Travel: Finding spiritual depth in a remote Grand Canyon tributary
June 24, 2011
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. – Watching my 18-year-old son, Tait, backing off the rim of Olo Canyon above a 100-foot drop brought on a parental jolt. Would the rope hold? Was the anchor secure? Was this the last time I would see my son alive? It sounds melodramatic, but these thoughts flooded my mind on an amazing day in March.
I realize now that all parents watch their children back off a metaphorical cliff and drop into the void. Such is the acceptance of adulthood for one’s offspring, and there was no finer place for me to witness it than deep within the Grand Canyon, one of the wildest, most exotic, physically challenging places I’ve ever been.
Our adventure began in the dead of winter with an invitation from our friend Randy to join him on a “walkabout” in the Grand Canyon. This would not be a typical trip on designated trails, but rather a novel adventure on a precarious foray of Randy’s choosing. We would follow routes through this vast gorge that only a handful of canyoneers had ever done before. Tait and I broke it to his mother that this would be his high school graduation gift. She sighed long and deep, and we signed on with reckless abandon.
A string of e-mails followed that gradually outlined the trip as a series of rappels, the longest of which was a hundred feet. When not dangling spider-like over some precipice, we would bushwhack through terrain that rarely sees another human footprint: the domain of wild horses, bighorn sheep and nature spirits. I mention the latter because, on this trip, we came to accept that spirits are the unseen part of nature that touches each of us individually. Over the course of a week in the Canyon, the spiritual touch was deep and lasting.
But it was the rappels, something I had never done before, that nagged me for weeks before the trip. Our hurried training took place in the Seven Castles behind my house where we hiked to the top of a cliff and Randy set an anchor on a stout tree. Tait helped me into a climbing harness and I edged over the 60-foot drop. Trusting to a thin filament of rope requires a faith-based mental shift. Leaning back on the harness with nothing below was gripping, but with coaching from Randy and Tait, I did it several times, feeling more relaxed with each rappel. I discovered that the first steps over the brink are the hardest, but once on the cliff face, the Spider Man in you comes out with a startling sense of exhilaration. I began to anticipate the 100-foot drop into Olo with excitement instead of dread.
Our practice proved essential because the rappels we faced in the Canyon were considerably more precarious than our training rappel. One rap swung us over a jutting boulder directly under the gush of an icy waterfall. Another landed us in a slot canyon with shoulder-deep pools through which we carried our packs above our heads. Others required careful footing on wet, slimy rock that made us super-cautious about tweaking an ankle or banging a knee. The Grand Canyon is a “no-injury” zone, far too remote for an easy evacuation. Other than carrying a First Aid kit, injury simply didn’t figure into our plans.
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Christopher and Linda joined us from Santa Fe, and the five of us slung on heavy backpacks on a remote mesa 35 miles from South Rim Village. Weighted down with ropes and several days of food, we headed into the unknown. A trip like this forms fast friendships, and the first galvanizing test was a 10-mile hike across the cloud-swept mesa, an enduring plod that traced the Canyon rim.
Christopher is an artist blacksmith with certain eccentricities, and Linda is a well-reasoned registered nurse with a caring demeanor. They are in their early 60s and are highly attuned to outdoor trials. Christopher has paddled the Grand Canyon, solo, five times. Linda has trekked and climbed in Asia, into the highest mountains in the world. Hiking 10 miles with full packs was a gentle introduction to our dramatic plunge into the Canyon depths, which began by slipping and sliding down a steep, muddy track pounded out by wild horses. The crux move required stepping gingerly across a ledge with enough exposure to hold my attention – and my breath.
From there we threaded down a steep ramp through a tangle of barbed shrubs and snaring rocks that ripped both flesh and fabric. We eventually rolled out onto the Esplanade, a rambling plateau that contours the Grand Canyon on both sides of the river at about the mid-Canyon level. We camped at a side canyon where a small pool held enough water to fill a pot and boil Ramen noodles. Sleep came early to exhausted bodies and wondering minds.
The morning dawned clear, sunny and enticing. The big rappel was planned for that afternoon, and it pulled us along the Esplanade, scrambling through deep gullies and contouring steep, loose side hills. Lifting our eyes to the sights around us elicited constant awe, and it was in an elevated state of awareness that we dropped into a side canyon of Olo. Tait was soon stripped down to his boxers and leaping from a pour-over into a deep, shimmering pool. His youthful exuberance was infectious, and we all felt the adventure growing the farther we hiked.
By late afternoon we reached the main gorge of Olo, where the earth splits in a narrow crack. Randy and Christopher set the anchors and prepped the ropes. Below was the dim recess of a slot canyon from which there was no turning back. This was our moment of total commitment.
Canyon wrens sang their melodic trills as, one by one, we dropped into Olo. Rather than a boisterous cheer when we had all reached the canyon floor, there was only a hushed silence and reverential whisper. We were not triumphal in our approach, but humble within this channel of solid rock reaching up to a narrow swath of sky.
We built a small fire as darkness fell, trying to find in the flickering light a sense of warmth and comfort. We ate a light dinner and rolled out our pads and sleeping bags on beds of pebbles. An owl hooted with a reverberating echo as it hunted the rimrock overhead. Stars filled the gap in the cleft, and we felt diminutive and invisible to the rest of the world.
We were up early for tea and oatmeal, then shouldered our packs and moved carefully down the boulder-strewn canyon floor. Linda was ahead at one point, and when we came to a passage choked off by enormous boulders, she was nowhere to be seen. A call was answered by a muted reply, and there was Linda, lowering herself down a rabbit hole, her head and shoulders barely visible in a narrow tunnel. We handed down packs and followed suit.
Four tricky and time-consuming rappels were required to get us down Olo to the river. We had planned a meeting with friends on a river trip that included Randy’s two daughters. Our final rappel over a 30-foot pour-over landed us at river level to the cheers of the boaters, who welcomed us with hugs, smiles and cold beer.
Watching the river slide between sheer walls made up by an enormity of rock layers reaching to the distant rims touched us in a mystical way. Riding with the celebratory boaters two miles downriver landed us at Matkatamiba Canyon, where we were feted by the river runners during a resplendent feast they prepared for us. In exchange, Randy provided news updates on the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan and the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. He invited the young boaters to climb Mt. Akaba with him the next day, requiring a 5 a.m. start. We were early to bed, sleeping under the night sky on the sandy river bank, lulled by the soft rush and sucking swirls of the mighty Colorado.
The sound of Randy stirring in the first dim light of dawn woke me from a kaleidoscope of strange dreams that swirled through my subconscious like the river. I had been up the Matkat Trail before and knew that a massive chock stone blocking a narrow section of canyon would require climbing skills. I became fixated on that objective, hoping to make the moves with my pack full of food, which Randy had arranged as a resupply from the river runners.
By the time Tait and I had our gear packed, Randy’s headlamp was a pinpoint flicker a quarter mile down canyon, where the Matkat trail climbs some ledges. We hurried to the river camp and wolfed down toast and eggs prepared by Randy’s youngest daughter, Tarn. She and a half-dozen of the young men were jamming sandwiches and granola bars into packs. According to Randy’s instructions, they included headlamps, forewarning a big day in the canyon.
Tait and I were the last ones out of camp, trailing after the Akaba climbers, who were hurrying after Randy in the early morning gloom. As we stumbled down a dim pathway, we heard a voice from above. Randy was standing atop a 20-foot cliff and pointed out a route. We handed up our packs and were quickly on the trail behind him, having gained a half-hour on the others. We followed Randy across a series of ledges and ramps 100 feet above the snaking river. The first glow of morning illuminated the inner gorge with an orange hue as we turned into the deep canyon of Matkat where a stream trickled over the slickrock. Soon we were moving through a succession of bouldering moves and barefoot wading pools.
It wasn’t long before the Akaba climbers caught us, buoyed with excitement for the climb of Akaba with Randy, who would guide them up a technical, belayed route. Their pace was much faster than mine, and since I had no intention of climbing the peak, I happily let them pass. Tait, however, was as charged as they were, and he matched them stride for stride, disappearing with them around the next bend. Randy and I were left plodding behind, quietly celebrating the reverential hush in this gorge of indescribable beauty.
The chock stone was difficult. Fortunately, the others had fixed a rope that eased the crux move. Every day of this trip had at least one crux move, plus a constant note of uncertainty that played on my mind and kept me focused on what was to come. In his earlier e-mails, Randy had mentioned a particularly dramatic ledge we would traverse in upper Matkat, a visual element that now became my sole preoccupation. Freedom from constant foreboding would only come from reaching the very top rim.
When Randy and I finally caught the youngsters, miles up the canyon, they were resting and eating. I checked in with Tait and saw that he was ebullient. As the youngest hiker, he had kept the pace, despite the weight of his full pack, and he was beaming with accomplishment. Randy instructed them to fill water bottles from a pool beneath the last pour over. He then led us up a debris fan and out of the lower gorge of Matkat. At the top, a burro trail meandered a narrow rim.
Tait and Randy shed unnecessary gear from their packs, and Randy led the climb up toward the Esplanade, threading through cliff bands and negotiating ledges. I wished them well and hiked the “burro highway” up to a side canyon filled with pools of cool, clear water. I filled water bladders for camp that night and enjoyed my time alone – just me and the nature spirits. Sensing an unseen presence is a comfort to me. There exists in wilderness emotive influences I can only attribute to the connective spirit of nature, and I let it flow through me during this passage of solitude.
Christopher and Linda joined me later that afternoon, having started from camp after a leisurely breakfast. They found cozy accommodations near the side canyon in a small cave at the rim of the inner gorge. Randy and Tait arrived at camp hours later showing signs of exhaustion tinged with elation. Their climb had been successful, and they collapsed on their sleeping pads beneath an overhanging ledge where we would spend the night, within earshot of the cave dwellers.
The next two days passed in a blur of storm and confusion. Winds howled and roared that night, blowing sand onto our faces and buffeting us in our sleeping bags. We were groggy the next morning and joined the cave dwellers to shelter from the wind and enjoy a pancake breakfast Randy served on stone platters. In the quiet of the cave we felt downright Pleistocenian.
Christopher was eager for a solo climb of Akaba, and since we were planning a rest day, Randy gave him instructions and we sent him off with good wishes. Randy had left a fixed rope at the climb and asked him to retrieve it. Christopher waved good-bye, and we didn’t see him for 24 hours. This was not part of our plan, and it took us through a maelstrom of emotions capped by despair, especially as a powerful storm roared in that night, lashing with thunder, lightning, rain and snow. The cave kept us dry, but we could only imagine what agony Christopher might be enduring lost or injured on Akaba.
Sleep that night was fitful and worrisome, even as the storm cleared by midnight and moonlight bathed the canyon.
We were awake at first light, fearing the worst for our lost friend. The mood was very low as Randy and Tait slung on packs to search for what we feared would be Christopher’s body. I tried to console Linda, who was deeply upset but beautifully stoic about it. A close friend to Christopher and his wife, Linda said her greatest dread was calling home to report a tragedy.
Half an hour later, we heard shouts from Tait and Randy, who had met Christopher on the burro trail. He had returned after a harrowing night, having rappelled on the rope by moonlight off a cliff on which he had become stranded. His climb of Akaba was successful, but he had gotten twisted around on the way back and was benighted, forced to shelter on hands and knees beneath a low overhang while the storm raged. He walked the rest of the night to keep himself warm, at one moment startling a bighorn ram that bolted past him.
With all of us back in the cave, I fried up slices of canned Spam, several of which Christopher wolfed down. He drank a steaming cup of tea and sank into his sleeping bag like a hibernating bear. He slept two hours before we roused him for the climb out of the canyon. He shambled out of the cave and joined us in the sun on the canyon floor. He stripped off his clothes and plunged into a deep pool like a polar bear. This shook off his fatigue and put on his pack with a smile. “Shall we go?”
We contoured up to a narrow ledge – the one Randy had foreshadowed earlier – and scooted delicately above a 50-foot drop. Next came a 20-foot pour-over that required a roped belay to ascend. Up the canyon we went, filling our water containers at the last pothole before clawing our way up the long, steep, often exposed ramps to the rim; much of it on slippery, snow-covered grass. Our final camp was reached that night by headlamps in the pitch dark. We fired up the stove and fried tortillas with melted cheese beneath a canopy of stars. A distant glow at the horizon was Las Vegas.
The next morning we faced another 10-mile walk across the mesa, which gave us time to ponder the whole experience. Words can describe the events and the places, but the cumulative emotional impact can only be weighed, over time, by a new spiritual depth that this great national landscape had given us.