Montana Wolf

Monday, January 25, 2010

Slot Canyon Reprieve

I headed into the slot shortly after daybreak to witness the aftermath of flash floods that had ripped through the gorge the night before. She was a narrow canyon of steep rock walls and a series of drops from 5-20 feet. I hiked her often with an eye to the cliffs above for lion and due diligence to every footprint on the rock. The normally dry slot had funneled mountain torrents and emptied them into the lake a mile later, propelling debris trails downriver for miles. This blue sky day, however, she held promise of running water and falls, something I’d not yet witnessed within her walls.

I was alone on this journey. Not even Teak accompanied me. I had no cell phone, no water bottle or pack and no hiking stick. It was an adventurous little jaunt of less than 3 miles, after all. I eased my meditative way down the mildly tricky passage over tumbling streams. Only two vertical drops remained before the slot opened into a wide wash, when I came upon two formidable ponds and uprooted trees.

I considered my options. It’s not in my Danish genes to turn around and the waters were too deep and treacherous to wade, not to mention the most god-awful orange/brown color. I decided to scramble up the left cliff, drop down to avoid one lake, cross the stream and scramble up the right side and traverse the second, larger pool.

I made my tenuous way up and around the first pool on sharp gravel and sandy wet dirt. All was well. I had a good feel for the next steeper, longer ascent. I was thankful Teak wasn’t with me. I needed all the concentration I could muster. I identified a second route and scaled my way up to face a washed-out burro trail that offered slick footing along a 4-inch ledge. I quickly aborted the plan to follow the flood to the lake. Too slick and steep to go down, I decided to climb to the top of the ridge 30-feet above. There was no trail. I kicked and dug each foothold into the rock and scant soil. Handholds crumbled, broke and rolled down the cliff. Focus intense, I conjured every detail I’d learned from my rock-climbing days.

I stopped 15-feet from the ridge top on a rock slide chute. No choice. That’s all there was. My footholds had slipped as I dropped to all fours. Just one knee held my body to the mountain as my mind began to chatter. “You know, Christina, you could have jumped into that cold muddy water and come out alive.” “Yes,” I answered myself, as I looked down and viewed the route my body would take should that knee-hold fail. There was one brittle bush growing from a cleft I might be able to grab.

I was at that point common in rock climbing, and just as common in life, where I must let go of all form and push off. I was hot with sweat and scared as my knee began to slide. Then the voice. “Lean into me,” said…the mountain. “Breast to breast, breathe and PUSH.” This move transformed my center of gravity and in a grand explosion of energy I propelled to the top of the ridge, stood upright and kept going with no glance back. Outa there.

I ran into a friend the next day who said he’d hiked up the canyon from the opposite end. Those foreboding pools were all but gone 24 hours later and he made it quite easily. That’s the way it is in the wild, where death comes in short windows. A sunny mountain pass suddenly turns dark and slick with corn snow; a chilling micro-wind rises off mountain peaks and turns a lovely day hike into a survival exercise. A simple slot canyon I hike several times a week fills with water for a few hours and detours me up a treacherous vertical route.

I almost died. My angels had every opportunity to pull their protective plug and send my soul a-flying. Instead they perched at death’s trapdoor.


  1. tempting Death... glad she let you go again. Good to hear your reports from the wild this morning.
    Love you, Carole

  2. Just read this. Ota way to go brave lady. what a tale. have been missing your blog as I thought I had signed up. Will do so now.

  3. You are a beautiful writer! I am so glad that you survived! Those close calls make us appreciate life even more if we stay present with the fragility of life and exude gratitude for each moment.