Canyon Tales
Of Pits and Pendulums
by Jenny West (AKA Hall)



—  November, 2009  —
Bowen Island, BC

“... Hey, by the way, check out this link. You’re famous!
Later,
J.J.”


I stare at the email, confused, “Hmmmmmm, that’s random.”

Feeling inept and a bit leery, I move the cursor over the high–lighted blue line and click. A beautiful web page appears with bright red titles and an arrow prompt. Another click. I marvel as my screen strobes through images of a large group of men walking across a sandstone landscape. The image changes. Now guys in wetsuits and helmets are moving down, over and around obstacles in a beautiful canyon. Change again; someone tosses something attached to a rope resulting in cheers just off camera. Change, change and change again; a lone figure struggles to ascend a rope out of a water filled pothole. (Gawd, this looks somehow familiar.) Change, change again; more compelling action and intense music. Then to my amazement, a man makes a huge dynamic jump into a pool!

I say to self, “What?! This makes no sense at all. This is nuts!”

Rapid fire images flash on and off faster than my mind can process. Bold dialogue and intense music rolls over the top of it.

One man speaks about the technical aspects of the canyon, “The potholes become deeper. The challenges become bigger ... If you can’t move through a place like this with a lot of speed, aaaaaah, you’re in big trouble.”

Back to action. Back to the same guy. Back to action, more action, and another face shot of a reclining fellow who describes the proper use of a sand bag used as a rappel anchor.

“What?!” I am baffled.

More action. The music quiets.

The first guy appears again, with a serious nod, adds, “Be careful out there, it’s a serious place.”

Then, my gapping mouth drops another inch as a Hollywood style fade in with title and release date appears on my screen. Then stillness. Hmmmmmmmmm. I sit captivated. It is a very well done video for sure. It invites, it intrigues and it confuses me! Why the sense that I’ve been there? What is my relationship to this?

I stare for a moment and begin to read the print below.

“The legend precedes this canyon. With only a handful of known descents, limited beta ...”

“What the heck is beta?” I say out loud.

I read on, “... complex logistics, and extremely remote access, it is certainly one of the plateau’s premiere wilderness slot canyons.”

Ahhhhh, oh my gosh! Synapses finally bridge the gap and zap! I do know this place!

“In true wilderness ethic, our team set out to document a descent, applying various low–impact techniques developed over the course of years of canyoneering experience. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead. This is just a preview.”

—  Aug. 23, 1981  —
Back and Beyond, Utah

(Approximately 28 years earlier)

Deep inside the calm depths of the dark pit, we attempt to gain the lip far above us. Our thin neoprene offers some buoyancy and protection from the incessant chill but we’ve been treading water a long while. Now the fatigue is hard to ignore. Once again, he takes a deep breath and we time our next attempt with no need for words. I cock my knee high as he grasps my foot with both his hands. Our timing is near perfect. His body tenses cueing me to prepare to propel my body upward along the wall, stretching and reaching higher this time. As I am thrust upward, he is repeatedly submerged. The rock is slippery from our failed attempts. Our eyes are well trained to see irregularities in the rock. Over and over my fingers confirm what my eyes are not seeing.

Once again, I focus on a shallow diagonal crack far above. This time our timing is even more perfect. The trigger; NOW! The upward thrust comes. Statically balancing on his hands, I straighten my knee. My body uncoils as I throw all momentum up into a long stretch. A sputter from below, he resurfaces treading the water. He quickly reaches to offer help again. The timing is more perfect this attempt. My feet scramble, my left palm presses into the wall below me, and I strain upward. I ... MUST ... DO ... THIS! Two of my fingers catch the bottom edge of the crack. I pull HARD. Every tissue in my right arm fires up! PULL! I quiet my body against the wall. Concentration quiets my raging brain. Determined. Focused. I must do this! I counterbalance the right arm’s flex upward against the left arm’s downward press. I make tiny dynamic changes as my body rises in micro movements up the rock. Knees are bent, smeared against stone as the toes inch upward. Eyes are fixed on the critical finger hold. I feel the subtle shift of the fulcrum and allow a mini wave of jubilation.

NOT THERE YET!

My chest drops to the cold stone. I cock my left elbow and quickly slide my palm up nearer to my hip. I shift my mind away from the burn in the bicep and concentrate my focus on the two finger placement in the crack. My head slowly rises even with my hand. To my horror a tiny face with bulging eyes appears trapped beneath my straining fingertips! As my torso glides past, my grip deepens and another finger drops into the crack. I see the little frog is further squeezed. On impulse I want to release it! My survival instinct screams NOOOOOOO! A moment of struggle. I’m desperate to withdraw my fingers and tend to this little creature. Crushed in its own home. Me, the intruder! I turn my gaze the opposite direction and resist the urge to vomit. One last pull and push! I flop up onto the flat rock and quickly anchor for my partner to climb up. I’m out! We’re out! The loss of that tiny life weighs heavily on me as we pull and coil the rope. I don’t allow my gaze to go there. I feel no jubilation. This canyon is beginning to wear me down.

—  March, 2010  —
In the Irish Canyons, Utah

“JENNY! JOHANNA!”

I jolt and freeze. I look in the direction of this barking command. Tom sits not ten feet away (close enough to whisper our names and be heard). He does not look up as he continues to secure the buckle on his boot.

“I WANT YOU BOTH TO GO LAST! AND! PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO WHAT THE OTHERS ARE DOING!”

Insult passes in a moment as I remind myself that I have a lot to learn ... relearn ... whatever. I am not going to quit this early. Besides, I recall what it is like to go out with newbies—to be in charge and ... besides I have prepared myself well. I will not let my ego cause upset for me, not now. I have prepared myself for the possibility of this and worse, I think. I glance over at Johanna to see her reaction. Her expression gives away nothing.

The others finish their preparations for the descent into the tight little canyon. I stand and watch closely, as ordered. Niggly little whispering voices of doubt begin, “Will my body remember? Will I be able to keep up with these younger people? Can I find the joy in being with strangers in such a big group? Will they accept me? I do have a car at the bottom and freedom to bail out ... ”

I am standing slack–jawed and not paying close attention, as I had been instructed. Suddenly I realize that everyone has moved down the canyon. Grateful for the diversion from following this thinking; The Path of Doom, I look up. A stern glance from Tom and I know that it is my turn. He makes no attempt to hide his impatience. I step briskly forward.

—  ¾ hour later  —

“JENNY!”

I flinch but continue coiling the sand–coated rope. I offer my full attention as Tom hollers down at me from the top of the rappel.

“WE DON’T COIL THE ROPE! WE STUFF IT IN THE ROPE BAG!”

I see a thick bag laying off to one side, assume it to be THE ROPE BAG, and bend to pick it up, as ordered. I am aware that several people are watching me with wary eyes. I notice that Tom has now turned his attention elsewhere. I KNOW that there is a right way and a wrong way to stuff the rope in the bag. Tough, I think! I am anxious to move on and don’t want to allow for my growing irritation. I sense concern from the watching faces as I push the rope, neatly looped in a perfect climber’s coil, into the bag. I consider briefly before throwing back a response.

“TOM!”

He stops and peers around a fluted edge to look down at me.

“STOP YELLING AT ME!”

I smile sweetly and swing the rope bag over a shoulder as I turn. I pause in my second step to hear;

“Jenny! I’m not YELLING at you. I’m just speaking LOUDLY.”

He melts me, then. Literally, I fall in love with Tom Jones at that moment. I see such goodness in his eyes and rare brilliance in his brain. I’m not saying that I don’t startle and flinch at the tone in his voice and the sternness on his face sometimes when he addresses me. I learn to face him eye–to–eye, even through the occasional tears that well up in mine when I take a Tom slap personally.

Ram invited me to join in on this trip. Although we all defer to Tom once we begin our descent, I look to them both as being the experts. I watch every move they make that day and pay close attention to every tidbit they share between themselves and with the others in the group. I sorely feel the sting of not taking their suggestion to ‘layer up’ from the previous night’s discussion. I learn a new way of moving in watching them. I discover that my body thrills at the movement. When my old habits of climbing down the canyon move me to exhaustion, I get behind Ram and copy the efficiency in which he descends. I learn to ‘elevator down’ rather than the highly physical four points of contact way of descent that I’m accustomed to.

Over and over, I am awestruck and shocked to witness such evolution in things where I was once an expert. I can tie most knots without looking, literally. But I see knots and rappel blocking techniques that I’ve never seen before. Their multiple layers of clothing and neoprene offers protection in using new techniques. Armor, they call it. Nearly everything is new to me; helmets, full wetsuits, elbow pads, knee pads, specialized shoes, neo everything, gloves, new descending devices, tiny light weight ascending devices, biner blocks, single strand rappels off of pencil thin static rope, resetting rope lengths, rope bags and (gulp) the Death Knot used as a standard for joining ropes. What about the water knot and the double grapevine? I am afraid to ask ... rather afraid to waste time on their answer. It is quicker to simply watch and let myself naturally absorb it. Besides, most of it makes very good sense.

I am humbled. I’m struck dumb and sometimes numb. I am forced to surrender my old beliefs. Either that or struggle and challenge constantly. I have to let go of years of experience and open up to a beginner’s mind again. Very early in the day it becomes apparent that I need to choose; resist the new techniques or embrace them. I choose the later and decide to fully trust these guys.

I didn’t come into this without checking these guys out. I did want to stack my odds in favor of safety and fun. So, I bounced around the internet reading technical articles and stories. I learned about links and blogs and forums and trip reports and mysterious acronyms and guide services and guidebooks and certification institutions and archives and photos galore! I concluded that these two guys are well respected and considered some of the best. I’d seen both their faces and heard their voices in the original video I had seen. Then I eased my way into the arena of email communication–relation and exchanged correspondence. The result; I am invited to join this trip.

I spend the next two months preparing my body. I know that being efficient in my movement is critical for me. I am no longer the fit young adventurer of decades past. My body was broken, ripped, and worn. Years of gravity sports have taken a heavy toll. If I want to be in for the long haul then I have to learn to operate within my own limits. First, I have to rediscover my limits. More relevant, as it turns out, I mentally prepare myself for both success and failure. This is the day! The moment to choose. In the clarity of this decision it becomes easy. I decide to trust my decision and just enjoy it. I love it! I am having so much fun that I no longer have any doubts. I am like a weasel in the hen house. I can’t get enough. I even enjoy moving through the canyon in a big group. Head to tail, lining up as if in a cattle chute. I offer my customary “MOOOOOO MOOOOO.” No one laughs. I decide to behave!

Before the day is over, Johanna and I have both worked our way to the front of the procession. She moves with confidence and grace in her denim pants. My body preforms well for me. I thrill at the movement. The discovery of which position is needed for a solution to each challenge. I am totally caught up in the excitement of playing on the edges of balance, friction, gravity, and falling. There is an invitation to stay, to play, to explore, and to meet Ram’s family and friends for another 14 days! I feel such excitement, sense the opportunities that are there for me. I rediscover a passionate, beautiful, deep and lost love.

That night in my tent I treat the bloody abrasions on knuckles, wrists, knees, hips, elbows and shoulders. I notice the numerous angry bruises. I promise myself that I’ll pay closer attention to everything that these two guys say. Stop the mind chatter and questioning. Trust them and myself and open fully to whatever comes. This reentry seems to be more like entering a brand new sport. So many changes. So much to give up. So much to gain. This is really fun. It just might turn out REALLY well ... as I drop into deep sleep.

—  Aug. 23,1981  —
The Pit of Despair, Utah

I loosen my grip and watch the rope delicately slip through my fingers, paying line out. It moves around a smooth shoulder of rock and out of sight. I have moved back up the canyon and settle into a low body belay. There are no natural anchors available and we did not drill another bolt for belay. I lost count of how many we’d placed and how many are left. We peer over the lip into cavernous pit and discuss options. None are easy. We consider and carefully evaluate risks. There seems like only one best chance. We agree. It is dangerous. It is grim but we commit to a plan. However, it requires that I be out of view and unable to see how it plays out.

Initially, we are close enough for conversation, although there is little cause for much of that. We are finely–tuned climbing partners. I give him slack as he requires it without words and often anticipate it as I hear his progress. I am glad I took that last long look at our route while he was preparing to set out. Now I must rely on his commands and the images that I can recall of the steep right wall and the gaping hole beneath.

“BE READY!” he calls.

I know he is now balancing delicately on tiny irregularities in the rock. At this position the rope between us offers him little safety in case he falls. We both know this. I brace myself in the event this happens. Until he sets the first bolt in place, he risks falling twice the distance he has traveled, plus the stretch in the rope! Worse, his free fall, even with the rope friction I have created between us, would result in his body slamming violently into the upcanyon wall. Better if he dropped into the water. It would cost us valuable time and likely insure the failure of our plan. I shake the image off. Can’t put energy there. I wait. I hope. He works. I feel the tension just out of sight as he carefully taps out a hole, replaces tools, blows out the dust, hangs a hanger, tightens the nut and FINALLY sets the first bolt. I hear the welcome sound of a carabiner gate close. We exhale in unison. Now that we have a solid anchor between us, the rope is of great benefit to him.

“WATCH ME NOW!” He is back to work.

“I’VE GOT YOU!” I reassure him.

A short rest and he moves on.The next section is critical; the crux, we call it. I listen to his soft foot placement, his breathing, and then the tapping of his hammer as he turns the bit into the hard stone. I imagine him pulling out one of his custom–made retrievable anchors and dropping it into the next hole.

He calls again, “OK, I’M MOVING!”

This means he is moving higher to drill another hole for the other custom anchor. When this one is placed, I feel relief again as he clips in. I hear him exhale and I follow suit. His voice is tense and farther away now. I can hear the click of the lever as he removes the first retrievable bolt leaving an empty hole. Again and again he repeats the process as he moves diagonally upward in an agonizing effort to gain the height we need.

He seems so far away. I feel for his solitary labour, but I am helpless to offer him anything more than my silent attention to the rope connecting us. At each pause in the belay I strain to listen, anxious for clues to his progress and to relieve my impatience. It has been a long while and I’m feeling a nagging chill from sitting in wet neoprene without moving for so long. I hear the tapping stop, the unique clatter of metal on rock. (I close my eyes and imagine all the tools essential to our survival dropping safely into a pocket or securely attached with a leash to hang from his harness.) I can hear the nut being turned on a bolt and know that he has reached the high point. I thrill at the sound of a carabiner slipping into the hanger. I anticipate his pull for a shank of rope and hear a carabiner gate click again. I open my eyes again, inhale deeply, and exhale with a shiver.

“GIVE ME TENSION, OK?”

I comply and he allows the rope to hold his weight as he hangs, resting. I hear him let out a full chest of air. A deep inhale and again. I feel a vibration down the rope and imagine him hanging his arms at his side and shaking out the fatigue and cramping. I imagine his charming disarming grin that he gives himself when he feels satisfaction with himself. I allow a smile too and alternately release my cramping hands. Short and sweet is the moment. Time flies by at a horrifying speed. At this stage I know exactly where he is. The huge pit is now directly below him. He has much work to do before we can celebrate this important yet insignificant victory.

“OK. LET ME DOWN A BIT!” he hollers from across the wide expanse.

I hear courage and determination in his voice. But around the edges I can hear the toll that has been taken in this dangerous and critical passage. I fill the chasm between us with prayer–like hope. But there is a lacy fringe of fear present as well. This move is not the crux but it is the most critical objective in the success of our plan. I feel his weight pull the rope tight around my back and across my right hip. A slight burn over my palms as I let rope out to control his drop. He swings out and back to find a delicate stance lower and left. Again I brace as he places the last fixed anchor. He rests briefly. Evaluating the distance, he decides how much height he must now surrender. I give him the rope he requests.

“THAT’S IT! HOLD ME NOW!”

I try to gauge his position, imagine how he feels suspended over the huge void. I imagine him looking down its dark bowels. This is it! I hear his feet shuffle across the steep wall. The rope skids across the rock face transferring his movements down the line to my grip. It stops and begins again as he pendulums the other direction. The rope strains and relaxes as he works to maximize the distance with each pass. I imagine his feet leaping horizontally along the wall. I hear his movement slow and then pause. Now it repeats toward the other side. Again it quickens. I imagine his body reaching, his arm thrust out to gain the furthest advantage at the far arc of each swing. The next attempt takes him farther, extends the arc. The sounds of his effort echos across the huge chasm and around the corner where I blindly sit, braced.

Then suddenly, “ROPE!!!”

Argh! I freeze. One heartbeat.Two.

“ROPE?!” Argh, Another heartbeat. What does he want?! “DO YOU WANT SLACK or TENSION?” I scream.

I desperately want to react to his urgent need. My body aches to respond but the consequences of the WRONG action on my end of the rope might mean the difference between our living and dying. I prime to repeat my call as a fraction of a second ticks by in slow–motion–crisis–time.

Finally, “SLACK!!!”

It comes in a strained voice that I fear holds a hint of failure and surrender. I rush to feed him rope, desperate to believe it was not too late in coming. I can not tell at which point of the pendulum’s arc he was stopped. Oh please, oh please, oh ...

But I hear shuffling, gruffing, panting, and then nothing. This was good news! I exhaled deeply. The first in nearly an hour I realize. Until this moment, I have only been able to imagine his movement. Based on my memory of our original survey and route plan, I could only make a wild guess at his exact location. Much of the time, his balance depended on the lung full of air. He was not going to waste breath to carry on a diatribe of his progress in the midst of the execution of such a delicate maneuver! During the process of his crucial pendulum maneuver, I could never determine at which point of the swing he was paused. I only could guess that he had not reached his mark when I felt his movement in the rope and the muffled shuffling began again. But now, I am certain. This rapid paying out of rope can only mean one thing; he has successfully gained the lip on the other side of the monster toilet bowl–shaped watery hole. We will escape this cold pit of despair.

Despite the miscommunication at the final moment, he has done it! Soon in a voice filled with fatigue, relief and a with a slight tinge of frustration comes:

“OFF BELAY!”

I prepare to follow the same route, to retrieve what I can. I had indeed drawn the long stick this time. I’m short , slower with the hand drill, slow to volunteer on this one, lucky and less bold. For a long long time he had been out on the proverbial short end of the rope and done a masterful job! Now, it is my turn.

—  May 2010  —
Fence Canyon Camp, Utah

“Ahhhh, Jennae Mae! You are nearly old enough to be my Mom.”

“(Ouch. I let it in.) How old is your mom, Dan?”

“I don’t know. She was born in 1951, I think.”

“What day?”

“The last day of November, I think.”

“Ahhhhhhhhhh man! I am exactly as old as your Mom. Ahhhhhhhhh! Dan, I’ll kill you if you tell ANYONE that! Ahhhhhhhhh. That is really creepy.”

—  Aug. 23, 1981  —
Back and Beyond, Utah

We leave our camp stepping through the chill of night’s shadow into the welcome sun and climb up toward the top of the rocky fold. My partner and I each carry a coiled dynamic climbing rope over a shoulder, retired from our climbing gear to become designated gorging gear. Our Farmer John wetsuits are strapped to the outside of our fanny packs. Between us we have two litres of water, iodine tablets, granola bars, apples, cheese, a bolt kit, a Swiss Army knife each, two custom designed retrievable bolt anchors and two 35 mm cameras in altered Pelican boxes. Though I had perused contour lines on our topographic map, I’d never seen into the depths of this little canyon gem. I knew not the elevation drops. How many, what kind, and how long? I trusted my partner and relied on what he’d discovered from previous visits to these rims. But for me, it was a new place on the planet and I was excited to get into the gut of it for a look.

The plan was to move fast, stay confident and travel light. This first descent into this lovely little eroded treasure would require the use of nearly every item we carry that day. Up and around the top of the drainage, we find a way to drop in. This early entry still offers escape if we opt to retreat. We share a giggle or comment on a canyon feature but don’t say much. As we climb and rappel deeper through the channels of rock and pools we stop discussing the commitment required each time we pull a rappel rope or downclimb a spot that would not be upclimbable. Time and time again we eliminate our escape route out. It is an awareness we share but choose not to speak of. The stunning beauty lures us to linger and take a few photos. But the pull of the unknown is powerful. The taste of adventure and our commitment to it is sweet. The bargain is made. The urgency is now tangible.

My excitement grows as we work efficiently and quickly through tight constrictions. Climb down twisting pour–overs. Assist each other down fluted chutes. Rappel over dripping walls of lush hanging gardens. Wade and swim through fragile pools teaming with aquatic life. Together we work through pothole obstacles that seem to grow in challenge and magnitude as the canyon walls swallow the light and rise higher above us. Over and over we drill bolt anchors into the canyon’s flanks to allow our continued passage down and eventually, hopefully out the bottom. We drape earth toned webbing at every opportunity but natural anchors are extremely rare. Our bolt supply is diminishing as is our daylight. We one–two–three run around several pits. Several times we construct rope pendulums to avoid several of the deeper ones. Working around and through the monster potholes eats up hours. It requires us to extend our skills and combine our efforts at every challenge. I see us as mice in the bottom of a watery bucket. To fail to get out ensures a chilly toilet bowl grave. It literally becomes a game of survival. Focus and optimism is essential. Must move with confidence. We drop into a beautiful long pool. Swimming beneath an elegant arch we pause for photos. I am tossed up and out the other side. We discover an even larger toilet bowl. Truly it is a Paul Bunyan’s potty.

Valuable minutes pass as we stand at the brink of this massive gaping hole, several increments larger than the last. Looking into it and up the other side, we see no way through, past, or around it. Has our cleverness and skill run out, right here at this problem I had not imagined? We consider our solutions, weigh our options. For the first time the true seriousness of this game REALLY hits me. We finally speak of it. We are deep in a very remote area. It is a great adventure up to this point but now we are faced with an extremely difficult challenge. In serious tones we discuss our limited options. Option one: drop into the deep pool and choose a cold dark watery grave if we fail. Option two: stay trapped within the confines of the rocky channel. Caught between the last climbable drop and this place. This offers a slow death from cold and thirst. Option three: Come up with something else.

Good choice. We take option three.

We inventory what remains of our hardware. Many bolts were used in less than a mile with no indication of change in contour or character of the canyon ahead. We have a long way to go. I cannot help but consider the seriousness of this challenge ahead. Will there be a way to climb out? Can we afford to bolt our way out from the bottom? The water is very cold and rewarming is becoming more difficult. The pools are too deep to find leverage to drill or assist each other. Time is becoming a very critical factor. A bivouac is not discussed. It wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. How many more drops and how long? What happens if we run out of bolts. What happens if we run out of options? Must deal with one challenge at a time. I force my focus back to the present. We are climbers. So we look to the rock for solution. We will go high and seek passage across the stone.

Over an hour passes. My partner executes an amazing feat of skill and courage, and we are across. Yet this canyon is far from finished with us. It will tax us for all we have and spit us out the bottom in the day’s waning moments. We arrive back at camp tired, hungry, and silent. We have shared a very private bond of camaraderie. I feel a reverent gratitude for our good fortune for having seen this special place. I have a wealth of humility for having left traces of our journey through this pristine place.

With some sadness I ponder what might be left that is lasting? A number of metal bolts, hangers, and nylon slings? Many aquatic habitats had been disturbed as we waded through? A smashed frog in a crack? Would all of these one day wash and wear away? Does any of it even matter? I let the fatigue flush away the sadness. It suddenly occurs to me. What if this canyon was literally testing us? Maybe this short little water–carved passageway had held us captive. Had worked us to our limits. Testing us with graduated scales of challenge. Luring us on with its beauty and our lust. Then had it allowed our escape? Did it name us as we will it? Would it be an honorable name? Did we earn it? Would it mock us as insignificant migrant creatures passing through its complex corridors teaming with life. Delicately balanced systems. Had we done any permanent damage in our passage? I hoped with all my heart we had not.

So the name of this special place came a bit later and after some reflection. This was our first canyon together. From this powerful experience we discover a common hunger for adventure. But it is a private passion. Even as we begin to plan the next trip, we speak of this one with deep humility and reverence. What was there to talk about? What would we say? There was a parked vehicle to be identified and a hint of a trace to follow, “So our bodies would be retrieved for our grieving parents.” We didn’t speak of this canyon to others. Over the years we rarely speak of it to each other except the occasional comment about the maniacal pits and memorable pendulums.

My partner and I explored several other canyon gems, offering up names, like blessings to honor the places and the privilege to witness their pristine wild states. These were private adventures and we chose to keep all of our explorations and first descents to ourselves and a few select friends. What would we tell? Who would understand? Why would we want to turn a spotlight on these beautiful and fragile places? The thrill of being in a place untouched by human presence, being the first footsteps and first to see the sculpture and light in a place was something profound and unique. It was a privileged gift in a changing time. It created a pestering desire for more. By the very nature of our lust, it was private. Selfish it was. These were sanctuaries of light, stone, and immeasurable beauty. It seemed an act of sacrilege and dishonor to invite masses of people into these sacred and fragile places. To speak of it would risk losing the very things so deeply loved. So we agreed and we did not.

—  October, 2010  —
SLC, Utah

The woman opens the screen door. She is expecting me and opens the main door to allow my entry. I recognize the cheekbones and lips. She is a large woman, tall and strong of bone, not large with excess though. I introduce myself, a polite gesture. She invites me in. I exaggerate a nod to the passenger waiting in my car in the driveway as I enter the house. I don’t want to stay long. I’m just here to pick up a ‘gift’ from this woman’s son. Stepping out of my shoes (a very civilized custom where I live in Canada), I notice the handmade quilts and heirlooms hung from the walls as I follow her. I smile and respond politely as she shows me the family photos, generations of faces. I see my friend’s face in graduation garments, dressed up for a sister’s wedding, his face a bit younger but not much changed. I see his features in his siblings too. His mother and I speak casually about the connection we share; my friend, her son—a brief reflection on the circumstances that brought about our meeting. Where she offers no indication of approval of his adventuring, I add elements of my respect for him. Where she acknowledges her concerns in his risk taking choices, I offer her a lighter view.

Finally, she descends the stairs to return with my ‘gift’ and presents me with a large framed print. I know what it is before I see it. It is a stunning black and white 24′′ x 36′′ photo of our Pit of Despair. The eye is drawn to the center. A tiny figure in a wetsuit is struggling to crawl over the lip of a cavernous round pit. The huge wall beneath him shows his watery trail out of the pool below. The camera angle captures a chilling beauty and amplifies the size of the pit and the significance of the little human’s successful endeavor to escape. I feel my knees slightly buckle remembering my passage through this place, over 28 years ago. I pause, recalling recent images of my return to this place, a few months back. I take it from her hand. I can find no words. I know that there is nothing I can say to help her understand what I know. To help her understand what her son and I both know. Why he would give me this gift and think it significant to me? How could I share the many things that I share in common with her son that she may never ever understand?

“He is too generous. He can’t afford to give me this ...” filling the air with trivial niceties as I retreat to the door.

She follows but seems to want to extend our visit, to stretch it out into something else. Outside she still stands quietly behind me. After carefully padding and tucking the gift into my car, I turn to face her. I see her as if for the first time as a woman, a mother. I imagine her life of church and family and friends and domestic bliss. It was a lifestyle I once imagined for myself and chose a different path, many years ago ...

We prepare ourselves for fare thee well. I look up at her face and realize that she is my age, my peer, my contemporary. But she looks younger, I’m sure! I recall my image in the mirror. My hair is filled with grey streaks. Her hair is a lush brown and neatly groomed. My rough toes poke through my gritty Chacos and my favorite blue jeans haven’t been washed in weeks. I look at her conservative attire and notice that she is immaculate in every way. Her skin is clear and wrinkle free. I recall the years and years of direct and reflected sun from rock, snow and water that has worked with wind and sand to sculpt deep fissures in my face and turn my skin to tissue texture. I see a scarred, weathered hand of an old woman with twisting joints and wrinkled flesh reach out to accept the smooth and manicured one she extends in return. I love my hands. People have noticed them and commented on their uniqueness since my early twenties. They have served me well.

Suddenly the contrast between myself and this woman seems not to matter anymore. I realize that I’m fine with being this age. I’m proud to wear my scars and years on my face and hands. I’m happy! I am so grateful that I am still moving through these magical canyons. I celebrate my discovery of such love and deep camaraderie with so many people—some far younger than her son and I may yet meet some far older than I.

—  October, 2010  —
Facebook Email

JENNY to DAN (in AK):

I met one half of your parental unit. Your Mom is beautiful. She looks younger than I do. She is actually! Her birthday is the day before mine but minus a year! Don’t ya know yo’ own mum’s birthday, boy? Remember, I know where you live now and I’ll hunt you down if you tell anyone that I’m old enough to be yo’r mamma!

I picked up your generous gift. Thank you, you scamp. Too extravagant. Not in your budget for this year, lil’ bro! I love it though. You were the catalyst for all of this, you know. Full circle, eh? I love you. Be safe out there and see you when you get back on the continent.

—  August 2016  —
Bowen Island, British Columbia

Seven years have flashed past since I wrote this tale. I move though Life and the slot canyons in a very different way. I give careful attention to the ever–present pull of gravity. (Ask me to show you these hands, now!) I’m better at letting go of some things and I cling fiercely to newly–defined important things. I thank my Good Luck and my feet daily. My life is rich with adventure texture and a rekindled passion for being out in the wild places. Whereas my past offers me wonderful memories of venturing through pristine canyons with one talented partner, my present reveals the relevance of my place in Clan. The future seems more promising than ever before, and mystery is a constant ingredient. I finish a trip and begin plans for the next.

What a crazy and wonderful new world it is. Webs of internet connections everywhere. A flick of a fingertip opens a prompt arrow on a little video clip on the face of a computer screen. This action connects a synapse in memory which sends a soul’s roots deep into past discovery and results in unfolded broad soaring wings!

See you out there in the canyons!

Jenny
(aka Pothole Jennae Mae)

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© 2010 & 2016 Jenny West