelled them to perform such death-defying derring-do?
And why would generations of Indians then clamber up and down that hair-raising route in order to celebrate the Equinox?
I canʼt say what inspired them, but I know what drives me.
But, more than that, a sense of security, order, and enlightenment I get when I see the light appear, year after year, exactly when, where, and how I hope it will. In a world of change and uncertainty itʼs something I can count on, just as the Ancients did.
I like that feeling.