With the rope locked tightly in my right hand, I took a moment to look down. Nothing but air stood between my neoprene boots and the sandy Zion canyon floor 100 feet below. The water-carved sandstone walls curved and contorted around me like a smooth Escher-esque dreamscape, their multi-toned browns streaked with black water stains. I slowly began to spin. I pressed the rope a little tighter against my hip and laid back, feeling the adrenaline surge through my veins. No matter how I tried, I simply couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Looking down on my friends – small as ants – I chuckled at how only yesterday they were mere strangers. And now I was entrusting them with my life, and then some. One thing’s for sure: when I started this day, I had certainly not anticipated this.
How To End Up Swinging from the End a Rope
Waking at 7am in the cold, star-filled blackness that morning, my heart pounded. I was going canyoneering. It’s hard to peel yourself out of a warm sleeping bag and expose your sleep-sensitive body to the harsh elements, but my anticipation of this new adventure spurred me, and I moved quickly.
I yanked on my jeans, capilene, and my fleece, and topped it off with the inevitable hat (“Breckenridge”) to camouflage my bed head. I threw down some warm oatmeal while carefully watching the time so that I could get to the Zion Adventures store before they opened. I wanted to be the first in the door so I could rent my dry suit and canyoneering shoes, and get back to the group, who would be waiting for me to get going. I hopped in my car and made for town.
I got my gear and made it back to the camp – local speed limits be damned – by 8:05, only to have Jeff tell me they were running late anyway. He suggested that in the meantime I work with Monique on getting my climbing harness and belay device situated, and to learn some basic rappel techniques. Having never put on a harness before, this would be a new experience.
I found Monique rummaging around in her Westfalia van, and upon seeing me, she smiled, “ah good, let’s get you set up.” She dove headfirst into her bag. Now, I use the term “bag” very loosely here. This “bag” is as big as I am. This thing should have its own zip code. It was made of some heavy rubber-like material which I’m sure has been used on the Space Shuttle, or at least for restraining deranged psychopaths. You get the idea. What’s particularly comic is that it has shoulder straps on it like you’re supposed to wear it around on your shoulders, as if that’s gonna happen.
So, Mo dug around in there, and extracted a harness, a locking carabiner, a belay device and a black rope. Tossing me the rope, she told me to “wrap this around that tree right there.” I did so, and she helped me on with the harness. This is what’s known in the climbing biz as a “universal harness”, which is made up of a pretty haphazard wrapping of straps and buckles that need to be carefully coordinated to have it fit and work properly (and having a harness work properly is quite important, assuming you wish to survive).
With the expert precision of a seasoned professional, Monique got down there and started rigging me up. This is quite an intimate process as it turns out; not terribly unlike a “turn your head and cough” experience – if you know what I’m saying – and considering that Mo is quite an attractive woman, it required a wee bit of personal concentration to get me through. OK, so I’m a shallow turd. Sue me.
All secured, no harm no foul, nobody’s eye poked out, we moved on to the rappel techniques. Pushing the doubled-over rope through the belay device, running it through the carabiner, locking the ‘biner. Checking the anchor, tying stopper knots in the ends of the rope, checking that the rope actually hits the ground below you (lest you “crater”, or “hit the deck”, or possibly “take a dirt nap”), double-checking the harness and belay, getting over the edge, braking techniques, and rappelling itself. A fast, thorough and efficient lesson, and we’re ready to go.
My mind started to tingle at the thought of what lay ahead. The rest of the world seemed to slip away as we piled into two trucks to head off to the canyon. We would drive one car to the head of the canyon, and leave one at its end to shuttle back. I rode with Sunniva, Mo, and Brandy, who introduced herself to me with a beautiful, true smile from the front seat.
On the ride, I started to feel the nervousness – as usual – working its magic on me. This is not an unfamiliar feeling … I get this sense of anxiety when confronting unknown risks and challenges. It’s a dull nervousness that works its way through my gut, stirring things up a bit. And all it takes is for me to see the challenge, to manifest it in reality, to quantify and qualify it, and I’m able to convert the anxiety into positive energy. The power of Yes. But in the meantime, as we rode in the mile-long dark tunnel bored through the Zion sandstone, I focused on the inside wall of the truck, and thought back to how this all got started.
For the past week, I had been traveling alone through the Southwest, wending my way through southern California, northern Arizona and Utah, following little more than my whim. It’s really this simple: I needed to go. I had packed all my gear into my Subaru Outback, stuck my mountain bike on top, and headed out across San Francisco’s Bay Bridge to find something, and nothing. Zion National Park tacked one heck of an exclamation point onto my trip through Sonora, Mono Lake, the Eastern Sierras, Death Valley, the Mohave Desert and the Grand Canyon.
I had only met these people the day before. They were a gaggle of rock climbing guides and instructors from around Southern California, on their vacation (you’d think they’d spend their vacations in the city or something, but …). After a quick introduction, some short conversation, plenty of awesome mountain biking, numerous shared beers and laughter, I suddenly found myself agreeing to go canyoneering with them.
“Want to go canyoneering with us tomorrow?” Jeff asked.
“Yes,” I said, without hesitation. “Uhhh, what is it exactly?”
“Well,” Jeff replied, “we climb down into deep slot canyons, and do some big rappels, some as long as 100 feet. Some into ice-cold water pools. If there’s a flash flood, we could be killed.”
“What time do I need to be ready?”
I was jolted out of my reverie when we reached the parking lot near the mouth of the canyon. The nervousness-induced bowel “issue” encouraged me to take a moment of respite in the parking lot bathrooms. Call me crazy, but I figured it would not be terribly cool to sh*t yourself on a rappel. Especially in a gasket-sealed drysuit. Amongst relative strangers.
We geared up in the parking lot while curious tourists looked on in wonder at the myriad of hardware spilling out of the truck: wet suits, dry suits, harnesses, belay devices, carabiners, massive ropes, camera equipment, food, water. Our attire, it is safe to say, was quite out of context in the desert. If you want to seriously confuse people, stand in the middle of the desert, and put on a wet suit or a dry suit (either will do). Then, put on some neoprene booties and stuff them into odd-looking rubbery canyoneering boots (not found in your local ShoeMart.). And then, put on a fleece hat, step into a climbing harness, sling a rope over your back, and drop over an uninviting ledge at the edge of the parking lot (with 8 of your friends), disappearing from sight.
It was an X-Files moment if I ever saw one.
Into the Slot
We hiked down a sharp hillside of loose scrabble until we reached the top of the canyon itself. We descended into the dank and dimly lit slot canyon, the handiwork of Pine Creek. The air was chilled … not cold, per se … but standing in it after leaving the hot desert air, you felt oddly bone-chilled. Pine Creek is a classic slot canyon, created by millions of years of water flowing through its bowels, eroding in the rock marvelously intricate twists, turns and drops. The brown sandstone below our feet was streaked black, rounded and smoothed by water buffing it to a fine polish. Despite the fact that the riverbed was dry, it was easy to slip on the slick rocks … I suddenly understood the value of the canyoneering shoes’ sticky rubber soles.
To enter the slot and reach the first rappel, we had to downclimb about 10 feet of a slick, twisty rock chute (one slip and you’d pitch down and snap your leg), and sink into waist-deep turbid water, swimming with mosquito larvae, water spiders, and a floating log whose branches had all snapped off, leaving sharp protrusions to catch and rip your dry suit. All things considered, we were lucky, because we had been expecting to have 100 yard swims in some of these ice-cold pools, and the canyon was fairly dry this day.
After watching some of the others rappel down the initial 30′ drop, I tied in, had Mo check my rig, got some last minute instruction on technique, and dropped over the edge. The most difficult part of any rappel is getting over the edge, trusting your equipment for the first time, and letting your butt hang out over a lot of air. And yet, I felt completely calm. Descending was absolute ecstasy. My adrenaline was kicking as I reached the bottom, not from fear, but from the challenge – and the accomplishment. I hiked on down through the canyon, feeling that much closer to my new friends, and eager for the next challenge.
As we hiked, Jeff explained to me how things work in Zion. When it rains here, the water simply runs off the massive sandstone rock faces, and funnels its way down, seeking out the lowest point of gravity. There is very little, if anything, to absorb the water that falls on the canyon, so even 20 minutes of rainfall can create harrowingly large flash floods.
Basically, if you’re in a slot canyon during a rainstorm, you can expect your last moments on earth to feature massive walls of water crashing down on you, picking you up, and hurtling you down-canyon, pinballing you off the walls and boulders. A bag of bone shards and soup (formerly known as “you”) will likely be found somewhere near the outlet of the river or, if you’re lucky, you’ll be found dramatically pinned between some rocks. Standing anywhere in the canyon, and seeing the towering, intricately carved water chutes, you’re inevitably compelled to imagine the water blasting through. It’s a bit unnerving to think of the power that can be brought down on your head with a simple rainstorm.
We had 8 raps total in Pine Creek, and each one was a unique new adventure. One, for instance, had an overhang that had to be negotiated. Normally not a big deal except for the fact that in this case, directly under the overhang was a log with a sharp protruding branch that would slice up your leg if you were to swing into it … highly likely, dropping in over an overhang. As I was about to rap down into it, Sunniva described it to me as an “impaling object”. Sunniva spotted me over the overhang, ensuring that I didn’t impale myself. Every member of the group, in turn, was spotted getting past it.
The final rappel – the Grand Cathedral – really sealed the deal. It’s a 100-foot rappel, 70 feet of which is freefall through a stunningly beautiful set of smooth, water-carved rock walls, down to a spring-fed grotto surrounded by sandy beach. Hanging there 70 feet above the ground, suspended by nothing but a rope, looking down on my ant-like friends below, I was sold, hook, line and sinker. Very simply, I’d find a way to make this a part of my life.
The mid-day sun warmed us as we made our way out the widening canyon. This would be a 2-hour hike of boulder scrambling and wading through shallow pools, jumping down, around, and over a myriad of ankle-twisting rocks and boulders. All things considered, it was pretty astonishing that 9 people were able to make it through with only a scratch or two being the severest injuries incurred.
We clamored up to the road where our shuttle car awaited. With horror, we realized that we had made a severe tactical blunder. We had left the beer in the other car! Augh! As we waited for Sunniva and Jeff to get the second shuttle car back through the tunnel, the rest of us lounged about, flopping, stretching, gnawing beef jerky, and munching on whatever was mined from our packs. The conversation was loosely draped over the scene, flowing easily, laughing, goofing, telling and retelling jokes. I found myself being inextricably drawn to this group.
Back at camp, our bodies were tired, and the banter around the campfire was convivial, fluid, natural and easy. As it went around and around, I was compelled to consider this unique group of exceptional individuals. They were smart, clever, fun, easy going, adventurous, forward, fearless, thoughtful, considerate, generous, independent, strong, and undaunted. Not something you stumble across every day.
What brought me here? Fate? Serendipity? Blind luck? I found myself thinking through the various twists and turns – large and small – I had taken over the last several days to get to this point. I had been following my whim. Any given turn could have left me somewhere else. It’s simple. Let life flow … follow it where it leads, take opportunities when they’re offered, see where they take you. Force it now and again, give it a nudge here and there, but let it take you where it will. I did just that, and as a result I had one of the best experiences of my life.
The night was getting long, and as people started to filter off to bed, I said goodnight and made my way back to my tent. The stars seemed definitively brighter, the air distinctively crisper, the ground crunched pleasantly beneath my weary feet, and I was warmed by the wonder and expanse of my newborn world.