Nature Is Never Closed: Jill Prendergast
I have heard that New Mexico will let you know whether or not you are welcome. That it will either envelop you in warmth and vibrant enchantment or it will spit you out, sending some away with their tail between their legs.
There is a place here known as Diablo Canyon where this proves true and strong in my heart. It lies in the center of the Caja del Rio Plateau, 15 miles west of Santa Fe on ancient Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo land, with its titanous formations dating back 65 million years. The basalt canyon walls tower over a weaving prehistoric arroyo, between buried lava formations, twisted Juniper trees, and silvery sagebrush.
The first time my partner and I set foot here was a few days after arriving in our new home. He had studiously researched it through climbing communities. I was instantaneously enamoured. The endless sky swept over the tall walls, blending every color together, and I understood fast how artists can fever in attempting to paint this land.
One section, Winter wall, is warmed by the sun year-round, allowing climbers to enjoy the myriad number of routes that scatter it’s base, long into the cold months. I have been humbled, broken and repaired on these rocks more times in the last two years than I can write of.
I have felt unnerving fear, dangling 130 feet off the ground in a harness. Pieces of basalt break unexpectedly underfoot, while nesting ravens circle dangerously close, warning of their disdain in our human proximity. The heat given off by midday is mind-rattling. Goat heads plunge themselves into tender feet, while prickly cholla cacti guard the rocky approach, scraping clumsy legs.
Not long after we had begun our weekly drives out, Diablo Canyon gave me it’s first lesson in humility. We had finished a long and hot pitch on a climb aptly named Hellboy. Being in a hurry, as another party was waiting to begin, we decided to simul-rappel back to the ground. This can save time, but little more. It is a dangerous practice prone to accidents, and is not recommended by even the most wild of climbers. While lowering ourselves on each end of the rope, my braid had unknowingly come loose. This is another mistake that is easily avoidable. I was using an older ATC device, which has minimal friction and safety measures, especially when used without a hand’s free prusik. I was not concentrating, only trying to hurry down to my barking dog. Suddenly I felt a painful tightening on my scalp. My eyes darted up to where my ATC guide met the rope, and I was horror struck to see my hair woven tightly between them. I called across to my partner, who was lowering faster, to stop. We quickly realized the severity of our predicament. Without a ledge to offset the weight, my head was sliding closer to the guide with each slip off my sweating hands. He could not move, nor take his own hand off the counter-balanced rope.
The climber on the ground, a stranger, acted swiftly. She slipped on her shoes, soloed up 20 feet to me, and using my partner’s pocket knife, sawed one-handed between my hair and the hot metal only an inch from my scalp, cutting me free. The next day, that same stranger found my turquoise ring on the ground and returned it.
Shaken and alive, we went over how that could have gone, how lucky we were, and what was learned from it. That was the first of many humbling moments inside of that powerful canyon. Another time, my hand was broken, smashed while catching my partner on a factor-two fall when his foothold broke on a multi-pitch climb called Appendicitis. He fell 10 feet, then another 15 below me and the anchor of, while rocks dropped onto his helmet and his body slammed into the wall. Later I learned of a previous climber’s death whilst attempting the same route.
I have felt the spirit of Diablo Canyon in my bones, guiding me through lessons and laborious adventures. There have been shaky climbs, tears, giggles, mysterious aircraft, and tequila-dusted night hikes through the ancient riverbed. I’ve seen the vibrance of diverse desert blooms in every season. I’ve heard the wild yips of coyotes across the expansive plateau. I’ve listened to the raucous cacophony of tejana music blasting from off-road parties, and found patina-washed bullet casings on the old dirt roads. It is where I encountered a tarantula for the first time. It was where I saw the glowing red eyes of a baby owl in the dark of midnight. It is the place we excitedly show the ones we love when they visit, hoping they remember it when they go home. We have slept under those immense stars, watched the summer monsoons roll past, and hypnotized our eyes inside countless juniper wood fires, discussing big ideas, sharing dreams, and making plans. I have danced under the stars to the truck radio, thrown a frisbee in a field of curious ranch cows, and touched the clearest quartz I have ever seen. I have dipped my toes in the powerful silty confluence where the Rio Grande meets the Canada Ancha stream and understood the word Origin.
There are many places of magic on this planet, tucked away in nature, waiting to be felt by those that urge to explore them. The Southwest desert is land of rich history; a cultural confluence of stories and origins. I believe Diablo Canyon has been a portal for learning my sense of self, nestled inside a new strong sense of place.