Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Slot Canyon Screams
After I graduated high school, I went on a 10-day long backpacking trip with some friends of mine through the terrain of Utah and Arizona. One leg of this journey involved trekking for a couple days through the Paria Canyon/Buckskin Gulch system of slot canyons in southern Utah.
The hike initially began without a hitch; it was really, really hot so getting deep into the canyons was a welcome respite from the heat. This particular season had been extremely dry. Normally, when you're trekking through this system of canyons you can expect to go through sections that have water. Some of these flooded section of canyons are so prevalent that they are named features, like the 'Cesspool'. When we went through, it was bone dry. We didn't even need to get our water shoes out.
Now, what you need to know about slot canyons is that they are extremely prone to flash flooding, and thus can be extremely dangerous. Storms well over 50 miles away can send water cascading down these narrow, 2-foot-wide-in-places canyons in giant walls over 100 feet high. Not a lot of wiggle room for torrents of water, or for a hiker trying to feebly run away from the wall of death behind them. A morbid reminder is the presence of these giant logs wedged between the canyon walls, dozens of feet above you, indicating the height to which flood levels rise. This also means you can't set up camp just anywhere. It is vital you find a sand bar elevated above the floor of the canyon in the sparse sections where the canyon widens out, just in case you're unlucky and a transient flood just so happens to pass through. You can tell it to be safe by the presence of vegetation growing on the tops, unable to be washed away by floods. But as I said, it had been really dry up to that point, so we weren't really worried about that.
When we stopped for lunch about halfway through the trek, I looked up and noticed little cute cumulus clouds floating by. Fuck. The deserts are known for their random thunderstorms. As we continued walking, the sky began becoming less and less blue percentage wise, instead filling up with more and more grey. As it became overcast, there was a true sense of despair rising up within me. Total helplessness. In this sort of situation you have no control; there is nowhere to go, nowhere to run. I felt this vividly sad sense of acceptance, like as if a judge had sentenced me to death to be carried out that day, with no chance to tie up any loose ends in my life. This whole time my friends were oblivious to the dangers, and were joking, which made me feel worse due to the extreme juxtaposition of the situation, but I didn't really want to ruin their fun. And then it started drizzling. You know when people jokingly say they were so scared they shit their pants? As soon as I felt the drops on my cheeks, my bowels were seriously coming loose. That feeling of first-date nervousness x1000. I actually had to stop walking to regain composure and control of the muscles responsible for that function. At this point I pointed it out to my friends and the march down the canyon became a lot more serious. The drizzle continued for 20 minutes and this whole time I was listening intently to either ends of the canyon for the inevitable roar signaling our doom, fervently looking for little, green islands of safety. Thankfully, the drizzle abated, and the task at hand was to find a place to rest our poor bodies.
But finally, after a physically exhausting trek of 22 miles in the sand, made mentally exhausting by failed pack winching up rock falls (resulting in major loss of water), and most of all the surreal drizzle scare, we finally reached a section of land that could accommodate all of us (about 10ish). Too happy to put the trials of the day behind us, we wasted no time in getting dinner prepared and getting ready to turn in for the night. Little did we know. This was the start of the most bone-chilling experience I have ever had. To this day just the memory of it evokes a goosebump reaction similar to that which you get in horror movies.
As we lay in our tents one of my friends told us all to shutup and listen to something he heard coming from one end of the canyon. He said that it sounded like a rape whistle. Sure enough, there was some shrill noise faintly coming from where we had just trekked. We kind of wonder what the noise could be, and we thought maybe someone needed help. Maybe they broke an ankle or were cornered by an animal. I jokingly threw out the possibility that maybe it was the ghosts of the native americans angry at us for disturbing some sacred ground of theirs, and the sounds were of them tracking us through the canyon. Then a friend suggested maybe due to the shrill nature of the noise it was a banshee stalking us. As we were discussing the possibilities I heard something coming from the other end of the canyon. I pointed it out to the other guys and as we fell silent I could immediately tell it wasn't an echo due to the noise being in a completely different register, yet still very shrill. However, it was still rather faint. But then a third noise popped up, and a fourth! And all the while the noises were getting louder, and louder, and louder, and louder. As it got louder, it became far more human like, but extremely angry. We were all scared shitless at this point, completely seriously referring to these noises as banshees. These sounds got so loud that eventually we couldn't hear ourselves talk, and the sound penetrated through our skulls into our thoughts. An endless barrage of extremely high pitched screaming, yet with it all seemingly completely in harmony and slowly undulating, like the breath of the ocean. It took up all sensation and all feeling. The moonlit night flooded this canyon with light, revealing the patterns created by dark streaks on the sandstone walls. After a while the fear subsided, and the noise, with its extremely pervasive quality, along with the scenery, completely freed me from my mind's stream of conscious thought that was the source of all worry.
It was hauntingly beautiful the way I remember it and this otherwordly sound we experienced in nature is what brings back the chills everytime I think of it. As weird as it sounds I am so thankful to have had experienced them. I will remember them as long as I live. If anyone is able to find sources of this sound I will be forever grateful. My friend recorded it but lost his phone a couple months after the trip, and everyone I have asked since can't identify what may have caused this sound. I want to hear them again and relive that experience.