By Maisie Schwartz
Few things in the world cause a simultaneous lurching of my heart and hollowing of my stomach as instantly as the sound of my hiking boot sliding on rock.
A good hiking boot is like the ideal romantic partner, providing comfort, safety, and, most importantly, supportive traction at every unforeseen turn. I remember my first slipping experience oh, so well. My family had flown from Toronto, ON to for my spring break. I was in Arches National Park, Utah.
I was newly familiar with the magic of hiking in southern Utah, and wanted to show them the otherworldly piece of Earth. My parents, brother, sister, and I rented a Ford Escape and drove the harrowing mountain roads, finally reaching our destination of towering red rock, picturesque Pinion Juniper, and fragrant Sage Brush.
I may have been a hiking rookie in the grand scheme of things, but I had the most experience of the five of us and was excited to lead my family through a variety of carefully selected, thrilling hikes.
So when the vicious growl of rubber scraping rock unexpectedly met my ears on a toasty Tuesday in March, five hours and about six miles into the just over seven mile Devil’s Garden Primitive Loop hike through Arches National Park in Moab, UT, I felt an unsettling sense of slight panic.
“Oh no,” I thought in horror, gazing down at the sheet of steep, slick rock the trail had suddenly and totally morphed into. “I’ve killed my entire family”.
Dealing With The Devil
The hike had begun remarkably easily. Arches, often an unbelievably crowded member of Utah’s “Fab Five” national parks, had not yet reached its peak season, and was fairly empty.
We parked at the trailhead, slathered on sunscreen, grabbed our food, map, and three gallons of water, and headed off into the sand and stone.
I quickly encountered opportunities to teach my family to scramble and use the traction of their hiking boots to climb up and down stone slabs while navigating the many fins, or large geologic formations caused by rainwater dissolving sandstone, of the trail before us.
We took silly photographs under the arches, grew awe struck at the astounding views, and enjoyed our peanut butter sandwiches under the gaze of the Dark Angel monument at the western end of the trail. Then we commenced the Primitive Loop, the ominous, less maintained trail leading back to the parking lot.Initially, the loop was safe, well traveled, and easy to follow.
Then, suddenly, we came to a steep, thirty-foot drop off with nowhere to go but down. The pile of rubble at the bottom of the cliff suggested a recent natural event had caused the once moderately hike-able element to become almost impassible.
The rock wall had an extremely tiny ledge that appeared to be of barely traversable incline, but was without usable handholds until one reached a point halfway down the rock.
I attempted to climb down the ledge, but as soon as I started to shift my weight onto the rock, my ears were met with the sound of failed hiking boot traction on rock and my stomach dropped. I leapt back onto flat ground and tried to lull my creeping sense of panic as I worked on an alternative game plan.
The rest of my family then attempted the descent. My mom and brother slipped just as I had. My sister, who was quite young at the time, sat down on the ground, hugged her knees to her chest, and began to sob, wailing that we would be stuck forever.
She may have been overreacting given that we had several hours of daylight and a decent amount of water left, so if all else failed we could have turned around and hiked the six miles back to the trailhead. In the moment, though, I could see her point.
My dad was the last to try. He balanced himself with one foot on the flat ground and one on the tiny ledge and stretched one arm down to the handhold below. From there, he scooted himself down to another set of handholds on the rock wall and eventually reached the Hell Hath No Fury Like A Hiker Scorned.
Meanwhile, several other groups of hikers caught up to us and were equally flummoxed by the rocky dilemma. The first group to reach us was a young couple. The man was tall and followed my dad’s path down to the bottom. The woman, on the other hand, took my sister’s approach and immediately started crying.
Her partner stood at the bottom and initially tried to coax her down, saying she should just try it and he would catch her if she fell. His gentle approach was worn down after a few minutes and he instead started yelling, “Dammit, just slide off the top and I will catch you! We have to keep going!” in a fit of irrationally dramatic desperation.
We later learned his overreaction might have been due to the “Will you marry me? Circle: Yes No” drawn in the sand just fifty meters down the trail. When the woman still refused to attempt the descent, the man and my dad decided to wander off for a few minutes to see if they could find an alternative route down to the appropriate cliff level.
Shortly after, a new group of hikers joined our cohort. The group consisted of three middle-aged women on a girls’ vacation. While friendly and enthusiastic, they were not the most avid hikers. They noted the roadblock and decided to sit and have a snack while we sorted out a plan.
Speak Of The Mountain Goat!
After fifteen minutes of wandering, my dad and the man returned with bad news. The rock wall separating the cliff levels only grew steeper as the trail progressed. There was only one passable descent and we were looking at it.
Just as we decided it might be time to turn around, our heroes arrived. A group of four men, each of which was more rugged in appearance than the next, strutted right up to and over the cliff without a second thought. It was as if they were descended from mountain goats. Their conversation never even paused as they marched on at a seemingly impossible angle.
Upon reaching the bottom, they sensed the awe struck nature of the surrounding hikers and looked up at us.
“Do you need any help?”
“Yes. We’re kind of stuck,” I answered sheepishly.
The men let out an all-knowing laugh and made their way back up the rock as easily and impossibly as they had gone down.
“Alright, who’s first?” Asked the leader of the group. His tanned and dirty face had clearly seen many consecutive weeks of desert sun and his shoulder length; tangled hair had not visited civilization in equally as long.
I volunteered. He climbed down the tiny ledge ahead of me, holding my elbows for support. Still feeling shaky, I lowered my bottom toward the rock in order to scoot my way to safety.
“That’s right. Pop that right down and slide. That’s valid too, that’s valid too,” he cooed, looking uncomfortably deep into my eyes as I slid myself down the final feet to solid ground.
After my companion and I reached the bottom, the other three men made an assembly line of assistance, passing one stuck hiker on to the next pair of arms until everyone made it safely down. Instead of climbing back up to assist his friends, my companion chose to stand with his arm tightly around my shoulders, whispering, “You just gotta trust the rock, cowgirl, trust the rock,” repeatedly into my left ear.
I felt slightly awkward, seeing as I was being intimately spoken to by a total stranger while my parents stood on either side of us, but I just nodded and let the situation play itself out. My sister was the last one down the rock wall.
When she reached the bottom, an enormous smile broke out across her tear stained cheeks. The man who helped her down gave her a hug and told her proudly, “Now you can do anything,” before waving goodbye and heading quickly down the trail with the rest of his group.
Hell Bent On Adventure in Arches National Park
Now you can do anything. That phrase, and its coinciding feeling, is what consistently grounds and renews my love for outdoor adventure. There is simply nothing like heading in to a desolate corner of the earth, whether that be a well traversed trail in a national park or the peak of a mountain few have laid eyes on, and simply being open to solving any challenges that come my way.
Sometimes the solution involves teamwork, sometimes it involves retracing my steps, and sometimes it involves strength and creativity. Regardless, the addictive sense of accomplishment I feel when I work with nature to achieve a concrete goal is unlike any other. My Arches experience was the first time I truly learned to trust the rock, and, ever since, the rock has kept me coming back for more.