I glanced down at the cavernous mouth of the chamber that now yawned open below us, and stumbled backwards. I couldn’t see the canyon floor. Although our route description promised us this would be the last, and longest rappel of the day, I wasn’t exactly relaxed. My climbing partner, Todd, was untangling the ropes beside me, shivering violently as he tossed them into the canyon. Our clothes were soaked from swims through ice-cold water, our hands were seared by rope burns and sand, and, not for the first time that day, I was having some thoughts.
I suppose that partly I was lamenting my decision to turn down a post-exam week in Sicily with my English housemates, opting instead to freeze to death at the bottom of a claustrophobic smelly slot canyon deep in the backcountry of Utah’s Zion National Park. This was some 127 Hours shit. Most of all, I was frightened because up until that moment I hadn’t seen anything seriously faze Todd. Granted, I’d seen him take a beating from altitude sickness, not to mention scrambling off a mountain in Yellowstone as thunderstorms rolled in, but this was different. He took in our last, terrifying obstacle to dry clothes and a hot, greasy meal, and sat down.
“Finn, I’m not sure I can do this”, he muttered. His hands were bleeding now, the ropes slick and crusted with sand. As he remarked to me later, those ropes ‘sucked ass’.What was I supposed to do? I had a fraction of Todd’s outdoor experience, I had no first aid kit and above all, no idea what to say. I reached into my pack and retrieved a soggy pack of gummy bears.
Minutes later, trembling with a mixture of fear, cold, adrenaline, and glucose, I found myself suspended 100 feet above the bottom, holding onto the ropes with an iron grip. This was my first ‘free’ rappel – I was lowering myself backwards off a sandstone cliff until I was suspended in space. My limited experience meant my previous rappels had been little more than walking down steep hills in comparison. And almost immediately, I got myself into trouble. My belay device (or ATC), the gear used to balance a climber’s body weight against the friction of their rope, was suddenly wedged in a crack in the rock face. I thrashed on the rope like a particularly graceless salmon and the ATC came loose, swinging me towards the other side of the chamber. My wristwatch shattered and the back of my hand was sliced open as I was scraped against the wall. I had no time to cry out; only to tighten my hold on the rope. One slip, and I would be plummeting to earth before I could regain my grip. I controlled my breathing, waited for a few seconds, and continued my way down. The canyon became even more sublime after that: implausibly narrow, but so steep that the sky was often little more than a slit of light above us. Thunder had rippled across Zion earlier that afternoon, but now the thunder was in my eardrums, pounding furiously as I dangled in empty space. The whine of the sandy rope against the ATC and the gentle breath of the waterfall cascading to the canyon floor were the only other things I could hear. Against the enormity of my surroundings, I was barely visible. The chamber was a brutal cathedral of a thing, sculpted by the river and chiselled by the sandstone over aeons. It was impossible not to feel insignificant as we descended into its depths. There was no phone signal, easy access; nor sunlight, in some cases. It could easily kill a person. What were we doing, wilfully walking into it?
I thought about that question for a long time afterwards, after we’d stumbled, soaked and stinging, back to the road and eaten our body weight in Navajo Tacos. But looking back, the answers were surprising.
For one thing, experiences like this taught me that fear can be cathartic.
Ten years ago, you’d never have caught me doing such ostensibly stupid things. Heights so terrified me that I would frequently freeze on climbing walls or challenge courses. Family holidays would be spent on nice, quiet beaches, not mountains. The notion of hiking alone into the backcountry with only a map and compass for navigation would have been laughable. Even now, I feel the fear at times, as I did at the top of that final rappel. Sometimes just driving by and looking up at the mountains, knowing that in a while I’ll be somewhere out there, a tiny speck in a vast wilderness, is enough to tighten my stomach. But without that fear, I’d never have learned how cathartic it feels to overcome it.
Moreover, risk invigorates us.
Even if it means sleeping in a sweaty tent in the desert and generally looking homeless, being in wild places is inherently rejuvenating. I spend most of my year at university during which my most dangerous undertaking is the commute to lectures. In contrast, exploring wild spaces necessitates surrendering a degree of control over my own surroundings. This submission to circumstances so beyond our control is a rare thing in ordinary lives. The journalist George Monbiot argues that suburban weariness is not solely caused by career dissatisfaction, but because the 21st-century human suffers from what he terms ‘ecological boredom’. In contrast then, time spent in public lands is ‘ecologically awakening’.
Lastly, it brings people together.
Public lands are perhaps one of the last refuges of American political bipartisanship. 95% of Americans say that national parks are worth protecting, and an incredible 80% would pay higher taxes to ensure that protection. I’ve spent time outdoors with just as many tree-hugging vegans as I have gun-toting conservatives. There’s hardly any debate at all. Everybody appreciates the value of wild places; more people visited national parks last year than ever before. While this brings its own challenges, it is, at its core, a good thing.
As for me, I’m back at Bristol for a final year of dissertations, blagged seminars and long nights in the library. But there’s no denying it – no matter how scary that day in Zion may have been, it was also one of the best and most rewarding days of my life.
 ‘This Land is Your Land’, Guardian, 5th June 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/05/public-lands-project-description