Through Utah’s Looking Glass Arch: A moment-by-moment account of conquering a first free rappel
MOAB — As I inch down a narrow strip of sandstone, there’s no doubt: The rappel is still a possibility.
On my left, there’s a narrow slice opening, a fissure in the rock just big enough for a human to slip through. And on my right, a steep drop of what I estimate is 140 feet.
With focus and breath, I pay attention not to the ground far below, but to each inch of movement.
I try to keep fear at arm’s length with conscious breaths. I think “no” each time I inhale and “thoughts” as I exhale. It’s a way to combat my mind, which takes every opportunity to think of the possible negative outcomes of what I’m about about to do.
Several times “death” is one of those fleeting thoughts as we embark on this 100 percent free rappel in the amphitheater of Looking Glass Rock.
This exhilirating climbing moment, one that comes on a sunny yet brisk October morning, is indeed rattled with fear. It comes after my friends and I drove down Utah’s Highway 191 south from Moab and camped overnight at the base of this enormous rock.
Why put myself in such a place of unease? Because after a relatively tame (5.7 on the rating system) approach, we now are at the crux of our climb, a high ledge we’ll rappel from. An especially daunting feat for the three of us who have never done a free rappel before, myself included.
Then as I look through the keyhole slot and acknowledge the sheer distance back to ground, I’m rattled with fear. Sitting down on the slick rock, I look over the edge and see our cars and tents in the sand below. I long to be safely on the ground. A sinking panic radiates through my body and adrenaline dances in the tips of my toes.
fear at arm’s length
My good friend Chris is the leader of our climb and rappel at Looking Glass. He stands by the keyhole and creates the rappel system with two ropes.
Standing behind him as he ties knots, my palms are clammy. So I shake them, my arms and my legs to relieve tension.
I can tell others are nervous too. One of them is Joe, who takes quick inhales, long exhales and paces in small circles.
Once the double rap is created, Joe is the first climber to tie in and test the system. We are all extremely relieved when he touches the ground safely.
The system is safe.
Then Chris looks at the rest of the group.
“Who wants to go next?” he asks.
“Not me,” I say firmly.
Jay goes next, then Meredith. Both move safely down the rope without hesitation. Then the sinking feeling in my chest, palms and toes increases. I know my turn has arrived. As I reluctantly walk toward the keyhole, my legs start to buckle. I’ve never seen them shake before, nevermind so violently.
Chris puts the rope through my device to tether me into the system. Locked in, I now have to summon the courage to move off the ledge.
The mind as a hurdle
Once high above, several times I scoot a couple inches toward the end of the ledge, shriek and immediately retreat. No calming, kind words from Chris and Jonathan are enough to coax me into the rappel.
I cry. I curse. I sit stubbornly with crossed arms and refuse to descend the wall.
Though I know I’m being tiresome at best, the guilt is not enough to force the rest of my body into such a risky leap.
With relief, I offer a solution: “Why don’t you guys rappel down and meet me at the multi-pitch section and we’ll down-climb from there?”
“We cannot go down that way,” Chris says, a bit of impatience audible in his voice.
“It’s much more dangerous than the rappel,” he adds. “This is truly the safest option. It’s the only way down.”
With that truth now before me, I cry even harder.
“This is absolutely insane,” I say. “I cannot do this. Just leave me right here.”
On and on, my mind generates reason after reason for why I won’t or can’t do the rappel. I utter “I’m not doing this,” while my back is pressed against the wall. It’s as far from the ledge as I can possibly be while I remain roped in.
Yet, with every “no” I utter Chris retorts, simply, “Yes.”
Another group of climbers approach the keyhole with their gear, ready to rappel. Chris looks up at the group.
“Guys,” he says to the new group, “we’re going to need another 10 minutes.”
Although I grow more anxious with this group waiting on me, it is needed pressure. I try to think rationally. I try to acknowledge the fact that others have made it safely. I think to myself, “I have experienced friends that know what they are doing and I trust this situation.
“Or,” I ponder further, “I at least tried to.”
I scoot farther along the ledge, to face away from the overhang and toward Chris. My back is toward the amphitheater of open space. I am fully inside the keyhole now and I have to keep making strides without thinking, or I will retreat.
My hand grips the rope as hard as I can possibly muster and I extend the rope away from my right hip ever so slightly. I watch myself move down the rope.
I let my arm out again and move down the rope. I was walking myself off the cliff.
“She’s going to do it,” I hear Chris say to Jonathan.
“Just look at me,” Chris then says. “Don’t look down. Just look right at me.”
Through the first few maneuvers, I hold his gaze without breaking. My hand is an infallible brake.
Without force, I lose all fear.
Suddenly what had felt so insane — so senseless — now feels so effortless. The self-rappel is like second nature. And when I can’t see Chris any longer, I gaze at the sandstone wall.
This isn’t terrifying anymore — it’s beautiful. I have such appreciation for the vibrancy of the red rock and its deeply carved black lines, where water left its impression. Dangling in midair, I imagine this is what flying must be like. Though the rappel feels natural, a part of me is still incredulous that the experience is happening. I feel my expression change from absolute terror to extreme amazement. My mouth’s agape. My breaths are shallow.
A slight spin allows for a glimpse right through the Looking Glass. I exclaim loudly, to celebrate my victory. The cheers come from such a raw place that I am shocked to hear them radiate from the depths of me, out along the amphitheater walls.
Though I am suspended for minutes, time doesn’t exist on this rope.
I think this a release as powerful as being born, giving birth or dying. I think this, perhaps, because I’ve never felt so alive. Or, perhaps, because I’ve never contemplated something so innately risky.
One thing is certain: I’ve surprised myself completely. It’s an element of self-sufficiency I’ve never felt before. I was in total control of myself in this dire situation. Thinking back, I realize the crux of the issue was never a matter of whether I could do the rappel or not. It was a matter of quieting my mind and, in turn, eliminating fear. The ability to filter out perceived limitations from actual limitations comes from experience.
In rappeling that day at Looking Glass Arch, I let go of fears that were unnecessary. In the process, I harbored a sense of what is real and what’s not. And that’s because I didn’t give in to fear. I was able to find incredible strength. I found the greatest feeling of adrenaline-fueled bliss. I free rappelled 140 feet in midair.
And smiled while doing it.
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