As the canyon got deeper, there was more water with longer swims. Over time, we all got pretty cold, but the little kids in particular were freezing. Little Abby was chattering and shivering for hours. It became obvious to us that we were on the cusp of a dangerous situation. We were cold and we were running out of daylight. The last rappel was a long 50-footer in a very narrow slotted area with water nearby. I doubt this place ever sees sunlight and as a result, it was like descending into a refrigerator. From this point on, in particular, I knew we had to move quickly and avoid water as much as possible.
We left Natural Bridges National Monument right at noon for the one-hour drive to Cheesebox Road. The website we used for our route information and canyon details was not very thorough and grossly underestimated how long it takes to canyoneer Cheesebox. As we placed our cars (Lane and Jenny’s family were with us) along Cheesebox road we navigated our way towards the canyon. This area is full of Cedar forests and awesome cryptobiotic soil. We arrived at the canyon wall and we couldn’t find a way to safely down-climb. We walked up the canyon wall until we found a place to enter the canyon at the confluence of a wash and Cheesebox.
The canyon had tight slots from the beginning and they were full of water. We took some time to change into our wetsuits. With seven kids, this process takes some time, but we made the transition and started down the canyon. Since it was still early spring, the water was cold and there was a lot of it. The canyon had 4 rappels. Each time we came to a rappel, it took us ~45 minutes to get all 11 of us safely to the bottom.
We came to a beautiful carved circuitous slot full of water. By this time, we were well into the dusky part of the evening. Lane and I tried to see if we could set up a hand line on the walls above the water-filled slots without success. We had no choice but to swim in the frigid water with little light (it was about a 100-yard swim). The older kids went through fine, but Melissa had Truman who was so cold and tired that he clung to her shoulders as she swam, while pushing her pack. I had Norah on my shoulders. There were some very scary moments. It’s amazing how tired one can get while swimming in frigid water. My breathing became short and I was trying to encourage Norah to stay positive as we both swam. There were points in the swim where the canyon walls were only two-feet wide. Melissa and I both got stuck in a couple different areas. You literally had to squeeze your shoulders to fit through. Moreover, the water was full of floating debris (mostly logs), that complicated the swim as well. Fortunately, we all made it safely through the obstacle.
At this point, it was pretty dark. You could see stars in the sky, but bodies of family members began to look like silhouettes. Lane and I had to go back for a rope bag that I stupidly had tossed when we tried to set up a hand line as the others moved forward. This only took a few minutes, but we both could sense the urgency of the situation. It was now mostly dark and the canyon walls were still pretty high. We raced down the canyon, at times jogging in our wetsuits, backpacks, and bags full of gear, all were made heavier by the water they had absorbed.
We finally reached the navigational coordinates that indicated our opportunity to climb out of the canyon. We were able to yell for the rest of the team to come back as I started to traverse the wall, looking for an obvious route—there wasn’t one. I began to explore the area and to our great luck, or perhaps the hand of God, we found a cairn marking a very faint trail! Cairns marking rocky routes have saved us before (when we had to exit the Blue John canyon walls). By now, there was only faint light that provided minimal refraction from the earth’s surface. We decided to stay very close together since we were all still garbed in our black wetsuits. While we now had reason for optimism, we still had a long climb up the canyon walls. We made our way of the canyon by following natural switchbacks. Near the edge of the canyon wall, we had one last climb up a rock face. It is no exaggeration that we enjoyed our last bit of whatever light remained as we finalized our exit from the canyon floor. Now we had to walk in the dark in the direction of a remote dirt road. We stayed very close together as we pushed towards the road. Right around 9:00 we hit the dirt road. We decided to send Lane one way while the rest of the crew went the other way. The theory was that one of us would eventually find the van. After another 30-40 minutes of walking, Lane approached us in the van from the rear. At this point we know we would be okay—no sleeping on the desert floor in our wetsuits.
I was so proud of the kids. It would have been easy to let ourselves go to a dark place. We could have turned on each other and began to find fault. Instead, we came closer as team and tried to only say things that were positive. That said, we were on the cusp of a pretty serious situation. One of us could have easily fallen down a rock face with a misplaced step.
The two hour drive from along Cheesebox and SR-95 was brutal, but we arrived at our hotel ~11:00pm. The kids had fallen asleep during the drive, while still clothed in their wetsuits. I, on the other hand, can’t stand wearing a wetsuit and drove the way home in my underwear. As we attempted to get into our hotel room we could not find our room key. We were all crazy tired, hungry, dirty and I was in my underwear. As I turned to go to the front desk, a hotel employee saw our situation and used his master key to let us in—phew! We all showered up and tried to get some shut eye. Crazily, many of us did not have the best night’s rest. For me, my mind was racing from the day’s events. Melissa and I both also experienced that strange sensation of being so exhausted you can’t sleep.
The following morning we gathered together for breakfast in the hotel lobby. Honestly, it was rather terrible food, but it was fun to sit together and reflect on the previous day’s adventures. We were pretty sore and the hotel’s hot tub was call for us. We congregated in the pool area and continued reminiscing as we soaked. Of course, the kids eventually jumped into the pool and began playing. It does the heart good to see cousins playing together. They were played Marco Polo, tag, and some sort of triple-decker chicken. At one point, Hannah had Norah and Abby piled on her shoulders.
We departed Blanding headed towards The Peace Tree restaurant in Moab for lunch. This has become our go-to place for yummy health food. Truman devoured his lunch-time pancakes as though it was the only food he had seen for weeks…seriously, this kid can put down the food!
Our last excursion led us to Moab Giants, a dinosaur museum on the outskirts of Moab. While the inside displays were disappointing, the outside walk about had the best dinosaur replicas I have ever seen. It was windy, but still fun for the kids.
As we left for home I wanted to give Hannah the chance to drive Highway 6, one of the deadliest roads in America. The challenge was escalated by a fierce wind storm. As we took the exit for Price, just outside of Green River, our car topper blew crooked and a wetsuit arm began to flap on a side window of the Pilot. Hannah pulled over and we fixed the problem, but the winds were probably gusting over 60 mph. Hannah did a great job driving this for her first time. She even learned how to pass cars and interpret highway lines (dotted vs. solid).