Swimming Thru Cedar Mesa's Black Hole for FreezeFest!
Guest Rave & Photos by Rachel Ross
“We all want to get through this safely.” Ram’s cinematic voice rang through my head as I stuffed my helmet into my pack. “Figure out your system: ask around.” I slipped on my second pair of neoprene socks. “Figure out the best way for you to stay warm,” I watched the variety of fleece onesies and bright puffy coats stomp around the parking lot. “Find a buddy, we don’t want anyone left behind.” We all huddled together for the group photo, one of my favorite traditions before an outing. Most smiles at this part of the day are not forced.
On this particular FreezeFest, the sun contributed nicely to the 50 degrees that stayed with us during the weekend daytime. Ram led the parade down toward the windy gorge that I just caught a glimpse of while we drove over the bridge. The metrical clack of his hiking pole on slickrock provided an uppity beat to the excited murmur of friendly conversation. As I hadn’t done the Black Hole before, I was anxious to see it, and what that warning sign back near the trailhead was all about… My goal of the day was three-fold: enjoy the canyon, stay warm, and don’t let the camera get in your way of either.
We traipsed down into the wash and kept walking… and walking… and more walking… Comments of the extremely dry conditions echoed off the walls. By the time we had to suit up I had sweat through my base layer (that’s what it’s for right?!). No snow or ice to be seen! I watched the walking pajamas slowly squeeze into the variety of outfit options: Cameron put on a wetsuit first, then drysuit, Jim squeezed into his three layers of neoprene, and AJ donned a fuzzy pink hat… By the time I zipped up my suit, the first wave had already entered the canyon!
The wading and walking combo began for the first hour of canyon. The cold water was actually a relief as I began overheating in my oompa loompa attire after crawling up boulders and tiptoeing over the small ridges of sandstone that usually remain unseen under feet of water. Ram told me this was the dryest he’s ever seen it. Apparently White Canyon was scoured out in the 50s and an unfortunate party expecting an easy dry hike had to spend the night. Phew. It was not a day to take for granted the gift of beta.
We got to the first longer downclimb that had a generous handline already set. Let the teamwork begin! “Bill! How’s that side?” “Jim, can you take my pack?” “April, you need a hand?” “Jenny, can you spot me?” My head was whirling and my camera was a’clicking. A thin chute right afterwards led us further into the depths! Then my photos became half black, half highlights of helmet tops.
I heard the second most asked question in canyoneering: “You think I can fit?” I love canyoneering. I’ve seen the sport help accelerate relationships through the co-reliance of basic needs, as it requires you to rethink appropriate social interaction. It catches people off-guard, and I love surprises. SPLASH! A squeeze under a log and down to the water via handline dropped us into the blackest of holes. Dean went for depth as the rest of us paddled around corners til our feet touched. This canyon was full of surprises. “The world drops off right there,” Ram warned as Jenny scooches off a boulder… Flat earth folks beware…
Half past one the various soups, stews, cocoas, and teas emerge from the packs! I scarfed the rest of my bagel, but really COLD water sounded better to me, whoda thunk?!
Cassy, Dean, and I swam on. The afternoon sun created incredible reflected light, so between the tiger stripes and orange glow, the canyon was a head turner. As in, I might have spent more time looking behind me than in front. Thanks Cass, you always make an excellent model.
More dryland before the drysuit becomes a sweatsuit. The exit was particularly fun – the climbing part of the day where I could actually lift my leg more than 6 inches unassisted! By this point we were on Grand Canyon rules: everyone for the goal at independent paces. At the cars, cookies were passed around, high-fives were traded, and a headcount was had. Much success!!!
Cassy always asks me what my favorite part of a trip was. In the canyon, as I watched people group together, offer route advice, pass packs back, give hands, take hands, I became ever appreciative of trust. To see it enacted between strangers was inspiring. I typically don’t get to see that every day, but this particular weekend, I did.