The Call of the Void

One of the highlights of my career as an engineer came early as a young aspiring professional. I was 24 years old and working for a private consulting firm in Arizona, when I got the call to inspect a steel suspension bridge crossing the Colorado River in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Black Bridge, as it is commonly called, is a five-foot-wide, 440-foot-long bridge that serves as a crossing for hikers and mule trains carrying supplies to an area known as Phantom Ranch located in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. These same mule trains also carry trash out of Phantom Ranch, as everything that goes into the Grand Canyon must come out. The Black Bridge was built in 1928 and has since been refurbished and resurfaced on several occasions. During the bridge’s lifetime, periodic inspections of the bridge were conducted by the National Park Service with the help of private consulting firms. It had been several years since any inspection of the bridge had occurred, and nowhere in the bridge’s files could an inspection of the rock anchors used to hold the bridge’s suspension cable be found. That’s where my story starts, a story and experience that will be one of my most memorable during my life.

My first task in this project was to obtain as much information on the bridge that I could before I set out to inspect the bridge. I sent a request to the National Park Service Archives, located in Colorado, for anything and everything they would have on the Black Bridge. Expecting large file boxes to arrive in the mail or a series of emails with attachments too large to email all at once, I was surprised to receive a call from the NPS informing me that they had four sheets of plans to send me and that they wanted them back after I was done since these were apparently the only copies of the original bridge plans. Four sheets of paper for an entire bridge that was over seventy years old seemed odd, but I was willing to take any information that I could get. The four sheets of plans came, and what I found was what looked to be a copy of handwritten and hand drawn plans originally scribed on either cloth or canvas. The detail was astounding, the hand writing a work of art, and was as complete as any set of plans I have ever seen. No engineer’s stamp, just a signature of the “Chief Engineer” as these plans were drafted long before Arizona enacted today’s professional engineering regulations.

In looking over the bridge plans and formulating a plan to inspect the components of the bridge, it became evident that inspecting every bolted connection was going to be time consuming. The bridge’s guardrails, wind bracing, deck beams, girders…everything…. were no more than 10 feet long. By design, this is how they got the bridge down the long steep trail from the top of the Grand Canyon in the first place. It was also going to dictate that I spend a good deal of time looking over every bolt connecting together each of the deliberately short members. In addition to the challenge of inspecting every connection, the rock anchors, which hold the bridge’s suspension cables to the side of the Grand Canyon, were on top of a vertical rock cliff. These anchors had only been seen by the occasional eagle or falcon since the bridge’s construction in 1928, not by any human.

The Black Bridge’s suspension cables are anchored into the Canyon’s rock formation, 60 feet above the elevation of the bridge deck, and it was my job to get up the Canyon’s vertical walls and take measurements of strain within the anchors when a mule train crossed the bridge. Sixty feet is a long way up a rock wall. It’s even longer when you consider that below the bridge deck, at least another 60 feet, is the cold, deep, unforgiving Colorado River. Luckily in the southwestern part of the United States, rock climbers are a dime a dozen. As it turned out, finding a professional rock climber willing to take me up the side of the rock walls in the Grand Canyon was easy. This climb is apparently one of the holy grails for rock climbers. Rock climbing is not allowed in the Grand Canyon for numerous reasons, except for extraordinary circumstances and after obtaining a permit. My rock climbing guide was even surprised to know that I was actually going to pay him for his services.

With planning complete and my inspection tools in hand, I was ready to inspect the Black Bridge. At age 24, I was in great shape and I even spent time conditioning weeks before the day of the show so that I wouldn’t have any problems scaling the vertical walls of the canyon. As it turns out, my physical condition proved to be invaluable in scaling the rock walls, however, my mind wasn’t nearly as prepared as my body. Having more of a respect of heights, rather than a fear of heights, I didn’t anticipate having any mental roadblocks in my climb to the top. Acrophobia is what psychologists refer to as a fear of high places. What I found halfway up the steep vertical slope wasn’t acrophobia, but something much different. The French have a term called L’Appel du Vide, or “the call of the void”. It’s a sudden urge to self-destruct, often for no reason at all. It’s an urge to jump off a bridge, even though you are standing on solid ground, as a means to satisfy the overwhelming need to end the anxiety and fear. L’Appel du Vide is the tipping point in the balance between either living with a prolonged anxiety and fear, or dying, with death seeming to be the more desirable option.

The climb to the top was a relatively short climb in the world of rock climbers. I say this now, but at the time of my accent, it seemed like I was clinging on to the side of that ancient geologic rock for days. The climb started smoothly. My job was to clutch my hand and foot holds when my rock climbing guide instructed me to, as he moved up the face of the cliff, placing anchors and holds into rock that had never seen human hands. My other job was to climb once these holds were placed, the ropes adjusted, and my guide gave me the nod. Two jobs, pretty easy. And it was easy, until several minutes into the climb, which seemed more like hours.

My mind began to wander. First doubt, then fear, then to something far worse than fear. As I was clinging to fresh anchors driven into the rock face about halfway up the cliff, I thought less and less about how nice of day it was, how great it was to be down in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and about how I was going to have a great story to share once I returned home. Doubt was knocking at my door. The ropes strung through my harness now seemed impossibly thinner than when we started. Did I loop the knot over, then under and through or did I forget “the under” part? Was there an under part? Are those pins that guy above me is shoving into the cracks in the rocks really going to hold? Is the weight of the breakfast burrito that I lodged in my gut this morning going to be the tipping point in pulling that thin metal pin out of the cliff? I should have had a salad. Speaking of “that guy”, I met my rock climbing guide only yesterday. The only thing I remembered from my conversation with him the day before was that he said to “trust him”. At that moment, hanging on to that cliff, I couldn’t even remember his last name. Trust him? Why am I even here? Wouldn’t it have been easier to train a professional rock climber how to install and read a strain gauge than to train an engineer how to rock climb?

Doubt then turned to fear. Thoughts of the cold rushing water of the Colorado River below me, began to stir in my mind. Then the stories of all those that have perished in the harsh and relentless environment of the Grand Canyon. The height that I was at, dangling over the edge of the shear and unyielding granite rock. Then time. The infinite amount of time it was going to take to reach the top. My guide must have sensed my growing anxiety and he began to try and fill what was a previous void of conversation during our climb with casual talk. “How about those Diamondbacks?” “Are we ever going to get out of this drought?” I knew he was trying to take my mind somewhere else, and it wasn’t working. With a newfound fear and anxiety of heights rushing through my mind, my thoughts then turned to something even more unthinkable than fear. The Call of the Void. Letting go suddenly seemed far less painful than staying clutched to that cliff. A burning was growing in my lungs and legs and my shoulders were starting to ache, but physically I could have climbed that cliff ten times that day. My mind, however, was spent.

Needless to say, I am writing, and you are reading this today because my day in the bottom of the Grand Canyon ended well. And it did. I had never experienced anything like the feeling that I had clinging on to the side of that rock face that day, nor have I experienced since. As prepared as I was physically to meet the challenges of that day, the climb, the trust that I needed to have from my rock climbing guide (who I had just met the day before) the helicopter ride into the bottom of the canyon, the planning needed to perform the work that was required; none of those challenges compared to the challenge of overcoming the obstacles in my own mind. Our worst enemy is often our own selves and the most difficult and rewarding challenges that we face are breaking down the roadblocks that we build in our own minds. At some point during my climb, fighting through a mental war on a battlefield that was on foreign ground to me, I found the ability to navigate through my own mental roadblock and reach the top.

Since my experience in the Grand Canyon, I have periodically researched the phycological aspects of our own individually created mental roadblocks. My feeling that day of wanting to let go, instead of powering through the fear and anxiety, during a tremendously stressful event is not uncommon, particularly among participants of extreme sports, special forces members of the military, and workers in overly hazardous environments. What I have found is that the roadblocks created in our mind, either during an extremely stressful situation, like rock climbing, or over the course of striving toward long term goals during a particular period in our lives, can be overcome once we know these obstacles are there. Taking responsibility for the situation we are in and owning it is a big part of overcoming mental obstacles. Setting goals with proper forethought is another way.
Enjoying the little moments in life and honoring personal accomplishments along the way keeps you living in today rather than trying to live in tomorrow. This also means mentally cleaning out your mind of past events by letting destructive emotions go, forgiving others, and coming to peace with your past. Lastly, travelling outside of your comfort zone whenever you get a chance helps keep mental roadblocks in check. This simple act done often enough can raise your confidence, serve as a catalyst for personal growth, and open the door to new experiences you never thought were there. Who knows, you might even end up on the side of rock clinging on for dear life. Although you might not think so at the time, it is definitely worth the ride.

About Michael Brown

Michael Brown, P.E., is a Civil Engineer, Vice President and Office Manager at Inberg-Miller’s Green River office. Living in Green River and Sweetwater County provides many opportunities for family activities, outdoor recreation, and volunteerism to help better our community and quality of life. Mr. Brown enjoys much of what the Green River area has to offer including floating the river with his family, trout fishing along the Green River, and camping in the surrounding forests and at the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. In addition, Michael is involved with many youth activities with his two children including outdoor and indoor soccer, youth swimming, and youth archery. His volunteer work around the community includes work with the local Urban Renewal Agency and Mainstreet, the Green River Lions Club, and the Green River Planning and Zoning Commission.