October 23, 2015
The Grandest Walk: A 700-Mile Thru Hike Below the Rim
Words & photos by Rich Rudow
How 2012 Outside Mag “Adventurer of the Year,” Rich Rudow, achieved one of his greatest objectives–a rarely done thru hike of the full length of the Grand Canyon.
More than four thousand people have summited Mt. Everest. Two hundred and fifty people have walked 7,900 miles to complete the triple crown of hiking (walking the PCT, CDT and AT). Twenty-four astronauts left the Earth’s orbit for the moon. But only 12 people have ever walked the length of Grand Canyon in one continuous push. Why? There are no towns for resupply, no base camps for logistics support, and in fact, no trails for the vast majority of the 700 miles. Traversing Grand Canyon is like walking a complex three-dimensional maze with delicate routes that include hundreds of thousands of vertical feet of scrambling and climbing up to low class five terrain. There isn’t a guidebook, and beta is sparse. To most people, this thru hike seems impossible. Fortunately, Dave Nally and Chris Atwood, my hiking partners on this journey, weren’t like most people. They had thousands of Grand Canyon off-trail miles under their belts too, and most importantly, we had hiked together many times on difficult Grand Canyon expeditions. I could count on their judgment, strength and fortitude.
But, I wondered, “Could I do it?” Would my 50-year-old body hold up to the rigors of a thru hike on some of the most difficult terrain on the planet for 57 continuous days? I made sure to cover my bases. We spent a year planning the expedition. We defined a highly detailed day-by-day route, identifying water sources and bailout options. We placed eight caches throughout the length of the Grand to resupply along the way. They contained food, extra approach shoes and hiking poles, first aid supplies, clothes for the changing seasons, a warmer sleeping bag for late Fall, maps for each leg of the route, technical climbing gear, and of course, tequila, coffee and peanut M&M’s. Selecting the right gear was paramount for success. A pack failure would end the trip. A shelter failure could be life threatening.
The Expedition Begins: Heat, Rain & Giardia
Six hikers started the trek, with Chris Atwood, Dave Nally and I planning to go the whole distance; Mike St. Pierre planning to walk with us to Phantom Ranch; and Peter McBride and Kevin Fedarko, writing a piece on the threats facing Grand Canyon for National Geographic, planning to hike with us 12 days to Lava Canyon. Temps hit 100 degrees within the first week of our departure from Lee’s Ferry on September 25, making the initial stretch through Marble Canyon really difficult. Most of us had to glue delaminating Five Ten’s nightly as the high heat peeled away the stealth rubber soles with the bouldering moves required to travel near the river and on the sketchy talus slopes. The heat took its toll on all of us, but Kevin and Pete became critical requiring an early exit up South and Bedrock Canyons (They later returned to finish the first section). With light heads and dry mouths, we raced from one sparse water source to another on the Redwall.
And then it rained. Intense lightening and thunder hammered us for three days as we hiked along the Butte Fault route, and flood after flood swept by, forcing us to regularly find refuge in the UltaMid 4 (It would become the most important piece of gear on the trip.)
We climbed Vishnu Temple on the way with canyon ranger Matt Jenkins, who had joined us on many previous slot canyon technical descents in the Park.
Despite the bad weather, we rolled into Phantom right on schedule after taking the high saddle shortcut. Jamie Campos walked down from the North Rim to meet us with a 10-pound block of ice to cool the beer, baked potatoes, pizza, cheese, butter and more. We cheered weeks later when we heard Jamie finished his section hike of the Grand.
We left Bright Angel campground for the solitude up Phantom Creek, where we waded through warm water. Dave wasn’t feeling well after the hard climbing from Hippie Camp to Shiva Saddle thinking that he had a respiratory problem.
Chris and I dissuaded him from leaving up the Tiyo Point route, and down we dropped into Dragon Creek. Dave and I collected untreated water from the spring while Chris elected to wait. It was a fateful mistake. Later, Dave and I would both develop giardia complements of the Dragon Creek beaver that was busy at work making a new dam after a flood blew the old one away.
A satellite message informing us of five days of impending bad weather forced us to accelerate our plans through the Saddle Canyon slot before our route closed off.
We made it with a few hours to spare when an epic black cell punched us hard, forcing an immediate deployment of the Mid. Two hours later Saddle and Crazy Jug flash flooded, turning Tapeats Creek into a roaring caldron, making it a still exciting route to ford the next morning.
Dave still felt ill, and the run of the last few days to beat the weather just made things worse. He left the trip on day 23 after his respiratory issues weren’t improving, later learning he had a respiratory infection. Chris Atwood and I continued on, enduring further storms and floods as we worked our way around the Esplanade to 150 Mile Canyon where Chris Forsyth joined us (and where I took antibiotics because I started feeling ill). Stunningly beautiful with incredible archaeology everywhere along the way, I pondered how the floods were expressing themselves in the numerous slot canyons we passed.
We had incredible views traversing the Esplanade to Tuckup. We planned to rappel through the Tuckup east arm as a shortcut, but as we waited out another thunderstorm under an overhang the canyon started flowing right in front of us. We couldn’t afford the time to walk around a large canyon system like Tuckup, so we headed down the sneak Redwall route that George Steck used on his famous 1982 through hike with Allen Steck and Robert Benson, then we climbed out of Tuckup on the class 5 Dome Pocket route.
Forsyth was insistent that we make it to the Willow arm of Fern Glen that night. Atwood and I were tired and dropped our packs to camp after clearing the Fern Glen arm, at which time Forsyth confessed that two friends were coming off the direct Willow arm route to bring us chicken, oranges and apple fritters. So we continued on.
Despite eating 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day, my digestive health failed to improve, and I felt weaker with each passing day. And the weather continued to worsen. We were deep in Tuweep Valley when Thunder alerted us to the meanest looking storm I’ve ever seen. We immediately set up the Mid and were promptly hit by snow and ice. And then my health hit rock bottom.
I called my doc on the sat phone, and he immediately recognized my symptoms as giardia and prescribed Flagyl, which we were able to pick up at Bar 10 Ranch. Dave also suffered from giardia by this time. The next day we could barely walk to Whitmore, but when we came off the volcanic fields and crossed the rough dirt road Uncle Ned from Bar 10 was there in his Polaris to hand off the package. I avoided rich food, and little by little I ramped up my eating with bland food and started to feel better.
Though two days behind plan with my health scare, we made fast progress on a sneak route across Parashant Canyon. And then another storm pounded us in Spring Canyon as we dipped down to the Redwall level to sneak past Indian Canyon and into 209 Mile Canyon. It rained through the night, which made descending the slot out of the question the next morning. But we improvised, finding a route up the Sanup Plateau and then onto Shanley Spring inside Trail Canyon. We hoped to avoid going to the Redwall level spring by finding water on the Sanup Plateau, but suddenly things were dry around Fall and Trail Canyon. We dropped down to the Trail Canyon Redwall for water and camp.
At the tip of Kelly Point, with just a week left to go, our mood and health definitely improved. Aleve helped numb Atwood’s foot problems, and we enjoyed ample tequila at the cache. Surprise Canyon was the last major obstacle to cross before we exited at Pearce Canyon, or so we thought. Dangerous traversing, another fast-moving storm and ascending another steep Redwall break cost us an extra day.
Unfortunately, the deafening drone of Hualapai helicopters greeted us as we exited Surprise Canyon to the Sanup Plateau. They made a mockery of the proposed wilderness we were in. A hardship exemption legislated by our Congressional Representatives allows the choppers to fly 200’ off the river and land on Hualapai Lands. This is the largest helicopter complex in the World with over 100,000 low level flights per year. To add insult to injury, we had two fixed wing flights below the north rim nine miles from the river doing joy rides.
All that was left was a lot of walking around Burnt, Tincanebitts and Dry Canyons. We exited the Park at the northern head of Pearce Canyon at 3pm on Nov 19, grabbed our packraft cache and descended our 27th and final Redwall break down into the Pearce Canyon slot. We had a big fire the last night in Pearce with plenty of tequila and Crystal Light—our George Steck style margaritas. We left camp the next morning, November 20, at 10:30a.m., packrafting a fierce Pearce Ferry rapid and a portaging down canyon a few hundred yards until we could safely float across to a small beach where great friends were waiting to greet us.
I did it—57 days and 20 pounds lighter. I thru hiked the Grandest cathedral on the planet. How? I wondered that myself. But, I’ve spent half my life preparing for this trip. The Grand Canyon hooked me in 1989 during a river trip. I started backpacking many of the trails, and then off trail routes pioneered by Harvey Butchart, George Steck and others. Ultimately, foreboding limestone slot canyons fascinated me most, leading me to embark on expeditions to descend 165 Grand Canyon slots including over 100 first descents. These experiences taught me about the geology of the place—a crucial part of off trail route finding, where to find rare water and how to dial my systems for difficult off trail travel. When I finally decided to walk the length of the Grand I had already walked most of it over many years accumulating first hand experience on the most difficult hiking (and climbing) segments. All that knowledge, plus the belief that I can do anything I set my mind to, and my 50-year-old body held up just fine.
Want to learn more? Read our blog post, “Gear for the Grand: Ideas for Winter Canyon Country Hikes,” or learn how to prep your food in, “Food Prep & Recipes for Ultralight Thru Hiking Adventures.” Or check out a variety of other articles on Grand Canyon thru hikes.
About the author: After years of backpacking and rafting through the Grand Canyon, Rich Rudow started venturing into some of the well known slots, discovering a rare and hidden beauty that both fueled his passion and introduced him to “canyoneering.” Since, he has descended more than 165 slot canyons in Grand Canyon including over 100 likely first descents. Check out Dan Ransom’s documentary film, Last Of The Great Unknown, which profiled Rudow’s exploration of the difficult Obsession Canyon descent. As well, Rudow wrote the forward to Todd Martin’s Grand Canyoneering guidebook, the winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book award, and appears on the cover. Rudow’s exploits have been covered in Backpacker Magazine, Outside Magazine, Elevation Outdoors and others. He has appeared on ABC Nightline. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Coalition of American Canyoneers and the Executive Counsel of the American Packrafting Association.
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