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How I beat my fear of slot canyons, despite ‘127 hours’

A woman climbs a canyon wall
Kalee Rittenger demonstrates her climbing skills in a slot canyon near Robbers Roost, Utah.
(Photo illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; photos by Edmund Vallance; Get in the Wild Adventures)
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“Within an hour of being trapped, I knew I had to cut off my arm,” Aron Ralston said.

The world’s most famous canyoneer had just landed in Denver. He was talking with me on his cellphone, and his voice sounded positively jovial.

“Of course, my knife was so dull I couldn’t saw through the skin. It took me until Day 4 to figure out that the only solution was to stab myself.”

He paused to laugh. You might even describe it as a guffaw.

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“That’s what you call a lightbulb moment,” he said with relish.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Ralston’s story (as related in the 2010 movie “127 Hours”), here are the facts: During a solo canyoneering trip in southern Utah, he was trapped by an 800-pound boulder. To free himself, he was forced to amputate his right arm.

“I’m no more or less equipped for something extraordinary than anyone else,” Ralston said. “We’re all just waiting for that boulder in our lives to bring us to that same point.”

Students clamber up the steep sides of a slot canyon in Utah.
A group of students clamber up the steep sides of a slot canyon near Hanksville, Utah.
(Edmund Vallance)

I was flabbergasted by his positive attitude, given the trauma of his experience. I was also appalled by his story. After all, I was about to embark on my first canyoneering trip to southeastern Utah, just a few miles from where Ralston had spent his five-day season in hell.

I had signed up for a three-day technical canyoneering course in Robbers Roost wilderness, one of the most remote areas of the United States. The oddball sport involves moving up and down steep-sided slot canyons using a variety of methods, including climbing, crawling and rappelling. And, in my case, praying, cursing and regretting my decision to leave Los Angeles.

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Canyoneering has gained popularity in recent years. Strangely, “127 Hours” seems to have encouraged more people to try it, especially in Utah. After landing in Salt Lake City on a clear September day, I made a last call to my wife before picking up my rental car and venturing into a cellphone service abyss.

Spring, late fall and winter are the ideal times to visit nearby deserts

I did have one important advantage though. My instructor, Christopher Hagedorn, has been leading classes and expeditions in this area for upward of 10 years. His company, Get in the Wild Adventures, has thrived throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Not surprising, I suppose. Canyoneering is by its very nature a socially distanced activity.

“I spent a good part of my life following the dream of being an astronaut,” he said the first day at our training camp, about 20 minutes’ drive from Hanksville, Utah.

“When I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I figured this was the closest I’d ever get to being on another planet.”

I could see what he meant as I scanned the extraterrestrial topography around me. The rust-colored rock formations were straight out of the 1990 sci-fi classic “Total Recall.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s classic line — “Get your ass to Mars” — flashed briefly through my mind.

A man sits on a sand dune surrounded by climbing equipment
Christopher Hagedorn explains the basics of canyoneering on the first day of a three-day course in Utah.
(Edmund Vallance)

Hagedorn’s gentle voice shook me from my daydream. I and 10 other would-be canyoneers were hunkering down on a sun-warmed cliff, attempting to grasp the fundamentals. Terror has a way of focusing the mind, and I hung on his every word as he spent the first morning explaining the basics of roping and climbing.

Without getting caught up in technicalities — and there are plenty of technicalities to get caught up in — here is a brief glossary of terms:

Stemming: crawling crab-style along the slippery sides of a yawning chasm

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Cairn anchor: a hastily constructed pile of rocks from which you will shortly be dangling

Fireman’s billet: holding the rope tightly above your head to stop your classmate from tumbling to almost-certain death

Free-rappelling: hanging in open space, then descending to the canyon floor while trying not to cry

A woman holds on to a rope 100 feet above the canyon floor
Kalee Rittenger negotiates a 100-foot free-rappel over Robbers Roost in Utah.
(Edmund Vallance)

These definitions may not be entirely accurate. But this is how they sounded to me, sitting in the glaring sun with cottonmouth and sweaty palms.

I was relieved when we finally left camp Friday afternoon. All this talk of 100-foot free rappels was enough to give me a heart attack. I was ready to face a bona fide canyon.

It turned out to be a relatively easy start: “a PG-13-rated canyon,” in Hagedorn’s words. There were no cliffs in this section of the gorge and no need for ropes. We clambered up the narrow sandstone walls for perhaps two hours, then clambered back down.

There was a pleasing rhythm to this arduous process, and although our knees and elbows took a beating, we finished the day without any catastrophes, our limbs miraculously intact.

Students prepare their climbing equipment
Students prepare themselves for a 90-foot rappel from a cliff near Robbers Roost in Utah.
(Edmund Vallance)

Saturday was more testing. We were to visit the so-called Stairway to Heaven, a deep gulley that included several 90- and 100-foot rappels. We started on the Angel Trail, “the only path in 6 million acres,” Hagedorn said.

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This outrageously isolated corner of desert was once a hideout for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But even those fearless outlaws weren’t foolish enough to tackle the landscape with ropes. As I leaned over the side of a jagged sandstone ledge, I spied a gap in the cliff like the crease in a giant’s elbow.

Reluctantly, I pulled on my harness, which felt like an ugly, cumbersome garter belt.

Besides being budget-friendly, these rentals allow you to check in without human contact and avoid other guests.

As Ralston had told me during our interview: “In Robbers Roost, even by the shortest line, you’re 30, maybe 40 miles from civilization.” For a city boy like myself, this was a terrifying prospect, especially considering what I was about to do.

I grasped the rope, then unhooked myself from the safety binding. I could scarcely breathe. But once I’d hiked my leg over the ledge and was able to see the wall of rock in front of me, I felt oddly calm.

The journey to the canyon floor was clumsily executed — I even managed to rip my T-shirt in the carabiner — but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. I let loose a mini-whoop of joy when my feet touched the sand on the canyon floor.

A woman climbs the wall of a slot canyon.
Kalee Rittenger demonstrates her roping skills in a slot canyon near Robbers Roost, Utah.
(Get in the Wild Adventures)

Rappelling was not as repulsive as I’d imagined. The second and third tries were easier than the first. I even found myself eager for more. On Friday morning, I’d been a canyon virgin. By Saturday afternoon, I was something of a canyon floozy.

My final dangle over the desert floor felt almost casual. With fear at bay, I was able to absorb the landscape and wonder at its scale and beauty. As I peered at the otherworldly rock formations for the last time, I was reminded of my interview with Ralston.

“There’s a boulder for each and every one of us,” he had said when we’d talked a few days earlier. “If it’s not a chunk of sandstone, it’s cancer or it’s divorce. We can choose to turn that trauma into a tragedy or we can turn it into a triumph.”

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A man hangs from a rope under a rocky ledge
Edmund Vallance ascends a rope at Robbers Roost in Utah.
(Get in the Wild Adventures)

I wasn’t in the throes of a divorce. And thank goodness, I didn’t have cancer. But I’d made it through the weekend unscathed, and for that I was glad, perhaps even a little triumphant.

As my feet touched the “Martian” sand, I was grateful for gravity and for all the good things I took for granted in this short, alien and wholly miraculous life.

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If you go

Get in the Wild Adventures, [(818) 381-9453, getinthewild.com] in Hanksville, Utah, offers a three-day technical canyoneering course with a focus on climbing techniques, trip planning, problem solving and team building. From $445 per person. One-day trips are also available, including a “127 Hours Adventure” in Bluejohn Canyon, the location of Ralston’s five-day ordeal. Prices start at $289 per person. Trips are offered year-round.

Where to stay

Whispering Sands Motel, (435) 542-3238,; 90 S. Highway 95, Hanksville, Utah. Doubles from $89 a night.

Red Sands Hotel & Spa, (435) 425-3688; 670 E. Highway 24, Torrey, Utah. Doubles from $110 a night.

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