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10 days through Utah

A bead of sweat drips down the furrow of my eyebrow, then I watch as it plunges nearly 300 feet of vertical air to the desert ground below. My foot begins to shake as I approach the crux moves on the Kor-Ingalls route on the north face of Castleton Tower just outside of Moab. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been rock climbing and my memory tells me that this is the ‘easiest’ route on the tower, but in the heat of the moment I’m wondering just what I’ve gotten myself into. I place my toe on the polished calcite that is caked onto the sandstone wall and prepare to step up on the slippery surface. I scan the rock ahead and picture the moves above me before performing the actions. I can already see that I’m standing above the last piece of protection I will have for the next twenty feet, as I’m about to enter an off-width chimney that is too wide to place gear. I’m nervous, and it doesn’t help knowing that this is my girlfriends first time belaying. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, listen to the beating of my heart, and whisper a mantra that has always calmed me down in stressful situations… ‘calm blue ocean’. I reach up and commit to the move, which puts me beyond the point of no return. The sticky climbing rubber on my shoes clenches to the rock, and I stretch for the tiny holds above. I pull my bodyweight on my fingertips, wishing I had the upper body strength I used to when I climbed regularly, and with a few swift moves I make my way into the wide crack above. The hardest section is over. My heart is beating fast, but with excitement instead of fear. I look down at my girlfriend Helen and yell out “That was awesome! You’re going to love it!” An hour later, we summit Castleton Tower, an incredible feat for her first time climbing and an amazing way to spend the first day of our ten day road trip throughout Colorado and Utah.

After a quick rappel we hiked down the talus scree, leaving the massive tower behind as we made our way to the campground where dinner and beer awaited. There is nothing more rewarding that a hot meal and tasty beverage after a long day of climbing, and we were eager to break out the stove and whip up a delicious bowl of mac-n-cheese – the dish that would become our staple throughout the week. After stuffing ourselves until we could hardly move again, we started a campfire and invited others to join as we played music, sang songs, and watched as the sun set behind the mountains in the distance. As the night began to settle in, the stars seemed to shine brighter than ever. We stared up for hours basking in the glory of this incredible day, and prepared ourselves for a remarkable journey ahead.

In the days that followed, we found ourselves canyoneering remote slot canyons, exploring iconic landmarks, hiking beautiful trails, and climbing awe inspiring routes on the seemingly endless rock formations Utah has to offer. This alien landscape has something for everyone, but for those looking to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, there is no better place than the Utah desert. The state is made up of massive snow peaked mountains, huge rock walls that climb up thousands of feet, rivers that cut through its core, the incredible lake Powell in the south, and some of the best National Parks the United States has to offer.

I never thought ten days on the road could fly by so fast. But then again, I never imagined a trip could be so action packed, so adventure filled, and so exciting as this one. On our second day, we drove to a remote location in central Utah – a small slot canyon named Miss Piggy, tucked away twenty miles southeast of Hanksville. We parked our car along the cliff edge, strapped our harness on and roped up for the rappel down into the canyon. After the 100 foot drop to the sandy floor below, we pulled the ropes knowing that there was no way back. The only chance to get out was to complete the two mile journey forward to the mouth of the canyon. There is an eerie feeling knowing you are in a place with no escape, where any dangers you face must be overcome without the hope of returning the way you came. Nevertheless, this is the thrill of canyoneering. The canyon walls surrounded us on both sides and ranged from a few feet wide to just an inch or two wider than our bodies. We spent the next few hours squeezing, sliding, crawling, grunting, and squirming our way through the narrow walls of the slot canyon, which made the two mile journey feel more like a marathon. We left the canyon with cuts and bruises on our bodies, rips and tears in our clothes, but huge grins on our faces after such an amazing afternoon exploring some of the most beautiful terrain on earth.

Night settled in and we rested up knowing the following day meant another grand adventure. Our next excursion was the polar opposite to our previous day as we left the constricting canyon walls behind us and headed out to traverse one of the airiest and most exposed stretches of hiking trail in the world – Angels Landing in Zion National Park. This hike is known for its breathtaking views, and also for its extreme exposure and near vertical drop-offs on either side as you hike the final half mile to the summit. Helen and I were rather unaffected by the airy nature of the hike, probably because of our experience on Castleton Tower a few days earlier, and we quickly made our way to the summit where we spent most of the morning enjoying the incredible 360 degree views of Zion.

On our way back to the car, I mentioned to Helen another great hike that I have always wanted to do called the Subway. Since we were planning on driving to Bryce later that evening, we figured this was our only chance to do the hike so we drove to the ranger station in hopes of securing a same day permit for the Subway. Luckily it was the dead of winter and there were still three permits left (in the summer time, it’s nearly impossible to get a same day permit because they are in such high demand). When we asked the ranger for a permit, he looked at us like we were out of our minds and told us that the hike typically takes 8 hours round trip. We looked at our watches… 2pm. Sunset was just four hours away. I looked at Helen and could tell right away she was still keen on going, so I told the ranger we’d take the permits and next thing I knew we were on our way to the trailhead.

We quickly got out of the car and scrambled our gear for this ambitious exploit. “Don’t forget your headlamp” I cried out “and make sure you have some spare batteries”, knowing it would only be daylight for a portion of our journey. We hastily started down the trail, passing a sign that read ‘the Subway is a technical route requiring extensive route finding’ and I caught myself wondering what the chances of getting lost in the dark were, and feeling responsible for getting us back safely. I kept these thoughts to myself and we continued on.

Two hours passed as we meandered up the river bank, and sunset was quickly approaching. For miles, we stumbled around every corner hoping to catch sight of the iconic formation that we were so desperate to find. Then, I watched the canyon walls glow red as the last rays of sun reflected off the massive sandstone peaks that surrounded us. I let out a big sigh, knowing that our chance of catching the Subway in daylight was over. Just at that moment, Helen peeked around the corner and yelled back to me ‘It’s here!’ I ran over to her, and to our surprise, the Subway was looming directly in front of us. We ran into the amazing cave-like structure, singing dancing and cheering in excitement that we made it. We were completely taken aback by its beauty and splendor. We sat down and enjoyed the peace and solitude of being the only humans in this amazing destination, trying to soak up every ounce of beauty that we could. When the sun had finally set, we strapped on our headlamps, said goodbye to the Subway, and began the five mile journey in reverse. This time, we were enveloped by darkness and the world as we knew it existed as a five foot beam of light which aided us in navigating the river crossings, bushwhacking, crawling over roots and stumps, jumping massive boulders, weeding through six foot tall grasses, and finally scaling the five hundred foot canyon wall that would lead us back to the parking lot.

When we finally made it back to the campsite, we celebrated like there was no tomorrow. We sang songs, danced around the campfire, ate endless boxes of mac-n-cheese, drank beer, and stared up at the stars until our eyelids were too heavy to stay open. We slept better that night in our tent than any night back home in our warm beds. The food tasted better than any five star restaurants we’ve eaten at. The stars shined brighter than we’ve ever seen in our lives. The memories will last a lifetime. These are the days we love. These are the adventures we live for. This is the life that inspires us.

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