“You cannot see the Grand Canyon in a single view… To see it, you have to toil from month to month, through its labyrinths.” -John Wesley Powell, 1869
The man knew what he was talking about. You can’t experience the Grand Canyon from the rim, you can only see it from there. To really get to know her, you need to plumb the Grand Canyon’s depths; you gotta get in there and earn it. A few weeks ago, that’s exactly what a group of journalists and adventurers did.
“Hold on a sec, Ryan.”
In most situations, those words are pretty innocuous. When you’re 20 feet down on a 90-foot rappel and one of the most accomplished canyoneers in the world is looking with concern at the bolt from which you’re hanging, they cut through you like a knife.
That canyoneer was Rich Rudow, general manager of GPS company Trimble Outdoors and descender of over 150 canyons, the majority of which were first descents. He, along with Todd Martin, a soft-spoken engineer who wrote the book on Grand Canyoneering (No, really. Check out his book Grand Canyoneering: Exploring the Rugged Gorges and Secret Slots of the Grand Canyon), and Dan Ransom, the filmmaker behind “Beyond the Great Unknown,” (an excellent documentary following Rudow and Martin’s exploits in the depths of the Grand Canyon) had taken me and two other journalists, including the aforementioned Ryan Stuart, out to the Grand Canyon. Our goal was to descend 150-Mile Canyon (aka S.O.B. Canyon) to log a first descent in a previously undiscovered slot canyon.
On the first rappel into the slots, Stuart was kind enough to discover that the anchor bolt was unscrewing from its position in the rock. He found a ledge, went off belay, and after blowing out an attempt at placing natural protection, Rudow screwed the bolt back in and decided that it was good to go. He was right – we all ended up making it to the bottom. Thus began what would be the gnarliest press trip any of us had ever experienced.
“Ryan? How you doing down there, buddy?”
That first day entailed a 12-hour hike with a 50lb pack, rappels into increasingly gorgeous and narrow slots, and some rappel bypasses that entailed some “touchy” hiking sections – areas where a misstep or weak handhold would entail a free fall into the afterlife. About 10 hours into the hike, we made it to the Colorado River, where we packrafted across and made our way along a cliff edge to camp in the dusk’s waning light.
At our campsite on a limestone ledge 100 feet above the river, we Steri-penned water from rainwater that had collected in a hole in the limestone. The frogs in the watering hole made no effort to stop mating while we dipped our canteens.
High temperatures on day one left myself and Trimble’s marketing manager Kris Wagner severely dehydrated, so he and I chose to sit out the next day’s 14-hour trek to the undiscovered canyon, one that was subsequently named “Dump Truck” for hilarious bodily reasons. For a look at their day, read Ryan’s excellent piece at Gearjunkie.com.
Instead, we hiked to the scenic Matkat Canyon, an oasis of waterfalls, foliage, and shade about an hour away from camp. We crashed in the canyon’s shadow, re-hydrated, and bathed in the adulation of the guided rafting groups, who were fascinated to find that we hiked in and crossed the Colorado on our own. Heck, they even brought us beer.
After another night at camp, we made our way back to the car, a trek which entailed a 100-foot free climb down to the river, a mellow 1.5-mile float to our trailhead, and two days of hiking back over the heart-stopping bypasses and jaw dropping canyon scenery back to civilization.
I’ve sport climbed, lead routes, and rappelled before, but I’ve never been in a situation where a single misstep could lead to a quick end of the journey. When I got home, my buddies noticed how wide-eyed I was when I talked about the trip. After seeing the video of the bypass below, one person went so far as to say that I was stupid to risk my life like that (things get really exciting at 2:12).
Here’s my rebuttal: the only stupid risks are ones without subsequent payoffs. I won’t deny that there were risks: sketchy rappels, sporty free climbs, and drinking the same tadpole water as the bats flitting around my head usually doesn’t pop up on my iCal.
But the payoffs were more than worth the risks: getting to know a unique and charismatic group of folks, wandering through a maze of polished limestone, parkour-ing my way over bodies of water, packrafting down the Colorado river, and constantly being immersed in an environment almost too big to fathom are all bucket list material. Intermingled with all those was this: knowing that we earned our views. Each and every one.
Perhaps the biggest benefit, though, was learning what I’d do when I could look over the edge to my own certain death.
Turns out I keep my eyes on the trail, throw up in my mouth a little bit, then keep going. Slowly.
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Author: Billy Brown