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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Grand Canyon Solo

Searching for unique photos puts our columnist in a tough spot

At the top of this cliff, the sheep tracks continued farther up the narrowing canyon. That was all the enticement I needed—the sheep tracks held the promise of an exit out of the top of the canyon. I was making good photos, and the sheep route was an exciting addition to my adventure, so I committed to going ahead.

I was traveling light. That was critical, given all of the climbing I was doing. Slung over my shoulder and neck in a zippered camera bag, I carried a digital Nikon D200 with a Nikkor 24-120mm zoom. I also had a 12-24mm zoom, spare battery and a digital wallet with extra memory cards protected inside a Ziploc® bag in my small Osprey daypack.

I also carried a rain jacket, rain pants, wool hat, fleece pullover and food. I had an empty water bottle, but in the canyon, I was drinking from small pools and springs. I had enough food for the day, but in the desert, water is the highest priority, and I had plenty.

My first-aid kit contained a lighter, matches, a small Gerber knife, a signal mirror, headlamp, a roll of tape, a knife and a few Band-Aids®. Not much, but the best way to stay healthy on a wilderness trip is accident prevention.

A wristwatch helped me monitor my progress because in the deep canyon, I couldn’t use the sun to judge time. In the climbing sections of the canyon, I always reversed the more difficult moves to assure myself that a retreat was possible.

All had gone well until I was literally a few feet from stepping on the top of the Redwall formation and freedom from any more difficult climbing. Looking up at those rocks that blocked my route, I surmised they were probably washed into the crack during a recent flash flood.

I saw where the sheep route went around the massive capstone and up a glassy, waterworn wall with a fall potential of 30 feet. Sometimes, sheep fall, as I knew I would if I attempted their route.

Then I had a wild thought: Maybe I could dislodge the rock above me. In my predicament, I flashed on the story of Aron Ralston, who was climbing alone down a canyon narrows in Utah very similar to the canyon I was in now. At one point, a rock rotated, pinning his arm.

Aron waited five days for a rescue. When the rescue didn’t arrive, he escaped by cutting himself free with a penknife. With that thought as a warning, I braced my arms against the wall, then swung my feet above my head and kicked at the rock above me. The second kick moved the rock; the third kick knocked the rock out and over several inches.

That was just enough to allow me to slither, hands first, out of the hole. In seconds, I was on top of the boulder and standing in the bright late-day sun. The last photo I took in upper Deer Creek was of the exit hole I had just crawled through.

Then I shouldered my pack and went looking for the easy trail back down to camp. Preparation and experience had given me a unique adventure and access to a beautiful remote canyon. Creativity and a cool head got me out of a literal tight spot with a good story to tell my buddies that night in camp.

Visit Bill Hatcher’s website at www.billhatcher.com.


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