- 2020 Volume 15
There is something unsettling about losing the ability to breathe. The air escapes like a punch to the gut and you’re left unsure of what just happened. When I was 14 years old, I lost my breath.
When I was growing up, I remember my father talking about our wilderness trips and a worst case scenario; if I lost my way, or if my brother broke his leg in a canyon. The pocket where we kept the car keys became an instinct, and using the satellite phone became as intuitive as walking. The fear of these theoreticals helped prepare me to lead ventures into unknown territories where there is no one else for miles and miles. There is nothing else I want more.
It is a brisk Thanksgiving day in Ghost Rider Canyon in Arizona, a route that I traveled hundreds of times. I go down first on my favorite rappel that stretched 80 feet and is tucked in a corner of the pale limestone. I take in the stunning view that felt just as impressive as the first day I had seen it.
While packing up the ropes, the words, “what is that?” spoken by my mother in a shaky voice will bring about chills whenever I hear them. “Is that a foot” followed. A steady pulse in my head became deafening as my heart lurched out of my chest considering whether or not the shape in the distance was an old car bumper. I find my gaze crossing paths with a mangled pair of legs crushed over the limestone wearing blue jeans and loose socks which poke out behind a bush that isn’t dense enough. My father took cautious steps towards the torso to make sure there was no breath. “It’s a dead body.” 4 simple words.
Within that moment I am a popped balloon, the air vacating my lungs leaving me silent. I am paralyzed. Within a split second the familiar wilderness, which I spent so many years in cultivating my love for adventure with my family, had become overtaken with panic, doubt, and fear. The wild refuge filled with countless childhood memories with my older brother had been overrun with ominous shadows.
Once the world started spinning again, the air came rushing back, and I let out a sob. My mother’s arms extended around me in a fleeting effort to hide the body. Walking down the canyon, I trip over my own feet questioning if the man knew how much pain his death brought me. The thoughts became darker and darker until I made the conclusion that I too would be killed that day in that canyon along with my family left alone to be found by yet another unfortunate thrill seeker.
My thoughts shifted towards him; Was it suicide? Did he fall? What was he doing? Why wasn’t he prepared? What if he was murdered? Who else is going to cry at this news?
The police report we received weeks later answered fewer questions than I would have liked. My parents told me an older man without family who loved photography simply fell. All that pain for one simple misplaced footstep.
Later I returned to that area again to complete another canyon that stretched over three miles and had thousands of feet of elevation gain. Cherry Canyon contained twelve repels all varying in length which takes all day invested in the process. I have the slightest hesitation going down first looking to make sure there is nothing but limestone and vegetation below me, or the slightest hesitation turning a corner while backpacking. Sometimes there is a skip of my heart beat when I see anything out of place in the wild, but it is short-lived. My brother’s loud dorky nature quickly diverts my attention and as we laugh, the moment passes.
Artwork by Lily Roberts