Sunday, April 28, 2013

The day I went over a cliff

I wrote this last year after hiking through the Utah wilderness with Nick Smith of Seldom Seen Adventures. It is already posted on his site, but I wanted to repost a version of it here for those who might be interested in traveling off the beaten path:

When I hired Nick Smith to create an adventure, I never expected him to push me off of a cliff.

Then again, I didn’t know what to expect when I discovered while planning a trip to southwest Utah in April. I knew I wanted to see the extraordinarily beautiful Zion National Park and Mars-like Bryce Canyon while I was there. Trail maps could guide me through easily enough.

Still, I wanted to see something more of Utah than that. But as a novice hiker with little sense of direction and no appreciable survival skills — unless you count crossing the streets of New York City — I had no interest in getting lost in a remote canyon somewhere. So I needed a guide who knew the area to take me there. After reading through, I chose Nick. My only instruction to him: I wanted to see something I would never encounter on those much traveled hikes through the national parks. And I wanted to live to tell it.

The rest was up to Nick.

My friend and I met Nick in Kanab, Utah one late-April morning and began our adventure with a half-hour drive through the dunes not far from town. We bounced and slid through sand so deep you had to speed to avoid getting hopelessly stuck in it.

Suddenly, Nick stopped in the sand and got out of the SUV. The hike was about to begin.

The ground sloped down as we started walking over rocks, past the Junipers and weathered Ponderosa Pines, down, down, down some more as we carefully avoided treading on the delicate flora that covered the ground. A breathtaking view of Parunuweap Canyon all the way to Zion National Park an hour drive away appeared grandly in front of us.

We walked until there was nowhere left to walk. We had reached the edge of a cliff maybe 150 feet high with the French Canyon below.

Did I mention my fear of heights?

OK, so Nick didn’t actually push me over that edge. Instead, he showed me the way and let me push myself beyond what I thought I could do. To my great surprise, I momentarily overcame those fears and climbed over the edge and down.

That’s the thing about Nick. If you’re around him for a while you’ll see he has the spirit of an adventurer, the preparedness of a scout leader, the patience of a parent and the calm of a police psychologist talking a man off of a ledge. He's easy to follow.

We climbed down another ravine and finally to the bottom and into a stream that took us deep into the canyon. Those nice new hiking boots? No, they don’t repel water when you’re up to your knees.

We walked for what seemed like miles through a stream that fed into the Virgin River – the same river that winds through Zion. A snake, frogs, Monkey flowers and various other plants and creatures surrounded us. Lunch was a sandwich by the stream in a place that I can’t imagine many people had ever seen before.

If you want to find the middle of nowhere, Nick knows the way.

We walked some more until we came to Poverty Wash, a slot canyon with walls high above on either side. Think of the movie “127 Hours.” That’s how narrow the passage was. We followed the canyon for a while longer and came upon bubbling sand in the stream. Nick dabbed his foot in it. It sank.

Quicksand? Seriously? If Nick hadn’t showed us, I never would have noticed. And I might have stepped in it and disappeared – that’s how quick quicksand can be. I tested a foot and that solid-looking mass felt like water.

Just after the quicksand, we came to a rock wall at the end of the slot canyon. It was time to turn around.

But could I make it back? Turns out that was a lot trickier than I anticipated. That little fear of heights came back to me on the way up the cliff and I needed a calm voice and helping hand to make it up and over the ledge.

Nick could have chosen an easier hike, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ll never forget the day I went over a cliff, stepped in quicksand and challenged myself in ways I never imagined. And along the way, I got to see a part of Utah you won’t find in most books.

Thanks, Nick.

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