“Do shit that scares you” Volume 3
The sun was low in the sky and my carry-on bag for the morning remained unpacked. I texted Caileen to ask if we were going to yoga. She replied that if we jammed, we could make it into the park in time to catch the sunset from the Space Station. “On my way!” I shot back, closing my bedroom door with understanding that I would get to packing in an hour or so when I got home before then retiring to bed at a leisurely hour as befitting of someone beginning her travels at 3am. Ha!
We make it into Hidden Valley as the sun settles into the boulders. We climb a crack, traipse along a shelf, scramble down a series of bowls, and drop through a skylight into a wind-hollowed cave overlooking the campground. Inside, four men are already perched. The sky glows in shades of gold, coral orange, and purple as we make introductions and pass around a canteen of bold red.
All dirtbag climbers look the same, one could generalize. Their names are usually one syllable. Dave, Dan, Ben, Shane, Jim, Dill, Matt. Their puffers are patched with duct tape. Their approach shoes are weary. Their hair is either matted or disguised by a knit beanie. These are the nomads that call the JT campgrounds home during the winter months. They live in old pickups or sprinter vans. They hail from places like Palmer, Flagstaff, or Moab. They smell like dust, weed, and DGAF.
In the cave, we finish the wine and the sky grows dark. Climbers and Carolyn depart the way we arrived.
Caileen knows these people. As we walk around the campground, she sings and strums her guitar. From the darkness (do climbers not believe in campfires?), voices call out her name. Greetings are exchanged as old friends quickly rehash the months since paths have last crossed. I follow her, content to witness this culture at its most genuine.
The term “Chasm of Doom” begins to be tossed around in conversation. At each van and site we visit, more interest grows. It is 9pm and pitch dark. The moon will not rise until 6:55am and even then, it will be a New Moon. No one will appease my curious questioning about what we’re doing, but they are donning a suspicious amount of layers as evening progresses. (This is another lesson that I learn through observation: one dresses for the winter in the desert as one dresses for the winter in the heights.) My new friends are wrapped in shells, puffers, knit caps, and long pants. I am in yoga leggings, running shoes, and a fleece. I am like someone’s kid sister that not one knows what to do with. I have no idea how many there are, or who they are. In the dark, they are the same. I discern that at least two of the voices are female. We leave the campground on foot and head into the boulder fields across the valley. The glow from cigarettes is the only manmade light as far as we can see, discounting the twinkling planes overhead.
After scrambling up some boulders, under others, hand jamming a crack, and crawling through yucca, we gather in a sandy wash. There is back and forth. It is decided Caileen with lead the route. “This is ‘The Chasm of Doom’ and there are rules that must be followed” she calls out. “There will be no speaking and there will be no lights. Don’t lose your partner!” she commands, then disappears into the deeper darkness between two large monoliths. I don’t have a partner, but a dark form at the entrance makes sure that I am not the last of the group entering the void.
The darkness is absolute. The granite is weathered and rough. In my head, I acknowledge this could be terrifying and am thankful that darkness and confined spaces are not great fears of mine. Within the chasm, boulders large and small are jumbled together. Large spaces where I can stretch out my arms in both directions seeking guidance are punctuated by spaces so low and tight that we slither on hands and stomach. I twist my body into the spaces, and run my hands blindly along the granite looking for absence to indicate the direction of travel (or better yet, the puffer of the form in front of me to gently dance my fingers across in assurance that I am not alone). Time passes and the ascent becomes steep and technical. The group follows the mandate and uses no words or lights. In areas with challenges, they exchange grunts or gibberish to alert one another. Sometimes a spontaneous symphony of utterances echoes amongst the rocks and forms. I restrict myself to concentrated breathing and occasional apologies when I step on a hand, grasp an ankle, or snag a beanie. I can not tell if my eyes or opened or closed; I can not remember what light looks like. There is only black.
Some time after entering the darkness, we are all covered in granite dust and sand. I have been using my body as much as my hands to maneuver the labyrinth. As such, my legs are raw and bleeding and I can feel the glow of abrasions on my knees, butt cheeks, and hip bones. Granite is exceptionally rough and nylon leggings are akin to nothing. I am thrilled and can not keep a smile from my darkened face.
The group gets hung up, clustered high in the chasm. I have ended up behind a woman; her hands are soft and we hold fingertips in the dark. Behind me, there is also someone new. Invisible hands rest on my shoulder, hold onto my calf, pet my hair. The woman in front of me vanishes and a shower of granite sand falls onto my face. In front of me, there is only rock. Around me, there is only rock. Above me, there is nothing but then there is rock. The woman attempts to climb the chimney several times but is turned back by a lack of purchase, the individual ahead of her, snags, and God-knows-what. The grunts and mutterings of those around me are less playful and more frantic. Swear words filter from above and below. Fabric tears. Down flutters onto the faces and hands below. When it is my turn, I try to follow where I’d last felt her foot. I find a foothold and pull myself up. Crack! The darkness becomes glaringly bright, and I swear loudly. Below me, I hear the granite sand plinking onto rocks in a cascade. A hand from below squeezes my leg in reassurance. I apologize. I am more cautious. The only place I can find to escape the confines of the chimney feels smaller than my torso. I insert myself, twist, and manage to beach myself across a larger stone. My legs kick nothing. My hands feel nothing. I retreat back into the safety of the chimney and find a new space, slightly larger. I have to twist into a seated position then use my legs to push me up through a small opening. I am being born in the darkness. My gasps echo back to me.
Out of the birth canal (it’s really called that!), I am relieved to find a large open cavern. At the top, stars glitter. I scurry across a flatter boulder, feeling for the others. I find a bare foot and follow it up a leg. It giggles. “Are you a human?” I ask it. The darkness replies “I’m Old Gregg!” and laughter filters from other dark forms. The birth canal was challenging for everyone. We regroup in the lesser darkness of the clear night sky, laying across the tips of the monoliths. Caileen as the leader is long gone. Strangers surround me and their conversation is unfamiliar. I scatter jokes and quips into their speech and earn some laughter when I admit that the touching of and by strangers was my favorite part of the ascent. The stars overhead are incredibly bright and numerous. JT is proud of its Dark Sky Park designation, and on moonless nights like this, it is clear why the honor has been earned. The Geminids peaked on Wednesday but we still see many shooting stars in the time we are laying and watching.
Now that we are not in motion, I grow cold. The constellations we are watching have dropped considerably in the sky. I don’t want to whine amidst these intimidating strangers but some time after we arrive on the moon porch, I interject that I’m in leggings, and have an early flight. It works and the anonymous strangers allow their stargazing and visiting to be cut short.
Fortunately, the way out of the Chasm of Doom is not the same as the way in. We continue ascending boulders and slots and then take turns sliding our bodies through the descending slots and steps. Some drops were taller than we were, others were easier. I again followed the woman. We held hands, or I touched her shoulder, or stroked her hair. She tapped my legs and feet to indicate where I should step. I tried to return the favor, clasping the fingers of the hand behind me and communicating with nervous giggles. Rough fingers squeeze mine in reply.
We emerge into a new valley. The granite seemed to glow outside the darkness of the chasm, in spite of the moonless night. Caileen is laying on a slab singing a sad song. I curl my body against hers. Having gathered everyone and so being released from our vow of silence, we visit as we hike back down to the campground.
I get home after midnight. I shower in the hottest water I can tolerate. Gravel and granite dust swirl between my feet. I pack my gear for the trip into my carry-on, lay out the layers of outwear I can’t fit (I’ll wear all of it on the flights), and curl into bed with Scout. It is 1am.
I’m laying in the dark, too jazzed to sleep. I know that the minutes of available time are slipping away. I am reflective. I’d faced a host of fears, ranging from the primal to the trivial, and as a result had another exceptional desert experience. I will remember the thrill of the accomplishment, the acute discomfort of the rough stone and icy air, and the camaraderie of strangers in this situation always. I did shit that scared me, and it was awesome.