Of Fire and Firewater: Canyoneering with a Dragon

Canyoneering with a DragonLet’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone has asked you if you would like to see him breathe fire.

And let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that this someone is not a trained circus performer.

Let’s further say that the propellant for said fire-breathing is Everclear.

And finally, let’s say that the majority of this vile substance has already made its way into the convulsing liver of the person asking the question about fire-breathing, rendering the spongy matter within his cranium less than entirely functional.

Do not say, “Yes. Yes, I would like to see you breathe fire.” Or there will be trouble.

Summer of 2002. Girl gone, down the tubes of destiny, following some other poor fool whose life intertwined with ours just a bit too familiarly. But this breakup, like others, carries that one happy side effect: reunions with the free-wheeling folk who had hovered on the periphery of one’s perceived domestic bliss all the while, waiting patiently for the inevitable dissolution of a bond whose half-life is clear to all but the schmuck in the middle of it: nasty, brutish, short.

JC, beautiful crazy bum seraphim. Calls up out of the blue with pitch-perfect timing. Has been living in a pickup truck while working construction in Las Vegas; in the Yosemite Valley climbing and living on two bucks a day; in Thailand, clinging to wildly improbable 5.13 lines by day and doing some wildly improbable partying by night, possibly involving lines of another sort; in Soldotna, Alaska, homesteading on a patch of land purchased for a song. Back in Salt Lake for a bit.

“Hey, Phillips.” The comically laid-back stone drone. “Wanna go down south and do some canyoneering?”

A bolt from the bright blue. Perfect. Yes. “Hell yes. Where?”

“Elderly Canyon.”

We converge later, pore over maps, and I realize we’re talking about Eardley Canyon, in the southern part of the San Rafael Swell. Elderly Canyon sounds better, though, bringing to mind images of walker-rocking, stoop-shouldered, fearlessly rappelling octogenarians, so we stick with the moniker. Looks like a great ramble: Five raps — none too long — a couple pools, natural anchors and (sigh) bolts galore, and a nice walk through a gradually narrowing canyon to precede the technical bits. Top it off with a night of camping and drinking at the canyon’s exit and a slog back to the car in the summer heat — foregoing the recommended shuttling of cars — to burn out the hangover, and you’ve got a winner.

A few home-rolled cigarettes later and we’ve decided this trip won’t be complete without CW. Pure brawn, pure Jedi, total abandon meets total ability. Without a hint of hesitation, he agrees to join us on this walk through the sandstone of time. He’s busy, with many irons in many fires, but he’s down as always. Born down.

Three days later, and my poor, belabored 1991 Subaru is motoring due south down Highway 6, a metal mini-prairie schooner unsteadily hurtling toward the “San Rafael Reef,” named such by the pioneer navigators whose terminology had its roots in nautical frustration. Navigational hazard? Yes. Kick-ass geological wonder? Yes. Also a nice place to forget about the vagaries of a faded relationship never to have faded (“I do”), revel in the simple power of long friendships and the uncaring, unsparing, welcoming embrace of the bare wild desert.

Food? Got it. Went to Albertson’s pre-trip, loaded up on EZ Cheez (re-christened “ain’t got shit to do with cheese”), crackers, sardines, jerky, beans-in-can, Pringles and some kind of gummy substance in the shape of a foot. Backpacking food that ain’t got shit to do with freeze-drying. Also not light or remotely compact. Also damn tasty.

Water? Some, yes. Mostly water suspended in alcohol. How better to ensure the body’s smooth functioning under relentless skies the temperature of the sun?

We don packs, JC and I having opted to use dry bags with straps for the whole journey, since there are a few swims on the route. Trouble is, these dry bags have nothing but simple shoulder straps and have absolutely no back pad, so my backpacking stove is at risk of becoming part of my anatomy by about 20 minutes into the hike, sticking violently into my short ribs and spurring me like a mad cowboy with every step. CW strides confidently and athletically ahead, flask in hand, as JC and I strike uncomfortable bargains with our onerous and ill-balanced loads.

We start down the funnel into Eardley Canyon, dubbed Straight Wash. Straight Wash is pretty straight. But, step by wavering step, we pad further into the unfathomable stretch of geologic time, entering the contouring confines of Eardley. We peel back layers of the Earth’s wild chronological ride as we descend into the canyon’s belly. Touching the striations of the rock delivers a sensation not unlike plugging into a wall socket with one’s bare hand: there is an electric resonance to the desert, a buzz of sheer power that is palpable if one sees and hears its language of rock and blood. Ed Abbey’s bedrock and paradox: A desert is a place of essence, an oasis of pure life in its alternate yet simultaneous valences of short time and death and love.

Friends walking together down a canyon make a music surely the rock can hear. We joke, remembering crazy trips while creating another. We take breaks, washing down mountain ranges of ain’t got shit to do with cheese atop crackers with Jim Beam and, in saner moments, gulps of pure agua. Hand-rolled cigarettes complete the assault on our health. Yet the camaraderie and joie de vivre pulsing through us form a powerful antidote to this fusillade of chemicals.

As the canyon narrows more, we reach the first rappel. The pool into which the rappel leads seems pretty shallow, as does the angle of the pour-over. We hem and haw a bit, fussing with gear and donning wetsuits. JC begins to run rope through anchors, but CW gives us — and safety — the middle finger and slides down, wetsuit-clad-ass first, relying on the braking force of friction alone, and soon emerges from the pool’s far side, unscathed, beaming and hurling anatomically- and politically-incorrect insults at us for our prudent hesitation.

So we slide.

Note: Don’t bring a nice, expensive wetsuit on a canyoneering trip. Bring an old, sun-bleached, natty one, sold on eBay by shark-bit surfers and widows and widowers of overbold canyoneers. Or rent, making sure to practice a few times before its return the unknowing shoulder shrug indicating your lack of responsibility for the suit’s deteriorated condition.

A delightful — if frigid — series of pools ensues, and we follow the course of the canyon’s creator, water, as it slides, molecule by molecule, from pothole to pothole, caressing and carrying bits of sand inexorably down, sculpting a gravity-driven architecture of geomorphic chance.

“Christ, it’s cold,” I chatter, hip-deep in the third pool. The deep shiver — full-body, utterly involuntary — of the early stages of hypothermia is part and parcel of this oddball endeavor of following the meanderings of a slot canyon, come hell or high water. But we move steadily down, emerging eventually, gratefully, into a broad, sandy and sunlit wash.

Jubilation! We re-warm, laying out piles of gear, exposing it and ourselves to the desert sun’s desiccating touch. JC produces what remains of the alcohol: equal sloshings of Beam and Everclear. Plenty, as it turns out, to catalyze a fair bit of irresponsible backcountry behavior. A big-ass fire, for starters. True, we burn everything to ash and scatter the remains of the night into the next morning, but we scour the area of damn near half a cord of deadwood over the course of the evening.

It’s maybe 11 p.m. and we’ve predictably plowed straight through pleasant buzz and into ham-fisted, twisted drunk. In a moment of lull between truth-bending, one-upping tales of exploits both vertical and horizontal, we stare collectively into the Paleolithic television before us. That’s when a particular flame-tipped juniper bough catches JC’s attention. I can only imagine the 190-proof math going on in his head as he cast his gaze back to the near-spent bottle of distilled evil.

“Hey, guys, want to see me breathe fire?”

To which, as you have been informed, we answered in the affirmative.

A quick pull off the plastic jug and JC raises the flaming branch to his stubbled face. The ensuing arc of fire has impressive height and volume. These qualities are substantially enhanced by the mini-self-immolation CW and I are witnessing. Seems a fair bit of hooch dribbled down JC’s carpet of facial hair, igniting and taking full advantage of the extra fuel.

“Feels hot,” JC says, matter-of factly, sprawling into the sand and dousing the conflagration of follicle and epidermis.

Blistered up real quick. Sunscreenless seven-hour slog the next day didn’t help matters. JC’s attempt to impersonate a dragon hadn’t ended well. He was staying with his parents for the nonce, so, teenager-like, he invented a plausible story to save his mother from the reality of his desert debauchery. Upon hearing the story, she was ready to sue a certain maker of camp stoves that require priming, JC having pinned the rap on a cranky Optimus or Svea.

JC carries just the slightest of scars, amazingly, from his circus act at Eardley’s terminus. But it is there nonetheless. The scar traces a moment, written into flesh, acting as an exclamation point of experience: the fun and folly of a fire-lit dance with firewater.

And the best trips are the ones that leave scars and spin stories, don’t you think?

Aaron Phillips teaches Environmental Writing at the University of Utah. His last story, “Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings,” appeared in Mountain Gazette #176.  

Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings

1. Unmooring
On some days, you sit and look at the computer. Your fingers touch the keys and go nowhere. Your mind numbs as symbols collide on the screen. On some days, this all makes perfect sense. You have things to do. You are bound, chained. But on other days, there’s that cold wet black nose that nudges your elbow as you drone on. That nose is never wrong. It calls you from complacency: “I need to go out, to roam! This nose must hunt, must cover new territory! This is what I must do.”

The nose is attached to Riley, 75 pounds of four-legged tawny brawn. For this beautiful canine eunuch, ranging, roaming and alarmingly indiscriminate eating are the only patterns worth repeating. Patterns like the awkward totter of bipedal motion, the curse of obsessive cognition and the maze of symbols spewed across a computer screen are of no use to him.

At 2 p.m., you will be knee-deep still in work, but the nose will prevail. It will cause an awakening, a resurgence of the hunter-gatherer within. Prompted by sidekick, modern man goes mini-paleolithic, shuts down computer and leaves warm house, bent on Winter Solstice hike.

2. Ascending
At 8,300 feet above sea level, Grandeur Peak’s height is much more attainable than that of its loftier sister mountains that jut skyward east of Salt Lake City. Most days, it’s a pretty good choice for roaming with Riley. During the winter, snowshoers’ tracks make the path easily negotiable with simple hiking boots. Dog paws work great too. And the view is outstanding at sunset, particularly when the haze of particulate matter that favors the valley broadens the typical palette of dull reds and oranges. Seemed like the right destination, given the few hours we had until darkness.

Bound for Grandeur, Riley and I loaded up and went to pick up his cousin Sandy. Sandy is my brother’s dog, a labweiler (Labrador Retriever meets Rottweiler; the two fall in love; they make labweilers). Sandy and Riley’s relationship unfolds along distinctly canine lines. Riley’s the upstart male, heckling, herding and worrying the larger, stronger Sandy until she corrects him decisively. This cycle repeats.

On the car radio, the announcer prated on about snow: snow tonight, snow impending, three inches of snow, snow in the valley, snow warning, snow advisory, winter storm watch. The forecast had featured snow for days, and never once had reality reflected the forecast. So I paid no mind to this sober warning, though the wind had been gusting all day. I had heard the swamp cooler cover twisting in the wind, I had felt the raw push of the wind shake the wood frame of the house, yet I had remained skeptical.

The line between skeptical and ill-advised is sometimes a thin one. But we nevertheless entered the V-shaped confines of Mill Creek Canyon, home of the Grandeur Peak trailhead. We piled out. Riley and Sandy, unconcerned about the pitch of the terrain, bounded ahead, working as a pair, negotiating a maze of scrub oak, nipping, charging full tilt. I stomped up the trail, watching carefully to see where they would relieve themselves so I could make things right with a plastic doggie dookie bag.

Wind was strangely absent from the canyon. The air was stirring only lazily, its torpor a sharp contrast to the fury of wind scouring the valley. As we rose upward, leaving the initial canyon of Church Fork for a series of switchbacks up a sort of hanging valley, I looked southward at Olympus, at Raymond and at Twin Peaks, masses of stone and earth. Cirrocumulus clouds skittered across their faces, sucked inevitably northward into the looming low pressure.

No matter. I was sure the storm was taking its sweet time, and I still didn’t believe it would produce snow. We pressed upward, zigzagging our way up the mountain’s south flank. The dogs had not yet begun to scrub off the excess energy that fueled their frenetic play, now pouncing, now dodging, now bolting down the trail to a place I had been fifteen minutes before in a tenth of the time, only to return to me, tongues lolling.

Just under an hour, and I had huffed my way to a ridge that overlooks Parley’s Canyon, named for Parley Pratt, an Mormon pioneer with a capitalist knack for creating toll roads through eponymous landforms. The peak was maybe twenty minutes away, and the view into Parley’s Canyon was pretty clear. So we might as well continue on. The dogs charged ahead, live wires still, and I began booting up the steepening — and deepening — snow.

I wallowed (and the dogs frolicked) southwest up the ridge that meanders to the summit. As the ridge curves southward, hikers are generally treated with a commanding view of the Salt Lake Valley. Not so today. The wind, in its implacable persistence, had eventually succeeded in ushering into the valley a cloud whose proportions defied my sense of measurement. In place of the valley
was an immense blackness, a nightmare cloud.

The cloud looked to be contained in the valley, hugging its floor and enveloping its inhabitants, content with disrupting the impending rush hour traffic rather than ascending to the aerie from which I watched its menacing — but apparently slow — progress.  So of course we continued upward. Ten minutes later, within 200 meters of the summit, I was corrected. A gust of wind, the velocity of which was unmistakably north of 60 miles per hour, sent me reeling. And I realized that this wind, being sucked into the vortex of cloud into the valley, would exercise a return pull on the low pressure, which translated to this place being enveloped in cloud. And soon. The wind had finally pierced through to my deeply buried common sense, playing Sandy to my Riley: You’re pushing my limits. Knock it off already.

So we turned around. Suddenly, the top of the mountain seemed a profoundly stupid place to be spending any length of time. Couch, hot tub, Afghanistan, all began to seem like better alternatives. I tromped downward, soon reaching the spot where I had moments before seen the black cloud. It had been replaced by a rush of oncoming white, a wall of wind and snow.

I couldn’t ignore a certain fascination with the approaching blanket of wind-whipped snow. I knew by now I was not going to outrun this storm, so I let it overtake me. Standing on the ridge, I whooped with a visceral excitement as I was engulfed by the storm. I had never witnessed a frontal passage this defined. The swirling mass of white poured over the ridge, over me and the wholly unconcerned dogs, and spilled into the canyon below. Visibility: zero.

3. Of moths and flames
Traveling in the Sierra Nevada on a crust of bread and a prayer, writer and adventurer John Muir once climbed a tree to get closer to one of the sublimely powerful electrical storms that often besieged his mountain retreat. When the first lightning strike came, I realized just how peculiarly unconcerned with life and limb Muir was — and therefore how unlike me he was. While I had reveled in the mildly Muirish moment of having the storm pass before my eyes and immediately cloud my perspective, I unequivocally drew the line at lightning. What was lightning doing in a snowstorm, anyway?

The strike had happened, I thought, somewhere toward the Parley’s Canyon side of the ridge. Too close.  I ran. The dogs were in front of me, but were stalling, tentatively looking back, wondering why I had become a madman. I shouted at them, “up, up, up,” thinking they might understand this to mean hey-we-need-to-get-the-hell-off-this-mountain-and-fast. But they still lagged, concerned by my sudden lack of sanity. I hurtled down the trail, post-holing at times to mid-thigh, flopping back onto the snow, flounder-like, getting up, running again, falling again.

Again lightning struck. Again too close. I looked like Hawkeye in the television show “M*A*S*H”, ducking low to avoid a chopper’s rotors. Ridiculous — I was still the highest, most conductive thing on this ridge, and lightning would not pass me by on account of this half-assed slouching. I hadn’t noticed it on the climb up, but much of the last mile or so of the trail is exposed, the only trailside flora stubby, leafless Gambel Oak, no buffer whatsoever. Images of Ben Franklin’s ill-advised but ground-breaking experiments with lightning flashed through my mind. But in my frightened mind’s eye, I was the electrified kite, not the flier.

More flashes, the cloud above me glowing orange, hair standing on end quite literally, and running at a faster clip than I have since, well, ever, are my trauma-scattered memories of the rest of the trip down. I stumbled over dogs; I cursed; I struck a prayerful bargain with god/buddha/universe/to whom it may concern; I twisted my knee and didn’t care; and finally I made it to lower ground. The succor might have been psychological only, as I knew a grove of tall trees wasn’t a great place to be, but at least the lightning would have options — other life forms to snuff out on its way to the ground.

Fifty minutes from turnaround point to parking area. Fifty of the most intensely felt minutes I have experienced on this earth — the drive back into the valley coming in a close second, the road having been covered by four inches of snow and made virtually un-navigable. Looking back, I know that Franklin and Muir were both madmen, if geniuses. And I know why we fear and yet still seek out lightning, with its alien power and effortless mastery of humans and our frail ingenuity. There is something in nature, in its deadly power, we must come closer to if we are to understand the audacious tenuousness of life. We are drawn to its truth.

4. Home, awake, recharged
You will realize that those near-misses, those jolts of unknowable energy that writer and strike survivor Gretel Ehrlich calls “a match to the heart,” had the power — terawatts of it — to scare you into a heightened sense of the unmitigated beauty of being alive as opposed to dead. You will be thankful for the lightning’s way of recharging your vitality, delivering a surge of power to scare you out of, and back into, your animal skin.

But you will not climb that mountain in a storm again. Ever.

Aaron Phillips is based in Salt Lake City, where he teaches writing at the University of Utah. He flees to — and from — high elevations with his canine guide whenever possible.