I’ve been wanting to try canyoneering for years now and a couple weeks ago I finally got to go out with North Wash Outfitters, a canyoneering guide company out of Blanding, UT. Although I’d never done it, or maybe because I’d never done it, canyoneering and rappelling have been an on-going obsession of mine ever since we moved to Monticello.
In the past 6 years my husband and I have hiked in several different slot canyons in the southern part of the Utah like Spooky, Peek-a-boo, Zebra Canyons in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and Little Wildhorse Canyon near Goblin Valley, but none of them required any kind of technical skill- just hiking and a little bit of maneuvering through tight spaces. While these canyons were all amazing and definitely satisfied my desire for exploring slot canyons, they didn’t do anything for my obsession with wanting to try rappelling.
It’s almost embarrassing to share this photo and compare it to real rock climbing or rapelling in any way, but climbing these portable rock climbing walls at the travel and sportsman’s shows our office exhibits at, are the only experience I’d ever had with ropes or harnesses. And I’ve done it a grand total of two times in the 5 years I’ve been doing shows. Pretty sad, huh?
I’d been keeping in touch with the owner of North Wash Outfitters, Jared Hillhouse, and a couple weeks ago he told me that he had an upcoming trip that had room for me to join. I was thrilled to finally be getting the chance to go, and immediately told him to sign me up! Once it was official that I was going, the reality kind of hit me- all this time I’d been thinking about how much I wanted to try canyoneering, but it never occurred to me that there was a possibility that I physically might not be able to do it. I never really thought about being scared about the heights of the rappels either. It wasn’t until I received a pre-trip e-mail from Jared that described Leprechaun Canyon as, ‘very physically demanding’ with lots of stemming, (I had to look that one up- it’s when you use your hands and feet to travel through rock corridors without touching the ground.) and 3 rappels upwards of about 40′, that I started to wonder if I was going to be able to do it.
I’ve always considered myself to be pretty outdoorsy, I’ve done tons of hiking, camping, rafting, x-country skiing, etc., but I knew this was going to be different. And while I love to do things outdoors, I’m not a big risk taker by any means, even less so now that I have a son. I like rafting, but I’m not really a fan of big rapids after flipping several years ago. I love cross country skiing, but I get nervous at the really big hills, especially ones with a turn at the bottom. I’ve always loved snorkeling, but I get scared when I realize that I’m much farther from shore than I thought I was or when the fish get too close to me. (My dad was born and raised in Hawaii and was attacked by a bunch of fish once when snorkeling. Don’t ask- it’s a long story. But this is where my irrational fear came from!) You see where I’m going with this? I knew that in a slot canyon, there likely wouldn’t be an alternate route around big scary obstacles, but after waiting 5+ years to try it, I knew I had to do it.
I met up with our guide for the day, Brett, at North Wash Outfitters’ office in Blanding at 7:00am, and from there we drove out to the trailhead where we’d be meeting the other two people who were signed up for the trip. The route took us west on hwy 95 through Comb Ridge and past House on Fire Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Hite, across Glenn Canyon, and just over the county line into Garfield County. At the trailhead we met up with the others, a father and son from Santa Fe, and after Brett made sure he had all our paperwork he had us each grab a harness, helmet, elbow and knee pads, and a pair of gloves to put in our backpacks to use once we got to the canyon, then it was finally time to go!
I have to say, the first 3 minutes of the trip was the scariest part of the entire day! While I was prepared for rappelling, I was not prepared for such a steep (rope & harness-free!) climb to get up onto the sandstone. Well, I guess it’s not entirely accurate to say it was ‘rope-free’, Brett actually climbed up ahead of us, then dropped a rope down that we could hold onto if we needed it. (I needed it!) Probably more for security than anything else, but as soon as I had that rope in my hand I was fine.
I’m not sure what the distance was from the parking area to the part of the canyon where we’d be dropping in, but I’m guessing about a mile or so but to be honest, the scenery was so amazing, I hardly noticed and really enjoyed the hike.
When we got to the spot, it was time to gear up, which meant putting on all of the gear we’d put in our packs at the trailhead. As I put on my harness, Brett had said that it should be not just tight, but ‘uncomfortably tight’. Yep, it was definitely uncomfortably tight. I remember thinking that it was probably going to bother me all day, but by the time I finished the first of 3 rappels, I had already forgotten about it and didn’t even think about it again for the rest of the day.
It was finally time for the first rappel. I don’t know how I ended up going first, but I did and this is when I learned that I was going to be responsible for lowering myself down to the bottom. This may seem like something I should have known, but with my previous climbing/rappelling experiences that I mentioned earlier, you had no control over the speed that you were lowered- there was some kind of counter weight or something that automatically lowered you. With that being my only other experience with rappelling, I just thought that was how it worked. But no, it was up to me to get myself safely to the bottom of the canyon. Yikes! I wasn’t sure I trusted ‘me’ yet, but our guide Brett seemed so confident that I decided to just go with it. I mean, how likely is it that I was the most uncoordinated person that had ever gone out canyoneering with them? Not likely, is what I kept telling myself…
The first rappel was really awkward- you had to maneuver yourself through a tight turn in the canyon at the same time you were stepping over the edge and starting to descend. It took me a while to get over the edge, but once I did, it was much easier and I was able to lower myself to the ground without incident. Success! It was such an awesome feeling to have done it! I don’t think there are many times in my life that I’d ever describe myself as feeling ‘giddy’, but I was definitely feeling giddy after I made it to the bottom of the canyon!
All it took was that one rappel and I was good to go! Once I saw that I could do it, I knew the rest of the day was going to be awesome, and it was! The photo above is just before the second rappel- I was definitely WAY more relaxed than I was before the first rappel! I wish I had a picture of myself before the first one to do a side-by-side comparison, but I was too busy worrying about not killing myself to think of having my picture taken!
There were quite a few places where we had to descend drops without ropes- the pictures above are two examples of those kinds of spots. After making it down himself, Brett would stand at the bottom and direct or help those of us that needed it. (I needed it!) I realized right away that I liked to be behind him because then I could see how he maneuvered through each spot and I could try to do the exact same thing. I’ll admit that I don’t think I ever managed to do the ‘exact same thing’, but at least I could see what I was supposed to be doing. It was the same every time he rappelled- he made it look so easy! In my mind, I knew that that was how I was supposed to be doing it, and I had a picture in my mind of the position that I should be in, but I don’t think it ever actually happened. But I made it down in one piece- that was good enough for me for my first time!
The morning flew by and before we knew it, it was time for lunch. I inhaled my sandwich and a granola bar and found that my banana had turned to mush inside my backpack. Here’s a tip for anyone who is going to be doing this: put your food inside hard containers! With all the tight spots we maneuvered though in the canyon, there were many times where we had our backs pressed up against one rock wall and our feet against another with anything in our packs getting completely squished, like my banana. 😦
After lunch we got to a spot in the canyon that was absolutely beautiful. If you google ‘slot canyons’ THIS is the exact kind of photo that will come up- narrow canyons with really wavy, textured, red rock walls and cool lighting. I’d say it rivals Antelope Canyon in terms of beauty, and one big thing it has over Antelope Canyon… FEWER PEOPLE! This is always a plus in my book!
Along with fewer people, another big plus this canyon has over others like the extremely popular Little Wild Horse Canyon that I mentioned earlier, is that it’s in pristine condition! While we were in the canyon, I didn’t even think about it until I happened to see a button on the ground, but seeing that one small button made me realize that I hadn’t seen a single piece of trash or anything left behind by other people. Being in such a tight space, it’s easy to see how someone would have unknowingly lost a button off their clothes- your body is always rubbing up against the walls of the canyon, and that’s something they warn you about ahead of time- whatever you wear in the canyon; your clothes, hiking boots, backpack, etc., will likely never be the same afterwards. (And it’s true!) But seeing that lost button really brought to my attention the fact that aside from a few spots where you could see marks where people slid down the sandstone, the canyon is immaculate.
Later in the day it became clear to me that a big part of the reason the canyon is so clean is because of the guides from North Wash Outfitters. Toward the end of the day when we were stemming through a long, narrow section over water, a disposable water bottle fell out of someone’s back pack and into the water below. Brett had already gone through and was waiting at the end, but went back to retrieve it in a place that maybe wasn’t that difficult for him, but looked really difficult to me. That’s when I realized that the canyon wasn’t clean because everyone was picking up after themselves, it was clean because the guides make a point and go out of their way to keep it clean. I was really impressed with that. I know when I’m out hiking, I want to feel a sense of discovery. Of course I know that I’m not really the first person to ever visit the place, but I want to feel like I am, and it’s hard to feel that way when you’re constantly seeing trash on the trail from those who visited before you, so it’s awesome to see that North Wash’s guides take such good care of that beautiful canyon so that everyone can enjoy it.
Unavoidable Refreshing Water in the Canyon! (video: North Wash Outfitters)
We’d been getting unseasonal amounts of rain in the weeks prior to this canyoneering trip, so there was a lot of water in the canyon. I think Brett said that it was about as much water as he’d ever seen in there. Although we had been warned of the possibility of water, I can’t say I was really looking forward to it, in fact, I was kind of hoping that we wouldn’t find any once we got in the canyon. But it turned out that the day we were out there was one of the first warmer days we’d had yet this year, and although it was fairly cool in the canyon, it was a hot day and the water felt awesome! Although we still tried to avoid the water when possible, there were some places where there was no way around it and we had no choice but to get in.
Looking back at the photo above where I’m standing over the water, I honestly can’t remember how I got out of that position without getting wet, but I know that I did. The thing that sticks out in my mind is that I was just proud that I made it into that position! I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stretch to get my arms to the other wall of the canyon, but when I said this to Brett, he employed the form of encouragement that he seemed to have found to be effective on me- telling me about a really small/short woman he’d taken out on one of his trips. He actually only told me about her once, and after that all he had to say was, ‘You know that woman I was telling you about? She made it across. She did it. She made it down. etc.’ Turns out this was very effective! I’m really not a competitive person at all, but hearing that was definitely enough to get me to at least try, and sure enough, I was always able to do it. I think for me, since it was my first time, I really didn’t know what I was capable of. Maybe since the guides take so many people out there, they know better than we do what each of us is really going to be able to do. Whatever it was, Brett seemed to know just the right type and right amount of motivation and pushing to get me to try things, and he was always right- there was nothing that I wasn’t able to do, and I always felt amazing afterwards!
(video: KSL Outdoors)
The day flew by and before I knew it, we were at the end of the canyon and it was time to take off all our gear and hike back to the vehicles. I really didn’t want it to be over, but I was also exhausted! You know it’s going to be bad when you’re not even done with a hike yet and the soreness is already setting in!
It really was an amazing trip and my only regret is that I didn’t bring my husband along- he would have loved it! I’m definitely going to have to send him out on a trip with North Wash Outfitters, or better yet, go out on another one with him! Even with knee & elbow pads, I was scraped up and bruised for a good week and a half afterwards. But I take that as a good sign- as Jared said in his interview on KSL Outdoors in the video above, ‘It’s not a good day in a canyon until you leave a little bit of blood.’ So it looks like I was properly initiated into the sport of canyoneering! And of course, I’m happy to finally be able to say that my rappelling experience now extends far beyond portable rock climbing walls.
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