IT’S HARD AND I’M WET: A STORY OF HOW I GOT (SEVERAL) ANXIETY ATTACKS IN A SLOT CANYON
Last fall, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I decided to go on a canyoneering trip with my brand new roommates- who also happened to be my landlord and her boyfriend. Have you ever been inside of a canyon? Did you even know that you could go inside of canyons? I absolutely did not. In fact, I hardly knew how to climb. But in the spirit of trying new things - like cheating on my ex, moving to a different state, and starting a blog about anxiety in the outdoors - I went for it anyway. In truth, I was expecting Edward Abbey and content for a quick and dirty blog post about staying calm in stressful outdoors situations. Instead, I got my underpants wet. Here’s what happened:
My roommate had done a descent of the canyon - Larry Canyon, near Hanksville in the Utah desert - a year earlier, and felt confident that the trip would be easy, quick, and dry. Larry Canyon is rated a “beginner” canyon, and when she had completed it a year earlier, it had been completely dry. However, the canyoneering community is small and secretive and doesn’t share real-time updates online, so we were going in pretty blind. If we had checked the weather forecast for the few weeks leading up to the trip we would have seen significant rainfall, but we didn’t do that. Instead, naive, optimistic, and wearing cotton socks and jeans, we gathered by the canyon rim.
Buoyed by the bluebird skies, the crisp November air, the snow-graced mountains in the background, we rappelled into the canyon and pulled down our ropes - directly into a foot of water. Climbing out wasn’t an option - if you’ve ever been inside of a slot canyon, you know that the walls rise vertically on either side of you, and that millennia of floods have smoothed over any possible handholds. Optimistically, we noted that the water line from the week prior was 3 feet higher than it was now - so really, this could be a lot worse. Reasoning that the water couldn’t go that far down the canyon, we started “stemming” above the water by pressing our backs against one rough sandstone wall and our slippery wet rubber shoes against the other. This tension, though hard on the calves, was fun. Keeping ourselves above the water and inching our way down what we thought was going to be 20 meters of water was like a giant jungle gym for adults. Further and further down the canyon we inched. I couldn't keep the grin off my face.
By mid-morning, we had made it exactly a quarter of a mile. I was reading Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire" that month, and came prepared with adjectives and hyperbole to describe the desert around me. Soaring orange walls. Piercing blue skies. The roughness of the sandpaper walls.
The unyielding, unending stillness of the canyon. Yawning open spaces.
But I hadn't prepared for water in the canyon. We kept running into deeper stretches of opaque brown canyon pools. I wasn’t in great athletic shape, and the constant quad workout got old quick. The first time I couldn't hold my weight above the water, I waded through the chest-deep freezing-ass water half-naked, holding my bag above my head and swearing at everything I saw. Shivering on the other end, I gratefully put my dry, warm clothing back on. We all giggled at the absurdity of the situation. This was still fun.
But we kept running into water. As it turns out, holding your body weight between two sandstone walls above 5 feet of air and freezing cold water is only fun for about an hour. My shoes got wet. Once, I slipped off the wall into a couple inches of water. It was really fucking cold and also wet - no big deal, but it shattered my confidence. The next big stem gap we got to was a 20-foot deep crack with rocks on the bottom. I took one look and panicked. So much for my smugly written advice on staying calm in a canyon. I could hardly breathe, I didn't trust my body, and I couldn't make any decisions for myself. I felt like I had tunnel vision and the only thing I could see was the air below me.
The thing about anxiety is that it makes everything feel like it’s going to kill you. Even though you might not be in any real danger, your body convinces you that you are minutes away from death. Your legs do the Elvis shake, your vision goes blurry, your breath becomes shallow, and you can't think clearly. The thing about overcoming anxiety is that you have to convince your body, and your brain, that you are not in the danger you think you are.
We did many things wrong on this trip: we didn't check the weather almanac for the weeks prior like goddamn idiots, which would have told us that it had rained. We left late, knowing full well that the canyon could take up to 10 hours to complete. And we rappelled into a mother f*cking slot canyon even though we saw some water in the bottom of it. But we also did so many things right: we kept our clothing dry for as long as possible, we drank water and ate frequently to keep up energy and blood sugar, and most importantly, we had a couple of strong leaders, who hid their own anxiety about the gathering dark, cold, and wet conditions and coached the rest of us through the rough sections.
When I am feeling anxious and need to get through an overwhelming situation, it helps me to have someone to talk to. My roommate’s boyfriend stayed in the back of the group with me, reassuring me that I was safe, that he was next to me, talking about nothing in particular to take my mind off the 15 feet of open air beneath my flimsy leg muscles gripping the walls in a death stance. When things go wrong, you want to have someone with you to encourage the strength in you.
Before my phone lost service, my hookup buddy had texted me: "have fun in the dessert!". After having a chuckle at the expense of his spelling, I remembered my first grade teacher explaining that 'desert' has one 's' because you only want one of it, but 'dessert' has two 's', because you always want two desserts. At 7 years old, I totally agreed - I couldn't fathom why anyone would want more than one dry, dusty, Sahara. I was unprepared for the softness of the scrap of rabbit fur that I found on the floor of the canyon, a morbid remnant of its poor owner's untimely demise. I certainly didn't expect to be startled into laughter by the perfectly woven bird's nest at eye level, tucked into a ledge 200 feet deep into the earth. We kept running into water, and several rappels along the length of the canyon kept slowing our group of seven down. By mid afternoon, we were dealing with frostbitten toes, wet shoes, and temperatures that hovered at exactly 48 degrees below balmy.
But something interesting happened that day. Despite a life-long, hyperventilation-inducing phobia of water, I found that I didn't have room for anxiety when I realized that I was the first person in the group, standing in waist deep freezing cold water, with weird slimy canyon mud squishing under my toes, the rest of the group behind me and and an unknown depth of water in front of me. As long as there was someone next to me, I had allowed myself to be anxious and worried, because there was someone who was stronger than me. When I realized that my options were to wade into who-the-hell-knows-how-deep water between increasingly narrowing walls or stand still in 50 degree water and literally freeze, my mind went blank and I started walking. When I realized that another member of the group was having a much harder time than I was, I held out my hand to her and forgot my own worries.
There was no room for two people to be anxious.
When someone panics, talk to them. Tell them they are safe, and strong, and loved, and capable of so much more than they think. Use clear, concise words. Tell them you're still there. They're not a burden on the group. They are impressive, and they are the only ones who can help themselves. Whether you're wedged in a slot canyon in the desert or sitting on the couch, your words and presence can bring such immense strength and calm to a situation.
We climbed out of the canyon at 10:30 pm, more than 12 hours after we had started. As we walked down the road to our truck, the whining of a familiar engine and lopsided headlights came into view, as a friend who had said they might join us but hadn't shown up at the campsite the night before came driving down the windy road at us to give us a lift the last 100 feet to the car.
Driving home the next day, we got stuck in a snowstorm on I-70, turning a 7 hour trip into a 14 hour trip. I spent that entire time sitting in the back of a shortened truck cab, with a nervous lab digging her dagger-like claws into my tender and bruised legs. A poor choice of refried beans at a Mexican place in Grand Junction made my trapped farts smell sweetly of burning garbage, firmly solidifying my place as my Landlord’s Favorite Tenant.
Several days later, Turns out, rappelling against overhanging rough sandstone and into water while wearing rhinestone-decorated Victoria’s Secret underwear is a contact sport.
They say there are three types of fun- I, II, and III (rated, in decreasing order, by how soon you start to enjoy yourself). Adventures like this one inevitably reach a point where the fun starts to really suck — that point of no return when you realize that you’re Deep In It. In truth, I doubt I’ll ever be an obsessed canyoneer. But memories of cold water and late night canyon scrambling become easy to explain away when you consider the sense of relief and gratification the next morning, or the tuft of rabbit fur that now sits on your work desk, or the hilarious scars you can show off for years afterwards.
I guess what I’m saying is - does anyone want to go canyoneering?
Words + Photos by Sonja Pevzner | www.pevzdispenser.com