Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
by Ram

We all have crossroads in our lives. Some big, some small. The door opened, the choice made, the door closed. The new direction. The world seen differently. Behaviors changed. I experienced a somewhat important one in a canyon once.

• Part I — Crossroads •

Had just met many of the gang at the Cedar Mesa rendezvous, in October of ’01. The winter had been a long one, but light at the end of the tunnel (on–coming train?) had come, as a trip was planned for the first few days of March ’02. I brought my boys: John Baise of ‘The Beast’ fame and The Vladman, who seems to be with me every other time I get in trouble or spanked. Drove out from Colorado. Slept behind those buttes 7–10 miles north of Hanksville. A crisp night, so dry that breathing hurts. Thermometer said 12 degrees the next AM. If you have been out for a while, you adapt, that layer of dirt which clogs the pores and coats the skin, working as both sunscreen and insulator. But that first night out, clean and unaccustomed as you are? Wow, I still remember the chill and the frost rime on the sleeping bag and bivy sack. We went to meet Tom Jones and Alicia Scotter, who stayed in a lovely motel in Hanksville, and Dave Black, who did his commute from Blanding. Tom and I had a tick list to share with each other. He went first, and off we went to a canyon off Cedar Point, one he had never done before and for which, in our group anyway, existed no beta.

The sun was shinning and it was now a balmy 35 degrees, in the sun. A couple of short raps and we are in ... and out of the sun. Mostly anyway. I get out of practice for these first few days, every year. Conditioning down and I forget things. How about a headlamp and my humility? Anyway, we a–gliding down canyon, lots of stemming and squeezing. Tearing at the gear and clothing, but the mood was light. Good conversation and progress was steady, which is the best one can hope for in such a place. We had lunch and entered a second narrows. Ummmm, a bit tighter. Half an hour later, a third narrows starts. Tight and tall, then tighter, then darker, then tighter and then dark! Almost, anyway. Bit of light filters in. The canyon is at an angle, leaning 25 degrees or so, to the right. When its dark, one feels that the place is even tighter than it is. Bottom squeezes the feet. Worked very hard. Sweated like a pig. I remember getting concerned by ‘how tight’ it was. Then it relented and a large opening came. And I forgot about tightness ...

Did I say sweated ‘Like a pig?’

Now a confession. I have always been a fellow of ... how to say it? LARGE appetites. Food, scotch, beer, adventure and all other forms of indulgence. Rarely said ‘no’ to myself. I tended to bang around at about 220 lbs, but this winter had been good to me and I was carrying 235 lbs, an all time high, on my 6’1” frame. A bit like a pregnant pear. I know this, because the pictures have been documented by my friend Tom.

This is a little dangerous, as all generalizations are, but allow me. Worse when gender is introduced. I have noted that some women walk around with a somewhat negative body self–image. They can be just fine, but they think that they are a little too much of this or a little too little of that and in the wrong places. Society’s fault? Now guys on the other hand. They can be fat and balding and they can walk down the street thinking themselves quite the desirable commodity. “Don’t ya want me, baby?” I call it the ‘Magnificent Delusion.’ Not entirely unhealthy. But I was delusional and I had not a clue. You know, a little winter layering, that’s all.

Down canyon we continue ...

I often write about being vigilant about reversibility: always being aware of whether you can extract yourself and go up and out. First day of the year. Ahhhh, kinda forgot to. In oblivion, down I go. A squeeze, a rap a couple of down climbs and the canyon tightens. Thus starts the 4th narrows. It is vertical now, so not so physical. A corner here and a corner there, couple of natural bridges and before me lies ... a narrows too narrow that, even with my delusions, I know I ain’t gettin into, let alone through!! You know that feeling in the stomach? Like someone punched you? We had started late—sound familiar?—and there was only a couple of hours of daylight left. We had a rappel—the rope pulled behind us—the way ahead was impossible, for me anyway. I had no extra gear and wet feet. The temps down here are in the 20’s and we know where they are going. Climb up? Less than 1 foot wide for as far as the eye can see. Can’t go forward, can’t go back, can’t go up.

Maybe I can dig a hole and just die? ... No, too narrow.

Got that electricity feeling going all over my skin. Felt too doomed to panic. Apparently Dave Black had stood on the shoulders of 5’1” Alicia to get thru the tightness, using her effectively as stilts. Tom, at 180, still the largest man to get through here, to my knowledge, struggled to find that perfect level to manage to squeeze thru. A knee bend here, tip toes there, and a lot of ‘pushing through.’ Vlad and John can make it no problem, both being in the 150–lb. range. Will they leave their pathetic mentor to his fate? And would it be justice for past transgressions?

No! They still love me! Vlad shuttles the narrow section. Big ropes forward, small ropes back. Food split and, with a sense of urgency, my pals accompany me on an attempt to reverse the canyon. I don’t even know if there is a ‘out,’ out the side somewhere up there, as I wasn’t paying attention ... but what else to do? The rap comes first. We had rapped off of people and John and Dave had crawled over a ledge to a chockstone and rapped. John boldly led 25 feet up to the chockstone. A chimney that narrowed awkwardly near the top. They rated it 5.8+. I rated it ‘too hard for my fat butt.’ So, after some dramatics we are facing, what I have come to call, ‘The grim crawl of death,’ after a section of cave I read about in Wyoming. The ledge is wide, 3–4 feet or so, as I remember, coated in red sand and slanted at an angle that wants to roll you off the drop ... 25 feet into the darkness. The ledge is wide enough, one would think, but the roof is so low that you can’t get up on elbows or knees at all, and you have the insecure feeling you are going to just ‘roll off’ the damn thing. So you literally belly (I was a pro!) and use tiny ledges to make progress. A loooong 20 feet to the other end. I had a belay there, but we knew that no one was going to hold my lard bottom, were I to roll sideways off the ledge, with the belayer anchorless.

Made it! Whew!

My mouth was SO dry that my tongue was stuck to my mouth and I couldn’t talk. (Thank goodness for small favors.) Out of water too? Wouldn’t have helped much. More than thirst was at work. OK, OK, on we go, the sense of urgency still ruling, but optimism was creeping in. “We may not get out of the canyon, but we will be out of the dark bowels, or so we think.” Next came a 12–foot section, at 60 degrees, that I had squeezed and used gravity to make my way down a few hours earlier. No way over. Vlad can’t even make progress. What to do? Finally John and I push Vlad into the squeeze, yarding on him fully as he squirms up. Finally he is almost beyond our reach. I go next. With Vlad pulling from above and John pushing from below, I squeeze in. The beached whale made it forward with his pals’ help. A hand down to John and he is in with us. We progressed in this fashion up to the top of this section as a human accordion or, if you like, human earthworm. Never used that one before nor since.

Impending darkness and the canyon opens. Huff and puff. There is a short open section, before the slanted and dark section. Fingers crossed and there it is! A big boulder field leading up the first tier, at least. With no further ado, up and it goes. Wrong side of the canyon for the car, but we are NOT complaining! Up to the rim, around and a sprint across the desert to the road, with our eyes making use of the tiny bit of light left. The road. Whew! Walk it in the darkness, while decompressing. 15 minutes to the cars. Wow. Dodged the preverbal bullet. Thank you to John and Vlad for saving my ample butt. Take the cars around to our other heroes who made it through the canyon. They had there own fun. 2–stage 100–foot rap, nude, clothes in the pack, into a swimmer. Brrrrrrrrrrrr. Dress and adios. When we met that evening, Tom laid a huge hug on me. Now Tom is a great guy and a great friend, but we barely knew each other then and he struck me as not being the demonstrative type. As we became closer friends, I asked him about this and with a wry smile, he said “I was just so relieved that I wasn’t going to have to come looking for you.”

Tom named the canyon Shenanigans ... Amen.

So this crossroads thing that the story starts with. Took an honest look at myself. The infamous Moe, suggests a diet. I stop the alcohol (except on the trips!), eat many small meals, interval training and off goes the weight and up goes the conditioning. Took me 7 months to start but once I did, I changed my lifestyle. Haven’t had a sniffle in 16 months. Found the exersize ‘high’ I had heard so much about but never experienced. It was hiding behind the alcohol. A good addictive personality can make good use of such knowledge. Made it down to 165 lbs. and eventually settled in at 170–175 range. When asked how I felt during the diet, my honest reply was cold and hungry; but that settled out and I still handle the cold water just fine. My family got stoked by my example, and the kids read the labels and eat better than any parent has a right to hope for or expect. And why did I make these changes? To feel better? Live longer? See my kids grow up? Set a good example? Nah! Would be easy to claim it, but it would be a lie. I did it to fit through Shenanigans! And I did ... with Tom back again and Moe on board. Also shared the day with good friends Barb Pollyea, Steve Cole, Mike Offerman, and Megan Polk. I went through with the widest grin you can imagine, plastered on my face, last October. For me, a sacred place. A place of change. Yeehaw!

• Part II — Crossroads Revisited •

“Why go back to the same canyon?” one may ask.

There are so many out there begging to be seen and experienced. For me, there are many reasons. Sometimes it is to finish unfinished business, like in Shenanigans last October. But why go back twice more in the next 6 months?

After the successful descent, in October, found myself in the North Wash area for the New Year’s FreezeFest. The date was December 31st. Had another canyon planned, but what we found was that everything above 5000 feet was locked in full winter. Snow on the ground and more falling. Seemed that only the North Wash area was free of the pattern ... an island of good weather surrounded by harshness. What to substitute? The Black Hole was scheduled for the next day, New Year’s Day. Kinda maybe wanna stay dry then. Gotta be a great canyon. How about Shenanigans?—;north/south exposure, low altitude, dry, and a first class place—sure, I’ll go back. Look around at my partners. OK, OK, OK, OK, ahhhhh, Ryan Cornia, How much you weigh? 215? Ummmm. Hey Ryan, why don’t you come part way down, to my escape spot, then exit. Great canyon till then. The man is easy going. Says “sure” and “you sure I can get that far?” ... Positive, believe me! Great day had by all. Ryan ends up taking 3.5 hours and we take 6. Ummm, sorry you had to wait so long for us. I’ll figure something for next time.

Sometimes you do a canyon over again, because it is the best place to go, that is in condition.

The wife Judy puts her foot down. “I want to go in March with you and Aaron, to Utah.” But honey, it can be super cold and harsh then and Amy is only 9 and, and, and I better say yes or this wonderful women may start to count up my days out and decide to change the dynamic. After all, she deserves it. But if she thinks I am going to ‘dumb down’ the trip, well ... I will if the weather is rough. So preparations begin and we pray for good and unseasonable weather. We go and it is the warmest and driest March in memory. Not only charming, but Judy is charmed. Amy upped her mental game, which had been a concern, and we glided with a variety of partners and partner assist. We were having a blast. When I went down Shenanigans in December, I noted that, maybe with good support, I could share this special place, for me, with my family. So on the agenda it goes. They can all fit and there isn’t too much ‘off the ground work.’

So one may go back to a canyon to share it with loved ones and see it thro’ their eyes.

On tap for day 7 and off we go. Christa and Mike from the Colorado group are on their first full canyon trip and loving it. Steve Levin, friend of Charly Oliver, has given canyoneering a try and has taken to it. Big Ryan Hull has brought a work associate, Travis, and Jerry, an old partner, is back from Asia and looking for more fun. Now these are 3 BIG men. Tad under 700 pounds for the 3 of them. I look at these youthful dudes and I think World Wrestling Federation. Haystack Ryan, Killer Travis, Mountain Jerry. Pretty obvious these guys aren’t going all the way through. How do we build on our experience from the past? Hey guys, why don’t you exit after the 3rd narrows, go around the top and descend Leprechaun directly to the campsite? Sure, that works.

So one may go back to a canyon to put the perfect day together.

Off we go. I ask Ryan to keep an eye on and partner up with Amy. They are off in front and I can just hope that all is going well. I hang back with Judy and all is well. When we come to the split up spot, I ask Ryan how it was with Amy. He said, “fine.” I ask really? He smiles and says, “A very effective form of birth control.” Man is hilarious. He also set the new record for the third narrows at 250 pounds and he said it was tight!

So one may repeat a canyon to test new limits.

It is slow through the lower canyon; but everyone does really well and Amy didn’t even complain on the 600 foot climb out, while I ranted about Zion access and the need to join (plug) an organization like the ZCC. Back at the car, at 4:45PM, Aaron, Steve and I decide to race the clock and darkness and sprint down Leprechaun. Toss some water and food down AND throw in the headlamp and off. One hour and fifteen minutes later, we are back at the campsite.

So one may do a canyon over again for the workout.

The group, back together again, makes dinner, starts the fire and socializes. So maybe the best reason to do a canyon over again is to be with friends, new and old and share experiences, in the beauty of nature. I love that canyon. I will return. Off to bed we go and all is well—or so it seemed—no one heard the mice eating through the spark plug cables ...


Concurrent Trip Report:
Shenanigans • Tom Jones

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