Canyoneering and Recovery

Canyoneering, especially technical canyoneering, is rarely undergone alone. Engaging in the activity necessitates at least one other, more often a group of people. One who wishes to rappel into a canyon needs to set up an anchor, and he also needs someone to belay him down into the canyon. Setting up an anchor is difficult, and even those who have been canyoneering for many years would be wise to have another experienced person check over their anchor. Once the anchor is set, the rappeler needs to tie into the rope system. Having another person check that he is tied in safely and correctly off-sets the possibility of making a careless and tragic mistake.


Recovery from addiction is rarely, if ever, accomplished alone. Recovering necessitates a community of supportive persons who understand the challenges of sobriety in general, as well as the unique challenges each individual faces, based on his particular personality and way of dealing with life. One who wishes to descend into the deep canyons of the soul needs to set up a support system. He needs a belayer who will catch him if he begins to fall too fast, a guide who will lead the way through the dark and treacherous narrows. It is not easy to reach the wide expanses where the sun shines on both canyon walls. Unlike canyoneering, in recovery there is not always a correct way to tie into Life’s complex system that works every time for every person. Each individual, using the support system he has found and the guides who have offered their assistance freely, must find his or her true way.


Before beginning to rappel down into the canyon, the rappeler calls to the belayer in a loud and clear voice, ‘On belay?’ And the belayer answers, ‘Belay on.’ Then the rappeler calls, ‘Rappeling.’ And the belayer responds, ‘Rappel on.’ The rappeler must trust that the belayer will keep his hands on the rope, and he must trust that the anchored support system he has set up will hold. Trusting the belayer involves facing one’s real and understandable fears of hanging in mid-air, suspended over a deep gorge. The rappeler keeps one hand on the rope on all times and lowers himself down the rope into the canyon, falling steadily. If the rappeler starts to fall freely, or accidentally takes his hand off the rope, the belayer pulls down on the rope from below and holds the rappeler in mid-air. Once the rappeler lands firmly on the ground of the canyon, and unties himself from the rope, he has both hands free to offer support to the next canyon explorer.


Early in the life of recovery, before he has ground beneath his feet, the newly sober individual must find a belayer, a guide who will help bring him down from the false heights of addiction to the true and firm ground of sobriety. Sometimes this guide is called a sponsor. The newly sober person must communicate in a loud and clear voice to the sponsor that he intends to recover from addiction, and he must trust that the guide can and will help him in this process. To trust another person so completely involves facing one’s real and understandable fears of metaphorically hanging suspended in mid-air, unable to find solid footing, as well as facing one’s distrust of other people, of oneself, and of Life itself. The individual early in sobriety must trust another person to lead him down into the depths of his own soul. Once he lands firmly on the ground, he has both hands free to offer assistance to the next soul-explorer.


Rappeling down into the canyon, exhilarating and for many the most fearful part, is only the beginning of canyoneering. Travelling through the canyon is the true journey, bringing gifts of humility and awe. An excursion through the magnificent grandeur of a canyon provides the space for the voyager to come to terms with his own personal insignificance. The canyoneer experiences sacred moments of appreciation for the silent and hidden beauty of a unique landscape almost entirely undisturbed by human beings, impacted only by the natural powers of wind and rock and water. At some points in his passage, the canyoneer must ‘stem’ the canyon by placing hands and feet on both opposing walls above the canyon floor. Stemming helps the canyoneer climb above narrow sections it would not be possible to get through from underneath. It is often done when there is deep and cold water below, for it is best in a canyon to stay as dry as you can. Stemming is a challenging practice that engages both arms and legs. The body needs to be strong and agile, and the mind needs to be sharp to discern how best to use one’s body to traverse the narrow passage. Some canyons are narrow for the majority of the time, while others alternate between narrow parts and wider areas. It is always rewarding, after the physical challenge of stemming through a tight channel, to enter an open space of the canyon, where the sun shines, cottonwood trees grow, and clear water flows.


For the alcoholic or addict, admitting he is powerless over the drug or addictive behavior and that his life has become unmanageable is the first step, the beginning of the journey of recovery. For many, admitting powerlessness is the most difficult and fearful step. It requires letting go of the false notion that one is in control of one’s life, and opening up to the truth that one’s life is out of control, primarily because of one’s own actions. Confessing that one is at a loss means acknowledging the need for help and guidance, both from other people and from what Alcoholics Anonymous calls a ‘Higher Power.’ This acknowledgment, fully experienced in the heart rather than solely a mental process, can bring gifts of humility and awe. Letting go of the need for power and control can produce in the recovering individual a sense of the sacred preciousness of life, in both its magnificent grandeur and its fragile beauty. No longer does life seem like a dead-end void. Life instead is a canyon, and traveling through this canyon is a deep and beautiful experience filled with challenges and joys, with narrow areas and wide expanses. The rewards of sobriety come from living life to the full and engaging with its challenges, just as the rewards of canyoneering come because of, not in spite of, the very real difficulties of traveling through the canyon. It is infinitely rewarding, after enduring many periods in early sobriety when one’s very soul feels constricted, as if it is trapped by invisible walls in a tight channel, to enter an open space in one’s life, where the sun shines on one’s face, growing trees allow for shade and rest, and clear water refreshes and revitalizes one for the next part of the journey.


The travel writer Pico Iyer writes, "A real paradise, I felt, could not just be entered; it had to be earned. A real paradise must exact a price, resist admission as much as it invited it." Neither the life of recovery nor the experience of canyoneering would be so rewarding if it were not so difficult. When the canyoneer ascends back up and out of the canyon, the panoramic views of what he just traversed through are awe-inspiring and fully earned. The scrapes and bruises incurred, the sweat and blood lost, are a small price to pay for such beauty.


When the recovering individual finally rises up out of the dark and narrow canyon of addiction and alienation and experiences the peace and joy of feeling at home in the world, deeply connected to his own true self, to other people, and to a greater power that unites it all, the scrapes and bruises of early sobriety, the sweat and blood lost, the countless tears of confusion and despair shed, seem like small prices to pay for such beauty.


Brian Leibold

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