My Trip into Hellhole Canyon – A piece about goal setting for ultimate success

I want to write about something a little different today and share with you a recent event that happened in my life.  But the theme of this article is one of patience, acceptance of where you are, and the importance of taking short yet steady steps in the right direction.  Goal setting can be one of those things that can end up self-sabotaging if not done carefully and mindfully.  I hope that my story here helps shed some light on this very important concept.  It is something that quite easily applies to those of you looking to set healthcare goals or major life changes. 

The story begins on a warm Sunday morning here in San Diego.  Old college era gear has been taken out of storage and readied for a solo two-day one-night jaunt out into the wilderness of Anza-Borrego Desert.  Hellhole Canyon to be exact.  A place that I have not been to since the 9th grade.  The timing of this trip was important because I had only a week or so left of my vacation before school starts again.  Summer is rapidly approaching which makes canyons like this unreasonably hot and likewise, unreasonably dangerous.  And to top it off, there is a seasonal 20-foot waterfall that needed to be seen.  So why did I decide to go into this wilderness alone and without any physical conditioning? Well, long story short, it was a rather spontaneous decision.   And one my ego felt confident about. 

Heading out, happy and confident!

Heading out, happy and confident!

Heading Out

I arrived at the trailhead parking lot around 10:30am Sunday morning.  The temperature outside was a nice 75 degrees but would climb to around 90 or so later in the day.  Warm, but not too bad.  The previous weekend was already up to 100 degrees so I felt good about the situation.  The typical route into this canyon is from the valley floor and is the most easily hiked route in.  However, overnight parking restrictions stopped me from going this way.  Instead, there is a seldom traveled canyon that connects from a campground up the valley a bit.   So for better or worse, that was my way down. 

My hike started off easy enough.  I found myself on a nice gentle slope headed towards the valley rim.  The yucca were blooming and the soft purple desert lavender offered a soothing contrast to the otherwise harsh desert floor.  The rains this year were apparent and appreciated by flower and hiker alike.  But soon enough I reached a sign that indicated the trail had ended.  I was quickly off trail and into real wilderness from there on out. 

The descent started rather abruptly, as many descents into the unknown often do.  I quickly found myself negotiating razor sharp, backward barbed thorns much like cat claws which cut into my legs and arms with the spirit of a female mountain lion defending its cub.  As I continued down the steepening slope whatever game trail that I thought I was following transformed into a literal boulder field entrenched within a narrow canyon of cactus, yucca spines, and those sneaky cat claw thorns that literally seemed to be everywhere. The rocks I used as my trail were loose, leading to a series of small falls, but falls nonetheless ending with a bruised palm, a lumpy and bleeding shin, and the need to climb down a steep rocky crevasse to retrieve a water bottle that had come loose out of my backpack.  I retrieved my bottle from underneath a fifty pound rock which rolled free under my feet, causing the fall. The journey was becoming somewhat of an ordeal and I wasn’t even an hour from my car.  But persist I must.  After all, I set a goal and made my mind to carry though. 

Looks can be deceiving. This was a boulder mine-field!

Looks can be deceiving. This was a boulder mine-field!

Boulder Problems

The smaller boulders soon became not so small.  I found myself negotiating 10-15 foot boulder problems with a 42 pound backpack that I wasn’t accustomed to carrying.  Rock climbing has always been a passion of mine but it has been a few decades since I climbed anything seriously.  The skills and know-how were intact, but the conditioning, not so much.  My determined ego filled in the gaps.  Achieving my goal of a successful solo mission was paramount.  So down I went, bleeding and bruised, yet determined. 

I made it to the canyon floor by lunch, admittedly a bit rattled from my ordeal.  I think I felt a little adrenaline in the mix, but I set myself to finding and making my home for the evening.  It was a nice little flat spot (of which there were few) near the stream and under a sycamore tree which provided some much-appreciated shade.  The stress of the climb down the boulder field kind of hampered my appetite but experience told me that I needed food to replenish the energy lost in my climb down, so I forced down a little grub. As I sat there eating, the recently hatched swarms of flies and other little nasties took notice of my sorry condition and set themselves to landing on my open cuts for a little lunch of their own.  It was annoying, to say the least, and got me up on my feet again for a quick hike to the waterfall.  If I kept moving at least the flies would bugger off.  There I met two parties who had day hiked from the desert floor.  I enjoyed the scenery and the conversation, took some pictures of the maidenhair ferns happily growing in the rare moisture, touched the water, and got cut by many more of those ever-present cat claw thorns reaching out into the trail. 

About forty-five minutes later I was back at my campsite, sitting again under the sycamore tree, realizing just how terrible I felt.  A quick glance at the position of the sun and a confirmation from the clock on my phone told me I had six hours of sunlight left.  Six hours to sit at my campsite, being eaten by flies, not able to really hike in either direction due to the thorns and the now 90-degree heat.  If there was one thing I knew at that moment, it was that I wasn’t happy.  I was beat up and wanting my mommy, but at least I achieved my goal of seeing the waterfall.  And so I made the tough decision to pack up and head home early. The ego would just have to suck it up.  I knew that the path ahead of me would not be pretty but it seemed somehow better than waiting around on the hot desert floor, stuck, bruised, cut up and nauseous.  The climb wasn’t going to be easy but that was the way home.

Heading Out Again

I muttered a few swear words to myself as I packed up my gear.  Aside from my physical bruises, my ego was also a bit bruised.  But I felt a firm resolve for my decision to abandon my remaining time in the canyon.  Up the thorn-tangled boulder field I went knowing all too well that the later into the afternoon I went, the more likely I would be to run into rattlesnakes.  They live quite happily in the very sort of boulder field I was about to climb through.

2019-04-26 the backpack.jpg

As I started into my climb the mild nausea I was experiencing in the valley worsened.  The tension of my backpack belt seemed to be pushing the food and water back up the way they went in.  But I pushed on through, sipping water every five minutes or so.  Dehydration sets in quick in the dry desert air, and even though I had been drinking steadily, I was beginning to feel the effects of dehydration.  My muscles ached under the strain of the backpack and my thighs burned as I performed one deep lunge after another stepping up on one small granite flake after another, picking my way up each boulder problem.

There were some boulders that were just too high and too dangerous to attempt with the weight of my backpack so I would have to throw the 42 pounds of dead weight up to a ledge on the boulder face, climb myself up a safe route, climb back down to the pack, and do it again.  This is the kind of task meant for two buddies working together as a team, but this time it was just me.  There was no one to help.  There was no cell phone coverage in that narrow valley.  I had to accept my predicament, approach it calmly, put away the emotions of the ever-growing pain I felt in my low back which came on in one immediate jolt as I was throwing my pack up over my head.  Home was ahead of me, and that was where I was headed. 

Red Diamond Rattlesnake in his natural habitat

Red Diamond Rattlesnake in his natural habitat

I remember climbing to the top of one of the taller boulders.  This rock was perhaps about twenty feet or so, or put in another way, two good tosses of the backpack.  As I stood up and wrenched my now much heavier feeling pack onto my back, buckled my straps tight, I reached the limit of what my stomach could tolerate.  Right there, in all my glory, on top of a beautiful desert boulder I lost my lunch.  And with that lunch at least a liter of much needed water.  Without panic I stood there and appreciated the significance of my situation.  I had no less than another hour and a half of this climb and my remaining water supply was now going to have to make up for not only the climb ahead, but for what I left on the ground.  The local fly population, however, was much appreciative.  It took them mere seconds to notice the bounty that was just offered up on their alter.  It was the least I could do.  At least they were no longer nibbling at my cut limbs.  A Red Diamond Rattlesnake looping through a nearby tumble of rocks let me know his feelings as well, which unlike the flies, was anything but friendly.  

Small Achievable Goals

At this point in my climb my muscles began to fatigue and really ache.  There was a significant burn in my right quad that came to the forefront of my attention with every step up the steep incline.  I knew that these symptoms were due to more than just the climb itself.  I was getting more and more dehydrated.  I began to measure my progress in steps.  Ten steps, rest.  Five steps and a scamper across some small rocks, rest.  One boulder with one toss of the pack, a short climb, lay down in the shade and rest.  This was not a time to beat myself up for these gaps in my progress.  Or to cut myself down for finding myself in this predicament.  I did give myself a few lighthearted ribbings here and there, but there were more important things to accomplish.  I had a number of small goals to accomplish.  Five steps, one goal accomplished.  One boulder, another goal accomplished.  I decided it was best to keep in mind a sense of reward for each accomplished goal and not buckle under the weight of the long dangerous task I had created for myself. 

Before long I came upon a flattening in the grade and a small sign.  Pena Springs.  This was the trail that I left just hours before.  Amazing how a few hours can feel like such a very long time.  Only a mile or so to go to get back to my car.  The climb was over and I was now walking on a well-traveled dirt trail with just the most ever-so-slight grade.  This part should have been easy, but this was perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the return trip.  It was somehow more of a psychological hurdle.  The adrenaline of the boulder field was behind me and I was now feeling all of my pain and fatigued, aching muscles.   But during this final push I kept the same mindset as I had employed up the canyon.  Small accomplishments were how I was going to get to my car and ultimately get home.  And that I did. 

Beautiful blooming yucca flowers in the Anza-Borrego Desert

Beautiful blooming yucca flowers in the Anza-Borrego Desert


All told I was in the desert from 10:30am to 5:30pm.  Five and a half to six hours of which involved some of the hardest terrain that I have ever had to negotiate.  I did this with no help and with no ability to communicate my situation.  Smart?  Most definitely not.  But I can say that my experience was the definition of freedom.  Freedom to wander off into the wilderness to your own peril if that is what happens.  Freedom to challenge yourself physically and emotionally.  Freedom to show yourself exactly what you are capable of accomplishing. 

Looking back I consider my trip as a failure in the sense that I did not have the chance to sit in quiet solitude as I soaked up the natural environment.  What I got in return was something greater.  I got to experience being humbled by nature.  I got to push myself beyond my normal ability.  I got to remember that goals are best when they are realistic.  This is something I didn’t take to heart on my way down, but became very important on my climb back up.   I, of course, had the ultimate goal of getting home in one piece, but if that was all I had I wouldn’t have made it. I would have rushed beyond my ability and fallen off a rock, or put my hand on a rattlesnake, or rolled an ankle so that I couldn’t walk, let alone climb.  Instead I gave myself small goals which supported the ultimate goal of hugging my family and sitting my butt down on my couch for the next 24 hours.  These small goals filled me with empowerment, however small they were.  I kept winning as I slowly ground my way back up the canyon wall. 

Small Goals Add Up

It is important to understand that our healthcare goals are really no different than my experience out in the Anza-Borrego Desert.  At least in metaphor.  For some people, losing thirty pounds might be their goal.  And in trying to attain that goal they may fall victim to their own ego, or their own rush to the ultimate goal without allowing the process to motivate them and provide for them the success they so desperately seek.  People may end up trying radical diets, or starving themselves, or working out so aggressively that they become injured, only to be forced back into inactivity. 

Instead, try and appreciate the larger goal.  Do not lose sight of what that goal is for you, but start to find ways to break that goal into a series of smaller goals.  With each goal accomplished comes reward and a sense of accomplishment!  Each goal is a step in the right direction.  Doubting yourself or cutting yourself down for not accomplishing your larger goal as fast as you want is futile!  It leads to a failure mindset almost every time.  Be kind to yourself and set realistic goals.  Be persistent and determined with these small goals and before you know it your life has already changed for the better.

No matter what your healthcare goals are, a really great place to start is with a good blood chemistry evaluation.  Sometimes just fixing your blood sugar can make one of the biggest changes to your wellness.  And once you start to feel better there can be motivation to look further into the chronic migraines you may be experiencing, or the nagging fatigue.  Is there a food sensitivity?  Are you not hydrating adequately or not sleeping well?  Set some larger goals and then take some time attaining those goals with a lot of little ones mixed in along the way.  That is what got me through my ordeal and that is what can get you through yours.