When You Are Dangling From a Ledge

As a general rule, I try to avoid situations where one wrong step could send me plummeting to my death.  But hey, rules are made to be broken, right?  And so on a recent Monday afternoon atop a canyon just outside of Zion National Park I leaned myself against a near vertical face of rock a thousand or so feet above the canyon floor, and listened as my friend Ryan gave me instructions on where to place my feet so as to avoid the aforementioned plummet.  Elsewhere along the hike I’d always had the reassurance that a misstep would simply send me rolling down a steep incline until gravity and friction worked together to stop me.  If I was really unlucky, I’d fall off one ledge but be caught by another ‘safety ledge’ that was at most twenty or so feet lower – like falling out of a second story window – not enjoyable exactly, but very survivable.  However, at this particular point in our expedition we were trying to cross a section of the rock face without a safety ledge.
The closest analogy I can come up with would be to imagine having to make your way from one window to another atop a hundred story building, the way people often do in movies to escape villains or feign suicide. Now instead of a cement ledge that juts out a foot or so for nice, if still nerve-racking, walking – imagine between those two windows are just a couple ‘nubs’ of rock for your feet to grip.  Oh and then there’s the 40 pound pack hanging off your back because god forbid you should fall off this cliff and not have a ready supply of trail mix and your trusty camelbak during your final descent to earth.
As for my hands – there was nothing to hold onto with my hands, except a small tree, but even here ‘tree’ is misleading since it was more Bonsai than pine – which is to say that this handhold was simply begging to be ripped out of the rock by a sturdy fellow such as myself.
It’s all a blur at this point: legs here, hands there, hips tucked in – like some sadistic yoga routine- but I made it across.  Having completed this perilous crossing I was left with a combination of relief at having not died, and also utter dread in thinking that this might be the first of many such sections where my thirty six year old life was dangled over the edge of oblivion all in the name of some good old fashioned adventure.
“Oh my god,” I thought.  “I’m going to be one of those people.”  Those hikers that need to be rescued by the park rangers.  The ones that people learn about on the 11 o’clock news and induce a feeling not of sympathy but of who the hell climbs up to the top of a mountain without knowing how to get down?
As I stood there panting and wondering where they were going to land the rescue helicopter or if maybe they’d lower down one of those baskets for me to climb in, Ryan and another friend Adam conferred with the GPS and realized we’d gone off the trail.  It turned out that the intended route was likely not so treacherous and soon we’d be back on track.  It was only a matter of retracing our steps and, for myself, just a matter of passing across that near vertical face all over again. Of placing feet on tiny rocky pimples in the otherwise smooth as a baby’s bottom sandstone and awkwardly draping my arms ‘around’ the rock with the same futility of a mouse trying to palm a basketball.
As I made my way back across the ledge I felt my foot slip from under me.  I panicked and let out some guttural scream as I slid down a bit,  my forearms, like eons of river water before them, doing their part in the gradual smoothing of the canyon walls.  “You are better than this,” I thought.  Not better than freaking out – that’s something I do quite well.  No, you are better than being duped into scaling rock faces like some chubby Spider Man when clearly you should be sitting back at home in front of your computer screen where, short of the sudden appearance of a sinkhole, or the slow appearance of an undiagnosed tumor, life is safe and quiet.
How had it come to this?
I‘d been backpacking once before. During my first year out of college Adam, Ryan and I spent a month in Alaska, hiking through Denali National Park and some areas in the south of the state. It was one of the greatest things I’d ever done and so when Adam started planning a backpacking trip to one of the parks in the southwest, it was a no brainer. This time Ryan, Adam and I would be joined by another good friend Mike.
The Barracks trail that we eventually chose for our trip starts in BLM land and winds its way into Zion National Park proper.  I have mostly been telling people we hiked through Zion, because BLM sounds like a diagnosis from your gastrointestinologist.  After reviewing the results from your colonoscopy I can confirm that it isn’t IBS as I’d suspected – it’s BLM.  BLM is actually an acronym for the Bureau of Land Management.  The distinction between BLM land and National Park land is mostly lost on me, except that what you can do in the latter seems to be much more restrictive than what you can do on BLM land.  For example, in the park, you can’t build fires and you can only camp at designated sites.  In BLM land it’s almost anything goes.  Build fires, camp wherever you please.  Murder is probably still frowned upon, but I can’t be certain it’s illegal.  The land is less accessible though – there aren’t any visitor centers for BLM land, or well paved roads leading you to the best look-out spots.  Which makes it perfect for people wanting to hike around without wading through the flood of visitors that descend on the National Parks every day.
The trail is only about 20 miles long and follows the East Fork of the Virgin River.  In the beginning there is a wide dirt path, frequently used, a bit to our surprise, by ATV-ers, as it runs through a rather open prairie-like space bounded by rocky outcroppings.  As we set up camp on the first night in a wide open space away from the river I half wondered if at some point in the night we’d hear the sounds of motored vehicles circling around our site, and wake from our tents to find some Mad Max gang of mountain men explaining to us that you boys seem to be lost.

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Luckily, the only visits we received that first night were from the cows.  Apparently canyons are a popular place to let cattle graze.  Cows can’t scale canyon walls, though you’d be surprised at the sorts of places they can end up.  Everywhere you go there is cow shit.  I mean, everywhere.  It showed up on every trail, at every campground and on every rocky outcropping along the river. It can be a bit humbling to make some treacherous river crossing, or scale some boulder face and think “wow, I bet there aren’t many people who’ve done something like that before”, only to discover a smattering of cow pies at your destination.  Wait, a fucking cow got all the way up here?

After having walked a blistering 1.5 miles or so the first day, we decided to putz around a bit at the campsite the next morning.  It was after all a Sunday, and even God putzed around on Sundays.

We spent several hours that morning exploring the high rocky structures nearby.  In the narrow passages between adjacent canyon walls Ryan told us to be on the lookout for falling rocks.   Somehow, though, and I really have no explanation as to how this happened, I heard not ‘rocks’, but ‘goats’.

“If you hear a clickity-clickity-clack, duck for cover,” Ryan said.

“Do you really think that is a concern, that they might just come falling over the cliff above?” I asked, quite sincerely and a bit confused.

“Yes.  It would just take a bird or the right breeze to get it started,” Ryan replied.

I supposed he was right.  Startled by a bird, or perhaps an unexpected gush of cold air, a mountain goat that was otherwise planning to chew on shrubbery high atop the canyon might unintentionally find itself stepping over the edge.  I couldn’t help but picture the goat running vertically down the steep face, clickity-clickity-clack, with a final thump against the canyon floor, and having reoriented itself to the horizontal dimension, picking up and galloping off.  Since being clobbered by a falling goat might put an end to this hike, perhaps even an end to me, I made sure to glance up from time to time just to be safe.

After packing up our campsite on Sunday morning we walked a few more miles through open spaces until the dry ground eventually narrowed.  Early on as we searched for ways to get from one side of the river to another we tossed logs across it, each of us then doing our best renditions of Man on Wire.  At some point this became too cumbersome and we finally changed into our water shoes, allowing us to trounce in and out of the river as necessary.

On Sunday evening we found ourself at a nice cozy camping spot just raised up from the riverbed.  It was sandy and flat-ish and only partially covered in petrified dung.  Our site was at the base of slabs of deep red sandstone.  When we went to explore the rocks further that night we were amazed to realize that unlike other sections of the canyon, the surfaces sloped up gently enough that we could actually just walk up to the top.

I’m not an extensive world traveler, but I have had the chance to see some spectacular views of mountains in Alaska and of the Andes in Ecuador.  The view from atop the canyon that evening was right up there.  And it has a qualitatively different feel to it.  We know what mountains are supposed to look like, whether they are soft and rolling or steep and powerful.  But in those parks in Utah and in the southwest in general, you can’t match what you see with previous experience. It’s like someone photoshopped the boreal forest over an image of mars.

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If God did in fact putz around on Sunday, I now know why.  Mondays are tough.  Really tough.  And out on the trail it was no different.  In preparing for our trip I’d neglected to adequately consider just how cold it would be at night, and especially at dawn when we’d be forced to get out of our sleeping bags and get ready for the day ahead.   As we’d camped at the bottom of a canyon it meant that the sun would not be shining on us for another hour or two after it had risen.  And on that morning we would be starting by walking right into a river that hadn’t seen sunlight for over twelve hours.

For the remainder of the morning we zigged and zagged across the river, from bank to bank, until at some points the canyon walls were so narrow that there were no banks.  Both the riverbed beneath our feet and the land aside the river was covered in rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes.  Every step was a new opportunity to twist your ankle or trip and crash into the river.

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This went on for about three or four hours until we’d finally arrived at a spot where a permanent plaque had been placed commemorating the passage by John W. Powell through the connecting Misery Canyon on an expedition along the Colorado River in 1872.  The plaque marked not the end of our hike for the day, but only a transition from horizontal steps through a river to vertical steps up a steep canyon wall of a thousand or so feet.  At the hottest point in the afternoon.  With those damn packs still strapped to our backs.

After 30 or so minutes of the most exhausting physical activity I’d done in years, we had finally climbed out.  Now whereas the canyon provided a rather clear route for us to follow those first few days, standing on this ridge we were faced with an almost infinite set of possible directions to go.

This is where we inadvertently took a minor detour.  A detour far away from any signs of an actual trail.  This is where my friends saw a near vertical slab of rock and decided traveling horizontally across it would be no problem.  And where I felt, in a moment of heat-induced insanity no doubt, compelled to believe them.

Of course we made it across that slab of death, not once, but twice.  We camped soon afterwards and spent the next morning hoofing up and down some more canyons before finally finding our way back to the road.  And then we found our way back to Vegas to prepare for our flights out of town the next day.

I don’t begrudge Adam and Ryan for almost getting me killed that afternoon in April – Mike gets a pass because we were both firmly in the camp of “I’m going to die here and there are so many things I still wanted to do in life.”  No, I think that what happened in those 20 or so minutes up on that ledge exemplified what was so great about our friendships.

The best kinds of friends aren’t just people you hang out with.  They challenge you, and encourage you, and then are there for you when your best laid plans go awry.

I’m not really much of an outdoorsman.  I love beautiful scenery, but I’m usually content with observing it from a nice roadside pull off.  I like sleeping in a warm house with a mattress and having the choice between cereal or toast, or perhaps a Dunkin’ Donut, in the morning.  I prefer my coffee to be of the non-instant variety.

So there’s zero chance I would have decided, of my own accord, to go off and live in nature for a few days.

My friends challenged me to get off my ass and get out of my comfort zone and go hiking for four days. They challenged me to keep up with them through rivers and to climb up boulders with the assistance of old frayed ropes that had been placed there previously by who the hell knows.  They challenged me to do things that felt uncomfortable and maybe even some things that were a little stupid in retrospect, but the line between a good challenge and a ludicrous one is not always so clear at the time.

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But again, you can challenge anyone to do stuff that is hard.  Friends see each other through the challenge.  They push on your fat ass to get you up another ledge during a stupidly vertical climb out of a canyon after four hours of hiking through rivers.  They show you where to put your feet lest you slip into the abyss.  Sometimes they even stand idly by on a river bank with a camera, recording as you cross over a precariously thin log on the off chance that you might tip over into the several feet of water below.  These are all things that good friends do.

Comments

  1. You’re a great writer, Jesse. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts – you have an interesting perspective!

  2. OK so my comment went originally went through anonymously. Oops.

    You’re a great writer, Jesse. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts – you have an interesting perspective!

  3. That was hilarious – particularly to visualize you in those precarious situations! Awesome 🙂
    -Uday

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