By Sally Beesley (Published July, 2002, in Utah Outdoors magazine
“Come on, jump, Mom. You can do it.” I looked at the pool of water at the bottom of the ledge. It was only about an 8-foot drop. I’m such a chicken. How did my kids talk me into this one?
There was no one to blame but myself. Wasn’t I the one who put them on skis when they were 3? Who followed them to the top of Mount Timpanogos? Then there was the first rappelling trip at Cougar Cliffs. Now that they are all taller and stronger than me, should it be any surprise that they took up canyoneering?
“Come with us, Mom,” they had said that morning, “It will be great fun.” And it was. I just hate jumping off cliffs.
What they had gotten me into this time was Keyhole Canyon at Zion National Park. Tucker, 21; Janis, 17; Patrick, 15; and their partner in crime, Cameron Willie, 16, were great escorts for a 49-year-old mom on her first canyoneering experience. The hike up the steep rock hill had been hot, a bit tough on old knees, but I made it. My companions had run most of the way up and were waiting at the saddle for me. There wasn’t much of a trail, just a rock hoodoo to aim for that looked like a gnome’s hat on the skyline.
It was a relief to reach the top and find out that it was downhill from there, even though the loose dirt got into my shoes. At the bottom we entered an innocent-looking slot canyon; I knew this wasn’t why their backpacks contained rope and harnesses. The narrow rocky passage let us out into an open area where Tucker appeared to be searching for something. It was Patrick who first spotted the thick rope tied around the tree with a clip on the end. “What an odd place for a rappelling anchor,” I thought. Then I noticed a slender opening in the rock about 20 feet away.
Patrick backed down the dark hole first. Next Tucker clipped my harness onto the rope. “It’s an easy rappel, Mom,” Pat hollered from down below. Lowering myself over the edge, my eyes adjusted to the soft light gently illuminating walls that had been rounded out from centuries of water, wind, and sand. Touchdown ended up being in 2 feet of extremely cold water. I anxiously scrambled out of the pool to wait for the others.
“Hey Mom, can you belay Janis?” Tucker called down. Reluctantly I waded back in and held onto the rope, ready to pull it taut if my daughter slipped. In the meantime, Cameron shimmied down a log that had fallen in. He probably felt sorry for me and picked a different route so I wouldn’t have to belay him as well. Maybe it was the incredulous yelp he kept hearing as each of us hit the water that sent him looking for an alternate route.
Looking up at the slit of light above and the cavern-like walls around us, it was obvious that at this point we were committed, there was no other way out than to continue down.
A bit farther in I noticed a small metal loop; another rappel anchor embedded in the rock. While Tucker set up the next descent, Patrick and Cameron decided a rope wasn’t even necessary and managed to get down on their own. I tied on. With a couple of easy jumps I was at the bottom and reunited with my family.
That’s when we got to the ledge from where I was supposed to jump. Tucker jumped first. They all thought it was so easy, so fun. So did I jump? Much as I hate to admit it, I didn’t. Tucker stood below and held onto my feet as I scooted myself over the ledge. Then he lowered me down into the water. I’m still mad at myself for being such a chicken.
There was barely enough room for all of us to stand at the other edge of the pool while Tucker set up the next rappel. I felt bad; his frigid hands were stiff and shaky, probably from the extra time he’d spent in the water helping me down. We were all cold and anxious to get moving to warm up. Although the water was only about 4 feet deep, everyone had gone completely under when they jumped. Well, except me.
The last hurdle before escaping was a narrow corridor filled with more icy cold water. Cameron, Tucker and Janis figured out that they could cross above it by putting their backs to one wall and feet across on the other side. My camera went up with them and I waded into the water. It was so cold my breath seemed stuck in my lungs.
Soon the bottom disappeared and swimming became necessary. Staying in long enough to see how deep it went was not an option. Patrick followed me, propelling himself with his long arms along the sides. Not too far from the other side my water sock started falling off. It seemed a shame to loose it so my arms tried to do all the work.
“Are you OK?” Cameron asked from the bank.
Still struggling to just get air in and out of my lungs, I couldn’t answer. Not hearing a reply, Cam waded into the cold water he’d managed to avoid with his overhead acrobatics and fished me out. Right then he earned a permanent invitation to all future family outings.
We all exited the canyon and scurried into the warm and very welcome sunshine.
While our temperatures climbed back up to normal, my kids swapped stories with Cameron and, of course, brought up the time we went to Lake Powell where they all jumped off a 45-foot high cliff into the water.
“Mom jumped too, just not so high.” Janis said. Her brothers snickered.
“It was about a 10-foot drop.” Tucker said. “Even higher than that ledge in Keyhole. You could have jumped, Mom.” They all agreed.
Next time we do the Keyhole, wet suits would be a good idea. And when we get to the 8-foot drop above the pool, I’m going to jump. It’s a promise.
For more information on Keyhole and how to get there, go to www.climb-utah.com/Zion/keyhole.htm