Solo Rock Climbing An Ancient Utah Staircase


I stood next to a pictograph of two man shaped figures with antlers, carrying spears. They either didn’t have eyes, or they were looking into a mysterious landscape inside the sandstone cliff that we would never be able to see. High above them on the side of this cliff were the ancient remains of an Anasazi dwelling. The rangers had told us the ages of the dwelling could be anywhere from a few hundred, to a few thousand years old.

Everything from pottery shards, to the remains of ancient mumies were found inside dwellings like the one above us, on the side of a very remote cliff. There wasn’t much to see of the dwelling from the ground, just a small black hole in the red sandstone. Layers of staggered cliff faces separated this dwelling from the ground. But the climb looked just about possible.

“Do you want ghosts?” said my friend Sophia,  “Because that’s how you get ghosts.” 

“I’m not going in.” I said, “I’m just going to look in. There’s a difference.”

Sophia shot me a very mistrusting stare. Then, she gave another mistrusting stare at the layers of steep cliff that stood between myself, and the cliff dwelling.

“Well you can do whatever you want.” Sophia said, “We are going to find some fresh water.”

Sophia and the rest of our group shouldered their heavy backpacks, and disappeared between clusters of juniper bushes. Only my friend Chris stayed behind, to make sure that I wasn’t suddenly left alone to climb this ancient cliff without any ropes.

We left the trail. A few ribbons of criptobiotic soil crust clustered in patches as I approached the climbable section of this cliff. Each crusty piece of soil could be centuries old, so stepping on one is kind of like killing a little brick shaped unicorn. Jumping between sections of criptobiotic soil, the hike slowly turned into a rock climb.

The beginning of the climb was easy, and enjoyable. A few jugs (large, comfortable hand holds) and solid crimps (smaller, less comfortable hand holds) led the way to a corner in the rock that had sprouted a small green bush. It only took a few minutes until I was 60 feet off the ground, and I felt the recognition that I was not tied to any rope.

To my left, the cliff went almost completely vertical, bare of any handholds. Barely visible and eroded by wind and water, were a series of hollow divots that had been carved into the rock. They were left over from the original inhabitants of this dwelling, and are called Moki steps. I imagine in the past, they were much deeper and more like actual steps than little divots in the hard rock.

Standing next to the bush, I gripped tightly to the rock next to my head. Slowly put one foot out, I tested to see if my foot would slip. Starting with just a little bit of weight at first. Then, slowly putting my whole body onto what was left of this moki step.

When I fully committed to stepping out onto the sheer cliff face, I realized there was nowhere I could put my hands. I was standing on tiptoe over a very steep, very long drop. The places to put my feet were small, and my shoes began to feel slippery. This suddenly felt very stupid.

Reaching around the bare rock above me for something to hold on to, I felt a pang of panic. What if my foot did slip?

I looked down. The ground below looked far away. If I slipped here, I would probably die, or at best, become some sort of medical vegetable. I did not want to become some sort of medical vegetable.

My mind had shifted from the climb, and was stuck on thinking about the fall. Panic started creeping in, constricting my throat. The lack of oxygen began clouding my mind.

Taking a deep breath, I tried to relax. If I were tied in to a rope, this climb would have been easy. The difficult part was going through every possible doubt my mind could possibly generate. If I listened to those doubts, I would never reach the end of my goal.

Taking another step forward brought a rush of confidence. Turning off the mental blocks my brain could create, and stepping slowly forward, were the only ways I could move forward. I matched my feet, and took another step towards my goal.

Having conquered the crux (hardest part of a rock climb), the climbing above that point was easy, and fun. I stepped into a wide chimney crack between two rocks, and pulled myself up to the final ledge that led to the open hut. Sliding on my belly along the ledge, I looked down onto the hundreds of feet of open air. I was no longer afraid. It was just like crawling on my stomach along the sidewalk. The fall would only happen if I rolled over the edge.

Reaching the edge of the shelter, I wondered about all of the things that could be inside? A remote spot like this could be concealing anything. It almost felt like I shouldn’t look. There was an air of dignity surrounding the dwelling, that I did not want to disturb.

On my hands and knees, I carefully approached the entrance, and peered through the single hole entry way.

Inside, a lattice work of branches was covered by a natural red plaster. The floor was the same bare rock that I had was now standing on. I didn’t dare to crawl inside.

There were no mummies, or pottery shards. Inside, the shelter was empty. It’s floor was completely clean, almost as though it had been swept. The mystery of why this place had ever been built will most likely never be solved. The only thing left in the area was mysterious dignity, and a silent history that would never be spoken of again. The only people who could answer any questions were the two man shaped figures wearing antlers, staring into another world on the other side of the sandstone.

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