The packs looked formidable, as if they would throw off my balance, but onto my back went the one carrying a rapelling harness, 100 feet of coiled rope, a helmet, three water bottles, and some beef jerky and trail mix. My camera dangled around my neck. Into the Fiery Furnace we go, for a six-hour canyoneering expedition. Ed, our guide, will coax seven of us through the cracks and crevices — and over the edges — of the Entrada sandstone fins.
I try not to think about the ages of the others, all in their twenties and early thirties, quite fit and nimble. At least I have what some of them lack: confidence! Mario is shaking in his boots with a fear of heights, and how he got on this trip is a mystery — but he succumbed to his wife’s ‘suggestion.’ He will conquer. He stays very close to Ed the entire time, and low to the ground. It is going to be six hours of thrill, pushing oneself, confronting fears, and turning “You’ve got to be kidding” into “I did it!”
Amid the tightly-packed fins lie a few immense boulder fields, and our first ascent is up one of these. The selected routes are doable for those of us with little or no climbing experience, and Ed takes time at every technical location to demonstrate exactly how to get up, over, or through the rock in our way. Moving seven of us through those places takes a lot of time, so one learns to wait — in a safe place. On my first bouldering try, I dislodged a football-sized rock with my foot; fortunately, I was the last climber. It tumbled into oblivion.
We are deep inside the Fiery Furnace, where people go only with guides. Entering the Furnace around 3 leaves us less hot sun to contend with, and we savor every bit of shade we encounter. It’s in the low 90s today. Some ravens set up a raucous croaking/crying conversation, which echoes off the massive sandstone walls and adds to the ambience.
Up and over, down and through, over and around we go. Ledges, wedges, cracks, creases — we learn some very helpful techniques to pull ourselves along. My favorite is the Arm Bar, executed in a shoulder-width crack. You put your elbow far ahead of you on one wall, and its palm braces against the other. Using the angle of that bent arm, you wedge it in the crack and pull yourself up — then reposition the arm and do it again. Elbows do get scraped. So do shins, knees, shoulders, and any other contact points. You learn a LOT about physics whilst canyoneering.
More than halfway through, we get to our first rappel. Most on the trip have not rappelled before, and for them it can be terrifying. This one is a doozy. It is 70 feet into a crack which opens up into a cavernous room called “The Belly of the Whale.” (Jonah would have recognized it instantly.) Being an ‘assistant,’ all the others go ahead of me — and I have the beauty of learning from Ed’s six repetitions of what to do with ropes, carabiners, hands, gloves, feet. One of my co-canyoneers has my camera below and a remarkable 55-second video is made of my descent. I hope I can learn how to put it on Facebook! It is CRAZY! Such an adrenaline rush!
We scramble further down canyon, add two 20-foot rappels over cliffs too steep to free climb, and we are down amid the silent washes of Krill Canyon. Ed teaches me how to coil the rope expertly before stuffing it in my bag. The sun has set and we pick our way out of the Fiery Furnace, and into the fireworks-laden evening of Independence Day — just in time for the “booms that crack open.”