February 17, 2016
Prepping For a Grand Canyon Thru Hike (a guide to multi-sport expedition planning)
Words by Mike St. Pierre // Photos by Mike St. Pierre & Clay Wadman
Planning and prepping for any major backcountry adventure, whether the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail or a section hike below the rim of the Grand Canyon, is logistically challenging. And unless you’re the first thru hiker, canyoneer or climber to map and explore the route, you must rely on information gathered from numerous sources, from Google Earth to the people who first explored the area. I prefer more remote trips as the lack of information makes them more adventurous. Plus, the fewer the resources you have to depend on, the more careful you have to be and the more you have to rely on your own experience to accomplish the feat (so you’d better have a lot of experience for bigger adventures). However, the popularity or the remoteness of your trip is relative; you’ll have a greater chance of success if you know what you’re getting into. You’ll also more likely succeed if you travel simply, use gear wisely and constantly refine and lighten your systems. This thru hiker approach is applicable whether you’re a long-distance backpacker or a climber, packrafter, skier, or passionate backcountry adventurer of any kind.
The Way of the Thru Hiker
Experienced thru hikers have walking dialed. They know exactly what they need to be efficient and conserve energy because they walk all day long. I took a thru hiker’s approach in very carefully planning the second leg of my section hike below the rim of the Grand Canyon. I made sure to have exactly what I needed and nothing more. I dialed in my knowledge of the terrain, weather, water sources and resupply points by doing extensive research. And I reached out to more experienced Grand Canyon thru hikers, rangers and other experts.
Subsequently, when I embarked on my 200+-mile thru hike/canyoneering adventure this March, I felt ready to go bigger and further, increasing my mileage and distance. I had already done the first section over two weeks in the fall of 2015 with Rich Rudow, whose decades of experience make him one of the foremost experts of America’s biggest canyon. He spent a full year plotting his path, the gear and his caches for his 57-day, 700-mile thru hike below the rim (Read more). I joined him for his first two weeks. Despite the gnarliest terrain and harshest conditions I had every experienced (or maybe because of them), I caught the bug and immediately started planning the second leg of my journey. I also trusted my own 15 years of experience in ultralight backpacking techniques.
So how did I do it? Of course, I can’t download my life’s experience with ultralight backcountry travel and gear in one article, but here’s an overview of how I planned my trip. It’s not comprehensive, and you shouldn’t assume you can thru hike below the rim of the Grand Canyon based off what you learn here. But, I’ll share the most valuable things I’ve learned from my backcountry experiences. They culminated in this section hike, which was definitely the most difficult and challenging adventure I’ve embarked on to date.
Find people who have been to where you want to go and be really nice to them so they’ll share their knowledge with you. They will not only help you immensely with planning and route finding, but they can be a great safety net in case something goes wrong. I carried the Delorme InReach on my trip, which I preloaded with contacts for all the people I might need to get in touch with, from my brother (CFO Dan St. Pierre) to Rich to the Grand Canyon rangers I befriended on my first section hike (Rangers Matt Jenkins and Elyssa Shalla recently completed the FKT of the below-the-rim thru hike; read their article, “Gear for the Grand“). I also had friends on river trips. Basically, there were numerous experienced Grand Canyon explorers who knew where my hiking partner, Clay Wadman, and I would be in case something went wrong. I would have first reached out to the rangers and Rich if something had gone wrong, unless we needed a helicopter immediately. Hitting the panic button on the In Reach wouldn’t necessarily be the best option for immediate assistance, as that message goes to a national search and rescue office. From there, they pinpoint where the alert is coming from, and then there are numerous things that have to happen to get all the right people involved in a search.
While gathering as much info as I could from others, I started mapping out my route using the App Trimble Outdoors. An online, cloud-based navigation and GPS solution, it syncs from a desktop version to an app on your phone. So I was able to use Google Earth and other sources to drop waypoints for my route on my desktop computer and then transfer that info easily to my phone. Trimble Outdoors also allowed me to use my phone and maps all while in the field (without wifi). I simply shut off all the other features—cellular, Bluetooth, etc—and the GPS still worked. Cool.
The section hike took me months to lay out, and I got a head start from Rich, who had already spent an entire year laying out his 700-mile route. And up until just a few days before we left, I was still examining and reexamining my path.
Logistics—Not Just Your Everyday Hike
We didn’t just walk in and start hiking. The logistics of getting in and out of the Grand are massive. A multi-discipline trip, this adventure included canyoneering, 200+ miles of off trail hiking, technical climbing and numerous rappels. Plus, we had to ship our food caches and some of our gear out a month in advance to get it loaded onto existing river trip that would drop our caches. We would later have to find them via GPS coordinates (and then get subsequent river trips to pack out the caches of gear and garbage we left behind).
Just to give you a sense of the complexity of the trip, the first day included eight rappels down a 1500-foot slot canyon. That day started with a six-mile hike down the Bright Angel Trail, which is the most popular trail in the park. At about the halfway point between the rim and the river, we met Rich and his river trip. They had hiked up the trail from the river, and we all entered a slot canyon that most people don’t know even exists. The slot is a Class C canyon meaning it has water running through it. But because of storms over the previous days, the water level in the canyon was significantly higher. In this type of canyon you typically can’t hear your partners, and so have to choreograph getting people on and off the ropes via whistle commands. Over the centuries the water had carved a super skinny channel through the slot, so a whole river’s worth of water got squeezed into something two feet wide. It was like a very steep slide. The waterfall pummeled us. Rich rigged a separate setup on particularly dangerous 125-foot rappel to protect the people rappelling. It was rigged such that in case the water knocked a person off his feet and he lost control, he’d still be protected and could be lowered. Clay and I had 35-lb. packs at that point and were tiptoeing our way down the waterfall, trying to keep our balance.
Then, once we reached the river, we picked up gear that Rich had floated down canyon on his 30-day rafting trip. We ditched our canyoneering gear (which Rich would now carry out, along with dropping off our next two caches 47 and 77 miles downriver), including the dry suits, and we picked up our backpacking set up for the first eight days. We started hiking the next morning. That night we were laughing (and a bit worried) because our calves were so shot when we finished the rappels that we could barely walk. We were pretty worried because we didn’t expect that day one!
Visualizing Your Route
One of the biggest things any thru hiker or adventurer needs to do to prep for a big trip is to gather as much beta as possible and start to visualize your whole route. You need to understand every area you’ll be hiking through, all the technical spots you’ll have to climb or descend, where you will resupply, and, most importantly, where you’ll find water. In a desert environment like the Grand Canyon (or really on any thru hike), you’re basically going from water source to water source. You need to do this whether you’re doing the popular Pacific Crest Trail, a more remote traverse of Tasmania or a section hike below the rim of the Grand.
I based our route on water sources and terrain; I tried to ensure there would be water at camp every night, though that didn’t always happen. I found potholes using Google Earth, and by talking to others, and I dropped waypoints so I’d be able to find them while in the field. I knew many would be dried up by the time we got there. I also knew from previous thru hikers that there would be plenty of scrambling and technical rock climbing to do, in addition to traversing and finding the breaks in the Redwall and Supai layers. So I looked carefully for those passages and plotted our course accordingly.
Of course, things don’t necessarily go as planned. And in some cases, the terrain was radically different from what I envisioned. At one point we thought we’d have an easy ten-mile hike, walking along the river (of the 23 days we hiked, we spent only three on the Colorado River). That day turned out to be the longest and hardest of the trip. We had just picked up our next cache, and fully freighted had to rock hop, bushwhack and hike endless acres of sand with heavy packs. There was one spot where we had to ascent 100 feet to avoid getting cliffed out along the river. We missed the ascent and hiked an extra mile downriver only to be cliffed out again and forced to backtrack. We missed our next campsite by four miles, but still hiked nine grueling miles that day.
Still, memorizing and having a clear vision of the route was key to our success. It doesn’t matter that things will change when you get out there; at least you know the cruxes of your route. I knew there were three significant, hard technical objectives we had to get through. I constantly ran those scenarios through my head. “What might this Redwall traverse be like?” or “How would we descend that slot?” Piecing the route together really helped prepare me for being there, both mentally and physically.
An incredibly detail-oriented person, I also carefully prepped and planned my food. You can read my previous post, “Food Prep & Recipes for Ultralight Thru Hikes,” for an expose on how I choose food, ensure I have sufficient calories, develop recipes and repackage meals, all to minimize weight and maximize caloric-content.
In order to plan how much food I would bring (and pack in the caches), I needed to plan how many days we would hike between caches. However, it would be hard to know exactly; with so few people doing this type of hike and with it being so long, there isn’t much detailed information on the terrain. Plus, people take variations because there’s no established path. We likely spent a good portion of our trip on Rich’s route. However, we learned from Rich that one specific area included a full day of “bushwhacking” (tiptoeing) through cacti, so we planned to bypass that section. And in some places we knew Matt and Elyssa had bypassed some challenging rappels that Clay and I wanted to check out (that is until we core shot our rope on the fourth day due to a rock falling 30 feet onto it requiring us to change our route). So while there are a lot of areas that have only one way you can go; others have options. With all that in mind, I predicted we’d hike anywhere between six and 12 miles per day.
I then considered the calories I needed to maintain energy levels to achieve that mileage. For this trip, I knew I had to ramp up my calories over the course of the three weeks as I would become hungrier further into the trip. Thus, our first cache was 14.5 pounds; the second and third were 15.5 and 17 pounds. As well, I planned to gorge toward the end of each leg at caches, and eat more snack foods along the way. I like to snack all day long rather than stop for a big meal at lunch, but on this trip it was important to stop and eat a full lunch so I could get the daily required calories into my body.
I also learned from previous thru hikes and my last trip that when I’m out there I like having the choice to pick and choose what I want on a given day. So rather than strictly lay out the exact breakfast, lunches and dinners I’d eat each day, I put an assortment in each cache, plus a big chunk of bulk food options that I’d snack on. I’d have something every day for my main meals, plus a variety of snack foods. (The Pack Pods I designed for this trip became an indispensable organizational tool for my pack, helping me find the food I wanted when I wanted it). I wasn’t hungry on my first section hike of the Grand, but I still lost 15 lbs. because of the extreme temps. I brought more food on this second trip, and I cached three extra days of food just in case, which we ended up needing. I also label each meal with the amount of calories and the total weight of the meal. This allowed me to make decisions about eating the heavier meals in the beginning of each leg to help reduce overall pack weight or save the heavier, more calorie-dense meals for some of the harder days to come.
It was a big challenge to organize my pack and what I planned to carry, and an equally big challenge to organize the caches. I initially tried to get seven to eight days of food in a cache, an extra pair of socks and one shirt, and it took me a couple hours just to pack one cache. It was like playing Tetris inside the barrel. It forced me to think about whether or not I really needed what I was packing. I also had to make sure there no air remained in the Ziplock bags and no gaps took up space inside the barrel. All said and done Clay and I had a total of seven five-gallon caches for the whole trip.
In the second part of this series, I’ll discuss my gear list, food prep and prepping the caches. In part three, I’ll discuss how to find the right partner.