Monday, November 23, 2009

Slot Canyon

A lone male coyote stands on a ridge, beneath him are the Vermillion Cliffs outside of Kanab, Utah. He lifts his nose toward the northeast, sniffing the air. There is rain, but it will not fall here. He will instinctively stay on higher ground.

The boundaries of his home are defined both by his markings and those of his rivals. It is hard to imagine just how the coyote perceives the area he has established as his own. His needs are simple. Patrol areas that yield the most food and find a safe place to rest. Below the ridge is a plateau, a crack running along the surface. The plateau slopes into a bowl. At the center of the bowl there is a hole approximately four feet wide. While marking his territory the coyote senses movement on the plateau, a ground squirrel perhaps. The coyote descends, staying clear of the bowl.

Within the Vermillion Cliffs there are slot canyons, a world within a world. On the ridges and plateaus, the panorama is seemingly infinite. Inside the slot canyon the environment is compact, close, to some claustrophobic. Light connects the two environments. Splashing the walls red, yellow and orange.

Carson has been hiking these slots for years. There are few trails he doesn’t know, he is on one of the remaining unfamiliar hikes. He enters an area that is almost entirely subterranean. Within a few yards he pulls out his head-lamp, the light has become very dim. Some light filters down through a crack running along the ceiling that varies in width from a couple inches, to larger than a foot. Occasionally the crack disappears. He begins to think of this area as “The Tube”. While he can walk through the tube, he can’t stand upright.

Carson is a meticulous man, constantly comparing the terrain to his topographic map. Interpreting a topo map requires seeing a two dimensional piece of paper as a three dimensional landscape. The map shows physical features of the land above him. He has to interpret areas like the tube he is currently hiking through. On his map he sees a circular area with decreasing elevation, not a cliff, more like a bowl. The lines at the bottom of the bowl become increasingly close together next to a small dark circle, suggesting a hole at the bottom. He believes the hole is a chimney at the end of the tube. A solid line runs across the flat area, which he is sure is the crack over his head.

The tube is mostly clear of debris. Water must have run through here pretty quickly to keep it so clean, he thinks. The sky was clear when he entered, yet the lack of clouds doesn’t eliminate the danger of water. Weather can be unpredictable in late summer and early fall. Storms can occur miles away creating flash floods. He has abandoned hikes in the past due to the threat.

The light ahead has become more intense, reaching up he switches off his headlamp. The trail ends in a small cavern open to the surface through a chimney. Carson smiles, looking at his map again, “Damn I’m good” he says. Beneath the chimney there is a depression in the floor with an inch of water pooled at the bottom. A natural bathtub of sorts dredged out by the force of the water falling through the chimney.

Carson looks up, the sky a bright pale blue. The chimney is wide enough for a man, irregular in shape. This should be an easy to climb, he thinks. He unfastens his pack, dropping it to the ground. Digging into the upper pocket he takes out his climbing shoes.

Carson looks at rock climbing as a chess player, visualizing the moves he will make. He clips on his chalk bag then chalks his hands. He places his left hand on a lip at the base of the chimney then lunges at a pocket on the opposite side. After several moves he is standing in the chimney, back against the wall looking up then down, gauging the holds and positions to come, and measuring his progress from the floor.

Halfway up the chimney he grabs for more chalk. A drop of water splashes onto his hand exposing skin. Carson looks up. A stream of water trails over the edge pouring past him into the depression below. “Oh Crap”, he whispers.

Water is flowing into the chimney, no longer a stream but a waterfall. He is forced to look down, the water trailing over his face, engulfing him making it difficult to breath. Carson is a controlled methodical man. He begins reviewing his options. Escaping down an enclosed tube is not his favorite option. Staying in the chimney involves many complications including the hazard of falling debris. Climbing out seems impossible.

Suddenly, as the deluge intensifies, his outstretched foot dislodges from the wall. He falls forward, his mouth smashing into the wall, tooth sinking into his lip. Trying to regain his footing he loses his grip with his right hand falling against the wall, his torso twisting to the right. Frantically searching for another hold, he loses his grip and begins to fall. His left foot catches on the edge of the chimney bending it back. He feels his knee buckle and his ankle pops. Pitching forward he crashes into the water face first.

He staggers onto his good leg, half swimming half crawling toward the side of the room, trying to escape the relentless pounding of the falling water. He tries putting pressure on his injured leg, it crumbles beneath his weight. Pain courses through his leg making him feel nauseous.

Carson is uncertain how much time has passed, but the water is chest high and rising. While the water is flowing out into the tube, it’s also backing up into the chamber. His only option is to swim into the tube hoping he will be washed free. Grabbing the crack running along the ceiling hanging up side down he faces into the tube. Taking several breaths he pulls forward while kicking with his legs.

Abruptly he is yanked to a stop. Somehow his injured foot has sunk into the crack, becoming wedged. Pain surges up his leg, he feels nauseous and faint. Fighting to stay conscious he swims upward. Jamming his hand into the crack, he balls his hand into a fist forming an anchor, only a few inches of space remain at the top of the tube. Carson takes several labored breaths.

Pushing backward, he grabs his ankle trying to pull his foot free, it won’t budge. Water is now just below his chin. Carson is a fighter, but also a realist. He says aloud, “Take care of Gracie, please don’t let mom and dad take this too hard.”

Releasing his hold sinking into the water he kicks at the ceiling. His climbing shoe does not release its grip. He needs to breath, frantically thrashing at the water he swims toward the chimney. His leg contracted, he feels the back of his calf bite into the crack several inches above his ankle. His hand breaches the water searching the wall of the chimney. Finding the lip he grabs hold with both hands. Pulling, back against the ceiling, he can’t get his head above water. Desperate he pulls with all his might. He feels the bone in his calf break, body pitching forward a few more inches. His head is still below the surface.

There is a point where the body will take control of its functions, no longer submitting to the will of the person. Involuntarily he breathes in, water entering his lungs. Reflexively his body coughs trying to expel the water, inhales again. He feels an intense pain in his chest as his body attempts the hopeless task of making use of the water. Pressure pushes at his eardrums, the most tremendous headache. His eyes are forced open but he can’t see. For a moment he feels his body spasm, then he is consumed by darkness.

Overhead the coyote lopes along with a ground squirrel in its mouth. He hears a sound from beneath and behind as a geyser of water shoots up from the crack. The coyote bolts. After several yards he looks back, watching as the water falls onto the rock. He is unaware and uncaring of the drama that has just unfolded beneath him.

No comments:

Post a Comment