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  • 'You might get wet up to your ankles.'

    Our guide Steffan cautioned us perhaps three or four times during our approach hike into the canyon. It was only my second rappel and I was stuck at the end of my rope. Inches behind and below me was a pothole of freezing cold water with an uncertain depth - ‘likely over my head’ - was all I knew. I looked at the canyon wall to my right, desperately searching for a foothold. Finding nothing, I looked to my left, across a small gap in the rock, where another rock wall looked to hold a promising grip, though terribly out of reach. Finally, I turned my attention to Steffan, who was anchored into the line above me. He could see the gears in my head turning, but wore a regretful look on his face that I was able to read all too well.

    'You’re just gonna have to go in, man.'

    Suddenly the burden of operating under a notion of expectation melted away, and it occurred to me that the worst thing that could happen in that moment was that I was not going to be comfortable. And when that happened, letting go of the rope made all the sense in the world. But it didn’t save me from the wide-eyed, arm flailing, scrambling shock of plunging into freezing cold water without a wetsuit. I watched my breath leave me, and somehow my hands knew how to detach my harness from the rope, so that I could lunge to the opposite wall and clamber onto the sloshy wet bank of sand.

    “Rappel clear!” I exhaled as loud as I could.

    When we initially walked into Zion Mountain School earlier that morning - a little climbing shop right on the outskirts of Zion National park, I was relieved to see that our guide was a younger guy - our age. He was standing behind the wooden counter, waiting for us.

    “Hello,” Steffan said in a friendly voice. He pointed at me, then Angie, “I have a waiver from you, but were you…”
    “I did not fill one out yet,” Angie confessed in her usual confident voice.
    “Oh,” said Steffan shortly and the look on his face dropped. “Well that’s never happened before… this is kind of embarrassing for you.”
    Much to all of our relief, a laugh bounced off the three of us and almost immediately we bonded under the safety blanket of sarcasm and playful banter.

    Two hours later we were finishing our approach hike into Water Canyon. After a quick, but informative briefing before our first rappel, we pulled on our harnesses and fit our helmets onto our heads. Somehow, as we geared up, Steffan’s younger look vanished and his years of experience, skill and patience became easily apparent. He actually looked older.

    I’ve often thought about how I actually identify myself. Mostly, I believe that if I have to tell people what my interests are, or what my job is, it almost takes away from it’s legitimacy. But if they can see it on me, that’s a kind of confirmation that I’m holding true to my goals. Human beings are visual creatures, I think, sometimes even more so than is good for us. And on an unrelated note, we shouldn’t actually care about what anyone else thinks. But for the most part, I believe that when someone is able to look at you doing something you love, and they can see that you belong there, you’re just doing it right. And by ‘it’, I mean living. They don’t see your troubles - everyone has them. They just see what matters.

    A complete stranger might see you doing your job, never say a word to you, and just assume that you’re happy. Angie once told me that as a kid, she believed all the people who she saw when she went out - at the store, a restaurant, wherever - wanted to be where they were; they wanted to be cashiers at a grocery store, they wanted to wait tables. It’s a question that I often ask myself when people watching.

    Are they happy? If they aren’t, do they have the courage to be? How much can I really know, just by looking at them for the few seconds that I’ll ever remember seeing them? Then after all these deep thoughts, I usually end with, ‘I’ve been just staring at this person for a long time now…’

    It is encouraging to see someone doing what they love. That kind of happiness is contagious. At least, when you can speculate that they love what they do. I guess you could be wrong, they might hate it with a confusingly deceptive passion. I guess you don’t always have to end up doing what you wanted, in order to be happy. That would mean that you’ve always known what you wanted. And almost no one is like that. Except for childhood prodigies. And nobody likes a childhood prodigy.

    Water Canyon, though not a true canyon, is full of differing lengths of rappels, quicksand that dropped our guide down to his waist in less than a second, and sometimes, really deep potholes of water. By the end of the day, Angie and I were in a state of awe. We had just hiked into a canyon and rappelled down it.

    We were pretty hardcore.

    Canyoneering is something that everyone sort of does differently. Sure, the general concept is the same - start at the top of the canyon, rappel/down climb/go down, exit the bottom of the canyon. But in between all of that, YOU are the one who decides how careful you’re going to be. And unlike mountaineering, or rock climbing, you are committed to finishing the canyon after only the first rappel. Once you pull that rope down, the only exit is at the other end. There’s a lot that could go wrong.

    Then Steffan said something awesome, “What I like to do in canyons that I’m not familiar with is to be conservative. Like, if I’m looking down a super steep downclimb, I’m thinking ‘Okay, I could climb down this and maybe not fall and it would take less time. Or I could rappel down and very probably not die, it just might take a little longer.’ You just gotta think risk verses reward. Can I do this, what are the risks, and is it really worth it?”

    Angie and I continued to find examples of the motto in all shapes and sizes, in the canyon and outside.

    “We could eat now, even though we’re not hungry. Because we won’t be back to the room until tonight… or we could not eat and risk getting hangry with each other and probably end up fighting…” I said to Angie one day.
    “Risk and reward,” she said simply.
    “You’re right. Let’s eat.”

    Nailed it.

    The next two days presented vastly differing types of experiences. Lambs Knoll, our second day, was basically a ten minute hike into a knot of rock. We would hike to the top, rappel down. Hike to the top, rappel down a different way. And over and over again, each time a different, longer way down. On more than one occasion, the way out once we got to the bottom, was through a tight squeeze between two massive rock walls that forced us to take our packs off and sidestep through and back out to the trail.

    Again - we were badasses.

    For the third day, we were given a choice - either back to Water Canyon, which had longer rappels than we’d done yet, but we’d have a longer hike to get there. Or to Yankee Doodle Canyon - though fewer and shorter rappels, it was a true canyon that would likely involve swimming through hallways of water. Being equally excited for what both had to offer, I left the decision with Angie, who was extremely sore from the totality of hiking we’d already done to date.

    On our third and final day of the class, we arrived at the trailhead to Yankee Doodle. Having met at our favorite local coffee shop (that has an amazing mountain view at sunrise, in case you were wondering), we were fed, caffeinated, and ready to do some canyon swimming. The first rappel was only 15 feet, but the second, which wasn’t far away, was a 70 foot drop to the canyon floor. From here, we put on our wet suits and Steffan let us take most of the reins - allowing us to make the decision on when we wanted to down climb or simply rappel. As the first swim can into view, memories from the first day flooded back, and I remembered that cold plunge into the pothole of water without a wetsuit. This was a narrow hallway of cloudy water that was idle between two rock walls about 4 feet apart. Much without my objection, Angie volunteered to go first.

    The water wasn’t as cold as we thought it would be, or perhaps it was, but the wetsuits helped. The surprise was the actual swim, which was harder than we thought it would be with all our gear on. It didn’t help that the cloudy, still canyon water splashed into my mouth with my first plunge. The hallway was narrow enough that we could use our hands to press against the walls to guide us, but our feet still couldn’t touch bottom. Once Angie and I climbed onto the sand, we were both wearing ear to ear smiles and we secretly put another dollar in the ‘I’m such a badass’ jar. Though, we thought about taking it out when we turned around to see Steffan was simply bracing himself between the two walls, shimmying to us above the water. He landed in front of us, nice and dry.

    But I think we all high-fived, nonetheless.

    The rest of the day was filled with more swimming through murky canyon water, which is a lot more fun than it sounds (if it doesn’t sound fun), and finished out with how to ascend a rope in the event a rappel doesn’t go as expected.

    On the ride home, we asked Steffan what his next move would be. Days before, he said Zion wasn’t really the best place to rappel in the winter. We were surprised when he told us about a next project that fell into his lap, “I’ll be heading down to South America to volunteer and manage a new way to naturally break down human waste using worms.”

    Mt first thought was simply, “Oh.”

    When Steffan geared up, I could see him as a climber/canyoneer/mountaineer/general outdoor dude. Mostly, this new project just came as a total surprise.

    But as he talked about why human waste is harmful, compared to animal waste, I began to see how it was actually an opportunity to make things better for the environment. His team had built a type of toilet that separates number 1 and number 2, so that worms could be utilized to break down number 2 naturally. It was cost effective, smart and if successful, could make a huge difference in preserving parts of the world. And the only thing Steffan seemed remotely worried about was that he speaks zero Spanish.

    With a final high-five and attempt at a triple selfy (where three people attempt to fit in one frame, while all taking a selfy on their own phones), Angie and I parted ways with our guide and new friend, Steffan. We exchanged phone numbers, and left with, “See you later.”

    Each of these days ended with such a feeling of accomplishment that really couldn’t be had after doing anything else. I have to confess that I’ve wanted to learn how to mountaineer for some time now. Taking a class in Canyoneering was a huge step towards that… just, down. I don’t know why, but for some time now, I’ve felt at home in the presence of mountains. I see them in my dreams. Angie always coins the phrase, “You only get to do this once.”

    We are Canyoneers now.
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