Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
The Beast
by Ram

I wasn’t always claustrophobic. For the first 35 years of my life, tight places, only occasionally, would create some mild anxiety—no longer—the beast is a regular companion in tight spaces. And this is how that came to be ...

Escalante is a vast world, with many a narrow place—many known, others obscure. My pals and I had been pushing this one canyon over a period of a couple of years. We entered it from the bottom and climbed up through it, for as long as our strength and nerve would hold. This particular canyon is a 100 feet deep, with the bottom 75 feet rarely more than a foot or two wide. The upper 25 feet of the slot, has high angle slabs and a lot of ledge type protrusions at the divide between these two sections. We had traversed much of the canyon at this level. The siren song, though, pulled us down into to the deep and unknown recesses. The canyon has a pretty low angle, maybe averages 5 degrees; the slope makes a huge difference, up versus down, in regard to the amount of effort involved, passing through its narrow confines.

On a day in the mid–90s, John Baise and I nervously drank as much water and ate as much food as we could hold. We abandoned all of our gear, with the exception of a thin layer of long sleeves (top and bottom), and entered the canyon with the aim to pass through the canyon as close to the ground as possible. A pleasant sideways set of narrows deepened, darkened and narrowed, and narrowed again, and again. The technique that we found ourselves using was to have our feet pointing in opposite directions and our heads looking down canyon. It was so narrow that we could not rotate our heads or our feet. Partner aid was purely psychological. Having somebody there with you cannot be underestimated. You get stuck. Me, usually a half of dozen times on this day. You have to calm yourself down and problem solve your way free.

As you look down canyon, the walls’ subtle turns always give you the appearance that the area immediately ahead is becoming impossible. This is terrifying. You route find on a micro level. You figure out quickly enough what part of your body is widest, and you shift your body up 6 inches, down 6 inches, to accommodate the biggest widening in the canyon. The method that I used the most was to tilt my upper body down canyon about 30 degrees or more and use that angle, combined with the slope of the canyon, to make progress, while the canyon pressed in on my chest and back. When you would get stuck, subtle rotations of your upper body would help you make progress and become unstuck. This method we named ‘the sternum swivel.’ The muscles around my sternum were sore for a couple of weeks after this day. In the lead, I once became panicked. I started to hyperventilate. The true horror came from the fact that the walls stopped my rapid breathing half way on the inhales and exhales.


Further down canyon we reached a spot where the sun angle filtered down the hundred feet almost to the canyon floor, alleviating some of the darkness. One would think that this would be comforting. The sunlight, though, revealed hundreds of spider webs, bugs of every description, and a massive amount of dust particles floating in the air. Time for Ram to panic again. Rapid breath. Just imagining all those particles being sucked in. A bit of nausea and then upchucking my lunch. The sound of retching, couldn’t have helped John a whole lot, but the real treat in this narrow section, was that he had no choice but to slide through my partially digested lunch. After all, what are friends for? After a particularly narrow 100 feet, which we dubbed ‘the darkside,’ the narrowness eased, and out the bottom we went with the two emotions of elation and relief, vying for supremacy.

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Now that the canyon had become known to us, we shared it with a variety of folks over the next few years. On one occasion, the infamous Pitney joined John and me. For the first time, I relinquished the lead and went last. Perhaps I had put on a few pounds. Perhaps I hadn’t steeled my mind for the necessary efforts. Whatever the reason, I was having more difficulty than normal. At a point in the narrowest section of the canyon, while leaning forward and swiveling, I lost my center of balance. In this unique environment it took almost a minute for me to fall to the ground. Battle I did, trying to keep upright, but like a doomed ship, slowly I sank to lie horizontally on the ground in a slot not much more 8-10 inches wide. My body position was laying on one side with one arm ahead of me down canyon and with my head facing up. My 2 friends, right ahead of me, could not even turn their heads to look at me, nor could I any longer see them.

After the requisite panic, and sense of doom, some calm returned, and I asked myself a question: ‘What the hell am I gonna do now?’ Time to invent a new mode of locomotion. I found that, if I threw my hip one direction—the couple of inches it would go—and my shoulder the opposite direction, with much effort and sweat I could make progress down canyon, an inch or so at a time. John and Pitney had arrived at one of those spots that was over 2 feet wide and could now turn and see me, but offer no help, as I came around the corner. They estimated that I had 12 feet before the widening. An hour passed, during which time, I worked about as hard as I ever had in the outdoors. Slowly and surely, the new form of locomotion, which we dubbed ‘the snake,’ paid dividends. The little opening, which my elbow and then my shoulder arrived in first, was round in shape, maybe 2 feet in diameter, and a full foot lower than the ground I was snaking my way along. Without any leverage, my arm and then my head and my neck dropped down into this hole. With the additional angle, now I was able to work my lower body up the wall until I was entirely upside down, feet pointing to the sky, full weight on the side of my head and my neck.

This would be bad enough, but there was one more indignity ... my pants were around my ankles.

OK time to try and right myself. I would bend my knees and squeeze with my feet, but try as I might, even in this luxurious opening, it was still too narrow to right myself. Finally, I scraped my knees, bloodying them, and managed to right myself. Like any good boy, raised in America, I did not let on that I was near tears from a plethora of various emotions. So on this day, I found the beast and the beast found me, and we walk through this world’s narrow spots together. Some days are better than others, but he is never far away. This was my last time down that canyon. John, on the other hand, returned several more times. On one occasion, a new log that had come wedged, combined with recent rain, created a long swimmer, with the walls muddy above denying leverage. Not being prepared for such conditions (who would be?) John and his partner, had their own life and death struggle, with drowning and hypothermia hanging over their heads like a huge hammer. But that’s John’s story to tell ...

It’s been a bad week at work, but I feel better now. Like I told my mommy about a bad dream, and that makes it all better.


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