Sunday, June 15, 2014

There may be many, many fathers. But there's only one that's mine

I was going to type out a long thing, and I still might, but I spent so much time looking for good pictures that I ran out of time to write anything right now.  If a picture is worth 1000 words, this thing is already over 9000 words long, so I don't want to overwhelm anyone.

Happy Fathers Day to my dad, the consummate renaissance man:

The Outdoorsman

The Adventurer

The Builder

The Chef

The Thinker

The Naturalist

The Husband

The Father
(That's my sister about to bite a snake.)

Happy Father's Day!  I couldn't have hoped for a better Father

(Not pictured here: The Comic, The Speaker, The Artist, The Teacher, The Bishop, or The Scare-House Designer.)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Indiammon Jones and the Canyon of Doom

I've been putting this off for nearly two weeks now, not from emotional trauma or anything, just because I couldn't decide how to approach it in a way that would adequately convey this experience.  2 weeks ago I was trapped in a slot canyon in Zion.  Here's what happened:

Concerning Hobbits:
Exactly 2 weeks ago, I was hurrying around, packing for a 2 day canyoneering trip.  My friend and loyal adventure buddy Michelle had invited me months ago, and I was feeling good about it.  I was recovering well from surgery, and had managed to do several things (rock climbing, piano moving, kickball, volleyball, etc) without any serious pain or injury.  I realized it wasn't exactly the wisest thing I could do, but this canyon was so beautiful, I figured it was worth a little pain.  In any case, the doctor had told me that there was no way I could damage myself, barring extreme trauma, so I decided to go for it.

Monday night we slept in a free campsite that I found outside of Zion.  Michelle and I drove down with Kyle (an old friend from the ward) and met up with Karly (Kyle's sister and one of Michelle's best friends) and her friend Doug (who none of us had ever met).  We left provo a little later than we had hoped, so it was around eleven at night when we pulled into the Thunderbird Lodge (Home of the Ho-made Pies).  Sadly we arrived too late to sample any of the 'slutty pies' (as I vaguely remembered them), and we were about two hours ahead of Karly and Doug, so we had a while to wait.  Michelle, who talked most of the way down about all things deep and meaningful, was more or less asleep.  Kyle and I, being somewhat similar and having a certain paucity of words, explored a little and then sat more or less in silence for some time.  I started walking up Highway 9 towards Zion, taking the opportunity to pee outside for the first of many times, but after realizing that Zion was still 12 miles away, and that it was actually quite dark and boring, I worked my way back to the car to pass the time.

My space blankets arrived in the mail just now.
I don't think I'll ever leave home without them.
Some time around 1am Karly and Doug got there, and there was much rejoicing.  I had hung out with Karly before, but we weren't all that close.  She and Kyle are in many ways completely opposite, which makes them fun siblings to spend time with.  Where Kyle is fairly quiet and reserved, Karly is energetic and animated.  Doug, whom I had never met, seemed like a nice guy, the sort of guy you would want by your side if you had to pass a night in a cold windy canyon.

We drove over and checked out the campsite, which was somewhat hidden on an abandoned little section of the old Highway 89. It was late, and setting up two tents seemed like a huge hassle, so we all packed into one tent, with Michelle curled up at our feet.

Michelle and Doug,
unaware of the prison that already surrounds them
The next morning, we drove over to just outside the East gate of Zion, and met up with Parker, Michelle's good friend.  I had met Parker several times, and had always liked him, but had never spent that much time with him.  I knew him as a skilled and fairly experienced climber and outdoorsman, and a fun guy to be around.  He and Karly had organized the trip, and he was the one who had the gear and know-how for all the rappelling.  He had actually driven down from Provo that morning, so he was going on a couple hours of sleep, but it didn't seem to have phased him and we got everything ready to go.

At this point I had a moment of feeling somewhat nauseated. I'm going to chalk it up to the combination of recent surgery and being stuck in very small spaces for 16 hours.  In any case, I went to the bathroom to consider throwing up, but didn't, and we got everything ready to go and squeezed into Parker's car and drove into the park. Once we got outside and walking around I felt good, at least as good as you can expect two weeks out of surgery.  I had decided that I wasn't going to spend the whole time complaining about my surgery, and I'm not going to address it anymore here, but for most of the trip there was dull pain somewhere around the area of my ureter, which made everything slightly less pleasant.

The Descent:
Canyoneering was wonderful. It was a breath of fresh air after 2 weeks of being stuck in surgery recovery mode.  There is something magical about slot canyons, that always feels very Indiana Jones-esque.  I think it's because every turn is a new discovery, and you feel like explorers finding things for the very first time.  It also helps that the whole thing is basically a jungle gym for adults. At some point my scrambling exploits earned me the name Indiammon Jones, which is probably the best nickname I have ever received (just above popular favorites such as Hotdog).  If you've never gone canyoneering, and you're not claustrophobic, find a way to do it.  Come with me next time I go. Throw in a security blanket and an extra pair of socks, just in case.

After about 8 hours, we were feeling like we should be getting close.  We rappelled down a somewhat tricky drop into a bit of water, and came to where the canyon joined with a larger canyon that seemed to be a drainage.  Some of us thought we were done, but it didn't quite seem right–we were supposed to run into the virgin river, which was still farther down to the south east–so after heading to the right for a little bit, we were turned back to the left and went deeper into the canyon.  The first rappel (pictured above with Doug and Michelle) was excellent, and was by far the best of the trip. Unfortunately we got the rope stuck, so Parker had to climb up the rope (twice) in order to get it dislodged.  We weren't able to get the anchor down, so we had to leave the webbing and the recovery rope lodged in the rock.  After another 100 yards there was a very narrow, step-wise drop into water, that looked tricky, so we set up a rappel and worked our way down.  I stayed to spot people as they came down, so I was the second to last person to round the corner and see the virgin river–600 feet below us.

It was immediately obvious that things had gone wrong, but there was a vague hope that maybe what looked like a sudden drop straight down the side of a cliff was somehow something else, but on further inspection it was exactly that.  By this time it was around 7'oclock, we were tired and hungry, and we were coming to terms with the fact that we were stuck.

I think now is a good time to point out that I couldn't have asked for a better group of people get trapped in a canyon.  Every single person was optimistic, level headed, competent, and very tough.  No one panicked.  No one even cried.  We just realized we needed to turn around and find a way out as soon as possible.

In which poor choices are made:
We scrambled back up the tricky narrow rappel, helping each other up as we went.  There was a very scary moment where I was pulling Karly up that I slipped a little bit, but I didn't let her fall to her death, so there's that. As we got back into the 100 yards between the two rappels, it seemed like our best bet was to scramble up the side of the canyon.  It looked very doable, with several platforms in between, so Parker grabbed the rope and worked his way up the side of the canyon.  Meanwhile I looked around a bit to try to find a better way out, but it looked bad the way we came, so Parker climbed.

When he was about 40 feet up it became clear that this was a bad idea.  He was trying to scramble up to a little shelf that was covered in sand, and he had very little grip.  There was a moment where it looked like he was about to fall.  Suddenly we realized that it was very possible that we were about to watch our friend fall to his death. By his account, he made it over by the grace of God, and from what I saw I believe him.  I don't think I have ever seen someone so clearly aware of the fact that they were about to die.  Throughout this. there was a whole lot of praying–that we would get out, that Parker wouldn't die, that he could have the strength to keep going and think clearly after hiking all day long on 3 hours of sleep–and a fair share of witty remarks, because if you can't laugh in the face of possible death, how do you expect to survive?

By now it was getting somewhat dark and very cold.  Parker was getting nearer to the top, and he asked for a bag with water, a flashlight, and keys.  He lowered the rope down and we tied it on and sent it up to him.  And then we huddled together for warmth and chatted to pass the time.  Occasionally rocks would fall down, which was somewhat terrifying both for us and for him.  He was kind enough to tell us each time that he was not dead.  It got dark, and the light from his flashlight was the only sign that he was still up there, risking his life.  By now we were a lot more interested in his survival than our escape, so when he made it within sight of the top only to find that it was impossible, we were just happy that he made it down.

In Blackest Night:
That night was cold.  We were all in light clothing.  I was fortunate to have brought a sweatshirt, and a beanie that I let Karly use. (This was a bit of a bummer, because with a sweatshirt and beanie I was actually pretty toasty, but being toasty when your friends are dangerously close to hypothermia isn't as enjoyable as you might hope.) We spooned together for warm with me on the end next to Doug, so I can finally cross that off my bucket list.  I have never in my life had a longer, colder, or more depressing night.  In retrospect, I consider that a huge blessing, lots of people do that sort of thing regularly.

Around 7 it started getting light, but it stayed cold until noon.  Parker was spent. The climb and near-death experience had taken a lot out of him, and he said he wasn't sure if he would ever climb again.  There was some debate as to what we should do next.  We had water filters, so we had plenty of water, and we had enough food for another day or so.  We knew that some people should know that we were gone, and we hoped that they would call rescue and find us.  Another death defying stunt seemed unwise, but Karly and I were somewhat set on not spending another night in that canyon.  Neither of us had been able to stop thinking about the rope that was still wedged in the rappel we came down on.  Once it was warm enough to move around, I set out to exploring. The rope seemed extremely secure, but it certainly wasn't safe to climb up a rope that could slip out at any minute.  So that went on the back burner while we surveyed our little canyon home.

The Escape:
The entrance to the canyon consisted of a narrow canyon wall with a huge boulder wedged in the gap.  This boulder was probably around twenty feet in diameter, and very roughly conical.  Behind it sand had built up and beneath it limestone had developed, making a small, and very cool little cave.  Doug, who had joined me in surveying the canyon, was nice enough to lift me into the little cave, which was probably about ten feet off the ground.  It worked it's way back behind the boulder and up towards a shelf that formed a sort of platform over looking our little canyon prison.  I climbed up along the boulder and was about ten feet from the shelf, but I was too afraid of falling to go for it.  It seemed climbable, and I could taste freedom, but I didn't feel safe, so I came back down.

On our way back, we saw another little path up to that shelf, that looked incredibly doable.  There were tiny ledges in the wall that went straight up to the shelf.  I asked Parker to come take a look at it, to see if he thought it was doable, and then I decided to go for it.  I got within one move of the top, but it was sketchy.  I was wearing tennis shoes, and I didn't trust my feet to stick.  Falling would be messy with uneven rock to the left, and a twenty foot drop to the right.  The last move would have required a bit of a jump to what could be a very doable hold, or a death trap, so I bailed.  Parker took a shot at it, but couldn't get it either.   I tried it in his chacos, which have a nicer grip, but I still didn't like it.  He was about to try crimping his way up (which is climber-speak for the tiny, half inch holds that require a ton of strength and put a lot of strain on your fingers), but before he did I mentioned the little cave route, and we took a look at that.  Doug helped him in (which was impressive, since Parker, although light, has a good twenty pounds on me).  Parker felt a lot better about this one, because the fall would have only been around 20 feet onto water and soft sand, so he worked his way over to where I stopped, and then went for it.  After another somewhat worrisome moment where he found that the shelf was less level than we initially thought, he made it out.

There have been very few times in my life that I felt as much joy as when I saw Parker climb out of that canyon.  At around the same time the sun came out.  We were going home.

Michelle, showing us what freedom feels like
Many Happy Returns:
As is often the case with adventures, the resolution took somewhat longer than you'd hope.  Although Parker was out, to get everyone else out was still a bit of a chore.  Climbing up a rope is not as easy as you might expect, but we did manage to get out, and then we worked our way out of the canyon.  We did manage to get lost one more time, and found ourself in another precarious and difficult position.  There was a moment when Parker had run up a mountain to scope it out, and everyone else was grabbing water that I just sat, exhausted and worried that we were never going to make it out in one piece, but Parker came back, we drank water (which was excellent) and he led the way out.  By 9:30 we were kissing the highway and feeling incredibly grateful to be free.

And then we drove home.

So that's what happened.  I'm worried I haven't adequately conveyed the experience, and I haven't even begun to address all the things I learned and realized because of it.

In short, life is precious and emergency blankets are a no-brainer.

A Brief Afterward: 
In case you are wondering, it turns out we did the wrong canyon.  There's a slightly smaller canyon to the west of Fat Man's Misery that we wound up in, which drops precipitously into the virgin river rather than getting there gradually.  It's a lovely canyon, just be sure to turn right at the fork.