Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
Close to the Edge
by Ram

He slipped. Was it a foot or a foot and a half? He landed in my arms, in full embrace. I noted the warmth on my chest. Then he groaned ... or was it more of a subdued shriek?


Our arms are entangled in the hug. His head slides over. Then strikes. His teeth into the neoprene clad arm. My arm. He bit me. My mouth, inches from his ear.

I whisper. “You OK?”

He whispers back. “No. I just tore my knee.”

“How bad,” I whisper.

“Bad,” he whispers back.

I refuse to let panic or even worry enter. It will be OK. It will be OK. It will be OK.

He moans in pain.

Still I refuse to let it in. It will be OK. It will be OK.

He pulls back, looks me squarely in the eye, and asks me, “We are in trouble, aren’t we?”

What am I suppose to answer? The truth spills out immediately, “Yes, we are in a very bad place.”

Then I thoughtfully add, “... if you can’t walk. Can you?”

He answers without words. His eyes say it all. He doesn’t know ... and he is worried. I refuse to be. But the knot in my belly belies my denial. It will be OK, It will be OK ... I hope.

I call back to our partner, “We got trouble!”

We have an hour or two—for healthy canyoneers—of very physical and challenging canyon below us and 3 and half hours or so of daylight to do it in ... if we can.

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The day started just like the day before and the day before that. Up with the sun. Check on and sort the drying or dried gear. Pack, a bit of breakfast and into the boat. The captain of the boat often has a ruin in mind to explore. Maybe an inscription to find, once he dropped off these silly fellows that make habit of following the planet’s natural sewer systems called canyons. The ancient ones traveled the canyons but perhaps always with purpose? Get water? Hunt game? Did they have the time or inclination to have fun in such places? Did they see the beauty or just the obstacles? I wonder.

The boat noses to the rock and we jump off, one by one. As we set to go our separate ways for the day, words of encouragement and caution go back and forth. The mantra of ‘Safe passage’ is passed back and forth. I am asked to decide a pick–up time for later in the day. Our canyon empties into a narrow channel filled by the reservoir. We must swim out and find a slab of rock to crawl up on. It is better for the captain to wait for us than for us to wait for the captain. I decide and announce 3:30 PM, thinking 4:30 would be the time I would bet on, if I were a gambling man. And doing canyons ... am I a gambling man?

The approach is windy today. It whisks the heat generated by the ascent away from our bodies. With these people, there is never a lack of things to talk about. Friends new and old. The views are expansive, nary a sign of works of man. Near the head of the next canyon, we slip down, wind protected, into a touch of shade behind a big rock and snack. A lazy mood overtakes and no one mentions the reason we are here. Or is that the reason we are here? We have set a task and a place to be at a certain time. I guess we must go. We look into the adjacent canyon’s head. This canyon is a difficult one and the view in does not hide that fact. Deep and dark, the place is haunting. But our canyon is over the hill yonder. It is no walk in the park either.

We pass the hoodoo with the arch in it that stands sentinel over the entry, down to a slab in the shade and dump the contents of our packs on the rock. We will put our wetsuits on here. It will make the packs smaller and lighter. It will free our minds from the concerns of protecting our aging skin from the abrasion of the walls. Will we be too hot and overheat in them? As we prepare, we have garnered the interest of a slew of yellow jackets. A dozen of them divide themselves among us. The moisture of the gear draw them? Or is it the colorful gear that draws them? We move slowly as not to annoy any of our visitors and back off when they literally get in our face.

We are ready and start in, the packs set up to slip off our backs and hang from tethers at a shrug of the shoulder. The start is a deep gash in the Earth. A stemmed over silo, a stiff downclimb, a belay offered to a member ... then we are at the potholes. Will we have rocks to build an anchor at the rappel I know is coming? We space ourselves out, to allow us to help each other reverse this section if we must. Our climbing gun goes to the edge of the drop. No evidence of our visit 6 months earlier. The anchor must be rebuilt.

A big pothole is awkward to enter, but it has rocks. They are small, but larger ones hide underneath. A canyoneer I know, a proponent of fixed anchors has made the point that tearing potholes apart searching for rocks might disturb an ecosystem in the pothole. A point worth considering. I have seen some pots that looked pretty stable, moss and bigger rocks that appear to have been in place for some time. Frog eggs underneath? Insect eggs about? His theory has changed my practices. I now seek out the sterile looking potholes ... or the ones that appear so. Are they? This canyon is one such place, I think. Pothole after pothole, which seem to be containers on a long conveyor belt that gravel and rock marches on down, toward the reservoir. Am I fooling myself? I am no expert. For sure, no matter how lightly we tread, we impact.

We gather the rocks. One fellow tosses them, over a pothole, down into sand. As long as they don’t collide, they stay in one piece. I take the rocks and put them into my emptied pack and lower them into a swimmer pothole. I toss the long tether to our gun, who is also our strongest back. He pulls the rocks out of the water, three pack hauls are needed and he assembles the anchor. Our rap of 30 feet leads into a keeper pothole. Preparations must be made now to escape the pool at the bottom, before we rappel in. Two packs are tossed. One is too light and a rock is added to it. Pack tossing. My job. Competitive juices flow. Two tossed. Bullseyes! I am rather pleased with myself and satisfied to find tangible ways to contribute.

We lean heavily on our gun. If you can’t be good, bring people who are. He raps first, into the pothole. The lip is 4 feet above the water line but the low water allows him to stand back, 5 feet from the lip. He launches onto the cord holding the packs, staying pretty high. Works an under cling hold and is out. We follow quickly. Our exit is made easy by an etrier’s foot loop.

Just beyond is another pothole, a steep slope drops into it. I have been before and I remember. A small rock ledge on the downcanyon side of the pothole makes the frightening looking place easier than it seems. But canyon problem spots are devious. With lower water, the entry into the pothole is now the concern this time. When our gun asks for a hand–line, I know it is serious. With both my pals down in the chest–to–neck deep pot, I control slide on down toward them. They reach up and grab my feet, above their heads. I stay centered. They lower me. I think to myself that that was pretty amazing. Would be nice to see on video sometime. Teamwork is perhaps the best part of the sport we dabble in.

Up and out of that pothole, the ledge making the 5 foot lip easy. Below, just yards away is the last rap of the section. A small pothole has an overhanging lip. Our gun immediately sees and figures out what we, who have been before, never have. There is a forest of trees below this 50 foot drop. He states, “Sticks about this size and length,” he puts his hands one foot then 2 feet apart, “would fit in here perfectly.” We had farmed rocks from below on previous trips, but this is just too simple. I rap off of the gun. I forage dead but sturdy wood and tie it together. Up it is hauled and the anchor is bomber and together in minutes. Still when we started the canyon, I mentioned that the first 200 yards would take over 2 hours ... and it has. But what fun problem solving. Just great!

It is time to make some time up. It is really hard to do. You must understand just how beautiful this place is. To rush is sacrilegious, but we must do what we must do. The gun gets sent into a wet and lush narrows, while me and my other partner walk around, saving time. The gun must pass two potholes with pack tosses. We meet at the table rock. A crazy rock that has had most of its base eroded away. We climb through some natural bridges, squeeze up, then down. One spot is an awkward rap or a high wide stem. Each goes their own way. A rap off a wedged rock ends the rapping for the day ... but the canyon’s most physical section lies ahead.

What lays ahead is not the classic high–stemming. We are rarely called on to get more than 15 feet above the ground. If one goes higher—to where one can fit back on one wall and feet on the other—one can only go a short distance downcanyon before a silo makes it too wide to pass. It is easier, but not easy, to just punch through lower down. Shoulders and hips, turned, facing downcanyon. Still it is fun ... kinda. One silo was belayed and then it was just the work, without much risk.

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Not much risk, huh?

Do you know that you can tear the ligaments in your knee falling 12 inches? ... Or was it 18 inches?

Regardless, here I am staring at my friend, as he gently tests the ranges of motion he can apply without passing out from pain. Scenarios race through the gun’s and my mind. Racing down to the bottom, coming back up, bringing bivy gear? Who goes? Who stays with our pal? Can we keep the gear dry? Can we upclimb the thing at all? Down a bit is an opening. Do we aim for that and call in the marines? Can our friend move at all? In testing the range of motion, we hear our friend scream in agony. But the pain recedes quickly. That part is at least good. It is time to test the waters ... er, I mean the walls ... er, I mean the knee.

It can go wrong so suddenly. A minute ago the mood was light. We were having so much fun. In an instant, we are in trouble. Time to see what is possible. His first movements produced a yell and it is unnerving. But we learn, us humans. He gathers experience as to which way the leg can bend. And which ways it shouldn’t. We learn by doing. And the cost? Over the next few hours we hear two distinct cries. One is a “YIP.” This is when he tries an angle that isn’t good, but catches it quickly. Then there is the louder and longer “YEEELP!” for the times when he chooses poorly. But he learns. More YIP and less YELP as we go ... except when he gets impatient.

The concentration needed is daunting. When he moves wrong, the pain is intense but short lived. The eyes clear of pain and the focus returns. And then he is smiling and joking. The humor is grim. The determination palatable. How many times do I see this cycle of emotions play out? A lot. Nothing to do but keep pushing forward. I lead and model. I observe and try and figure how to approach the next little section, using my leg as I see him using his. Sometimes I get it. Sometimes not and our friend must figure it out on the fly. We are up and down constantly, nary a flat step. On a few occasions, the canyon demands what our hero can’t provide and our gun climbs up above and sets up belays or lowers or hand lines, off his body, wedged in the slot. Amazing is the strength our gun shows.

We reach an opening. The only one left. It is a third of the way down to the end from the injury site. I know the trickiest third of the way is next, with the final third the easiest except for what might be the crux. First food and water, quickly. We must not allow time to stiffen up. We must not lose focus. Should we continue? Use the open spot as a bivy and call a rescue? Try to climb out at the opening? It’s steep! How long has it taken to get to here? How much time do we have before dark? Enough at the rate we are going? All of these questions must be answered immediately. I lay out what is ahead. We are decisive. Lets try and get out of the slot!

We are in the hard part now. Complex fluting that stays narrow, even up high. In the past, middle ground is where most have traveled. Too frightening down low to go there. It appears too tight and to have to climb up?!? Bad, bad, bad! But I remember thinking last time through that maybe one could ... stay down a lot. It would be so much easier for him if one could. Awful if I misjudge and we are forced back up. I feel enormous pressure as I use my eyes and read the twists and turns, constrictions et al. and guess where our bodies will fit and where they won’t. Necessity and the imagination it spawns, tempers my mistakes. Then there is the joy and relief of slipping through what looks impossible. And there is our gun, wedged up high and hauling when I decide poorly. All the time our hero—yes, he is becoming my hero—fights his way on in good humor. Fighting the good fight. Style points awarded. Then another YIP! ... or a YEEELP! Still ... on he goes.

Is the difficulty relenting? Is it? Seems so! A few low squeezes, but it is easier in between these. Water adds buoyancy. Is that lake water? I think so, but there is still plenty of distance to cover. And the crux. It still lies ahead. I think and process what I remember from past trips. When the pool had been 12 feet lower, we were faced with a 5.9, grease–coated, two–stage stem. As hard as any move I had ever made in canyon country. I need help there.

Our hero? No way! No way to help either, I suspect. When we left the opening over an hour ago, we did so knowing that the water level was higher. We had been through when it was 2 feet lower than it is now and it was physical, but we could get by 4 feet up grease covered walls. Would the higher water bring us up to a wider spot? Could our hero slip through? He must. Reversing is not an option. If he can’t, we would be stuck behind the constriction, in waist deep water, no place to get out of the water and dark an hour away.

I had told my partners that the higher water level would allow us to work it out somehow. They trust me in such things, but now I am feeling the pressure of my choice ... and its consequences. I have backed us into a corner by saying we can slip by that corner. If I’m wrong! I mustn’t be! I start to get out in front of my friends. The pull of needing to know what lies ahead drawing me on. We arrive. We slip through sideways at first, the wet walls helping. Then it constricts to less than a foot wide. The hips wedge and we must go up. We are lucky. We need not go more than 2 feet up and only 3 feet downcanyon.

Our hero? Not so lucky. In this tightness, the range of options for leg positions are nil. The toe is forced to point downcanyon, out of sight, under the water. Now there is just pain on our hero’s face. Nothing to do but tough it out. He must move just three feet downcanyon in this way, every inch in pain. He does. A few yards further and another constriction comes. Thankfully it is a short one. Under two feet must be traveled laterally and in pain ... and then we are released. The issue was unresolved till the very end. Soon we are swimming. I clip the hero’s pack with my daisy chain, adding a bit of towing to our swimming. Around the corner and into the channel and up onto a spit of dry land. And there is the boat and the captain. We have made it!

We thought we had made it. The worst was over?? We were wrong. Not just wrong, but wrong by a long shot. The scariest and most dangerous parts were yet to come. Schooled anew, on just how slim the margin can be sometimes.

The captain looked a tad annoyed. After all, we were 3 hours late. When he saw our hero struggle onto the boat, the sternness melted away. Once at camp, we set about getting our friend comfortable. Boxes for a raised leg, gear laid out again to dry. Dinner prepared, mostly after dark. Every trip, or most anyway, gets its own expression. Something happens, a joke made, a point to which everyone returns in there mind. This trip? That’s easy, “I’m sure glad I’m not in that slot!”

Our hero rests the next day, hoping for a miraculous recovery, while the gun and I go into a great canyon nearby. Harder than the day before’s fare, one can’t help but return over and over to just how vulnerable one is in such places. Just two of us. What if ...

Back that evening, we note that our hero’s knee has swelled a bit more and we decide to wait for morning to decide, but it is obvious. It is time to call it. Our hero needs to get on an airplane, get home and seek medical care. I am his driver and the next day, we awake, pack, travel down the lake, unpack the boat, repack the car and start a power drive to my home, 8 hours distant. A check of the forecast has a winter storm hitting the the passes in Colorado that evening. Time to hustle and slip by before the storm. With nary a stop, we are at my home and a visit is made to Urgent Care and it is confirmed. No broken bones. Most important is a doctors note that helps our hero get on a plane the next AM. After an enjoyable evening socializing, an evening that slipped into the next day, we slept briefly and he was off, wheelchair and cart provided by the airlines.

End of story? Nope!

Just yesterday I got an e-mail to give my friend a call. I do so. He tells a story that stuns me.

Some pain in the arm and rib area was dismissed as a sore rib from his gallant self–rescue. The pain got worse.

Wisely, he went to see a doctor. He then spends the next two days in the hospital. The injured knee has caused several blood clots. Several smaller ones traveled to his lungs. Pulmonary Embolism. Kills more folks every year than breast cancer and AIDS combined. They dose him with blood thinners and release him. He is giving himself injections of medicine. If the knee needs surgery, it may have to wait due to the blood thinners. I immediately started to beat myself up about choosing to exit the canyon after the injury. Did it cause this? But the doctors spoke of other causes.The long periods of immobilization. The long ride home, sitting on the plane. This they blamed for the clots. Said he needed to get up and walk a minute, every few hours.

Who knew? Not me! Now I do. Now he does. Now you do. Add it to the list! So an 18–inch fall can kill you. It can indeed.

Close to the edge. Entirely too close.


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