It’s dark outside as we climb into the car. I’m already wondering what I’ve got myself into. I could still be in bed enjoying my Bryce Canyon view. Listening to birds. Drinking coffee. Relaxing. Reading. But instead I have a pit in my stomach from the fear of what lies ahead. No matter. I have every intention of going through with my first canyoneering experience in the Grand Staircase Escalante slot canyons.
John and I watch the sunrise as we drive east to the small town of Escalante in southwest Utah. We’re there by 8:30 AM to meet our guide, sign waivers, medical forms and confidentiality agreements….all four pages of it. When we arrive we’re warmly greeted by Jim Clery, our guide and Amie, excursions director of Excursions of Escalante. Then after one more pee break from nerves we are good and truly ready for the Grand Staircase Escalante slot canyons adventure.
Our group for the Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons adventure
My first impression of Jim is very good. He’s calm and quiet spoken – just the sort of person I can trust quite literally with my life.
By nine we’ve met the others in the group – a husband and wife from Denver (Gene and Betty) and their twenty something year old son Zach. Not only are we hydrated but we’ve been fitted and equipped with a waterproof knapsack, harness, helmet, gloves, water bottles and lunch.
All jewelry and watches have been removed and left behind. There’s no need to catch a ring in a crack, pull an Aron Ralston and leave a limb behind. We are ready to roll.
Conquering fears, conquering slot canyons in Grand Staircase National Monument
We head off in four wheel drive vehicles – the only kind capable of getting to the trailhead. I can’t actually tell you where the trailhead is other than to say that it’s in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. You’ve got 1.7 million acres to search!
Upon arrival we all nervously peer over the edge. That pit of fear in my stomach has morphed into a ball of fear and is growing by the minute. I know I’m not the only one that’s feeling a tad scared. I can see it on the faces of Gene and Betty too.
We start our descent – hiking on slickrock type sandstone and in minutes we’re at the lip of the canyon. We’ve already had a bit of a safety spiel from Jim. But we go through everything you would ever want to know about rappelling before we clip in and head over the edge. Safety really is first and foremost in his mind – which makes me feel good considering what we’re about to embark on.
Once I started rappelling I remembered just how much fun it is – nerve wracking for about five seconds and then exhilarating. I used to rock climb and rappel but I hadn’t been near a set of ropes for at least 13 years. It’s amazing how quickly it all comes back.
How to talk like a real canyoneer
Once on the canyon floor we learned a number of canyoneering terms – the smear, foot bridge, body bridge, mantle and heel plant. The heel plant ended up being particularly useful. Instead of sticking your toe into a crack you plant your heel. It doesn’t get stuck the way your toes do so it makes a huge difference climbing down between some of the rocks.
Wear clothes that can get dirty
There was evidence of recent rain. Parts of the canyon were quite wet. In fact at one point we had to negotiate a waist-deep pool and on several occasions ankle-deep water. And the mud was so thick at times you could barely break the suction holding your foot.
After about 30 minutes I gave up trying to stay clean and in fact reveled in the fact I got so dirty. I just wish I hadn’t brought my pink shirt. It’s a lovely shade of red-brown now. Wear clothes you are prepared to throw away at the end is my advice.
How long does it take to walk through the canyon?
We spent the better part of four hours negotiating the length of the canyon. Some of it was easy walking while some left you smeared and pasted against a canyon wall. There was one instance before lunch I felt the press of the canyon walls. It’s something you just have to put out of your mind.
When we did reach our lunch stop the canyon walls opened. From here Jim could climb out of the canyon and get a better idea about the weather. He checked on the possibility of thunderstorms because moving froward in the canyon from our lunch spot required commitment It would be close to impossible to escape should there be a flash flood. Fortunately Jim pronounced it safe to proceed. (Jim carry’s a radio with him and Amie knows exactly what our location is too.)
Getting through a shoulder wide slot canyon
The bulk of our afternoon was spent negotiating about a mile of slot canyon. It was so narrow in places that you had to flatten your body to get through.
In hindsight it’s just as well I didn’t know what lay ahead. But in the end it was okay. And the beauty of the sculpted rock took your mind off your position. But if you’re extremely claustrophobic this may not be the sport for you!
At the end of the hike I felt such a sense of deep satisfaction knowing I’d conquered my fears and made it out in one piece. It took us an hour to hike back to the car from where we popped out at the end of the canyon.
Not only did we enjoy the sight of fantastic rock formations in a variety of earth tones but we had a chance to see a few arrowheads that have been found over the years and kept in a safe place only the guides know about. Seeing those arrowheads gives you a sense of history of the area.
The Grand Staircase Escalante slot canyons canyoneering adventure
Overall I would say that this canyoneering experience is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s beautiful and exciting. It tests you physically and mentally. And while it’s a challenge, ultimately it’s incredibly rewarding. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Further reading on things to do in Utah
- A Drive on the Exceptionally Scenic Burr Trail in Utah
- A Hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls in the Escalante Wilderness
- A Visit to Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah
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