Canyon Tales
by Malia McIlvenna

•  Part I — My Canyoneering Family  •

It didn’t creep or slowly develop, but rather, from the moment I first heard of canyoneering, my obsession was entire and immediate. The remoteness, rugged beauty, adrenaline, excitement, wonder, challenges and intimacy of the sport have taken over my life. Hardly a day passes when I don’t dream or at least talk of the canyons which fill my heart. My family, whether they like it or not, are all now involved in the sport on some level. From the simple act of oohing, ahhing, gasping, laughing and wondering at my pictures and descriptions of the canyons, to actually traveling to Utah to see for themselves.

My sister Heather was the first brave soul to venture into a canyon with me. We did West Blarney. She got fabulously wedged into an ‘elevator’ slot with her feet dangling a few inches off the ground. We laughed all afternoon at the image. She’ll be back in a few weeks. My other sister, Tricia, interviewed me in depth this spring for an english paper she had to do. Although she embellished on a few points, it came out great. Now with greater understanding of my ‘passion,’ she’s itching to experience the canyons for herself later this summer.

And Dad—protective and ever worrying about his children. I think he wanted to go canyoneering more to make sure that I was practicing safe techniques than to see the canyons. After a weekend in Zion, I had a big check from my dad in hand and a promise to use it for a new rope cause he didn’t like the ‘booger’ my rope had developed. (I’ll cut it at the ‘booger’ and have two shorter ropes now.) Other than that he was impressed and confident in my training and skills. He concluded that, if I had enough patience and energy to get HIM through the canyons, I’d be OK.

I took him through Keyhole, Echo, and Pine Creek. He had a blast. Penny joined us for Keyhole and Echo. She was amused by and gained much insight into where my photographic interest developed. Over the three days we waited countless hours for my dad pulling his camera in and out of his dry keg, asking us to hold our pose or move a little this way and that. In a sport where the stresses reveal a person’s true character, I saw in my dad where I get a lot of my own character ... Stubbornness, determination, rational calm thinking, pride, respect, humor, forgetfulness, attention to details, etc. ...

And so went my weekend.

•  Part II — Jeff  •

I first met Jeff last summer at my boss Gary’s house. Jeff and Gary are old school Wasatch ski bum buddies. While Gary works hard these days with his restaurant all summer (but takes all winter off to ski), Jeff still lives a care–free lifestyle, passing the days between winter seasons mountain biking.

Our meeting was right about the time I was beginning to become obsessed with canyoneering. I literally walked, talked, ate, and dreamt canyoneering. Then Jeff came around and, for some reason, thought I would be interested in listening to him talk about mountain biking. I listened a little and changed the subject to canyoneering as soon as possible. Jeff countered by talking about biking in canyons (wide, sandy wash canyon—uck!). The conversation was beginning to become unbearable. All I wanted to talk about was canyoneering! How long would he be around for!?

So I decided that the only way to get him to stop talking mountain biking would be the same thing that made me care less if I ever rode my bike again– Canyoneering! (I’d keep my mountain bike in case I ever needed it for setting up a canyon shuttle of course, but otherwise had no regrets about neglecting my once well used bike.)

So I convinced Jeff to do a canyon with me. We did Middle Maidenwater. Jeff did great. He showed a natural talent at downclimbing, but knew his limits and asked for a rope when the look of a drop made him uncomfortable. When we got back to the car and headed for Torrey, Jeff was still jazzed and talked excitedly about canyoneering non–stop ... for about 10 minutes! Then back to mountain biking!

Well, it was a nice theory anyway.

A few more days of mountain biking—which on the Boulder and Thousand Lake Mountain trails means lots of carrying of the bike up and down cliff bans—and Jeff headed back for the smooth single track of the Wasatch. Ahhh, and I welcomed the peace and quiet of the Riviera Room once again.

What a winter I had canyoneering!

And back to Torrey this summer. Jeff made a visit right away in May. And this time he had a brand new harness and rappel device! Maidenwater had apparently left a lingering taste in his mouth that stewed and became more savory over the winter. He wanted more ...

It was a busy weekend, but I found time to take him through Cassidy canyon. And the look that was in his eyes ... I heard hardly a peep out of his mouth for the rest of the weekend about mountain biking.

And, a few weekends ago, he was back for more! Equipped with even more gear! He even mentioned that he almost left his mountain bike at home!

Alas, the weather was amiss a few days of the weekend. So we did canyons two of the four days, and he rode in the rain the other two. Still, the thrill of the beautiful, overhanging awkward–start rappel and difficult downclimbs in Wife 4 weren’t enough to push thoughts of biking up to Boulder Top out of his mind. But, he did admit that his gaze from the 11,000 plus viewpoint on the mountain was immediately drawn toward the cuts through the reef far below, as he wondered which of those could be Burrow, Cottonwood, and Fivemile canyons ...

Slowly I think, the canyons are casting their enchanting spell on another fun–loving, adventurous soul. This one named Jeff. But does he have room in his heart for another obsession?

•  Part III — Discovering True Joy  •

As the end of my summer in Torrey nears, I’m trying to squeeze in all the stragglers on my list of hikes and explorations I want to do ... but as I go, the list just keeps getting bigger! My most recent tick on the list brought me to the top of Horse Mesa. Few points this high in Capitol Reef are easily accessible, but the 360 degree uninterrupted view is worth it! Oh and how I wish I’d gotten there sooner.

The world it revealed to me is full of a lifetime of destinations. A high garden of pines settled among Navajo sandstone domes to the north; the sheer blood red headwall of Frying Pan Canyon; that interesting pyramidal shaped alcove beyond Spring Canyon; a possible route into Grand Wash’s steep neighbor; Deep Creek as far as the eye can see; Cutler, Kaibab, Moenkopi, Shinarump, Chinle, Wingate, Kayenta, Navajo, Carmel, Entrada, Curtis, Summerville, Morrison, Dakota, and Mancos Shale all topped with a scattering of rounded Basalt Boulders; hidden ancient messages and dwellings; and a possible slot canyon far below.

The destination is only my reward—the work of getting there is all the fun! I enjoy the challenge of orienteering, thrill of discovery, fear of the unknown, wonder and awe at the wildlife I encounter, burning muscles as I scramble up steep slickrock, climb over boulders and squeeze through slots, and the blissful peace of solitude. I enjoy the work of establishing the routes alone throughout the week, but ultimately I’ll experience true joy when I can finally share them.

Soon I’ll take Penny up there, my ‘canyoneering soul sister,’ who always has a smile, funny remark, or story of adventure to share. But don’t cross her—she can be a smart–alek too! ;) Dave, our walking encyclopedia, his thirst for knowledge and wonder at the marvels of nature are endless and inspiring. Occasionally he’s wrong and I’m right though. ;) And John, my ‘Mr Wonderful.’ He says he’ll follow me anywhere (as long as there’s not much swimming or wading in mucky stinky cold water). But it’s his adventurous spirit, zest, knowledge, strength and perseverance that’ll lead me to great heights.

In the mean time, another route to start scouting out tomorrow ...


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© 2007 Malia McIlvenna