Arriving at the canyoneering outfitter’s office to find that today’s climbing group is four 40-ish women who are celebrating a momentous birthday, I immediately equate them with my own “Fearsome Foursome” group. They are all Texans whose accents begin to rub off on me immediately. We are going to see my favorite hike in the park — from the TOP. With a remarkable group of women. For six hours.
Ed takes us where we never dreamed of going. Within an hour we find ourselves wa-a-a-y above the rest of the 5000 tourists in Arches today, looking down on tiny specks of people and on tour buses that look like toys. Exploring up there is exhilarating because you know precious few get there, and it is essentially a wild place. We find an odd assortment of chert pieces, which were used by native americans to make points. We leave it undisturbed.
The first two rappels come easily. Ed asks me if I am okay going down without a belay rope (an emergency stop rope) ahead of the others, in order to belay the others coming afterward. No problem. They are low-angle rappels and not difficult. We come to rest in what felt like a giant amphitheatre of rock, clearly a wash which, in flash floods, roars with water. There are no rain clouds today.
We walk over to the next lip and see a 100-foot steep drop to the next ledge. This will be our finest moment of the day — dangling free in space, watching the undercut cliff face go by as we lower ourselves. Ed wants me to be first and gauge the length of his rope which, on this descent, is “just long enough but no more.” He wants the rope to be dangling a couple feet off the canyon floor when I reach bottom.
After considerable finagling with anchor points and knots, which I know he could do in his sleep as he has been doing this for 37 yrs, he asks me to clip myself into the system. I slowly back myself down the face, still able to walk, leaning backward to keep the rope taut. And then the edge comes.
Deep breath. My quick look at the canyon floor is probably not the best idea just then. I hear Ed say my name, and look back up. He is trying to read my emotional state so he can give proper instruction or encouragement, but honestly all I need is anyone’s eyes to look into as I step back and the rope lowers me over the edge. His will do fine.
THIS is the adrenaline rush. You are walking vertically down the wall, controlling your own speed with the rope, when the wall angles away from you and you dangle in space. And this happens to be in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I draw my breath in and savor the total silence. Slowly, slowly, to make the moment last, I lower myself to the end of the rope.
And my toes are still ten feet off the canyon floor.
“Hey, Ed…” I call up. A far-away voice says, “Yes?” “Umm… need more rope.” Pause. “How much?” I calculate my height and call back, “Ten feet.” “Ten?” I think he was hoping for three. “Okay,” I hear. My mind is wondering what Ed would do to manufacture ten feet of rope when it was fully extended, but within two minutes my blue rope begins lengthening. “How much now?” “Six.” “Okay.” More lengthening. “Now?” “Almost there…” and pretty soon I just drop myself off the blue rope a couple feet to the rock.
After all six of us are off the cliff, and the ropes all perfectly coiled and re-stashed in our packs, we trek downward over boulder fields and washes. As we join the main Park Avenue trail, the sun is setting the tops of the mighty fins afire; a full moon rises in the east. The Texans are famished. They invite us to be their guests at the Moab Brewery for a late supper and a beer, to celebrate their finest accomplishments.
I sleep incredibly well.