A person stands on a ledge in Cassidy Arch Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.

words and photos by Sara Amish ::

I wasn’t worried. I’d been rappelling before. Sure, this one was a little bigger than what I was used to, but not by much.

Just last year, I did a 35-meter rappel into Lost and Found Canyon in Utah’s Arches National Park, marking my introduction into the world of canyoneering. Now I was with the same group standing at the top of Cassidy Arch in neighboring Capitol Reef National Park.

Nervousness crept in when I saw my friend, Sean, disappear over the ledge. Removing my borrowed figure eight from the back of my harness, I clipped the locking carabiner onto my belay loop. Once Sean was on the ground, friends helped me hook into the rope as I tried to steady my visibly shaky hands.

I surveyed the 40-plus-meter rappel under me, including a descent into open air below the arch. I steeled myself for the descent. Though I felt confident in my rappelling abilities, part of me mentally screamed, “The rope is going to break.”

I stepped up to the anchor and clipped my rappel device into the rope. It felt heavier than I expected.

Butterflies swirled up into my throat as I dropped below the ledge. I had cleared the last of the solid rock, and was fully suspended in the free space.

I wanted to be anywhere but where I was.

Rappelling through the open air, I slowly began spinning away from the comforting red stone my feet were planted on just moments before. I was frantic, looking at the massive walls and tiny people below me.

I realized I was not okay and wanted down. Now.

I no longer felt confident in my abilities. The feeling of control was slipping through my fingers.

My idea of control is to knowing exactly what is coming next; the spinning of the rope completely threw that off. I couldn’t control where I was looking. My hands began to sweat, the rope felt slippery.

Tugging on the figure eight, I thought, “If I can just stop for a second, I can calm the situation and regain control.”

Instead, I kept spinning, constantly confronting the fact that I was high in the air, dangling over 100 feet above the safety of the ground. I wish I could say that I dug into some deep reserves of courage and overcame my fear.

A woman rappels down a small ledge during a canyoneering trip.

But the truth was much simpler.

I had to get down. There was no other option.

Painful inch by painful inc, I continued rappelling. By the time my feet hit the ground, my hands were shaking so violently that I struggled to unhook from the rope. My cry of “off rappel” barely echoed up the canyon, the sandstone almost swallowing my faint voice.

John, my boyfriend and mastermind behind the outing, looked expectantly at me, hoping I had enjoyed this new experience. His face fell when he saw my tremors. He was disappointed and worried I’d no longer want to canyoneer.

But it wasn’t fear that shook me; it was the loss of control.

Once I was free hanging, I felt as though I lost one thing that I work so hard to maintain. My habitual need to have complete command over every situation is something I strive for constantly — both in everyday life and in the outdoors. I bring extra snacks, more snacks than one could possibly need. I bring a first aid kit that takes up the entire bottom of my pack. I spend spare moments on the trail visualizing how things could go wrong and planning my reactions.

When that rope sent me spinning, my nerves came from feeling helpless and out of control.

Three people on top of Cassidy Arch in Capitol Reef National Park.

But I was in control while rappelling. I controlled how fast I went down the rope and had all the safety gear in place to catch me if something went wrong.

I just had to redefine my understanding of control.

Ultimately, Mother Nature doesn’t give me control — ever. Yes, I have safeguards: I can carry bear spray, first aid kits, and satellite phones. And yes, I should prepare ourselves as best I can. But I shouldn’t let the fear of the unanticipated stifle me.

Cassidy Arch shook me, pushing me further than I liked. But it was good for me to let go and realize that safety doesn’t always mean control. The rope may spin, keeping my feet off solid rock. Those