Canyoneering: the reverse rock climbing

At noon on Friday April 21, I climbed into my friends’ red Subaru to drive an hour to purposefully jump off a canyon. Senior business administration major Sam Baldridge and Chapman alumna of 2016 Katie Newburn are big outdoors people. Baldridge grew up skiing and snowboarding in Utah and has been rock climbing for years. When friends introduced him to canyoneering while spending a summer in Springdale, Utah, next to Zion National Park, he was hooked.

Baldridge, Newburn and I driving to the canyons in the San Gabriel Mountains. Photo courtesy of Sam Baldridge

“I noticed that a lot of what I hadn’t tried before while rock climbing was canyons, so that inspired me to get into it,”  Baldridge said.

Canyoneering is an up-and-coming hobby of rappelling down canyons, or as I like to think of it, rock climbing in reverse. It requires safety equipment like harnesses, carabiners, rope and pull cords, ascenders, helmets and most importantly, extensive knowledge of how to use them, so I don’t recommend going without an experienced climber.

Baldridge canyoneering in Sawyer Stream, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Sam Baldridge

Since he began two years ago, Baldridge has had some incredible experiences in Zion, such as descending into an ice pool in Russell Gulch, or descending 300 feet straight with nothing to hold onto in Heaps Canyon. He even went canyoneering in New Zealand when he was abroad.

He often takes his GoPro with him to document the adrenaline rushes, posting to Facebook or his YouTube channel.

“I love the feeling of being in a really cool, beautiful, remote place most people can’t get to and have never seen. Or the adrenaline rush feeling of being so out in the wilderness,” Baldridge said.

It’s this rhetoric that has inspired 17 of his friends to join him on his adventures, becoming first-time canyoneers. Junior creative producing major Griffin Kabus said the first time time Baldridge took him canyoneering was in the Seven Teacups in the Sequoia National Forest.

“We descended into these natural pools, and they’re just flowing into one another and it was crazy beautiful,” Kabus said.

Newburn and I hiking our way up the mountain. Photo courtesy of Katie Newburn

It was 93 degrees on the day we went, and the first half involved hiking high enough that we could spend the second half going straight down. I am not an experienced hiker and, to be honest, loose rocks terrify me. I was trying desperately to keep up with Baldridge, who was casually leaping up rocks like a nimble mountain goat.

The heat was making my muscles shaky, so I was relieved to stop on some boulders for a water and sandwich break. Then, Baldridge pointed at a 100-foot waterfall across from us,

“You ready to rappel down that?” he asked smiling. What I felt in that moment is kind of the feeling you get when you’re about to play an elaborate prank on a friend: it’s going to be so fun, but oh, it could go wrong so quickly.

Fast-forward 30 minutes and I’m hooked into a bolt in a rock standing over a cliff. “It’s just a blog post – you could have chosen ANY topic,” my brain moaned. I had been indoor rock climbing as a kid, and while I don’t mind heights, my biggest fear is the feeling of falling, so I was in some tentative territory here. And then…I leapt.

Rappelling down the 100-foot canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains. Photo courtesy of Sam Baldridge

….Or I guess inched is a better word, step by step, slowly and carefully. The whole middle was treacherously slippery, and even though you can’t slip and fall, that didn’t stop me from going one mile an hour down this thing. Baldridge had taught me how to self-belay, which means feeding the rope from my right hand through the belay device and into my left hand. When I reached the bottom and looked up, I was surprised by just how far I had descended. And the water had splashed over me, cooling me down and reviving me for the next five rappels ahead.

By the end, I was so much more comfortable, trusting the rope and bolts that were securing me more than I trusted my own feet. I’m not an adrenaline junkie by any means, but I would actually describe the experience as relaxing. Everything in my life fell away and all I was focused on was where to next put my foot. And I even managed to follow Kabus’s primary advice:

“Don’t let go of the rope.”

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