Personal Essay, Short Stories

Canyoneering: Not just for crazy people like me

canyoneering | surviving suicide | depression | coping strategies

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

I’m pretty sure that when William Hickson popularized this proverb back in the 1800’s, he was primarily teaching the value of perseverance. But there is also a subtle message of hope in this short sentence: if you keep trying, you will eventually succeed.

There was a time, in my not-distant-enough past, that hope was elusive and success seemed like an impossibility. I was miserable. The thing I was hoping to succeed at was suicide. And I was horrible at it.

I tried a drug overdose (I have a miraculously resilient liver and kidneys); cutting my throat and wrists (I now have several embarrassing scars, a smile that leans to the left, and some nerve damage); and shooting myself (I chickened out). I even gave dehydration and exposure a try (there are some breathtaking views in the arid foothills north of San Antonio, Texas- but if you’re planning a 3-day walk-about, I would recommend sun screen and plenty of water). Apparently, suicide by more conventional means wasn’t going to work for me. My failure to complete a successful suicide was almost as depressing as the depression that prompted me to try in the first place.

I was ready for something drastic.

Looking for a drastic alternative was probably the only reason I let myself get talked into something called “canyoneering.” The email invitation I received had pictures of climbers dangling from smooth cliffs, and dark caves, and guys shimmying across ropes. It also contained a lot of warnings: DANGEROUS was in all-caps.

This sounded drastic enough to get me off the couch. I dredged up the motivation to take my first shower in days and agreed to meet with the trip organizer over lunch.

 

Michael

The trip organizer, Michael, was an accountant by day and epic trip coordinator by night. He was also part of a men’s group at Concordia Lutheran Church that I had been loosely affiliated with before I relocated to The Abyss. Nearly all of the guys in this group were busy with successful careers and families, but none of us were extremists by nature. Michael was the exception. Normally soft-spoken and unusually precise with his words, I watched this unassuming man come alive as our conversation shifted from the how-have-you-been’s and sorry-to-hear-about-that’s to the upcoming adventure. He began to glow to charisma and confidence. Even though I was tangled up in self-loathing and despair, his dramatic transformation forced a left-leaning smile out of me.

And Michael never asked me the question. He never asked, “what are you so depressed about?” As I saw it, there were really only two ways to answer the question: 1.) I had either done (or neglected to do) something horrible, in which case I deserved to be punished, or something tragic and beyond my control ruined any chance of a meaningful life. In either of these cases, wouldn’t a good friend be obligated to help put me out of my misery? And 2.) I could try to explain the mental implosion I was enduring. Most people can understand mental EXplosions… unleashing destructive energy through violence or bad decisions. How could I explain something that stole all of my energy, built up silently inside me, and destroyed my ability to think logically, concentrate or feel anything other than an overwhelming and undefinable sense of doom? Then finally, when I couldn’t endure it anymore, latching onto the sweet promise of escape through death?

Fortunately, we didn’t go down that path. Instead, he focused me on the trip ahead. I nibbled on a slider (registering without surprise that it was my first meal in two days) as Michael tried to convince me that some fresh air and testosterone-fueled adventure would snap me out of my funk. He jittered with anticipation as he promised chances to rappel across bottomless sink-holes, scale cliffs of “slick-rock,” and conclude with a blind dive into Lake Powell. All, he said, under the supervision of guides trained to ensure our safety.

An idea took root over the course of our conversation and grew. There would be plenty of opportunities to engineer an “accident.” I paid selfishly little attention to the impact my “accident” would have on the group. Instead, I was lost to the promise of relief that would come from finally taking a fatal plunge.

 

The desert on the lake

After indulging in a solitary and cheerless (but expensive) last hurrah at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, I joined the rest of the group to caravan up to our houseboat on Lake Powell. We met our guides: three wiry, nimble, good-hearted guys that seemed to be everywhere, making sure everyone was safe and following instructions. My nemeses.

By the second day (after we had all demonstrated proficiency with our safety gear and followed all instructions), our guides began to relax. There were exhilarating moments, and beautiful vistas. We started to form bonds that were stronger than the ropes connecting us.

Despite all this, I was still desperate to have an “accident.”

It looked like my moment arrived as I waited for John (a tall lanky engineer with a contagious barking laugh) to spider-walk across a gaping sink-hole. One of his hands lost purchase on the slick sides of the sink-hole and before we knew it, he was dangling from the safety rope.

He was welcomed to the other side with shoulder-slaps and jokes about the implications of tall guys with weak hands quickly enough, but I saw that if I didn’t fully secure the safety rope to my harness, I would be free to fall as far as the sink-hole would let me.

 

A Really Bad Idea

My hands were sweaty and shaking. John was still commanding most of the attention. I shimmied out, face-down over the hole, extending my arms and legs to maintain contact as I approached the widest point. I didn’t see bottom, just an endless supply of black. My weak arms and legs trembled as I tried to work up the courage to let go. Just do it. The black beneath me began to expand, blocking everything else out, until it was just me struggling with a desire to let go and an instinct to hold on.

The instinct to hold on grew stronger as my limbs fatigued. A series of “maybes” began to play out in my mind: maybe I could do meaningful work again; maybe I could love (and be loved by) a good woman again; maybe my life was worth living. At the time, these “maybes” were only fragments of images, but it was clearly Hope forcing its way into my consciousness. For the first time in years, I decided I wanted to live. Really give life another try. But I was stuck. I barely had the strength to hold on, much less continue to spider-walk to the other side. The safety rope was tangled uselessly around my rescue-eight. I couldn’t hold on long enough for the guides to scurry out to me.

Now that I wanted to live, I was going to die.

I tell myself in hindsight that I couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, let myself be killed by something as pitiful as irony. No way. My body released its reserves of adrenaline and I forced myself to inch closer to the other side. With each movement I reaffirmed my commitment to live again. The blackness was still there beneath me. I still felt an urge to yield to it, but this urge retreated to a more distant, nearly nostalgic position.

The sides of the sink-hole drew closer as I advanced, allowing me to bend my limbs and get a little more leverage. I was going to make it. I crammed years’ worth of thoughts and internal dialog into the time it took me to reach the safety of the other side, even though the whole event was over in a few moments.

 

The plunge

I can’t remember much after reaching the safety of the other side and joining the rest of the group. Did anyone notice how close I came to going “gentle into that good night” (as Dylan Thomas writes)? Were there celebratory shoulder-slaps for me too, signifying that I had earned the right to be one of the guys? I can’t remember.

I do remember that we concluded the day’s canyoneering with a dive into Lake Powell. We rappelled individually down one of the cliff faces that borders the lake to dive from a narrow ledge about 5-meters over the water. Then we swam back to our houseboat for cold beers and a chance to polish our stories of heroism for the folks back home.

When it was my turn on the ledge, I stared out over the water. It was calm and dark and huge. There was some similarity between the welcoming appeal of the water and the black pit I had met earlier, but mostly I was hot and the water was going to be a refreshing way to cool off. I also fought the same instinct to keep holding on. Don’t do it. Don’t risk a crazy leap into the unknown.

I jumped.

 

P.S. A sincere thanks to John and Michael, not only for reviewing this, but more importantly, for showing the kind of brotherly love and support that helped me to hold on when I wanted to let go… and to let go when I needed to drop the garbage I was holding on to.

 

A merry band of brothers basking in the glory of another successful adventure

A merry band of brothers basking in the glory of another successful adventure. Little did I know this adventure would help me remember that I wanted to live again.

 

After several failed suicide attempts, an expedition into the treacherous canyons near Lake Powell I rediscovered the will to live again

After several failed suicide attempts, an expedition into the treacherous canyons near Lake Powell I rediscovered the will to live again

19 Comments

  • Reply Steve Adams July 30, 2016 at 4:26 am

    Not wanting to be killed by “something as pitiful as irony,” is a moment of light relief that I needed while reading this. I often turn to our evening at the shelter when you shared some of your experiences with us, Gabe. You left a powerful impression that night on all of us. It is no coincidence that you are sharing this while out on the trail once more, surrounded by your non-judgmental family.
    I can vouch for the importance of having somebody in your life to live for, and to change for. I’ve never met Monica but, if she is “your person,” then hold on to that thought like a kid holding on to its favorite toy. The best days of my life are always ahead of me and I hope they are for you. Continue on your happy trails and get blogging again!

    • Reply Gabriel Burkhardt August 2, 2016 at 8:04 am

      Thanks so much for the words of encouragement Steve! Sorry about dropping a dark and dreary post in the midst of an otherwise (mostly) uplifting narrative – however, I’d like to think that this highlights the potential opportunities for growth in our protagonist. (And I’m really rooting for our protagonist here)

      Monica is absolutely my better half. It’s interesting that you mention the importance of “living for” someone. I understand you very well, and am so blessed to have found an amazing woman that is willing to live “with” me as we forge our lives together!

  • Reply John Bock July 30, 2016 at 6:38 am

    Gabe, aka Hermes, aka Sketch, know that Songbird and Bypass pray for you every night. We look forward to an adventure with you and Monica in the future.

    • Reply Gabriel Burkhardt August 2, 2016 at 8:05 am

      Thank you very much Bypass! And yes that would be awesome!

  • Reply Scott (aka Dad) July 30, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    That’s a great message Sketch! You’ve come such a long ways back since the dark days. I hope that you realize how good that you are and what an inspiration you’ve been to so many in similar situations. Enjoy your adventures on the trail and remember that you’ll always have people that love you. I’ll be waiting anxiously for your next post and more visual stimulation.

    • Reply Gabriel Burkhardt August 2, 2016 at 8:11 am

      Thanks Dad! Thanks for being there, for providing a safe place for me to “hibernate,” and so much more.
      Beyond the catharsis that comes from sharing these portions of my story (along with the good stuff), it’s awesome to think that perhaps someone else may find a bit of hope if they are also in (or recently recovering from) their own dark time…

  • Reply Bobby(o2) July 31, 2016 at 7:38 am

    Thanks for sharing. I’m glad the suicide thing didn’t work out. You are an inspiration!

    • Reply Gabriel Burkhardt August 2, 2016 at 8:12 am

      Me too!

  • Reply Monica July 31, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    Moments like this makes us appreciate life even more and remember how lucky we are ! A very captivating memoir, written in ur characteristically catchy way! Never forget you are very loved ! Enjoy the rest of the AT journey safe !
    P.s even if I haven’t met most of your friends , can’t wait to share life experiences with them ! U all seem to be amazing people and can’t wait to meet u ! Cheers !

    • Reply Gabriel Burkhardt August 2, 2016 at 8:20 am

      Hey love!
      I sure miss you! It’s so exciting to think that in less than 2 months we will be back together again! You have been and continue to be so supportive and understanding, I am awestruck.

      I know that you get to choose our next adventure, and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you…

  • Reply robert forth October 31, 2016 at 6:38 pm

    Hello Sketch. I hadn”t heard from you in a very long time and I have been wondering how your hike turned out. Bob Forth (aka Cliff Bar)

    • Reply Gabe November 4, 2016 at 6:29 am

      Cliff Bar! I’m currently back in Romania by way of Katahdin, still feeling exhilarated, and triumphant (and maybe a bit exhausted). The last few months of the hike required nearly all of my energy so I put the blog on hold for a few months. However, I’m looking forward to picking up where we left off over the next few weeks.

      Thanks so much for following along, it means a lot to me. Who knows…if I time the blog correctly, maybe we’ll reach Katahdin together!

  • Reply inesephoto February 11, 2017 at 6:33 am

    Wow, some experience. Things like that make us who we are.

    • Reply Gabriel February 12, 2017 at 4:53 am

      Yup. I look back on this experience in particular as one of those tipping points in my life. This was the moment I made the conscious decision to actively live.

      Thank you again Inese for your comments and for taking a few moments to share in this journey. It will likely be a bumpy ride, but I bet it’s going to be worth it!

      • Reply inesephoto February 13, 2017 at 1:10 pm

        Best of luck with your blog!

  • Reply Sheri @trail2peaktheadventurouspath March 12, 2017 at 8:39 am

    Wow. What a story, Gabe. So powerfully moving. Canyoning has done lots for me in this life (it’s right up there as one of my all time favourite things to do), but never has it done as much for me as it clearly did for you. It’s amazing the way pushing limits, physically, can have such an impact on our mental state. It helps to fine tune and focus at best, and in the extreme, it shakes things up to help us re-centre/re-align ourselves. It is far more than an escape from the day to day. I’m so glad you had this experience! And that you processed it in this way.

    • Reply Gabriel March 12, 2017 at 8:44 am

      Sheri, I’m glad you found this post. While the writing isn’t that remarkable, this was a big turning point in the second half of my life. One that I’m so happy to say I’m on the other side of. (Although I recognize that depression, PTSD, and anxiety will be constant companions, they don’t get to call the shots anymore.)

      And I think you’re right. Extreme activities that push the threshold of our endurance and abilities are a powerful agent of change.

  • Reply smoothsailing289 March 12, 2017 at 9:31 am

    Hello Gabe, I shared your story on my blog today. It is truly a brave and beautiful tale of survival, and I pray that it will reach someone in need. P.S. I just really love your artwork, the colors are so glorious! Thanks for sharing your talents with the world!

    • Reply Gabriel March 12, 2017 at 10:04 am

      What an excellent idea. I’m glad you shared a link to this post on your blog and I hope that it reaches those that are hoping to see both that they are not alone, and that there is hope of the other side of the dark pit.

      I’m also glad you like the digital paintings. It’s fun to look back on these earlier efforts. I think I might be showing signs of improvement.

    Now it's your turn to play!

    %d bloggers like this: