I did a thing that was supposed to be a little bit scary and a lot of fun but it took an abrupt turn into pure scary.
I went with a group of teenagers, other adult leaders like me, and canyoneering experts/guides into Birch Hollow canyon for a rappelling adventure. And boy, was it an adventure!
Our main guide, lovely man that he was, had seriously underestimated our group’s novice level, the distance to the first rappel, the distance from the last rappel to the staged truck (parked near where we would come out of the canyon), and the weather. The hike in was not easy. But it was hard to gauge the distance since our guide would say we were halfway there no matter how close or far away from “there” we really were.
The guide had taken what he thought was a similar group through the same canyon a couple of weeks before and it had taken 6 hours to do the whole canyon with them. It took us 12 hours.
I have been rappelling before but it was here:
Which is kinda different than here:
Also, I did that other rappelling more than 15 years ago. So. Yeah. Now, I’m older, chubbier, and scaredy-cat-er. Also, I may have been the most experienced rappeller in the group, besides the guides. Awesome.
This is a picture of the fist bit of our first rappel (although this is not us or anyone in our group. Thank you internet for stolen images. Let the copyright infringement lawsuits commence):
All in all, there were 11 rappels (I don’t even know if that is a word. Is that a word?). At the third rappel, it started pouring rain on us. We made the unanimous decision to keep working our way down the canyon rather than going back; a decision we later regretted.
Before it rained, the guides told us about a group of girls they had taken down a canyon who had to rappel in the dark. Apparently, that group’s theme was “Fear Not” and they were, it seemed, on purpose, doing activities that helped the girls realize how courageous they were. As our day got wetter and longer, the guides stopped telling us that story. I’m sure they realized we were about to become the new story.
We reached this fun obstacle (but picture it wet and more slippery):
The guide suggested I should “slide” down the red, smooth rock on the left of this picture. I did. and wedged myself very nicely between the two boulders at the bottom. He had everyone else go down the way this smart fellow is doing in the picture. Go figure.
The rappels were supposed to be getting “easier” but the rain made them slick and the cold made it difficult to keep our muscles from seizing. Right before it got dark, we made it to the 100-foot rappel. This picture was taken by someone in our group. It was the last picture taken before it was too dark and everyone put away their cameras because everything we owned was soaked through.
Slikery no? This drop was incredibly difficult because our ropes were soaked and sandy with dirt so we had to work really hard to pull the rope enough to allow any downward movement.
Once we hit the bottom of this drop, it was dark.
Earlier, we told the group at our camp (those who did not want to come rappelling) that we would be back around 8 or 9 p.m. – based on how long it had taken the guides the last time they took a group to that canyon. At about 11 p.m., they began to worry. By 2 a.m., they were terrified. We were too.
We kept making our way down the canyon, two jackets and 4 or 5 headlamps between the 14 of us. We got pretty banged up. It wasn’t fun anymore.
We did this rappel in the pitch black dark of night:
But picture it more like this:
No one did it well and I once again managed to wedge myself between those two lovely boulders at the top.
After four or five of those black drops where one person with a headlamp shone the way from the top and the other on belay shone their light from the bottom, we made it to the bottom of the canyon at midnight.
We walked through the muddy riverbed for half an hour, tried to send word to camp that we were safe, not knowing they never got the message. Then we made it to the affectionately named Heart Attack Hill. It was about a 70 degree angle straight uphill, and muddy as all get out. The guides had to scramble up to a tree, tie a rope and throw it down so that one by one we could pull ourselves up. We made our way up the incline, scrambling, re-tying, and pulling, trusting it would be over soon, knowing we couldn’t stop. It was still raining incessantly.
And then the guides got lost.
I don’t blame them. The trail, in broad daylight, wasn’t much of one but in the dark and with the rain? It was impossible to see. So, we backtracked a bit. Then we forward tracked a bit. Then we scrambled with a rope up what certainly was not the trail. Then we prayed. We did some more scrambling. Nobody cried. Nobody lost it. We were numb.
The prayer and scrambling and guides did the trick and we found our way to the top of heart attack hill and made it to the staged truck, where all 14 of us crammed ourselves inside for the most harrowing 4-wheel-drive experience of our lives.
I don’t think we drew a breath for the whole ride – which was probably for the best because it did not smell lovely. We were muddy, bloody, and gross. But that ride was scary too. To the right of the truck was certain death if we slipped off the canyon road. To the left was less life-threatening but a guaranteed night in the canyon if we got stuck. A cheer went up when we hit the paved road.
Another cheer went up when we hit the camp. Finally. At 2:20 a.m.
The Search and Rescue call was cancelled and that was that.
But it wasn’t really. It isn’t. I can’t stop thinking about it. Reliving it. Dreaming it. I haven’t slept. I didn’t realize until I hit my doorstep, truly and wholly home, that it broke me.
I know it’s a thing that I will look back on, that the kids will look back on and think, no matter what, I can do hard things because I remember I survived that. So, the experience has deep value. You have to have a thing like that tucked up your sleeve for all of the difficult and scary this life has to offer.
When you are in a canyon and your life is on the line, you do what you need to. You find super-human strength, you trust your guides, you put one muddy foot in front of another, and you go back for it when your shoe gets sucked into the mud. But you push on. You hug your friends and you encourage them. They are strong you say and you try to believe it about yourself too because what else is there? You will be strong or, or, or, what?
You try so hard not to think about the people who love you, who are waiting for your return, the people who depend upon you, who could not do without you.
I am home now with the people who need me most. I’m trying to shake off the physical consequences of being 42, banged up and bloodied, and aware of muscles I never knew could ache. I’m also trying to shake the what-ifs and the nightmares. The muscles will get better as soon as I go back to not using them again, and I’m sure I’ll be able to file the experience in my brain for ready reference under “I can do hard things.”
But right now, even though I am warm, even though my fingers aren’t clutching a rope, even though I can see, even though I can walk a few steps and see my people are all safe and sound; I still sit a little scared, a little permanently scarred.