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October 2006

Blue John Canyon: Feeling Gravity’s Pull

A pilgrim heads into the canyon where Aron Ralston lost his arm to pin down the meaning of survival.

Early one Friday last summer, I tossed some gear into my pack and drove out to an area of southeast Utah called Robbers Roost. This stretch of desert, which lies just west of where the Green River spills through Canyonlands National Park, is one of the most remote regions in the Lower 48. It’s a place of dust-broom winds and night skies that burn with the milk-glow of more stars than you’ve ever seen. The landscape is riddled with slot canyons, which are among the strangest and most aesthetically compelling geological features on earth–and which can also be quite dangerous. One of these slots made headlines a few years back when a Colorado alpinist named Aron Ralston got trapped in it, and escaped only after famously cutting off his right arm.

For reasons I was still trying to unravel, I was heading for the exact spot where Ralston’s accident took place. After driving for several hours over rattletrap roads, I hiked into the west fork of Blue John Canyon via a wide wash carpeted in white sand and lined with cream-colored sandstone walls. The ground slopes gently downward here, and for more than 2 hours the trail weaves between stands of gnarled juniper and pinon pine. After about 4 miles, Blue John abruptly slots up, and everything changes.

A flat lip of rock marks a sharp drop of about 15 feet, and now, as I carefully lower myself into this cleft, the walls on either side radically narrow, brushing my elbows and shoulders. The moment my feet reach the bottom, it hits me that I’m entering a different world. The light drains away. The temperature drops 10 degrees. And the sounds of the world above–the wind, the bird calls, the nameless and myriad rustlings of nature as it goes about its business–fall off, replaced by a hush so earthy and so profound that I realize, for the first time, that silence can actually carry weight.

The passage is choked with massive chunks of limestone-shale conglomerate, each the size of a compact car, that have toppled from the cliffs above and now hang suspended between the walls. The only way to get past these boulders is by laboriously clambering over their tops, or by getting down on your belly and slithering underneath–an unsettling enterprise because, as Aron Ralston can attest, the consequences can be catastrophic when one of these monoliths shifts. The 800-pound rock whose balance Ralston disturbed on a spring afternoon in 2003 crushed his forearm, spearing him to the wall like a pin piercing a butterfly.

Calling that event to mind here is sobering business–sobering enough to make me wonder what the hell motivated me to come down this mineshaft. When I’d phoned Ralston a day before setting out, to ask him for directions, he’d wondered the same thing.

Ralston was surprisingly pleasant for a man who has been the target of serious media-hounding. And while cheerfully walking me through a detailed and highly accurate description of Blue John’s tangled topography, he mentioned that he would be making his own trip into the canyon the following week. He has made several journeys back, and it seems this is a pilgrimage that he feels compelled to keep repeating, he explained, because the place represents something he doesn’t yet fully understand, but which he recognizes as important.

Ralston seemed slightly baffled that someone else might be drawn there as well. "It’s an awfully long way to go," he said, "just to look at a rock."

Perhaps I should mention that making a trip like this is a pretty bizarre thing for me to do, given my titanic disdain for survival dramas. At the time of Ralston’s accident, I’d heard more than I really wanted to about his miraculous escape. It was hard to miss, what with the endless CNN bulletins; the hospital press conferences; the DVD version of Survivor: The Aron Ralston Story with Tom Brokaw. All of which only reinforced my conviction that the concept of "survival" has been so corrupted that it’s now synonymous with self-serving overexposure and shameless hype.

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