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Rich Rudow: The Grand Canyoneering Legend

A Q&A with the foremost expert on The Grand’s Slot Canyons

Outside Magazine called him the 2012 “Adventurer of the Year;” he’s done more first descents of remote, dangerous slots in the Grand Canyon than anyone else in the world; and he recently became one of just about a dozen people to hike the entire length of the Canyon, below the rim. Rich Rudow’s obsession with Arizona’s iconic national park began in 1989 during a raft trip on the Colorado River. He started backpacking the trails, then exploring the off-route trails, and then descending the unexplored slot canyons that had been too difficult for most adventurers to explore until the advent of high-tech equipment. We recently sat down with Rudow to chat about what motivates him, his backcountry travel philosophies and much more. You can read more about his recent Grand Canyon thru hike in our exclusive blog series, “Below The Rim.”

 What gets you up in the morning?

The sun! I love being outside, and nothing beats the moment that the sun hits you on a cold morning. Then there is the anticipation of a new slot canyon descent. What will we see today? Has anyone else ever seen this?

Can you describe one of your most memorable moments?

I love soft reflected light. In the Grand we most often find it in the limestone slot canyons, where light reflects like a ping pong ball into the slots from the many cliff bands high above. The soft light causes the walls to glow orange, the limestone textures to pop and potholes with water to reflect these features in remarkably beautiful ways.

In my recent 57-day thru hike of Grand Canyon we had the worst weather imaginable, but the rains filled the sandstone potholes on the Esplanade level. One sunset camped at the tip of Fishtail Mesa had these remarkable reflections in the potholes as cloudplay teased god rays from behind Mount Sinyella, creating an stunning negative image of this iconic tower. That was a Zen moment for me.

What are your goals?

I’m passionate about exploring the hidden slot canyons in Grand Canyon. My friends and I have explored 165 slots so far. Many of these slots had never been seen by human eyes. Most Grand Canyon slots are beautiful, but once in awhile we’ll find a truly unusual, magical, drop dead gorgeous place. It might be years between these discoveries, but the feeling of being the first to see such a stunningly beautiful place is indescribable. It motivates me to keep looking for more.

What helps you focus on your adventures?

Nothing makes me focus more than risk. First descents in a place with the scale of Grand Canyon have a lot of risk. To help mitigate the risk I have an extreme focus on planning these expeditions. Every detail matters: the right gear, the right routes, the right weather. Most importantly, you need the right team to help you when things don’t go according to plan.

When & why did you adopt a minimalist philosophy, gear and techniques?

When I started exploring the Grand Canyon’s trails, the first pack I used had an external frame. I was young and dumb. Who cared about weight? As I slowly ventured off trail to see new things, it became harder to move, scramble and climb with an open frame pack. I switched to an internal frame pack, and I started working slowly on lighter and smaller systems that would still work on four to five-day routes. Eventually, when my friends and I started doing first descents of technical slots in the Grand Canyon, the systems became much more refined out of sheer necessity. A hyper fixation on lightweight, lower volume, systems became required for everything. It was insidiously transformative over a long period of time.

What absolute necessities do you bring on your trips?

Most expeditions to descend Grand Canyon slots usually take three of four days. It’s an exercise in controlled suffering. After years of expeditions I have paired the technical gear down to the minimum margin of safety, yet the ropes, rack and wetsuit still drive half my pack weight. The rest of the gear is a lower priority. We carry no extras (i.e. no camp shoes, no cushy seats, etc.)

How do you achieve your optimal self?

I’m optimistic by nature. I usually think I can do most things. But passion is a huge part of what makes me tick. I have to have an innate connection to things I choose to do, or I’ll fail. To follow that passion I need to stay shape in peak shape and lever lightweight backcountry systems.

 What issues are you passionate about and why?

The Grand Canyon is gigantic. It spans 1.2 million acres covering 277 river miles between Lee’s Ferry on the east and Pearce Ferry on the west. Five million people visit each year, but they generally occupy no more than 100,000 acres in the center of the canyon. The eastern part, and especially the western part of the Grand Canyon are vast wilderness and see very little visitation. Few resources are invested in protecting the canyon outside of the highly visited central area. Developers have been eying those more remote areas, and pressure is increasing to build tramways or expand air tour operations. Uranium mining on the fringes of the park has already poisoned some waterways in the park, yet these operations continue to mine. The largest undisturbed wilderness in the lower 48 is under constant assault, and we need to do more to protect it. If we can’t preserve a World Heritage site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, what can we protect?

Sports you partake in:

Canyoneering, mountain biking, packrafting, backpacking

When and why did you join the Hyperlite Mountain Gear team? 

I met Mike St. Pierre on a Grand river trip and had a chance to see Hyperlite Mountain Gear for the first time. Later, I was looking for a durable but light backpack and bought a Southwest to try. It was simply perfect. It was able to withstand the abuse in Grand Canyon. It could carry widely varying loads while maintaining a tight profile for climbing low class five breaks. Six months later I bought an Ultamid 4 for a thru-hike, being completely sold on the benefits of Cuben Fiber (aka Dyneema® Composite Fabric) and Hyperlite Mountain Gear quality. When Mike asked me to be an ambassador, I didn’t even need to think on it.

What’s your favorite piece of Hyperlite Mountain Gear equipment?

It’s impossible to pick just one piece of gear. The Southwest 4400 just survived a 57-day expedition walking 700 miles over the length of Grand Canyon - no trails. During that expedition we were hit with the worst weather I’ve seen and spent 21 nights in the Ultamid 4. The mid was pummeled with wind, rain, sleet and snow, and held fast. We depended on the Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and it never let us down.