Sunday, November 28, 2010

Life in the Desert

During my explorer canoe trip at Widji, a love was born within me for harsh, challenging outdoor experiences.  During the 21 day trip, I could not get enough of carrying heavy, awkward things through mud and water on dense bushwhacks.  I love the satisfactory feeling you get after completing a physically demanding task you've taken on.  I thoroughly missed these difficult times during my first section in the winds.   There were certainly days that were exhausting, but we were almost always on trail, so I never felt that deep connection with the wilderness.  There was a dramatic change in lifestyle when we were dropped of in southeastern Utah for our 26 day canyon section.  Our days became longer because of both distance and terrain.  Instead of the 3-7 miles we hiked each day in the winds, we were hiking 7-13 miles.  A more important factor though was certainly where we were hiking.  We had to use a lot of technical skills to safely travel each day.  That means whenever there was a drop off greater then 5 feet, we needed to scout for a way down and if one wasn't found, figure out how to lower ourselves.  On smaller drops, we would pass our packs and slide down by ourselves.  As the pour-offs (sudden cliffs in canyons) grew taller, we would build hand lines to lower ourselves safely.  In the most exciting cases, we got to rappel.  We each had a lightweight harness and helmet and the group carried two climbing ropes.  Our instructors would build anchors and then we would get to lower ourselves over the edge.  These technical maneuvers slowed us down considerably and resulted in many late nights, but allowed us to access more remote places.  

Our general route for the section was a large horseshoe.  Our drop-off and pick-up points were about 10 miles away from each other, so we did a large loop.  The first half was through smaller canyons while the second was through Dark Canyon, which is at about the same depth as the Grand Canyon.  A big part of NOLS philosophy is turning over independence to students.  The general expectation is that once you've been taught a skill, it's your responsibility to safely and properly use it.  This was a substantial part of our trip.  Most of the trip was a build up for a culminating challenge, of sorts.  We had an independent student group expedition (or ISGE, NOLS loves acronyms) for the last 6 days of the Canyons.  This meant two student groups of 6 traveling by themselves and not seeing anyone and essentially proving their skills.  We were tested quite a bit by our instructors before we were allowed to venture off by ourselves.  They would routinely surprise us with fake emergency situations that we had to respond to properly.  The ISGE was terrific.  I was voted by my peers to lead one of the two student groups, and it went wonderfully.  It was a great time to travel in a more personal community instead of the massive 14 person group we'd been living in.

We had one memorable 48 hours in gravel canyon, during the first half of the section, when our net gain of mileage for the whole time was about 50 feet.  It started off with a late night in which we finally found an acceptable campsite as the sun was setting...that was on top of a 50 foot cliff.  We could walk up to it, but the possibility of falling with heavy packs on our backs was too great, so had to pull them up by rope.  It was a 2 hour process to get all 14 people and our gear up to the mesa top (along the way, a pack's strap broke when it was almost 40 feet in the air, causing it to plummet to the ground only 5 feet from a student and instructor who were attaching the packs to the ropes...yikes).  The next morning we had to do the reverse process to get down to the canyon floor and continue moving.  Once we got back down, we hiked for about 10 minutes until we reached another pour off.  But this one didn't have a dry ended in about 9 feet of muddy water.  In order to get down, everyone had to rappel over a ledge and then give themselves a lot of slack right above the water so they could thrash about and attempt to swim to shallower ground.  The more challenging part was lowering packs so they didn't get soaked.  We set up a long pulley system where, if we pulled fast enough, we could get the packs down dry.  It was about 4 in the afternoon by the time we had everyone down on the ground, perhaps 1/4 mile down the canyon from were we started.  We hiked around the corner for less then 5 minutes and ran smack into a slot canyon.  Slot canyons are wild, they're incredibly thin, sometimes much less then a shoulders length wide.  Plus this particular slot canyon dropped down another 10 feet.  I took my pack off and dropped into the slot to scout it out.  It quickly became filled with water that was over my head.  And our packs would never had fit down into it.  So we turned around.  One of my instructors ascended the rope that we had luckily left up and built a rope ladder.  Then as the canyon became pitch black, we each swam out to the ladder and climbed up the wall.  We finally got back to the base of our previous campsite at 11:00.  

I'm in love with the challenges and beauty of the desert canyons.  I had some of the most fun I've experience while down in the canyons.  I can't wait until I can return...

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