Blog 32 has been by far the most difficult post for me to complete. Not for lack of ideas — I came back from vacation bursting with them — but because I’ve had to dictate or hunt-and-peck it. On February 22, 2022, I broke my right wrist in Arches National Park’s famous maze hike, the Fiery Furnace, and have been managing everything left-handed (I am a righty).

Sandy washes, delicate growths, and stunning vertical rocks make the maze of the Fiery Furnace well worth exploring.
Sandy washes, delicate growths, and stunning vertical rocks make the maze of the Fiery Furnace well worth exploring.

Fiery Furnace: Arrows Mark the Path

My husband, daughter, and I picked up self-guided day permits to visit the Fiery Furnace on 2-22-22. It is our favorite hike in Arches National Park (Moab, Utah). I hadn’t hiked since December 10, so I felt compelled to make up for lost time. By completing the orientation video on Monday, we could start hiking before the rest of the 60-some permitted hikers arrived.

Around 9:30 a.m. we began our counter-clockwise trip, searching for 27 miniature arrows that mark the way through the maze. Some arrows are posted at eye level, others on thin brown posts. A few have gone missing and have chalk-drawn scratches. Several are tricky to find. Part of the fun of the maze is exploring features in dead-ends, including five arches, squeezes, bowls and spires. Four years ago, we “got lost” until another party located the arrow we had missed. Can you spot the one in the picture below?

Red rock sandstone of the Fiery Furnace. The author's husband and daughter before towering spires.
Red rock sandstone of the Fiery Furnace. The author’s husband and daughter before towering spires.

Photographer’s Paradise

Of the five hundred photos I shot while on vacation, more than half were from our hike. Even during an overcast, somewhat chilly (below 40 F) day when the lighting is not optimal, I still found plenty to catch my eye. The unique rock features and delicate cacti and plants are a photographer’s dream. It’s no surprise that I was lagging behind, capturing as many of the features as I could.

In Arches National Park there is a saying, "Don't bust the crust." One look at the delicate succulents and brush trying to eke out a living here and you know not to get off the rocks or sandy washes.
In Arches National Park there is a saying, “Don’t bust the crust.” One look at the delicate succulents and brush trying to eke out a living in the desert and you know not to get off the rocks or sandy washes.

What’s more, the ranger had told us he’d only ever found fifteen arrows, so just as we like to track state license plates when we travel (i.e. the License Plate game), we tracked the arrows in the maze by taking photos of each. Knowing we would be doing it in the opposite direction in the afternoon, they provided us with a sort of reverse map.

A hard-to-spot arrow steering us through a squeeze.
A hard-to-spot arrow steering us through a squeeze.

Clockwise through the Fiery Furnace

In the afternoon, wanting to experience the maze in the reverse direction, we went against the directional arrows. I hoped to find all five of the maze’s hidden arches during our leisurely exploration. The trickiest part was finding our way back to the manmade stairs.

It took us more than 20 minutes to find the "entry" up to the stairs. Next time we'll trust our daughter's instincts.
It took us more than 20 minutes to find the “entry” up to the stairs. Next time we’ll trust our daughter’s navigational instincts.
Manmade stairs crafted into the rock to provide entry/exit.
Manmade stairs crafted from the rock to provide entry/exit.

My daughter took off ahead of us as though wanting to see how quickly we could do it the second time. I was still enjoying shooting photos with my DSLR camera. About a mile in we stopped at an open area for a snack and I explored an arch high up on a rock. Then wanting to do some more scrambling with hand free, I tucked my camera into my pack, leaving my cell phone in my pocket for snapshots.

Slickrock sandstone showing rounding from erosion. Rangers close the maze if there is any snowfall as the moisture makes footing treacherous and hides the washes and rocks where visitors must step.
Slickrock sandstone showing rounding from erosion. Rangers close the maze if there is any snowfall as the moisture makes footing treacherous and hides the washes and rocks where visitors must step. This was the last two-handed photo I took.

Karate Chop Mistake in the Fiery Furnace

Halfway through the maze, I got off-balance on a bit of steep rock. Thoughts raced through my head: “Protect the back, head, legs, hip, camera.” Somehow, I spun around, landing catlike in a sandy wash on both legs. I could tell both my husband and daughter were relieved it turned out so well. Unfortunately, I smashed my right wrist into a rock as I landed. I took one look at my throbbing hand, swelling and bent at an awkward angle. Had I just dislocated it?

It was more shocking than painful. Instinctively my Mountaineering-Oriented First Aid training kicked in. No tigers — the scene was safe. No bleeding or broken skin — nothing life-threatening. But I definitely needed a splint. I handed my pack to my daughter and asked for help getting out of my T-shirt to use as padding. I used my buff to keep my wrist supported and neutral, and my husband helped get the camera strap around my forearm as a sling. Later the doctors at the hospital were impressed with our in-the-field get-up.

Surviving a Broken Wrist in Arches' Fiery Furnace
The Squeeze. On our second pass in the afternoon, I used the detour (left), unwilling to take any chances since I only had use of my non-dominant hand.

Aftermath

I knew that above all else, I had to remain calm. I forced myself to take deep breaths and a few sips of water. We declined the assistance of another couple heading in the opposite direction, one of whom said she was a nurse. I suggested we go back the way we came, thinking it was shorter, but Doug reminded me that the first half of the route in front of us required less climbing.

With him ahead offering me a supporting hand if I needed it, I walked unaided to the car, breaking down in tears a few minutes after we resumed hiking, thinking of how I’d just screwed up our last family vacation. We drove directly to Moab’s Urgent Care where an on-call orthopedist reduced the break twice (far more painful than the fall itself) and set it, enabling me to walk out before sunset and before a snowstorm arrived.

Spires abound in the Fiery Furnace. Every few steps I wanted to stop and drink it all in. My happy place. And despite the accident I still want to go back some day.
Spires abound in the Fiery Furnace. Every few steps I wanted to stop and drink it all in. My happy place. And despite the accident I still want to go back someday.

What’s Next?

I have learned so many lessons in the past two weeks that I have decided to write another blog post about it. A few, briefly:

  • 1. It will be a while before I can use my 100-400 mm lens or my DSLR camera, but it IS still possible to take one-handed lefty photos with my cell phone. Proof below, the night of my fall.
My newest accessory, a sling, following a broken wrist in Arches National Park's Fiery Furnace.
My newest accessory, a sling, followed a broken wrist in Arches National Park’s Fiery Furnace on 2-22-22.
  • 2. Dictation, Hunt-and-peck, Notes on my phone can substitute for my journal habit. I am incredibly slow but as this Blog shows, dedication pays off.
  • 3. Bones heal. The orthopedist got my wrist reduced and set well enough that I do NOT need surgery and that is a huge blessing. I am grateful it was not my head, back, legs, hip, or gear. Sure, it would be easier if it were my left, but I would still be hunting and pecking. The silver lining is I am becoming ambidextrous!
  • 4. Remember Joyful from my last post? Even injured, I came away with many fond memories of our trip, despite the obstacles we faced from store closures to botched reservations, inclement weather to a trip to the hospital.
If you visit Arches N
If you visit Arches National Park, stay on rock and sandy washes. Don’t “bust the crust.”

Reader Challenge

If you are up for an exercise in empathy, try two experiments:

  • 1. With your non-dominant hand, grab a pen and write: I AM SO GRATEFUL FOR WHO I AM AND WHAT I CAN DO. I WILL NEVER TAKE MY LIFE FOR GRANTED AGAIN.
  • 2. For an hour, be mindful of those many things you do with your dominant hand or with two hands. If you are feeling brave, try it with only one hand or with your opposite hand exclusively.

Hardest? Doing my hair. Zipping. Tying knots. Buttoning. Fastening my dog’s harness. Writing. I thought it would be driving, but that is pretty straightforward. And washing dishes or hair and vacuuming just take practice. Haven’t tried mowing yet. I’d love to see your comments about your experiment.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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6 Comments

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  1. Yeah for having avoided the worst on that bad fall; another situation where all your training, fitness, and knowledge “save the day” (many of them indeed)!
    I am typing this blog post using a dictation software; Oh, the joy of trying to learn to ride a bicycle for the first time! My apologies for any stranger than usual wording, stray capital letters. or odd punctuation. I spent a lot of time hunting and picking to correct these, but I may have missed a few. First challenge: my left-hand writing of the gratefulness sentence would baffle the world’s best cryptography experts… I could probably make good money selling it online as an ancient Aramaic or Runic tablet. I KNOW I wrote every one of the words.. and yet I don’t see them. Second challenge: I just spent an hour today to go through all my morning routines ( except the initial getting dressed up) without using my right hand. As expected, It was irritatingly challenging from beginning to end. Here are a few of the observations I made. I had to be very careful and deliberate eating my bowl of cereals; where exactly is my mouth on this side? Finishing the bowl, getting these last flakes at the bottom, proved impossible until I raised the plate to my mouse and tipped it while slurping a bit… while my wife rolled her eyes and shook her head (interestingly enough, SHE had to without her dominant hand for a whole year earlier in life; she remembers it eventually “messing with her brain” to the point where she started to stutter…). Removing the cap from my prescription drug bottle, pulling the little tab down while at the same time twisting the cap… with what? My left hand is still pressing the tab down! Enter my first lesson: There are substitutes for the right hand. In this case, my front teeth did the job :-). Then it got a little warm and I wanted to roll up my sweater’s left sleeve ( Thank God there was no button to undo!). Enter one of my favorite substitutes: The right arm. I could squeeze my left wrist between my right arm and my torso and push my left arm through. Sleeve rolled up! I next got to the sink to wash my plate and spoon. Hmmm… How to hold that soap lathered plate still while cleaning it? It wasn’t pretty, but after bracing it against the walls of the sink I got most of the job done. Time to take care of oral hygiene… I quickly quit on trying to floss with just one hand. I do not have the little tool that looks like a bow. On to brushing. After putting the brush flat on the counter, I aligned to tube with the bristles. Voila! After my earlier training with a cereal bowl, I had better luck finding my mouth on the first try. Saved me from having to explain to my wife the streaks of toothpaste all over the wall in the master bath. I had set up an alarm on my phone to let me know when my one hour one-handed trial would be over; of course, the alarm went off as I was brushing. I was glad to discover that my bony and pointy elbow was just as good at tapping buttons on my phone as my left hand held the vibrating toothbrush. My last hurdle was to bring everything I needed to my office on the second floor to start the day; this took two trips instead of one. I picked three lessons I learned during my arguably very short experiment. Find substitutes for the right hand; can the right arm work? Can the mouth work? Can a brace against a stationary object (wall, counter, Etc.) work?. I could see this being gamified… find all the alternate paths to the goal. Be mentally prepared for everything to take much longer; It took me an hour to do what normally takes 30 minutes. Shifting to an attitude of slowing down and smelling the roses (or the spilled cereals) helps! Getting angry and frustrated likely doesn’t. Last, but more importantly, be OK with small mistakes and imperfections. This seems like an important area to remember the KISAGE principle once more; most things will not look or feel as good as they do when I use both hands, but “good enough” IS truly good enough.

    1. Good for you Gerard!!! I laughed as I read this whole post because you took the challenge with the tongue-in-cheek attitude intended and made it your own. I experienced many such moments and yesterday driving in the rain to have my third set of Xrays (YAY no surgery required!!) and had to get out of the car when automatic payment failed… Fortunately, there was nobody waiting behind me and the masked clerk was very understanding. “Happens all the time.” I’m sure HE has stories working at a hospital!! I figured out how to mow one-handed — hold with the right cast as left pokes start button but then how to whip the cord out of the way so the mower won’t eat it? Oh well, the neighbors will have to put up with a start-and-stop motor. The remaining vexing thing that both my husband and daughter have already figured out (which is really annoying as I have now had three weeks of practice) is fastening my dog’s tighter harness… It DOES raise appreciation for the frustrations that present themselves and you are so right, anger and frustration only add to the misery. Deep breathing, KISAGE and self-care are so important when facing ANY obstacle. May enduring an hour left-handed (or six weeks!) present us with knowledge and patience for whatever arises next. Gold star to you!

      1. May I be so bold as to ask for a Gold Star that can be pinned to my proud chest with just one hand?
        Kudos on figuring out the mower!

        1. HAHAHA. Right, that’s one I haven’t tried yet. and hiking boots. Fortunately my shoes are the “thrust feet in and don’t mess with laces” kind. I DID figure out how to tie poop bags with left hand only…

  2. I tried your first exercise and it was not easy at all. And I am writing this comment using my non- dominant ✋. Easier to type than write. 😜

    This place looks so amazing and lots of fun. I love the photos you took.

    We take so many things for granted. I can just imagine not able to use one hand. I could not work, drive, etc…we all need to slow down and pay attention.

    You must be grateful for all your mountaineering training and being in good shape and healthy.

    The positive, your wrist is not broken. 👍

    1. Yes, I pretty much am reliant on typing right now although my penmanship has moved from that of a three-year-old to maybe a slow eight-year-old. Translate is easy to learn but has its own irritating quirks and a steep learning curve. Sometimes without slow enunciation, it is as laughable as Google translate. Lots to be grateful for, while it is broken, it is not (so far) requiring surgery so that is a huge plus. And I learned I CAN actually mow the lawn with one hand. Bonus! Thanks for commenting.