Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Wild Wild West Adventure

Zion Canyoneering 
I’m a collector of hobbies, especially sports and apparently I was overdue to add to my collection. So my latest hobby is… drum roll please ….canyoneering!  What is canyoneering you may ask?  Well it’s like mountaineering except you are working your way through canyons.  I like to call it a hike on steroids since you hike but then you often have to down climb, rappel and problem solve to work your way through a canyon. I’d canyoneered before but only on tours where the guides do all the work and you basically just say “weeeeee this is fun”.

You would think these tours would be enough for a Floridian but I wanted to be able to tie the knots, know the name of my equipment and do it all myself.  So I took two days of training in North Carolina where I learned a lot including how to use a totem, figure 8 and carabiner (even though I kept calling it a cantilever).   I was amazed at how much I learned and figured I was ready to hit the canyons out west so I headed out for the annual Zion Canyoneering Rendezvous.  I decided an extra practice day might be a good idea which was a wise choice since I learned about double rope rappels, critters, piranhas and so many other things with odd names that were brand new to me.  I guess they do things differently out west.  My mind was full and a wee bit confused but it eventually came together that there are just many ways to skin a cat… or in this case, rappel a canyon.

North Carolina Canyoneering 
Finally after all the training in NC and at Zion I was ready for my first day in a real canyon.  ‘Some guy’ named Tom Jones was offering to lead a group on Tom’s Secret Canyon called Fiddle Me This.  I signed up since I’d heard he was somewhat of a legend in the canyoneering world but I didn’t know why.  Well it turns out he wrote the Zion canyoneering guide book so I really lucked out.

This ended up being one of the most extreme days of my life!  We were doing something called ghost canyoneering so we wouldn’t leave any trace (anchors, ropes, bolts) behind.  This adds another lever of difficulty that I was perhaps not quite ready for.  Just the day before in training they asked us if you can use another person as an anchor.  My answer was no.  This seemed ludicrous to me!  But then the instructors (they were awesome btw) told me that yes you could indeed use another person as an anchor.  At the time I was shocked but figured it was no big deal as I would be using nice strong safe trees for my anchors thank you very much.  But then came this ghost canyoneering with Tom and the first thing we had to do was a 200’ rappel on a meat anchor!  Luckily our meat anchor happened to be a somewhat beefy (pun intended) man of about 220 pounds which helped calm me down just a bit.  Later that day I would actually become the meat anchor for a much shorter rappel and then down climb while the people I anchored tried to make sure I didn’t fall.  This was crazy stuff for a flatland Floridian!

As if the meat anchor wasn’t enough there was another surprise in store for me.  On training day I saw a small piece of plastic about 1 inch thick and 6 inches long.  This piece of plastic called a Fiddlestick is used to make an anchor fail so you can retrieve the rope and leave no trace.  Essentially you are a putting your life in the hands of ten cents of plastic material (which costs much more since it is canyoneering specific).  This is the one time I was thankful that plastic has a long shelf life.  

After our first two rappels we put on our wetsuits for the remainder of the trip since there were many wet sections.  We continued down the canyon doing everything we could not to leave any trace of our adventure.  At one point in Tom’s secret canyon we wanted sand for an anchor but the sand had been washed out in the last storm so we had to walk a bit back up the canyon and carry a large trunk of a tree down and wedge it in the canyon.  Shivering a bit in my wetsuit in the shade of the canyon I couldn’t help but smile a bit at the extremeness of it all.  This is what I wanted when I got in to the sport and it reminded me of the quote on Tom’s t-shirt: Canyoneering: sorta like fun…but different.

The secret canyon has three sections.  After the second section with so many things changed from the storm our guide Tom said we should stop since the next section may be really difficult.  No one in the group complained.  We’d been through a lot and we were sure Tom knew best.  But then a few minutes later Tom was like “well let’s give it a try”.  This did not give me a warm and fuzzy at all and it did end up being a very difficult section where we had to use a backpack filled up with air as a floatation device to help us climb out of the water.

After nine hours in the pretty yet often wet and cold canyon I was an expert with fiddlesticks and meat anchors.  Something I wanted to proudly share with my Facebook friends but was concerned over the inevitable dirty replies that would result.  I was exhausted but happy and extremely proud of myself for my accomplishment.  I’d wanted to do this for years and finally did it.  I couldn’t find any friends to go with me but I didn’t let that stop me.  Last minute a friend’s son decided to join me but I was already set on going no matter what.  I got the training, bought the gear and made it happen! And now I have some new canyoneering friends that I’m looking forward to seeing at the next rendezvous.
I Heart Canyoneering 

If you’re at all interested I definitely recommend trying canyoneering.  Do a guided trip first for your safety and see if you enjoy it.  If you have any interest that you’ve been putting off, make today the day you start on that adventure. You will feel proud of yourself for the accomplishment.  Go for it and good luck!

Cat “Meat Anchor for Hire” Cathy