Monday, November 30, 2009

Something I Never Thought that I Would Do

I broke down: I finally set-up a Facebook page, something I swore for years would never happen. Recently I had received several lectures from my friends, co-workers, and employeers about the benefits of Facebook. The strongest argument came from my elementary school friend, Erin, who reminded me, "Charlotte, you said that once you finished grad school you would get a Facebook account." She was right, and as I finished grad school 7 months ago, it was not something I could avoid much longer. Moreover, yesterday at Church when the people who are grandparents were discussing Facebook, I felt really out of place.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Trip Report - Pine Creek Canyon, November 16th, 2009

Video and photos from the Pine Creek descent will be added next week.

Trip Report: Pine Creek
Monday, November 16th, 2009

The Background

Eight months ago at the beginning of my tenure at Zion Adventure Company, I never would have imagined where this job would take me. Dangling over a rock fall 85 feet above the ground on a free hanging rappel was probably the last place I would have expected to end up.

For me, Pine Creek was a big deal, and even days after completing it, it remains such. Shortly after I received my ZAC Notebook in the early part of the season, I made a list of things to accomplish for the season. Pine Creek, ironically, was included, and the entire season it remained the least likely to be accomplished. It was amorphous, undefined, and something I was not sure that I even wanted to pursue. However, as the season progressed, several staff members each said that when I was ready to go, that they would be willing to accompany me through Pine Creek. I’m glad that I was able to set my own timeframe for this endeavor, and that no one pressured me into doing something for which I was not ready.

As I have been preparing to leave for Israel, “Do Pine Creek” ended up on my list of things to do before I leave, along with such exciting things as “photocopy passport,” “buy an adaptor,” and “clean the bathroom.” Over the past few weeks, I came to the realization that Pine Creek probably was not beyond my current (and limited) canyoneering abilities, especially if I considered all the Boy Scout troops that I had outfitted over the season who successfully completed it. Moreover, having some of the most experienced canyoneers in the United States as co-workers, I felt that with whomever I went, I would be in good hands.

Ultimately, things came together in such a way that Jonathan, Rob, and I were able to go to Pine Creek Monday morning, for a day that would become the best day of my life.

The Canyon

After the rains of over the weekend, I knew to expect exceedingly cold water. On Sunday, Jonathan did some reconnaissance work, and at that time there was ice on the first pool. Thankfully by Monday morning it was gone, however, that did not make the water any warmer. After what seemed to be an eternity spent simply putting on gear, we were able to begin the day. Sunday afternoon I saw Rob, and I commented on how I would probably feel much like the younger brother in the movie A Christmas Story the next day. In one scene Randy has so much winter wear on that his arms stick straight out. It’s great, and I did feel exactly like that. At one point I dropped my Burt’s Bees lip balm and because of the 2 fleece jackets, long sleeve wicking shirt, fleece pants, hiking pants, dry suit and protective coverall, I could not reach the ground to pick it up. Embarrassing.

In the days prior to my first Pine Creek descent, I started thinking about two mantras to help me basically get through the day. My mantras were:

I will not let fear and anxiety hinder my progression.

And to a lesser extent:

No tears.

Having those thoughts to guide the day worked well, especially the second one at the first rappel. After jumping into the first pool and ending up over my head in ice cold water, the sketchy first rappel was not what I was expecting. On Sunday while working at Simply Birkenstock, a guide with Paragon from St. George was in. (Interestingly, his wife was wearing a Zion Adventure Company fleece jacket). He mentioned how unnerving the bolt for one of the rappels was, and when I saw the bolt for the first rap, I knew instantly what he meant.

Once I saw the start of the first rappel, I was eager to turn around while I still could. Inhibited by the layers of clothes, cold from total submersion, I slowly approached the rappel, telling myself, “If I slip, I have to slip to the right into the pool.” As I stood with my safety attached the prospect of getting to where I needed to be seem a complete impossibility. Jonathan’s effortless move to get on rappel almost sickened me. As I disregarded his suggestion to sit down to start the first rappel, the second mantra kept coming into my head. I do not think I ever actually shed tears, but the water in my eyes I attribute to my hair and hat dripping onto my face after my frigid plunge.

At this moment, Jonathan was not my favorite person. I was upset that he seemed to not be giving me the space I needed to do the rappel on my own terms. Having never been out with him I began to wonder if Jonathan was like this on all trips or just with me. I must admit I was a little taken back at his, as from my perspective, he seemed incredibly impatient with me. Since Monday this has been something that I have pondered considerably. The conclusion I have come to is that Jonathan knew more of my abilities than I did. In the moment, I was a little upset, perhaps even hurt, but I am glad I was not given the choice to turn around. Had that occurred I would have always wondered if I could do Pine Creek. After the hike out while driving back to the Land Cruiser I commented about how seriously I considered ended the day at the first rappel. Jonathan’s response was, well classic Jonathan. He said, “I never considered that to even be an option.” Well, I am glad that one of us did not.

After I overcame my hesitation and anxiety of the first rappel, the rest of the day was absolutely amazing! I am humbled beyond words with what I experienced. The rappels, the scrambling, the down climbing, seemed to come with such ease. The rappel in the Cathedral section was perhaps the fastest of my life. Not that speed is important, but for me it illustrated that I have more competence than I give myself credit for. Besides the tumble on slick rocks that Jonathan warned me, I ended the day unscathed. I was told that I hit my head as I rolled, but I have no recollection of that, though I have bruises from that tumble. At least they came from doing something AWESOME!

Until Monday one thing that I had been terrified of with canyoneering was free-hanging rappels. Rob had repeatedly told me over the prior months that such rappels were “fun” and “easier” than rappels where one’s feet are on the wall. Whenever he said this, I just looked at him with intense skepticism. After Monday I realized that such rappels are not bad. I just need to work on not grasping the ropes so tight that my arms and shoulders ache for days afterwards.
After the last rappel, it was oddly surreal to look back at the canyon and to think that minutes prior I was there, that I did something I previously thought nearly impossible. During the hike out it was hard for me to comprehend what I just did, and even days later it still seems unreal. Driving back to Springdale I commented on how I felt as though the whole morning had been a dream, but I knew it was not because I still had Canyoneers on. Any dream involving Canyoneers would be more like a nightmare.

Final Thoughts

Canyoneering is an incredibly empowering activity. I am grateful for Rob and Jonathan’s willingness to lead me through Pine Creek. Monday was a gift to me; one which will not soon be forgotten. Every time I complete a canyon, I realize how much that environment means to me, and that I want to be back in a canyon as soon as possible. After each canyon, I resolve to go more, but that never seems to happen. Next year, I intend to make canyoneering a weekly or bi-weekly event. Ultimately, for next year I would like Mystery Canyon to be my goal. If I were to do it, it would have to be on a busy Saturday in the summer, so that the Narrows would be full of people to watch me come out of the canyon. Shallow, I know, but something about that admiration and awe from Narrows hikers in the Narrows Footwear Package is appealing.

I am not sure how I will go about making this goal a reality. Adding on to ZAC trips would be the obvious solution, but I am not sure that is the right one. Scott and I discussed this in some length last night. This season I was hesitant to add on to trips as I did not want Zion Adventure to look bad because of my inexperience and ineptitude. Now I wonder if adding on would diminish the experience of the clients involved in some capacity. Over the winter, this is something I am going to have to ponder. Hopefully, other staff members can provide some insight into this situation as well.

One simple action Monday night while I was working in the shop brought about a fantastic finish to an already amazing day: Tom gave me a high-five and congratulated me on doing Pine Creek. Something like that coming from the reigning canyoneering king meant a lot.

Other lessons from the day include:
  • Always make sure the neck gasket on your drysuit is tight before jumping into exceedingly cold water.
  • I do better in canyons when I do not know what to expect. For me not reading Zion: Canyoneering (sorry Tom) before I go out works well, as then I do not have any expectations. I simply have no choice but to say, “Bring it on!”
  • Listening to Jonathan is always a good idea.
  • The mental component of canyoneering cannot be understated.

Monday was the best day of my life…I truly lived that day.

Trip Report - Copperhead Canyon, July 15th, 2009

At Zion Adventure Company, staff members will often write reports of trips to enlighten other staff members about conditions, learning experiences, trials, etc. This is my trip report about the first major canyon I descended.

Copperhead Canyon – July 15th, 2009:
A Trip Report

Charlotte M. Vaillancourt
To put it mildly, the canyoneering trip for me this past Sunday was a very big deal. My first canyoneering experience in March during training ended poorly. I was in tears, and never completed it. Until that time in my life I had never done anything involving ropes, harnesses, helmets, and the other accoutrements needing for a successful canyoneering endeavor.
For the past several months I had wanted to go again, but I had yet to build up the courage. The Charlotte M. Vaillancourt Baby Steps to Canyoneering program helped immensely to get me to the point where I could even consider canyoneering as a possibility. First, rappelling off the ladder while hanging from the rafters in the ZAC basement with Scott Williams, then the trip to Lamb’s Knoll to practice rappelling with Scott both helped immensely. However, I still had trouble believing that the equipment was actually designed to withstand the thousands of pounds of force placed on it. It was that I questioned more than anything. Furthermore, I needed to know if I could be successful in doing what we take 5 year olds to do. Also, it has always felt rather hypocritical to me to be selling a product and discussing it when I had no personal experience with it.

Anna and Calvin accompanied me to Lamb’s Knoll, where it was our intention to do Snake Alley, a decent, beginning canyon, and one I personally felt that I could manage. When I asked Calvin to accompany me I said, “Calvin, the thing I fear most is that I will realize how much I like canyoneering, and will have a new addiction.” Calvin responded that canyoneering was an okay addiction to have. Also, it was on my Summer 2009 To Do list, and crossing things off of that list is something I try to do often. When we arrived, Z-Rock already had a sizable group there, a loud, Spanish-speaking one at that. We could here them from Snake Alley at the parking area. Calvin and I learned later that day that the group arrived at Z-Rock anticipating a day of canoeing, not canyoneering. Just a little different.

The day almost came to a tragic end at the small grotto where we put gear on. Calvin told me to grab a certain harness from the staff gear in the basement. I took it trusting him it was the right size. Only once we got to the grotto did we realize it was not. Oops…our bad. Fortunately, Anna’s personal harness fit. There were a few moments when I was secretly hoping that we could turn around at that point, however, I did wonder at the same time when I would have the courage again to go.

On we went. Arriving near the Snake Alley descent, we realized that Snake Alley might not be the best choice. The Z-Rock group was 1) large and 2) slow-moving. Much like the classic Robert Frost poem, we took the road less traveled and it made all the difference. We headed up to the right to see what we could find there.

During the next 30 minutes of scrambling, the one thing I kept thinking was how my Montrail trail shoes were comfortable, but severely lacking in the traction department. (Ironically, my shoes also had the best traction of any of the group’s). I also lamented the sand gathering ability of the shoes, for which it gets gold stars all-around, but which is not something I was unaware of. I learned that lesson on the disastrous November 2007 Hop Valley hike. Worst. Hike. Ever. Focusing on my shoes kept me from over analyzing, and subsequently, talking myself out of actually canyoneering.

I will not say that everything went perfectly. Some tears were shed by me when the rappelling became real and eminent…okay, a lot of tears. Until that point I focused on the individual steps I needed to make, not the big picture. I once found a line in Outside magazine that said, “Sometimes I want to simplify my life to the point where I think about the next 20 feet, not the next 20 years.” That is what I did, but that was hard when the next 20 feet were straight down.

During my tears I could only think about how far I had already come, and how the not knowing if I could do canyoneering would continue to haunt me. When I considered my options, rappelling was the lesser of two evils to get me back to my trusty Saturn Ion, Jackson, named such after a road trip which resulted in it looking like a Jackson Pollack painting because of all the mud. I could go and do all the down climbing, scrambling, the Carousel of Death (named such by Anna’s sister), etc. again, or just go 80 feet. Hmmm…decisions, decisions.

Long story short, I chose to rappel, and I am glad that I did. I definitely was not keen on the times when my feet did not touch the canyon wall, but I did not let that stop me. I also rappelled without an auto-block. For whatever reason, I could not wrap my mind around Calvin’s explanation of its purpose or how it works. That was just confusing me, and raising my anxiety level at a time when that would simply hinder my progress further.

As Anna said after my first rappel, I rocked it. A lot of fear was gone at that moment, and my original fear of realizing that I would like canyoneering was realized. I enjoyed myself immensely, and the second rappel was a total piece of cake after what I had just done.
Ultimately, I learned several important lessons from my few hours canyoneering Sunday morning:
  • I need to invest in shoes with better traction and that keep sand at bay
  • Having my own harness is vital, so that I never arrive at the beginning with one that does not fit.
  • Petzl helmets make one’s head look unsettlingly large.
  • I need to learn the mechanics of canyoneering: the ropes, the knots, the hows, the whys, etc.
  • Some fear is always needed to ensure one’s safety, but I cannot let it control me or prevent me from experiencing new things.
  • I am ADDICTED to canyoneering, and I find myself searching the calendar in SO for potential trips to add on to.
  • A new lifetime goal: To go canyoneering on every continent. First up: Israel this winter; a true Zion adventure!

I cannot wait until July 26th when I get to go and do Keyhole Canyon. Four months ago if someone said that I would eventually say something like that, I would have thought they were certifiable.