Sunlight hits one canyon wall, illuminating the cathedral with a golden glow. I can see the reflection of gilded walls and flowing silk in the pool below me. Sounds like a dream, right?
The only problem is getting there. In order to drop through the ceiling of the justifiably famous Golden Cathedral, you need to drive 26 miles down dirt roads, hike about four miles across the desert with canyoneering gear (and for us, aerial rigging gear, photo gear, and minimal camping gear – amounting to about 60 pounds in each of our packs), wade cross a river, rappel down into a canyon, figure out a way to get your gear across a large pool without getting it wet, and set up a one-way anchor for the final rappel.
For those of you that think what I do is all glamorous, imagine that for a moment. You’re carrying roughly half your weight on your back. The pack presses against the back of your head, and the weight shifts against your pant line, rubbing bruises into your waist. The sun bears down on you, making sweat pore down your temples faster than you can wipe it away. There’s sand in your shoes, and trying to walk through the soft sand is a little like being on an elliptical – you step high and far, only for your foot to sink down to almost the same place. You’re going nowhere fast, and your body is exhausted doing it. If you aren’t exhausted yet, don’t worry – you still have aerial dance and the hike back in the morning.
Taking stock of how much water we had left, I was glad that I had packed boxed soup for dinner. The soup should be a bit hydrating without having to dip into my water bottle more. We only had to make our water last until we could use our filter to draw from the river or, in a worst case scenario, from the pools in the canyon. That did mean, however, that I would be doing my aerial dancing before drinking my usual two cups of water in the morning.
We were grateful for the sun descending into a clear, cool night. We camped overnight on the red sandstone above our first rappel, stretched out under the open sky on our sleeping pads. The starry landscape was lovely under any circumstances, but after a long, sweaty day, it was the perfect sight to lull us to sleep.
Waking up before sunrise, we had a quick breakfast, packed up, and hit the ropes. If you don’t usually go canyoneering, I can tell you, there’s nothing like lowering into a slot canyon. To see the way water carved out the canyon is pretty amazing. Once we hit the bottom of the slot, we skirted around one large pothole and wedged ourselves through to the next “room.”
Here was the largest challenge. This room dropped into a large pool that is so deep it’s impossible to climb out of when it’s dry (it’s what we call a “keeper hole” – it will keep you there). The problem is that there’s no way to get across without swimming, the water is icy cold, and we only had one drybag to save our gear. Option A: Devon or myself plays donkey and carts gear across in the drybag, empties it on the other side, brings the drybag back, repeats. Option B: Devon or myself swims across, sets up a directional rappel over the water, and pulls the gear across. Trying to keep out of the water as much as possible was preferable, so we went with Option B. Devon was the “lucky” one that had to get wet. Amazingly though, he was able to set up an anchor on the other side with just a large stick and a lot of sand. This anchor proved strong enough to carry the 60 pound packs, a small backpack, and even myself. I wouldn’t trust my life to this anchor necessarily, but in this case, I had nothing to lose to try it. I would only have to swim if it didn’t work.
The finale was getting into the Golden Cathedral and rigging my fabric. Because there’s really no way back up to the anchor besides hiking all the way around and rappelling in again, we had to set up a pull-able anchor. This means that if you pull on one side, it will hold. If you pull on the other side, it will come loose. Pull-able anchors are pretty typical for canyoneering, because most of the time there is only one way through. We had used a pull-able anchor for our first rappel into the canyon and for our directional rappel across the pool. This would, however, be the first time we’ve ever set up an anchor for my aerial fabric on a pull-able anchor.
This was one of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do moments. Climbers have a saying “Two is one, one is none.” This means you always have a backup for everything, and you never break this rule. Being climbers, this rule is drilled into us and we tend to follow it as much as possible when rigging aerial fabric. Unfortunately, it’s not possible with the aerial rig itself. The fabric itself is a single connection point, as is the figure 8, swivel, and quicklinks it’s connected to. There’s no way around this, as adding to it renders the swivel useless and possibly dangerous.
We are generally able to follow the rule on the anchors though. Each anchor is backed up with double the gear. So it was a hard decision to rig my fabric on a single connection point this time. It also meant I had to rig on the same line as I was rappelling on. So after finding the right height, I tied myself off on a prussic knot (a directional knot commonly used for ascending ropes). I took my pack off and attached it to the other side of the rope, then wrapped it around my leg to slowly lower it down to Devon, who had gone first to take photos from below. I got a little bit of a rope burn from this, but I did save the gear from getting soaked in the pool at the bottom!
After getting my pack safely down, I set up an anchor on the rope above me using two more prussic knots. This worked well for me, as I was not going to be doing any drops or flips, which put a lot of force on the anchor. As I mentioned, we don’t recommend this type of anchor, so please do as I say, not as I did here. Finally, I was able to rappel the rest of the way into my fabric, which was set up as a hammock/silk combination.
Needless to say, this shoot was by far the most work for both Devon and myself. Yet I can also say without a doubt that it was both of our favorite shoot so far as well. Great effort = great reward, right? In this case, definitely. Even though I was exhausted, dehydrated, and unable to keep it up for very long, the dream-like experience that I described at the beginning was worth every drop of sweat, bruise, and rope burn. Wow, what an incredible place, and how incredible to enjoy it this way!