Canyon Tales
Baptism by Fire

by Mike Dallin

Smoke, dark as coal, rose into the air. In an instant the cloudless desert sky evaporated, the sun turned deep crimson, and a blood–red shadow was cast upon the valley. We saw it all; had we been five seconds earlier, we would have been casualties.

•  Part I — Escalante  •

The day before, my stalwart companion Kip and I left the amazing canyons of the Escalante behind. We had planned a leisurely backpacking trip along the Escalante River, with more than ample opportunity to visit side canyons along the way. We went through hell on the bumpy Hole In The Rock Road to set up a car shuttle and managed to run over a few jackrabbits in the process. My faithful Tracker couldn’t make it on the horribly rocky road to the Egypt trailhead, or rather, it probably could have but it was grotesquely late and in our tired delirium, we didn’t want to risk it. We camped a mile or so from the trailhead and, under the fiery sun, hiked that last mile the next morning. We followed a sketchy trail description into Fence Canyon, and finally down to the Escalante, whose cold waters were an oasis for our scorched feet. At least my feet were scorched; I was intent to prove that hiking could be done in a pair of sturdy sandals. Sturdy leather sandals that, to this day, are still dyed the red color of Escalante’s sand.

We camped at the mouth of Neon Canyon, and spent the waning afternoon exploring the area, carrying a rope just in case we ran into anything technical. On our way back to camp, we stumbled upon a few other adventurers. One group carried lawn chairs; they lounged on them in the middle of the canyon. When they saw our rope, they asked if we had just descended the upper, technical portion of Neon. We lied and said yes, and we climbed the broken slope near the mouth of the canyon to get to the top.

Gotta look good, right?

It rained that night, softly, off and on, but the next day promised to be a scorcher.

“I think we misjudged the distance for this hike.” Kip was studying his hike guidebook.

“How many miles down the river to our car?”

“I don’t know, maybe twenty? Thirty? It’ll probably take us four or five days to get back to it, if we hurry.”

We had enough food for two days. Three max.

We discussed it for a long time. It was high summer, and we knew there would be no relief from the heat. We would have to pick up the pace, which meant no exploration of side canyons.

We decided to turn back—hike early as possible up Fence Canyon to the Egypt trailhead, before the full heat of the sun sapped our energy.

And by first light, we were gone.

Surprisingly, we made quick time. We found the trail up Fence Canyon easily from below. It had eluded us on our way down. We made it back to the Tracker, picked up the car we left for the shuttle, and headed for the small town of Escalante to refuel, clean up, and discuss a backup plan. We still had two or three days of vacation left.

Escalante is a small, one–road town—and very anti–environmentalist. Just a year or two earlier, President Clinton set the Escalante area aside with National Monument status, which meant no more development within the wilderness boundaries. The townsfolk were hopping mad. Even though existing cattle grazing permits and mining claims within the monument boundaries were honored after the designation, the locals felt the government robbed them of a valuable resource. And they are vocal about it; anti–environmentalist stickers and billboards abound, and some get a little violent.

Too bad for them. They need to adapt to their new situation, or move on.

Kip washed his car, and a thick red soupy sludge swirled down the car wash’s drainpipe. We discussed our next move.

“We have our technical gear, let’s go to Zion? Try Mystery; neither of us have been down it yet.”

Kip thought for a moment, then replied.

“Mystery. I don’t have my Zion guidebook, but I think I know the route. Let’s do it.”

So off to Mystery Canyon we went.

•  Part II — Into Mystery  •

We camped at the Orderville trailhead that night. We had no clue where to camp for Mystery. I knew nothing of the area, and besides, the upper trailhead for Mystery is on private land, that owned by Zion Ponderosa, a local retreat that at times seems bigger than Zion National Park itself.

The next morning we drove down a badly rutted road to the trailhead, completely lost, but somehow managed to take all the right turns. We bought a topo map the night before in Springdale. It was our only guide.

The approach was easy, nearly flat hiking along the top of a plateau. The big question was where to drop in to Mystery. Each canyon dropping from the mesa looked the same, and we made more than one wrong turn. The joke was on us, though, the drop–in point to Mystery was well marked with cairns and a worn trail into its depths.

We were both encumbered. I carried a dynamic 60 meter rope, Kip a 50 meter length. We knew that Mystery had at least one drop where we would have to tie the ropes together. Plus a couple of water bottles, rappel gear, food, camera equipment, dry bags, a mile of webbing with descending rings, and so on. Down into the depths of the canyon.

The upper portion was wide, steep, and nothing more than a loose scree slope. Each step down was more like sliding, with precarious balance provided by small shrubs that made poor handholds. We cursed the slope the entire way down. Finally we came upon the first drop. It was perhaps twenty feet down, protected by a solitary bolt on top with three small pieces of webbing looped through it.

I examined the faded webbing tied to the bolt.

“Do you want to remove the webbing?”

We debated that one for a while.

“Mike, what if someone comes down here unprepared? By removing the webbing, we could be removing their only chance to rappel down safely.”

I thought it over for a minute, but before I could say anything, Kip answered his own question.

“Then again, if anyone is stupid enough to come down this canyon without webbing, plus, it’s the first drop, if they can’t get down it they can climb that evil slope back up and out again.”

I cut the webbing.

In the end, we didn’t use the bolt. Instead, we slung some webbing around a rock horn, a green strand and a blue strand, each with descending rings looped on. We tied kite string to the webbing and tossed it down; we would be able to retrieve the webbing after the rappel. Kip snaked the rope through the descending rings, but didn’t bother to connect it to his harness. After a quick photo of our handy work, down he went, using the rope as a hand line to aid his descent.

“Mike, that was easy! I could’ve downclimbed it without the rope.”

But I wasn’t having a part of that. In my usual chicken manner, I slowly downclimbed, tightly clutching the rope, using it as my banister. I never thought to tie knots in the rope to give my hands a better grip, and my heavy leather gloves were slipping a bit. But Kip was right, it was an easy downclimb, and I soon joined him at the bottom.

And on we went. Two or three more small drops, and we could either downclimb them, without the rope, or skirt around them on small networks of climber’s trails. That is, until we reached one just below a small log jam. A nasty drop, off of an overhang, maybe 25 to 30 feet down.

No bolt this time. We could’ve skirted it, but why? There was another nice rock horn at the top. We slung it, and gingerly downclimbed. I was even more nervous on this drop than the first, and after a wild swing on the rope and a hard jump down, I was sweating quite a bit. My sandals had no purchase whatsoever on the rock. Another lesson learned.

“This is going to be a great, narrow slot, I can feel it!” Kip’s enthusiasm was boiling over. And he had every right to be excited; the next stretch of canyon was amazing.

•  Part III — Tragedy  •

The canyon narrowed. Deep lines and gouges were cut into the curved red walls, left behind by the flash floods that frequent these valleys. A number of drops plunged into dark recesses below. We examined both fixed and natural anchors in the canyon, some were descent, some were not, and replaced webbing on many of the drops.

We rappelled down, deeper into the fissure. The high narrow walls blocked most of the sun, and what little came through splintered into a myriad of color and shadow. The striae on the walls shone blue, green and violet against the yellow and red sandstone. High above, Kip rappelled down, silhouetted black against the only light shining into this cathedral. We alternated rappelling first, drop after drop. We didn’t bother coiling the rope after each rappel; the next one was inevitably only a few feet away.

I had only occasional views of the sky. No clouds in sight, just a small sliver of blue visible between the walls of the canyon.

The canyon curved to the left. Too soon, the narrows ended and we were back in the sun. Clumps of trees – cedars, junipers, ponderosa pines – clung to the canyon walls and rose regally from the canyon floor. Cottonwood leaves littered the waterway; it was obvious that no recent catastrophic flash floods had visited Mystery.

We had a few more drops, but nothing dramatic. By this time, Kip and I noticed that we were running low on water. We hadn’t passed any pools on the descent so far, and we were perhaps half way down. We had one bottle left, and would have to share it until we reached the trailhead and civilization.

Many years ago a large rockslide blocked the lower stretch of Mystery Canyon. The pile of rubble remained, and required a steep climb up loose yellow sand and small, unstable rocks, for perhaps 100 feet – all exposed to the full sun. But then, down the other side, we slid, we ran, and we caused more erosion than we should have. A wild ride down, mostly atop chalky yellow powder, for several hundred feet, back into the inviting shade below. And soon, to the first water.

Once again, the canyon narrowed, but it was not as dramatic as above. Several ancient logs provided climbing access down the steeper drops. Below the logs were pools of slimy green and red ooze. Weeks before they were pristine pools left behind by spring rain, but now they were home to algae, mold, a large number of tadpoles – most destined to die when the pools dried up – and a number of insects. Though only a few inches deep in most places, we were unable to see the ground through the murky water. We would have to wait to fill our water bottles.

The canyon narrowed even more, and we reached a spot where we had to get wet. We couldn’t go around the small pools, and they were too long to jump. The muddy slime disgusted us, but we had to admit that the cool waters relieved us from the boiling sun above. We turned a corner, and then we saw it.

A large drop into a fairy glen.

We stared down a cliff, perhaps 120 feet down. High narrow walls ascended perhaps 1000 feet above us. No sun shone through. Down, far below, at the base of the cliff, we could make out a pool of water. Small trickles of water seeped down the cliff and canyon walls, staining the rock black, their source the cracks in the sandstone. Clumps of vibrant green vegetation and mosses clung to the walls, fed by the life giving drips. The plants contrasted with the desert plants we had seen over the past few days.

We saw dozens of ancient bolts, many on a large boulder blocking the canyon. None looked safe. Kip spotted the newer bolts first; they were on a small ledge, dangerously exposed to the long drop. The ledge was as wide as a sidewalk, but there were no handholds or guardrails. Just a blank wall to one side, and a shear drop on the other.

Kip nervously made his way to the bolts, conscious that one slip meant certain death. Slowly he progressed, testing each step. The ledge was covered with loose, powdery sand, and that would mean disaster if his footing was off. After an eternity, he sat next to the bolts, and clipped his harness to them using a small piece of webbing.

“It is nowhere near as bad as it looks!”

I wasn’t so sure.

We didn’t know if my 60 meter rope would make it to the bottom. I watched from the safety of the bolt–covered boulder while Kip uncoiled the rope and fed it through the bolts. He tossed the rope ends down. They barely splashed the surface of the small pool below. With a thumbs–up and a grin wider than the canyon itself, Kip yelled for me to grab a camera. He wanted me to photograph his descent from my safe perch.

He connected his harness to the rope and stood up. Click. Too dark for regular photography, my camera’s flash lit the canyon.

Facing the canyon wall, the drop just a foot or two behind him, Kip apprehensively put his weight on the rope. His entire life hung on the two bolts on the ledge.

He backed up, inching closer to the drop. When he reached the edge, he leaned over and saw the pool, 120 feet below.

Slowly, he worked his way down the blackened canyon walls, trusting the bolts and rope to hold.

“This is amazing!” I could hear his shouts all the way down.

Twenty five feet above the pool, he stopped on another small ledge, not visible from above. It was a boulder that wedged itself in the narrow canyon. A small pool formed behind it, directly underneath my safe photographic perch.

“Hey, there’s a ledge here, plus a few more bolts! They look risky though, so I’ll keep going down.”

A few minutes later: “Damn, this is slick! These walls are soaked, and covered with slippery green slime!” I could no longer see him. And then: “Here I go!” Followed by a splash.

“Whoa, aaah! This is COLD!” I could finally see Kip again, treading water in the pool below, unclipped from the rope. He made it to the shore, slumped down, and yelled up to me.

“The water is cold and deep!” True enough, he was drenched, hair to toe. “You’re turn!” followed by laughter.

Kip obviously saw my nervous look towards the exposed ledge and the bolts. “Be careful, and slide on your butt if you have to. Remember, it looks a lot worse than it is.”

Gingerly, I stepped on the ledge. The bolts were only 30 feet away, but before them was a horribly exposed traverse. I noticed that the ledge sloped imperceptibly downward, toward the drop. Several small trees grew in cracks along the wedge, but they were no thicker than a drinking straw. No handhold support from those.

Someone previously drilled a few bolts along the traverse, but the holes weren’t drilled deep enough. The bolts hung halfway out, and I could easily spin the hangers on the bolt heads. The protection was psychological only; the bolts would not hold someone in a fall.

With each step, the ledge seemed to narrow. The ledge blocked the view to the pool below, and I had disturbing visions of me sliding over the edge into the unknown, while my hands desperately clawed the smooth sandstone for any grip before the drop. Had I slipped, I would have slid four or five feet before the end came.

I reached the bolts, and clipped the webbing Kip had left behind to my harness. Immediately, a sense of calm came over me, I was safe from the exposure.

I looked towards the edge. This would be the longest rappel I had ever done.

I fed the rope through my figure 8 device, and clipped it to my harness. I was ready to rappel. But, I couldn’t bring myself to unclip from the webbing on the bolts.

Kip’s voice from below: “Everything OK up there?” He couldn’t see me on the ledge from below.

“Yeah, OK, just hooking in, give me a minute.” I shouted nervously.

After staring at the bolts for ages, I worked up the nerve to unclip the webbing. I was now connected to the rope itself, and like Kip a few minutes before, was forced to trust my life to the rope and the two bolts on the ledge.

I stood up, back facing the drop. I looked to my right and saw a host of old bolts and pitons, previously used as rappel anchors.

I stepped backwards, one foot closer to the drop.

“You coming down?” Another shout from below.

“Yeah, give me a minute.” My standard reply when I’m freaked out is, “Give me a minute.”

I took a deep breath, and went for it. I leaned out over the edge. I could see Kip and the shore of the pool, still soaked, and obviously cold in the shade. He rested among a forest of green mosses and small plants at the water’s edge. Beautiful. He was wringing out his socks.

I leaned back, as far as I could, and slowly stepped down the vertical, black cliff.

“See? Not bad, huh?”

I looked down, and Kip was grinning up at me.

“No, this is great!” The muscles in my face tightened into a large grin. It would remain there for the rest of the descent.

I could see the small boulder–ledge Kip stopped at, and within a minute I stood upon it. He was right, the bolts in the alcove were not well–placed. I continued down, until I was three feet above the pool. The rope barely made it to the water’s surface.

I called to Kip

“How deep is it?”

“I couldn’t touch the bottom.”

“How are we going to get the rope back? The ends won’t reach you at the shore.”

Kip looked at me blankly for a moment.

“How about this, Mike. Unclip from the rope, then pull it through a bit. Then slide into the water, and hold on to the rope end. Swim to the shore with it, then we can pull it through.”

Three feet above the pool, I jammed my body into a narrow fissure. My back pressed against one wall, my feet pushed against the other. Both walls were coated with slippery moss. I unclipped my figure 8, and began to pull the rope, hoping and wishing that it would not be stuck.

A few tugs. It was stuck. I looked at Kip, trying my best to look as concerned as possible.

“Just keep pulling on it.”

Hard to do, I thought, when I can barely keep my balance jammed in this crack, three feet above the water. But I kept pulling, somehow, and after a few more tugs the rope began to feed. I pulled it ten or twelve feet then, holding on tightly, jumped from my fissure and slammed into the water. I felt an immediate shock from the cold, and I yelled underwater. Just like Kip, I didn’t touch the bottom. I involuntarily gulped some water down.

I surfaced, swam to the shore, and handed Kip the rope. He was laughing.

“I thought you’d slide into the water. What was that jump all about?”

He was right, it was an awkward jump, and somehow I twisted my back during my acrobatics. Kip gave me an aspirin, and pulled the rope down.

I was shivering though elated. The rope was soaked and a hell of a lot heavier. He hurriedly coiled it and packed it away.

“Oh, crap. I don’t believe what I just did.” I looked meekly up at Kip

“What?” he replied.

“I had my sunglasses set on top of my head for that rappel. They are on the bottom of the pool, now.”

Kip laughed. I did, too

Below the pool the water ran down the canyon. We took a last look up at the cliff, high above, then ran down the watercourse. In the narrow canyon, we had to hike in the stream.

Fifty feet down the canyon, and another drop—this time only ten feet into a pool. We couldn’t tell how deep the pool was.

“I’m going for it!” Kip yelled excitedly, then took a jump in. More excited screams from the cold water

“Whoaaa! Hey Mike, it’s deep enough. Jump in!”

I chickened out a bit and downclimbed a few feet. From five feet above, I jumped in, sank like a rock, and touched the bottom. I pushed against the bottom and shot out of the pool like a rocket.

“Wow! This is great!”

“This is the best!”

Kip and I kept trading accolades for the canyon and our adventure. We crossed a few slick logs in the pool, and made it to the stream again

Ahead of us, I could see the towering walls above the Virgin River.

The Virgin is the most popular hike in Zion. Starting at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead, tourists follow a paved trail along the shores of the river. After a mile or so the pavement ends, and the canyon narrows. There is no shore from that point. The river touches both canyon walls. People continue up anyway, sloshing and splashing against the current, trying to balance on the river rocks beneath the water.

Mystery Canyon drains into the Virgin River. Kip pointed it out to me on a hike along the Virgin a year before. It is a long, thin waterfall down a moss–covered cliff. After a few minutes we were on top of that cliff. It looked higher than the rappel into the pool. Looking side to side, the large Virgin narrows curved out of our site. We saw a dozen tourists hiking through the river below, some swimming in deep pools they found. They didn’t see us.

We stood at the edge of the waterfall, in the stream. It swirled and eddied in a small pool before going over the lip to the Virgin.

“Do we need to tie the two ropes together?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Let’s drop your rope down and see if it reaches.”

In my excitement: “Should we yell to the people down below?” I wanted them to spot us. I wanted to show off.

Kip grinned and uncoiled the rope. He hooked it through a piece of webbing tied to a tree. No bolts on this drop.

“Ready?” he asked. I nodded, and he yelled down the canyon


After people noticed us, we threw the rope down. But we couldn’t see over the lip if it reached the river or not.

“Oh crap, did it reach?”

“I don’t know, I can’t tell” I replied.

Kip yelled down to the river tourists again.

“Does – our – rope – reach!” He paused between words. The tourists below, many of them sitting down to watch us rappel, returned blank stares. They couldn’t understand us over the rush of the Virgin. Kip and I looked at each other

“I hope it reaches,” Kip said. He clipped the rope to his harness, and after a brief photo, started down, into the waterfall. Our audience looked on, and many took pictures.

Half way down, Kip yelled up to me. “This is slick! Be careful when you come down!”

A few steps later, he lost his footing. I watched his body slam against the mossy wall. Without letting go of the rope with his break hand, he yelled up in pain. A few of the tourists clapped.

Kip righted himself and continued down. Soon enough he met the Virgin, and the tourists clapped once again. He yelled up to me.

“The rope barely made it! Come on down!”

And with that, I clipped my figure 8 to the rope and went over the edge.

There was a small overhang just below the ledge, but it was wet and very slippery. Not wanting to repeat Kip’s accident, I gingerly stepped to the side and looked for dry rock to rappel down. All the while I was aware that, if I slipped, not only would I slam the wall, but the rope would act as a pendulum and swing me back into the waterfall.

I slowly continued down. Below, a few tourists, perhaps a dozen, stayed to watch me. Many who watched Kip had already left.

Down, down, down, and finally into the Virgin. The ropes barely reached–in fact, they ended a foot or two above the level of the river. Luckily, my rope was dynamic, meaning it was designed to stretch. Had we had a regular static rope, it would have ended ten or fifteen feet above the river, and we would have had a major problem.

I unclipped from the hope and shook Kip’s hand. Nobody clapped. The tourists left us as we retrieved the rope

We happily splashed and swam the rest of the way down. Kip, as was his hobby, pointed out the various tourists and tried to guess what country they were from based on what they wore. Speedos meant German tourists, and many older gentlemen wore them despite their unflattering figures.

Kip hiked faster than me. We met again at the paved trail and laughed the entire way back to the trailhead. Once there, we greedily refilled our water bottles, long since depleted. I noticed a fixed rope left on a rock climb above the parking lot and joyfully pointed it out to other tourists.

We hopped on a park shuttle and rode it back to Kip’s car, which we left the night before.

An hour or two later we retrieved my Tracker from the start trailhead. We weren’t in the mood for the usual camp food, so we drove to Hurricane in search of something greasy. With free drink refills.

And found nothing.

“Let’s go to St. George. It’s about a 15 minute drive, and they’ll have any restaurant we want.”

I agreed.

We snaked our way through Hurricane and found the small highway that would take us to St. George. While driving, we enthusiastically recounted the day’s events. We planned our canyon for the morning – Keyhole perhaps? Maybe Behunin? I had always wanted to climb Angel’s Landing, too.

The road curved. On one side, a high brick wall surrounded a mobile home park. On the other, open desert.

We were still joking when we saw it. The first thing I noticed was thick black smoke starting to rise from the roadway. Kip slammed the breaks and said nothing.

In front of us, a large fuel truck was sliding towards us, perhaps 100 feet down the road. It jackknifed across the road and slowly toppled onto its side. Blue flames erupted from where it had contact with the pavement. It reminded me of the flame from an old gas stove.

The truck kept sliding toward us. Without a word, Kip shifted the car into reverse and quickly backed up. A brown van, 30 feet in front of us, did the same. Traffic behind us stopped. People stepped out of their cars, no emotion on their faces. They stared blankly at the truck burning before them.

The truck stopped sliding, then erupted into yellow flame. The heat was intense, and the flames were blowing over the brick wall towards the mobile homes. Several trees in one of the yards incinerated almost immediately. A nearby telephone pole, 20 feet from the wreckage, started to smoke from the heat.

“Oh my god, I hope whoever was in there got away.” I don’t know who said it. I think everybody did, at one point or other

I instinctively thought about my camera but decided not to grab it. Someone likely died in this wreck, and I didn’t have the heart to take pictures.

Kip and I could do nothing. The heat was too much; we couldn’t rescue anybody. We, along with all the other travelers on the highway, stared dumbfounded. One of the mobile homes caught fire, or so we thought—the thick smoke blocked our view. We couldn’t tell what happened, why the truck had crashed. We couldn’t see if another car or cars had slammed into it. All we could do was watch it burn. Occasionally, some brave—or rather, idiotic—driver from the other side of the wreck drove around the burning truck, within 30 feet of the flames. We shook our heads.

By the time the police arrived, the truck’s tires exploded. One by one, signaled by a large pop, we could see the flaming rubber flung high into the air. The police motioned us to back up further. A fire truck arrived and drove into the mobile home park. We figured that several homes had been lost. A trooper told us to meet him at a nearby gas station to fill out reports.

Kip and I, plus a number of other travelers, met at the gas station. We bought some food; we knew it would be a while before we could get to a restaurant. We talked and recounted what we saw, all in shock. One family had most of the wreck on videotape.

Eventually the trooper arrived and everyone filled out the police reports. Kip and I turned them in then walked down to the mobile homes. The wreckage was still smoking, though mostly extinguished.

Luckily, the homes weren’t badly damaged, just their yards. Nobody was hurt. We walked back to the wreckage.

Not much was left, only the twisted metal that was the base of the truck. Another witness pointed out a white sheet covering something on the side of the road. The driver. He almost got away, his arm was draped over a cement barrier in front on the wall. He tried to climb over it, but likely a wave of burning gasoline covered him

We returned to the gas station and heard a local reporter was looking for us. Without a word, we hopped in the car and left, back to Hurricane.

We cancelled the rest of our trip. We made it back to my Tracker and drove back to Kip’s home in Provo that night. We arrived around 3:00 in the morning.

The next day, we both rested, watched movies. The next morning I drove to Seattle, keeping a cautious distance from every fuel truck I passed.

•  Part IV — Mystery, Slight Return  •

One and half months later, I returned to Mystery Canyon. This time, my partner was a coworker who had never been to the desert, named Melanie. She had heard all of my stories of canyon exploration and wanted to try it herself. We camped near the east entrance to the park, off the road on public land. It was her first time car–camping. We watched the stars and listened to the ethereal yelps of the coyotes. She woke with the beginnings of a cold, but it was not serious enough to cancel our trip.

The next morning, after a long wait for a canyoneering permit, we climbed the Observation Point trail. Since we only had one vehicle, we couldn’t use the car shuttle Kip and I had done.

The trail was beautiful. It rose steeply from the level of the Virgin River, climbed high into Echo Canyon and eventually to the top of the mesa where Mystery Canyon began. We were both heavily laden with ropes and technical gear, plus extra water. The hike was brutally hot. At one rest point, as I took pictures of the Virgin River’s canyon far below, she turned and remarked.

“This is the most beautiful hike I’ve ever been on.”

We eventually reached the mesa’s flat top. We rested and ate in the shade of ponderosas. Soon enough, we reached the cairns and side trail that led into Mystery

“Are you ready?” I asked. I had told her many times of Mystery’s beauty. We donned our helmets, which she insisted we buy before leaving home, and began the long, steep descent into the canyon.

We reached the first drop, with the single bolt. No webbing was on it this time. We slung the rock horn, as I had with Kip, and descended.

We made good time, and quickly reached the drop after the small logjam – the one I swung on when Kip and I had been here

Once again, I set the rope up and clumsily climbed my way down, using the rope as a handline. She followed, but got stuck halfway down. I watched from below.

“Mike, I need some help. This is scary!”

I walked underneath her. I couldn’t quite reach her feet.

“It’s OK, I’m down here and can spot you.”

And then, she yelled. Shivers coursed through my body.

“Oh, shit, I let go of the rope!”

She slid down, perhaps a foot or two, then stopped

“Oh shit!”

Somehow, she caught the rope again and dangled in the air.

I leapt into action. I could barely reach her feet.

“Just drop down, I can spot your fall! You won’t be hurt!”

Slowly, she slid down to the ground. She looked up at me, and showed me her hands. One was red and shiny. Rope burn.

I realized that I didn’t carry my first aid kit, perhaps for the first time ever. Even so, there was nothing in it that would have helped her burn. I did have some bandages; we tied them to her hand. Slowly the pain hit her, and after 15 minutes she was hurting badly. We discovered that if we kept the bandages wet, the pain would subside, but after drying the pain would return. We sacrificed the bulk of our drinking water to keep it wet.

There was no turning back; we could not climb the drops above. We had to continue down the canyon, down to the Virgin. Down perhaps a dozen rappels

We reached the first narrow section, with the first long rappels. I went down first, and watched her from below. Her hand was obviously painful. She winced every time she touched the rope. Her injured hand was her rappel brake hand, so she had to use it. She tried to rappel with her other hand but found it awkward. Besides, she reasoned, the middle of a canyon is no place to practice new techniques. I looked up at her, as she slowly descended. I had visions of her falling, or losing control on the rappel. I offered fireman belays.

Just before the canyon curve to the left, in the last major rappel until the rockslide, I looked down. Below was a small pool of murky water. It had obviously rained a bit since I was here with Kip. I hooked in to the rappel, and leaned over the edge. I felt something in my pocket move.

Before I could do anything, I saw something fall. My camera, which I kept in my pocket, had worked its way out somehow. Just a half hour after her mishap, I watched my expensive digital camera slide down the steep canyon wall, bounce a few times, and splash into the murky water.

I was speechless. My partner looked down from above, silent.

I rappelled to the water, and fished out my camera. The battery case had broken open, so I fished for the batteries, finding only three out of the four. The camera was coated with fine sand.

“Is it OK?” she asked from above.

“No, it’s dead, probably broken.”

I realized then that the memory card had pictures from my last month of trekking around the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps 100 pictures, all probably lost, plus the three or four from this trip.

For ten minutes, I sat silent, as she rappelled down to me.

“Well, I can replace the camera. It sucks, but I can replace it. Nobody got hurt.”

Strangely, as I said this, I felt a calm descend upon me. I started to laugh about it. “What else could possibly go wrong this trip?” We both laughed a long time.

We rested in the narrow canyon, and gazed at the soft curves of the sandstone. A classic slot canyon. She was talking, but I heard something else. I interrupted her, and told her to listen.

“Do you hear it?”

And slowly a smile came to her lips. Quietly echoing up the canyon, through the curves and contortions of the sandstone, was a cricket’s chirp.

It was magical. It echoed around us, the natural reverb of the canyon giving it an ethereal quality.

We shared an orange, the perfect fruit. Since our water was conserved for her injury, we ate fruit instead of drinking. I was glad she had the foresight to bring some. Despite all that had happened, we both felt peaceful. We continued down.

We scaled the rockslide, and ran down the other side, kicking up clouds of yellow dust. The next rappels came quickly. Her hand, though still painful, felt better.

The canyon narrowed. I knew that, just up ahead, was the rappel into the pool. I didn’t tell her about it before our trip. I wanted her to be as surprised as I was when I first saw it. I let her lead, and watched her reaction as she turned the corner and saw the large drop.


“Great, isn’t it?”

“I’m not going down THAT!”

“It’s not so bad. You’ll love it!”

I showed her the bolts on the ledge.

“There’s no way I’m going over there!”

We rested by the boulder at the top, where I took photos of Kip’s rappel. I uncoiled the rope. To ease her fear of the ledge, I set up a belay for her. A few weeks earlier, several canyoneers rebuilt the bolts in this area as part of a canyon service project. The bolts they left were well placed, and allowed protection for someone traversing the ledge. They also filled the old bolt holes with sand and epoxy.

She tied the rope to her harness, and as I belayed, she traversed to the bolts. Halfway across, she looked back at me.

“This isn’t bad at all! I don’t think I really needed the belay after all!”

She reached the bolts, and clipped in. A few minutes later I joined her, and we set the rope up for the rappel.

“Can I go first this time, Mike?” Who was I to argue?

I watched her rappel over the edge, and gave her gentle encouragement. I still had visions of her losing control of the rappel, but I knew that she wouldn’t. She had been through a lot, and in a short time, I knew I could trust her in a canyon. She wouldn’t slip.

A few minutes later, she yelled up from below.

“I’m on a ledge, about 30 feet above the pool!” She had reached the ledge with the sketchy bolt. “I’m unclipping. Join me!”

She unclipped from the rope, and it went slack. I clipped in and rappelled to her side on the small boulder. She smiled.

“I’m not sure how to disconnect in the water, could you go first?” No problem.

I rappelled down, sliding on the slippery moss walls. I rappelled off the end of the rope and fell into the water. The cold shocked me once again, and I quickly swam to the shore. I looked up and shouted, “Your turn!” I then set about drying off.

And then, in the most forlorn, heartbreaking voice I had ever heard. “Mike!”

I looked up. When I rappelled down, the rope swung out of her reach. She was trapped on the ledge, unable to reach the rope. She would likely injure herself if she tried to jump or slide down.

She was stuck. Once again, my mind filled with images of her falling.

Using ascenders, I would have to climb the rope. I didn’t have any rope ladders with me, so climbing would be hard – but not impossible.

I swam back to the rope and attached my ascenders to it. I put my weight on the ascenders to save the energy lost by treading water. I wedged my body in the same fissure I jumped from earlier that summer. I made slow, painful progress up the rope, but it was quickly obvious that it would take too long. The dynamic rope kept stretching, which dropped me repeatedly back into the pool. I looked up at her.

“I’ll get there, don’t worry.”

And then I had a thought.

“You have about 50 feet of webbing in your pack, right?”

Instantly, she understood. Before the rappel, I gave her all of the extra webbing to carry, as I carried the rope. She lowered it to me, and I tied it to the rope. I disconnected the ascenders, and jumped back into the pool. She pulled the webbing back up to her and, with it, the ends of the rope. Another crisis averted!

I watched her reconnect her harness to the rope. I looked at the sky, and saw light feathery clouds. They were orange. Sunset.

I looked back at her, and watched her descend. I was very cold, shivering. My jaw locked from the cold. I tried to warm my arms. I didn’t say a word.

She rappelled the last 30 feet into the pool. She swam with the end of the rope.

“You’re pissed at me, aren’t you?”

Far from it. “No, sorry, I’m really cold, and can barely talk.” I was nearly hypothermic. She smiled, she was obviously elated.

I grinned at her. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Let’s!” She grinned back.

We ran down the canyon, jumped into the pools. I checked my pack and realized that I broke a pair of sunglasses I kept in the side pocket. Mystery claimed a second pair.

Darkness was upon us when we reached the rappel into the Virgin River. There was nobody below us. I quickly set the rope up, but was again unsure if it reached. I rappelled first.

Three quarters of the way down, I realized I set the rope up unevenly—the midpoint in the rope was not marked in the correct spot—so it ended twenty feet above the river. I found a small ledge, the only dry spot on the wall. It was big enough for my toes.

I clipped my ascenders to the rope and hooked them to my harness. I had to unclip from the rope to pull them even. I was horribly exposed to a fall, in a very dangerous situation. She called from above, wondering if things were all right. I told her they were.

“Just readjusting, give me a minute.”

I pulled the rope even, clipped back in, and rappelled to the river. A few minutes later she joined me.

She grinned again. “Get the rope, and let’s go!”

We had the river to ourselves. It was dark, and we were unsure if the shuttle buses would run that late. We quickly sloshed down the river and, in a matter of minutes, made it to the paved trail. We practically ran, until we came upon an old couple out for a night stroll.

“What time is it?”

“Well, looks to be about 8:00.”

That morning, the park rangers told us the shuttles ran until 9:00. We were both elated.

We took our time back to the trailhead. We were both soaked, but we overflowed with adrenaline.

We talked to the shuttle driver. We had no reason to worry, they pick up hikers until 11:00 or so at night. The rangers were wrong. But that didn’t matter to us, we both survived a long, wild adventure. We went out for a nice dinner in Springdale, and bought some burn cream for her hand.

The next morning, her illness hit her with full force. We had a permit to descend Keyhole Canyon, and I still wanted to climb Angel’s Landing, but they would have to wait. We took our time, ate a nice breakfast in Springdale, and drove home that afternoon.

The camera didn’t survive, but the memory card did. I saved all my pictures, even those few from Mystery Canyon. Shortly after our return, I changed projects and moved away and rarely hear from Melanie anymore. I haven’t been to Mystery Canyon since, nor do I have plans to return.


 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2007 Mike Dallin