This piece originally appeared in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
I paused and pushed my hands into the wet, muddy ground and lifted my head as high as I could. I strained my neck in all directions, looking for a path.
I was surrounded by prickly pears, and all I could see was more of the same.
Looking back uphill, I realized I had taken a wrong turn off the faint climber’s trail, but desperately wanted to avoid retracing my steps with over a mile remaining to the car.
Steps might be the wrong word. I was relegated to crawling, my broken leg gingerly dragging behind me, splinted in a repurposed foam sleeping mat.
One thousand feet up a vertical, towering wall of sandstone in Zion National Park in Utah, I ignored everything I knew about climbing wet sandstone — and paid the price for it. It had only been a light rain and I was on easy terrain. Still, the fragile sandstone holds gave way, and I struck a ledge before my rope could stop my fall, snapping my tibia at the ankle.
Ten years later this past February, the memories of that day returned in a rush of emotion as I scrambled up to the base of the accident after a full day of climbing with my friend Steve. I carefully climbed on to the ledge that my leg made contact with and gently caressed the holds that still remain.
I found the broken holds from which my body succumbed to gravity and took a picture, as if someday I’ll forget why I have two metal screws in my leg and instead can look at these two broken holds.
Steve and I had methodically climbed the 1,000 feet that day with little incident. Even though I was physically stronger and more bold in my youth a decade earlier, the climbing on that day felt easier than I could have imagined.
In the thousands of days and nights since the accident, I had dreamed about my return with some trepidation about what it might hold. Instead, the climbing that day reminded me of the maturity I have earned as an older climber. It is fitting that the climb is named Tricks of the Trade.
The night after our ascent, we crawled into our sleeping bags which were splayed out on a wide, sandy ledge, and watched as the sun’s warm rays were replaced by the cold light of the moon on the canyon walls.
For years, I had attempted to go back and seek some form of redemption on this climb. Weather, seasonal bird closures and the busy schedule of life seemed to endlessly get in the way.
I started to wonder if it really mattered to return to this climb. What is redemption worth for the selfish soul who seeks it? Now I’m married to someone who was one of my climbing partners on that fateful climb, and I’ve enjoyed the love and excitement brought by a life together and the three children we brought into this world.
Instead of contentment with my life, however, I’ve remained restless about the need to establish goals and to seek out adventure. This climb was my redemption.
Tucked into my sleeping bag, donning a Denney’s Demons T-shirt, laying next to a close friend and favorite climbing partner, I am reminded about why I seeked out this redemption. Climbing this route would not cure Craig Denney’s cancer or make my kids love me more, but I felt that my heart would be a little bigger and that I’d be a little more complete as a man. I felt that if I stopped seeking out challenges and goals that life would get stale and I’d be left with regret.
The next day, Steve and I got to stand on top of the massive formation for the first time. It feels like we’re floating up the rock — high above the canyon floor — and I can’t help but break out in a huge, joyous smile.
When we returned to our cliffside camp, halfway done with our descent, we realized we could make it down in time for burgers and beers at a local restaurant in the tourist-friendly town of Springdale. Instead, we easily opt to settle down in our sandstone seats and enjoy the views and each other’s company, unhindered by technology and the urban life.
It’s was a stark reminder of why we come to these places and seek out these challenges. We can go down to a restaurant any day of the week, but it’s rare you can watch the sun set over the jagged ridgelines of the desert.
On the last day, we glided down our ropes on rappel. On the ground, we pulled them down from the anchors above one final time.
I began to feel a slight sense of redemption. The last time I was in this position, after the final rappel, I was readying myself for a long crawl to the car. Then, anxious to get a head start on my able-bodied and uninjured partners, I crawled off alone on the trail. It was some time later that I found myself stuck in that cactus patch, feeling alone, angry and frustrated.
This time, with Steve, the words bounced off our lips as we bound down the trail and energetically talked about the climb. I even twisted my head around and peered behind bushes, looking for that stupid cactus patch, but it’s nowhere to be seen.
And so it should be, because I know I came here to put some things behind me and to look ahead to the next adventure in life.
Mike Schneiter is the owner of Glenwood Climbing Guides and can be reached via email or phone, 970-319-0656 .