Well, I hope you’re not claustrophobic because this story might freak you out. If you are an avid climber, on the other hand, you might want keep reading. This semester I decided to do something different: I signed up for the Wild Rockies Field Institute‘s Resilience and Revolution of the Colorado Plateau course. I didn’t do any research about the area I was going to before I left because I thought it would be a nice surprise to me. And surprised I have been; not only is WRFI academically challenging, it’s physically challenging too. As the first of five sections of the course comes to a wrap, I’ve reflected back on what I’ve done.

It was day six and our second layover day. Dave, one of our instructors, said today’s hike was one of his favorite in the canyonlands and that I would be going to a place unlike any I had been to before.

Being a climber, I tend to enjoy learning about rocks. While hiking through the canyon, I was surrounded by big bulky, loose sandstone. In my opinion these big juggy, sandstone holds have the potential to make great climbing, but sandstone breaks with the slightest pressure. My other instructor, Ryan (who also is a climber), pointed out this weird black stuff on the canyon wall called desert varnish.

Now apparently nobody fully understands varnish. From what we know it’s basically water mixed with iron and manganese oxide to form a solid outer layer. This means it turns the delicate sandstone to a sturdy surface. What we don’t know is how it’s created. Some say it is made when rainwater is mixed with clay. Others say bacteria create it. The point is, varnish makes really good holds when climbing.

As we continued our hike, the ground started to split apart into a tiny canyon. That is when Dave said we are going down there. He was right; I have never been to a true slot canyon before. The entrance to this slot canyon was not easy. It was a six foot slither down, under a boulder, into an ankle deep pool of ice-cold muck water. To make matters worse, there was only three inches of dry canyon to land on before the pool. I was first. I tried to slip through the hole but I didn’t like going into it blind. Instead, I had to take the more challenging route of going over the boulder where I had to give extra effort to land in the dry spot. I’m an amateur climber and a pretty in-shape person so part one’s descent wasn’t too hard for me. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky. One of my classmate’s foot took a swim. I was -am still- proud of all my classmates for challenging their fears head on and making it past part one.

The first descent was a breeze compared to the second descent. We all sat in a side room deeper in the canyon. We were roughly twelve feet below the earth’s surface, and after scoping out part two, I realized there was at least another ten foot incline down into the sunless darkness of the canyon. I had to drop through a hole no more than twelve inches in diameter, with a destination that could not be seen from above. I slipped in feet first. By the time I was chest deep in the hole, I had yet to feel the ground. My feet were dangling and I didn’t know how far of a drop I had below me. I slowly lowered myself. As soon as my arms were fully extended I reached the ground. I descended even deeper into the canyon, knowing I was soon approaching a narrow spine followed by an unavoidable puddle. I had to be twenty five feet below the surface of the canyon rim. When I finally reached the narrow path, the walls were only eight inches apart. Successfully squeezing through this stretch meant I was to fall into the unavoidable pool. Nervous, I just had to go for it. My head was facing to my right without enough space to turn it, feet ducked out, unable to turn them, and my chest completely exhaled just so I could fit. It was only a few feet to pass through, but breathing was limited, so I stopped whenever I could take a breath, and so I could get a glance of the pool ahead of me. I saw the walls were just close enough that I could challenge myself to get across the pool dry. I spidered across this lengthy stretch of water, seriously testing my strength and stamina, but I came out dry.

Part three was a breeze. Although narrow, it was a three hundred meter stretch of flat slot canyon hiking. At the end of the canyon there was an opening overlooking a two hundred foot drop into breathtaking, green canyonland. At this moment I realized the Colorado Plateau needs to be preserved. This place is too beautiful to be developed or damaged.

I set some exhausting challenges that day for myself, and I will only be setting more as I progress in this course. But right now, I need help with my current challenge. I need you to go from a reader to becoming the voice for the Colorado Plateau. I need you to spread the word that the Colorado Plateau needs help in being resilient to the challenges that humanity is pressing upon it.