There I stood, motionless, in the early hours of the morning, as I peered into the Medieval Chamber, a slot canyon so deep and dark that I couldn’t see the bottom, taking in the cold moist air from below. I tried to steady my breathing, as I came to realize that I had to trust a little metal ring and take a giant leap of faith … backward. It was a bright spring day in Utah, but the depth of Medieval Chamber, as it’s aptly called, was cold and dark as night. Light couldn’t possibly penetrate the expanse of this canyon, and now, standing on the rim, I was starting to panic. This was my first canyoneering trip, and though I was up for the challenge, I began to wonder if I bit off more than I could chew. Not because I’m afraid of heights or the ice cold pool of water waiting for me at the bottom, but because I was born without my left arm and this was going to be a very challenging mission with only one hand.
For the majority of my life, I’ve felt pretty isolated. Growing up in small-town Colorado, I never met kids who looked like me or faced similar obstacles. Although my parents, teachers and friends encouraged me to try everything and provided me with ample opportunities, I suffered. I failed to find interest in athleticism, mostly out of fear of people staring at me or looking funny when doing activities that required two hands. From youth into adulthood, I opted out of social outings that involved team activity at all costs. While friends joined in on soccer, beach volleyball and basketball, I made myself busy with dolls and arts and crafts. I lacked confidence, and it all rooted back to my arm.
When I turned 23, I decided to take matters into my own hand, the greatest leap of faith I have ever taken.
I realized that no one was going to accept me if I couldn’t accept myself, first and foremost.
That winter, I asked my dad to take me skiing in Aspen. As a Colorado native, I’ve watched my family ski my entire life, and passively sat back each winter. I never wanted to draw attention to myself because I only used one pole or had my left jacket sleeve pushed up my arm. But after my first weekend on the slopes, I felt more alive, more confident and more capable than ever. I surprised myself with how well I was able to learn the sport and discovered that with each day I progressed, so did my overall self-esteem. I was able to focus on what my body was able to achieve and worry less about what people were thinking. With each ski run I was exponentially improving. I stopped watching the colors on the boards and started following my instincts down the slope. The freedom was liberating; I could go any direction, without a care in the world.
My newfound excitement for skiing improved my attitude toward life overall, as well. I started getting outdoors every chance I could, making it my mission to conquer a new mountain, physically and emotionally, each weekend. In summer months, I sought out new trails to hike, leading me from Colorado to California and eventually up the Half Dome cables in Yosemite National Park. In the winter, I ventured to new ski resorts, often solo in search of new runs. I began to feel stronger, my mental health improved and I felt like there was no obstacle I couldn’t overcome.
That’s when I had the biggest epiphany of all: If outdoor recreation had the ability to transform my life, surely it could do the same for other women like me. So, I founded SheLift. The organization’s mission is to empower girls, improve self-acceptance and confidence through outdoor adventures, and body-positive mentorship. Through retreats and trips, SheLift brings young women and girls together who share a commonality of being different. As a group, they’re able to empower and motivate one another to try new activities, and ultimately feel a sense of belonging.
Today, it’s my goal to show young women with physical differences what it means to be a Force Of Nature by demonstrating what can be accomplished outdoors. My weekends are spent researching, exploring, testing and pushing the envelope. I continue to test my personal limits in new hobbies, such as rock climbing, mountaineering, stand up paddle boarding and kayaking. I want to experience as many of these outdoor passions as possible so that I can share the transformation I feel with others. I suppose that’s how I found myself standing on the edge of a 90-foot drop, looking into a cold, dark abyss.
When I expressed interest in rock climbing last May, my boyfriend suggested canyoneering as a great introduction to rope sports. And with that, we took off to Moab, Utah.
Our adventure began at 6 a.m. on a beautiful, warm May day without a cloud in sight. We were in a 4×4 van bouncing down Sand Flats Road on our way to Grandstaff Canyon, accompanied by Heather, our Moab Cliffs and Canyons guide. The multi-rappel route starts along sandstone fins and slowly descends toward the head of the canyon. The first rappel is into Medieval Chamber and the second through Morning Glory Arch; the combined route is rated a 3A II on the canyoneering rating system. Or in layman’s terms, scary enough to get your heart racing, but not terribly difficult.
As Heather went through the rappelling demonstration, I was trying to stay focused but all I could think of was the dark mysteries below. Heather helped me into my harness, cinching the leg straps and teaching me to trust my rappel device. She asked me to let go with my only hand, and demonstrated that if lost grip of the rope, I would not plummet to my death. I slowly started to walk myself backward down the canyon wall—my mouth dry from swallowing too much air too quick. Heather remained patient and calm, talking to me the whole way down.
After my entire group safely made it to the bottom of the canyon, skirting the frigid pool of water, we shared a collective high-five and ventured on for the second rappel through Morning Glory Arch. Now that we had gotten the hang of rope management, the second rappel was a straight 90 feet down with no wall to comfortably use as a brace. This meant a true leap of faith; faith in the rope device, faith in Heather and faith in my ability to remain in control. Despite spinning out of control, it was the most exhilarating part of the entire trip.
As I removed my rappelling equipment and walked the last 2 miles of Grandstaff Canyon, I felt accomplished and reflective. This experience wasn’t just an afternoon adventure, it was a lesson in trust and vulnerability.
Taking the leaps of faith by rappelling exemplifies what we teach during SheLift retreats: trusting yourself and your support team to overcome obstacles and anxieties that once held you back. In fact, I’m going to return this October with six young women to share the thrill of letting go and giving in to the unknown.
Photos by Dylan H. Brown and courtesy of Sarah Herron