DOW­NAND OUT

Jen­nifer Con­ley dis­cov­ers the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of ab­seil­ing a slot canyon in Utah’s Zion Na­tional Park

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

ANARROW slot canyon is a great place for divine in­sight. If you are at all in the mar­ket for a per­sonal reve­la­tion, this is where you want to be. In ev­ery di­rec­tion are ironred walls of rock; the sky is a thin blue stripe far above. That tiny line of blue, that light of hope, seems to prom­ise free­dom. Stand­ing at the top of a crevice, look­ing in, it is easy to com­pare th­ese bar­ri­ers with the solid prob­lems of your life.

No ob­vi­ous so­lu­tions. Just one step at a time. What if there is no way out?

I don’t mean to be too dra­matic. It is ex­cit­ing to put your­self in a high place, then re­alise, af­ter the first ab­seil into the nar­row slot, that you have only one way out and that is down. Over the precipice. Into the next void. The chasm of the un­known is the only choice.

There is the con­sol­ing knowl­edge oth­ers have sur­vived. That metal ring per­ma­nently set into the stone by an ear­lier climber: it looks strong enough to bear the weight of an ele­phant. In life, we fol­low our par­ents or trust our men­tors be­cause we hope to avoid the pit­falls. Plung­ing into a crevice is surely not part of the game plan.

In the slot canyons of Utah, where thou­sands of canyoneers have doubt­less been be­fore, I won­der if my next step will be hor­ri­bly unique. SCOTT Wil­liams is a pa­tient guide and a great teacher. He is one of an elite group of

ex­pe­ri­en­tial ad­ven­tur­ers’’ based in Spring­dale in Utah, a bliss­fully pretty and quiet lit­tle town at the en­trance to the Zion Na­tional Park, sur­rounded by the sand­stone mesas that make this part of south­ern Utah such a tourist at­trac­tion.

Wil­liams is tak­ing my fam­ily and me on a canyoneer­ing ad­ven­ture in a slot canyon west of the town. The canyon is called Snake Al­ley, not be­cause of snakes (though we are told there are eight va­ri­eties) but be­cause it snakes its way down from the top of one of the many spec­tac­u­lar mesas formed in the Juras­sic pe­riod by a se­ries of ge­o­log­i­cal events, in­clud­ing the dry­ing up of a shal­low sea. Min­eral de­posits in the wa­ter ce­mented some sand dunes white (cal­cium car­bon­ate) and oth­ers red (iron).

A grad­ual up­lift­ing of the earth is be­lieved to have formed the sand­stone peaks and pin­na­cles soar­ing up to 760m above the Vir­gin River. Over time, rain, snow and the river have carved out the mul­ti­tude of nar­row slot canyons.

When we meet Wil­liams, we are a slightly con­fused fam­ily of mother, fa­ther, two daugh­ters aged 15 and eight, and a girl­friend, Diana, who is trav­el­ling with us.

I say con­fused be­cause a mo­ment ear­lier an­other guide, glanc­ing at one male and two fe­male adults, greeted us with: ‘‘ Are you one fam­ily unit?’’ ‘‘ Yes,’’ said Diana, who is also re­lated to us by mar­riage.

She was only hop­ing to move things along. But per­haps he as­sumed we are two wives of one hus­band? This is Mor­mon coun­try, af­ter all. Though polygamy is out­lawed in this 69 per cent Mor­mon state, a few fam­i­lies still prac­tise it, de­spite the church’s re­mon­strances. We awk­wardly clar­ify things and change the sub­ject.

It is very early this mid-June morn­ing when we set out with Wil­liams. We hike up a sandy path to a shady open space high on the mesa, an area known as the school­room. Here he teaches us the ropes. Lit­er­ally. I know I won’t re­mem­ber a thing. There is some­thing about a rope called a safety, which seems im­por­tant, and oth­ers called au­to­block and piranha.

We all look the part, hel­meted, har­nessed and ropes hang­ing grass skirt-like around our hips. Our first ab­seil is over the edge of a small cliff into a hol­lowed space, like half a spooned-out melon. Here the metal ring is per­ma­nently set into the rock wall, re­as­sur­ing us amid the eerie si­lence that plenty of other canyoneers have come be­fore us.

We slowly make it down in one piece, with Wil­liams ever pa­tient, and An­nie, our eightyear-old, opt­ing to go down with as­sis­tance from him for this one.

We are ex­hil­a­rated by the achieve­ment un­til we see our next chal­lenge. There is now only one way out and yet none of us can be­lieve it; we are peer­ing across a smooth rock slope that drops into a crevice. I wish I’d lost that weight I have been talk­ing about for years. The let­ter-box slot at the dead end of the slope seems too nar­row for a body to get through and the slope seems too steep with­out ropes, yet there are no metal rings here for us to use. We could slide down, but how deep is the slot? It could be a long fall into noth­ing.

Wil­liams asks how we want to go down. He is se­ri­ous. OK, so we have to make sug­ges­tions; we can play this game.

A hu­man an­chor to lower ev­ery­one down? Can we climb freely down the slope . . . it looks a bit steep?

We de­cide on the lat­ter. Af­ter all, there are no rocks that can be used to an­chor the rope, and who is go­ing to be the hu­man an­chor and how will they get down?

Wil­liams goes first as we watch in­tently. Semi-squat­ting, hands on the rock in front of his feet, slow shuf­fling steps (no sit­ting down; that means slid­ing), hands reach­ing out be­low and ahead, sup­port­ing one’s weight. He reaches the slot, stands up, throws his up­per body across the nar­row chasm and be­gins to climb face-down, hor­i­zon­tally, down the grad­u­ally nar­row­ing gap to a point where he can get a foot­ing. He turns around, gets com­fort­able with his back sup­ported against the far rock wall. ‘‘ Who’s next?’’ he says. ‘‘ How far down is it?’’ asks Zoe, 15. ‘‘ What if we slip?’’

She’s off next; by the time it is my turn, I think it looks easy. The oth­ers are stand­ing at the bot­tom of the crevice, which is prob­a­bly only about 6m be­low. They tell me this slot, like the flow­ing wa­ter that made it, leads into an­other slot, which looks a bit eas­ier to ne­go­ti­ate. I re­mem­ber climb­ing the rocks above the beach at our hol­i­day house as a child. That was al­ways easy. But my shoes have no grip, I feel like I am go­ing to fall head­first into the slot with no ropes and only Wil­liams there to try to catch me.

Strangely, it is even more ex­hil­a­rat­ing than the first ab­seil.

As I reach the bot­tom, my legs are a lit­tle shaky from the ex­er­tion, but I am elated.

The next chal­lenge is to get down a nar­row stair­way, which grad­u­ally be­comes a very tight squeeze. Diana gets stuck at one point. ‘‘ But I’m pleas­antly stuck’’, she says, which couldn’t de­scribe the feel­ing more per­fectly. She throws off her pack and the go­ing gets much eas­ier.

We reach an­other ledge and our sec­ond ab­seil. This time An­nie has built up courage to do it alone. She is mag­nif­i­cent and we all cheer. Now we are at the bot­tom and see sky ahead of us, not merely over­head. Free­dom again, but some­thing bet­ter: a sense of won­der at our achieve­ment.

Check­list

Zion Na­tional Park is 21/ hours’ drive north­east of Las Ve­gas, and on the way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, or farther east to Navajo coun­try. There are 10 hikes of vary­ing dif­fi­culty. The Zion Nar­rows is an easy walk and wade through the river. Neo­prene socks are es­sen­tial in win­ter and highly rec­om­mended even in sum­mer, as the wa­ter is cold. Shoes and socks can be hired in Spring­dale, which has a free bus ser­vice. Ac­com­mo­da­tion is plen­ti­ful but busy on week­ends. Try Flani­gans Inn: www.flani­gans.com. For half-day and full-day canyoneer­ing ad­ven­tures, con­tact the Zion Ad­ven­ture Com­pany: www.zion­ad­ven­tures.com.

Chasm and ab­seil­ing pic­tures: Jen­nifer Con­ley

One step at a time: Clock­wise from left, de­scend­ing into Zion Na­tional Park’s Snake Al­ley; cliffs of the Tem­ple of Si­nawava; walk­ing to­ward the orange sand­stone; into the chasm; all set to ab­seil

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