September 30, 2015

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 beneath me, overtaken by an extraordinary 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 wide undulating basin 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 pew 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 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 experienced the monumental power of Zion's flood waters. On the heels of a powerful thunderstorm, I stood across from the Temple of Sinawava when, in a matter of seconds, a dry fall transformed into a raging torrent, drenching me in pelting spray. I was nearly a half mile away. The same storm swelled the Virgin River so high and furious, it rolled boulders under its soupy surface, the noise like a passing freight train, the road rumbling like an earthquake beneath my feet. There's little to do but bow in reverence of such an awesome display.

Inevitably, in this culture of litigation and administrative caution, investigations will ensue and, in all likelihood, new park rules and/or regulations inked. To this, I must 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". It appears Edward Abbey is finally rubbing off on me.

Turning away from the ledge, I proceed around and down to the mouth of Keyhole peering down the 30 foot rappel into the cold opaque pool of dark water that greets the 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 my footsteps and the floating distant chatter 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 who choose not to pay attention, it is often consequence. In this case, absolute tragic consequence.


I do not photograph for ulterior purposes. I photograph for the thing itself - for the photograph - without consideration of how it may be used.

Eliot Porter