In 2005 we found ourselves, during the course of an extended road trip out west, spending a long Thanksgiving holiday camped out in the Robbers Roost in southern Utah. We did a lot of great, cold hiking with ropes (aka canyoneering), cooked a spectacular dutch oven chicken for T-day dinner, and generally enjoyed an especially fulfilling time in a life which has been I like to think rather full of them. Among the many canyons we hiked, rapped, scrambled, slid, swam, squeezed, and oozed down was the one pictured above. It’s the only canyon descent which has ever taken me two attempts to complete.
Prior to our trips, a well publicized hiker did a well publicized descent, and was equivocal about the difficultly and general aesthetic worth. But it’s located in a drainage cirque with a high pedigree and some really cool exits, and we assumed it make for a good day. Absent wetsuits, we found deep cold water and nasty mud, as well as at least one rather problematic keeper pothole. We came back later with more gear (and to collect Phillip’s shoes, which no one least of all him realized he had left by the parking area), got out of the ‘hole with the aid of a bag toss and a lot of muddy roadrunner-footed scrabbling, and enjoyed the subsequent long slanted downclimb, atmospheric exit rappel, and varied hike back out to the road.
Keeper potholes are but the most photogenic of a number of features in Colorado Plateau sandstone slots that remind a hiker of the limits of the conventional human imagination. We humans like to think, understandably, that a lifetime of experience walking in a primarily linear world of sidewalks, trails, and trees can be effectively generalized to the rest of the planet. Moving water will complicate that assumption significantly, a real snowpack will blunt it, lava fields and glacial moraines will stand it on its head (and drive home the governing centrality of gravity-driven erosion in how we make sense of the world). The genius of slot canyons is that they’ll take flowing water and downward erosion, forces we may think we understand, and unveil their most impossible artistry. Aside from keepers, the highlights include bombay slots, labyrinthe diagonal and horizontal bends and corkscrews, and 100 foot deep sections too skinny for a human to pass through. Things which cannot be pictured, let alone believed, until you see them firsthand.
Canyons on the Colorado Plateau should inspire humility, for the reasons mentioned above, as well their general inscrutability. Unlike a conventional one, these inverted mountains give away few secrets to distant inspection, topo maps, and satellite photos. It can be hard enough to ascertain where a given canyon is, let alone what conditions may exist down in it. Looking at things like this will help you understand. Canyons are the vulvic answer to the phallic because-they’re-there peaks, with many of the appropriate cultural stereotypes.
Hiking in sandstone canyons with ropes was the thing which finally broke rock climbing’s hold on my consciousness, and as an ex-climber I of course regard cragging and peak bagging as the crafts of unsubtle dilettantes, those unable to engage with the land without sitting on top of it, unable to grasp the larger things without seeing them all at once. The experiential-landscape equivalent of CliffsNotes (ha!). It is then to be expected that the accompanying obsession with first ascents is prominent, and often phallic rhetoric around being first to the top thick and fierce.
Canyon hiking inspires similarly craven, ravenous conduct, though of a more secretive kind. It drives otherwise sane people to move to Hanksville, and many more to obsess about doing “all the canyons” in a metaphysically infinite country. Claims about first ascents in climbing have their historical value, but are all too often absurd on a factual level. No one watches the cliffs, writing down all who pass a certain way. This is even more the case in slot canyons, because they’re so directly and violently subject to the erasure of all signs of human passage. Additionally, even the nastiest Mae West slot has technical demands of an exceedingly modest nature compared to climbing and alpinism. That’s why it’s hiking with ropes: it’s easy.
But beyond the factual impossibility of claiming a first descent or ascent, the very mental move of doing so is rarely a gesture of more than ego. Even Steve Allen (see video, above) is not immune. In a day when canyon guidebooks have begun to proliferate like cragging ones, it speaks better for the focus of human achievement to make your own first or second or third or fourth descent. Today you can choose to research a challenging objective exhaustively, or ignore the record and walk out with fresh eyes. Experience will show which is of greater quality.
There are no first descents. Beyond being factually impossible, such a claim is spiritually the most healthy. Which is the only way in which such a silly use of free time is culturally justifiable.