Canyons, Canoes, and Cassettes

Mountain Connection, October 28, 2022

Last week, I enjoyed my first ‘Desert Week’, a decades-long tradition for Upper School students that breaks from the academic calendar midway through the first trimester to partake in the expanded classroom of the great outdoors. This year, students opted between canoeing, mountain biking, canyoneering, or backpacking excursions, each trip centered around greater Moab, which is some of the most spectacular landscape on earth. I was part of one of two canyoneering trips, and though I’ve had a fair amount of prior experience hiking and a bit on ropes, this trip accomplished the goals of stretching my comfort zone and strengthening my humility, as expected for the students. We began on Tuesday with ‘Rock of Ages,’ which included three rappels over an amazing 4-mile hiking loop of slot canyons and incredible vistas. The first rappel, Pool Arch, was 90 feet, our longest of the week. If anyone hadn’t fully connected with our amazing guide Emily during the route up to the top rope, we certainly did by the time we clipped in for the plummet. Gilbo willingly played guinea pig and headed down first, knees knocking a bit but keeping a clear head. Already feeling my age, I had perhaps the unfortunate luck of being last in line, which was useful in herding students while feigning some semblance of confidence. When I finally attached the carabiner and took the rope in my hands, the thrill of the experience firmly set in, and, against all instincts to the contrary, I stepped backward and sat down into my harness over the abyss. It turns out that wearing gloves during such a venture is extremely useful, and thankfully Gilbo had already sent her pair back up with the rope for me to borrow, having noticed that I had neglected to bring a pair for myself. Such expedition behavior proved invaluable over the week and was readily apparent among faculty and students alike, as we looked out for each other’s safety, offered encouragement, entertained one another, were patient in proceeding together through obstacles, and bonded as a group. Over three days in as many different canyons, we completed seven different rappels, a few shorter maneuvers that required ropes, several tricky scrambles over slickrock, wading and occasionally swimming through pools in slot canyons, and generally had a great time. I was immensely impressed by the students, who employed the most productive and good-natured form of peer pressure in completing, together, various accomplishments that any of us would at least have second-guessed as individuals. We were likewise blessed with ideal weather, highs in the mid 70s and nearly cloudless skies. Emily was an outstanding guide, too, providing the technical ability and professional calm we all needed to boost our own confidence. In the evenings, the students took turns working within smaller, cooking teams to produce hearty dinners for the whole group and daily leaders led debriefing exercises and games around the campfire. On Thursday night, we ventured to Slick Rock under the full moon and followed the painted stripes signifying the bike route for about 1/3 of a mile until we found a comfortable outcropping away from the road where we turned off our headlamps for stargazing. The desert surrounding Moab is unlike anywhere else, where immense geological forces spanning thousands of years are rendered into static, jaw-dropping scenery, and the wind whispers the echoes of Edward Abbey. Kids were happy, responsible, engaged, and enthusiastic, a team of individuals united for a common, authentic experience. Sometimes, the best learning happens outside of the classroom.