In the Canyon Incognita

Deep into Anasazi country, and way back in time


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The bound periodicals exuded the musty smell of the stacks as I flipped idly through the early 1960s. Under a fluorescent glare, I slouched in a basement carrel in Tozzer, the anthropology library at Harvard, yawning past “Pleistocene Cinder Domes” and “Notes on Arizona Plants.”

All at once a short article claimed my attention. It dealt with a place called Mystery Canyon, into which the archeologist author and his pals had made a probe in September 1959. He described roping down sandstone slots, only to be boxed in by overhanging rims–“pourovers”–that interrupt canyons, and the deep, ominous plunge pools that form beneath them. The photos showed formidable hand-and-toe trails carved by prehistoric climbers. In dry academese, the author suggested that very few people had entered Mystery Canyon since the last Anasazi farmers packed up and left in the thirteenth century.

In the old days, in the sagas of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, the scholar-adventurer burned his candle to a nub as he pored over quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore—a map drawn in faded ink, a cryptic document in Latin–and thus was launched a glorious excursion into terra incognita. Of course such romantic gambols, born of the savant's midnight oil, never come to pass in our day and age–if indeed they ever did outside the pages of Verne and Wells and Doyle. Still…

I carried the article to the photocopier and then sent it off to an old friend, Jon Krakauer. We had vaguely planned a trip to the Southwest together, during which we would seek out hand-and-toe trails of the Anasazi, the predecessors of the Pueblo Indians, who flourished all over the Four Corners area for more than a millennium. The Anasazi built the most sophisticated villages in prehistoric America–stone-and-mud prodigies such as Pueblo Bonito, Cliff Palace, Keet Seel, and Betatakin–and then suddenly, just before A.D. 1300, abandoned the whole of the Colorado Plateau, never to return. Despite a century of research, the abandonment remains the central Anasazi puzzle. I suggested a day or two in Mystery Canyon as part of our wide-ranging inquiry.

Jon called me as soon as he got the article. “We gotta go there this spring,” he blurted, his words colliding as they do when he gets excited.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Couple of days between…”

“Forget the toe trails. We gotta do this right. Mystery Canyon, all of it, however long it takes. Before somebody else finds out about it.”

Jon and I go way back. He was my student at Hampshire College, where I taught him a little bit about climbing and perhaps a little more about writing. The days are long gone, however, when I could dictate the shape of our forays into the wilderness. Just as he soon became the better climber, he quickly learned how to manipulate me into agreeing to any cockamamy plan he came up with. On a trip we might pause, for instance, at a fork in the trail. Jon would pretend to consult me: “Do you want to go left up over the headwall or right along the coast?”

“The coast looks good…”

“I really think we'll hit some wild stuff on the headwall. Let's go, it's getting late.”

So within hours I was committed to Mystery Canyon. And I quickly realized that Jon was right. The adventure of a decade might have just fallen into our laps. We swore each other to secrecy and blocked out ten days in May for our expedition.

My predecessors had left traces here. On several rock panels covered with desert varnish, the Anasazi had carved haunting petroglyphs: lizard-men, their arms outstretched and rigid; abstract designs that might have been maps.

Mystery Canyon snakes through the chaos of slickrock spread across the Navajo Indian Reservation between Lake Powell and Navajo Mountain in southern Utah. Sometime before 1948, the canyon was named by Norm Nevills, that cranky pioneer Colorado River rafting guide, after he tried and failed to find a way into its hidden labyrinth. From the river, Nevills confronted a nearly blank cliff wall at the canyon's outlet; up it, however, a hand-and-toe trail had been carved with a quartzite pounder by some Anasazi virtuoso perhaps a thousand years ago.

The steps seemed altogether too scary to Nevills, so he wielded a metal tool to enlarge them. (Modern eco-travelers cringe at such desecration, but many an archaeologist did the same in the early decades of the twentieth century.) Even with chiseled help, Nevills gave up low on the toe trail. Rafting guides today say it must have been a hell of a staircase, since Nevills was famed for his daring as a cowboy climber. The canyon would remain a mystery.

Jon ordered us each a set of maps. In the 1960s, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names gave Mystery Canyon a new, less soulful official title, but Jon and I agreed to stick with Nevills's usage. On the 7.5-minute quadrangles, the jumble of brown contour lines grew particularly frenzied around Mystery Canyon, as if some dipsomaniac cartographer had had a bad case of the shakes when he got down to drawing them. The charts abounded with those eloquent ambiguities where four or five lines run together, announcing OVERHANGING WALL.

The 1959 party's thrust came as part of a heroic survey by teams of archaeologists desperately reconnoitering unknown ruins all up and down the Colorado and the San Juan during the last months before the accursed bathtub of Lake Powell would swallow them. “Eighty percent of what we saw is now under water,” one of the veterans of that campaign told me ruefully. Gone beneath the lake is the toe trail that Nevills blanched at scaling. And though Powell's waters have crept miles up Mystery Canyon, another blank cliff still prohibits access from below.

The '59 party would never have found its way into Mystery Canyon without the expertise of its Paiute guides, Dan Lehi and Toby Owl. By 1959, it had been a quarter of a century since Lehi himself had been into Mystery Canyon. Eventually, however, the canny Paiutes not only got the archaeology team into the heart of the canyon, but engineered a wild horsepacking route to its shadowy depths. Thirty-five years later, Jon and I would find their horses' droppings, desiccated and preserved like artifacts under the desert sun.

Neither of the two 1959 veterans I spoke with knew of anyone who had explored Mystery Canyon after their own excursion. Moreover, they had entered only the upper canyon, leaving a long stretch downstream untouched. The team leader, Christy Turner, remembered well the pourover that had thwarted his team's probe downstream, before which even the Paiutes had turned back. “We weren't real climbers, but we had ropes,” he told me. “We probably could have gotten down the pourover, but I'm not sure we could have gotten back up.”

Through guarded and roundabout queries, I tested the knowledge of a half-dozen Southwest friends who had prowled all over Anasazi country. They drew a collective blank when it came to Mystery. My furtive glee deepened. Between the look of the place on the map and the '59 party's talk of overhangs and plunge pools, it seemed likely that if Jon and I pushed the canyon at all with ropes and hardware, we might get ourselves to places where perhaps no one–not even the Anasazi–had ever been.

In April I made a five-day reconnaissance north of Navajo Mountain. The previous winter, an Arizona archaeologist had told me he thought the slickrock plateau north of Navajo Mountain the most beautiful place in the Southwest. Except for parties hiking the Rainbow Bridge Trail, few Anglos venture into this territory, perhaps because hiking anywhere on the Navajo Indian Reservation requires a permit from the tribal office in Window Rock. That low hurdle, and the fact that, in automotive terms, Navajo Mountain is on the road to nowhere, have conspired to leave this wilderness blissfully undervisited.

For five days I wandered up and down Cha and Bald Rock and Nasja Canyons. From high vantage points, I gazed across miles and miles of sandstone witchery: soaring orange domes lapping toward the horizon like ocean waves, deep parabolic alcoves yawning out of vertical cliffs, fins and arches and knobby towers. It was impossible to head in a straight line: Instead, you wound in and out of gorges and tributary rills, stymied by sudden pourovers or ledges that blanked to nothing.

I made my way into Surprise Valley, a sheltered basin full of pi-ons and junipers that forms a serene oasis in the midst of all the stone savagery. In 1913, self-taught archaeologist and Indian trader John Wetherill guided Zane Grey here; Grey locates a secret city in this remote basin in his 1915 novel The Rainbow Trail. Four years earlier, Wetherill had spearheaded the first party of Anglos ever to see Rainbow Bridge. Nasja Begay, for whom Nasja Canyon may be named, was his Paiute guide.

All through my wandering, I kept coming upon Paiute rock carvings portraying splendidly saddled horses and solemn men with headdresses and braids. The finest were the work of Joseph Lehi—doubtless some kin to Dan Lehi, who had guided the '59 party. My favorite panel portrayed a big-nosed, hard-bitten man dangling a cigarette from his lips. Was this Joseph Lehi's self-portrait?

I had entered this country all but ignorant of the Paiute presence, assuming that because I was on the Navajo reservation, the land must always have been Navajo territory. Later I did my homework, uncovering a gloomy chronicle. For centuries, the terrain north of Navajo Mountain had been the homeland of the San Juan Paiutes. Some ethnographers believe the Paiutes may have driven the Anasazi out of the Four Corners area at the end of the thirteenth century. The San Juan band, however, was so marginal to Anglo awareness that not until 1989 was it officially recognized by the federal government. Today the San Juan Paiutes number only about 190, living in Atatsiv, near Tuba City, and Kaivyaxaru, in Paiute Canyon.

But I could not find a way into the canyon. All the joints I scrutinized blanked out in flared overhanging chimneys dripping with moss. With days of work and a drill, we might have bolted our way out of the cirque, but that would have been cheating.

Thus the San Juan Paiutes are forced even today to live on the Navajo reservation. Relations have long been uneasy between the two tribes: Into the early 1900s, some Navajos kept Paiutes as slaves, and yet they lived in fear of Paiute ambushes north of Navajo Mountain. Nonetheless, in 1864, when Kit Carson rounded up the Navajos to deport them to a concentration camp at Bosque Redondo, on the eastern New Mexico plains, a band led by Chief Hoskininni hid out here amid the slickrock canyons and was never captured.

In 1907, in a relatively enlightened act, the federal government established a Paiute reservation along what was called the Paiute Strip–the land between the Arizona-Utah state line and the San Juan River. The reservation lasted only until 1922, when Albert B. Fall, President Harding's Secretary of the Interior–who would soon go to prison for the Teapot Dome scandal–aided an oil-exploration crony by ordering the Bureau of Indian Affairs to declare the reservation uninhabited, causing it to revert to the public domain. Eleven years later, the Navajos petitioned successfully to add the Strip to their own reservation.

Despite these vicissitudes, the San Juan Paiutes seem to have kept their culture intact. The Paiute rock art I kept stumbling upon seemed a declaration of that integrity. I was beguiled by a defiant 1986 inscription I found along the Rainbow Bridge trail:



On the fourth day I made my way into an obscure cirque beneath arching sandstone walls. By now I had discovered the trick to penetrating the labyrinth: Indeed, you could see it in the contour lines on the map. The only weakness in the jumbled landscape around Mystery Canyon lies in a series of parallel grooves or creases in the rock, almost like geologic faults, all aligned northeast-southwest. These joints, as Jon and I would call them, create chimneys, gullies, and seams in the sandstone, sometimes wide enough to squeeze through. The '59 party had followed a joint to traverse one subsidiary canyon, circled on ridgetops around the head of another, and finally entered the middle of Mystery by means of a second joint.

Rather than follow their roundabout route, Jon and I wanted to find a way in near the very head of Mystery and then descend the canyon as far as we could go. As I stood at one corner of my cirque, I was only one-third of a mile, as the crow flies, from the head of Mystery. It might as well have been 20. For six hours, I searched in vain for a way out of the cirque.

My predecessors had left traces here. On several rock panels covered with desert varnish, the Anasazi had carved haunting petroglyphs: lizard-men, their arms outstretched and rigid; abstract designs that might have been maps. Twice I found John Wetherill's neatly etched signature, from 1918 and 1922.

But I could not find a way into the canyon. All the joints I scrutinized blanked out in flared overhanging chimneys dripping with moss. With days of work and a drill, we might have bolted our way out of the cirque, but that would have been cheating.

Ready to give up, I started for camp. The afternoon sun glanced sideways on a headwall of smooth stone, and all at once I noticed a feature I had walked right past in the flat light of noon. An Anasazi hand-and-toe trail rose from behind a juniper, traversed 40 feet to the right, and then rose again to a shelf. I started up the steep, ancient ladder, but in soggy hiking boots I chickened out. What lay above the shelf, I couldn't tell, but here was a clue for Jon and me.

We were back a month later. To haul our sizable stash of gear into the distant cirque, we hired a young Navajo horsepacker named Eric Atene. Eric wielded a prickly wit that seemed to spring from an ambivalence about Anglo hikers: They gave him business, but they invaded his wilderness.

As we pushed deeper into the maze, Eric kept saying, “I know this country like the back of my hand.” But it was clear that Mystery Canyon lay outside his ken. As we turned into the cirque I had reconnoitered, he muttered, “How do you guys know about this place?”

For base camp we chose a shady shelf above a stream fed by a pellucid spring. The shelf lay beneath a gigantic cave facing north, inside which the Anasazi had lived and possibly buried their dead. In the presence of these “ancient enemies”–one rendering of the Navajo word Anasazi—Eric grew somber. “We can't go up there,” he soliloquized, indicating the cave. He held his hands apart. “If I go over there”—he touched his fingertips—”I break the bond.” Eric glanced up. “They had their power, we have our power. There's unseen spirits over there. Only a medicine man can go into those places, and he has to prepare himself.”

Eric dumped our 200 pounds of gear; he would return in six days. With no Navajo qualms to dissuade us, Jon and I prowled through the huge alcove. I recognized at once that it was a classic Basketmaker II site, dating from sometime in the first four centuries A.D. During this early phase, the Anasazi were still seminomadic, growing corn but relying heavily on hunting and gathering. They used the atlatl, or spear-thrower, in an era before the bow and arrow had been invented. They had no pottery, cooking their food instead in yucca and willow baskets woven so finely that they could hold water (whence the appellation Basketmaker).

I found sandy beds at the back of the alcove, beneath which perhaps the dead still lay, and a curious recent structure that might have been a Hopi shrine. These Pueblo Indians, living on three mesas 90 miles to the south of Jon's and my base-camp cave, are the direct descendants of the Anasazi. Their oral traditions are so vital that each clan makes a yearly visit to the distant ruins of its ancestors, where it builds shrines and leaves offerings for the long dead.

In the morning Jon and I headed straight for the ancient toe trail that I had found in April. With climbing shoes on my feet and Jon's manic confidence (“Looks good–it's gotta go somewhere”) to nudge me on, I soloed up the ancient steps. I had to admire the skill of the builder, somehow crouching on each foothold as he sculpted the next, chipping at ankle level with his handheld pounder.

Above the shelf, a new set of steps, invisible from the ground, wove a route up a steep inside corner. All at once we had gained a saddle overlooking the head of the subsidiary canyon just east of Mystery. It was a warm day, with high cirrus drifting over from the southwest, cresting the shoulder of Navajo Mountain. We felt as alone in our labyrinth as we might have felt on some remote glacier in Alaska.

There was something odd, even eccentric, about these minimalist Anasazi sites. The glorious logic of Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde was utterly absent here.

Squeezing through a V-notch and wading two cold pools, we made our way into the subsidiary canyon and descended it for half a mile. The map had given us hopes of bursting across to Mystery Canyon by means of one particularly sharp-walled joint. Heading toward it, we crossed an alluvial bench. The prickly pears were in riotous bloom, waxy blossoms of magenta, cherry red, or pale yellow. In the dirt, I found worked flakes of chert and flint in half a dozen hues. Basketmakers again: Perhaps it was they, more than 16 centuries ago, who had linked our base-camp cave with the hidden canyons to the north by the remarkable hand-and-toe trail.

As our spirits soared, we followed our chosen joint southwest through an easy pass. We could see the far cliffs of Mystery Canyon. Just below the pass, I discovered a faint inscription scratched on the righthand wall: 1921 AW. Al Wetherill, I thought at once: John's brother, one of three men who rediscovered Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. But Al, I recalled, had been out of the Southwest by 1921. Could AW have been Angel Whiskers, once headman of the San Juan Paiutes, Clyde Whiskers's great-something-or-other?

Our joint seemed in danger of ending in a precipice, but at the last moment it disclosed a steep gully that led all the way down to the floor of Mystery Canyon. Later we deduced that this was the only reasonable route into the upper canyon; we could even imagine Dan Lehi and Toby Owl crafting a crazy zigzag horse trail down the gully.

By the end of the day, happily fatigued, we had made two trips back and forth to wrestle the bulk of our gear from base camp into Mystery. Our new camp was perched on a rippling shelf of red bedrock next to a tiny stream. Besides food and shelter, we had 350 feet of rope, a rack of hardware, ascenders, and a five-pound pack raft that had to be inflated like an air mattress. I had done no technical canyoneering, and Jon had done only a little, but he seemed to know what gear to bring, and in a sport so young, all its practitioners are sort of making it up as they go along.

Mystery Canyon seemed a paradise. By day the canyon wrens sang anthems; in the evening, mourning doves called from the dusk. Junipers gave us shade, and tall grasses, never grazed, billowed like pale curtains in the breeze. The canyon had an intimate scale, and yet the swooping walls, the stark towers, the sewn-shut seams of overhanging joints reverberated with the impossible.

We found a pair of rusty old soup cans, along with a camp table made of sandstone slabs, left no doubt by the '59 party. And we found several traces of the Anasazi, dating from the Pueblo II-III period, A.D. 900-1300: a bighorn sheep skull and horns–clearly an Anasazi kill–here where the animal has been extinct for centuries; scatterings of potsherds, remains of the black corrugated ware that the ancients used for cooking; and a small panel of petroglyphs mentioned in the '59ers' report. It featured an anthropomorphic stick figure etched in a style I had seen nowhere else: horned like a sheep, left hand upraised, penis striking the ground like a third leg. I also found a fine, stemless, cream-and-red arrowhead, kept it in my pocket for two days as a talisman, and then put it back where I'd found it.

There was something odd, even eccentric, about these minimalist Anasazi sites. The glorious logic of Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde was utterly absent here. One had the sense not of the proud inheritors of a bold civilization, but of furtive hermits, marginal mystics, outlaws and rebels. “Those people were really going their own way out there,” a leading southwestern archaeologist had once told me. “They were escaping the confines of normative thought.”

Jon was in his element, his frenzied impetuosity honed to a razor's edge. Having both spent the brazen years of youth climbing in the Alaska mountains, we had each developed an outdoor style based on manic efficiency. We tended to put our boots on, change the headlamp batteries, and sort carabiners while we stirred the Cream of Wheat. I prided myself on a fairly high-caliber impatience, but Jon had turned hyper into an art form. On the way in, he had squeezed off motor-drive snapshots without breaking stride and gulped down his water like a wino facing rehab. One's expedition habits leak into lazy, everyday life, too. At a restaurant with Jon, while I was still paying the bill, he would be outside, heading down the sidewalk. During slide shows of his climbs, the compulsive twitch of his “change” button would short-circuit his own narrative.

Now I wanted to hang out in Mystery Canyon and get to know the place. Jon desired only to strap on his gear and head downstream for the unknown. In the end, we compromised, spending three days in the upper canyon, wandering into every nook of its wrinkled fastness–but only after the Big Push downstream.

On the appointed day, off early, we hiked past the last Anasazi site and entered a gorge narrowing between 300-foot walls. It wound and snaked, shutting off the morning sunlight. About a mile below camp, it ended abruptly in the 40-foot pourover that had stopped the '59 party.

I wedged myself between the walls, inched near the lip, and peered into the dim void. At the bottom of the pourover loomed a black pool of indeterminate depth, 80 feet across. On all sides of it, the smooth rock walls overhung.

“This is wild,” said Jon for the first of several dozen times that day. He uncoiled one of our ropes and searched for a chockstone to tie it to. I began blowing up the dinky yellow boat. In days previous, I had silently humored Jon for being so grandiose as to think we might need it.

Bug-eyed with anticipation, Jon got on rappel, dangling the raft from his harness, and then plunged off the pourover. I heard clanking, then rubbery sounds, then splashing, then “Wild!” After half an hour he glided into sight, cranking the toy boat toward shore with our toy paddles.

The canyon turned on itself and folded, plunged and lay level, slotted down and opened into amphitheaters. Yet it never relented.

I got on rappel myself and went over the edge. Halfway down, in the stygian gloom, I had to lock off the rappel with one leg and haul the boat back with my hand to a position underneath me. My giddiness was laced with the visceral awareness that, despite would-be tutors offering their services over the years, I had never learned to swim. In my time I had done some creditable flailing about on rivers, but deep, dark water retains for me a primal horror. Lodged in my neurons all day was an image of myself sinking into a pool as the rope stretched and my 40-pound pack dragged me under, the boat bobbing perkily out of reach, my fingernails clawing the rock. Jon didn't help. At the crucial moment, he yelled, “Be careful, Dave! Make sure you land in the raft!”

I did, and on the far shore, we exulted. After deflating and packing up the boat, we walked for half a mile on dry bedrock as the canyon twisted upon itself, its walls often five feet apart or less but never too tight for passage. Then we came to our second obstacle, a long, complex narrows stretching down into chimneys and pools. I shinnied down a body-jam slot into waist-deep water. Once again we had to string a rope; to wriggle unaided back up the claustrophobic fissure with wet feet might prove beyond us. The narrows went on and on, broadening here into a pothole pool, slitting down there to a crevice, which we bridged with hands on one wall and feet on the other.

Fleetingly, as we plunged downstream, I wondered how the ancients, gazing from above, must have felt about the canyon below the first pourover. Was it for them only a badlands, a place where no corn could grow and the stream could trap you? Or did it have the power of some glimpsed otherworld?

At last we came to a kind of moat–a six-foot-wide channel, water well over our heads, that bent around a far corner. We blew up the boat again and never deflated it the rest of the day, dragging it behind us through chimneys and hauling it up over pourovers. Now we rode it the length of the moat, pulling ourselves along with palms slapped against the sandstone walls.

Every boat ride required a rope left in place, for otherwise the second person had no way to haul the raft back, and the boat couldn't carry both of us and our packs in one load. It quickly became clear that the yellow toy I had scorned was our most valuable piece of gear. The sky was a perfect blue, but gusts of wind shrieked through our gorge, threatening to seize the boat like a kite and waft it up onto some shelf or wedge it in some chimney from which we might not be able to retrieve it. Without the raft, I doubted whether a wretched nonswimmer like me could have got out of the canyon.

The complex narrows convinced us that we were almost certainly in a place where no one had ever been, for it would have been fiendishly difficult to come up the canyon, there was patently no way in from the sides, and even the Anasazi had left no traces here. The first time that I had ever ventured onto ground never before trod by human feet had been on Denali's Wickersham Wall when I was 20. I remembered the acute, imperishable taste of that moment.

I did not expect to sample that same drug 31 years later, to feel so heady a rush all over again. Even in 1963, it had seemed necessary to go all the way to Alaska to find the elixir. Yet in 1994 we were tasting it in southern Utah, only a few miles from the frat boys water-skiing on Lake Powell.

And like inarticulate 20-year-olds, John and I yelled and giggled to the sky as we pushed downstream. Jon hypered us through a five-minute lunch eaten standing up. The possibility of descending the whole of Mystery to the lake began to whisper its yearnings.

The canyon turned on itself and folded, plunged and lay level, slotted down and opened into amphitheaters. Yet it never relented. Chimney succeeded pool, chockstone boulder followed slickrock chute… I began to lose track of the details, the sequence in my mind, as I seldom had on even the most complicated climbs. Jon later confessed to a like confusion, an overdose of experience. We grew tired, then tireder. And our supply of rope was dwindling.

Early in the afternoon, we came to the second pourover. Once again we set up a rappel, landed in the boat, paddled for shore. The blur of hard moves behind us accreted as a weight in my mind–what climbers call commitment. Grit in my boots had worn my feet raw, I had wet sand in my ears and teeth, and the chimneying had scraped my arms and legs. The whole wonderful day began to feel like a serious climb. Save some energy for the way back, I thought. Pay attention to the little things.

But suddenly the canyon grew easy, mere hiking. We spurted on, taking turns carrying the boat over our heads like some trophy animal. “It may just go all the way!” Jon crowed.

We turned a corner and beheld a new slot. I wedged myself in to gaze into its depths. It was a bad one, flaring and squeezing in scalloped hollows down to a green obscurity. Jon chimneyed even closer to the hole.

“That's it,” I said when he returned. “We have to turn around.”

“But Dave!” Jon wailed.

In a surprisingly rational discourse, we analyzed our options. We had only 40 feet of rope left. That might get us down the scalloped slot, but the green glimmer meant a deep pool, stretching as far as we could see. We would have to boat it, with no rope left to haul back and forth.

It was getting late. Stupidly, we had left our headlamps in camp. The first clouds of the day were darkening the sky. Within the previous week, afternoon thunderstorms had drenched the land. Mystery Canyon was no place to ride out a flash flood.

But at 51, no matter how sweet the elixir still tasted, I no longer craved the deed. To walk in a place where no one else had walked was, to be sure, a rare delight.

Reluctantly Jon agreed, though not before uttering one last stab of blind defiance: “We could both get in the boat! Leave our packs behind!”

“And what comes after that?” I asked, gesturing toward the slot. Jon took a final look, then spat toward the green glimmer–not in contempt, but as if to reach out for one last contact with the unknown.

Climbing up out of Mystery Canyon seemed endless and tedious. Even with help from the ropes, it was brutal bashing up the chimneys we had slithered down. We gouged our knuckles raw coming up the two pourovers, and the boat snagged and lodged behind us like an anchor we dared not cut loose.

The whole ascent felt like backing off a climb. And when I heaved up over the last lip and unclipped my harness, it was with all the relief that had once washed over me as I stepped onto level ground from a last rappel.

To our best guess, according to the progress we traced on the map, we had gone six miles, 600 vertical feet, and had given up about a third of a mile from where the map showed Lake Powell meeting the canyon. The altimeter on Jon's watch indicated that we'd turned back between 40 and 100 vertical feet above the lake level.

A week after the trip, we hired a pilot and flew over our wilderness. At first the maze of redrock dazzled us, but gradually, with the plane dipping and circling, we sorted it out. Peering from ground to map, I realized that the lake was considerably higher than it had been when the chart was made. We had turned back not a third of a mile away, but maybe only 200 yards–two short bends below the green glimmer.

“Goddamn it, Dave,” Jon shouted over the engine, “we should have pushed it!”

Decades ago, on certain climbs in Alaska, I had turned back within grasp of the summit. Those near misses had had the taste of wormwood for years. In recurring dreams I completed the ascent, and then woke to the dull ambiguity of ordinary life.

But at 51, no matter how sweet the elixir still tasted, I no longer craved the deed. To walk in a place where no one else had walked was, to be sure, a rare delight. To covet the privilege, on the other hand, was to succumb to the mad rage of the conquistadors. It was fine to leave the end of Mystery for someone else. As the Anasazi had left the canyon for us.

Decades ago, I would have kept the cream-and-red arrowhead I found, not dropped it back in the dirt. On our last night in Mystery Canyon, with the moon two days before full, the silence had spread around us like a balm. I was as happy as I have ever been, and Jon seemed happy, too.

David Roberts, a contributing editor of Outside, is writing a book about the Anasazi backcountry. His most recent book is Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars, published by Simon & Schuster.

promo logo