SALOME CANYON, Ariz. — I was about to follow a man I’d just met through a sweltering desert, into the crevices of a canyon, over wet boulders, down a waterfall, through a bone-chilling creek, down rock faces and up through the desert again.
“Sometimes while you’re in the canyon, you won’t be able to hear me,” said my (hopefully) trustworthy canyoneering guide Chuck Chapman as I and three others embarked on a canyoneering adventure in Tonto National Forest, a sprawling desert landscape about 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Phoenix. “If I tap my helmet along the way, I expect you to respond by tapping yours to tell me you’re OK.”
Several things raced through my mind in response as we prepared to throw caution, and apparently our bodies, to the wind and rock face of Salome Canyon.
Such as: When are you not OK when you are lowering yourself into a canyon? If you are not OK, would Chapman realize before it’s too late?
Also: Was staying out until 3 a.m. the night before doing this really the best idea? Did the wet suit make me look fat? Should I really have eaten two slabs of chocolate for breakfast?
And was the world ready for “127 Hours, Part Deux?” I certainly was not.
Then Chapman added, “But you should you be fine,” and motioned us to follow him on my first foray into canyoneering.
Canyoneering started in Europe during the 1970s, but it’s probably best-known from the 2010 film, 127 Hours in which James Franco portrayed Aron Ralston, a real-life canyoneer whose arm got stuck under a boulder in a remote slot canyon in Utah. Ralston was eventually forced to amputate his own arm to free himself.
As harrowing as that sounds, canyoneering, while exciting, can be done safely — and without too much difficulty — by the average person in the company of an experienced guide. I was a novice in all that it entails: rock climbing, bouldering, rappelling and wet suit wading.
The idea of the sport is to navigate a canyon using water flow as your trail, down into waterfalls, creeks, and whirlpools. While canyoneering hot spots include Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Colorado, the Pyrenees in Spain, the Blue Mountains in eastern Australia, New Zealand and Costa Rica, Utah reigns supreme as a destination for the sport, with Arizona as a close rival.
As we hiked the Saguaro cactus-studded desert of Tonto park toward the salmon-, rust- and white-speckled sandstone of the canyon, the landscape’s appeal was obvious. The expanse of wilderness stretched out beyond where the eye could see; an eagle glided through the cloudless sky, dipping into and out of the Sierra Ancha Mountain range.
An hour or so after we began our hike, we were in the chilly Salome Creek. Wearing wet suits and helmets, our gentle descent and careful balancing over slippery, small rocks, gave way to crab-crawling, scrambling, sliding and gliding over wet granite boulders. It was like a real-life game of Tetris as we descended from one boulder to the next, through crevices and slender slots, problem-solving as we went along, becoming one with the canyon.
The Arizona desert sun, which often feels hot enough to fry an egg on concrete, turned deceptive as we headed down, sometimes glistening on the water, sometimes hiding behind rock peaks and leaving the creek in dark, chilly shadows. The water temperature was a cool 59 degrees, and the chill intensified when we approached a small waterfall. The only way down was to channel our Spider-Man senses and attempt to latch onto the slabs of rock face buttressing the waterfall before we shot down the gushing water into the creek. Shouts of “Wheee!” soon turned into “Aaaah! It’s freezing!”
We waded through, then after a short lunch break, climbed up the rocks to undertake what would be the highlight of the five-hour adventure: rappelling. Harnessed to an unyielding point above, we slithered over narrow juts in the rock, our backs literally up against the rock wall, high above the water, before reaching the spot where we would glide down.
As a first-time rappeller, my heart raced, in a good way, as I latched onto the wiry rope. I slid down, feeling all Indiana Jones-like up in this temple of beauty.
We were never in a dangerous spot, so I never needed to tap my helmet to let the guide know I was OK. But I did appreciate the opportunity to tap into the world of canyoneering.