You’d think I would’ve gotten the memo.
Hiking a perilous trail (well, perilous to me) and surviving the journey, would alert some people to the fact that maybe sheer cliff walls and tight rock tunnel passageways might be better left to other, more intrepid national park visitors. Especially since I’ve just miraculously reached the end of that trail before lunchtime.
But something indescribable happens to me after a warm flatbread meal in the cafeteria and a few hours on a leisurely bus tour around Mesa Verde National Park’s ruins. Somehow, the morning’s perils melt away and in their place is a resolute “yeah man, I totally wanna scale cliff walls and push my body through tunnel openings designed by Ancestral Pueblo Native Americans much smaller in girth (see warm flatbread above).”
Balcony House was erected by the impossibly brave Pueblos or Anasazi back in the 1300s. Built right into alcoves in sandstone cliff walls, the engineering feats of derring-do don’t look any less impressive from above. So why in the ancient world do I want to join other visitors — those much older than me, others younger, including a marathon runner who is here ahead of a 26.2 mile weekend run nearby? (She is getting acclimatized so she can compete effectively: I am working off my flatbread.)
This is the only place in Colorado’s UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s open to visitors right now. The other cliff dwellings can be viewed from afar or in the comfortable, far-less-perilous museum video presentation. Something stirs inside of me — no more flatbread jokes — and I tell myself that I’d never forgive myself if I skip the opportunity. So a half-dozen folks stay on the bus with our tour ranger, while the other two dozen of us commit to the descents, then the far more frightening ascents. Those on the bus have moresense.
After the bus departs, a young, slender ranger — who looks like she never got stuck pushing her way through an ancient stone portal on the side of a cliff — explains that when climbing replica ladders, we should never look down, nor up, nor take selfies, nor — she can’t believe she has to say this — shake the ladder. Someone earlier in the season shook the ladder. He was a grown adult male; people around me shuffle a little further away.
We trudge down steps against the side of the cliff. “This isn’t so bad,” I tell myself. “We have railings and there are trees around us; how bad can it get?”
Look at this handy National Park Service photo; there’s a ladder on the bottom right. We’re about to free climb that ladder. Yeah, yeah, no big deal. But it IS a big deal. There are no support harnesses or nets. If you fall, you’re expelled from Gravity High in an instant, with no standardized tests or awkward prom photos. Pass/Fail here. Miss Marathon and I decide to be ladder buddies, but two seconds later, she mountain goats it to the top, climbing like we’re not trapped on the side of a vertiginous mountain. I look straight ahead, maintaining six points of contact with the ladder at all times, however impossible that may seem.
Then I’m suddenly pulling myself to the top and life is grand — exhilaration at seven thousand feet above sea level. Midterms accomplished.
The good ol’ NPS website says, “Today, the tunnel, passageways, and modern 32-foot entrance ladder are what make Balcony House the most adventurous cliff dwelling tour in the park.”
They go on to note it’s “one of the most intimate, yet adventurous tours at Mesa Verde. A visit to Balcony House will challenge your fear of ladders, heights, and small spaces, and will give you the opportunity to explore the common areas of a mid-sized, 40-room dwelling. The Balcony House tour requires visitors to descend a 100 foot staircase into the canyon; climb a 32 foot ladder; crawl through a 12 foot, 18 inches wide tunnel; and clamber up an additional 60 feet on ladders and stone steps.”
First ladder ✓
I’m acing the tests!
Then comes those kivas, circular holes in the balcony floor dropping down to a far floor, albeit far less far than the valley floor nearby. The earlier cliff dwellers performed ceremonies in these giant pits. I back up, way back, behind everyone else. I’m not normally ascared of heights, but I see a guy walk over to edge of one kiva as the cliff’s edge veers down right behind him. I feel a double vertigo for the guy, so I do what comes naturally; I snap his picture, which calms me somewhat.
Then comes that 18-inch-wide tunnel through the stone. It used to be the only way to enter Balcony House. If I lived back then I’d be like, “I’m sure your place is terrific, but I think I left some corn mush and ash boiling on my home campfire.”
But grown-up after grown-up squeezes through the tunnel. When it’s my turn, I surprise myself with how narrow-bodied I can get. The guy in front of me stands up in the middle; I keep to my hands and knees for fear I might expand too much and miss my chance to exit.
A woman several people back gets stuck, but I’m no help because I’m climbing up the rock face of the cliff, with only footholds to jam my feet into (well, and metal chains & poles affixed securely to the side of the rock — but remember, there are no nets, straps, harnesses or belays here at Gravity High.)
Rock wall ✓
The final exam.
By now, with the former ladder behind me, I’m not worrying at all. This one’s supposedly shorter. But uh-oh, it’s somehow even more vertical. And it feels wider in my hands. Why are the rungs, the grips so dang big around? I’m definitely flunking out. Ten points of contact with each haul of my body later, I hear a soft “good job, you’re almost there, nice!” It’s coming from our earlier ranger, the bus ranger; he’s come back in my hour of need!
I pull myself up, “no big deal” I try to say with my attitude, bearing and demeanor. But my words betray me and I say something like, “Thank you so much; those soft little words of encouragement were sooooo helpful.”
Marathon Ma’am is up there too, relaxed and calm. We politely watch way down below as the stuck woman is finally extricated and climbs tearfully, with a well-deserved exhilaration. Strolling up the path, there’s my 83-year-old cousin smiling at me again, like earlier today. He’s a retired doctor. He’s smart. He stayed on the bus.
In the middle of all this, remember, there was a tour guide telling us tour stuff about the ancient cliff dwellers. It really was fascinating information, but my adrenaline was too jacked to take it all in. Here are a few facts I remember after looking them back up again:
The average lifespan of the Ancestral Pueblo people was 35 years.
They lived at Mesa Verde until about 1400 AD, when they left over a few short generations.
Speculation about why they left abruptly ranges from drought, food scarcity, knowledge of an easier life elsewhere or raids from neighboring people.
Corn kernels found in a large buried pot dating back from ancient times could probably be planted and grown today.
Some of their later pit houses had holes in the floor aligning with the North Star.