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I'm strapped into a harness and perched on the edge of a 15-foot drop-off deep within a rocky canyon. It's a cool day for central Utah's San Rafael Swell, 50 degrees and overcast. I shoot one last, slightly contemptuous look at the instructor and lower myself over the rim. Below me is a pool of ice-cold water, over-my-head deep and about four body lengths long. There's no way around, no way over. Wedged into a tight corner of the pit, I take a deep breath, unhook the rope, and plunge in -- boots, backpack and all.
I knew Outward Bound would be intense. This 45-year-old nonprofit outfitter's philosophy is all about pushing yourself -- to step outside your comfort zone, to work with a group and to survive on your own in the wilderness (there's a "Solo" experience on every trip). So why did I do it? I was hoping to pick up some camping skills (I call myself outdoorsy, but fortunately, I'm never asked to prove it), and I was intrigued by OB's course on canyoneering, the sport of traveling through canyons by any means necessary: hiking, swimming, climbing, or rappelling by rope. It's like a living game of Chutes and Ladders, only at the bottom of the chute there's a giant pool of water, and you don't know how deep it is until you fall in.Between a Rock and a Hard Place
On Day 1, two OB instructors help me and my five coursemates load our backpacks. I teeter under the 50 pounds of supplies as we walk a mile up a dry riverbed to set up camp.
The next morning we leave our packs behind and hike into Dang Canyon. We try to stay dry, avoiding water holes by "stemming" or "chimneying" (suspending our bodies across a gap, feet on one side, butt and/or hands on the other). The taller guys have a distinct advantage. I, on the other hand, soon find my 36-inch legs spanning a crevasse that's about to widen out to 37 inches.
I'm stuck, not sure which body parts to move as my course mates call out suggestions. I've been edging along with my butt plastered to the rock for 20 minutes now, and my muscles are starting to tremble. Finally, in one quick motion, I bend my knee and bring one foot under my butt, then extend my other leg so I'm straddling the water. I'm still dry! I get a few cheers as I inch toward solid ground.
On Day 3 we set out with our backpacks for a six-mile hike to our second campsite. In the three weeks before the trip, I'd ramped up my exercise routine (from pretty much zero to 30 minutes of elliptical training a day), but I knew that wouldn't be enough to make hauling a 50-pound pack up a rocky canyon feel easy. I was right: It's like doing eight hours of squats on a Bosu ball with 25-pound dumbbells in each hand.
Still, the towering walls of the gorge are awe-inspiring, and because the sun is shining down on us, no one minds traipsing through all the cool, glistening pools. The pace is doable (I'm not left behind for the vultures as I'd feared), and when it isn't, the stragglers just yell up to the long-legged boys in front to slow down. Toward the end of the day, however, I test the group's solidarity. Halfway up a long, steep incline, I suddenly feel like I can't breathe and start to panic. And by panic, I mean cry. Everyone is feeling the burn, but they offer to transfer some of the weight from my pack into their own. At the top, we're rewarded with a 360-degree view of the jagged horizon, and I hike the remaining distance to camp feeling equal parts embarrassed and grateful.The Road Less Traveled
The next day, we head out to conquer nearby Quandary Canyon. Our first attempt is foiled by thundershowers and hail, so we retreat and try again the next morning. I'm in the lead when we pass back over the familiar terrain. As I approach a section of boulders with no obvious path through, I ask an instructor whether we go left or right. "There is no right or wrong solution," he answers. "We'll get there either way."
It's true -- for every huge boulder, rushing river, or steep drop-off we encounter, there is a way up, down, over, around or through, though not always an easy one. Sometimes the solution is to backtrack to a better crossing point. Sometimes it's sucking it up and swimming through really cold water. And sometimes it's putting our trust in the grippy soles of our boots and slowly inching down a quarter-mile of sheer, almost-vertical rock. Most of the time we're talking and laughing along the way; on tricky sections, we're warned to "put our game faces on," which basically means "Stop joking around, you could die here."
On Day 6, we backpack along the Muddy Creek to our next destination. Needing a rest, I'm more than ready that night when it's time to start Solo -- our 24 hours of solitary self-reflection. I'm assigned a spot, and since there are no good rocks on which to hang my tarp, I decide to sleep alfresco. After vanquishing two curious spiders, I drift off and wake up the next morning in a frost-covered sleeping bag. Once thawed, I spend the day doing absolutely nothing, without ever feeling bored.Worth the Weight
The day after Solo brings a grueling 10-mile backpack followed by a dip in the river. We spend the following morning sans packs, splashing up and down the creek, which winds through a tall, narrow canyon called The Chute. Five minutes into the hike, we plod right across it, and with a smile I recall the beginning of the week, when we were still trying to keep our socks dry. As one of our instructors said, "When you're canyoneering, the sooner you get your feet wet, the better."
That afternoon, we trek to our resupply point, where we'll enjoy a campfire feast before walking out of the canyonlands at dawn. I don't know if it's because I'm more fit, or because I've eaten a few pounds of food out of my pack, but now that the trip is almost over, I finally feel comfortable carrying my own weight.
Rates for Outward Bound's 10-day Southwest Canyoneering XT course start at $1,595 per person and include equipment, instruction, meals, and some transfers. Go to outwardboundwilderness.com.Other Canyoneering Outfitters
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2006.