That's What Friends Are For

Posted On
Apr 08, 2010
Southern Utah

By Susan Hand

Photos Allen Gilberg

On a crisp October morning I perched on the side of Canaan Mountain, south of Zion, in the midst of a small grove of maples. The little trees clung to the shallow dirt on a ledge of Moenave Formation, which comprises the aptly named Vermilion Cliffs. Their branches were draped in the glory of autumn, fiery leaves flecked with purple and gold. The air around me seemed to glow.

A giggle of delight escaped my lips. I looked around to see who might share this enchantment. Our guide Jeremy beamed back at me. He too appreciated the subtleties of fall in these redrock canyons; there would be no vast hillsides cloaked in riotous color. Instead, the change of season was intensely intimate, with vivid pockets tucked into remote canyon washes or alcoves in the cliffs.

The rosy hues warmed me as much as the vertical hike and I paused to shed a layer. As I chatted with Jeremy I referred to the leggy shrubs as Rocky Mountain maples. He demurely mentioned that they might be Bigtooth maples. I later checked it out with a botanist buddy, and Jeremy was probably right. Chalk another one up for the professional guide.

We had five hired guides on this adventure, as well as several pros from various reaches of the outdoor trade. I run a gear shop in Kanab and my sweetie, Allen, is a river guide who had just returned from a Grand Canyon trip to join this outing. But our group of twenty-some also included people who were fresh to the sort of adventure our hosts had in store. We all were the guests of Señor Rojo, Paul and Mo, and their Outdoor Utah excursion would soon fasten each of us to a hank of rope so that we might dangle into the slot canyon below.

Meanwhile, we climbed above the cool shade of the canyon to gaze on the domes and hoodoos of Navajo Sandstone that capped Canaan Mountain, namesake of the recently designated Wilderness Area. Ponderosa pines were strewn about the slickrock as if to lend scale to the massive cross-bedding. The shadow of a peregrine gamboled across the cliff face to the east.

A couple of our guides, John and Greg, scampered up the switchbacks ahead of us and disappeared. By the time I crested the slickrock rise and reached the first rappel the ropes were set and two of the guides were down. Two more soon backed over the rim. They would hopscotch down the canyon ahead of us, set up for each rappel and usher our large group through.  Young Eric manned the ropes for us as our group reassembled after the hike up. He checked gear and offered instruction and encouragement. For some, this was their first rappel, and it was a long one. Keep your feet in front of you. Drop your butt. Remember to breathe. 

I had rappelled this canyon before, and some others. Still, I was reluctant to let go of solid rock; to rely so completely on strands of fiber and bits of metal; to defy gravity. I recalled my first technical canyoneering experience; I had joined a couple friends who had considerable expertise, and I knew I was in good hands. Even so, the last drop had been 120 feet of free fall into a pool, and I felt like a tea bag on a string as I sank below the cup's rim.

Fourteen years later, the anxiety of that day was still with me, but so was the vision of light squeezed through sculpted rock. The thrill of adrenaline seems at odds with the sublime serenity of the slot canyons. I just accept that the rope can send me places I could not otherwise reach. I watched Eric as he deftly fingered a coil. I knew I didn't need the back-up belay he provided, but I didn't mind it either. Allen and I were among the last to go. I clipped in and lowered myself over the lip. Above me, Eric and Allen were engaged in some banter, but I was focused on my task. Then I heard Eric laugh and it occurred to me how relaxed he was. I smiled and surrendered to the embrace of the canyon.

Reaching the bottom, I left the ropes and meandered down the canyon floor to the next drop. In contrast to the morning's hike up, the walks between rappels seemed short and effortless. Our group was now dispersed along the length of the canyon, and the parties gathered above each pour off were small and giddy.

As I waited with Karen (Señor Rojo's other half and my role model) for our first rappel with John, she queried him about his career. He told us he was a certified guide. He drifted seasonally to find work, embracing the lifestyle. Karen chided him that he had best stay away from the girls. He promised he would, but I didn't believe him.  Rojo arrived from the rappel above us, where he had laid a small gash into his arm. Once we determined it wasn't serious, Karen rolled her eyes and shook her head. Rojo always bleeds a little when he plays outside.

Greg was waiting for us farther down the canyon. He wore a fleece pill-box hat with silver-streaked dreads draped beneath. He coached the peeps through a downclimb with genuine enthusiasm. He assured us this might be the most fun to be had. It was. At the bottom was a pool to jump. Some made it, some didn't, and though we couldn't see from above we could always tell from the sound effects how it turned out.

Below the last rappel, the canyon floor was lined with Gambel oak, now golden as the days grew shorter. Some of the shrubs had distinctive leaves with particularly deep lobes. I gathered samples of the leathery foliage and pressed them into a pocket of my pack to share with my botanist friend.  From there, a pleasant stroll brought us to a selection of microbrews from the Wasatch Brewing Company. Paul had cleverly stashed them in the cool flow of the creek before we started the hike. We toasted to old and new friends as we sorted our gear.

More than anyone I know, the crew from Outdoor Utah are masters at marrying outdoor adventure to creature comforts. In half an hour, we had made the return trip to St. George, and indulged in showers, gourmet food, hot tubs, libation, revelry, and social enrichment—in no particular order. For all the excitement of the day, the worst outcome was that the toddler son of Dean, owner of the guiding company, caught his finger in the door at the restaurant.

In the morning we gathered at a picnic grounds in Snow Canyon. One of our hiking companions, Steve, set up his Camp Chef cook gear and served breakfast burritos for everyone. As we bid fond farewells, Allen and I hopped on our bikes and pedaled up the broad canyon a on a paved trail. The route was peaceful and everything seemed easy in the mild fall weather. Some weeks later I remembered the oak leaves in my pack. They were crisp and brown by the time I retrieved them, and the ground was covered with snow.



Canyoneering, National Parks, State & Nat'L Parks