Person rappelling surrounded by red rock.

words and photos by Anna Wendt ::

How do you react when forced to choose between turning back and continuing on as you try to enjoy the outdoors? Do feelings of shame and embarrassment influence your decision, or do you feel confident in doing what’s best for you? If you do hesitate to call it, do you think about overcoming shame outdoors?

All of these thoughts were at the forefront of my mind while canyoneering in Utah’s San Rafael Swell, one of the most popular canyoneering areas in the state. I was faced with the decision to either “call it” or power through.

An eagerly awaited trip

Our little adventure crew — which included myself, my fiancé Peter, and our friends Amy, John, and Elijah — had thoughtfully chosen a wet canyon none of us had done before. Due to their not-insignificant amount of standing water, wet canyons are the only way to enjoy the unforgiving Utah desert in the middle of summer. 

A person rappelling into a cavernous area of a slot canyon.

Rappelling in Pine Creek Canyon in July 2017.

But they can be dangerous. We rappel and hike in slot canyons that see so little sunlight that wetsuits are crucial on all but the hottest days. Even in the middle of summer, it’s not unheard of for canyoneers to show signs of hypothermia when attempting wet canyons unprepared. 

We looked forward to this adventure for weeks. Travel, weddings, family commitments, and work prevented us from getting out as much as we would have liked earlier in the summer. So when we arrive late Friday night to our camping spot — an area of BLM land we’d never stayed at before — we immediately scout the best spots for tents and hammocks. The sooner we get to bed, the sooner the fun begins. 

It’s all orange-ish dirt and uneven land with a surprising number of junipers and pinyon pines. Basically, our camp selection looks like every other area we’ve previously camped at around the Swell. There are no other cars or people in sight (and not just because it’s pitch black outside). We’re completely alone.

However, as we look around, my friend Amy speaks up about the weird vibe she’s getting. Call it intuition, a gut feeling, or whatever you want. We listen to her and pack up, ending up in a hotel in nearby Green River. Looking back, it’s hard not to see this as a sign of things to come.

The approach

Due to the previous night’s unexpected change of plans, we get off to a late start. We pass our almost-campsite and plenty of wild burros while winding along hardly-tended dirt roads that lead to the trailhead. My stomach feels funny on the drive, but I attribute it to the usual nerves and excitement — no matter how many canyons I do, I’m always a little nervous until we start.

We reach the trailhead, pack our bags, and start our hike. The day is heating up and there are few clouds in the sky. We move fast, wanting to escape the heat via the cold, canyon water.

The hiking is easy, starting out almost flat, easing into light scrambling, and then flattening out again. My stomach bothers me more than before, though not enough to make me think we need to stop. I’ve certainly done canyons feeling worse.

A couple of miles in, the land starts to look more canyon-like and we begin to encounter a few small obstacles. At the final downclimb before we reach the canyon proper, Elijah and John go first, scouting ahead. Then Peter goes. Then Amy. I’m left at the top, feet halfway down the short drop, when I just stop.

Now, just a few hundred yards away from the actual canyon and its icy water, I finally admit to myself that something isn’t right. My body isn’t right.

The last thing I want is to call it. We’d put this trip on our calendars weeks before and it had been months since our last canyon. Four of us had rented wetsuits. And though we regularly make day trips to the area, it’s not exactly worth it to drive 3+ hours to get this close to our first rappel and then turn around.

Person rappelling in a slot canyon.

Calling it

Peter looks at me with deep concern; he knows something is wrong. My stomach feels violent and I barely speak. Amy, who has been on countless camping, hiking, climbing, and canyoneering trips with us, knows it too. She simply says, “We can go back.”

Peter climbs back up, helps me to my feet, and we sit in the shade of a nearby juniper. Amy calls back John and Elijah who had indeed found the start of the canyon.

As an EMT, Peter knows what signs and symptoms to look for that might indicate heat exhaustion. I exhibit none of them apart from nausea. It seems I’m simply sick. So, I take Pepto Bismol in the hopes of calming my stomach, sip water and Powerade, and try to eat applesauce.

My body has other plans. Nothing stays down.