The life-and-death question that haunts every man
I’m 505 feet off the ground.
Staring down a sheer cliff at a pool below. Heart pounding out of my chest. Hands sweating. Stomach clenched into a knot. Mind racing with terrifying “what if” scenarios.
Ten years of practice and planning, and it has all come down to this. There is no room for error.
That biggest, deepest question in the heart of every man lurks in the back of my mind…
We had hit the trail at 4 a.m. sharp. We start our eight-mile hike in the dark, periodically gaping in awe at the sky above, and later watching the sun rise over the most breathtaking country you’ve ever seen.
We hit our first rappel by about 8 a.m. The last man hits bottom and we look at each other knowingly.
It’s the point of no return. The only way out now is forward.
One more 220-foot rappel and another couple of miles before the canyon narrows up and we hit our first water. We squirm into our wetsuits, drybag our food and gear, and jump into Heaps Canyon — the hardest, scariest canyon any of us has ever been in (see this article for more context).
The canyon is everything they say it is and more. Equal parts breathtaking and brutal, glorious and grueling, majestic and menacing. It’s the most amazing and most demanding day of canyoneering I’ve ever experienced.
There are long, dark sections where we’re swimming and can’t touch ground that seem to go on forever. We fight over, under, and through frequent logjams washed down the canyon from flash floods. We get sucked into and crawl out of quicksand.
We marvel at the famous “Green Hallway,” a long section lined with moss on either side, and the “Iron Room,” where water seeps out of iron oxide deposits and streaks the walls with rusty orange.
The canyon just doesn’t quit. Every turn reveals another long swimming section. We slog on hour after hour.
Finally, we hit the final rappel sequence at 6 p.m.
It’s a three-stage rappel that traverses a 505-foot sheer cliff wall: a 60-foot rappel, followed by a 150-footer, and ending in a 290-foot free fall. (If you’ve ever been to Zion National Park, this rappel drops you right next to the upper Emerald Pools.)
Each stage has only a tiny ledge to work on. The smallest mistake here leads to certain death. (Remember I told you there’s at least one rescue or recovery out of this canyon per year?)
This is the moment that has been haunting my dreams at night and plaguing my thoughts all day every day since we decided to do the canyon the previous week.
This is the moment that will answer the question beating in my heart, pulsing through my veins…
My team and I meticulously go through our plan once more — the same one we’ve rehearsed many times and that I’ve rehearsed in my mind dozens of times.
We say one last prayer. I hook my belay device into the rope and start sliding down.
One step at a time. I stare on the wall at my feet. Sweat is pouring down my face and dripping into the void. My mind tries to conjure images of worst-case scenarios, and I force it to focus on the task at hand.
60 feet down I hit the first ledge for the beginning of the second rappel.
I speak each vital action out loud to myself: Clip my tether into the webbing. Slide the end of the next rope through the ring. Tie a knot at the end of the rope before dropping it. (It’s really easy to slide right off of the end of this one and fall 300 feet to the rocks below. A knot prevents such a scenario.) Hook up belay device onto the rope. Tie off the rope. Unclip my tether carabiner. Untie the rope.
I’m on the next rappel. 150 feet, one slow step at a time. I pause periodically to look around me and take in the mind-blowing view that is so rarely seen by very few people.
I hit the final ledge, dubbed the “Bird’s Perch,” and tether in. Relief washes over me. The 290-foot free fall is below me, but for now I am safe.
My teammate follows behind me, carrying the 300-foot rope. He lands on the ledge, we tether him in, hook up the 300-foot rope, and send him down.
The final teammate comes after him, cleaning up the two previous ropes. He and I stand on the Bird’s Perch together and tie two ropes to the end of the 300-foot rope (we’ll pull these at the bottom to retrieve our ropes).
He slides down. It’s my turn. I check, re-check, and re-check everything again.
I’m on the rappel. With the belay device at full friction for safety, it’s slow going. I inch toward the ground. The people below me look like ants.
And then it’s over. I hit the ground, lie down, and laugh and cry hysterically. We’ve done it. We’re safe. We’ve passed the test. We’ve conquered the canyon we’ve been dreaming of for so long.
It’s 8:30 p.m. We stuff our gear into our packs and hike out another forty-five minutes, hitting the Grotto shuttle stop at 9:15 p.m.
Watch this video to get a taste of what the journey was like (the last rappel sequence starts at 4:15):
The canyon has taken me to my limits. I am beyond beat. We had been going hard, working every part of our bodies, for 17.25 hours straight.
The question has been answered (for now), and I am at peace.
It is the question that has haunted every man since Adam. John Eldredge explains it in his phenomenal book, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul.
All men, John says, fundamentally want three things: a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.
And underlying each of those three desires is the core question: Do I have what it takes?
This is why I test myself in canyons — to take myself to the edge where the answer to that question is uncertain, the outcome unpredictable.
For it is only on the edges that the question, which in normal 21st Century life lies dormant and hidden underneath cubicles and computers, air conditioning and indoor plumbing, safety handbooks and insurance policies, comes to the forefront.
And it is only when the question comes to the forefront that we become truly alive.
“You’re better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.”
We all want safety and comfort, but when these become the sole pursuit of our lives, we never see what we’re made of, we never experience all that life has to offer.
Curling up in front of a warm fire is nice — but it feels infinitely nicer after we’ve ventured out into the raging storm.
Thus, the question “Do I have what it takes?” really is a matter of life and death: we can live in comfort and safety, while dying a little inside each boring, uneventful day.
As Albert Schweitzer said, “The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.”
The famous line from the movie Braveheart adds, “All men die; few men ever really live.”
Pitching into battle, plunging into adventure are not just romantic notions — they are essential components of a life well lived for every man aching to find out: Do I have what it takes?