“Whoo hooo” echoes through Yankee Doodle slot, a rocky gash in Dixie National Forest, not far from Utah’s Zion National Park.
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My son, Joe, is celebrating midway down the canyon’s biggest rappel, a 130-foot drop that starts with working your way around a large boulder, then requires a mid-course correction, swinging from one slab of angled rock to another.
At the sandy bottom, in the shade of a lonely tree, we rest and enjoy the view. “It looks like someone took a knife and carved the rock,” says my daughter, Ann Burns.
She’s gazing up at the fluted wall of golden Navajo sandstone, encircling a patch of sky blue. This is our first foray into canyoneering, a relatively young sport (called canyoning in Europe) combining climbing, rappelling, bouldering, swimming and hiking. Yes, it’s thrilling, an opportunity to explore stunning underground Edens. But it’s also an exercise in problem solving. Around every blind corner is a new challenge.
Over the course of a few hours, we’ll clamber over boulders, “chimney” over dank water between narrow walls, bracing our backs against one side and our feet against the other. We’ll cautiously climb down a boulder only to drop into a cold, muddy trough of foul-smelling water. Later, we’ll solve the problem of escaping a “keeper hole,” a round pool of uncertain depth. It turns out there is more than one solution, including finding a hidden underwater foothold or using your momentum and well-placed hands to create the “beached whale” technique, flopping out on your belly.
The walls swoop in tight, then flare out, the rock seeming to flow. The light from above casts golden highlights, then deep, foreboding shadows. The rock, sculpted by water over millions of years, seems to flow in rivers of butter and camel sandstone sometimes varnished in streaks of black. At times, it’s like walking into Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
“It’s kind of like the Average Joe’s extreme sport,” says Jeremy Draper, who has been guiding canyoneering trips for the better part of a decade. “You see some cool stuff and get a little excitement sliding down ropes.”
Darren Jeffrey is the president and founder of Alpine Training Services, based in Los Angeles (yes, L.A. – he says there are about 60 canyoneering routes in the city). “The appeal for the average person is there’s a high level of perceived risk and a manageable level of actual risk,” he says. While accidents are rare, people have died canyoneering, drowned in flash floods and “keeper holes” they couldn’t escape. Every experienced canyoneer seems to have a story or two about a close call.
Perhaps the most famous canyoneering accident is Aron Ralston’s misadventure as depicted in the recently re-released film 127 Hours. Ralston was navigating Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon’s narrowest section when a chokestone fell, trapping his hand, requiring him to amputate it below the elbow after five days. Disaster aside, audiences of the movie still got a sense of the rocks and water allure of the sport.
Even though the sport started in Europe during the 1970s, Utah is the capital of the sport, attracting rock climbers and mountaineers. Other regions, including the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Lake Powell have since opened up.