Rockin’ the Outback

Middle keyhole canyon

In the Land of “127 Hours”

I was standing on the edge of a narrow canyon called Middle Keyhole in Zion National Park, a cold waterway behind me, a 25-foot drop ahead of me. My heart was pumping at full pace now. It had started beating faster the moment we arrived at Zion Adventure Company to pick up our voluminous canyoneering equipment.

My friend Lanell was showing me how to hook up the gear that could save my life “if anything happens.” I connected the rope to the metal piranha, the tool that helps slow descent, and clamped the piranha to my harness. I told myself that what I was about to do was completely voluntary—step backwards off a high cliff into the freezing waters below.

So began the 60th birthday trip I’d planned for my friend Tom. Anyone in their twenties would likely have considered this ordinary recreation. But at our age it felt like an extreme sport. It was the first of three exhilarating adventures that we took on over the next week. No “staycations” for us.

I looked directly at Lanell’s confident smile to stem the fear of my first rappel ever. I was too scared to look down, although you’d think it would have been a good idea to figure out how deep my descent was going to be. But why make myself even more afraid?

After all, I had only recently overcome my first desire to quit, which occurred when we had to suit up 30 minutes earlier.

First, layers of shirts, sweaters and jeans. Second, dry suit. Third, outer suit to protect the expensive dry suit. Fourth, Neoprene booties, special industrial rubber shoes. Finally, harness and helmet. Whew!

By the time we got everything on, I was sweating like a sprinter. The gear made me so thick I could barely take a step. “Lanell, are you sure we need all this?”

Lanell in gear

“The water is really cold in the canyon. You’ll freeze otherwise.” Twenty years my junior, Lanell has always been a close friend and peer. At this moment, I couldn’t imagine being cold, but I did trust her, and she was the experienced one, not me. I accepted my sweaty fate.

“Ok, Le, you’re ready!” Lanell shouted over the sounds of the waterfall. “Don’t forget to unhook your safety line.”Ready? She had to be kidding. I’m about as ready as an agoraphobe entering Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

I grabbed the blue rope with both hands at just the right point—never above the piranha, where a searing rope burn can make you feel like the real fish just ate your hand—but below it.

“Remember to lean  into your butt and straighten your legs.”

Reminder to self: I want to do this. Tom had just completed his first rappel moments earlier. There was no way I was going to let him outdo me. Besides, there was no going back. It’s not the same as rock climbing where you can go up or down. Once you’re down the cliff in canyoneering, you can’t scale back up.

I followed Lanell’s commands. In a flash, the waterfall was spraying my face as I took my first few steps down the vertical wall. Awesome! My body leaned sideways over the rock face to get out of the unplanned shower. I was rappelling! Suddenly I felt free and powerful, loving this phenomenal natural wonder from the inside out. The cool sandstone walls surrounded me on all sides.

“Woo-hoo!” I shouted all the way down. At the bottom, I leaned back into the water hole. The cold water seeped through the protection I wore. Buoyed by the bloated dry bag inside my special canyoneer’s knapsack, I quickly unhooked the ropes from my gear, yelled “Off rope!” and joined Tom on a large log lodged inside the canyon.

Relieved, proud and exhilarated, we watched Lanell make her skilled descent in less than a minute. She recovered the ropes

Stemming down canyon. Photo by Lanell Dike

for our next rappel and then showed us how to stem. Stemming is a technique where you move yourself along the walls by inching your body laterally down canyon without using your feet to touch the bottom. The three of us continued swimming, walking, rappelling and stemming our way down the remainder of the canyon.

The freezing cold water turned my feet and hands numb. Obviously I needed the gear. Adrenaline, mixed with a sense of triumph and joy, kept us moving down the ravine despite the temperature. We wound through the sandstone chasm, which looked like an inspired Paiute artist had painted swirls over the walls in adobe and auburn earth tones. Turning a bend in the canyon revealed more natural art, as exquisite as what we’d seen in the preceding hollow.

Small patches of blue sky peeked over the waterway. After three hours, the canyon walls grew shorter. Full light now shined overhead at the end of the ravine. Zion’s magnificent 150-million-year-old mountain peaks reappeared.

We all waddled back to the car looking like Michelin men. Saturated with water, the gear had become twice as heavy. We readily stripped down to our first layer.

Day one’s adventure had ended. I was ready for the next thrill.

Danger Lurks

While Lanell went back to work, we planned the next adventure, a three-day backpacking trip. We made our “wanna-see” list: bighorn sheep, hummingbirds, elk, cougars, falcons, rabbits, coyotes. We started at the East Rim trail of Zion National Park and headed west toward Weeping Rock. I bolted ahead while Tom slowed down to meditate. Stunning 6,500-foot cliffs and canyons of multi-colored sandstone lined the trail.

I waited for Tom at a waterfall that spilled spring snowmelt down a sheer drop into Jolly Gulch. I couldn’t figure out what was jolly about it. It was so steep my stomach churned when I looked out over the raw edge, which I only did after gaining a good grip on a well-rooted Ponderosa pine.


Over the next ten miles, the late spring decorated the landscape with freshly blooming flowers. Carmine paintbrush burst out of cracks between the rocks. Bright white angel trumpets hid their devilish poison within. Even the magenta petals of the prickly pear were just beginning to show. I had never before seen so many flowers in a desert landscape.

We bedded down at dusk surrounded by a manzanita grove, inadvertently displacing a couple of brown desert cottontails when we landed. Elk tracks made deep grooves in ground softened by melted snow. Too tired to light our cook stove, we dined on dry turkey sandwiches and went to bed. Sleeping out in the open air chilled me throughout the night. I was too lazy to get up and put on extra layers or set up the tent. The consolation prize: seeing hundreds of constellations shining over our secluded campsite, impossible to observe in the city.

I awoke the next morning to the cheerful sounds of several different birdsongs, from the flicker’s drumbeat, “dtid, dtid, dtid” to the Clark nuthatch’s “enh, enh, enh.” I even heard the original “tweet, tweet, tweet,” but I couldn’t tell you who sang that.

Later, we hiked down to a spring, which fed the emerald meadow where we lunched and tossed a Frisbie. We played our favorite word game too. Our travel Scrabble goes everywhere we go, even the outback.

Since the sun was already beginning to set, we hiked some more, looking for that night’s “bedroom,” and found a spot away from the trail. We decided to make dinner cliff-side to enjoy the spectacular vista of Echo Canyon as sunset transformed it into a natural light show. Just as Tom primed the pump of the cook stove, a loud cough came from the opposite side of the canyon.

We looked across the eighty-yard gorge, and there, to our amazement was a cougar bounding out of the forest into a meadow. Then another one. We instantly froze, awestruck. When they came to a stand of trees the smaller one rolled over like a kitten.

Cougar meadow across canyon

The big cougar was much larger than I would have expected. Her fur was a ravishing auburn in the afternoon light and appeared soft as silk. Her black-tipped tail extended almost the full length of her body. Black markings adorned the tawny fur of the yearling. After a quarter hour relaxing in a stand of trees, the animals gamboled out in the direction from which they came. I know it sounds corny, but I felt at one with the world around me. This was a double treat—watching two of the most secretive and solitary predators in the world—together in their own habitat—and not on Animal Planet.

Tom and I didn’t think the pair had seen us, and we were relieved they didn’t head toward the beginning of the canyon where they could have picked up our scent. The largest cat in North America, with excellent smell and vision, a cougar (also known as a mountain lion or puma) will kill its prey by grabbing it with giant front claws, then crush the windpipe or the back of the neck with a long-toothed canine bite. Rather than inviting trouble, we played it safe and chose not to call olfactory attention to ourselves by cooking the beefy sausages we craved. Instead, we boiled some freeze-dried meatless chili and sprinkled it with beef jerky, followed by trail mix for dessert.

The next morning I spotted a large deer in the exact spot the cats had visited the evening before. They evidently hunted there regularly. A female cougar kills about 9,400 pounds of prey a year. That’s about one deer or sheep a week. After its first meal of the victim, the predator covers the kill with leaves and twigs to hide it for later dining pleasure.

After we hiked out the next day we were excited about letting the rangers at the visitor center know about our wild animal sighting. Apparently, this was the first one of the season. An estimated 42 pairs of cougars live in the park. Mating season can be anytime, but a breeding pair only stays together for two weeks.

We told lots of people—shuttle drivers, rangers, visitors—who were all insanely jealous. “I’ve been working in the park 21 years and still never seen a cougar,” exclaimed Paul, the park volunteer who greets visitors daily at the front gate. He had recommended the East Rim to us in the first place. A few days later, when we “let it slip” at the rangers desk that we had seen two cats, a ranger said, “Oh you’re the lucky ones who saw the cougars!” It seemed that we were gradually attaining celebrity status.

Down for Anything

On our last day in Springdale, the town that borders the park, Lanell took us dry canyoneering. Tom and I cheered the chance to rappel without having to wear a fat wad of gear.

We headed to the Kolob Plateau where sandstone cliffs of all sizes and shapes form a multi-colored backdrop to the verdant

Kolob Plateau

meadows below. Once we hiked through a dry creek-bed to the starting point, Lanell gave a repeat lesson in how to attach our gear properly. We now wore only a harness and a helmet. We practiced from a 20-foot cliff. All three rappels went smoothly.

Now it was on to the high cliffs. My heart began to beat loudly once again. We climbed up the side of a mountain, under an arch and onto a rock outcropping. Lanell rigged up some extra ropes and loops due to the exposed dropoff. Hmmmm, should I be doing this if it requires extra ropes? Well, Lanell didn’t want to die either, I reasoned.

Tom was first up. I was too scared to get close enough to the edge to take pictures of him rappelling. Lanell snapped away, standing out on the ledge as if she were simply tying her shoes on flat ground.

Tom made it down easily and released the rope. Lanell called me over from the level rock where I was waiting. Fear rose up and encircled me. This drop was eighty feet.

I stepped forward and hooked up my ropes per protocol. I heard myself say, Just do it! But I argued back, Are you crazy? I wish I’d had a premonition of what was coming, but I didn’t. I began the rappel.

The rope was taut. It would barely move through the line. Well, better tight than loose. If it were loose, I’d go flying to the bottom with a thud. I descended slowly, complaining up to Lanell, “I can’t move the rope to let myself down.” She kept saying, “Put your right hand on your auto-block (a clump of rope wrapped around the line that affects the speed of descent).

“I’m trying, but I can’t!” The rope is getting shorter and tighter.

I began to panic. “This is so damn hard,” I cried.

“I know, sweetie, but you’re doing great.”

She knew how hard it was because she had been in guide training all year. Her voice encouraged me, but maybe something was actually wrong with my gear and she just didn’t realize it.

“I can’t do it!”

“You’re okay.”

Okay? No, I was not okay. I was dangling on a swing in the middle of the goddamn canyon. My heart was in my throat now. I did not have the strength to overcome the taut friction on the line. I began to laugh and cry simultaneously. It was like I was outside myself laughing at the whole crazy thing. But I was also fearful on the inside that I had lost control.

Tom was trying to encourage me from below; Lanell from above. I knew they weren’t going to abandon me and go home for the night. But I really had no idea how I would get out of the predicament. I kept trying to release the rope—to no avail.

“You’re okay. Relax and breathe,” Lanell said, not an ounce of doubt in her voice.

All right. I had to stop fighting the line. I relaxed a bit. I was suspended, but I realized the rope was definitely holding me just like a toddler in a baby swing at the local park. It gave me a chance to regroup upstairs, in my head. I tried moving the rope again. No luck.

A canyon wren flew around me singing a beautiful sweet song. I laughed at her freedom and compared it to my “stuckness.” I took it as a hint to stop trying so hard.

Somehow, someway, I found the strength to push the rope through the autoblock. Errrrrrnh! I descended two inches.

I did it again. Errrrrrrrrnh, I groaned. Slow progress. After ten long minutes, moving a few inches at a time, I made it to the ground. Thank goodness.

Lanell descended easily once again. While Lanell and Tom released and gathered the ropes, I clambered down to the next rappel point. This next descent had a scrambling option where you could use your hands and feet to climb down while the rope still held you. Lanell had determined that the scary problem I had was too much friction on my line. She gave me an extender to compensate.

I went first and got down quickly. Piece of cake. Yeah! I had overcome my self-doubt and fear, the biggest obstacles of all. Tom and Lanell each followed.

On that trip I found a new identity: Adventure Boomer. Now I feel like I can do anything. My 60th birthday is coming up soon. How shall I celebrate? Hmmm. Maybe I’ll go skydiving.

Springdale park sculpture

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