The slots rise hundreds of feet upward, the narrows windy, twisty, sandy, muddy, straight, steep, flat, red, black, orange, grey, everything in between all those. These cleaving slices through the landscape hide in plain sight and our subterranean passage through them offers only slivers of sky and light. I watch confidence grow as timid downclimnbers descend slot after slot and begin to emerge with smiles and laughter and song. I watch rappels become less awkward as the humans becomes more comfortable. I watch as you men alternately bond over movies and the texture of the rock beneath their fingers, then share vulnerabilities in talking of past struggles and future worries before returning to the ever-present video game banter. Somewhere in the depths of the earth I get lost in the function both of the people and the task at hand.
The clang of frypans and the hurried tread of boot rubber on red dirt wakes me from a fitful, tossing and turning sleep. I move in silence. I put water on the small camp stove to boil then head off to dig a cat hole. The stars begin to fade slowly as the 0530 darkness is invaded by encroaching daylight. Headlamps scurry here and there, hot drinks are poured, and thick, pasty granola shoveled into mouths. We prepped a lot last night and even so we don’t meet our time goal, but do better than most days.
The hatches battened down, we straggle, spread out, to the two track and begin our westward journey just as daylight makes it plausible to click off headlamps. Clouds thicken and interface with the rising sun, casting shadows and beams across rolling canyon country mesas and ranges, illuminating Bull Mountain, Factory Butte, and the Waterpocket Fold’s colorful escarpment of sandstone. We turn north at two long-dead cows, one missing its head, both hides dried to a leathery toughness. We search in vain for a cairn or sign of a trail for the so-called “alternate trailhead” but find nothing. We head north anyway through shin high shrubs of mormon tea and black brush. Here and there random footprints tell of previous passage, but mostly we just follow a compass bearing. Laughter, song, and banter floats outward, even at the early hours as the humans bunch and stretch across the mesa. We end run an intermediary canyon, then get back on our bearing. Nature calls for several of us and a map check ensues; we use the time to don harnesses and helmets and take care of the inputs and outputs. Releived and refreshed, our navigator points out the sinewy shallow canyon to our right; we drop into its dark, reddish Kayenta layers. The wash sucks us down with easy walking, then stems, legs stretching from one side to the other, through v-slots, and hopping back and forth. Here and there a butt scootch allows passage down steep drops and smearing all of our soles onto the rock, passage across slabs. In what seems like no time, walls, pocketed, cracked, and steep reach their red orange roughness above us, skyscrapers with lonely alleys between.
Our beta calls “Not Mindbender” one of the best slot canyons in existence and a NOLS friend says 11-12 hours with a full group. Spacious caverns, curved rooms with narrow tops–think an inverted beet—,tight squeezes, soaring narrows—where spread arms easily touch each side—, and slippery slides are met with continued gasps of awe form of “this is sooo cool” and the various indifference of songs and movie quotes. We rappel off webbing tied to objects unknown buried in sand and give handlines and belays from well positioned “meat anchors” or human bodyweight/position. Wading through puddles we gasp at the cold and mud as it creeps above knee level. Somewhere below us, a distance of kilometers, lies the “Great Falls rappel,” an eighty foot, free hanging descent. In the back of my mind lay the discrepancy between our generally reliable NOLS map beta which indicated a two bolt anchor and the Kelsey gude that notes disappearing and reappearing anchors and a note to bring 20 meters of webbing to sling a chockstone back up canyon if necessary. And of course all that compiles with the physical distance and time length of our outing and the growing clouds that swirl in the narrow slices of sky overhead and the light breeze that reach the canyon bottom. “Maybe we’ll be rapping off a Russian thistle” I fret as I kick a small tumbleweed down the floor of the slot.
The best slot in existence oohs and ahh with a mix of technical descents, down climbing, winding narrows interspersed by wide vegetated sections with grassy knolls, elevated caverns and high pour-offs. We find the remains of a cow, the wings of a hawk and a complete, live looking lizard. The Great Falls do not disappoint nor does the single bolt and jammed rock anchor. Whoops of delight float upward as student legs cut free and they spin and dangle above a pothole meters below.
Rain falls lightly as I rig for the last rappel. We pull and coil ropes and point our boots down canyon. Our trek downstream takes us through more sandy washes choked with willows and yellow leaved cottonwoods, winding among sage, black brush, and mormon tea, all below the ancient sculpted wingate walls. Ninety minutes and a few miles below we happen on our exit; now we are back in known terrain as this is how we got out of the lower part of this canyon several days prior. Steep moqui steps, lead past a few pictographs before we wind through domes of navajo sandstone and steep red kayenta caprock up onto the windswept mesa top. From here it is just a few hours of walking along two track that beelines back to our camp. Ten and three quarter hours after our departure we stumble back into camp as the sun begins its descent over the Henrys. We savor the the colors of the sky, the group and individual accomplishments, and some well prepared and well earned dinners.
Featured Image: Sunrise over the Dirty Devil; current and ancestral lands of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute), and others.