Slot Canyon Stupidity
“That thing which makes you great also makes you an asshole,” Greg, one of my favorite Zion canyoneering guides told me, “and all of us guides fall into that category.” He was 100% accurate in his assessment of me. I had nothing to blame but my own arrogance for getting caught in a slot canyon thunderstorm last week.
I hiked The Subway, one of the most popular Zion canyoneering canyons. Alone and without a rappel partner to help with the more technical upstream obstacles, I decided to hike up from the bottom, a 10-mile round trip easy route. I did my due diligence: told two people my game plan, set up my SPOT satellite tracker, picked up my permit from the backcountry office, and checked the weather reports (the zero percent chance of rain the night before changed to 20% the next morning – not enough to cancel my hike).
I set out under clear blue skies and 100 degree temps (but it’s a dry heat, we Westerners say), jumped in deep swim holes to cool off when I got too hot. It was around mile four that dark clouds accumulated overhead. I recognized these clouds and knew it meant rain, I just wasn’t sure how soon.
I passed a family of five on their way down and asked them how much farther I had to go before I reached the actual Subway. They said I was close. “Good,” I said, “because it’s going to rain and I’m not sure how much time I have.”
“It’s not going to rain today,” the mother said as she sat chewing her granola bar. The dark clouds were overhead now.
“See those clouds?” I said, pointing overhead. “It’s going to rain alright, it’s just a question of when.” Fools, I thought to myself as I continued upstream, picking up my pace.
I reached the curving tunnel of the subway with it’s deep pools and trickling falls just as a strong wind blew down the canyon. I detected the unmistakable scent of rain. Just then a large clap of thunder echoed off the canyon walls. My heart immediately began to pound and I felt my muscles tense. I turned around and was running full speed through the tunnel within a milli-second. I made my way through the stream and up a sandy bank when another clap of thunder began, followed by another… and another; a sound that would continue for the next 30 minutes.
The smell of rain soon turned into a downpour, turning the sandy ground into a muddy slick within minutes. I kept running through the willows, trying to get as far downstream and out of the narrow canyon as possible. I carefully crossed the stream where I had to and hit the solid ground sprinting until I finally tripped over some exposed roots and fell to my stomach on the ground. It was a good wake up call. I was panicking, and if a flash flood didn’t kill me, that surely would.
I picked myself up and scrambled to a high bank nestled under the safety of an enormous overhanging wall. I drank some water and took a few deep breaths. I could safely spend the night here if I had to, if the water came up and trapped me. I still had more than 4 miles to go to reach the exit route to high ground. Who’s the fool now? I thought to myself.
People often ask if I talk to myself when I’m out there by myself. The answer is yes. Yes I do. Especially when I think I’m going to die. And the truth is, in an instance like this, I wouldn’t want anyone else’s input. I wouldn’t want to deal with the responsibility of worrying about them or having to calm their fears, or even worse, having them sit down and cry on me. Like I said, Greg was right about me, “that thing which makes you great…”
I was out of breath, getting hungry, and in no mood to spend the night in the canyon. I mixed a high calorie energy drink, took a few bites of a granola bar, and continued down the slippery slope to the creek. I was still running, but knew I had to pace myself if I was going to make it.
Somewhere under that controlled panic I came to terms with my condition. I was going to die. I was going to die, and you know what? I was cool with that. My pleading prayers turned to prayers of gratitude, and life never had more meaning.
Suddenly I was dialed-in. I became acutely aware of the cold rain drops hitting my skin. The smell of sagebrush in the rain – one of the most beautiful scents known to man. The course feel of the slippery, wet mud under my hands as I clawed my way up a steep bank. I could hear the sound of every heartbeat and knew exactly how to pace myself to keep from fatiguing too soon. Hundreds of juvenile toads jumped in every direction to avoid my crushing feet. “Southwestern toads,” I thought, not able to escape my training as a wildlife biologist, even now.
The four miles that took me three hours to hike up took me 45 minutes to run down. I made it to the exit route, found a nice high spot to sit, and waited for the family I had passed on my way down to make it out (that thing which makes you great…). I filled my bottles with water while the river was still clear and stretched as I felt the adrenaline rush wear off and the fatigue begin to set in.
Funny how it had stopped raining now. Nearly an hour past before the family caught up. I made sure they saw the cairns marking the exit route and began my half-mile ascent up the steep hill to my car. I looked back after a few minutes to see that the clear creek had turned to a dark chocolate churn and come up by two feet in the widest part of the canyon.
The no-brainer lesson learned reinforced my routine plan to turn clients around at the first sight of dark clouds. On my own and arrogant, I challenged mother nature. You just don’t do that without a stern reminder of your place in the world. At least future clients and friends will benefit from my moment of being an asshole.
But, even more valuable to me were those precious moments of clarity, when, in the face of fear and death, I came to terms with my mortality. I ran with the river gods, and spoke with Pacha Mama and God himself. And I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything, because “that which makes you great…” is born from moments like these.