“While clipping into a rope system is easy, any error could spell the last negligent action one ever makes.”
This story first ran in our January, 2012 edition.
By Jon Rezabek
We wait our turn in ankle-deep water above two waterfalls. The polished Tapeats Sandstone walls which envelope us are narrow, opposing each other from 10 feet. The slot canyon’s walls rise up vertically out of view, bending and contorting as they climb. They are reminiscent of an Anasazi pot, sculpted by rushing water and incomprehensible time, thrown by Mother Nature herself. The waterfalls that stand between us and the flat ground of a beach next to the Colorado River are 20 and 180 feet high. The only way out of the canyon is to attach a series of ropes to the pre-set bolts in the sandstone wall, run the rope through a friction device on a harness, and self-rappel off the lips of the waterfalls.
Inside each person, the fear of heights looms imminent.
We are in a famous tributary of the Grand Canyon known as Deer Creek. Our four-week rafting trip down the great canyon is about half over and has been chock-full of adventure, a trip of a lifetime. However, from all of the research I had done on the canyon, this little canyon has stuck as the crown jewel of them all. A place of striking beauty and daunting challenges. Adventure to a T.
A number of us stand in the water donning waterproof “dry-gear” made for water sports. It seems as though we all have different colored gear. I am in yellow from head-to-toe, others are wearing purples, reds, and blues. Nic, the leader of the descent, is in a blue and black dry suit. We continue to wait as he completes the first rappel and sets up the ropes for the big one. He proceeds by clipping a short length of webbing—or a daisy chain—from his harness to the bolts themselves. With his harness securely attached to the bolts, he disconnects the short rope from the 20-foot rappel. He then slides two 200-foot ropes off of his shoulders, ties them together with a double figure-8 fisherman’s knot and clips them to a piece of high-test webbing, which is run through the bolted anchors in the wall. Once he lowers the ropes out to their full lengths and double checks his system, he clips into the ropes himself, blows a whistle he has left attached to the anchor, and backs off the edge of the cliff.
Out of sight and 20 feet above him, I am anxiously small-talking with my companions. After what seemed like an eternity, I hear the whistle blast amongst the sound of crashing water and I know it is my turn to rappel. Because of the loud ambient sound, ever amplified by the acoustics of the tight canyon, we had been implementing whistle communication the entire descent.
I clip in, turn my back to the cliff edge, and begin sliding the wet rope through my hand. I walk down the wall and submerge into the water of a borne-out pothole. I am in a rounded sandstone room about 15 by 20 feet. While the water’s current is barely noticeable, I am highly aware of the place where the water exits the pool. It is the lip of the 180-foot waterfall. Danger.
I swim awkwardly in the pool for a few moments until I gain my footing and wade over to the anchor. Nic has left his yellow daisy chain attached to the anchor on one side. On the other side, a carabiner is presenting itself. As Nic instructed, I clip in and am now securely attached to the anchor. I release the rope from the 20-foot rappel and peer over the edge of the final rappel. My eyes find the ground 180 feet below. The airy sight is not a normal one and I am immediately disconcerted. I cannot keep down an innate fear of heights.
Without another option, the only salvation I have is my purple harness, the orange rope, the knots and the bolts that are my anchor to the solid earth. It is clear that I must trust this rope system with my life. I realize that I have put myself in this situation willingly and that canyoneering is supposed to be adventurous, challenging and fun. However, at that moment, my sense of preservation is trumping my feelings of joy. My anxiety mounts and I feel the strong sense of second nature flow through my body like an open valve.
I gaze around at the smooth Tapeats Sandstone walls one last time, take a few deep breaths and focus. While clipping into a rope system is easy, any error could spell the last negligent action one ever makes. I triple and quadruple check every part of the anchor, the rope, and its bond with my harness. It is sound. Against my nature, I stand up and shuffle over to a clean part of the cliff’s edge. Consciously, I am unwilling to accept what I am about to do. Subconsciously, I know there is only one way to exit. I turn my back to the exposure and step off into the void.
Walking down the cliff face, the rope system seems to be performing fine. Nevertheless, I am scared. However, the farther I descend, the more comfortable I become. I push off the wall with my feet and lift the wet, orange and heavy rope. It slides through my friction device on my harness. Down I slide a couple feet at a time. Halfway through the rappel, I stop and twist my body away from the wall to take in the scene.
Directly beside me, the waterfall is rushing downward uninhibited. It is simply a white flume against the orange sandstone walls. The cylindrical stone column in which the waterfall exists is covered with green moss and adorned with small crimson Monkey flowers. A fine mist rises up from the pool below. Soon, the mist collects on my face as if I were perspiring. The greens, blues and whites of the waterfall are in stark contrast from the oranges and browns of the sandstone. Where the cliffs end, the sky is a strong blue and the day is awash with sunlight. This alcove is a lush oasis amongst a dry desert, a welcome and comfortable sight.
My senses are filled beyond the brim and with it my fears rise away with the fine mist. I release a cry of joy. I am smiling from ear-to-ear for this is one of the most beautiful and rare places I could ever hope to be. My vocals are returned by Nic and a small crowd of onlookers lounging on a rock.
Now, there is less wet rope to lift and I am able to slide large sections of it through the device in short amounts of time. I kick off the wet, mossy wall and slide down the rope 25 feet at a time. It is a sheer thrill to interact with the waterfall and the slot canyon. To be intimate with a place such as this is special.
All too soon I approach the pool at the bottom of the waterfall. When I am 15 feet above the pool, I drop the rope entirely and fall into the water with a splash. Thoroughly thrilled, I swim to the shore and back away from the falls. The last 10 feet of the rope slip through my friction device and I am detached from the rope. Nic greets me with a smile and puts the whistle up to his mouth. The shrill sound of the whistle cuts through the roaring of the falls.
I look up and see our next companion dealing with the airy exposure of 180 feet and relive the awesome moment vicariously. Halfway down, he stops and spins around to face us below. Hooting and hollering, his excitement makes us both smile yet again. Like a couple of wild coyotes, we return the call.