In a day and age where “photo or it didn’t happen” reigns supreme and the world of social media seeks to record every milestone and life moment, I’m going to tell you about an adventure where there isn’t any “proof” it happened at all, except these very words.
On Sunday, April 17th I was returning to the trailhead from my first solo backpacking overnighter, hiking Halls Divide and Narrows in Capitol Reef National Park. This was a milestone and adventure in itself. I met a couple on the trail heading to the Narrows. After I shared with them about what to expect, they shared with me a little gem, “a double arch — just go up this distinct canyon right at the trail junction…” This “double arch” is actually called the Brimhall Arch.
Well, on the TOPO map, it seemed a little before the trail junction… so I found what I thought was the distinct canyon. “There’s some rocks you’ll have to navigate…” I recall him telling me as I began climbing and scrambling, but these weren’t so bad. “And be ready to get your feet wet.” Well, this seemed pretty dry. Either he was speculating, or I wasn’t to the “wet part” yet. I went up and up and up, maneuvering around loose scree and vegetation. And hoping I wouldn’t encounter a rattlesnake as I had enough to focus on. Up I went, side stepping slickrock, creating my own switchbacks. Almost to the top. OK. I’m at the– ……top. DANG! This was not a go up and then look across to see two magnificent arches hiding behind a wall of stone. No. This was a go up and encounter a sheer 1,000-foot drop with another slab of stone across the canyon just like you just climbed up. Disappointed, but determined to find the RIGHT canyon, I navigated back to the trail, noticing how much more difficult the steep slickrock is going down than up.
The First Obstacle
Contrary to what my map showed, the mouth of the canyon was right at the trail junction to go back to the trailhead. I started down the canyon, again recalling the tips and trail descriptions the fellow hikers gave me. The canyon walls were high and narrow, but not “slot canyon” narrow. There was plenty of room to negotiate around low-hanging foliage and rocky sections. Then I came to the first obstacle.
This part of the canyon ended at three tall rock walls and a deep pool of water. The canyon actually made a 90° turn. To the right a 12-foot wall was clearly the way. There was a “rock ladder” — rocks stacked by people to make a ladder. Sketch level: insane. This must be the “rocks you’ll have to navigate” part… I set my pack down, empty everything out of my pockets and tried out a couple rocks. “That one is stable. So is this one. Op! Not that one.” I scurried up with as few steps as possible, as to spend the least amount of time on this catastrophe ready to happen.
The Second Obstacle
I walked along the slanted rock, which formed a channel for water that came down the canyon. “I’d really hate to be anywhere near here when thousands of gallons come bursting down these narrow walls,” I recall thinking. Then the next obstacle: a slot canyon with water. This must be the “getting your feet wet” part. I begin to walk into the water just like I did all the other narrows the previous day. The water rose from my ankles to my waist in a matter of steps. I stop. Looking the next 100 feet down the murky canyon waters is a huge boulder. Getting out of this won’t be easy. But that’s not the only obstacle. I look down and the water is dark green. This isn’t going to be a wade. This is going to be a swim. (Sources say this pothole is about 10 feet deep) I walk back out and up to a nearby boulder. Time to take off the layers — my fleece jacket I leave on the boulder along with my neck gaiter and phone. I take off my long-sleeve shirt and wrap it around my head. Next, I cinch up my shoe laces — the last thing I want is losing a shoe in those waters.
I walk back to the water’s edge. I’m not necessarily afraid of water, but I wouldn’t categorize myself as a strong swimmer. If someone was like “Hey Aaron, race you across this lake!” I’d be like “Um, no. Have fun, though.” It’s just not in my comfort zone or one of my strengths.
SOMETIMES THE FEAR WON’T GO AWAY, SO YOU’LL HAVE TO DO IT AFRAID.
I go further in, back up to my waist where I was before I turned around. “OK. This is it. If you do this, you commit. There’s no going back.” I say attempting to psych myself up. But there comes a time where you just have to do. This was one of those times. I go in.
The Third Obstacle
Swimming down the canyon seemed to take forever. I swam fast, trying not to think of the creepiness of the whole situation I willingly put myself in. It didn’t work. “Dark murky waters.” “Anything could be in here.” “So cold!!” I get to the very large boulder, which has two “exit routes” of small crevices on either side of it between the walls. Another problem, though — there’s nowhere to rest or put my feet for leverage. I managed to find a small ledge up against the boulder to put my toes on at a few places. I first attempt the right side by putting my foot up into the crack. “Oh, that’s scary! What if my foot gets stuck and I fall backward into the water.” I nix that plan and go over to the left side. Immediately I determine I’d need some serious climbing skills to get myself up that route. I swim back to the right side. I try pushing myself up with just my arms — one hand against the boulder, the other against the wall. Nothing. I just don’t have a lot of upper body strength. Then, desperate to get out of this frigid water, I throw myself sideways onto the rocks. “Ow. Brilliant idea, Aaron.” Bare ribs and stones don’t get along all that well — FYI.
Finally, I try a combination of just lunging forward, pushing with little strength against the boulder and canyon wall and eventually get enough leverage to get a foot on something and that gets me the rest of the way onto the ledge on my knees.
The Adventure Continues
BRRRR!! This canyon has little sunlight and a nice gusty breeze comes barreling down greeting me on my exit from the water. Time to get moving! The next bit is just a lot of boulder scrambling. There are some tough parts, but nothing in comparison to the two previous obstacles. I hop across a few gaps and test each boulder I put my foot on before trusting it.
I couldn’t help but think about a similar situation to Aron Ralston’s accident in Utah’s Blue John Canyon when a sandstone boulder rolled loose after he steps on it and pins his arm against the canyon wall. Scary thought, but it instilled a respect for the outdoors — anything can happen out of our control.
After a long scramble to the top, following well-placed cairns marking the route along the way, I get to the Brimhall Arch. I’m at the top, looking across a canyon to the incredible feature in front of me. I walk around, exploring the area and inspecting all of the other features that time has carved out of the rock with water and wind. What these rocks have seen and experienced would be truly mind-blowing if we had even the slightest idea.
Oddly, the easier parts of going up were more difficult going down. I was again reminded that even the same route may not be the best on the return. I’ve also noticed that it is harder (for me) to follow the route going descending than ascending. I get to the slot canyon, wrap my shirt back around my head… well, it was dry for a bit anyway… and jump in. OK, I don’t jump in like a dive, but I just kind of fall in, like a seal. Take that in.
The swim across was still kind of “scary”, but not nearly as bad as the first time. I grab the abandoned fleece and phone and head to the final challenge: the sheer 12-foot drop of a rock wall. I really don’t like the idea of climbing down the rock ladder. I notice an overhanging tree branch and tug on it. Seems strong enough. I hold on and walk down the wall a few feet and then push off and land on the ground. Modern day Tarzan I am.
So that’s my adventure. No photos. Only memories and faced fears. It may not even seem like a big deal to some, but within myself, I know it was an accomplishment. It was more than just an accomplishment or milestone, though. It was facing fears than I don’t think have become any less fearful to me. I think one of the biggest fears is that I didn’t have the security of anyone else helping me. I was relying completely on myself, and that to me is an everlasting battle. But slowly I’m proving to myself, one fear and obstacle at a time, that I can do it. I can overcome something if I set my mind and care enough.
And you can too.
What is your biggest adventure? What events have cemented themselves in your mind as the most epic thing you’ve done? Looking forward to your story in the comments!
This story happened during my #DestinationSouthwest tour, which at the time of this writing I am still on! Check out the hashtag on Instagram and Facebook to stay up-to-date on my future adventures and see my previous ones.