The inside of Pandora's Box Slot Canyon near Torry, Utah.
None of these photos are mine. I got them from this site.
None of these photos are mine. I got them from this site.
There is an ancient Buddhist tale that goes something like this:
While walking through the woods a young man was suddenly attacked by a tiger. He frantically ran in fear for his life until he was confronted with a massive cliff. Trapped between a hungry tiger and a deep precipice, he began climbing down a series of vines that had grown up the side of the cliff in a desperate attempt to escape certain death. As he dangled hundreds of feet from the ground, he heard the roar of a second tiger below, patiently waiting for him to drop. At this point, the young man knew for certain that he was going to die. It was unavoidable. As he struggled to hold on to the last few moments of his existence, he saw a wild strawberry growing from the vine he was clutching. He picked the strawberry. He gently inhaled its fragrance. He popped it in his mouth and slowly savored its bursting flavor. That strawberry was the sweetest most delicious thing he had ever experienced in his life.
Now, I actually have no idea if that story is indeed ancient. Or Buddhist. Somehow attaching those descriptions gives it more credibility. I heard it on an episode of King of the Hill. That's about the extent of my knowledge of Eastern Philosophy. The point is, confronting one's own mortality on an elemental level deepens the appreciation and enjoyment of the simple and often routine joys of life. Why do I choose to relate this somewhat heavy allegory on a blog that is mired in trivial nonsense? Because last Sunday I had the ever loving crap scared out of me and I've been eating sweet strawberries ever since.
Sunday morning, my buddy Matt and I ventured into a slot canyon near Capitol Reef National Park called Pandora's Box. A fitting name for the canyon from hell. Long story short, it was too narrow for me to fit through. We were able to escape the canyon but became stranded on a mesa surrounded by cliffs with no foreseeable way to return to civilization. At 6:30 Sunday evening, with little water and only about an hour of daylight, Matt finished the rest of the canyon solo, a very dangerous thing to do (just ask Aron Ralston*). He then hiked eight miles back to a bike we had previously stashed, then road an additional 3 miles back to our car. He called Search and Rescue and at 10:30 the next morning my dumb ass was air lifted to safety. Matt's courage and heroism can not be overstated. I keep offering to kiss him on the lips but he won't let me.
Over the last two and half years I have taken up the sport of canyoneering. I have completed 27 different technical slot canyons throughout Utah and have done several of those 27 canyons multiple times. I have taken workshops in anchor construction, read several books on the subject and have consistently exercised what I consider to be good judgment and an abundance of caution in my various adventures. I know my strengths as a canyoneer and my weaknesses. My biggest strength and my biggest weakness is the same thing. My size. I'm a big dude. Being 6'5" and on the plus side of 250 can really come in handy when you are boosting people out of potholes and acting as a meat anchor. But it can really hold you back when you are navigating a tiny crack hundreds of feet into the earth. Being well aware of that limitation, I have been very selective of the canyons I choose to do. Pandora's Box has long been a destination that has both tempted and frightened me. It is a really tight canyon. But not the tightest. It'll be challenging, but I figured I should be able to squeeze my way down through it.
One of the web sites I often use for descriptions, directions, maps and GPS way points provided a warning for large frame canyoneers. It said that big fellas will have to work a lot harder to get through the canyon. Instead of being able to slither through the bottom of the slot, I would have to put my feet on one side of the canyon, my butt on another and chimney up the slot and then inch my way over the narrow obstacle. I am fine with a hard working day. That's all part of the experience. So on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, my ambition got the better of me and I suggested to my buddy Matt that we hit Pandora that coming Sunday.
We drove down to Capitol Reef (a totally underrated and neglected destination in Utah by the way), we camped near the trail head and got an early start to what was going to be the longest day of my life. We hiked up and around on top of a mesa, ascending about a thousand vertical feet. We then bush whacked over open dessert to the entrance of the Pandora Slot.
I was pretty disappointed to see a complete absence of any giant, sexy, blue lizard people riding dragons and sticking their spinal chords into dino horses. Total letdown. I was looking forward to blowing up their massive tree house and murdering their children to gain access to the precious unobtainium. I am, after all the offspring of evil, imperialist, American settlers that hate the beauty of nature, and only understands greed and violence.
Holy balls! Avatar was stupid.
Anywho, as we descended into the canyon, we reached a few rappels and a couple of tight stretches of slot. We were making good time and enjoying the glorious combination of claustrophobic trenches and endless vistas that only a good slot canyon provides. Here are a few more photos. Again, these aren't mine. I don't know who these people are. But feel free to check out this entire photo series from the previous link.
About an hour into the slot, I realized that I had foolishly brought a pair of sunglasses with me. I never do this. The canyon is too dark to need them and anything taken into a canyon will get crushed. In a moment of misguided inspiration, I decided to unscrew a Nalgene bottle full of water and put the glasses inside of it. That way, they would be crush proof and they wouldn't rattle around. I am problem solving genius! However, I didn't screw the cap on all the way and when I put the bottle back in my pack and I lost one of the three liters of water I had taken with me as it spilled out onto the sand. All in an effort to save an eight dollar pair of gas station sunglasses that I didn't care about.
This was bad. If we hadn't already committed to the canyon with a couple of rappels, I would have turned around right there. But we were in it, with no going back. There was no water anywhere in this canyon and once we exited, we still had eight miles to hike before we returned to civilization. I could do it on two liters, no problem. But his meant that I would have to budget my water. It's now something that I'll have to think about. And I prefer for basic survival not to be an issue when I'm just trying to have a good time.
As we proceeded down the canyon it got tighter and tighter. We kept expecting the end to be near, only to turn a corner and be slapped in the face with yet another squeeze. There were moments where Matt would have to kneel on the ground and I would have to walk on his back to get up and over a tight obstacle. Matt would then lie on his side in the dirt and I would pull his dead weight below that same obstacle. Team work is essential for the type of problem solving that is required to safely make your way through these places.
Upon reaching what we thought had to be the final section before the rappel out of the canyon, the walls opened up. I remember noticing two washes on either side, intersecting the slot canyon. They looked like a way to scramble up and out of the canyon, if escaped proved necessary. Looking at that dark crevice, I swore under my breath (or possibly very loudly) sucked in my belly and began yet another birthing experience. This squeeze ended with a very tight crack that opened up into what appeared to be a ten foot drop. This is an obstacle that I cannot climb up and over. I would have to squeeze my way through this tiny orifice and then prepare for a reasonably long drop into a pool of stagnant water like the rancid turd that I felt like.
That last sentence was probably more graphic than it needed to be. Sorry.
I tried going feet first. No way. Feet first, sideways. No way. Head first (I have no idea how I was expecting to land safely that way). No friggen way. At this point we were both beat. We were sick of this canyon. It had scraped the ever loving hell out of our knees, hands and backs and we were just done. That 8 mile hike out loomed over my head and I cried mercy. I suggested we backtrack to the wash that was just behind us, hike up it to the top of the mesa and navigate our way back to the car. I had been beaten by Pandora. And I didn't care. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.
The east wash looked pretty easy to scramble up. But the west wash was pretty hairy. East was more in the direction of our car, so we slowly scrambled up the rock slide and out of the canyon. I was very relieved to see flat ground on top of the wash. Thinking we were on the home stretch, we found a shady rock, relaxed, ate some food and looked at the map. We'd have to walk about a mile and half due south and then turn west for about another mile and connect back to our original trail. From there we would have about an hour and half of easy downhill walking on a well defined trail the get back to our car. We'll make it back before sundown and have time to grab a shower and eat a pizza. Not a bad day.
After about a half hour break, we decide to get going. Let's find our vector and get some distance behind us. However we were presented with a serious problem. There was a ravine directly south of us obstructing our way. We walked up and down it looking for a way through or around but we couldn't see and clear solution. More unnerving was the possibility that there were five more crevasses just like it waiting behind this one. These were intersecting slot canyons that were too skinny to appear on our map. We didn't have the water or the energy to be able to risk crossing one of these ravines, only to get more stuck. We were on an island with no clear way out.
Earlier that day, I had texted my brother that we were going to be in this canyon. I estimated that the latest we would exit would be about ten o'clock, assuming we had no serious problems. Alan was actually in Capitol Reef as well, camping with his family. So we had hope that if this turned into a long term situation, rescue should be coming but it would only be coming through the Pandora slot. If we were to separate ourselves from our only known location, any rescue team could pass us right by. So after considering our options and saying several silent prayers, Matt suggested that he record my location via GPS, solo the rest of the canyon, hike back to the bike, ride to the car and call in search and rescue. He is a triathlon running beanpole and should have very little trouble squeezing out of our trap. I got the impression that he really didn't want to do this. But after considering our options, I flat out asked him to be the hero. Matt complied.
He lightened his load, keeping only the gear needed. He gave me a long sleeved shirt he had, a flint for starting a fire and a little of his water. Considering the amount of physically demanding work he had ahead of him, it was beyond generous.
Matt left at six thirty. I figured he would be back to the car by midnight to one in the morning. So I nestled in and tried my best to kill time.
It was a moonless night in the desert. The air was cool but comfortable. I was in an isolated enough of a location that I felt safe from any nocturnal wild life. No polar bears or tigers were going to come chasing me down. So I could relax. I tied my bandanna around my face, train robber style to conserve the moisture from my breath and to prevent my inclination to spit. I hate that phloemy, sticky tongue you get when you're thirsty and instinctively try to scrape it clean and spit it out. But a gross feeling mouth was the least of my worries.
There was an abundance of sun baked, dead wood around that was just aching to be burned. But in my infinite wisdom, I had taken the flint with the assumption that I knew how to start a fire with it. Matt even asked me if I knew how to use it. “Oh, yeah. That's not a problem.” I had started a fire with one of those back in Scouts. But I forgot that I had used steel wool to catch the spark. So I found myself alone in the darkened wilderness sparking the hell out of that flint wondering exactly how Bear Grylls lights up a fire so easily on the Discovery Channel. The answer is, you shave off the magnesium on the other side of the flint and the spark catches immediately. Sparks falling on dry pine needles result in nothing.
The lack of fire certainly didn't keep me warm, but the effort in trying to start one did. I would strike the flint for about fifteen minutes at a time and take an hour break. Again, the air was just chilly enough to keep me from sleeping. A fire would have made me comfortable enough to doze off. But it wasn't necessary. Instead I did the six year old kid in a night shirt trick and tucked my knees up into my shirt, pulled in my arms and dipped my head into my cocoon and warm myself with my breath. This was a very comfortable position and I was able to get some limited sleep until my butt just got too sore from sitting on the rock.
All the while I kept trying to occupy my mind with time killing distractions. Name every team in the NFL. NBA. MLB. Okay. Too easy. What about the NHL? Now, name every state going from west to east. Now, east to west. Every country in Europe. Don't forget Lichtenstein. Name every school in the different conferences in college football. The Big East tripped me up. I had forgotten that Louisville joined them a few years ago. But that conference sucks, so who cares? Count backwards from a thousand by 7. Now do it by 13. I was pretty much Seymour Skinner trapped under a pile of newspapers. “I kept my sanity by bouncing a nearby ball. I made a game of it. Seeing how many times I could bounce the ball in a day, then trying to break that record.”. All the while I was running from the reality that I was significantly dehydrated with only a quarter of a liter of water remaining.
I was certain that I would only need to last through the night. " In fact, if Matt gets back by midnight, the rescue chopper just might show up by one or two. No. I can't hope for that. That'll make the night even longer. Besides, there's no way they're going to try and land a helicopter here at night. The sun comes up at seven o'clock. So that's my goal. Eight, nine maybe ten o'clock at the latest. They have a GPS way point of my exact location and even though I am totally isolated, I am only a few miles from the highway. So I can be thirsty for a night. No problem. The second I drink the water I have left, I'm on a countdown. I will not touch that water."
I would tell myself that at two o'clock, I'll take just a sip and not swallow it. When two came around I would convince myself that I didn't need it. So I would extend my objective to 4 o'clock, thus exercising control over my needs. Hell. I'm an unmarried 32 year old Mormon. I have a lifetime of practice at that. I may want it but I don't need it.
By the way, the human body totally sucks. There I was dying of dehydration and I had to take a massive pee. You call that evolution? Come on kidneys! How's about you do a little reverse engineering. I finally broke down and took a leak. But in an act of foreshadowed desperation, I decided to not let any kind of precious bodily fluids go to waste. You know. In case I needed them later. So I peed in an empty Nalgene bottle. The same one that spilled the water earlier that day. I wanted to punish that bottle for screwing me over, so it must now face the wrath of my frothy, warm, nearly orange pee. Take that. Of course this also meant that I chose the leaky bottle to hold my urine. I'm not sure if my act of vengeance was really that well thought out.
I took my camera out and considered making a little video explaining my circumstances. But I refused to let that thought linger. That last will and testament kind of crap is for people who are about the die. That's not me. This situation sucks but it's far from the end. Just sit and be patient.
As my mind faded between half sleep and consciousness, I would hear phantom helicopter noises. I kept having involuntary flashes of every helicopter image I had absorbed through a lifetime of watching TV and movies. I would have visions of the opening titles of MASH and Magnum PI. The Airworlf theme song would loop itself in my brain. I kept imagining the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now. I would hear the beginning of the song Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel. “We met as soul mates, on Paris Island. We left as inmates from an asylum.” I would even think of references that had nothing to do with helicopters but featured the word "chopper".
"Whose motorcycle is this?"
"It's a chopper, baby."
"Whose chopper is this?"
"Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead."
My brain was like a looped episode of Family Guy. Random pop culture references that were more annoying than amusing.
Sunrise came at seven o'clock. This is oddly the coldest time of the day. The sun had been absent now for eleven hours, so the air has cooled significantly. And even though the dawn light is peering over the desert, it was simply light without heat. There was just enough of a breeze to shatter any warmth my skin would feel. I finally let myself shiver, knowing that I was probably just an hour away from being warmed back up.
"I can see the morning light. I can see the morning light! It's not because I'm an early riser, I just didn't get to sleep last night."
I can't make it through a post without a Dylan reference. I know. I'm a douche.
I found a rock on which to sun myself, where I would be nice and visible when Frank Lapidus from Lost flew to my rescue. I closed my eyes in the morning sun and fought back the nightmare that had lingered in my mind all night long. What if Matt got hurt on the way out of the canyon? What if the rope got stuck on the first rappel? What if he landed wrong and broke his leg on that drop that I couldn't squeeze through? My night has been pretty crappy but his would be agonizing. Not only would that mean that no rescue was coming for me, it meant that it was my job to rescue him.
I think I've watched too many episodes of "I Shouldn't Be Alive".
No. He's fine. He's a smart, experienced canyoneer that just ran an Iron Man triathlon last month. He was miserable hiking out. But he was totally safe. You just have to be patient.
As I was fighting these urges to panic, a crow landed next to me on the rock. I broke out into laughter. “Get the hell away from me. My life will not end like a Far Side cartoon.”
I shewed it away. But that damn buzzard stayed in the area. You filthy sky rat. You're gonna bet against me?
Eight o'clock came and went. As did nine o'clock. There had now been two hours of daylight. I was a two minute helicopter ride from the highway and they knew my exact location. The later it got, the less likely they were coming. And if they weren't coming, then I would have to make a decision.
When ten o'clock the previous night came and went and Alan never heard from me, he must have called Search and Rescue. That team would know how dangerous this canyon was and would send a team down first thing in the morning. An experienced team that knows Pandora well could get to the point where we got stuck in about five hours. But, they would have no way of knowing that we had climbed up and out. They could go right past me with no way of reversing the canyon. So I decided that at ten o'clock in the morning, I would hike back down the wash and into the slot canyon and wait. I would still be able to see any helicopters flying by and would be found by a team going down through the canyon. If by four o'clock in the afternoon, there was no helicopter or rescue team, I would climb up the sketchy looking wash on the other side of Pandora Canyon and hope the same rocky terrain wouldn't trap me like it had the in other direction. I would have enough daylight to traverse the open desert and hopefully find the trail back to the car.
It was doable. I was tired but I wasn't weak. I was, however, significantly dehydrated. I had taken my contact lenses out of my eyes a few hours earlier because I had no tears and they felt like shards of glass. I am severely near sighted and wouldn't be able to climb down safely without at least one good eye. I cleaned the contact off with my scratchy cat tongue the best I could and stuck it in my left eye. It might as well have been a thumb tack. But I blinked and swore away the pain until my eyeball submitted.
As I stood up, I began cramping severely. Both legs and my back seized up. Realizing that I had to prepare myself for the possibility of a physically demanding day, I needed to make the best of the resources I had at hand. I looked over to my left and saw that bottle of pee staring me down.
“Just plug your nose and pound it. Worst case scenario, you spit it out. Your muscles will fail you without some kind of liquid. You have only had a liter and half of water in the last 30 plus hours (counting back to the drive down to Capital Reef) and you have spent those thirty hours sweaty your nuts off in a hot, dry desert at a reasonably high elevation. Your life and Matt's life may very well depend on you trekking through open desert for miles. Not to mention the sketchy down climb that's standing between you and the canyon floor. You can supposedly drink your pee twice before it becomes dangerous.** You have to have fluid.”
So I plugged my nose and pounded it. I drank about a half liter of pee. It had cooled off and actually didn't taste too horribly. This could be because my body was desperate for any kind of liquid that any sense of disgust was silenced. Or it could be that my pee naturally tastes like mountain spring water. Either way, I immediately felt better.
I took several branches from my unused pile of firewood and spelled out “SOS” with an arrow pointing to the wash that I was about to hike back down into. I gathered my gear and began a very slow and deliberate climb down a boulder field. The last thing in the world I needed was a turned ankle.
When I got to the bottom, I peered into the dark slot canyon. If Matt did hurt himself, there's a good chance it was on that drop that stopped me the day before. I screamed his name into the slot. Nothing. That was either really good, or really bad. And for some reason, this was the point where I felt my first sense of mortal terror. This was the first time I truly considered the possibility that I wouldn't make it out of this canyon alive.
My mind flashed back to the night my little brother died from cancer, eleven years ago. I begged God to spare my parents from having to lose another child. Especially in such a stupid, preventable manner. I thought about my nephew and nieces and how much I loved making them laugh and how complete they made me feel by simply being happy to see me. I thought about my brother Alan and his wife Kristen, and the senseless tragedy of him being the only brother left in our family. I even briefly imagined my own funeral. Just for a second. And I gotta say, in that flash of a moment I felt deeply sad but also overwhelmingly blessed. I was flooded with the realization of just how many people knew and loved me. That I was a truly wealthy man when it came to the assets of good friends and family. My life has certainly been disappointing in some aspects but at this moment of soul searching confrontation, I didn't feel regret or despair. All I could feel was the strength coming from the undeniable value of the hundreds of people that are close, integral aspects of my life. More than ever, I wanted to live.
This gave me resolve.
I was going to relax here in the sand and wait until four o'clock. " I'm okay. If no one comes by then, it's time to take control of my situation. But until then, I'm gonna get a some sleep."
My body finally relented and I fell hard into a deep, exhausted sleep. Just when I floated away, I heard another phantom chopper blade. But this time it was loud. I jumped up to see a helicopter at the top of the slot. But there's no way for them to see me. I frantically raced back up the wash trying to make a visual contact, hoping like hell they see me. I could hear it circling where I spent the night. It then buzzed the washed where I was running up the boulder field. I saw a guy hanging out the side. He gave me a thumbs up.
Matt's alive and I'm gonna be okay.
The chopper landed and two Search and Rescue guys came hiking down the hill. “You okay?”
“I'm really thirsty but other than that I'm fine.”
As I was running up that damned wash, oblivious to my cramping legs I realized that breath reeked of pee. Son of a bitch! I drank my pee a half hour before rescue came! I mean that's just comical. So I started scraping my tongue with my teeth and spitting. After all, I wouldn't want my pee breath to embarrass me in front of the Search and Rescue guys. By the way, I just realized that a potential nick name for me after all this may become Pee Breath. I'm shutting that down right now. That is not an option, people. Is that clear?
They met me half way with a bottle of water and I sucked that thing down. I was quite embarrassed that I put myself in the spot to need rescue but at this moment I was way too grateful to care. I climbed into the helicopter and we lifted off. I had never flown in a helicopter before and let me tell you, it was awesome. We flew really low over the slot canyon that had tried to kill me and over the terrain Matt and I considered crossing the day before. We were right to stay where were. We wouldn't have made it far. In fact, other than entering the canyon in the first place, I'm confident that every decision we made was the best one given the information we had at the time.
I was also incredibly impressed with how cool the Search and Rescue guys were. They were legitimately thrilled to see that I was okay. There wasn't any “What the hell are you thinking?” kind of attitude. I was a little nervous that they'd stick an IV in my arm and admit me to the hospital in some sort of insurance ass covering effort. But when I got back to the road, they just loaded me with bottled water, asked me to write up a brief statement and sent me on my way. They couldn't have been more professional and friendly.
So here's what happened. Matt had gotten back to the car at about 1:30. He immediately called 911 and got into contact with Search and Rescue. The problem however was that the rescue helicopter they typically use had already been sent to Zion in another rescue effort. What can I say? Labor Day weekend. It's a busy time for theses guys. So they called all over the state all night trying to find another rescue chopper. They finally found one but it was in Salt Lake and it had to be flown down over night. This was the reason for the delay in the morning.
Matt had also left several voice mails with my brother Alan, updating him on the rescue status. It turns out that Alan was camping with his family out of cell coverage. He never got my text telling him that we're going into Pandora and should be out by 10:00. When we met up with Alan later that morning, he had no idea anything had happened. In addition, the text I sent didn't specify anything about sending for help if he hadn't heard from us. I don't know, maybe I figured that acknowledging the possibility of disaster right before we started would be bad luck. Either way, I was a moron.
Al, his wife and his kids were visiting an old pioneer school house in the National Park when we met back up. His three year old daughter Annie was sitting at a Little House On The Prairie style school desk doodling on a chalk slate when I walked into the room. Surprised to see me, she came running over. I couldn't hold back the impulse to pick her up and squeeze and kiss her with every ounce of love I possessed. Don't worry. I had washed the pee smell out of my mouth by then. (I hope.) I put her down and began describing the previous night's events to Al. Annie pinched my knees to get my attention. When I looked down at her she said in her chirpy three year old voice, “Bwian, I'm going to run and you try to catch me, okay?”
It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I was overwhelmed with a intense gratitude for life that I have never felt before. Less than an hour before I was contemplating my own funeral and now here I was being invited to play with the happiest little girl on earth.
Strawberries never tasted so sweet.
*This scene was filmed in Leprechaun Canyon. It's just south of Hanksville. How do I know this? Because a few friends and I tried to do this canyon last spring when they were filming this movie. They shut us out, so we had to wait a day. Why do I tell you this? Because there is no crystal clear pool of spring water below Leprechaun. Any water there would be putrid, stagnant poo water that smells worse than death. It kind of bugs me that Danny Boyle felt the need to exaggerate the beauty of this place. Why not add some CGI palm trees and Jar Jar Binks while you're at it? It's called gilding the Lilly, dick. Don't do it. It's perfect the way it is.
** I'm pretty sure most people have heard this but I must admit, I have no idea if it is true. Come to think of it, pee could be worse than sea water and dehydrate you quicker than no liquid at all. But I do know I felt much better after downing it. Either it really did help or I had one nasty placebo working for me.