It’s dark outside as we climb into the car. I’m already wondering what I’ve got myself into. I could still be in bed enjoying my Bryce Canyon view. Listening to birds. Drinking coffee. Relaxing. Reading.
But no – instead I have a pit in my stomach from fear of what lies ahead. No matter. I have every intention of going through with my first canyoneering experience.
John and I watch the sun rise as we drive east to the small town of Escalante in southwest Utah. We need to be there by 8:30 to meet our guide, sign our waivers, medical forms and confidentiality agreements….all four pages of it. When we arrive we’re warmly greeted by Jim Clery, our guide and Amie, excursions director of Excursions of Escalante.
My first impression of Jim is very good. He’s calm and quiet spoken – just the sort of person I can trust quite literally with my life.
By nine we’ve met the others in the group – a husband and wife from Denver (Gene and Betty) and their twenty something year old son Zach, we’re hydrated and we’ve been fitted and equipped with a waterproof knapsack, harness, helmet, gloves, water bottles and lunch. All jewelry and watches have been removed and left behind. There’s no need to catch a ring in a crack, pull an Aron Ralston and leave a limb behind. We are ready to roll.
Conquering fears, conquering canyons
We head off in four wheel drive vehicles – the only kind capable of getting to the trailhead. I can’t actually tell you where the trailhead is other than to say that it’s in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. You’ve got 1.7 million acres to search!
Upon arrival we all nervously peer over the edge. That pit of fear in my stomach has morphed into a ball of fear and is growing by the minute. I know I’m not the only one that’s feeling a tad scared. I can see it on the faces of Gene and Betty too.
We start our descent – hiking on slickrock type sandstone and in minutes we’re at the lip of the canyon. We’ve already had a bit of a safety spiel from Jim – but we go through everything you would ever want to know about rappelling before we clip in and head over the edge. Safety really is first and foremost in his mind – which makes me feel good considering what we’re about to embark on.
Once I started rappelling I remembered just how much fun it is – nerve wracking for about five seconds and then exhilarating. I used to rock climb and rappel but I hadn’t been near a set of ropes for at least 13 years. It’s amazing how quickly it all comes back.
Once on the canyon floor we learned a number of canyoneering terms – the smear, foot bridge, body bridge, mantle and heel plant. I would end up doing everything but a body bridge.
The heel plant ended up being particularly useful. Instead of sticking your toe into a crack – plant your heel. It doesn’t get stuck the way your toes do and makes a huge difference climbing down between some of the rocks.
It had recently rained because in parts of the canyon it was very wet. At one point we had to negotiate a waist deep pool and on several occasions there was ankle deep water. And the mud was so thick at times you could barely break the suction holding your foot. After about thirty minutes I gave up trying to stay clean and in fact reveled in the fact I got so dirty. I just wish I hadn’t brought my pink shirt. It’s a lovely shade of red-brown now. Wear clothes you are prepared to throw away at the end is my advice.
We spent the better part of four hours negotiating the length of the canyon. Some of it was easy walking while some left you smeared and pasted against a canyon wall. There was one instance before lunch I felt the press of the canyon walls. It’s something you just have to put out of your mind.
When we did reach our lunch stop the canyon walls opened. From here Jim could climb out of the canyon and get a better idea about the weather. He checked on the possibility of thunderstorms because moving froward in the canyon from our lunch spot required commitment It would be close to impossible to escape should there be a flash flood. Fortunately Jim pronounced it safe to proceed. (Jim carry’s a radio with him and Amie knows exactly what our location is too.)
Getting through a shoulder wide slot canyon
The bulk of our afternoon was spent negotiating about a mile of slot canyon. It was so narrow in places that you had to flatten your body to get through. In hindsight it’s just as well I didn’t know what lay ahead. But in the end it was okay. And the beauty of the sculpted rock took your mind off your position. But if you’re extremely claustrophobic this may not be the sport for you!
We were greeted with the sight below when the slot canyon came to an end. I felt such a sense of deep satisfaction when we got here knowing I’d conquered my fears and made it out in one piece.
From here it took us another hour to hike back to the car. We walked up the sandstone ramp on the right in the photo below and in just minutes enjoyed superlative views of the surrounding landscape.
Not only did we enjoy the sight of fantastic rock formations in a variety of earth tones but we had a chance to see a few arrowheads that have been found over the years and kept in a safe place only the guides know about. Seeing those arrowheads gives you a sense of history of the area.
The Canyoneering Experience
Overall I would say that this canyoneering experience is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s beautiful. It’s exciting. It tests you physically and mentally. It’s a challenge but ultimately it’s incredibly rewarding. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Would you try canyoneering if given the opportunity?
Other posts related to our week long trip to southwest Utah you might enjoy:
- Southwest Utah’s Scenic Burr Trail: 68 Miles of Awesomeness
- A Quick Visit to Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah
- A Hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls in the Escalante Wilderness
- Hoodoo Mania in Bryce Canyon National Park