The American Southwest offers hundreds of dramatic slot canyons -- deep crevasses worn away by wind and water over millions of years -- for people to survey. Eager to experience the wonders of this budding sport, I find myself today on the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000-square-mile elevated region that extends into Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. It is where most domestic canyoneering takes place.
Draper and I begin our journey into Water Canyon with a hike along the banks of a dribbling creek. We wend through trees and head for a cleft in Canaan Mountain. The hike on the gradually inclining trail is tiring, so we stop to take a drink at a spring with a subway feature: a curved wall seeping 1,000-year-old rainwater that stains the gray rock black. It’s important to drink plenty of water, even on a relatively cool day like this one. Dehydration could lead to disaster.
We continue our ascent, climbing diagonally up a slanted sandstone ledge. Draper advises me to place my feet carefully, as the ledge is slick and occasionally narrows. Once we’re back on more firm footing, I’m able to enjoy the sights around me. No matter which way I look -- back through the canyon, above to a naturally formed rock arch on the mesa, or ahead through the trees -- the views are breathtaking, so I pause regularly to gawk.
After another water break, Draper and I ascend a stretch of steep switchbacks and reach the ledge where we must make that first nerve-racking rappel deep into Water Canyon. Once we reach the landing below, I realize that there is no possible way to scale the steep cliff we just rappelled down and retrace our hike home; there’s nowhere to go from here but farther down into the canyon. I also realize just how far away we are from civilization -- and medical care, in case of emergency. As is the case with any extreme sport, there are inherent risks in canyoneering. Without the proper precautions, one wrong step could lead to a serious injury. A little careful confidence here goes a long way.
That first drop is just a touch of what Water Canyon has in store for me. As we continue on, we reach a short, horizontal slot that leads to what Draper calls the Rainbow Room, a natural chapel of striated rock enclosing a pool of chilly water. To get there, we must “chimney” laterally through the crevice -- which narrows at points to less than two feet in width -- pushing our backs against one wall and our feet against the other, moving like a sideways crab.
After a quick dip in the water, we continue walking and come to a boulder. We’ve got no choice but to scale it, but the rock seems impossibly high to climb -- the first flat spot I can find is located at shoulder height. Here’s where having an experienced guide comes in handy: Draper points out a small protrusion in the side that I am able to step onto. From there, I push myself to the top of the boulder, and then we easily make a short rappel down the other side.