I was squished, and slightly claustrophobic, but I forced myself to keep slithering backwards. Not too fast. I cautioned. Because on the other side of the hole was a decent drop. Adventure Dad and our guide had already gone through and were waiting in the pool of smoky green water below. Both of them were quite a bit bigger than me, so I knew that I wasn’t going to get stuck but I was still very nervous about the possibility. I kept wriggling backwards while trying to maintain a tight grip on the small length of webbing that was going to keep me from falling once I made it through the rock hollow.
There I was, squeezing myself through a tiny-hole-of-a-rock tunnel affectionately nicknamed the Birth Canal when I thought to myself, “Maybe this trip wasn’t such a good idea.” If I went through too fast and couldn’t hold on to the webbing I would drop backwards into a pool of water with who knew what at the bottom of it. What if I broke an ankle? Then how would I get through the rest of the canyon.
How had I gotten myself into this mess?
The answer, of course, is by choice.
Adventure Dad and I had been looking forward to this canyoneering trip for months. What? You don’t know what canyoneering is. Well, here’s a definition for you that I stole off the Internet.
Canyoneering: The sport of exploring a canyon by engaging in such activities as rappelling, rafting, rock climbing, and waterfall jumping.
It’s a pretty good definition. I haven’t done rafting yet, unless floating yourself down a river counts, but I’ve done everything else and I’m pretty much a newbie to canyoneering. Basically you are exploring canyons, typically tight or slot canyons, and doing whatever is necessary to get down them.
Because we are such newbies to canyoneering, Adventure Dad and I thought we should accelerate the learning process and go through a course. This would make things safer for us and for anyone going with us down a canyon. This was driven home after our experience in the Subway.
Enter Arizona Climbing and Adventure School. We signed up for their four-day technical canyoneering course that teaches you all the skills from beginner to technical canyoneering. And finally the day arrived.
The morning of our first day we woke up at the crack of dawn to drive down to our meeting place, which was about 25 minutes outside of Hanksville, Utah. It also happens to be one of the premier canyoneering places in the world due to the mass amount of slot canyons in a relatively confined area. So if you’re wanting to do a lot of canyoneering, this is the place.
When we arrived at the meeting area, our guide, J, was waiting for us. He introduced himself and got to know us a little bit. He also asked us a lot of questions to determine exactly what we were looking for so that he could personalize the course and teach us the skills that we wanted. He was friendly and laid back but also instilled a sense of confidence because he clearly knew what he was doing.
And then we were off to do our first canyon.
We drove a short way up the canyon and hopped out. J believed in on-the-job type training so we immediately started hiking to the entrance of the slot canyon. It was a pretty short hike that involved only a small amount of scrambling, so we made it to the entrance pretty quickly. And this is where the teaching began.
J taught us how to set up our gear in the best way on our harness and how to do a prusik. Adventure Dad was familiar with the prusik but it was new to me. However, I was thrilled with any device that was going to automatically catch me if I accidentally let go of my rappelling rope. Wouldn’t you be?
He also taught us some of the other standard rappelling knots and had us each practice them. And then we learned about anchors. Canyoneering anchors are not heavy-duty bolts in the side of the mountain. In fact, more often than not, they are a pile of rocks that you hope won’t fall on you.
Our first anchor was such a pile, called a cairn anchor. It was a lovely pile of rocks with some webbing wrapped around the rock on the bottom. This was my first experience with cairn anchors and I was a little bit hesitant to rappel 45 feet using such an anchor. But J taught us how to evaluate such an anchor and a safe way to check its strength, which made me feel a little bit better. However, I still made Adventure Dad go first.
I made it to the bottom without the pile of rocks crashing down on my head, so I felt pretty good about myself. My confidence in my abilities was already increasing. Then we practiced being a belayer, which I already knew how to do, so I felt even better. And then of course we had to move forward. We learned some techniques for traversing potholes and had to do a good amount of down climbing using various techniques.
Due to my fear of heights (I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s true) I tend to have a problem with both rappelling and down climbing. However, it’s a lot scarier to be going down a steep gulley without anything to hold onto than to be going down a much higher cliff while rappelling. I like my gear. But I also like facing my fears so I continued to force myself to keep going, no matter how slowly, down the many downclimbs.
Our second rappel was off of a large choke stone, which is basically just a large rock that has been wedged into place. Again, J taught us how to evaluate whether or not the anchor was secure and how good the webbing was. Both were good so we made the 35-foot plunge. And this time I went first (they made me).
Our third rappel was off of another choke stone. It was only 20 feet but it was an awkward drop that forced you out far away from the wall before dropping back in. It could have been down climbed, but not by me.
Along our journey we also learned an effective way to clean up a rappel, learned more knots, and learned how to evaluate our terrain. At one point we came to a large drop off with no choke stone or cairn in sight. We thought about building one but J told us to look around. After a few moments we spotted it. There was already an anchor set up on a rock feature far up to the right and past the opening.
We hiked over to the anchor, evaluated it, and I tied in.
The next rappel was the Birth Canal, except it wasn’t really a rappel, it was a downclimb with some webbing to hold onto. J and Adventure Dad went down this one first and then I forced myself through. As I slipped through the hole and came out the other side I fiercely hung onto the webbing. My body swung out a bit but I managed to keep my grip, steady myself, and move down the rock before dropping into the muddy pool.
While it’s generally not fun to hike through water, there was a silver lining to it all. The next rappel was just a few feet past the Birth Canal and as we were evaluating another anchor I noticed a large bug near my feet, only it wasn’t a bug at all but the cutest little frog I’ve ever seen. I called the guys over to see it and as I was holding my hand out so you could get an idea of how small it was in the picture Adventure Dad was about to take, the little guy hopped right up onto my hand. It was adorable.
Our last rappel was another big one, or at least it seemed that way. I believe it was about 30-35 feet. And it was my turn to go first again. This rappel was a lot different from the first one, however, or at least I was. I was a lot more comfortable on the rope and with the canyon in general and this rappel turned out to be the most enjoyable rappel of the day for me.
As we hiked down the road back to our car I felt elated…I felt alive! And maybe it was because I was alive. I had faced danger and not only survived, but thrived. And I guess that’s the real reason why I had forced myself through that tiny-hole-of-a-rock tunnel affectionately nicknamed the Birth Canal. It’s because this is the type of stuff that energizes you. And it may be scary or crappy at times but it always makes you happy in the end. And isn’t happiness what life’s all about?
And while I may not know exactly what the secret to life is, I do know that I slept great that night. I was tired and a little dirty but well fed, under an amazing night sky, and smiling.