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