Saturday finds Dominic and I sore, tattered and bruised from the previous day's adventures. For better or worse, we've somehow passed the test and have been invited to the next round. We'll need to kick it up a notch as today's canyons will be of a slightly more serious nature than the two we tackled yesterday. I'm a bit apprehensive because I know some of the problems will be challenging for me, but I'm excited at the same time.
On the agenda are canyons in what has come to be known as the Dante System near Lake Powell. We'll start with Paradiso, one of the easiest of the five. Ram, our seasoned leader, was part of the first descent party and has been back several times since. I feel very lucky to be here with him.
Its a short hike down mostly slickrock slopes to the head of Paradiso and we break to armor up. The experienced canyoneers don knee pads, gloves, and tough clothing. Dominic and I, ill-prepared newbies, prepare to get more bruised up and to lose more skin.
We enter the narrow slot and the first obstacle comes immediately: a minor silo. It doesn't take long to begin dreading that word... silo. Scott Patterson writes that silos are “arguably, the most feared and dangerous obstacles of slot canyons. They are always difficult and always potentially fatal. They are also exciting, but usually only after the fact, as while you are actually climbing over them, you will be terrorized.” Imagine a grain silo made of air. Stick it down into a very narrow canyon and you have what canyoneers refer to as a silo. It might be difficult to visualize, but suffice it to say that passing silos often means wide, unprotected, exposed stemming. The drop can be large and the silo wide. Luckily this one's just a baby with a drop of about ten feet and serves as a spicy little warmup. My heart is pounding.
After a series of downclimbs, the next especially notable spot is a vertical v-slot drop of about twenty feet. Ram demonstrates the elevator technique. He acts like a human cam and does a “controlled fall” to the floor. The view from the top terrifies me but I trust Ram and force myself to follow his instructions. After some minor figuring out - Ding, I'm down! Its actually quite fun and an important technique I'll utilize over and over again.
The canyon is quite physical. We're constantly downclimbing tricky little drops, scrambling over chockstones, taking elevators, squeezing through narrow constrictions, and stemming in every which way. Its a ton of work but very fun. Ram has taken me under his wing to help me improve my canyoneering skills so I can move more efficiently. Despite being a long time canyoneering guru with hundreds of first descents under his belt, he is surprisingly in touch with my beginner mistakes and is a tremendous help. I follow him and try mimic his movements. I'm now downclimbing drops that I would have whined to rappel on previous canyoneering trips. Being out with the big boys has forced me to suck it up and push my limits... and I'm loving it. I'm still by far the weakest link today amongst an all-star cast, but I'm doing a decent job of holding my own.
The canyon changes nature and squeezes in. Its too skinny at the bottom to pass through so we're doing some awkward stemming at least ten feet off the deck. If we slip, we'll be very stuck. Serious business. This section is the crux of the canyon for me: a very physical challenge and a significant mental challenge as well. Forward movement takes a lot of strength and its important I find rest positions frequently. This section seems to go on for a long time.
After a while the canyon widens enough that we can get back down near the bottom and we prepare for the final rappels. The anchors that Ram's group spent time constructing on his last trip are still in place and this saves us some time.
Amidst the rappels we find a small but deep pothole filled with water. The boys bridge over it, some of them struggling a bit. I prepare to go for a swim and the boys get ready to haul me out using some webbing should I fall in. Somehow I manage to bridge the thing, my feet and head are at nearly the same level and I'm staring face down over the pool and above some air! Quite exhilarating.
We exit the canyon with big smiles and follow Ram as he weaves through the slickrock maze back toward the rim. Its decision time for me and its weighing heavily on my mind. The next canyon on the agenda is tougher. Ram gives me a yellow light: I'm welcome to come but he assures me that there are places where I'll be scared... and yes there is a silo, a more serious one... gulp. Tricks might get me through the ordeal if it turns out I can't step up to the challenge, but it'll slow the group down considerably and we are short on daylight as it is.
To complicate matters, Dominic has a green light but he's down to bare skin on the behind! A day and a half in these ridiculously abrasive canyons has eaten all the way through. Steve literally saves his ass by offering up his extra snakeskin patterned pants. Dominic's back in business and looking cooler than ever! Meanwhile I find it impossible to resist the challenge ahead and commit to the intimidating Inferno. CP decides to sleep this one out and prepares for a nap.
It turns out that the help Ram gave me in Paradiso did wonders for my technique. Ram is actually quite pleasantly surprised at my performance in Inferno and so am I! The crux is a silo, this one significantly more serious than the one in Paradiso. The sight instills much fear in me, but confidence is running high. I scrutinize the sequence Ram uses to pass over the gaping hole and get ready to try to copy it. Much to my relief he pauses in an awkward position just past the silo to coach me through. At one point I start to feel like I'm going to fall, but Ram calms my fear and and talks me through it. It feels great when its over.
There is tons more stemming off the deck and I'm exhausted at this point. Every muscle has had it. I seriously hope that my body will hold out until the exit and that I won't have to crawl back to the rim.
After several rappels we exit the canyon and the sun is setting. I'm beat but I've just had the time of my life and that gives me the fuel I need for the haul back up to the rim. Walking is painful. Laughing is painful. I'm sore on the inside and out but accolades from Ram and the feeling of accomplishment I have make it all worth it. We had an awesome team and I feel very fortunate to have been given this opportunity.