Throwing the rope of compassion
When the head park ranger begs you not to go, you might want to listen — especially when he’s an experienced woodsman and has done your route multiple times.
Canyoneering is traversing through slot canyons, which involves scrambling, climbing, rappelling, and often swimming.
It can be a tough sport in ideal conditions. In the middle of winter with six inches of snow on the ground covering ice and tons of steep slick rock, it’s pretty much insane. (It certainly can be done in winter with the right gear — which we didn’t have.)
Being inexperienced, we headed out against the park ranger’s advice.
An uneventful — yet ominous — hike
For the first mile or so, we enjoyed a leisurely, level hike down a sandy, dry riverbed.
The subsequent hike up about 2,000 feet of snow and ice-covered slick rock should have been our first clue (wait, second, counting the park ranger’s advice) that it might not be a good idea to attempt the canyon in those conditions.
After much dangerous slipping and sliding, we made it to the top of a high ridge, only to face a precarious descent down the other side.
We made it to the bottom and resumed our hike for another half mile. At 1:15 in the afternoon we arrived at the top of the first rappel, a 165-footer.
Staring down from the top, with ice and snow covering the entire descent, should have been our third clue that we might be getting into something over our heads.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20…
The frigid plunge
I went down first.
We hadn’t thrown our ropes out far enough, so they would drop to the bottom without getting tangled. I fought tangles the entire way down.
The tangles left a knot at the bottom of the rope, which would prove to be fateful.
At the bottom of the cliff lay a pool of water covered in three inches of ice. The pool was about fifteen feet wide. I had no idea how deep it was.
I stood on the ice, held my breath, and prayed I wouldn’t break through. I took off my backpack, got down onto my hands and knees, and tried to carefully creep across the ice.
After about five feet the ice betrayed me. I heard those sickening creaking and cracking sounds. Seconds later I plunged into freezing water.
The water was waist deep. After being stabbed by a million needles, my body went numb. I couldn’t feel anything from my waist down. I was almost immediately hypothermic.
I broke through the remaining ice and climbed out onto a ledge on the other side.
I started jumping up and down to get the blood recirculating. Meanwhile, my friend started his descent. (Apparently my plunge hadn’t yet dampened our spirits or knocked the stupidity out of us.)
A disastrous knot
After about forty-five minutes, all three of us were standing at the bottom of the cliff, ready to continue onward.
I was not thinking straight. In the anxiety of getting through the water, I had failed to remove the knot from my rope and forgot all about it.
I pulled the rope through from the bottom until the knot hit the ring at the top.
My heart dropped through my stomach. We were stranded.
We couldn’t go forward because our ropes were stuck. To ascend the rope to undo the knot would be extremely difficult and dangerous (you don’t know if the knot will hold or if it will pop through the ring and send you screaming down the cliff).
Not having any other viable option, my friend Barry decided to ascend. An experienced rock climber, he made it safely to the top.
Next up was Kent, a lightweight and strong guy who made it up with relatively little trouble.
That left me. I weighed 200 pounds and in my hypothermic state I had very little energy.
I latched onto the ascenders and attempted to pull myself up. It wasn’t happening. I had no clue how I was going to drag myself out of that canyon.
So there I hung. I felt so helpless, and it was painfully frustrating that I had so little to add to the task of getting me to the top.
Somehow, some way, with a combination of Barry doing some innovative pulley systems with the ropes, and both Barry and Kent pulling from the top, we heaved my virtually useless body to the top.
I was completely dependent on the strength and position of Barry and Kent, and Barry’s knowledge, skill, and ingenuity with ropes.
Furthermore, Barry’s foresight and preparation in bringing the right equipment saved us all. My lack of preparation, skill, and strength put me completely at the mercy of my friends.
Had it not been for their help, I would have been stuck at the bottom of that near-disastrous cliff. Where I was weak, they were strong.
The process of getting me to the top took about two-and-a-half hours.
After a miserable three-hour hike, we finally made it back to our car. We arrived home at about 11 p.m.
But we made it. We made it together, the strongest and the weakest, through teamwork, patience, and long-suffering.
A lesson in compassion and charity
We are all on a wearisome journey together, in a slot canyon called earth life. We’re all doing our best to scramble our way through the incredibly arduous journey.
All of us make unwise choices, or face challenges that are not of our own making. We sometimes find ourselves at the bottom of precipitous cliffs, standing in dangerously cold water, staring up at the top, wondering how in the world we’re going to climb out of what seems to be an impossible situation.
When those times come, the only thing that can save us is friends throwing down a rope and helping us climb out.
There are even some who refuse to grab the rope when it’s thrown down to them. We can’t force them to hold on, but we must still throw down the rope to every stranded sibling we find along the way.
That’s our most important and divine job — to throw down ropes to our struggling Brothers and Sisters and pull them to the top, so we can all arrive safely Home together: the strongest and the weakest, the bravest and the most fearful, the healthy and the afflicted, together, hand-in-hand.
We may be tempted to condemn those whom we find at the bottom of forbidden cliffs, and justify our lack of charity by saying they did it to themselves. But we’re all beneficiaries of one rope or another at various times in our lives.
We’ve all had many ropes thrown to us throughout our lives. The least we can do is throw it down to others.