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Keyhole in the dark -- 4 days after....

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by SCard, Sep 22, 2015.

  1. SCard


    *** Caveat - no photos. It was dark, very dark. This will be long - sorry. It is raw and mostly unedited. ***

    I had some serious reservations about descending Keyhole Canyon so close to the terrible tragedy that occurred just four days prior. My heart still hurt -- for the dead and for those suffering families and friends left behind. Part of me just felt awkward and uncomfortable to think of descending Keyhole so close to the event where 7 people lost their lives in that little sweet-spot in Zion.

    As part of the Zion Canyoneering Rendezvous, one of the attendees obtained a Keyhole permit for Friday. The group that wanted to go consisted of 7 brand new canyoneers who were first timers at the Rendezvous. I was not really hiking canyons since I still had a swollen left ankle from rolling it in a basketball game just 6 days prior to the Rendezvous. My ankle was still weak, black and blue, and felt floppy. I didn't want to re-sprain it in a canyon and mess any group I would be with. So I was a Rendezvous "gopher" and tried to do what ever I could to help out the staff and attendees. I drove a lot of shuttles for many canyoneers and met a bunch of great people. It was fun to hear the reactions of the groups as I picked them up.

    However, on Friday, the canyon leader for the planned Keyhole trip was still out on another canyon at the appointed departure time for the Keyhole trip. The group was really disappointed that they couldn't go do Keyhole after just having completed Birch Hollow. I saw the disappointment in their eyes, caved in and volunteered to lead them. How hard is Keyhole? I could do it with a floppy ankle. I think I could do it on crutches. However, having done Keyhole many times, I selfishly suggested that we do it after dark just to mix things up (for me). The look in the eyes of some of the group at my suggestion was priceless. Some looked at me as if I were "crazy bread" to suggest such a thing. Others had the courage to mention my insanity out loud. I told them, "Oh, listen. Keyhole is just boring in the daylight. Most canyoneers could run the technical section in mere minutes. I promise you that you will have the adventure of your life doing Keyhole in the dark. Just trust me!" Surprisingly they did. LOL.

    So, after a great dinner, we milled about until dark. Everyone begged, borrowed, and rented wetsuits and found head lamps. We had 4 adult rookies and 3 kid rookies. Clark volunteered to go with me. I became his second. (I gladly stand aside for a more skilled canyoneer!) We got in the trucks and drove into the Park. We blew right past the pullouts because it was really, really dark. I always identify the canyon from the exit driving East and the hoodoo on the ridge driving West. Well I couldn't see either. Not even the skyline of the ridge and hoodoo was visible. After we turned around we finally located the right pullouts. We suited up at the trucks, donned our head lamps and ascended the slick rock. I was third to the top. It was so cool watching the the headlamps ascend the slick rock like a weirdly illuminated snake. When we were on the ridge we all turned off our lights and just took a few minutes to gaze up at the millions of stars and the Milky Way directly over head. It was spectacular. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the crescent moon partially illuminated the beautiful Keyhole drainage. The park is surreal at night. It is eerily quite as opposed the touristy mayhem that occurs each day. We probably saw only two cars as we were ascending and on top of the ridge.

    We descended into the drainage. That is when it hit me.

    I was walking the same little trail as the fateful group and the would-be rescuers. I was on the same rocks, sand, and I was about to be in the same water where just four days prior, seven lives were lost and seven families and many friends were still in the clutches of mourning and sadness. "Put that thought out of your mind!" I told myself. I felt responsible for helping some new canyoneers have a great time. I needed to put on my happy face and have a good time with them. I needed to concentrate on helping the new canyoneers learn some new skills in a wet environment. "Just don't think about it" I told myself. How could I not.

    We went into the first set of narrows. It was just as I remembered, only wet, really wet. There were a few deep pools but I don't remember having to swim in the first set of narrows. We showed the new canyoneers how to gently lower themselves from chock stones, stem into the water and gingerly touch down onto uneven ground in the cloudy water. We quickly popped out into the open. We set the first rap and the fun really began. We had joyful squeals and whooping and hollering as the cold water entered the neckline of the wet suits. We saw huge smiles from everyone as they came down the first rap into a full swimmer. Having gone first, I saw the whole joy-filled rap and swim. Yes, we all acted like kiddies in that pool. We continued down canyon. The new canyoneers all seemed to be having the time of their lives, as promised. "The Art of the Shallow Jump" was taught in a four foot deep pool. More gasping, squealing, and laughing. We were all having such a fun time.

    Then we came to the final rappel. The spot.

    My feelings were tender and I forced myself not to think about the horror that these seven canyoneers must have experienced at that very spot. I stopped and shined my light all around just to see what was there and what I might have done if the water was rising on my group at that spot in the canyon. There were no ledges, no hand holds, no log jams to ascend. There was no way up or out, except forward. Sobering. We all looked around. It got quiet for a moment. I think everyone felt "it" for a little bit. There were no signs of the tragedy. That surprised me a little. The canyon looked cruel in that moment. No marks on the walls, no plaque, no flowers, no nothing. Just cold, dark water and sheer sandstone. The only sign of any human touch in that spot was a bolt and rapid that coldly and lifelessly hung there. The canyon didn't care.

    "OK, Scott - time to smile and make sure everyone was up for the swim." We pushed forward into the narrow swim and the squeals of delight returned and the smiles on the adults faces broadened again. As we popped out of the canyon, many "thank you's" were offered and the kids in the group, almost in unison, said, "Let's go again!" I smiled. I had fun, the group had a blast. We casually returned to the trucks. One hour and twenty minutes from truck to truck. Clark and I were again profusely thanked by many in the group for such a memorable experience.

    For those fateful seven canyoneers who lost their lives in that beautiful little canyon, my prayers were silently offered while in Keyhole to my God for your families -- that they might somehow find comfort and peace, that those around these suffering families will mourn with them and care for them. My thoughts went to the canyoneering community that I love. May we all learn from this tragedy. May we remember the power of nature and respect the same. I am humbled and grateful to be alive and to have experienced Keyhole in the dark, four days after....
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2015
    Chris Grove, Bill, Pam and 20 others like this.
  2. Ram


    Powerful. Thanks for taking the time to share your emotions. Sometimes a lack of of some sensory input makes room for other sensory inputs....You also created memories for a lifetime, for others

    but.......the "art of the shallow jump" at night?:eek:
    SCard, Wes1, spinesnaper and 2 others like this.
  3. ratagonia


    Mount Carmel, Utah
    Wow. Thanks Scott.
    SCard and Alex George like this.
  4. ScottM

    ScottM Looking for a canyon, you got one?

    SLC, Utah
    These words Mr. Card is why I personally, and so many around you, look up to you in admiration. The community benefits from great people like you!
    SCard and ratagonia like this.
  5. Alias_Rice


    Nice write-up. I also went through Keyhole this past weekend. My 1st bit of solo canyoneering actually. If I had to sum it up with a word, it would be somber. I couldn't help but wonder where they were when an afternoon of fun and excitement turned to fear and horror. Even though rationally I knew there would be no sign of what happened, I couldn't help but feel the uncaring nature of the canyon. The canyon was very near the same 1,000 years ago and still will be in another 1,000.
    SCard likes this.
  6. Jolly Green

    Jolly Green

    Farmington, UT
    There have been lots of words said about this tragedy in the last week but none more real than yours. A big thanks for sharing.
    SCard likes this.
  7. SCard


    Thanks for the kind words everyone. It truly was a unique and mixed emotion filled trip. I never would have guessed that from Keyhole, of all canyons. and @Ram, shallow jumping at night is fun! I actually didn't do it. Clark and others did it after I went first, checked the depth and the bottom of the pool to make sure there were no hidden rocks or other sharp/uneven things. The jump did knock a few headlamps from helmets but other than that all went well -- and it was at least 4 feet deep which for the kids wasn't all that shallow. ;-)
    Pam and Ram like this.
  8. Randi Poer

    Randi Poer Randi from the OC

    "Crazy Bread" - I like that! I think I'll use it somewhere, sometime.... ;)

    Nice write up Scott. And very nice of you to take the new folks under your wing too, and even to entice them into doing a night run.
    Perhaps some of them would have never experienced the thrill of a night time descent ever, and you changed that for them! :)

    "My feelings were tender and I forced myself not to think about the horror that these seven canyoneers must have experienced at that very spot."

    I also remember feeling a wave of sadness going through Choprock one year after those two young men had perished there. I didn't want to know where in the canyon they were found, but once we came upon the place I knew - and my heart hurt and I got all choked up for a minute.

    When I first heard of this tragedy, the first thing I thought of was the terror those poor souls must have felt as the water rushed in. I couldn't hold back tears here at work when I saw the photo of the group. So many memories of my own descents of keyhole flooded back, including the time I took my daughter and her friend Camille (who was new to canyons) through. Camille was cold and afraid and she cried at one point. I felt so bad, that I mostly carried her through the narrow slot at the end on my shoulders. I cannot for the life of me imagine the look on a friends face as the water rushed in. It hurts to even think about it.
    Keyhole has seen so many fun descents, and I've always viewed it as a short romp through a beautiful dream world, but your description of the cold cruel walls, and the very nature of that world just brings the point home that it can also be a nightmare. Nature doesn't care if you live or die. We all need to keep this in mind whenever we're out there in the wild.

    That photo of the group hit home so hard - having seen similar photos with many friends, and taken similar photos. These folks were our canyon kin, even if we didn't know them. My heart hurts too for all the lives shattered by this tragedy. I wish time had a rewind button.
    Ram, SCard and Mountaineer like this.
  9. Kuenn


    Thanks to all for sharing some really good thoughts and memories. As is the case in tragedy, there has been a lot of good to shine through. Folks coming together, showing support, kindness, offering comfort; it truly warms the heart.

    We all shudder when contemplating the final few minutes for this group. A dark cerebral place for thoughts you would just as soon not entertain. Though difficult to push back the urge of playing out that nightmarish scene, it's probably best we don't know more of the details, or even worse, have footage.

    While reflecting on it, the thought struck me that though fortunate we don't know exactly what may have occurred, likewise it is also our loss. Not educationally speaking, but rather the heroic efforts that most certainly took place. A midst the struggle for life, I'm confident there were repeated acts of valor, selfless sacrifice, disregard for one's own future in an attempt to prolong another's.

    In real-life not all days end happy... but at the risk of being cliché-ish - it really is about the journey.
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2015
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  10. Pam


    Well Done Scott....On all Counts...You echoed a lot of the Emotions that I was feeling when I did that Canyon on that Friday as well...I think we were the first Party through it that Day. I'm not sure if anyone did it on Thursday Afternoon when it opened, but we may have very well been the First Party through since it happened. I had some Emotion and Trepidation about doing it at all. Being still New to Canyoneering (3 Years) and going in so soon after a such a Tragedy as that, really was hitting home for me. But the Party and Friends I had signed up with were going, and I had never done Keyhole before...I was also Injured, having broken a Rib in a Canyon earlier that Week, and I wanted to use Keyhole as a Test Canyon to see if I was able to do more during the Rendezvous.... Some of those Narrow Spots were pretty Dark even in the Daytime and as I looked up at those Walls, I could only Imagine the Terror those People must have gone through. Although we all enjoyed the Canyon, there was a Somber Overtone to it that could not be Ignored, nor should it have been....What Happened there is a Reminder to all of us that as Safe as we can make these Canyons for Descent, Mother Nature can Override it all and have the Final Word....
    Kuenn and SCard like this.
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