A Precarious Position

As much as I enjoy hiking solo, you would also think I would enjoy being out front during some of the group hikes.  After all, how does the saying go?  “Unless you are the lead dog, the scenery never changes?”   But instead, I always gravitate toward the rear.  This has not only to do with still struggling to reach the same fitness level as my fellow hikers, but I often times feel leery to step out front and lead because of my lack of confidence in my navigation skills. I have reason enough to doubt myself…

Tripod Rock, Version 1

Tripod Rock, Version 1

Tripod Rock, Version 2

Tripod Rock, Version 2

It is the summer of 1996, and I am on my third trip down to the Florida aquifer to dive in the miles of underground water-filled labyrinth of a cave system that is the source for most of Florida’s fresh water.  I have completed my NSSCDS certification (National Speleological Society – Cave Diving Section) as a certified Cave Diver, which is about the most rigorous training I have ever undergone in my life! Despite the fact that I am very close friends with my dive instructor, he cut me no slack.   I now have about 100 cave dives under my belt, considered to be a fairly experienced cave diver.

I am on this trip with a group – two instructors, and two other experienced cave divers, one of which is an instructor in training. We have all been diving together on numerous dives, and are comfortable with each others skill level, dive the same equipment for redundancy, and are in synch with our underwater communications.

The two instructors are teaching a class today, so it will be Barney (instructor in training) JD (least experienced of the three,) and yours truly on a pleasure dive.

There are many hard and fast rules in the sport of cave diving, where your ability to problem-solve underwater is vital, otherwise it can mean certain death. Everything is redundant in threes – three lights, three reels, and we dive the “rule of thirds.” A third of your air used in, a third out, and a third saved for emergencies. Half a mile underground, you cannot bolt to the surface for help.

The first of these rules is “Always run a continuous guideline to the cave opening.” But today, we are diving Cow Spring. It is one of the more pristine caves in the area, and considered “advanced.” For this reason, there is no guideline to the surface to discourage the less experienced from entering. Instead, the continuous guideline begins 100 feet inside the cave passage, not visible from the cave opening. This is the only exception to the rule I have ever seen. The premise is that the divers should carry a “jump reel” and tie off to the main line, running a jump line to temporarily connect the cave entrance/exit to the permanent line. We discuss this before the dive, and agree that since we can see the ambient light of the exit from the end of the permanent line, we will not run the jump reel. (An arrogant violation of Rule #1.)

When you dive with more than two divers into a cave system, the least experienced diver, in this case, JD, takes the middle position. The most experienced, Barney, will lead the dive. As the second most experienced diver, I will take the rear position. When it is time to turn the dive, everyone just does an “about face” to avoid disturbing the cake-flour like silt on the floor of the cave, and the position on the line is reversed. I will be leading the dive out of the cave, something I have done dozens of times. Just never in Cow Spring.

The dive has gone very well, and we have reached our turning point. The first person to reach a third of their air turns the dive, and JD has signaled time to turn. I am now in the lead, and we are nearing the exit.

We reach the point where the permanent line ends, and I start the unguided exit. There is a small alcove right near the mouth of the cave. A “pocket” in the rock wall, if you will. Without a guideline, I stray too far off course toward this alcove, and the others follow me. I quickly realize that I am off course within a couple of fin strokes. I reverse my position and signal to turn around by circling my upright index finger. But it is too late. JD and Barney have followed me into the small alcove. At this point, JD begins to panic, and in trying to turn around, he thrashes about and silts up the entire alcove. Within 3 seconds, we have gone from gin-clear water to being submersed in whole milk. I can’t even see my gauges, let alone the other two divers.

At this point, I hear my breath quicken. My throat tightens, as I try to read my gauge. I can now hear my heart pounding in my ears. If we can just get calm and not panic, we have enough air to wait for 5 minutes until the silt clears. But JD begins thrashing about, and he has wedged himself between me and the exit. I am trapped, and cannot even communicate with either he or Barney. As I strain to steady my rapid, raspy, shallow breathing, I have that thought flash through my head…”So this is how it ends, huh? I always wondered…I am so sorry, Mom!”

Eventually, Barney finds the exit and is able to signal with his light through the milky white silt-out for JD to follow toward the opening. I am then able to leave the small alcove and follow the light to the opening. We exit the cave and drop our regulators from our mouths while removing our masks. No one says anything for a good 5 minutes after we exit the water. We are all too scared shitless to speak.

Once we get back to the hotel and my dear friend Fitz, my instructor hears what has happened, I get the ass-chewing of a lifetime. I can still see his red face as he yells at me. “Never. NEVER! Break the rules! And NEVER lead others into uncertainty!”

I learned a lot of lessons on this dive. Rules in a cave where one mistake can mean certain death are NEVER to be broken, no matter what the experience level. Never lose sight of the permanent line. Turn around and look behind you frequently as the cave looks much different going the opposite direction. And first and foremost? “Never lead others into uncertainty.”

Not only did I come close to sealing my own fate that day, I also endangered the lives of two loving friends, simply by leading myself…and others…into uncertainty.

With “the gang’s” impending departure date looming on the calendar, I will soon once again be a solo act.  Therefore I have decided it is time to purchase a hand-held GPS…Any recommendations?

Trail to Tripod Rocks, Zion National Park

Mark's podium

Mark’s podium

Getting into Postcard Position

Getting into Postcard Position

White sandstone looks like we are skiing down snow!

White sandstone looks like we are skiing down snow!

Heard frequently along the trail, "Bobbie!?  My shoe's untied!"

Heard frequently along the trail, “Bobbie!? My shoe’s untied!”

What goes down, must go back up!

What goes down, must go back up!

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Bobbie and Peterman...waiting for the rock to fall.

Bobbie and Peterman…waiting for the rock to fall.

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I think she looks like Katharine from "The English Patient" here.

I think she looks like Katharine from “The English Patient” here.

Who's King of the Hill now, boyz?

Who’s King of the Hill now, boyz?

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A Narrow Fit

Imagine if you will the high anxiety that surrounds hiking Zion’s Narrows Canyon.  It is one of the most highly sought after hikes in the park, second only to the steeper, higher Angel’s Landing.    One must brave wading through a flowing, 46 degree river of varying depths, maintain balance across bowling-ball-shaped rocks, all while protecting precious cargo like cameras and vital organs.

"Guide Noir and the RV Babes."

“Guide Noir and the RV Babes.”

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Guide Noir, showing a little leg.  "I'm.  Too sexy for my shorts.  Too sexy for my shorts too sexy."  ;-)

Guide Noir, showing a little leg. “I’m. Too sexy for my shorts. Too sexy for my shorts too sexy.” ;-)

But no, that’s not the high anxiety I am talking about here.   Instead, it is subjecting myself to the humiliation of being “sized up” to see if the lovely jumpsuit overalls will fit my ample posterior.  The man staffing Zion Outfitters (why couldn’t it have been a woman?) says “Let’s err on the side of conservative.”  I reply, “Meaning???”  to which he whispers,  “You know….Extra large?” 

Mark and Bobbie, explaining "We don't need no stinkin' sissy pants!"

Mark and Bobbie, explaining “We don’t need no stinkin’ sissy pants!”

I'm just in it for the shoes...

I’m just in it for the shoes…

 

The look says it all...

The look says it all…

The gang has decided to meet at Zion Outfitters to try on equipment for the hike, and then we will go for dinner afterward.   Special shoes and neoprene socks are highly recommended to insulate the feet and provide ankle support while wading over the huge stones in the water.  But there is an additional offering, and that is to rent what Box Canyon Mark affectionately calls “sissy pants.”   These are waterproof pants, or in the case of Zion Outfitters, actual overalls with suspenders over the shoulders.  They have a tight (and I mean STRANGULATION TIGHT) rubber gasket around each ankle to prevent the water from seeping up the pants legs.

The Last Supper?

The Last Supper?

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Being fitted for this kind of stuff would cause me anxiety around total strangers, let alone six of my newest best friends.   I have visions of sweat popping out on my brow as I struggle to fit into one of the four sizes offered where the first three don’t count.   My strategy is to get to the shop early to avoid public humiliation, but once again, my plan is foiled by “The Early Ones.”  Mark and Bobbie are already there, and it doesn’t take long for the laughter to ensue.  Pretty soon, the small shop at the gate of Zion National Park is full of geezers guffawing while doing the “Hazmat Hustle.”IMG_2215 IMG_0591 IMG_0593

We all take our respective gear back to our respective rigs, and wait for the excitement of our planned departure the next morning.  I wake up to an email from Debbie titled, “It’s just like Christmas morning!”  We trade jokes about rethinking the green chili cheeseburgers from the night before, and the delicate balance between just enough caffeine to stave off the headache, but not enough to have to wriggle out of our “hazmat suits” should Mother Nature call while along the river.  No bushes to hide behind in the Narrows!IMG_2163 IMG_2170 IMG_2173

Following Bobbie up the 1 mile Riverwalk to the river entrance.

Following Bobbie up the 1 mile Riverwalk to the river entrance.

There is an ongoing debate on whether to “suit up” at the trail-head, or haul the gear for the one mile walk down the Riverwalk Trail to the mouth of the river.   “Will there be a place to sit down?  Where would we leave our shoes?  Is hiking out in wet boots gonna give me blisters?”  Most opt for dressing down by the river, but only after I have already wrestled into my full body armor in the parking lot.  This proves to be entertaining later in the day when the hike is done, as I do the long one mile walk back to the car.  By then, it is mid afternoon, and the sequined sweatshirt/white tennis shoe crowd is out in full force.  Never have I felt more like an astronaut just coming off a moon walk than having those people literally stop and stare as they met me clunking back up the trail from the river.IMG_2180 IMG_2181 IMG_2184

I wish I could describe the feeling from the mixed messages between  my feet and my brain as I enter the 46 degree Virgin River.  First, I step into the flowing river wearing rigid, zip-up shoes that feel warm and dry inside, yet the water seeps in and fills them within a matter of seconds.   First the left, then 3 steps later, the right.   The brain says “You idiot, why are you stepping into a river with dry feet?”   Then a few more feet into the river, and the opposite happens.    My feet should be dry but they are wet, while my pants should be wet but they are dry.  Again, the brain says “Does not compute!”

IMG_2188 IMG_2191 IMG_2198We start out the hike with our “Guide Noir,” Box Canyon Mark, who rolls up his kryptonite shorts to wade through the freezing river.   One little misstep which gets his seat wet, and he takes off upriver, never to be seen again, thus leaving us “guide-less.”   You would think he was cold or something… Sure, his legs may be tan, but his lips are turning a lovely shade to match his “baby blues.” ;-) IMG_0567

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While most did their best to avoid the water, Debbie and I both enjoyed the feeling of cold compression on the legs as we waded into deeper waters.   It just felt so odd to be hip-deep in a cold, flowing river, yet still be dry! There was just something so playful in defying the laws of fabric.   Those pants were amazing!IMG_0588 IMG_2220 IMG_2224

The hike into the Narrows has to be one of my top favorite hikes of all time, and that’s a tall order considering some of the spectacular scenery I have been introduced to during my three week visit here in Zion National Park.  The cold, foreboding walls of steel colored stone referred to as “Wallstreet” tower over the peaceful river with such majesty, as if they are the magistrate of Lower Manhattan itself.   But tread lightly, for one crack of thunder, and they would no doubt quake in fear as the silver sliver of a stream turns into a raging force which no wall, no matter how mighty can withstand over time.

“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” ~ Lao Tzu

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Exploring Many Pools….and Beyond

I have been wondering lately, what is the driving force behind the impulse to explore? Curiosity? Restlessness? Risk Taking? What is behind that urge to leave the creature comforts of a warm rig and comfortable lounge chair to go to such remote places for the sake of exploration? And why do some feel the call, and not others? What prompts that primal urge to push beyond the boundaries for the sake of seeing what is there? Why is finding the end of an unmarked trail as challenging yet satisfying for some as getting the last bit of peanut butter out of the bottom of the jar is for others?IMG_2229

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Some say this is genetically driven. I recently read an article that suggests 20% of our species has this gene. I would be inclined to believe it was hereditary, since my Dad was the consummate wanderer, a trait which he passed on to two out of three of his children, as much as he did our brown eyes and “original” dark brown hair. The oldest drives his Land Cruiser from Texas to Nicaragua. As the middle child, I have the bottomless bucket list. Yet our third and youngest sibling still lives in our home town, and seems content to remain there.

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I recently asked several of my hiking buddies this same question. Answers are as varied as the brands on our hiking boots. Some do it for total immersion and distraction via “mind-body coordination.” (What is the difference between swimming and drowning? Mind-body coordination!) Some do it for the athletic stimulation that comes from scrambling and using muscles not typically tapped. And then there are the “explorers” among us who do it simply to see what lies beyond…

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Several hikes with “the gang” recently have ended only because the trail ends. We are forced to turn because of some uncrossable chasm, some insurmountable wall. Such was the case on the “Many Pools” hike, an unofficial trail in Zion National Park. Not that it was insurmountable for Mark and Bobbie, mind you, but they had 10 of us following along on this hike. So the turning point was not so much technical as it was comfort level of the group, as most of us waited behind while the “explorers” tried to chart a course over the obstacles.

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But the hike just became more strenuous as we went, so the choice to turn was evident as links in the chain of hikers was broken at different intervals along the way.IMG_2331

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This did not stop the “expedition,” however as the “explorers” of the group just found a side canyon to continue. Within minutes, there were shouts back from the front of the pack; “The stream has water, but it is crossable. I think it keeps on goiinnngg…..”

Gotta love Bobbie's "Fancy Footwork!"

Gotta love Bobbie’s “Fancy Footwork!”

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I am curious to learn what drives exploration among my blog readers? Were you born with it? Do you feel that insatiable drive to see “what’s around the bend?” Or is a campfire and a comfy chair enough? And why?

A Day in the Life – Doing the Wash

Coalpits Wash, that is!  Here’s how it goes down while hiking with the Red Rocks gang:

A little after dark, an email pops up from one of the members of “the gang.” There is an informal distribution list, but the email most typically comes from Gayle, Mark, or Bobbie (by proxy from Mark) because they are the “ring leaders” by default. Some might say the “pushers” to those of us neophytes who have just become hooked on their drug of choice, Red Rock Dust. “Who’s up for a hike tomorrow?” (“Candy, little girl??”) Continue reading

Reunited and it Feels So Good…

I must be candid in saying my world has felt a bit more “wobbly” than I expected after retirement.   Some say this is to be expected, but I personally didn’t expect it.  Don’t get me wrong, I am having the time of my life.  But I just keep having this looming feeling over me, like “Vacation is gonna be over soon, Suzanne…and THEN what?”   I trust it will pass.  ;-)

After my restoration and rejuvenation at the lovely little Snow Canyon and Red Mountain Day Spa, the axis of my universe is steadied once more, and I am eager to meet up with the Red Rocks Gang once again, now in Zion National Park.   Continue reading

Snow Canyon, Thou Restoreth My Soul…

We all have that “go to” place when our soul needs nourishing.  A place where we can seek solace.  Regain our center.   Connect to whatever form of source that makes our heart sing.  For some, it may be a favorite chair with a cup of tea.  For others, a building with a steeple on top.  And for yet others, the majestic mountains of Zion National Park.

Since I first visited Snow Canyon State Park outside of St George, UT back in 2006, it felt like nourishment for my soul.  Continue reading

And Now! The Star of Our Show…

No question about it, there is a “star attraction” in Arches National Park. In fact, it has achieved downright rock star status. Not only does it have its own dedicated trail, but two overlooks as well! It graces the Utah license plate, was once featured on a postage stamp, and was a milestone on the 2002 Olympic torch route. Rock star, indeed! Continue reading

A Fiery Furnace That Could Have Been Hell

When Lynne and I were caravanning to Big Bend last March, we celebrated her birthday with a trip to the “Star Party” at the McDonald Observatory. So since my birthday just passed, she kindly offered to reciprocate with a Ranger-led tour through the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park. Little did either of us know that this trip books up months in advance. Continue reading