Alone On the Edge

Brett Nilsen

“Yeah, it’s cool, I’ll go last.”

The six words repeated in the back of my mind, each time with growing hesitancy. I lay there with my hands behind my head, trying to quiet the growing doubts. My pose was something befitting of a hammock, one tucked away in a lush and shady apple orchard. This was no such place, and I was far from relaxed.

I was literally stuck in a three-sided box. All around me were jagged walls. I looked up the sides of these cliffs, hundreds of feet tall. Mere feet ahead of me waited the void. Over that threshold waited two hundred feet of air.

The activity I found myself doing for the first time is called canyoneering. You descend canyons, rappelling off cliffs where you have no other way down. Fortunately, it was not my first time rappelling, but it was the final rappel of the canyon, and promised to be the highest I had ever done in my life.

Beneath me, I could feel the final fleeting radiance of the sun in the rock. I tried to savor this last semblance of heat, and the simple thought of spending the night here made me shiver. Summer or not, I knew that nights are always incredibly cold in those high desert canyons. This was no place for me, and there was certainly no sleep to be had here. There would be no dreams to wake up from after falling over the edge.

I stared blankly over the cavernous desert valley below. Shadows crept up the canyon cliffs, scaling the walls like some jaggedly shifting liquid form. If only I could reach out and harness one of those shadows, turn it around, and slither back down these forsaken cliffs in a similar fashion. Nope. There was no convenient solution to my predicament. I was the only solution.

Suddenly a voice far below echoed up to my perch, "Off rope!" I needed no other cue to jolt into action.

I gathered everything about myself. I admitted a third alternative to “do or die.” This was simply dropping something very important over the edge, in which case I may have to wait several hours to be rescued. I pictured a critical piece of gear fumbling out of my hands in slow motion, twinkling and turning, quickly swallowed in the depths below. That would be pretty inconvenient, but would not have stranded me...necessarily. What would be disastrous would be to drop the rope. I would spend the night, or even two, up there if that happened.

I attached to the anchor on my harness, on my tether, so that if I fell I would not go over the edge. I stood there tieing a European Death Knot to join the two ropes together. It is called that because people have been hurt using wrong variations. The irony was not lost on me, and I smirked as I tied it. I figured if I died there that night, I may as well go smiling. I gathered the rope in my hand and attached to it.

I stood there two feet away from the edge and, for the first time, felt the canyon breeze whipping up the cliff face. I leaned back on the rope, shifting 100% of my body weight over the cliff edge. The rope creaked taut and the diameter visibly shrunk as the fibers within elongated. It was holding for now, and I felt a little better about my knot's integrity. I stepped back with each foot in turn. Just inches from the edge, I peered over the void. I was relieved to see my friends milling about. They existed, if only as miniscule versions, still some two hundred feet below.

I was now inches away from the edge and sat down toward it, lowering my feet in turn. Then in a brief instant, I was swallowed up in the void. The very next second was muted, all fear reticent. Maybe it was survival instinct, or maybe I just entered a vortex bereft of any thought or emotion. Everything was perfectly quiet. The only thing that existed was rope, and my rapidly beating heart.

Halfway down the cliff, I fully regained my senses, and with them came the true moment of relief. The fear was gone, all of it. I was over the terrible edge. I alone had extricated myself from my sad fate on the perch. In that moment was true freedom and elation. I crept steadily toward the glorious freedom of solid ground below. When my feet finally reached terra firma, I stood up and cheered a victory. It was the most alive I had ever felt in my life. We enjoyed a brief moment together at last, then hiked hastily out in the dark. We recounted the day’s events over a quick meal, then found a good night's rest.

Since that day, so many years ago, I have done many canyons and many rappels, many higher than that. I cringe imagining the countless things slipping by unwitnessed—incredible places unseen or entire memories vanquished from memory. That is my true fear—if I had quit early on, if I had conveniently escaped my first time stuck on the ledge, then I would never know such things. There is little doubt that I now I approach all the many “edges” in my life with a greater confidence.