A Little Pre-Turkey Canyoneering

Adventuring with my family is such a gift. I’m usually out on my expeditions with other climbers or kayakers, but right before Thanksgiving I took my wife and kids to Hanksville, Utah, to take part in an unusual activity - exploring deep canyons, often rappelling down into the bottom, and scrambling, slithering and scraping through to the end. Typically, in my own adventures I’m climbing up, so it was a nice change to go in reverse and rappel down.  

We were joined by my good friends, Bob and Karen Kauffman and their daughter, Jordan. Also in our crew was Scott Dissel who I worked alongside for years advocating to save and preserve the outdoors, like Zion and Wilson Peak through the Trust for Public Land. Our guide, was Chris Hagedorn of Get in The Wild Adventures. He specializes in trips that focus on bringing groups to the most remote and undiscovered jewels of the wilderness. He promised us an adventure where we would not see another soul around, and nothing man made in any direction. There was no cell service either! There aren’t many places left in the world where time slows down, letting life linger.

With Scott Dissel

Our two days in the slot canyons were spent dropping into deep, narrow passageways and squeezing through a labyrinth of walls. Sunlight found its way in, but not always. Most narrow corridors ended abruptly, causing us to rappel even deeper into the canyon. Walking wasn’t always an option as some of the walls close in on each other, leaving just enough room to stem your way through; back and butt on one wall while feet anchor the human bridge on the opposite wall. This type of scramble was made more fun by the potholes that were filled with water and mud just ten feet below. I’m glad we did this adventure before eating our Thanksgiving meal, since at one point, I had to turn sideways and exhale in order to squeeze through.

Along the way, there were many treasures. Ellie found a baseball-sized rock called a Moqui Marble, an ironstone formed by the splatter of a meteorite thousands of years before. They contain some kind of combustable material that when thrown in a fire, explode. What kid wouldn’t love that? Traveling from one canyon to the next, we were instructed to step carefully, so as not to disturb the cryptobiotic crust. Essentially, this is protective “skin” which keeps the desert soil in place. Containing living organisms, it is this same kind of miniature terrain park that helped convert earth's atmosphere from carbon dioxide to oxygen billions of years ago. Continuing through the many slots, most of the group left with scraped elbows, embarrassing ripped seams in their pants, and scraped backpacks from all the scooting and squeezing.  At the end of the two days, everyone left the canyon wanting more.

I was so proud to witness my kids flourishing in this rugged environment. I saw the progress they've made and how adventurous, bold and generally grown up they’ve become. My son, Arjun, is no longer the one forgetting his lunch or needing help. Instead, he was the one giving encouragement to the group and careful directions to me as I navigated. At one point, he challenged us all by running up a vertical side wall effortlessly. When I tried to match his athleticism, I had to admit to several “do-overs.” My daughter, Emma, never saw the appeal before in having to reach a summit or take those athletic type risks, but I was amazed to hear her take a deep breath and rappel down a 90 ft. rock face like a pro; cool, calm, and confident. 

Emma and Arjun handle the rappels like champs.

My advice to parents is to balance the usual trips (Disney World, Museums, movie theatres) with outdoor experiences. I’ve found bringing my kids outside has taught them in ways those other places couldn’t. And with enough of these adventures, you may find, like me, that your kids have outshined you!

Emma and Arjun Weihenmayer

*Photo Credits: Bob Kauffman & Scott Dissel

Note: A few days after we returned, President Trump signed a proclamation to cut protections for public lands across the West, including Bears Ears. Our canyoneering area was located between Bears Ears and Escalante, which means it's unprotected and under threat from mining and development.