“How many times have you done this?” Tim asks.
“Oh, probably close to twenty” Ryan replies.
Ryan is below us, wedged into a slot, rigging the green static rope to a slung chockstone. Twenty-five feet below him a large, murky, black-green pool of water awaits.
Darcy, Tim, Andy, and I are perched on a small, white outcropping of slick quartzite, polished smooth by years of water and flash floods. “It sure doesn’t look like we can wade across” Darcy says as we peer over the the lip at what awaits the end of Ryan’s rope.
I’ll go first, he offers. I think he can read the dubiousness in our faces. Above, the grey clouds spit rain and a light breeze moves the shrubby plants of the rugged Sonoran hillsides, only adding to the pool’s ominous nature.
We watch as Ryan slowly lowers himself down the rope, with first his feet, then knees, then waist being overcome by the dark, cold depths.
We were sold a two hour round trip, mostly dry, with maybe some wading, slot canyon. We left the instructor kitchen at the NOLS Southwest about eleven, the skies above grey and the ground below muddy. The January rains had been on and off all night and the forecast was calling for more over the next couple days. Snow too. Our five minute drive deposited us at a small local trailhead. Bedecked in gowns, wigs, tutus, denim, and other various accoutrements, we walked down the gated road toward the trail that would take us to the canyon’s top. Light rain and small hail pelted us as we meandered through the saguaros and mesquite of La Milagrosa. Andy’s gown slowly shredded onto the grabby catclaw shrubs and the wigs prompted comments on their induction of sweat.
The occasion was a gathering of friends. Temperature and precipitation ruled out climbing for the day; the long drive ruled out a caving mission. The open air of the instructor kitchen allowed some COVID friendly hangout space that was sheltered from above and gave realistic climatic information. Ryan threw out the idea of doing a short technical slot up in La Milagrosa canyon. A few rappels, maybe some wading, nothing too technical. We latched onto the idea, Andy suggested costumes to celebrate Darcy’s new job, and soon enough the posse of five rolled up to the parking lot.
Laughter rings out from the pool below; Ryan is swimming away from the rappel toward the slick, low angle exit on the opposite side of the quartzite pothole. The exchange of apologies and good natured ribbings ping pong back and forth. To the west there is a simple scramble that will keep us dry and put us on the other side with our much chagrined faux fur vest, mullet wig clad friend. It seems obvious that, in solidarity and absurdness, we will swim. “How did you keep your camera dry,” Darcy yells across to Ryan. “Oh I had a small dry bag. . . he kinda trails off and we digress back to the good natured ribbing. I feel for my camera tucked into the pocket of my rain coat and wonder if it will keep it dry… As if reading my mind Darcy says “I am going to walk my phone around, do you want me to take your camera?” I accept her kind offer and hand her the case.
I am thankful for the synthetic layers as I slowly rappel into the pool. It is my first rappel/swim event, at least that I remember. It is cold and soon all but my helmet clad head is submerged. For some reason it seems easiest to float on my back and I naturally start doing the backstroke. I watch above as Tim moves into the rappel slot and continue to windmill my arms. I chance a look forward and alter my course toward the exit Ryan used. He has plopped himself securely on the rock and offers me a leg. In a classic, toxically masculine style, I work it out myself, not taking advantage of the proffered leg and assistance. I slither up the slimy, water polished stone and stand up, wishing, like a wet dog, that I could shake myself dry.
La Milagrosa Canyon -click to see a video!
I drop my pack and quickly peel off layers. Water fills the pockets and cuffs of my jacket and I shed ten pounds of water and cloth in an unceremonious dumping of it into a heap on the ground. The wet puffy gets the wring cycle as I step on the sleeves and twist with a vengeance. Then the fleece, then the t-shirt. Above the pool Darcy has walked back around to join the rappelling after depositing the cameras and small pack with Ryan and I, and in the pool Tim swims towards us.
Andy, then Darcy, make the unnecessary swim and we all regather on the down canyon slabs. Andy, true to her learned style, forges ahead with laughter amid shivers and wetness, coiling the wet rope and rigging the next rappel. “No need to get wet on this one” she yells up as she touches down on dry ground. We all follow her lead and, in another 1/2 hour typified by giggles and shivers, congregate on the sands and slabs below our final rappel. A stiff breeze cuts the sun’s warmth and encourages us to gather our things, keep the layers of gowns and wigs on and start walking home.
As is fitting, we are picked and pocked by hail before finding shelter and momentary refuge in the vehicles.
Featured Image: Snow on cactus, January 2021, Tucson, AZ