If you need to ask you’ll never know

“Is that the mystery of Mystery Canyon?” I wondered, crouched and frozen on a steep, insecure shale slope, “That it sucks?”

We had only just dropped off the rim of the canyon and into Death Gully (that’s right, it was called Death Gully) so we could still turn around if we wanted to. Were we really going to do this?

When we had been standing on the rim it had been one of those moments where, at a glance, the slope looked too steep to walk down. There was no possible way. However, when you edged up to the edge, got right up close to it you could see that yes, it was steep, but it was doable. But now that we were in the middle of it I wasn’t so sure. Certainly this was too hard and we should just turn around, right? But the mountaineer in me took a couple shaky steps down the disintegrating surface and the soldiered on. Things always look harder from far away, if you just keep pushing into them you often find they aren’t as bad as you thought.

Plus, I really wanted to be here. Even though I was exhausted after one day of mountain biking and two days of canyoneering and late nights full of stars and s’mores this was our last day in a canyon and even though we were still on the approach I was already mourning having to leave the land of canyons behind. These places are so freaking special. So I decided to savor the challenge instead of letting it spook me.

Maybe the mystery of Mystery Canyon is that once you are down in it you begin to discover that even though you have done back to back canyons you know nothing about the potential mystery a canyon can hold. This canyon was different than the previous two. It’s walls were a black ridged rock in places, resembling the spaceship in Arrival. And there was a lot more vegetation on the canyon floor so the fall colors stayed with us.

The technicality of it was different too. There was a lot more down climbing and stemming in this canyon and when we entered the tight section of narrows the rappels came like rapid fire, one right after the other.

Because of all the rappels we spent a good little while in the narrows of Mystery Canyon and something about them had me tied up in knots. For example I was down below a drop and everyone else up top was either roping up to rappel or waiting when there was a deep rumble. I tried to stay calm because there was no chance of rain today and you can’t have flash floods without rain (right!?!) but the rumble continued, getting louder and louder. Come to think of it there was no chance of rain but there had been some clouds in the sky… I started to look around in a panic while Carl looked up towards the sky and assured us it was only a plane. As he said it a stiff breeze came wooshing down the canyon, golden birch leaves flying before it. I wondered if the wall of water at the forefront of a flash flood pushes wind before it like that. The rumble died but clouds continued to race overhead and the narrows continued to unnerve me.

That’s why I was glad when we found ourselves walking through a grove of trees and out into a big flat sandy area. A lake in wetter times. On the other side of it was a massive wall of rubble rose out of the canyon floor. In 1976 or 1977 there had been a huge landslide and flood which had rushed down canyon, depositing this wall of debris here and back filling with sand creating a holding area for water. On the other side of this wall the canyon resumed but the wall was so tall that flash floods never breach it anymore. Despite the fact that there was literally no risk of flash floods that day I still breathed easier on the other side.

Of course, we couldn’t be killed by a flash flood on the other side BUT the big rappel was coming up. The description of this rappel had almost made us call the whole thing off the night before. The beta was so detailed and tricky sounding everyone got a little jittery in their boots and pretty soon we were all looking at each other saying things like, “Do we even have the skills to do this canyon?” Completely uncharacteristically of me, I’m the resident worrywart after all, I was calm. I assured everyone that we had all the technical skills we needed, we would just approach each rappel carefully, read our beta again and proceed with caution and rapt attention. We would be fine. Literally who is this person, I don’t even know her.

Sure enough we got to our big rappel and everything was fine. Yeah, you had to walk out this sloping exposed slab but there was already a fixed line there to clip into. Carl had the worst of it since he went out to set up the ropes but once you were out there the rappel was really pretty straight forward. Just walk backwards down a slanting cliff for 110ft into a pool of ice blue water. We lowered Sarah to set the length of the rope and were pleased to learn that there was a log perfectly positioned in the pool at the bottom so you could stand on it while you unclipped. Fabulous.

We had entered the wet part of the canyon. We had decided to ditch our dry suits for the day – it was cheaper that way and beta told us that only the last little bit of canyon involved any swimming. So we decided to “Bear Grylls” it and just strip down to almost nothing until we were out of the water and then we could just put our layers back on and be warm. Kyle and I even brought some towels we could dry off with. As long as the wind stayed calm we would be fine.

After escaping the rappel through a deep pool of cold water and another short swim and a couple of pools that we had to wade through we popped out onto a ledge filled with golden light. Over the lip and below us was The Narrows, filled with people making their way up from the bottom wearing a variety of different waterproof layers. We peaked out at them from our rock balcony, feeling very much like kids squirreled away in a tree house. A couple of them spotted us and we ducked back, not ready to join the masses just yet.

The final anchor was located in a smooth cove, filled with maples gone bright yellow with the changing seasons. Just as we arrived we caught the last rays of sunshine before they disappeared around a bend in the canyon. And just as we were suiting up for the descent into The Narrows below we heard a, “Shit!” and turned around just in time to see Kyle’s camera go somersaulting down some rocks at his feet into a little pool of water. He grabbed it just as quickly as it had fallen and immediately started taking it apart and finding it a sunny spot. At least it had waited until the last rappel? I decided I didn’t care. Was it an incredibly expensive camera? Yes. Was enjoying this moment more important? Absolutely.

The rappel route went down next to a little minature water fall and it was slippery AF. Sarah was lowered, helping us determine that yes, we would have to use a pull cord. I went second and made a complete fool of myself slipping on the black scum that was smeared down the canyon wall and floundering for a second under the tiny rush of water. But my brake hand never left the rope and I regained my footing and made it to the bottom without another incident. Next thing we knew we were all at the base of the route, another canyon done. People were treating us like we were superstars or something – some people staring at us and whispering to each other, others who clearly wanted to prove that they too knew about canyoneering blustered up to ask, “So how as Mystery today? Much water?”

One group of three guys came over in full wetsuits carrying large packs to ask if we had two friends. “Yes, we have two friends,” we said, confused. Turns out Molly and Josh were just up canyon looking for us. Happy day! The three, sopping wet dudes had just come out of Imlay, a canyon on a whole different level and I was impressed. I want to do Imlay. Kind of. Maybe.

I honestly can’t say when we will find ourselves back in the southwest, exploring canyons again. But I can say I have a bug for it now. Canyoneering is so different than any of the other sports we do. It feels a lot less physical but involves so much focus and resolve and wow, the places you see feel impossibly ancient and ever changing and crazy remote. It probably helps that we saw no one else in any of the three canyons we did while we were in Zion. So it often felt like we had the place all to ourselves. Whatever it is, whatever we found down there, it felt like pure magic.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

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