Everything here is perfectly still. Most of the turns and hollows are cast into shadow, but here and there features and patches of sand are lit up with a soft light. It feels ancient and seems to come from nowhere, even though I know it must come from above. Winding my way through the canyon walls it feels like I am in a dark, hushed museum, where carefully pointed lights show only what the curator wants other people to see. What does the canyon want us to see?
If I look up I can see that the light comes from above. The canyon walls are so close and curve so dramatically that I can’t always see out of the canyon. Sometimes the folds in the stone overlap and above me there is only rock. But here and there a crack forms. I try to capture this on my phone but the light is so intense where it does break through that my camera can’t focus on it. I push on, soft sand underneath my feet which have been stuffed into damp neoprene socks and then into booties, misshapen by many other wearers before me.
I can tell we are in the heart of the canyon now. That this is as good as it is going to get, as canyon-y as it’s going to get. This is canyon distilled to the most intense a canyon is going to be. I try to savor it, knowing that once it opens up, once we drop down another rappel into something different, I can’t say when I will be in another canyon like this again.
Pine Creek. Our second canyon in two days. My second canyon ever. And even though I am no expert on canyons I can already feel in my bones that this is what you come for. This unique crevice in the earth. Like a crevasse. Something about canyoneering does feel like being on a glacier or IN a glacier. I imagine the man from Touching the Void who, in order to get out of a crevasse had to go down, deeper, escape out its belly. Maybe he had been canyoneering before.
Pine Creek had lessons to teach me immediately. The approach from the car was short and quick, just a small scramble down a hill and under the east exit to Zion National Park and just like that we were standing in a sandy wash. Well that was easy. But only twenty feet down canyon and already our first rappel bolts. The canyon was appearing differently than our guide book described it. Weren’t we supposed to go through a pool of water before we reached the first rappel? Lesson number one – a canyon is always changing. A glacier is always moving, melting. Here sand is always flowing, water is always shaping.
Carl lowered me down through the first, second and third drop – they were short so we were able to do it in one go. By sending me first we were able to explore what was up ahead. But once I deemed it safe and confirmed with my GPS again that we were in the right canyon it was time for Carl, Kyle and Sarah to follow me down the rope. Our tether to safety. After Carl came down we pulled the rope and that was it. Lesson number two: The canyon has you now.
Canyoneering is a committing sport. Once you rappel down that thirty foot drop, the one with smooth sandstone walls and no features to think of you’re in it. There is no going back, only down.
But some part of me thrummed with the excitement of it all. I know people claim climbing is like a puzzle – like a problem you have to solve. I hear people say that and I see how it’s true but I’ve never really felt tempted by it. But this. This was immediately exciting. We had NO idea what might be around the corner ahead. The ultimate escape room. I practically danced down the canyon nerves and anticipation filling me. This was crazy! We were crazy!
We descended lower and lower right into the belly of the beast itself. And I mean that. About half way through the canyon you reach The Cathedral. Here the canyon actually seems to close overhead and in front of you a 65ft rappel drops you straight into a pool of water so brown and murky you can’t see it’s bottom. Stomach bile. We sent Kyle first because he is a good swimmer and I watched as he tread water and then managed to haul himself out the other side of the pothole onto slippery sandstone. The smell of stale water wafted up to us. He had disturbed it.
It was my turn next and when I got down to the water’s edge I managed to somehow stand on a near vertical wall so I could unclip my ATC and release the rope. I looked around and noticed a huge monolith rising out of the far side of the cavern. It was at least four times my size and almost looked like a giant veiled figure in the dim light. Above me arches created windows of light. I definitely understood why people call this The Cathedral. I flopped into the opaque water and kicked myself over to Kyle. The water was freezing cold. I thought it was the coldest water we had felt in a canyon so far.
The canyon didn’t stay narrow and dark forever though. Shortly after The Cathedral it all opened up. Huge red walls soared overhead and we could see the bricked in windows of the tunnel above us on our left. We continued downcanyon, stepping carefully because our guidebook had mentioned that somewhere in here we were walking on a false floor. I mean really, how much more like a glacier can it get? Years of boulders and logs and debris had been covered by sand so that the canyon floor looked just like any other canyon floor, but underneath it was wide open canyon. But because of the cryptic nature of the guide we didn’t actually know exactly where this false bottom began. So we just became paranoid and walked softly.
And then suddenly the tall walls that were rising on either side opened up spectacularly and we found ourselves standing on a canyon wide ledge looking out all the way into the Zion river valley. Out there everything was bright with afternoon sun. We were nestled away in the purple shadows of deep cliffs. The sudden dropping away of the ground could mean only one thing – our big rappel was next. Sure enough we scrambled down to a precarious little perch and spied our anchor, positioned dramatically over a 100ft drop.
This rappel was such that as we descended the rope we were suspended in mid-air, a self-controlled free fall with one thin strand of rope dangling us to the ground. After the system was all set up I threaded the rope through my ATC and checked my system about 100 times before scooting myself over the edge and feeling the world fall out from under me. I was filled with fear but also… I wasn’t. Of course my self was scared – it is only human for our bodies to feel panic when we do something totally crazy like hang over an open space, the ground a hundred feet below us. But my mind was also quieting my panic. I trusted my system, I trusted myself. I slowly let the rope slip through my fingers, tending my autoblock as I went, watching the walls pass by and the ground grow closer. Why was this so much fun?
It was fun because we were passing through a space unfathomable to even myself of two days before. This felt just about as foreign as being on the moon. It felt like flying. Just me and three people I loved out moving through a world completely new to us. I felt giddy with delight. Adrenaline coursed through my veins and when I landed on the ground and gave Kyle a big smooch my heart was thumping. This is what it felt like to be alive.
Two boulder-hopping miles later and we were pushing Kyle into a car I had snagged with my thumb as it drove by. We were still in the shade but our encounters with sunlight on the hike out had left us sweaty and we had all stripped down to lesser layers. I was so loving the warm breeze on my skin and so hating the incredible dryness of my hands as they turned ashy white from the moisture-less air. The desert is a harsh place but one I can’t help falling for. Carl and Sarah and I stared up canyon as we waited for Kyle to retrieve us. From this angle the canyon we had just come out of looked like a tall crack, shrouded in trees. From here you would have no idea the secrets in its depth. You wouldn’t know about The Cathedral or the hush or the false bottom or the freedom of rappelling through space towards a clear blue pool. From here none of that was obvious.
And suddenly this landscape had changed for me. Suddenly it had become more and one little pocket of the place was revealed. I would never drive up this canyon again without knowing what that canyon held. My love for this place and my understanding of it deepened. A dark canyon deep.