Saturday, August 28, 2010


I'm getting settled in to my newest living arrangements of Medford, Massachusetts quite nicely. My experience with the Brookline Goodwill is that it rarely disappoints. Everything is in order, except for my bed, which is in a New Hampshire storage unit. It's only a matter of time before someone lets me use her truck to transport my beast.

Last night, I had a dream that reflects something that has been on my mind laterly. I happened to be at Apple headquarters in Steve Jobs' private loft area. He was talking to me about working for Apple and I was entertaining the idea quite seriously! The conversation kind of started wrapping up and then he reached into his wallet and gave me his business card. Thanks for the offer Steve, we'll keep in touch.

I had to share this animated gif, a sign "that your dog hates you," taken from
funny gifs - Prank Dog

Monday, August 09, 2010

My near-death experience

This is a story about adventure and foolishness. It is not for the faint of heart. Reader discretion is advised.

Over the weekend I almost died on a canyoneering trip in Zions national park Utah. Normally people refer to near-death experiences in the context of a single event. My situation was more prolonged than a single event, perhaps only to make it more interesting. As you read about this experience, pay special attention to Murphy's law.

It all started Saturday morning at 7 AM. The demand to hike Zions that day was especially high, making the options canyon options extremely limited. Apparently we should have slept out the night before at the visitor's center to get the canyon of our choice. Our group, consisting of me and my two cousins Andrew and Scott, chose to hike Spry canyon. A few things happened before we even started hiking that should have set off blaring red flags in each of our minds. 1) Rain started heavily coming down very soon after we bought our permit. 2) The ranger at the visitor's center updated the weather information to include a flash flood warning of high. 3) After asking the ranger up the mountain where the trailhead to Spry canyon was, she looked at us with the most baffled expression on her face. "Never heard of that canyon before." Then after turning around our car, the ranger let us know that she called another ranger who also didn't know anything about Spry canyon. On those ominous notes, we set off on our canyoneering adventure.

Stage I: Finding Spry Canyon
Using the topographical map on Andrew's iPhone, we found what looked like the trailhead to reach Spry canyon. We were each at least a little relieved that Andrew had done Spry before. Starting out, our spirits were surprisingly high considering how little sleep we were running on and that it started raining on us again. Besides, since the weather was not good, we planned to hike only to the canyon entrance and make the hike only with good weather conditions. The rain kept intermittently coming down, however. The dry river bed that we were hiking in suddenly became a full-on river. We made it to the source of most of this water, a waterfall that under normal conditions was regularly just a drizzle.

The waterfall was beautiful and as glad as we were to see it, most likely it was the distraction that led to us missing Spry canyon. Rather than taking a left early into our hike, we continued going straight. Andrew was by far the most optimistic at this point. He would reassure Scott and me that everything was OK by pointing out features that he remembered from his previous Spry experience four years ago. But after hiking four hours through dense and painfully sharp foliage, steep terrain, and intermittent rain, our "trail" ended by going straight up cliffs. Regretfully, we turned around to go back to the car. A disappointing experience! Especially, considering we never got to use the rappelling gear. As we made our way back, nagging questions persisted in our minds. What did we do wrong and where was this canyon? We finally realized that we should have taken a left early on, in between "the temple" and "the brothers." About this same time that we realized our mistake, something else happened that turned out to be a game changer. The weather turned beautiful. No longer were we getting doused with cold rain. Our spirits were rejuvenated and we wanted to try for Spry canyon again.

After backtracking almost the entire way we had come, we found what appeared to be our canyon, with a giant dome-shaped rock structure on one side and giant brother-like structures on the other side. But after trudging up steep rock, we found a steep ravine blocking our path. This promising canyon was a decoy. But we remembered passing a canyon on our way to this decoy canyon. That had to be our canyon! We were faced with a critical decision. Up to this point, I had probably been the most unenthusiastic about the trip. To my defense though, I had never gone canyoneering before, so I didn't know the fun that awaited me. Also, I had a lot of things to do at home. But I changed my tone at this critical junction in our trip. "I say we find Spry and conquer it. We did not come all this way only to back to the car in shame. Mother Nature has tried its hardest to keep us away, but will we back down?" With that rousing monologue, we started on our path that would eventually lead us to Spry canyon. By the time we reached the canyon, it was 4 PM. Little did I know, Spry takes 5-8 hours to traverse. Daylight ends around 8:30. You do the math.

Stage II: Hiking Spry
It was a lot of fun rappelling down cliffs. Landing into murky, foul-smelling water took a little getting used to. We took our time going down these rappels, especially me, the newbie. Soon into Spry, I started smelling a delicious meal. To me, it smelled like pizza. The others thought I was crazy, but soon Andrew started smelling it, characterizing the smell as Spaghetti-Os.

There were supposed to be 10 official rappels on Spry.

At the 7th rappel, things started going wrong for us. After we each made it down,

Andrew proceeded to pull one end of the rope out of the carabiner. All of the sudden, the rope that was feeding into the carabiner became a tangled mess. There was NOTHING that we could do to get the rope unstuck, even working on it for a half hour. We finally gave up and left the old and weary rope where it was. Now we only had one rope that was 300 feet long, which meant that we couldn't rappel down anything higher than 150 feet.

A couple more rappels later, it started to get dark. We frantically started moving like machines to get down this canyon as fast as possible. The particular rappel that we were at had two segments, each segment having a pool of water deep enough to require swimming. The tricky part about these two-segmented sections was making sure the rope didn't get stuck when we were pulling it back down to us upon completion. We each made it down to the second segment of this particular rappel and to our dismay the rope got stuck. Luckily for us, both ends were still within Andrew's reach so he climbed back up the second segment and managed to free up the rope. But the problem was that the rope was getting stuck on the first segment. From our position, we couldn't pull it down. Andrew finally managed to reposition the rope in such a way that would allow us to pull one side down so that we could continue on the next rappel. It worked for a while. Each of us pulled a substantial portion of the rope and then it got stuck again. This time, the other side of the rope was far up the first segment, beyond our reach. On one side of us, there was a cold and murky pool of water, and on the other side there was a sheer 90 foot cliff waiting to be rappelled. The rope mocked us and the daylight faded away.

Just when we were about ready to mentally prepare ourselves for a long night of spooning in a cold, damp slot canyon, Andrew reached up to the rope and with one final and desperate motion, heaved the rope loose. We were shocked. We could now proceed with our rappelling, even if it was in the black darkness.

We hoped that we only had one more rappel left. There was no such luck for us. Instead we found about four more rappels without a flashlight and somehow traversed them in the dark. One little mistake in such an environment would have been disastrous. Finally, we finished the last official rappel. We could see cars driving on the road, what appeared to be about 2 miles away. We just had to climb down a boulder wash and climb up to the road.

Stage III: Finding the Road
If we had light, navigating ourselves down this wash would have been routine. Instead, it turned out to be the most difficult part of our entire day. There was no moonlight and initially the clouds covered the stars, which made for a very low visibility of only a few feet. The wash area was littered with giant boulders that we had to navigate through. Sometimes it was possible to go over these boulders, provided there was no steep drop-off on the other end or if we could use other objects as stepping stones. It was necessary for us to wedge body joints and other body parts into the boulders to have enough grip to traverse the boulder. But it was also not uncommon for us to be confronted with 15 foot drop-offs after climbing up a boulder, forcing us to painstakingly retreat and find an alternate route.

For some reason, I was able to see the furthest ahead and I was charged to go find the road. I left Scott and Andrew in search for the car. I was making good time, and I still kept smelling what smelt like pizza. Now, because I was without a shirt, I also started feeling periodic oozing from my backpack onto my bare back. I remembered I packed a can of Progresso soup in my backpack. Throwing down my backpack earlier in the hike must have broken the seal. I reached into my pack and pulled out a slimy mass of a soup can. That was my pizza smell.

I made it to this one boulder that looked like it had a drop-off of about 12 feet. I thought that I could baby step my way down by first side stepping onto a nearby ledge. Very conveniently, the large boulder I was on had a perfect grip on the drop-off for my two hands to hold onto as I reached my foot over to the nearby ledge. But with bad visibility also comes bad depth perception. While holding onto the hand hold, I swung my body out, fully expecting to touch the side ledge with my feet, but nothing! I then swung all the way around like a pendulum, staring down at what could be a 15 foot dropoff. I thought about all the movies where the actor is holding on to a handhold on a steep dropoff. I realized that now I was the movie star. I don't know how I held on, considering the momentum that was going against me, but I knew that it would be unsafe for me to drop myself down because I couldn't see how far the ground was. Plus, it was most likely an uneven surface and the last thing I wanted to do was injure myself. I pulled myself back onto the boulder and found a way around.

Soon, I came across what looked like a ledge and a steep drop-off. I couldn't tell how far down the drop-off was, but it looked big. After trying to find an alternate route, I finally decided to wait for the others because the ledge was too wide. "Yu-hoooo." "Yu-hoooo." "Are you at the car??" Every other shout from Andrew included the words, "road" and "car." He was getting very anxious to finish this trip. When we all reached the ledge, we decided to rappel down this drop-off, not knowing how far down it went. Because this rappel was not official, it was a complete mystery how many feet it dropped off. We found a nice sturdy tree to tie our webbing around and Scott agreed to go first. As he was about to go, the very strong impression came to him to let down 20 or 30 more feet of rope. This turned out to be a good idea. Scott lowered into the darkness and Andrew and I waited. Finally, Scott was done and it was my turn. I started down and then I came to a part where I was free falling, not able to touch the cliff. This free falling style of rappelling was my favorite, but I looked down and couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't accept how far this drop-off was, but the further down I rappelled, the more true it became. I found Scott at the bottom. After Andrew joined us, Scott told us that the rope barely had enough length to get him to the bottom. The drop-off was about 140 feet and had we not been careful in the dark, one of us could have easily walked right off it!

I started ahead once again, determined to find the road. It was now well past midnight and the cars that had been so regular on the road, providing us with headlamp light, started becoming less frequent. After a while of traversing down treacherous terrain, I had the biggest epiphany. We could not split up. Based on the fact that everything that day that we had done had gone wrong, there was a very high likelihood that one of us would get lost. So I waited for the others. "Yu-hoooo." "Yuuuu-hooooo." "Are you at the road yet??" "No." "Go find the road!" I finally told Andrew that I wasn't going ahead and that we were going to the car 3-musketeer style. We found one final drop-off where we had to use the rope and then we were at the bottom of our wash at a river.

We took a little break on a rock in the river. Staring up at the sky was incredible. It felt so good to stop moving and to eat food. As poor of a job we did planning our route, we did an excellent job of packing food and water. Andrew had enough granola bars to feed an army, and we each had plenty of water. Sitting on a rock in the middle of that river, I had never tasted anything as good as those granola bars I ate.

Now it was time to climb up to the road. Unfortunately, we could not find a trail to the road from where we were. Also, the plants that lived on this slope were not soft and fluffy, as we had hoped. Rather, they were hard, sharp, and lashed out on our already battered skin with ferocious intensity. Onward we hiked until finally I made it to the road. "Wooooooo," I shouted.

Stage IV: Mama I'm Coming Home
There was no time to waste once I made it to the road because I saw headlights coming my way. I waved the vehicle down, which turned out to be a minivan. I was actually quite surprised that it stopped for me, a sketchy-looking half-naked traveler, at 3 AM in the middle of a remote area in a national park. But the people in the van were so nice. I asked the driver if I could get a ride up to my car. She agreed and I shouted down to Andrew and Scott that I would be back for them. This saved us each from walking another two miles up to the car. I'm afraid that another two miles might have put the finishing touches on our bodies. After I made it to my car, I changed hurriedly out of my wretched clothes, drove back, and picked up the group. It was here that I believe I lost the Asics that I had worn throughout the hike. But we were now on our way home at 3:30 AM! We had been going nonstop for almost 20 hours straight.

By now the adrenaline of finishing this last stage of our hike had me completely wide awake. I was so sick of Zions that I was ready to drive the four hours home right then and there. Slowly the excitement died down and one by one, our group started dozing off. I had every intention of holding strong, but my body finally started catching up to me. I started hallucinating. Billboards on the side of the road started turning into machine-like transformers. Objects at the side of the road started looking like they were in the road and that I was going to crash in to them. Finally, the realization set in that I was in no condition to finish the remainder of this leg. I pulled off at Cedar City and we all slept in the car. At 6:30 AM, I awoke feeling refreshed. We started out again and after getting some gas, and taking a good swig of Andrew's code red, we were on our way home. Andrew did a great job of talking to me to keep me awake and we were in Mapleton by 10 AM.

It is amazing how much our bodies can do for us when our lives are in jeopardy. With the adrenaline pumping, we can tap into our body's capital and use it like we never thought possible. Sure there are consequences of abusing your body, such as a gallon of lactic acid coursing through your muscles. But in the moment, your body really works its magic.

Some people that I must thank for making this experience possible:
Andrew for providing me with food, water, Spry experience, training, socks, and conversation.
Scott for providing me with pictures, knots and canyoneering expertise.
Dan for providing me with comfortable Asics shoes at the beginning of the day. I doubt that I would have made it in my Keens. I am really sorry that I lost them. Shoes are definitely the way to go with canyoneering.