Category Archives: Canyons

Hack Canyon, Ch. 6: Of False Summits

As I walked, I muttered.  I do that.  I play out conversations before they happen.  Sometimes I have conversations with myself that I know will never happen or never happen that way, and I play them out in various iterations, testing them for the way they make me feel.  I am always surprised when fragments of those speeches, scripted by me in the absence of any interlocutor and with no intention of ever using them bubble up in the actual conversations that ensue.

In knew my co-leader, Robin, and I would be debriefing the event in time.  His leaving the map we worked so hard to get in the car constituted a screw-up of no small measure, not for the slip of mind, the forgetting, but for the lack of awareness that forgetting the map had put the group at risk.  It was the void of concern that allowed the forgetting to happen that troubled me most.

I had left my pack where I had left the group and so I was able to walk fast.  I had a rain jacket and a water bottle, and the stepped cadence of my pace against which to think it all through.

My intuition – the teacher in me – very naturally raised the question, “What is the right thing to do?  What does Robin need to hear from me right now?  What is the right speech in this moment?”

The outdoor leader in me sighed and held back despair.  How many more times can this happen?  How many more challenges can we meet?  Things had just begun to go smoothly and now this.  Not that walking a mile and a half back to get the map was anywhere close to breaking the deal, but this after everything else, coupled with how unnecessary it was, and how avoidable, I found difficult to take.  And the group, in this weather, in this canyon, shouldn’t be split.

And it felt somehow like a false summit.  Hiking out of camp this morning and settling into a rhythm with everything we needed on our backs had felt like arriving.  Finally.  And then this.  Again.  Like a false summit.  The feeling of pushing oneself for so long on the slopes of a mountain, all to gain a summit, to get somewhere, and feel something, waiting and working to feel something, and then attaining the mountain peak to find that it is just one more summit in a succession of summits and the next one is still 2000 feet up and 2 miles distant.  There’s nought to do but sigh, keep back despair, and keep moving.  Just keep reacting, keep making good decisions, and keep moving forward.

As in life, I suppose.

Soon I began to enjoy my solo walk, and I resolved not to bring the mistake up with Robin, but to let it come up, as I knew it would.  A bit passive, perhaps, but a part of me wanted him to think about it, to stew in it.  A part of me felt that if I addressed it with him straight off, if I gave him the opportunity to own it too soon and move on too easily, it wouldn’t stick.  I wanted this one to stick.  I wanted him to live with it so that it would stick.

And again I felt bad ass – this time for hoofing it back to the car, for retrieving the map without missing a beat, and for mentoring my co-leader.

By the time I got back to my pack, having been to the car and having found the map on the dash where I expected to find it, it was late.  As I hiked on fast down canyon, the diffusion of light through the torment of clouds was dimming.  The fading of the light was imperceptible, but over spans of time I could discern a deepening pall in the canyon.  First detail went in twilight, then larger features, and soon I thought of my headlamp.  Night was drawing the canyon in, shrinking it to the size of what I could see clearly.  Soon, I knew, under the blanketed, starless sky, I would be navigating by a pool of light that shone from my forehead.

Where I pulled off my pack in the wash to retrieve my headlamp there was a skull.  A cow that had died up stream and whose coyote-scattered parts had been washed down with the cobbles and had come to rest here, where I was resting and searching for a light.  Before I continued on, I propped the skull on the stream bank and stacked a cairn beside it.

The first thunder I heard was far off.  It came as a distant rumble.  I didn’t even see the flash.  But it drew near quickly and in the dark of the night canyon I could see flashes light up the clouds from miles away.

Counting the seconds between light and sound is a habit.  Flash.  One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four, and so on.  It turns out that sound takes about five seconds to travel a mile.  And light travels a mile virtually instantaneously.  That means that if you begin counting when you see a flash of lightning (one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three…), you can gauge the distance of the lightning strike by how many seconds elapse before you hear the thunder.  Five seconds to every mile.  The troubling thing is that lightning bends and slants and can strike miles away from the thunderhead that produced it.  Lightning within eight miles is cause for concern.  Lightning within four miles should initiate a lightning drill.

The canyon was shrouded in total darkness now and the rain came down intermittently. A steady wind buffeted me with 10 to 15 knots.  I wondered how far the group had made it and if there was a real chance that I would miss them in the canyon, walking in the dark and right on by.  And then a flash like the epicenter of a bomb lit up the entire canyon and light pulsed all around me.  Everything was illuminated for a just a moment.  I would have counted the seconds but the thunder came almost instantly.  It was loud.  Boomingly loud.  Louder than one might expect and it shook me.  Reverberating the walls of my chest.  It stopped me in the wash, startled and breathless.  I waited, half expecting it to happen again.  In a few moments the rain came down in sheets.

I hoped and expected, really, that wherever the group was, that last strike had sent my leaders into a lightning drill with the kids.  That was the right thing to do and standard protocol in backcountry situations with students.  But as for me, I kept walking.  I needed to be reunited with the group.  I kept moving forward and I began to mutter again.  Maybe I hadn’t ever stopped, but I began to rehearse conversations with myself that I hoped I wouldn’t have to have.  Conversations about lightning drills, about camp siting, about getting the kids fed and keeping them dry and warm and into their sleeping bags in the tents.  God help us to have the tents set up already.

I think I kind of imagined all sorts of things having gone wrong in my absence.  I knew -or trusted, rather – that they hadn’t but it was a kind of self doubt, I was beginning to realize.  Every new thing that went wrong or not quite right, caused me to doubt the choice to go down into the canyons at all.  Maybe it was the wrong decision.  My worst case scenario involved a kid struck by lightning and rain swelling the dry arroyo in a flash flood, rain turning to snow, and all of our gear getting soaked.  Things were seeming pretty tenuous to me at that moment and they could go from tenuous to very bad very quickly.

As I turned the bend in the rain-wet but as yet not flowing stream bed and saw the single light shining at me from far down canyon, I kept thinking to myself, “Breathe, hold back despair, make good decisions, and keep moving forward.”

Hack Canyon, Ch. 5: Audaces fortuna iuvat

We were out and off that morning and feeling good.  A wind was up, blowing right down the canyon and with purpose.  It wasn’t a breeze and it wasn’t a gale.  The wind that met us that morning as we packed up our trailhead camp and hoisted our backpacks over rain gear was the persistent kind, a portentous wind that originates far off and has the force of weather behind it.  Some people say you can smell rain coming.  I never have or never thought so.  But I have felt the presentiment of rain in the wind.  It is an intensity of purpose you feel.  Wind like that has inertia to it.  Like an intent or a promise.  It blows and it will blow.

Standing in the trail head parking area packing up my backpack and anticipating the necessary sequence of events that would lead to our group’s prompt departure and our safe hike down the canyon, I found myself glancing distractedly up canyon every minute or so.  The view was clear far up canyon to the sheer walls and the serpentine road that had carried us here.  I could see the clouds darkening above the red rock cliffs of Upper Hack Canyon, but they had not touched us yet.  And then, in the span of a moment’s glance at my backpack and the stuffing of another bag of gear, it all disappeared.  Where there had been sheer canyon walls, rusty red and layered in blacks and yellows, there was now only a white cloud, a great pale smear of thickening haze.  An erasure of topography.  It was not quite cold enough to snow, but I felt the air chill as I watched the squall sweep down canyon toward us.

“Let’s hurry it up, folks.  We want to be out of here in ten minutes,” I thundered.  “And keep your rain gear handy.”  There was little chance of avoiding the weather, and ten minutes was less than half as much time as we needed to get on the trail, but it was important to hurry my students along.

More motivating than my exhortation was the rain itself.  As the first drops began to fall heavily on head, hat, and backpack, I saw my students begin to pack with urgency, and sure enough, in haste we were off.  It was still raining as we began hiking, but it had lightened a bit and the clouds blew through, squall upon calm, in broken formations.

An hour later, we stopped to hydrate.  Finally we had settled into a hiking rythym.  We weren’t preparing anymore, not driving or cogitating about road conditions or our lack of a map.  In a stroke of providence that I had mistaken for good fortune but didn’t yet know it, we had gotten a map.  Like a gift from the desert itself, Ranger Todd had shown up, in the dark, with lights blazing, at just the right moment with everything we needed.  A map, information, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and with all that, we had come away with a plan.  And now it was happening.  I felt triumphant and, yes, it is true, I confess it, bad ass.

Audaces fortuna iuvat, I couldn’t help thinking.  Fortune favors the bold.

It was time to step it up, to put the kids in charge of the map, and to assign a leader for the afternoon.  We had been on the run, off balance and trying to gain our footing for more than a day now.  But it was finally happening.  Finally, it was time to go live with the curriculum of the trip.

I checked in with my co-leader.  “You got the map?”

It was a rhetorical question, a bad habit of mine, perhaps, a weak attempt at comical nonchalance.  In a more straightforward mode, I would have said, “Give me the map so I can brief the kids on the afternoon.”  But what came back threw me.  Again.

“Nope.  You have it.”  My co-leader thought I was messing with him.  And admittedly I do.  In eight out of ten situations he is right.  But not this time.  The thought flashed through my mind that he was messing with me, but I knew, somewhere deep, even before I was aware of knowing, that he was not messing with me either.  He didn’t have the map.

And I didn’t have the map.  That damn map that first we didn’t have and then we had and now we didn’t again.  I expected, no, I knew he had the map because I had seen him take possession of it.  Standing in the dark the previous night, basking in the illumination of Ranger Todd and the restoration of hope, he had accepted the map, had taken it from Todd’s hand, had acknowledged the gift, and had confirmed with me, as we watched Todd disappear back into the darkness that he had the map.

It was inconceivable that we were now without it.

“I thought you had it,” my co-leader said and I could sense the slight evasion of responsibility.  Embedded in his words was don’t pin this one on me. So, I didn’t.  Fact was, I didn’t have to.  It had already been pinned.  He knew he had taken the map from Todd.  I knew it and he knew I knew it.  Nothing more at this moment needed to be said.  We would process the moment in time.

I also knew where it was, where it had to be.  “Give me the keys to your car,” I said.   The map, surely, was on the dash just where he had left it the previous night.  “I’ll go get the map.  You and Hannah take the group on down.  Try to get to the junction but find a good camp before dark.  I’ll catch up.   Just be conspicuous.”

Hack Canyon, Ch. 4: The First Step

One of the particular joys of arriving in the canyons at night is not seeing where you are until morning.  You set up camp in the dark and go to sleep blind, and maybe wonder, “What does it look like?  Is there snow?”  Because you can’t know the scale and scope of the canyons in the dark, even with a moon.  You just can’t see that far by the reflected gleam of moonlight.  Detail is lost and you can’t judge distances.  It is ghostly and ethereal.

But in the morning you wake in unfamiliar territory and stare for a few warm moments at the wet inside of your tent.  Y0ur first thought is usually about time, your second about weather.  You try to gauge both by the ambient light in the tent, but it is a crude measure.  The condensation that slowly runs down the inside of your tent doesn’t bother you; your sleeping bag is too comfortable.  But the curiosity you fell asleep with spurs something in you, creeps in and eventually wins out – like unfinished business from the night before.

Maybe you don’t even have to get out of your sleeping bag.  Maybe if you just unzip and poke your head out, that will be enough.  So you sit up, reach down to the foot of your bag, and stretch to reach the tent zipper.  With a jerk or two that inevitably ruffles the tent enough to rain gentle but cold droplets down on you and your partner, the zipper opens and you flip back the flap, and behold the world outside.

It is like being born.  You find yourself utterly transported to a foreign landscape of staggering beauty and magnitude.  The details are sharp on the canyon walls and the low sun – must be about 7am – bathes everything in soft, orange light.  Blue sky, red earth, dark streaks on the canyon walls, and a dusting of white snow layered on the prominent features – the color scheme itself is astonishingly beautiful.  You may wonder, is it really that beautiful or am I just giddy?  Am I somehow conditioned or evolved to appreciate natural scenery?  Maybe both or all three.  In any case, you are enjoying the sight and you feel like you should have been here all along.

Because it has been here.  The canyons have been here.  Just sitting.  Waiting.  All of this – the canyons, the walls, the red earth, the snow – all of this has been here and you haven’t.  What have you been doing?  What on earth have you been doing?

The canyon walls are tall and far away, so tall and so far away it is hard to conceive of their size.  You feel like you could just bolt from your tent and run there and at the same time you know it would take you an hour to get there.  The air is crisp, making your sleeping bag all the cozier, and then you remember your students and the job you have to do.  There is breakfast to organize, packs to pack, curriculum to teach.

The first step is getting dressed and out.