Craft Matters

Keyhole Canyon: Into the Abyss

Keyhole Canyon, Zion National Park

This is Keyhole Canyon, the photo taken from a sandstone ledge about 30 feet above the pine trees. The dark abyss is the slot canyon, a relatively short beginners-level slot popular with budding canyoneers. But in the late stormy afternoon of September 14, 2015, seven lives perished in the canyon, overtaken (with no way out) by a massive torrent of rain, mud and debris. The flash flood engulfed the canyon, its instant fury consuming and pushing bodies, later recovered, miles downstream.

I’ve come here to pay respect. My feelings are complicated. The basin immediately above Keyhole is a sanctuary to me, a pastel palette of sandstone swirls, sculpted stoneworks, and mystical patterns, masterworks of water, wind, and time. I’ve made many photographs here, important ones. It is a cherished chapel of solitude within the grand church of Zion.

The human story is one of tragedy, poor judgement, and egregious leadership. The sadness I feel is mixed with a certain disbelief that anyone would’ve led such a risky venture, putting friends in danger, when the weather forebode such calamity. Yet, as the local news pointed out, a group of three passed the seven at the first rappel, narrowly escaping the danger themselves. Good judgement appears to waver in the minds of time-strapped adventurists.

I’ve seen what the flood waters of Zion can do. I’ve stood a half mile across from the Temple of Sinawava when a dryfall turned raging funnel drenched me in pelting spray. The same storm swelled the Virgin River so high and fast, it rolled massive boulders under its soupy surface, the noise like a passing freight train, the ground rumbling beneath my feet. I could only bow in awe of such a display.

Inevitably, in this culture of salivating lawyers and their administrative prey, inquiries will be made and, in all likelihood, new regulations inked. To this, I say hooey. What is wild and dangerous should remain so with one large hand-scribbled (in blood) sign at the entrance: “You may die here friend. Proceed at your own risk”. I guess Edward Abbey is finally rubbing off on me.

From my ledge, I proceed around and down to the mouth of Keyhole peering down the 30 foot rappel into the cold dark pool of water that greets an initial and irreversible descent. After a memorial silence, I hike up a tributary creek bed, the signs of recent high waters subtly present but largely non-descript. Peaceful silence reigns in the soft waning light of dusk punctuated by footsteps and the distant floating calls of song birds.

This land I move through in quiet contemplation is the long view. Paid attention to, it teaches what you need to know. Here, there is no “I”. Only what is. And what is, is unattached, indifferent, essential. It is absolute. In beauty and fury.

And, for those unwilling to pay attention, it is often consequence. Tragic absolute consequence.