Into the Underworld: Canyons!

HMI Gap canyoneering in Bears Ears National Monument
HMI Gap canyoneering in Bears Ears National Monument

Written by: Hannah Abramowitz and McKenna Fox

After spending our time so far climbing up walls, this past week our group ventured down into the depths of the Utah canyons. Our five-day backpacking/canyoneering expedition began with great excitement and enthusiasm. Once we reached our first campsite, located on the canyon’s rim, many quickly scouted for an entrance down and explored slots, boulders, juniper trees, and other fun things before preparing dinner on our Whisperlite stoves. The fascination continued as we slept outside under the intense moonlight, gazing at the stars. The next day, part of our group summitted the Birthday Cake Mesa, which provided an overwhelming view of the high mesas and low canyons beyond. 

The stoke peaked as our group finally descended into Cowboy Canyon on the third day. We first learned a new system for rappelling that is more useful in canyons travel,  including single-strand rappels, firefighter belay, and natural anchors. We even tried a “meat anchor,” which refers to using your peers as the anchor to navigate short technical sections of the canyons! As we descended deeper, we got to shove ourselves and our packs through narrow passageways to the canyon floor. We saw curving water line marks shaping the walls of the winding pathway and eventually came across a frigid, murky pool of water we had to rappel into and swim across. The shrieks of laughter and surprise as students first dropped into the water echoed throughout the canyon and contributed to an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement. After racing through the dark canyons to bask in a rare sun spot, we continued onwards and deeper, completing two more rappels before scrambling back up the steep canyon walls. At one point near the top of our exit, we could look down and see the floor of the canyon where we had just rappelled, look up to see the tops of the mesa we had summitted the day before, and look in front and behind to see a water-soaked, dirt-covered, and exhausted yet exhilarated group who had just run their first canyon together. It was a stunning view. 

Through all the sights, skills, and stoke, we came together as a group and embraced both the good and the ugly. One of the most memorable moments in the canyons was mentioned previously: the rappel into a questionably teal-colored pool of water. It being our fifth day of managing such feats, we definitely had preconceived ideas of what this swim was going to be like: cold. The venture started smoothly with a convenient rappel onto a small ledge. Arriving on the ledge, I was pleasantly surprised to see a small pool of water only about 30 feet across, and the rest of my group beyond the water shivering, with ear to ear grins slapped across their faces. I instantly knew I was in for a good time. The transition from land to water did not go as smoothly as one would hope. The splash was bigger than intended, and my pack – and myself – were fully submerged in the not-so pristine water of Fry Canyon. With a strong doggy paddle, I made my way through the pool to meet the others across the way. Getting out of the water, I was drenched, adrenalin pumped, and filled with an overbearing amount of joy. This joy was then met with Henry pointing back to the water, where a dead bird was afloat. But not even that dead bird could diminish the overwhelming feeling adventure brings to the soul. 

During our time in the canyons, we often found ourselves describing our surroundings as part of the “Underworld.” The pale orange and red stripes went on for what seemed like forever; crevices, holes, and slots were found around every corner. It truly felt like we were dropped straight onto some alien planet. The walls were smooth and welcoming, and continued to draw us deeper and deeper into the Dr. Seuss-esque rock maze. Thanks to Cowboy, Gravel, and Fry Canyons, dead birds were swam amongst, memories were made, and our appreciation and wonder for the outdoors was fueled.