The sounds of my alarm clock rang out. It was 6:30am and time to wake up. I rolled over in my sleeping bag and realized it was a little colder than I expected it to be. I really was enjoying the warmth of my sleeping bag, however, I had to get moving. It was another Saturday and another day to explore some of the most remote pockets of Earth very few people have ever set foot in. Today was a day to canyoneer.
Canyoneer you ask? What is that? Let me take a second to give you some insight into this amazing sport we call canyoneering. Canyoneering is a combination of backpacking, rock climbing, hiking and rappelling all sandwiched into one fun day. As canyonners, we spend our time hiking up into the mountains and then rappelling, scrambling, bouldering our way back down inside waterfalls, potholes of water, and giant pools of water. Sometimes finding ourselves in areas even the sun can’t get into.
So this day started like any other day. Up early to start getting the gear ready and make some coffee before heading out. There was a team of six going into the canyon today. Two of our team members camped in a different area of Yosemite. We had an all hands on deck time of 8:30am to then head out to the shuttle. This left me two hours to get dressed, pack my bag with all the gear I needed, food for lunch, and get some breakfast and coffee in me.
As 8:30am rolled around, I did one final gear check. Pack – check, rope – check, Wetsuit – Check, Food – Check, harness and gear – check, helmet – check. I was good to go. We started to head out and over to the shuttle stop. In Yosemite National Park, they have a shuttle that runs on a loop to take visitors to the different trail heads. We were heading over to the main Yosemite falls trail. Yes, today we were going to hike to the top of the lower section of the waterfalls and then rappel our way down through the middle cascades and the main lower waterfall. This time of year the waterfalls are mainly dry as the snow has fully melted from the season before and has all run off the mountain. There had been some rain over the week, this caused a small trickle off the waterfalls. The toughest challenge was the cold temperatures. This was making the pools inside the canyon extra chilly for us.
By 9:30 am we had arrived at the base of the trail. Time to start the 2 mile hike up to our drop in zone. As I started to hike up, I got out in front of the group. All my endurance training pays off during these hikes as I can typically get moving a little faster than most and keep a steady pace. For me this just means a little more time to relax and take in the view when I get to the drop in zone. So I put my head down and started to climb my way up.
It wasn’t long before I hit the halfway mark at the scenic overlook. I decided to stop and take a little break and man was I glad I did. I was only halfway to where we would come off trail and drop into the canyon and the view was already breathtaking.
I waited a few minutes as I enjoyed taking in the spectacular views. Then it was back to the trail and hiking away again.
After about an hour and a half I reached the spot where I was going to wait for the rest of my team. As I started to drop my pack and find a rock to relax on, I heard someone yell out “Hey what are you doing today”. Now this is normally just some random hikers on the trail wondering what we are up to with gear they don’t normally see. As I said, very few people go into the areas we go. This time however it was two fellow canyoneers I happen to know. They were actually on their way down the mountain to grab some new gear for their descent down the Yosemite Upper Waterfall. This has never been attempted before. They will be the first team to fully descend the 1600 foot upper waterfall. However they needed more gear thanks to a thief in the night who decided to steal some of the gear they had stashed. We talked for a few minutes and then they continued down the mountain. At this point I was ready to leave my group and head over to theirs to attempt this first descent, but I didn’t, I was a good team player and stuck true to those I came with.
It wasn’t long before the rest of the team made it to the spot where I was waiting on them. After we were all there, we started on our short trek off the trail and into the top portion of the canyon. “Holy Cow” I yelled when we popped out of the shrubs and rocks at the base of the upper waterfall. This was the same waterfall our friends would soon be descending. I turned to look down canyon and out into the Yosemite valley. Talk about an amazing view!
Here I was, standing at the base of the upper waterfall, looking out at a view that most people will never get to see. I say this on just about every canyon I have done. There comes a time in the day when a large amount of gratitude sets in. This day there would be a few and this was one of those moments.
As my excitement started to skyrocket, I quickly emptied my bag and started to change. I was ready to get this descent going and enjoy every moment of it. First I had to get all geared up. With the colder water and temperatures, we had to ensure we had wetsuits on as well as some extra layers to keep ourselves warm over the next few hours. At the same time I had to get my harness on with all the gear needed to rig in and rappel safely.
The team fully geared up and it was time to get this show on the road. All six of us started our trip down canyon. Very shortly after starting, we had encountered the first rappel. This was an easy one on this day as there wasn’t any water flowing in this spot. We quickly rigged up the rope and down a 30 foot drop off we went. It was then on to the next one. As we approached the second rappel, we stopped to look back at the upper waterfall. This time of year it is called the upper wall as no water is coming over the top. As we looked back we happen to notice a rope being lowered over the edge. The team up there was just getting started. This was exciting to see as we knew they were in store for an adventure no one else had attempted.
Our attention shifted back to the rappel we had in front of us. This was a two stage rappel. What this means is, we will rappel on a rope down to another ledge and then anchor another rope in and get onto that rope to finish the rest of the descent. Our leader asked me to clean on this particular rappel. Cleaning is coming down last and bringing the other part of the rope with me to ensure the rope can be pulled down after getting to the ledge where she would be waiting. One after another the team started to file their way on to the rope. “Bleep Bleep” of a whistle you would hear as they made it to the ledge and onto the other rope. This was the signal for the next member to come down to the ledge. Finally, it was my turn to head down. I rigged my descender to the rope, grabbed the pull side of the rope and hooked the bag to me, did one last second safety check of all my gear and off I went. This wasn’t a very long rappel down to the ledge. Maybe 50’ or so on a decently easy angle. As I got to the ledge, I hooked my safety line into the anchor point and started to pull the rope I had just come down on down to us on the ledge. We needed to pull this rope down as we always do after everyone has made it off that rappel. This allows us to take our ropes along with us and continue to use them. In this particular rappel, we needed to use this rope as an extension to the rope being used for the second stage. You see, the rope being used was only 200’ in length. This stage of the rappel was around 180’ so, we needed to extend the no rappelling side of the rope to be able to pull it down after we made it to the bottom of this second stage.
After getting the rope tied on and lowered down, it was time for me to hook into the rope and start my trip down 180’ to a large pool of cold water. Slowly I started off the ledge and down the rope. One foot after another I walked my way down the wall for about 30’. After about 30’ the wall started to cut in and away from where my feet could stay touching. We call this hitting a free hang. This is where you are attached to the rope and freely hanging by the rope only. No feet touching the wall for extra balance and guiding. That’s me free hanging in the picture. Talk about an amazing view. I look like a small yellow fleck against the giant granite walls of this canyon.
This is where everything went south and in a hurry. You see, shortly after this picture was taken, as I was hanging in this free hang zone, my bag became extremely heavy on my back. It quickly started to pull me backwards, causing my body to go horizontal and almost upside down on the rope. This is extremely dangerous as it becomes harder and harder to control your descent down the rope. All I could do in the moment was take my hand and jamb it into the descender the rope was feeding through and take the other portion of the rope and pull it under my butt. These two actions stopped me from sliding out of control down the rope. Fighting to hold my strength and not let go of the rope, I yelled for those that had made it to the bottom to pull the rope tight. By them doing this it will stop me from moving and allow me to relax my grip and get my body upright. This felt like forever before they got it tight. What seemed like I was hanging on for 5 minutes, in realty was about a minute and a half. They had all already swam to the other side of the pool to get out of the cold water so they needed to swim back across to get my rope pulled tight when I yelled.
After getting the rope tight, I was able to get my bag off my back and drop it down to the team below. As I hung on the rope and looked down to drop my pack I then realized I was still a good ways in the air when this happened. I did what any normal person would have done in this moment and gasped. I knew I needed to get down & there was no other way other than to get control of my emotions and start to finish this rappel. I yelled to the team below to loosen the rope so I could finish.
Within 30 seconds I was the rest of the way down. As my feet hit the rock at the bottom and I felt myself leaning against the rock, I knew I was safe. I could finally breathe and relax a little. As I sat there waiting for our last member to make her way off the ledge and down to us, I started to reflect back on what just happened. There were so many different things that could have been done differently to ensure a situation like that didn’t happen. Despite all of that, I was relieved I was able keep a clear mind and focus on the situation I was in. You see, many would have panicked and simply let go of the rope, or even worse, hyperventilated and blacked out. This would be very serious as they would have slid out of control down the rope, crashing into the rocks and water below. The fact that I was able to think clearly, gain control over my emotions, stay as calm as possible, and focus my attention on my grip and safety, is the reason I am still in one piece and alive. Even as I sit here writing this, I am grateful for the training I have put myself through and I have received over the years.
When all goes wrong and we lose control over a situation, nothing positive comes out of it. On the other hand when everything starts to spiral out of control, and we can keep our mind focused on the issue, we gain clarity into what we need to do to overcome the challenge. With my mind calm I was able to instinctively shove my hand into my descender. I wasn’t thinking about how bad it would hurt or how much skin will be ripped off. Trust me, it did hurt and there was a nice chunk ripped out of the hand. Instead, I was able to quickly break down the situation into what I needed to do first and then what I needed to yell for after that. Simplifying the situation. By simplifying the situation I kept myself from falling the 100 + feet to the rocks below.
The second part I started to reflect on was how amazing the team was. Without hesitation, they jumped back into cold water and swam as hard as they could to the other side to grab the rope. As much as they were kicking themselves in the pants for not having someone there already watching as there should have been, their quick reaction and willingness to rush made a big difference in the outcome. I couldn’t do this alone. I needed the team there to help me. We see this alot in different areas of our lives and our careers or businesses. Sometimes things happen and we can’t handle it alone. We need others around us to support and help to achieve the greatest result. Having the team there to pull the rope tight, was something I couldn’t do alone.
You would think after this that the day would become easy. It was actually quite the opposite. You see, we still had 3 or 4 more large rappels before we would be fully done. One of these being the final rappel down the lower waterfall. Now on any other day where nothing like this happened, I would have been perfectly fine. In the current moment however, I had a lot of thoughts in my head and my adrenaline was starting to come back down. This was only going to make me tired and wear me out.
We started to go a little farther down the canyon and then decided to take a break and eat some lunch. This was good because it gave me some time to work on clearing my head and getting control of myself again. This wouldn’t be as easy as it sounds. Shortly after continuing on from the lunch stop we hit another large rappel. I knew I had no choice but to do it. It was my only way out of here unless I was going to call search and rescue in to airlift me out. This went on for the next few rapells. Each time I had to control the little voice in the back of my thoughts.
Finally we made it to the top of the lower falls. I was in awe. I popped my head over the edge and looked down almost 400’ to see people standing on the bridge taking pictures of this famous landmark. Here I am, standing on top of the waterfall about to rappel my way down to the floor and these people have no clue we are up here yet. Talk about cool!
The team got everything rigged up and it was time to start going down. One after another they hooked into the rope and away they went. I could hear each of them yelling in excitement as they made their way to the canyon floor. Shortly after the first team member went down you could hear the crown beneath clapping and cheering as they realized what was going on. Finally, it was my turn. Again, I took a second and had a short talk with my inner voice. I knew I needed to be fully clear in the mind if I was going to make it down without issue. As I sat on the lip hooking myself onto the rope, I looked down at the people and told myself “do this for all those who would love to and can’t”. I flipped over to my stomach and lowered myself down till I felt the rope go tight on my descender. I pushed off with my feet and started to walk down the wall.
How cool is this I thought to myself. Here I am hanging from a rope of the lower waterfall of Yosemite and there are a ton of people down there who have simply traveled here just to take a picture of it. It was these thoughts I consistently played in my head as I made it down the 220’+ first stage and onto the next rope to finish off the last 180’.
“Splash”, The sound of my feet as they landed into the pool of water at the base of the fall. I was at the bottom. I made it down and completed a trip through middle earth. I successfully got a view of Yosemite that many will never see. More importantly, I learned the power of controlling your thoughts. The power of fortifying your mind no matter how dangerous or scary the situation may be. I learned just how important a strong team around you can be. This day was not just a normal day. This day was a day of growth and of learning. This was a trip down middle earth I will never forget.