Even in my wetsuit, the water is ice-cold and I grope for the wall ahead, which is the sooty hue of New York City subway tunnels. I hoist myself up into a small alcove. The only escape is to swim through a tight V-shaped void between the limbs of a large log that has become wedged vertically into a narrow gap.
I sidestroke out into the space and Kelsey calls out for me to go slow, then to stop. He is blipping off dozens of pictures with his digital camera. Voices of the team coming up behind us echo off the walls like firecrackers tossed into a storm drain. As I tread water, the layer of water under my suit warms from frigid to refreshing.
From here, the Black Hole presents plenty of minor and picturesque challenges. We squeeze through constrictions, climb around large rocks and swim through deep pools. But the difficulties are completely overshadowed by the fun. Kelsey's half-dozen trips to the Black Hole have borne out something that now seems obvious: A good weather forecast and a wetsuit are key to enjoying this adventure. We are assuredly safer for his experience.
There will, of course, in years to come, be more flash floods, more detritus washed into the gorge. Formerly dry holes will fill with water overnight. Torrents will scrape, scour and rearrange. New obstacles will emerge. Most of those who enter prepared will make it through unscathed. But as long as hikers pass this way, there will be accidents, perhaps even deaths. The Black Hole will continue to change -- that is the only certainty.
The night before, as we discussed accusations of inaccuracy in his Canyon guides, Kelsey said he has frequently been made a scapegoat for poor preparation and lapses in judgment. He believes his detractors are often motivated by something more than considerations of accuracy: "Many of my critics are jealous because I have found a way to make my hobby into a career." He says this without a trace of irony.
Yet Kelsey insists that he's always been receptive to fair criticism. Besides, his guidebooks are not intended as gospel. Like the canyons themselves, the books continue to evolve. "Each time someone goes out and has a problem, it makes me more diligent. Just look at the differences between my first books and the latest editions," he says. "You get better with time."
And what of the criticism leveled by many canyon advocates, including Monticello-based writer Jim Stiles, who assert that Kelsey has profited by selling out the wilderness -- by advertising places that should remain permanently off the radar of the general hiking public? "I understand where Stiles is coming from. He likes to make his own trail. He doesn't want to see any footprints in front of him. That's fine. I'm like that, too," says Kelsey. "But people are going to go whether I write it down or not. At least my books try to explain to people how to visit these places safely."
Then, in a long-anticipated moment of catharsis, I relay my harrowing experiences 16 years ago in the Lower Black Box. As I speak, Kelsey stares back in the moonlight, his face unmoving, as if etched in stone. The response is pitch-perfect Kelsey. "October is a little late to attempt the hike without a wetsuit," he replies. "Last time I was there, there was no flowing water at all. It was in the middle of the drought. Everything changes all the time."
As abruptly as the Black Hole had constricted, it opens up. Swimming gives way to a slog through sugary sand in the canyon bottom. The sun has crested the rim and beats down on our shoulders. We stop on a sandbar and peel off wetsuits. "We're not far off now," Kelsey says, striding off rapidly after tucking his suit away. We soon arrive at a small cairn marking a faint footpath leading up through ragged cliffs above.
We clamber up along a series of rocky terraces toward the rim. Kelsey's stride is longer now and I struggle to keep pace. At an outcrop with a yawning panorama of the canyon, he stops to take some notes and let me catch up. "1:30," he says. As we make the final push over a series of small, red rises, motorbikes groan along Highway 95 and windshields glint like jewels in the desert sun. The inside of my mouth feels as if it is lined with tissue paper. At the parking lot, Kelsey looks at his watch again. "Four and a half hours," he says, recording the time in his logbook, which, I imagine, will become memorialized in the "author's experience" section of his next edition.
On the plane ride back to New York the next day, I reach into my bag to retrieve the latest version of Kelsey's technical canyoneering guide, which he gave me as a gift. A pretty young woman sitting next to me sees my scraped knuckles and forearms and asks if I've been in a fight. I tell her, "No, just out walking." I tap Kelsey's picture on the cover -- a clever double exposure with two images of the author rappelling down a single rope. She nods and smiles, polite but mildly confused. Then she turns back to her magazine.
As I revisit the section on White Canyon, I find that our effort is significant -- at least in the circumscribed world of Kelsey's accomplishments. We'd beaten his previous "best" time through the Black Hole by an hour. I smile and tuck the book away and feel no compulsion to open it for the rest of the flight home.
Name Michael Kelsey
Job Guidebook author
Favorite desert bathing hole Hog Canyon Springs Rest Area
Favorite spot for a post-canyon ice cream cone Blondie's, Hanksville
Number of guidebooks published 16
Pairs of running shoes worn through in an average hiking season 9
He says "Put some money into wider trails, better trails, bigger trailheads. Create better facilities to handle more people. Wilderness areas are set up to keep motor vehicles out, not people."
Jeremy Miller writes about the West from his home in the East, outside of New York City. He was a 2009-2010 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. His last story for High Country News, “Mountains of Mercury” (hcn.org/issues/42.1/mountains-of-mercury), was about mercury pollution from cement plants. He is currently at work on a book about the California oil industry.
This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.