Thursday, August 11, 2011
Last week I went on a trip to the canyon with Sarah, Andrea and Seth. I wanted to replicate the awesome (!) journey mom and I had up the river two summers back, so I took us to the same place where my mom and I made our dangerous descent (and ended up having to walk up the stream, climb up the waterfall and navigate Colorado's equivalent of Emyn Muil). The problem was that two years of erosion managed to wear away what little slope the sides of the canyon had, leaving only crumbling dust that held together what looked deceptively like solid rock--about fifty feet to the bottom of the river.
For about half a minute I thought we could (carefully) make our way down a small crevasse that gave way twenty feet down to crumbling dust, leaving a stretch of near-vertical descent to the canyon bottom. I should have realized after a few steps down--the tumbling rocks, the shifting sand--that any further movement would seal my fate. I should have turned around. I'd gotten Sarah to come down after me and I shouted for her to turn back just as my footing slipped and I slid vertically 30 feet to the base of the canyon. I started up a miniature landslide; rocks the size of my fist skipped down in pairs, narrowly missing my head. The whole time my mind was ablaze--I was terrified. I couldn't stop sliding down. My only hope was to keep my balance, keep from tumbling headfirst so I wouldn't snap my neck or impale myself on a jagged piece of dry timber.
When I reached the bottom I turned around, stared up to see my sister pumping her feet, trying to clamber up the side of the cliff which, from my vantage point, was obviously vertical (how could I have ever thought it wasn't?) My invincibility--the confidence I wield on every walk out to the open space, skirting the edges of cliffs, the crannies where rattlesnakes lay, coiled, trying to escape the sunlight--evaporated in a single moment as I realized that I had absolutely no control over anything. This fear of death, the realization that I was anything but safe, stayed with me as I traced the water upstream. My sandals (a buck from Old Navy, those bastards) broke as soon as I set foot in the creek, and I had to make my way barefoot a half mile to what was left of the waterfall I'd climbed in 2009. It had been a generous ascent before; caked mud and jutting rocks had let me carefully scale the meager 15 foot waterfall, but again, two years changes everything. The holds for my hands and feet were worn smooth, the mud long gone. I was forced to climb around the waterfall, a sheer forehead-slope of cracked mud which looked deceptively like worn rock. It was twenty feet up that I realized again, as I rounded the slope to the top of the waterfall (my path looked something like a parabola--a large inverted U, a steep hump): if I so much as slipped, I would actually fall onto the rocks at the base of the waterfall, and probably break both my legs if I was lucky. The only shrubs I could grab were withered and came out at the roots, and I felt the earth give beneath my right foot; I looked down, saw several clumps of dirt skip down to the waterfall. The grass snapped in my hand. I latched onto a nearby rock and pulled myself forward, crab-walked down the remaining slope to the top of the waterfall, and laid back into the water.