There I was, heart pumping, unable to feel my legs, waist-deep in bone-chilling cold water. I was plowing through a cave in a slot canyon in Southern Utah. The sun was due to set in the matter of an hour or two, adding pressure for us to complete our journey. Our group of twelve had diminished to five. The others had turned back, one injured, several crying, doubting and belting, “I can’t’s”.
We began our journey by hiking down into a slot canyon known as Baptist Draw. It was a dry, hot, desert afternoon in October. I was armed with enthusiasm, a pair of cheap hiking shoes, and no experience. The walls were narrow and tall with a creamy orange hue and a silky flowing appearance unlike anything I had seen before. Days prior, there had been a fair amount of rain, creating pockets of water pools in the canyon and a chill, that rose from the ground, hugging you on all sides. We encountered our first major challenge as a group: A deep pool of water smack dab in the middle of the canyon’s flowing walls. The master outdoorsman and unofficial leader of our group, Brian, quickly mastered and maneuvered his way over the water in a monkey-like fashion. He seemed to grab the walls in just the right places, with just the right pressure at just the right times, with no hesitation. The remainder of the group trembled with fear and doubt, all the while vocalizing and feeding off of one another’s energy.
In the meantime, I went back the way we came. I spotted an opportunity where I could climb up a wall, and walk along side the pool of water, instead of attempting to climb over it. So, up the wall I journeyed. Once past the water, I realized there was only one way down, scooting my butt down a very steep, rigid platform ending with a 10-12 foot drop.
By this time, Brian and another fellow, Aaron, had made it over the pool of water as the remaining members of the group watched from the other side. I scooted along on my butt and got to the drop which seemed much higher than I thought. I debated, mentally, for a good ten minutes about how to make it down as I watched the rest of the group begin unsuccessful attempts to climb around the water. I decided to quit grappling with my thoughts and jump down. No thoughts, no hesitation, just a sure and quiet confidence. This became my mantra on our journey.
Everyone got the idea that my way might be easier, and like ants, they followed. As they one by one reached the drop, the air thickened and things got intense. I think I saw at least five shed tears. We all gave our own motivational talks until they each decided they COULD do it as they reluctantly conquered their fears.
The next pool of water we came to was much bigger than the last. You could only get through it by wading and poking out your foot to detect a new rock to balance on. We dropped large rocks into the water, as they responded with deep, “plops”. My friend Miranda and I began peeling off our socks and shoes as the other group members said, “we should turn back”, “you guys are crazy”, “this is dangerous”. I didn’t really care what anyone thought. The day before, I had learned so much about myself, my ability and my will power. A handful of us were ready to venture on.
This is when our group split up. Half of the group turned around and went back and the other half plowed through it. It may sound crass, but I was happy to split apart. The negativity and “I can’t’s” were hard to tune out at times. The hike was a commitment. I didn’t feel it was safe to spend a half an hour person-by-person coaching everyone through each challenge as they were rightfully fearful. We had at least another 5+ hours to go. The truth was, it wasn’t for anyone who had the slightest bit of fear or doubt. I forget who coined this old phrase, but it rings true, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right”.
Once it was just the five of us, we ventured on. We came to a cave where there would be a 20 ft. rappel down. As I got harnessed in, I was nervous. My jaw chattered a bit. I had never reeeeally been rappelling. I mean, does a rock wall count? I watched Brian slide down effortlessly into the cave. Aaron harnessed us in and gave us calm advice about how to hold the ropes and belay down safely. I listened carefully and kept a firm belief in myself, despite any fear. I could feel the energy and excitement churning in my stomach. I hung over the dark hole and stood out, putting all of my pressure onto my feet. Slowly I crept, at my own speed, until I arrived at the bottom. Talk about a rush!
One-by-one, everyone was down in the cave. I found myself impressed and amazed with my new found friends. Aaron and Brian were amazing leaders. They seemed to know how to do it all and had all of the right equipment. The other two, Miranda and Ryan were just as motivated and ardent as myself. I felt like I couldn’t’ve been in better hands. We squeezed through tight spaces and walls, squirming, ducking and turning sideways to make it through. We were all moving with and agile speed and eagerness, on a mission for adventure.
We came out of the cave and hiked through a grassy, rocky, sunny spot. Alas, we arrived at our next obstacle: An 80 foot rappel down the side of a mountain into the slot canyon. Standing at the top with the wind blowing my hair, I began to feel the coolness of the sun moving lower into the sky. I could see the goose bumps rising up on my legs, as an anxious chill swept me over. I stood there, looking down. It was far. I was going to do it. I had to do it. I found myself really enjoying the push. Brian went down effortlessly as though he’d done it a million times! Then, it was Miranda’s turn. Her curly blonde hair was bouncing and her excitement contagious. She cracked some jokes and then calmly rappelled all the way down, landing to cheers echoing throughout the canyon.
It was my turn. I felt scared shitless. I took a deep breath and once again, pressed my feet and all of my weight into the rock wall under my shoes that were beginning to fall apart. I could feel the wind below my butt and my legs slightly shaking. My hands were sweaty as I gripped the rope. My jaw chattered again and I secretly hoped that sweaty hands wouldn’t be my demise. The side of the mountain came far out at the top, and about 30 feet down, dropped back in a considerable amount. This required a slight jump off of the wall. I stayed focused and calm, going at my own pace. Aaron & Ryan were at the top providing words of encouragement mirroring Miranda and Brian down below. I was more focused than I have ever been in my life. Within minutes, I was one of the, now three, standing at the bottom greeted with hugs and big high-fives. Ryan and Aaron both came through with equal excitement and the same quiet confidence that guided us all.
Once we were all on the ground, you could feel the energy between us. Excitement, accomplishment, and victory! The five of us were exhilarated, ready for the next challenge. Brian and Aaron had done this hike before, without the rain and water. They pointed at a small hole at the base of a the canyon we had just rappelled into. They instructed that once in the cave, there would be a quick hike through, then we would pop out and troll along hiking for about an hour before reaching the car.
We trudged into the cave like vikings ready to battle. The sand on the bottom had a flowing water-like appearance. There were no foot prints, just wet sand with evidence of floods of water powering through this gigantic structure. We came to a wall with tree limbs, rocks, bones, and other random debris in every crevice. That’s when I could feel the fear creeping up my throat. What a tight space. I climbed to the top and squeezed into a small opening, after many attempts. My arms burned with power and my spirit with accomplishment. The rest of the group saved their energies and crawled through a space they made in the bottom.
The further we went, the more pools and puddles of water we saw. We came to a pool of water that you had to climb over. You had to start the climb facing forward and then in a split second, change into a traverse position with your arms pressing into one side and feet into the other. Brian, Ryan, and Aaron all made it look so easy. I gave it a few uneasy tries. My shoes were not gripping the way I had hoped so I bared my feet once again. I thought maybe my skin would be a better grip. On attempt number four, I stood up, then went to switch positions and dropped face first into the water, landing on a rock. I burst up from the ice cold water in complete shock. Everyone else equally shocked and inquiring about my state. They had heard me smash against a rock. To my surprise, I must’ve hit that rock at just the right angle, because I was fine, just a bit banged up! And maybe my ego was bruised a bit. I trudged on, a little embarrassed.
And as per usual, on we marched! We didn’t get far before we were wading, calf deep through icy, icy water.
We reached a spot where the top of the cave opened up. At first, we thought our journey had come to an end. Then, we had the very scary realization that our journey would continue through the cave. However, this time, there was nothing but water ahead. Bone chilling, ice cold, smelly, stagnant water containing Lord knows what! We hung out for a minute, tossing around different ideas. We even talked about trying to climb out of the cave via the opening in the top. However, there were far too many shrubs and loose rocks, it was incredibly steep. Besides, we weren’t familiar with where exactly that exit was or where it would lead us. The last thing we needed was to be out, but then stranded.
At this time, it was getting late, and we were fighting the sun. Our energy had gone from victorious to a little bit afraid. Although we talked about our concerns, no one dwelled on the negative. Ultimately, we decided that the only way was through. We hadn’t planned for, nor expected this. And to be honest, it was he first time I felt as though I saw any fear in Aaron or Brian’s eyes.They voted that since I was wet, I go first to see how deep and how far it went. I was a good sport about it. The ground below my feet was smushy. An unpleasant aroma rose from the water. I came to the first bend in the cave and was now able to see past. It went further, deeper, and with more curves, it didn’t appear to have an end in sight.
To preserve their dry clothes, everyone began to strip. We got close really quick. No time for peaking or any thoughts outside of our survival.
One by one, Brian, then me, then Aaron, Miranda and Ryan, slowly entered the water. We sucked up our fears as we were soon chest deep in water. The coldest, smelliest water I have ever been in. I looked back and saw everyone holding their clothes and packs above their heads. They were cracking jokes and moving at a leisurely pace. We were in this together.
There were sections where we had to climb out of the water and up, over rocks. I could feel my legs getting beat up and began to see scratches and bruises. However, nothing mattered, not the suffering, not the scratches, not the cold or numbness. All that mattered was making it out safely. I had a fire lit under my butt that I had never experienced before. Although, we didn’t talk about it, this situation was frightening. The only thing running through my head was, “I have to get out!” I knew the sun was setting soon and in the desert, the temperatures can drop drastically. I was about two steps behind Brian the entire way. The two of us were moving so quickly that I managed to look back and not see anyone. We kept powering through, knowing but never mentioning that our survival was on the line.
The cave went through many different stages. If I can recall, the first were mellow, flowing spots. Then, there were several spots we had to climb out of and back into the water. And another spot, where we shimmied, holding onto the edge of a wall to keep our heads above water.
My feet were numb, my legs were numb. And then, we finally saw that glowing white light at the end of the tunnel! And luckily, no, it wasn’t Heaven, although it felt kind of like it!
There was a slanted and steep wall that you had to climb to get out. Brian artfully and skillfully figured it out within minutes. I couldn’t manage to get up and broke the tread of my cheap shoes trying. Much like a mouse trying to run up a slick surface, I needed help. Exiting the cave had drained my energy and took all of the fighting instincts I had in me. I was spent.
Brian put his hand on my rear, and boosted me out of the cave. I felt free. I excitedly ran as far as I could, tall orange desert rock structures surrounding me on both sides. Finally, I found a small patch of sunlight. Brian had remained at the end of the cave to greet and help the others. Five minutes went by. Then fifteen, then what felt like a half and hour. The sun was getting lower and the temperature was getting colder. The patches of sunlight shining into the canyon were scarce. I ran back to see what was going on. He and I began to worry about the others. We had been calling for them in the cave, and finally, they called back. We could see all three of their heads above water getting closer as they celebrated the end.
When they arrived to meet us, Miranda was in a slightly disoriented and in a panicked state. The guys said that she was worried that something had happened to us and freaked out. There we were, selfishly powering through. All I had thought was, “Must. Get. Out.”
Once we were all out, we hiked alongside the tall canyon walls on either side of us. Then, we hiked up and found ourselves on the edge of this gorgeous mountain plateau. On one side of the pale pink sky was the Harvest moon, brighter and more glowing than I have ever seen. On the other side, fiery shades of red and orange and one of the most magnificent sunsets. There was an aroma of victory in the air and the scenery our reward. Aaron gave me his windbreaker, but I was having a very tough time staying warm in my wet clothes.
Before we knew it, the sun had set. We found ourselves climbing down and up very steep hills with brush and two headlamps. My legs were aching, but I was so thankful for what strength I had left. After about an hour and a half to two hours of finding our way through the dark, brush and rock covered hills, we arrived at our destination. We all piled into the car, and once in, broke out into the grandest state of laughter. We did it! We made it! For the most part, we hadn’t talk about doubts, negativity or fear.
Now that we were in the safe confines of the car, we felt free to say, “What the F*&K! Holy shit!! How on Earth did we make it through!?” We talked about what a catastrophe it could have been had we urged the others to come along. There were a lot of exclamations, realizations, and what-ifs. But the fact was, we were the right group for the job!
So, to answer this question, finally–I had one of the most amazing times of my life with complete strangers. It didn’t take long for all masks to be dropped and true colors exposed. I felt gracious that the initial group weren’t good friends of mine, as I didn’t feel any obligations to anyone, or need to hold myself back.
When you can eliminate your fears, dominate your conscious, and take charge, you’d be surprised who you want on your team. You don’t really know how your friends are going to react or even how you will react in a given situation. On this trip, I learned how rewarding and exciting looking fear in the face can be, especially with the right people, strangers or not. Fear can pull things out of people that you didn’t know existed. It becomes a personal experience very quick. I am forever grateful for this life-changing camping trip and also for the ways in which I realized how much fire, strength and inner drive I really do have in me! Thanks to the strangers who then became friends.