We should’ve known. We’re smarter than this.
The makings of an epic were all there, before we even set off on the trail. Any adventurer knows that one or two things not going as planned is normal. Once you go up from there, you can expect that your adventure isn’t going to be what you thought it would be. It will probably be an epic.
Epic – The story of a well planned trip that turned into a grueling adventure that turned out well in the end. As these stories are told over and over again – and they always are – the details get stretched to supernatural proportions for dramatic effect. –Bogley glossary
We pretended not to know that. Or probably we just didn’t care. Epics are the trips you remember, the ones that make you stronger. When you’re in it for adventure, a little extra challenge just enhances your original plan.
Unless you’re a beginner who’s original plan is a canyon rated 4B IV R.
This is all very melodramatic. Everything turned out fine. Rick said that this was probably the most epic canyoneering trip he’d been on. I think the emphasis there is canyoneering, because he was telling us some story about kayaking down the Narrows that sounded a lot crazier than this. It was epic for me because there were a lot of…inner struggles going on. And I almost died.
So here’s the first part of the story. Sorry about it being so long, I can’t help being verbose. Which sounds like obese but does not mean the same thing. Just means I like to write.
Let’s begin. *ahem hem hem*
Englestead Hollow, in Zion National Park. That was the plan. An advanced technical canyoneering adventure with one multi-pitch 300 foot rappel, one 120 foot rappel, a pothole swim, numerous other awkward & tricky rappels and at least a 10 hour commitment. Englestead is very beautiful, but doesn’t see a whole lot of visitors because of the long rappel. Choosing a canyon that even experienced canyoneers shy away from was the first step towards epicosity (actual word that I just made up right now) Adding a couple beginners – me with 2 canyons under my belt, Erin with 3 or 4- that spices things up a bit. Then we got a late start. Really late.
And about that late start…? Well, we just weren’t in a hurry to leave in the morning, and leisurely starts to adventures just never work. Rick & I stayed with park employees Erin & Paul in their coveted employee housing, had an awesome breakfast and did other things. By the time we stopped finding ‘one more thing to do,’ it was 11:30am. I feel like it’s important to say that I was not the hold-up on this occasion, for once. Thank you.
We left the house, but we weren’t quite on our way yet. Paul got called in to help with a search and rescue, so he couldn’t come, and Erin remembered about some work she had to do before she could leave the park. We arrived at the trailhead at 3pm. We knew very well that we’d be hiking out in the dark, but from our maps it looked like it’d be mostly cross-country desert hiking, and that would be no problem. We’d considered doing a shorter, easier canyon but without permits, we could only do Birch Hollow…a canyon Rick has almost memorized. We had come for an adventure, and we weren’t giving up on it!
We took some of the delay time to check for a shorter trip out of the canyon. Englestead leads into Orderville Canyon, and we were planning on the less-popular hike UP Orderville Canyon because we didn’t have the requisite permits to hike down. We did find a way to cut off a mile or Orderville and a few miles of cross-country by taking Wild Wind Hollow out of Orderville, which Michael Kelsey briefly mentions in his book.
New plan in hand, we figured we’d be fine. We’d be hiking out in the dark, but if we hit towards the bottom of the 8-10 hour hike time, it wouldn’t be bad at all. Erin joked that every time someone says a canyon is long, it’s not. “So I’m going by that,” she said, “And it won’t take nearly as long as we think!” Rick informed her that that was going to blow up in her face some day and we all had a good, ironic laugh. (That was some foreshadowing, in case you didn’t catch it.)
Now let’s do some canyoning! <— It is my hope that people will think I’m a badass if I use the European term. Email me and let me know if it worked.
There are a few different approaches to the canyon, and I think we tried to combine them all. We followed an ATV trail for awhile, dropped down into a drainage, picked up another ATV trail that was headed the wrong direction, gave up on the ATV trail and walked in the creek, then gave up on the creek and walked along the side. Erin had a tricky time when she decided to use a rose bush as a handline for a downclimb, and her refusal to let go as she slipped had her swinging around in an exciting acrobatic performance. It shook her up a bit but her glove had mostly protected her. Onwards! Rick scouted ahead while Erin and I awkwarded forward over slippery creek bed until finally we heard Rick shout “I think I see the canyon!”
We scurried along to see what he meant. This is what he meant:
KAPOW! This canyon isn’t screwing around. There’s no warm-ups or baby steps. It’s like…take it or leave it, bitches.
I had told myself I wouldn’t look down. But I wanted to look down. It was mind-blowing how the earth just fell away like that. What makes a flat creekbed just drop off into a 300 foot canyon? No picture can do it justice.
We walked around to the right to check out our rappel line. We saw the ledge that was supposed to serve as our 2nd anchor if we did a multi-pitch rappel. We had kind of planned on all of us standing on that ledge at once. It looked like it could fit maybe one bird and that’s it.
Looking at that cliff made me worry about peeing my pants, so I left Rick and went to pee. I get really pee-shy, so I’d appreciate it if you don’t listen. Maybe take this time to look at all the things that have gone wrong at this rappel. Kind of hum to yourself, too; that helps me.
Accident: Guy loses control and falls down the rappel.
-Why? Guy didn’t rig enough friction, encountered a knot in the rope, untied the knot but still didn’t have enough friction, his heavy pack pulled him upside-down, he lost control of the rappel and falls/slams into walls for over 100 feet.
-The guy lives, so don’t worry about that. Click the link above to see the video his friend took of the accident. To see the entire video, watch “Video of the Fall” followed by “Main Story Video”
Accident: Rock falls, cuts off guys toe.
-Why? A rock falling 300 feet has a lot of power.
Accident: Guy falls down the rappel.
-Why? He was on a hardware store rope, he probably didn’t rig enough friction, and his friend wasn’t belaying. A separate party at the bottom of the rappel belayed the guy in time to slow his fall.
Accident: Rope gets stuck, leaving the party with no way down canyon.
-Why? Rope works it’s way into crack at the top of the rappel and can’t be pulled down. Besides waiting for help and rescue, the only thing to do to ascend the rope, which is really dangerous because there’s no way to tell how securely ‘stuck’ the rope is.
Accident: Guy falls off the edge of the cliff because his safety line was not clipped in.
-Why? Guy clipped his safety line into a part of the webbing that was not tied to the anchor. He leaned over to watch his girlfriend rappel, and fell down the cliff. He managed to grab the rope after falling 180 feet.
Accident: Party gets rope tangled in tree when they try to toss it to the bottom.
-Why? They threw a rope at a tree, instead of down the cliff.
Alright, come back to me. Maybe those stories have made you a little sick to your stomach, and you’re worried about me. Maybe you’re held in eager suspense and can’t wait to find out how this goes. I bet you’re kind of hoping that something scary happens that’s fun to read about. Well, screw you! You’re a crappy friend. I am going to do JUST FINE despite all your nay-saying and morbid desires.
I’m sorry. I’m just so nervous…It would be awesome if we could just bang this out so I don’t have time to psych myself out by hanging out on the edge of this earthly void.
Looking over the edge didn’t really bother me, it was just knowing that I was going to have to rap down it. I started feeling naseous, and felt panicky tears springing up. I have been doing so well lately at managing my fear of heights, at not letting myself get all psyched up over the rappels. But this monster cliff had found a way past all my carefully crafted anti-panic mechanisms. I’d been trying to fend off the anxiety for the last day and I’d managed not to seriously freak out yet…I was determined to keep it that way. I was doing this. I tried to take deep breaths and keep my mind blank.
I wanted to be involved in setting everything up, but I was afraid to do or think about anything that might make me panic & ruin my chance at this. We were probably all better off just letting Rick take care of things. Here is what it looks like when Rick takes care of things:
We didn’t have a 300 foot rope, so we were going to have to execute a multi-stage rappel. Or, Rick was going to have to execute it. The ledge was ~70 feet down, and there were two bolts there. The next stage would be 200 feet to the first pothole ledge, and then another 30ish feet to the bottom. Without Paul, Rick was the only one with any real experience and he was trying to figure out how to manage this rappel without putting Erin & I in scary positions. He was thinking it would be best for him to go down first for everything to rig the ropes, which was true. But that meant we’d all be stuffed on that ledge, probably having to execute some sort of cheerleading pyramid in order to avoid just hanging from the anchors (which, apparently, is not frowned upon, but I’m not really ok with that idea at this point in my life).
I ventured a bright idea to Rick that would save us from a long-term hangout at the second rappel station: “What if you just stay at the ledge and as soon as each of us finish the first pitch, you send us down the second one?”
“We could do that, but someone would have to go down without a belay,” he looked at us. I stayed quiet and tried to look invisible.
Erin said she wouldn’t mind. Oh thank God. But then…”Are you OK with going down last, then?” he asked me. Oh man. No! I wouldn’t have anyone to encourage me, or double check my gear…I’d be panicking up here all alone. But even rockstars can’t have everything, and I sure as hell didn’t want Erin or Rick’s jobs, so I nodded. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth, I would throw up.
The first stage would be with a double-strand, so we didn’t need more friction that the high friction mode of our ATC (rappel device). Once we got to the second stage, we would add another carabiner to get more friction for the 200′ single-strand rappel, and Erin would get her autoblock. Erin, eager to learn & not die, asked him to go over everything 100 times. Then she recited the procedure in a confusing jumble and I left them to find a happy place inside my head. I appreciated her enthusiasm to learn because I was usually the same way, but right now I just wanted to get going before I passed out. Deep breaths.
Rick set himself up, warned us not to get the rope stuck in the crack, and lowered himself over the edge of the cliff. It seemed like way too much time went by as he rappelled the 70 feet to the bolts and set up the next rappel. Erin was jabbering away, super excited about the adventure in front of us. She kept me distracted, thank god, and I appreciated her cracking jokes & ignoring the tears that periodically leaked from underneath my sunglasses. I admitted that I was nervous but tried to downplay it & laugh it off.
“You’ll be fine! How long have you been canyoneering?” she asked.
“Off-rope! Ready for you, Erin.” Rick bellowed from the depths of the earth.
With good-spirited, excited nervousness, Erin clipped in her safety line and rigged her device. I double checked it, and she sat on the edge of the cliff. Instead of the lean back & down method of entry I had learned, she performed the most awkward & terrifying sit, scoot, fall and swing method, and I had to walk away.
“I’m sorry, I can’t watch. You’re scaring the crap out of me dude.”
“Ahh don’t make me laugh!” She squealed. Like a kid in a scary movie, I watched anyways. Somehow it was easier from a few feet away, though.
She laughed as she tipped herself over the edge and fell an inch or two until the belay device caught tension. I stopped breathing as she kept laughing. She was having a blast! I envied her but also thought she might be insane.
“Bye,” I said as her head disappeared below the cliffs edge. And then I was all alone. I immediately clipped in my safety line and sat down on the ground, keeping my mind blank. Every few minutes Erin would holler some rave review of the canyon, but I couldn’t make out the words from inside of my yogic trance. It took a lot longer than I expected it to, and I was getting antsy. I needed this to be over. Now. I felt like I was alone up there for 15 minutes, which may be right. She wasn’t much more experienced than me, so she wasn’t a quick rappeller. Plus Rick had to set her up with her extra friction carabiner & auto block and send her on her way 200 feet below. And she probably had him go over the procedure 3 more times.
I peed again. Better to be safe then sorry. Finally, I was summoned. I hooked myself up, quadruple checked myself, and yelled “On rope!” I squatted and took baby steps sideways towards the edge. The squat and tip maneuver seemed so scary but even Rick had done it and it felt more natural then the lean back type of thing. I sat where they had and fiddled with my rope to make everything perfect. “Ok here I come! Hold tight, ok Rick?” I am a big believer in the fireman’s belay.
A minute and a lot of shifting back and forth in the same place later, I yelled again “Ok here I come!” I did some more shifting, a lot of yoga breathing, a lot of death gripping with my brake hand. I refused to look past the tiny bump where I was going to put my right foot. I gingerly toed the bump and shifted some of my weight onto it. “Ok, here I come!”
I took a deep breath, and let my weight hang on the rope. Ho.ly. Shit.
I didn’t rap like a pro; I just took awkward, jerky steps. I hoped those donuts I had last week didn’t up my weight enough to shock-load the anchor with all my bouncing. That was the last actual thought I had. After the first few trial steps I didn’t think except to send directions to my hands and feet. I didn’t look up or down, I didn’t enjoy the scenery. Every muscle in my body was tensed, and both of my hands were aching. I tried to relax my fingers; a cramping brake hand is how people lose control. My forearms were burning and my legs were braced against the wall with all their strength. I was hanging weird and uncomfortably in my harness from my sorta-heavy backpack, and I was exhausted from all the fear & death-gripping. I stopped to urge my muscles to relax and take some deep breaths. I had a quick peek to make sure I was going the right way and saw the top of Rick’s helmet.
“Rick!” I yelled. “You’re not even looking at me! How are you going to know if I die?!”
He laughed and looked up. “I just figured you’d scream!”
With my next step I kicked dirt down into his eyes. “Oh.” That’s why. “Sorry Rick!” He put his head back down. Poor guy. This picture, taken by somebody on the Internet that’s not me, is from ~15 feet above where Rick was standing. What I’m trying to say is that this view down is only 250 or so of the 300 feet. Looking down from the top, I couldn’t even see the bottom.
When I got to Rick he shifted his weight so I could put a foot on the ledge and he clipped me into the anchor. I grabbed onto the anchor webbing with both fists and collapsed forward. I was exhausted. He started to talk me through rigging my rope but only got two words out before he decided he better just do it himself. He finished before I was ready for my break to be over, and I just kept clinging to the anchor. My mind was wonderfully blank.
“You’re doing great,” he said. “You’re taking it slow which is perfect. You won’t lose control by going slow.”
“Hey Rick?” I whimpered, picking my head up from against the wall and looking at him. “Did I ever tell you that I’m scared of heights?”
He patted my shoulder. “You’re doing awesome.”
I took a deep breath and released my death grip on the anchor. Most of my weight was on the ledge, so he unclipped my safety line. I slowly eased back over the remaining 230 feet of thin air and make some odd squeaky noises. I sounded like Anthony’s chihuahuas.
The beginning of this part of the rappel was sloped, so I could almost walk down. When the slope gave way to vertical again, I was in the trickling watercourse. The waterfall was just enough to wet the rope and my burning hot ATC hissed as it ran over it. I tried not to picture the rope melting. When I got to the overhanging section, Erin warned me that I would start swinging. Oh boy. I slowly spun around in circles, rappelling without even looking at the wall. Her happy comments broke through my terrified trance and I was able to laugh and kind of enjoy the spinny ride.
From below, Erin cheered me on, “You’re so close! Like, if you fell now you’d be fine!”
Ohh don’t talk about falling. I lowered myself down the remaining 10 feet or so, but was too exhausted/relieved to get instructions to my feet and I just fell into a sad heap at the bottom of the rappel. I shakily tried to unhook my rope but ended up having Erin do it. Holy hell. I made it!
Rick pulled the first rope down from his perch 200 feet above (yay, it didn’t stick!) and we heard him yell for a rock. He told us later that it had hit him in the shoulder. Ouch. I set up to belay Rick, who took like 30 seconds to whiz down the rappel. I felt like I’d taken at least 15 minutes. He kind of reminds me of Spiderman, but in this picture he looks kinda like a SWAT team member:
(Here is where I will apologize for all the fancy photos..the pictures I took came out so shadowy that they were pointless. I had to get down n dirty with iPhoto and sometimes artsy-fartsy was the only way to go)
The canyon was breathtaking. There was a neat little grotto where we were, a couple feet deep with clear, blue water. The wavy sandstone walls shot straight up for hundreds of feet on 3 sides of the pool – looked like an elevator shaft. Too bad the elevator wasn’t working…lolz!!!
We had 30 more feet to go on this first rappel, so we hopped back on the rope and rappelled down into a shallow pool. The water was chilly and I was definitely glad for my brand new neoprene socks.
The rappels were in quick succession with nothing really in between them. The canyon was the most amazing one I’ve been in yet (no offense, other canyons), and the raps were pretty spectacular. They had awkward & low starts which made for a scarier time, but they were down fascinating twists and turns and chutes and flutes. A lot of the times rappelling isn’t particularly fun, it’s just what has to be done to see the cool parts of a canyon. These rappels (or maybe all raps in Zion) are some of the rare ones that are actually amazing experiences on their own. I didn’t get over my nervousness after the first rappel as much as I’d expected; I was still a fair bit shaky and nervous, even on raps that paled in comparison to the ones I’d done days before. It was like I’d gotten myself worked up enough that my panic defenses assumed they’d gotten the day off. Even so, it was impossible not to enjoy myself. I’d love to go back when I grow some cajones so that I can get the full experience. Here are some pictures of the other raps:
Check me out, I’m a meat anchor!!!! We didn’t want to automatically trust the old webbing, but didn’t want to replace it at every rappel so I backed it up in case of failure by securing the highly coveted position of Rick’s meat anchor (Oh god I am laughing so hard right now. Who the hell thought up that term?!) Also, do you think that LADY GAGA ever gets to be a meat anchor?
…don’t answer that.
The 4th rappel (or 5th? idk) consisted of a 20 foot rap that into a pothole, which overflowed into a 100 ft long fluted rappel. Hooo boy. Erin went first, because she’s got balls, and I went second because I left mine back at the car. We were doing this rappel single-stranded because we couldn’t see the end, so Rick set up a biner block knot thing and attached a pull cord. The anchor was a sketchballs log jammed into the slot of the last rappel, with 10 feet of webbing extending to the edge of this rap.
A couple steps down the rap above the pothole, I felt the rope give. I looked up to see rope slipping through the carabiner. I can’t even begin to describe the fear that I felt at that moment, and immediately braced myself against the rock next to me to take weight off of the rope.
“Rick!” I said, completely panicking. “The rope is moving!” He looked at me, confused, then looked at the part of the rope I was on. “No, the rope. The other side.” I was losing my traction against the rock and the rope slipped through another few centimeters. In my panic, I couldn’t get together enough of a sentence to tell Rick what was going on. “Rick, hold the rope. Hold the rope! Please! Hold the rope!” He saw what I was flipping out about and grabbed the rope. It stopped moving and he assured me nothing was wrong (!!!!) but he promised to hold the rope for me the whole way down. Once we had all finished the rappel, he showed me how knots can shift & tighten once weight is applied to them, causing the rope to move an inch or two. Mmhmm. Neat.
The pothole was harder then I thought it would be, but awesome! It was too deep to touch the bottom, and it was freezing. But at least it was blue, not the thick black sludge or malodorous green funk that a lot of canyons hand out during the summer. Trying to swim across with a heavy pack while releasing slack on the rope to go through my rappel device was a lot to handle, and the few seconds I was in the water were definitely scary. I’d never had to swim on any of the non-technical canyons I’d done and hadn’t really expected my pack to throw me off as much as it did. Luckily the pothole wasn’t hard to get out of and I beached whaled myself up onto the lip.
Now, the rest of the rap: the 100 foot fluted portion. Erin had yelled on her way down that it was like she WAS the water. Once I began the rappel, I could see what she meant. The water had carved a flute into the wall and the rappel put us right into it. Our bodies fit perfectly and we just flowed down the chute to a knee deep pool. Well, knee deep for everyone else. I was still so relieved to be alive that couldn’t organize my body at the bottom of the raps, so I floundered right into the waist-deep middle.
This is one of those places that just can’t be captured on camera. I tried, but the lighting & scale & depth were all off. Eventually, the camera gods stepped in and gave me a memory card error, which erased every picture I took in the middle of the canyon. It’s probably for the best, there’s no way to catch that kind of stuff with a point & shoot. (which, btw, survived a drop from my pocket from about 30 feet up a rappel. Well done, Olympus! ….Oh wait. I just right this second thought of something…Maybe that’s why the memory card started screwing up…) (Edit 8-1-11: Camera has lost waterproofness from rappel fall combined with many drunktimes falls).
The canyon flattens out as dramatically as it began dropping, going right from long sandstone drops to a gradual slope. When we reached this point we turned to look back and were amazed to see…..the cliff we’d dropped in on. The canyon had descended 700 feet into the earth without traveling much more than that downstream. Trippy! Also weird: judging by the sun, it had taken us 5 hours to manage the minuscule distance. This fancy photo is around the corner form the last big rappel. The last cliff you see in the distance in the big cliff we started with, 700 feet of rappeling later. Are you mind-boggled? …Well. Maybe you had to be there.
The end of the big drops didn’t mean we were off the hook- the second half of the canyon held it’s own, and I think I even had more fun on this part because I didn’t have death breathing down my neck anymore. There was a lot of fancy scrambling, downclimbing and stemming to be had, and the canyon kept changing it’s style on it. One minute it looked like the plain black rock canyons I’m used to in Arizona, with plants & moss and a bouldery climb to the top of the walls, then it would switch to sky-high sandstone narrows less then 4 feet apart. There were sections where it looked like Antelope Canyon, and sections where it kind of bubbled out in the middle like a subway-in-the-making. At one point during a narrow section, the canyon walls opened a bit to make room for an interesting natural arch, creating a bit of a mini-Great Cathedral situation. I creatively posed as if I was holding up the arch all by myself. It’s too bad my camera ate that picture because I think the ‘holding up an arch’ pose would’ve really caught on. Here is someone else’s picture of the arch, but the top of the arch didn’t meld into the rock like it looks here, it was almost a bridge that spanned this area of canyon. REALLY wish I could find some pictures of it.
Rick downclimbed most of the tricky obstacles but set up raps for Erin and I. I think there was one drop that was more than 15 feet, and this is the only one Rick bothered to put his harness on for. Erin and I scientifically observed that we alternated on the obstacles we struggled with; if something was easy for her, it was tricky and awkward for me, but the things I was able to ninja through had her taking her time. After an hour or so of this “less technical” section we were all getting tired & sluggish, and I was getting cranky. We had skipped lunch and now had skipped dinner, too. We needed to eat but it was getting dark and we wanted to try to get to the climbing part in Orderville with enough daylight to see. We took a short break when we hit the confluence of Orderville Canyon and promised ourselves a better break after the climb.
The climb did not come right away like we had expected and it wasn’t long before it was dark. We came to the unfortunate realization that I was the only one with a headlamp (Way to go, Kristi, right?!! I’m sometimes a valuable partner). We were hoping the full moon would help out, but it spent the night playing hard-to-get and doing some pretty things to the upper canyon walls. Rick wore the headlamp sideways and Erin and I crowded into his halo of light. It was a tricky team building exercise as we all kind of had to anticipate the others’ moves and be careful not to hog the light. Luckily, the going up Orderville was easy with not a whole lot of scrambling to negotiate….just sticky mud, surprise puddles, and ankle-twisting river rocks. It was the ankle twisters that had me lagging behind, as I tried desperately not to re-sprain any or all of my ankles. I made it about 2/3 down Orderville before twisting one but gave it only a yelp and a recovery hop. I’ve learned that twisted ankles are like fallen-down toddlers, in that paying attention only makes the problem worse. Except for that one time when I crawled/limped down a mountain post-sprain and ended up tearing the tendons really badly. But that’s not important to the story.
The night-hike thing was actually pretty awesome. We didn’t do much talking, just enjoyed the silence and ridiculous solitude of being 1000 feet underground at 10:00 at night. All of a sudden, Rick stopped. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Oh my god. Shit. Shit!” I’m thinking like….emergency. Or super scary rappel. Something big. Rick hadn’t had any adverse reaction to anything we’d done so far, but what he was worried about now was…was….I looked around him to see a skunk slinking towards us with his tail proudly held high.
I started laughing, but nobody joined me. Erin & Rick were quickly retreating back down canyon, “I don’t freaking believe it!”
“Hey guys! It’s cool! We can just walk past him, he’s not going to attack us!” I thought it was funny as hell that these two had gone down 700 feet of cliffs without batting an eye but were scared of a skunk. “It’s fine, let’s just give him some space so he doesn’t feel threatened.”
As we backed up, he followed. “Let’s lure him back into a wider part!” Erin suggested. He was following us anyways, so it seemed like a good plan. We headed about a hundred feet back to where the canyon widened up a bit. Figures that we’d encounter him in the only part of the canyon less then 20 feet wide.
“He doesn’t really want to spray us, he’s just scared & wants us to go away.” I turned off the headlamp as I saw him slink behind a rock to hide. “Let’s just stay still and be quiet so he calms down.” A minute or so later, a quick flash of the headlamp revealed no red eyes so we quietly squeezed by. Our skunk evasion methods were a success! We were hoping to get over this next obstacle away from the skunk as quickly as possible, but that didn’t happen…
There was an enormous boulder hogging all the space at the bottom of this narrow section. On the left was a little cave formed by a boulder overhanging off of the big boulder, and to the right looked like a good scramble up and around. Rick went first with the headlamp and Erin & I waited in the dark. There was some hulabaloo going on but I had no idea what, I was just waiting. And waiting. Rick threw a rope down.
Erin used it as a handline but couldn’t find any foot placement, so I pulled out some of my awesome and held her feet against the boulder as she climbed, then had her push her feet against my shoulders. She was struggling, but I couldn’t see anything and couldn’t really hear what was going on, so I just kinda spaced out and waited for my turn. I tied a fancy knot in the rope, then untied it because it looked like shit. I did a better job the second time and secured the rope to the bag so I could pull it up after me. I ate a few bites of a granola bar. I stuffed the rope bag into a too-wide-for-feet crack between the big boulder and it’s smaller cousin, hopefully eliminating the foot problems Erin had since I had no shoulders to use.
Eventually I became aware of the situation up there…Erin was starting to panic. “I feel really claustrophobic right now.” “I’m kind of freaking out.” “I’m stuck” “Rick, can you just like…hold my hands for a second?” “I’m feeling totally claustrophobic, I can’t move. Shit.” Her panic is noticeably less hysterical and tearful then the kind I like to have, but I recognized it as panic nonetheless. I gave her really crappy advice like “Don’t dwell on it. Keep breathing. Don’t let yourself panic.” I didn’t know what was going on, it sounded like we had to go up through a hole in between some rocks. I wondered if I would feel claustrophobic. Probably. She eventually got through and I heaved myself up, not knowing what to expect. As Rick shone the headlamp down at me, I saw what I was up against. A hole that was like…the size of one of my legs.
Alright Kristi, I told myself. Don’t think about it. Don’t panic, just go. I went for it. Aaaand I got stuck. To get through the hole required me to go in chest down, immediately shift to my side to squeeze through the skinny part, then wiggle my way around to my back and use my upper body strength to pull myself diagonally up and out. Except that once my hip wedged itself in the little triangle area to squeeze past the skinny part, I couldn’t get it un-wedged. I pulled up with my arms. Nothing. Rick pulled up on my arms. Nothing.
“That’s exactly where I got stuck,” Erin said. Don’t panic, Kristi. Don’t panic. Don’t….oh god. I sniffled. “No no no, you’re ok,” Erin coached. “You just have to wiggle! Just wiggle your hips and eventually they will move!”
I tried to wiggle, but my left hip was jammed tightly in the wedge and all of my weight was on it. Even the belly dancing class I took in college failed me; there was no wiggling to be had. I kept trying different hand placements, even tried to get Rick to just drag me up, but nothing would work. My hip was not coming loose. I managed to wiggle myself back down, and started all over. Still nothing.
“This is seriously the only way up?” I asked, holding onto my composure very loosely, and holding my entire body weight by jamming my elbows into the walls on either side of me. I could not move myself past this point. A quick scout-around by Erin confirmed that it was, in fact, the only way out. And so I did what any rockstar would do. I pitched a fit. While Erin’s freakout had consisted of very matter-of-fact statements and a shaky voice, I literally laid my head against the rock and sobbed. Erin urged me to breathe. Rick just held onto my hand as I took some deep breaths and tried to get myself under control.
“Kristi, if I could get my hips through there, you KNOW you’ll fit!” This made me cry harder. “I don’t even HAVE hips, this is so dumb!” I wailed. Life is so unfair…I don’t have enough of an hourglass shape to avoid looking like a body pillow in tight dresses, but my hips are big enough to halt my progress through a canyon?!
I wasn’t even crying because I was scared. I didn’t feel claustrophobic. I was crying because I was so freaking exhausted from a long afternoon of physical & mental stress, from facing my fears & hiking for the past 8 hours. I was tired & hungry & it was like 11pm & I couldn’t fit through this goddamn hole and I just wanted to go home but I couldn’t and I was going to be stuck in this canyon for the rest of my life! All my ‘stay strong’ reserves had been spent and I was crying out of sheer frustration.
Once I calmed down, Rick had me go back down. He came down after me and as I tried again to pull myself up, around and through, he pushed against my feet and gave me the boost I needed to get my arms high enough to pull myself up. I grabbed onto a crack in the rock and did the world’s most intense pull up.
Inches away from freedom, Erin grabbed onto me to help pull. “You’ve got it,” she said. “You’re a rockstar!”
I took a shaky breath before my last push. “Like Ke$ha?” I panted, as I finally birthed myself out of Orderville Canyon’s womb. Because if I was going to have to squeeze through this tiny hole, I damn well better be a trashy drunk rockstar at the same time.
“Just like Ke$ha.”
Well, good. But this rockstar wasn’t done crying. Apparently I had to keep going even though I was free. I guess relief? Rick said something about how he didn’t remember the climb being like that.
“Wait…” I stopped sniffling. “THAT was the rock climb?”
“No way! That’s not even rock climbing!” I couldn’t believe an obstacle like that would go undescribed in guidebooks.
Rick agreed, but was less passionate about the cause since he had effortlessly slithered through the hole three times.”I know, it’s like, a caving move, not climbing. I don’t think it’s a 5.2, that kinda thing can’t even be rated.”
When the beta had said there was a rock climb, I’d envisioned, like…a wall. That I could climb. I’d actually been pretty stoked about it. I don’t think I climbed at all in what we just did. I did a rope pull, a bunch of wiggles, and a pull-up. And how did the size of the hole escape description?! That seems like it could weed out a lot of large, potential passers-through. Erin and I are not big girls, but we ARE girls (no!)…we’re not tapered as well for these kinds of manuevers as boys are. It was our beautiful womenly curves that got us stuck and our inferior upper body strength (*duck & cover from angry feminists*) that failed to unstick us. But we are normal sized people….what if some huge meaty football player or bootylicious woman had come down here?
Back in Vegas I researched the Orderville hike, determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. I found this webpage, where I realized we had combined the two 5.2 climbs into one in our heads. There should have been one at the confluence of Orderville, but it makes sense that we are so great at scrambling that we didn’t even register any extra challenge. Then the page describes a 5.2 chimney to get around the huge boulder. I guess what we did was a chimney, so I resigned myself to the hole being the only way out. I wanted to see if other people had trouble with it, and came upon this picture:
Oh, why was the climb so much harder than we expected? WE CHIMNEYED THE WRONG SIDE!!! However, the correct route does look tricky as well and would have been just as tough and probably scarier, but it at least gives those with womanly curves an alternate way out of the canyon. The route would’ve been obvious from above, although I hear some people just slide down the rock face and jump. But coming upcanyon and in the dark, the left side didn’t look like anything really, and was never even considered an option. Worked out alright, though, and gave us some style points.
With the ‘climb’ behind us, we were now looking for Wild Wind Hollow, which was supposed to be the next big drainage coming in after Birch Hollow. We really thought it would be coming up quickly, but we slogged along for hours. We began to wonder if we’d missed it, and we stopped to check the map. Judging by the topography, we were a little over halfway to our exit. Oy vey.
My back was aching from my pack, my feet were hurting (but they did way better then I expected, considering my xxxcore plantar fasciaitic episodes little more then a year ago), my ankle hurt, and I wanted some pizza and a beer. Bitchity bitch bitch.
I barely remember the rest of the walk up Orderville, I’d shut my brain off and was just on auto-follow. I vaguely remember passing Birch Hollow and being slightly awed by how unimpressive it looked from here, with no hints to it’s MAGESTIC DEPTHS. I don’t really remember turning down WWH, I just remember feeling glad about it.
“Here’s a question that’s going to be uncomfortable to answer,” Erin turned to Rick as we entered the drainage and eyed the slopes above. “How many thousands of feet are we going to have to climb out of here?”
Rick hmmed, and answered, “3 or 4.” At first I thought he was kidding, but then I wasn’t sure. I was too tired to ask.
We were supposed to follow the creek for awhile, but we found a well-defined trail to the side of the watercourse and hopped on. It quickly took us up out of the drainage and then we lost it for a bit. We kept going up and eventually thought we were back on it, although in hindsight it looked more like a web of game trails. Then everything turned to mud. Looking up and out, we could see that there had been an enormous mudslide that had sloughed off most of the slope we were on and obliterated the trail. The trees were still intact and standing, just 15 feet lower than they used to be. With our trail gone and our mountainside made out of steep, naked dirt, we were faced with a decision. We could head back down and follow the creekbed up and out, which would allow us to track our location using the map, but would mean losing the last half hour of elevation gain. Or we could we scramble/bushwhack in the general direction the trail had been heading, because we knew we just needed to go UP in order to come to our car. We picked the less-smart option, and began a 3rd, 4th and occasionally 5th class climb (climb rating) over hardened mudslide goo that seemed like it would crumble at any second. Surprisingly- thankfully- it was durable and easy to climb.
It was pretty tough going with only one headlamp, but when we got high enough our eyes were able to adjust to the darkness and use the moonlight. I kept my headlamp and, untethered to each other by light needs, we spread out. Rick zoomed ahead to route-find, Erin kept up the middle, and I trailed along at the end, growing more and more exhausted. I’ll admit that I’m not in fantastic shape, but I’m in good shape. I can climb a mountain if you give me 2 or 3 breaks to catch my breath. But after struggling with everything else all day, my body had no energy reserves to loan out to my lungs and the normal out-of-breath-ness began to turn into asthma. (Hey Rick, P.S….I have asthma! Surprise!) I know it’s asthma-time when I feel the bottom of my lungs close up and it’s literally impossible to suck air down there. That means no more deep breaths. I can hang out at this point for awhile if I’m in good shape, have good energy levels, and I use my inhaler. The problem here was the energy level. It was zero.
I felt embarrassed taking breaks and I tried instead to just slow down, but eventually I called out that I was stopping. I told Rick I needed to get my breathing under control before it turned into a full-fledged asthma attack. I looked in my bag for my inhaler. I couldn’t find it, which was really, really weird. As forgetful as I am, my inhaler is one thing I never forget…probably because I just never take it out of my backpack…I really only use it when I’m hiking. I didn’t mention that I hadn’t found it, and tried to bite the bullet and keep moving. It was hard, and I was slow, but I knew I had to just suck it up.
We didn’t appreciate the mud-climb enough and when trees began breaking through our journey became a world class suckage of bushwhacking bullshit. This scrub oak crap was impenetrable and every step had thick, angry branches tearing into us. In retaliation, we felt no remorse for using said branches like ladder rungs to pull ourselves up the steeper sections. That wasn’t even a simile…by steep, I mean like…we were actually using the branches as ladder rungs.
After a particularly wicked section of 5th class mud climbing, which basically ended up being a 20 foot upper-body rope-pull, I gagged back what was about to be me throwing up all my water. I gasped for breath but the air going down my throat felt more like razorblades, and I couldn’t get any of the razorblades into my lungs…they all wanted to stop at the lung-trachea junction. It was a terrifying feeling, and I wondered if drowning felt like this. I’d heard drowning was kind of peaceful, so I was guessing this was a different feeling. I collapsed on the edge of the slippy-slidey mud slope, braced against a bush and Rick’s foot, and he sat there with me while I tried desperately to both get oxygen and not puke. A failure at either of these would’ve been bad. With how much energy it was taking for my body to keep climbing, I was sweating really hard (think Bikram yoga…it was ridiculous) and knew I couldn’t afford to lose any water. This is the point where I went from ‘ugh this sucks and is very hard’ to ‘this is scary, I can’t breathe.’. My lungs were searing with pain from the effort they were putting forth and I felt like something was holding my lungs closed. You know when your pet-of-choice sits on your chest and you can’t breathe? It felt like that, if my pet was a bull mastiff (which it wouldn’t be….I can’t handle drool. No offense, Ripley). I felt stupid having to sit down, but Rick waited patiently as I wheezed and gasped and made all sorts of disgusting gurgly sounds. A few good breaths would be interrupted by a panicky rush of tears and I’d have to start all over. I was completely soaked in sweat and without movement to keep me warm, I began shivering. This did not help my breathing. I didn’t really feel ready to keep going but I wasn’t any more comfortable shivering uncontrollably. We stood up and got on with the show.
Without anyone saying anything, it became obvious that we were kind of lost. We had been climbing for way too long. I trusted that Rick would get us out of here, but I was beginning to feel like I wouldn’t make it. We couldn’t see the road we had parked on, and we should’ve reached it long ago. Every time we climbed to the top of a hill, it turned out to not be the top. We were headed towards a radio tower in the distance, but I was afraid to ask if we were headed towards that as a means of rescue . On one of my mandatory asthma breaks, we laid back on our bags and joked about the possibility of bivying overnight. We all agreed that it sounded wonderful at this point. I was starting to think I’d have to, but didn’t say anything. We knew there were people that were already worrying (nobody knew we had gotten started later (way later) than noon), and we didn’t want Paul to alert the SAR team or come looking for us. In my fatigued brain fog, it was somehow really easy for me to shut down my thinking. It was like that subconscious, argumentative part was the first chunk of my brain to shut down when oxygen became scarce. So when I told myself to keep going, I just did. My mind was almost blank; there was no reasoning with myself about the merits of taking a long break, or what would happen if I pushed myself too hard. At the risk of sounding totally melodramatic, maybe that blank acceptance of pushing forward is the survival instinct that keeps people alive in the most extreme situations.
We got pretty spread out for awhile, and I would occasionally call to Erin to make sure I was on the right track. I could hear her call out for Rick, but there was a period of like 20 minutes where we heard no response. I told myseIf not to worry about it, and myself robotically obeyed. I plugged along, alternating deep breathing attempts with tearful breakdowns of exhaustion & fear. At this point I was stopping every few steps, and my lungs had closed up to where I could only breathe in for one count, no matter how hard I sucked in. I wasn’t walking as much as I was stumbling in a forward motion and I was feeling light-headed & desperately weak. I didn’t know what to do. I had never had to push through asthma like this; I’ve been able to condition myself to have more endurance, but there’s not a whole lot of ‘pushing through’ to do once your lungs close up. I’d had very few asthma attacks in my life, and they’d all been dealt with by backing off & calming down. I wasn’t even sure I was having an ATTACK. That term brings to mind a sudden, severe onset of symptoms…mine was more a gradual shutting down of the whole system.
I could tell by the dizziness and less-than-logical thinking that my brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen, but I knew I wasn’t going to die. I figured I would just pass out, which would mean I’d stopped hiking and I’d be able to breathe again. I numbly resigned myself to this fate and stumbled along for another twenty minutes before a bit of logic wormed itself into my conscious thinking. I was on a very steep slope, and passing out could send me tumbling a lot of feet downhill. So that plan wasn’t the best; I had to stop hiking. But then what? Force 2 other people who were perfectly fine to spend a cold night in a bivy sack with little food & water, just because I couldn’t make it up this last hill? Would a restless, cold night without food even give me enough energy to deal with the asthma in the morning? It was silly to stop when we HAD to be really close to the car. I was tempted to tell them to keep going, knowing my turtle pace was a hindrance. But then what? They’d reach the car and…wait for me? Come back for me? Call SAR and get my fat asthmatic ass out of this canyon? All ridiculous.
I was going to have to take another break; a real one this time…not just a few minutes. I needed a game plan, and instead of casual references to my pained breathing and frequent breaks, I needed to address this issue with the other two. Luckily, the fact that I collapsed onto a boulder in a wheezing heap of tears spoke my piece for me, and Erin took charge.
She counted out deep breaths with me, and didn’t get frustrated when a sob and some tears un-did our efforts. She kept urging me on until I calmed down a bit. I unpacked my bag, but still couldn’t find my inhaler. This time I told them. I’m not sure how much the inhaler would’ve helped at this point, but it did made the matter more urgent. I knew what I could do to help myself, but in my oxygen-deprived, shaky, upset state, it was a huge help to have Erin listing things out for me.
She kept reminding me to breathe, told me to have a snack, gave me an Emergen-C to put in my water. When I started with the shivering and the teeth chattering, she asked why I hadn’t taken her up on her extra shirt. Well- because I was sweating so much that it would just get soaked and I would get even more cold. It was moisture-wicking, so I took it, figuring it would at least be one more layer for the sweat to have to get through. I put it on backwards but didn’t have the energy to care that it was really uncomfortable on my neck. Even with my unbreathable windbreaker on, I was so cold that I was almost as scared of that as I was of the asthma. Nobody else was even cold at all. My beanie was soaked and making me colder, so I switched it for my helmet, hoping that would help keep my head warm.
I asked Rick if he truthfully knew where we were going. He said he knew that we were headed in the right direction, we just had to keep going up.
“How much up?” I asked weakly, looking out over the rows of gullies with increasingly higher banks. “I honestly don’t know if I can go up any further.”
He didn’t respond to that. “I’ll take your pack, that’ll help.” I had resisted the last few times he offered, out of pride & shame of being so inconvenient, but I really had no choice now. Erin joked about how maybe with two packs Rick would walk at a normal-person pace, and that he was so good at this that he’d probably pop us out of the woods right at his car. She was confident he had us going in the right direction and it wouldn’t be too long now. But that’s what they said 3 hours ago.
We took bets on when we’d make it back to the car. Rick said 1, I said 2. Erin said probably something ridiculous like 3 or 4.
“Is this going to be like the price is right where you can’t go over?” Erin had funny jokes. I admired her ability to keep her spirits up and not pout about the circumstances, and Rick’s awesomeness at working to get us out of here. I felt like an asshole for being the only one making our epic escape a big deal.
Once my shivering began interfering with my breathing and even Rick was getting chilled, we started up again. The going was 100 times easier without the weight of my bag, and I wondered if it would’ve been better for everyone if I’d just let Rick carry it from the beginning.
Within 5 minutes, we came to the road, exactly 10 steps from Rick’s car.
Rick is a superhero. For sure. We popped open the cooler to make good on our plans for celebratory beers. I had been a major proponent of this idea, but I felt too sick now. I picked a Gatorade instead. Erin & Rick passed on the alcohol too, since caffeine was more appealing for the long drive home. I collapsed in the back seat and caught my breath, but began feeling horrendously nauseous. I kept quiet so I wouldn’t encourage any barfing, and laid against the wet, stinky packs. Rick put the heat on for me but I turned it off after a minute or two because I could tell he was really uncomfortable. I wished I could talk to Rick and help keep him awake, but my eyes were closed the second we started driving. I only woke up for a second when two baby deer ran in front of the car (!!!!).
Waking up back at the house, I was surprised to still be shivering and freezing. I knew I should take a hot shower and have something to eat, but I couldn’t. I needed to sleep, I felt like shit. I didn’t realize asthma could make me feel so sick and wiped out. And cold! SOOO cold. I wore my tank top & pj shorts, plus Erin’s sweatshirt and wool socks, mummied myself completely up in a down sleeping bag and pulled the heavy comforter over me and my face. I slept like that for hours and if any part of my system shifted, I woke up shivering. I think around 8:30am is when I woke up and un-mummied, but still used the bag as a cover. I wasn’t completely thawed out until a long, hot shower the next day around noon. I have no idea why I was so cold, but nobody else had really been cold at all.
Being part of a trip that Rick considers epic makes me feel really hardcore, even if that feeling is somewhat diluted by my embarrassment. Rick is so awesome and said my freakouts were understandable, since there were some “kind of intense situations involved.” The moral of the story, I guess, is that level 4 canyons are very intense for beginners, especially for beginners who are working on getting over a fear of heights, and also have asthma. You probably saw that coming. I’d appreciate the patronizing comments being kept to yourselves, because I did “learn my lesson”: that I can do ANYTHING 😀 Maybe it was stupid to start so late, but if the trail had been where it was supposed to be, the darkness wouldn’t have been a problem. However, had it been daylight out, we might’ve been better able to navigate ourselves out. Either way, mistakes made, lessons learned. Despite being so nervous and having my body crap out on me at the end, I really did have a lot of fun and am glad I went.
As a P.S., here’s a funny story: The next morning, Paul regaled us with the story of the search & rescue he’d been called to help with. Some man had been hiking the Narrows top down, and his knees just…stopped working. He was overweight and had past knee problems, and halfway through his hike he just couldn’t get them to bend anymore. It wasn’t an emergency, but there was no way he could walk over all the rocks and stuff. Paul said it was annoying to initiate such a huge SAR effort (wading couple miles (~1 mile/hour) floating a litter raft) for someone who was fine. He understood that the guy couldn’t get out but it just doesn’t have the same rewarding feeling as saving someone with a shattered femur.
The whole time we discussed this, I was thinking, “That’s how I felt!” If I’d had to stop hiking and call SAR, it would’ve been the same sort of situation- I was OK, just couldn’t keep going. I would have been so embarrassed.
“Did the guy at least look humble?” Rick asked.
He did, said Paul, “but he could’ve spent less times with his hands behind his head.” haha, this guy had been floated down the river on a raft, and he was just chillin’. But you may as well enjoy the ride, huh?