PSR Relax

Terror in a Slot Canyon


I wedged my body into the top of the chute so that I was in a position to belay my brother with the makeshift rope, and I lowered it down to him. In preparation he cleared the ground of nasty rocks in case he fell, At first it looked dismal: we tried making a foot loop for him to step into, just at the limit of the rope's length, but there was just nothing on the walls to grab, and climbing the rope alone wasn't possible. Then my brother grabbed the rope as high as he could with both hands and walked his feet up the chute, eventually jamming his feet into a crack, his body hanging out horizontally over space. This was an impressive position from my vantage point, but he was panicked because falling from here would mean a 4' drop flat on his back, maybe breaking his back or head. With him holding onto the rope for dear life, I pulled, and I could hear the stitching of the pack straps starting to pop (I didn't tell him this). We had to act fast before everything came apart. I'm not particularly strong and my brother is considerably heavier, but I was so well anchored in the chute that I was able to pull on the rope and cantilever his body into a more vertical position, his feet still in the crack. I also think that I may have received that fabled shot of adrenaline that gives you superhuman strength for a brief instant. Once my brother was vertical, he still needed another foot of lifting before he was finally able to reach some hand holds and work his way up.

While we had already celebrated twice for false reasons, this accomplishment was our greatest celebration. The only celebratory elixir we had left was warm water, but that was good enough. The next and last waterfall was easy by comparison. We were feeling so good, we didn't even try to use the rope. Finally, that hour-long "treacherous" scramble around the bypass we tried so hard to avoid felt like a walk in the park. We were back to our car with plenty of daylight left to drive back to our campsite for a nice dinner and celebration with fine cigars and top-shelf tequila.

Reflecting on this, I was most disappointed in myself. With all my years of outdoor wilderness experience, how could I let us get into such a near-death situation? I've been on many climbs where going up is easier than going down, and I always think about whether I might have to unexpectedly descend. For this reason I always make doubly sure that I have a way back unless I know for a fact that I won't have to turn around. Less frequently, but more often in canyons like this and also in caves, going down is easy while going up can be impossible, so I'm usually conscious of this problem, too. One story that has always stuck in my mind, I think by Edward Abbey, involved a descent down a dry falls somewhere in the Grand Canyon, where he expected to reach the bottom of the canyon, but landed on an unclimbable ledge to the next drop. He got stuck so badly he thought he was doomed to rot there, and got out only through heroic climbing. So, I knew all these things well, yet it still happened to me.

Well, the reason it happened wasn't that I ignored all this experience. It happened because I truly "knew" that we would not have to retrace our steps. My memory was so distorted that I convinced myself I was in a place I was not. I should have realized that all waterfalls can look similar, especially within the same slot canyon -- I've seen enough of them to know that. I should also have realized that I never paid that much attention to how the bottom waterfall really looked, so I had no right to assume any waterfall that I saw from the opposite direction was the same one. Then why did I continue on with this belief after having been proven wrong the first time, repeating the mistake yet again? It was because I was too stubborn to believe that I could possibly make the same mistake twice. I was so bad off, that I almost talked myself into repeating the mistake a third time. Three strikes and you're safe? Bad memory and ego can be deadly.

But I learned a lot from this (besides trying harder to remember my rope), and I'm sure this won't happen to me again, so I guess I'm a safer hiker because of it. I have gotten into many near-disaster situations over the years, some due to bad decisions, and from each one I learned what not to do next time. I will never again believe that just because I've reached a ripe old age still unscathed, that I've already made all possible mistakes. There are many more mistakes out there to be made.