Canyon Tales
Musings and Recollections
by Matt Smith

There are many things that can hone one’s focus during a trip, whether simple hiking or technical canyoneering. It is incredible to me how this increased focus can affect one’s recollections of the day for better or for worse. Let me give a few examples.

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Several years ago we were exploring a tributary of Deep Creek. It was after considerable research that we decided to finally descend it. We could not find anyone who had any knowledge of the drainage. So we embarked pre–dawn, heavily loaded with rope and pull cords sufficient to get down 600 feet in a single drop if need be (though we suspected this was unlikely given the adjacent terrain). After a couple of straightforward rappels, we were in the slot—a group of 4: 1 strong climber, 2 strong backs, and 1 speed demon. From the first descent, I remembered we downclimbed a lot. Aside from one 12–footer, in particular, nothing stood out as overly difficult. We were focused and constrained by time, remoteness, and purpose.

I returned a year later with many of the same group and was astonished that our webbing (rap anchors) had washed away from many seemingly mandatory rappel drops near the top of the canyon. I also didn’t remember rapping all that much. We rigged new anchors and rappelled 3–4 drops, some chained. When we got to the bottom of the sequence, I looked back up and recognized them as drops we had downclimbed ... only this time they seemed much more foreboding.

When Kip, Rhett, and I did the first documented descent of Checkerboard, it was similar. Early October, we opted not to carry wetsuits. Air temps were dry, and the season had been too. Adjacent canyons we had descended had been dry. Loaded for bear, after a pre–dawn departure, we arrived at the head at about 10:00 AM. We rigged many, many rappels that first time through. The canyon has changed much since that early trip, particularly in the false bottom section. I have yet to return since the fire and ash slop have been washed out. Anyway, we rounded the corner above the ‘keyhole’ section and saw pool after pool extending before us before the canyon rounded a corner.

It was getting late–ish in the afternoon. We were exhausted from the long approach and multiple anchors. We did it all natural aside from the headwall and final pour–off. I remember some cool stuff in there, but mostly I remember being glad to see some final bits of fading sun when we hit the bottom. We were all blue, chicken–skinned, and shivering ... mild hypothermia or worse had set in long ago, made worse by sitting in the shade and wind while preparing the final anchor. Having the most natural insulation, I was in the best shape. Rhett probably the worst. We gorged on high calorie foods, donned full jackets and hats, and headed out the exit. We made it out later than expected—nearly 15 hours after we began—about 3 hours behind schedule to find ever faithful Ram still waiting in his lawn chair to give us a car shuttle.

I returned early the next season, amazed at how long the canyon was with how many drops, downclimbs, etc. I didn’t remember. We were focused by the cold, knowing we had to move quickly and efficiently to get out of the water to warm, dry ground. The details of that first trip are gone, not stored for later retrieval.

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This year, I finally convinced my non–technical wife to go down Pine Creek. It was May, the weather was warm. I was happy she finally agreed to join me. The skies were mostly clear, forecast for sunny that afternoon. I had recruited some help so we would have experience at the top and at the bottom of all rappels and downclimbs. I kid you not, as soon as we pulled ropes in the Cathedral, we started noticing droplets of water falling. At first it was explainable by drips from above, but soon an undeniable sprinkle had begun. We started moving more quickly ... less leisurely, the experienced feigning the potential seriousness of our situation to minimize my wife’s panic. No sense putting anyone into hysterics. Just above the final tight corridor before the end alcove, the rain made that dreadful transition from sprinkle to drizzle. “Keep moving,” “We’ve got to get to the alcove,” “Be efficient” were just some of the comments I remember.

I remember every water stain coming down the rock, the surreal way the dry spots were surrounded by wet ones instead of the other way around. In my head I knew, without my wife, we were only 5 minutes from safety, I wondered how far we were in reality. I glanced at my watch and watched 5 minutes turn to 10. I noticed water building up in small depressions, instead of just soaking in. I was worried. After what seemed an eternity, we rounded the corner into the alcove, relieved to sit in the rain on the rocks. As was likely, the rain quickly departed without causing any flow in the canyon. The sunbeams showered the oak leaves and other vegetation around the lower end of the alcove. The greens were so green, the reds so bold, the colors so alive. More alive than I ever recall. It was spectacular and beautiful. Among the most beautiful scenes I have ever lived. That day I was focused, but differently. I was focused on my wife’s safety. I seem to recall every misstep, unexpected foot slide, etc. she took.

It is amazing to me that the human brain, with all its complexities, can select whether to ignore the details or focus on them at a critical time, bringing what is most important for survival into focus.

I look forward to the near future when I will have more of my kids in the canyons with me, bringing into focus what is most important. Our minor explorations in the Swell last summer were very rewarding.

January 13, 2009

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© 2009 Matt Smith