As spring unfolds and I am back to a bit of normalcy with my work schedule, I thought it was time to do a little reflection and recapping of our time in the San Rafael Swell this year. By no means am I a slot canyon expert, but I feel 1,000 times more experienced than before and can offer up some advice to those looking to try it for the first time.
First, let me tell you how this progression came to be with our family of Hoosier Hikers.
Last year, we decided it was time to show our son what the Southwest and desert had to offer. It was a landscape he had never seen and we felt our responsibility to educate him about as a part of our vast United States backcountry. We decided to follow our trend of visiting the least visited places to avoid crowds and have more authentic opportunities to test our skill and grit. Instead of visiting the 5 Utah national parks as most do, we decided to visit one park in as extensive a fashion as we could in one week of adventuring around our work schedules. Capitol Reef was advertised as having a little bit of all the features of the Utah big 5 parks (arches, slots, vistas, petroglyphs, etc.). It was the least visited, which fit right into our pattern.
During our week in Capitol Reef, we ventured deep into the areas of the park least visited and felt that we got a truly enriching experience with hardly any other people on trail. We backpacked about 20 miles of the Lower Muley Twist as planned, but really fell in love with slot canyons tackling Sheets Gulch, Cottonwood Wash, and Burro Wash in addition to the larger/wider canyons more typically hiked. It was our time scrambling through Burro that solidified our zest for the physical demands of canyoneering: stemming, chimneying, and up/down climbing. Slots were a new style for us and we quickly craved the thrill of exploration that lay deep inside these hidden twists and turns.
With that adventure under our belt, we quickly laid plans for the following year. Quick research led us to the Hanksville region of Utah and the San Rafael Swell and North Wash canyon systems. World renowned for its slot canyons, Hanksville's backcountry is full of canyons of all configurations and requiring more technical skills and challenges. It was evident right away that Hanksville would give us more of what we wanted and were looking for. The one caveat that became apparent was that to truly experience the best of it, we would need to rappel into most great canyons.
While the boys immediately got excited and began planning, I was much more hesitant. While I did not fear the concept of dangling over a cliff face, it was simply not a skill I held, nor felt confident I could retain. Knots, belays, descenders, and set ups seemed beyond me. Looking into guide services, it was quickly apparent we could purchase the gear and own it for way less money, and had the capacity and wherewithal to attempt this independently. Thus, our gear went onto the Christmas wish list, with each of us receiving our harness, helmet, and glove bundle from Santa and the adventure began.
All winter, the boys dragged me out into the woods on my day off work, hooking me into the ropes and pushing me off the edge of all sorts of cliffs, structures, and buildings teachings me every type of rappel situation I might encounter. My son charged over the edge fearlessly gliding down the wall in one smooth motion, while I tried to calm the shaking of my knees long enough to take baby steps closer to the edges. Each time it seemed I needed to start small, earning the trust back of the rope as if they were a cheating boyfriend that I never truly put my faith back in. I started with the rope above me, below me, dangling, upclimbing to hook in, and every configuration we expected. My husband would confidently tell me, "You need this when you are in the Goblin's Lair dangling 90 feet over a pit" or "There's a boulder/choke stone you'll have to scramble over when you squeeze yourself into the depths of Blarney Canyon." Each time, I knew I would need to face my fears to not let the boys down and be the weakest link, shaking in my hiking boots in the backcountry of Utah.
Unbeknownst to them, I had been tackling a goal of my own to rehab some older injuries that were making rappelling more challenging for me. I slogged away at a weight program and stretching regime on my own and began, slowly over the months of winter, seeing my pain subside.
For as long of a wait as it felt for winter to pass, the final few weeks seemingly flew by and the doubt of my preparation being enough crept in. Would I really be able to keep up? Would an injury flare up and trap me in a slot unable to get out? Would I freeze in fear and not be able to go over the edge when there was no other way out?
As you can see from our pictures and trip reports, the trip was a smashing success. While we encountered the unexpected, the months of preparation and hard work made the rappelling and moves in the slots feel second nature to us. While I, personally, never felt 100% comfortable, I did feel prepared and knowledgeable about what to expect and the various styles of rappels we encountered. At my age and with my variety of old athletic injuries and issues, an injury and pain is probably always a possibility, but I've become better at managing my aches and keeping my mental angst about them in check. Having a goal for training keeps me always cognizant that I shouldn't overdo an activity and risk injury which could ruin the next trip, and keeps my focus on flexibility, strength, and recovery- all things that I probably need reminded of in my ultra competitive mindset.
Here are some things that might be helpful to other middle-aged, would be adventurers questioning whether they can handle slots.
1. Wear clothes you are willing to see get destroyed and/or purchase pads.
Slots are rough like sandpaper, which enables you to create friction for climbing. However, our clothes do not hold up to that. Fleece will stick to the wall and any fabric that contacts the wall will wear....quickly....like, really quickly. We shredded our pants in our first slot. For me, my right elbow, right knee, hips and left shoulder were the spots that I utilized climbing. If going again, I would purchase a sleeve or pad to add a layer to those areas. They were roughed up pretty bad and the skin there took about 2 weeks to return to normal.
2. Determine you comfort with water.
Not all slots hold water or have had recent water, but in March, we ran into an unexpected amount of standing water in the slots. March of 2023 was much wetter than expected and so the cold water was a challenge: do we stem over it or walk through it? The boys enjoyed the constant challenge to go over it, like a wicked game of the floor is lava at home that sends boys climbing the furniture like ninjas. I, however, with my various old injuries have the luxury of pushing that hard on my shoulders and joints. My work life was rough this year and I was not in the shape I hoped to be. So I avoided what I could and risked the cold when I had to. Looking back, I would pack in water shoes, socks, and shorts so I could stay warm and not risk hypothermia or have to turn back and ruin the fun.
3. Start slow and then you can go big
For us, starting our week in a low level slot and refamiliarizing ourselves with the necessary moves built our confidence and reminded us of some needed skills in this different terrain. There's really no way to prepare for a slot unless you are in the desert, so building your week with growth and learning in mind will help. By the end of the week, we felt much more prepared and confident to tackle more technical slots. With every slot, our knowledge grew exponentially.
4. Trust the seemingly lack of route
One very different aspect of desert hiking for us was the vagueness in directions up and around canyons so you could drop in via rappel. The directions of "keep traveling up to your left" was unnerving and had me angsty that we'd get lost on nearly every new canyon. However, that's exactly what worked. As long as our pattern was generally "up," we were fine. What goes up must come down, and the directions never failed us.
5. Make yourself fat
Ha! I love this one and it is perhaps my favorite piece of slot advice. When in a slot, the more contact you provide with the wall, the more stable and secure each movement becomes. If you think of "making yourself fat" and putting things in contact with the wall, everything feels better.... immediately. When in a tight spot, one reminder to make myself fat put me right in position to successfully navigate the challenge.
6. Get a Guiney pig
Our fearless teenager was the most skilled and able bodied to try the route first. He would then call out each move as I descended and this allowed me to trust the process and find the right footing or hand hold to make it.