Adventures Below the Rim: 16 Days, 200 Miles in the Grand Canyon

Mike St. Pierre stands high above the Colorado River.
Mike St. Pierre stands high above the Colorado River. He is wearing the Southwest Pack, which recently won SectionHiker.com’s “Gear of the Year” Award.

Walking the length of the Grand below the rim takes years of planning and significant backcountry navigation skills. Our CEO Mike St. Pierre accompanied slot canyon expert Rich Rudow on part of his more than 600-mile thru hike below the rim. In this series of blog posts, we will explore the nature of this extreme thru hike, plus share St. Pierre’s diary entries from the trip. In parts of this series St. Pierre details the path they took. However, readers should absolutely not consider this a guide to hike the length of the Grand Canyon below the rim. Rudow carefully planned this adventure over the course of a year, after spending decades exploring the Grand Canyon. There are no trails at all, anywhere, and water sources are extremely limited and difficult to find. To see more photos, please visit our Thru Hike Below the Rim of the Grand Canyon Facebook photo album.

Only two-dozen people have hiked through the Grand Canyon from Lees Ferry to Pearce, and those who have all did it differently and at different paces, says Tom Martin. Martin, the author of “Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon: From Lees Ferry to South Cove,” hiked the trail over 42 years. Twelve have done it as a thru hike and 12 as a section hike, two have walked the south side in a push, and ten the north side. Only three people have done the distance on both sides of the river: Robert Packard in segments; Andrew Holycross as a thru hike on one side and in segments on the other; and Robert Benson as a thru hike on both sides. Park Ranger Todd Seliga, who has done the north side twice, is the only person to do the thru hike on the same side more than once, and holds the record for hiking it in 24 days.

“Any way you look at it, that’s a mighty small number of people,” Martin explains. “To attempt to put this in perspective, about 5,000 folks have made it to the top of Everest, and over 300 have climbed K2.”

As reported by Outside Mag’s 2012 Adventurer of the Year and Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador Rich Rudow in our post, “Below The Rim: Extreme Grand Canyon Thru Hike,” the terrain is just too difficult, complicated and devoid of water. It takes years of experience and careful planning and preparation to hike the 500 to 700 miles along the river and up, down, through and across the canyon’s different cliff bands.

On the other hand, says Martin, while it’s an extremely difficult endeavor, the key reason it’s rarely done is that it’s been off most peoples’ radar simply because there is no trail for the journey. “Yes, it is true that in places there are trails going the length direction in Grand Canyon, the Tonto Trail being the most well known. As more people make the journey, a trail will no doubt be created, making the walking and the very nature of this journey much much easier.” Rudow and Chris Atwood are currently trying to become the 13th and 14th people to finish this extreme thru hike. Dave Nally accompanied them for 24 days and 300 miles, and Pierre joined the adventurers for 16 days and 200 miles. Both Dave and Mike plan on finishing the trip in upcoming years.

Deep within the Grand Canyon.Grand-Canyon-seeing-the-guys-offDay 1Started off from Lee’s ferry at 10a.m. after saying our good byes to a group of 10 to 15 friends who came out to see us on our way. The route followed the river for most of the seven or so miles we covered. We traversed tricky terrain, scrambled over very sharp boulder fields and side hill trekked. Unbearable temps reached close to 100, and I was super dehydrated from a few drinks we had the night before. By early afternoon, my face turned bright red and I was over heating and dizzy. Thankfully we found a shady spot next to the river, and I drenched my clothing in the 45-degree water. I wasn’t the only one experiencing these symptoms. Later that day we had a 40′, class 5 down climb, which was interesting while still feeling dizzy. Everyone was able to down climb it with packs on, but I lowered mine given how I was feeling, which turned into a total ordeal given the down climb was less vertical and more of a traverse. We made camp two miles before we had planned, and I drank over a gallon of water before bed. 

Day 2—Another scorcher. Not long into our hike, one of the crew started cramping up, and we needed to take a break for a few hours to get out of the afternoon sun. We passed around electrolyte tablets—powdered Gatorade and salt—and refreshed in a small eddy in the river until shivering from the cold. Then were returned back to our shady spots to lie like lizards, only to be sweating again within minutes. Two of us fixed holes in our Neo air mattresses, which had happened the night before. Lesson learned, choose camp wisely.  We covered roughly nine miles today. This is some of the toughest hiking I’ve done anywhere. Two days in, and my approach shoes are already getting shredded. Rich spent last night and tonight re gluing parts of his soles back onto his brand new 5:10 Camp 4 shoes. The hot temps and rock are melting the glue holding the sole onto the shoe, and the sharp rocks are slowly scraping away the rubber off. None of our shoes are going to last more than two weeks out here. I pounded water and crashed hard. Camped on some very cool ledges right on river. Having headlamp problems. Gone through two sets of lithium batteries in two days.

Grand-Canyon,-torn-up-thru-hiking-shoesDay 3—Hiked from camp up to get on top of the Supai layer. We were at roughly 300-400 feet off the river with sheer cliff walls below. We traversed four miles on the edge of the cliff to Rider Canyon, with exposed hiking most of the way and a .6-mile ascent to gain the drainage bed level contour. A few miles later we found a break in the cliff band and climbed down a 20′ crack. Took a long break in the shade inside the canyon. One crewmember developed very concerning heat exhaustion and continuous cramps. It was a hard, grueling day in the heat. Today we were supposed to hike nine miles, but we only covered four river miles. It’s really hard to gage all the actual miles walked, as we have to continuously contour around smaller canyons and washes. So we gauge what we think we are doing for mileage and check that against the river mile where we are located. Found it its roughly 2.25 foot miles per every river mile we travel. Made camp at the mouth of Rider Canyon, at the base of House Rock Rapid. Tonight was a blood moon, but we couldn’t see anything inside the canyon. Dinner was gumbo, which was really good but I found it salty, which I’m surely in need of. Drained a large blister on my big toe that was continuing to grow since the start of the trip. All of the crews’ feet are taped up and looking rough. Finding I need tons more drinks with electrolytes. Running short there. Everyone finds it hard to eat during the day, but we are forcing ourselves to. Crew is battered, some more than others, but all in good spirits. 

Day 4—4:30a.m. Wake The F’ Up Coffee and another awful energy bar. In the shade most of the morning, and the hiking was so much better. By 9:30a.m. we were in the sun, and the heat was already turning strong. We hiked 3.5 miles to North canyon and arrived at 11a.m. We are all consuming several gallons of water per day now and starting to run low on batteries for the Steri Pen and Aqua Mira drops. We set up an afternoon camp at North Canyon and hung out in the shade. Used the Square Flat Tarp to help shade us as there were only a few little tami trees to protect us. The tarp in full sun does seem to radiate more heat. Bummer.  Less than ideal for a shade structure. Using a Delorme In Reach, one of the crew reached out to have someone hike more supplies into South Canyon; we’ll be there tomorrow night. On the list was an USB rechargeable Steri Pen, Jetboil (because the threads got stripped on ours), more Aqua Mira, lots of powdered drink mix and Ramen noodles for the salt and a huge salami, cheese and salty crackers. It’s so hot out now you can’t do anything but just lay here and wait out the hottest part of the day and drink water. Oh, we did score one beer a day per person for the last three days from river trips amazed at our objective. 

It’s 3pm and still scorchingly hot. Time to pack up camp. The canyon bends river left and is slowly coming into the shade. We are going for it. 

7:25 p.m. Just landed at the start of the red wall ledges at Indian Dick. Nice ledges 30′ up with the river ripping below. The hike over was really hot and humid but we were in the shade the whole time but sweating profusely. My clothes were totally drenched. Not much different than any other day but the humidity was an added feature.  Came across a private river trip that offered us two beers each, triscuts with hummus and pesto and some home made whole pickled beets. It was delicious. We are all feeling a little whipped, some much more than others. I’m tired but feel good. Legs and feet and joints are sore but feel good. Bashed my ankle on a rock this morning and it’s a bit swollen now but it will be fine in the morning. Tonight will be chicken and dumplings and to bed early. Chicken and dumplings are really good!! 

Grand-Canyon.-Looking-out-on-the-scenery

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