Canyoneering: For the Narrow Minded

On a backpacking trip in Yellowstone, I met a guy who asked me if I had ever ran a slot canyon before. A slot canyon? What the hell are those? He explained: they are impossibly narrow canyons that are tucked into the earth, deeper than they are wide. From above, some of them appear to be cracks in the ground, so thin you might think to drop a quarter in them to get a soda. The walls of slot canyons resemble sin waves, opening and closing unexpectedly. In a narrow one, it can be hard to expand your chest to breathe.

The day this man discovered slot canyons, he said, an almost religious feeling took hold of him. A slot canyon places you into the bowels of the earth, an Eden untouched by humans. When he returned to civilization and tried to tell people about slots, his verbal descriptions were beggared by the actual – he just couldn’t put into words how these canyons had set fire to his imagination. Even with his admittedly poor description, he had me convinced: I wanted to see a slot canyon for myself.

Slots are one type of canyon that people explore in the sport of canyoneering, which every year becomes more popular. And every year, more people are exposed to the risks that the sport poses.

Inherent Danger
The most famous canyoneer is probably Aron Ralston, otherwise known as the guy who cut off his own arm, portrayed by James Franco in the movie 127 Hours. Ralston lost his arm in a canyon outside of Moab, UT, where I happened to find myself last fall. The Utah desert is one of the best places in the world for canyoneering – an endless network of canyons snake through it – and I had come there to see what canyoneering was all about. But there was the whole danger aspect: the loss of an arm is a good argument against canyoneering. And there were other dangers as well. Because some canyons are so narrow, and because sometimes you’re basically traveling underground through them, they can fill up with water as fast as the thunder crack of a desert storm – leaving whoever was stuck in one SOL.

A friend who lived in Moab reassured me: he had run Ralston’s portentous canyon a few times before (without losing any limbs,) and he told me that Ralston was an idiot for doing it alone. As long as you’re with someone else, you’re fine.

But what about the whole drowning aspect? I asked.

Just check the weather and don’t worry about it, he said.

The Bowels of the Earth
My first canyon was called Pleiades, the approach of which involved a pleasant trek through the aspen groves in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains. There didn’t seem to be a canyon anywhere, until we rounded a bend and saw a path straddled by outcroppings on either side. Pleiades seemed like a place where fairies might go to get away from humans. We hiked through the canyon until the forest floor dropped off, below which was the yawning mouth of a craggy cave. We got out our rope and rappelled down through the mouth, out of which we could hear the sounds of a waterfall, pounding like a violent drumline. The cave was like the inside of a giant ball, its rock walls sculpted smooth from years of running water. The water of a small cataract soaked us as we descended, but I didn’t care. Canyoneering had taken me to this rare place, and this water was a welcome ablution.

A Cocktail of Different Sports
Over the next week, I was a canyon fiend, scouring the Utah desert for my next fix. One thing that hooked me about canyoneering is that it’s not its own discipline, like rock climbing, which involves a skill set unique to the sport. More accurately, canyoneering is a combination of different outdoor disciplines. To successfully run a canyon, you might need to navigate and orienteer your way to the canyon (remember: many of the canyon entrances are small holes in the desert floor, which can be hard to spot from above); use rock climbing techniques, like stemming and face climbing, to avoid obstacles in the canyon; hike; rappel; and when there’s water at the bottom of the canyon, swim or raft.

And canyons can vary in size and type, and each presents unique challenges. A few canyons I’ve done resemble desert walking, punctuated by a few impasses where a rappel is necessary. And some, like the aforementioned slot canyons, are painful experiences that require you to jam your entire body into a tight crack. (One guidebook warned about one canyon: Not suitable for the obese or full-figured women.)

With several wider canyons under my belt, which were pleasant but not very exciting, I was ready for my first slot canyon.

Flash Flooding
My friends and I had left Moab early in the morning to run Zero Gravity, a slot canyon in the San Rafael Swell, about an hour outside of Moab.

We parked our car in the middle of the desert, but before we got out, someone ominously asked, Did we check the weather?

No, I thought you did.

Huh, I thought he was going to do it…

We squinted at the clear blue sky, like armchair meteorologists. There wasn’t a cloud in sight.

Well, it looks good enough for me, we all agreed.

The first part of the canyon was luxuriously wide, enough room to walk around and breath easily in, but we knew it was going to get thinner and thinner. We had to swim through holes in the canyon floor that had collected water, known as keeper potholes, because there was no way to climb around them. The water was black from inactivity, collecting who knows what kind of bacteria.

The sun shone brightly, however, drying our soaked clothing. But midway through the day, clouds creeped in. We all saw them, but didn’t say anything.

The canyon walls would tighten on us like a boa constrictor, then release. After a while, things got real hairy: a section of sustained thinness that traveled deep into the ground. We entered into a pitch black cave filled with deep water – how deep? I didn’t care to find out – which we had to swim through. I kept thinking of the scene in Star Wars where Luke gets caught by that monster in the garbage compactor. For all I knew, there could be an ancient desert serpent in the depths below, waiting to catch naive canyoneers.

In the most constricted part of the canyon, so thin that it was hard to turn your head to look behind you, we heard a low booming in the distance – was it an airplane? Another boom, and this time it was unmistakable: definitely thunder. Panic washed over me. I looked at the sheer rock wall above me, noting that I would be pinned against it if water filled this death chamber. I looked ahead of me, down the canyon, and saw more frustrating thinness. We were forced to continue on, as we were closer to the end than to the beginning. The closer we got to the end of the canyon, the more we could hear the pelting of hail outside.

Thankfully, we were near the end of the canyon. After a few scary minutes, we were out of the canyon and in the blessed openness of the desert, breathing easy.

By Sean Sullivan