Below The Rim: Extreme Grand Canyon Thru Hike

Giant life-saving water pockets on Pocket Point. Photo by Rich Rudow
A giant life-saving water pockets on Pocket Point. Photo by Rich Rudow

One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon is enormous. Most people look over the rim convinced they’ve seen it all with a long gaze. The reality is much different; they’re looking at a fraction of a percent. Even the few thousand people who raft the Grand or backpack its trails have only just barely scratched its sandy, desert surface. But not so Rich Rudow. A 2012 Outside Mag “Adventurer of the Year” and a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador, Rudow is the foremost explorer of slot canyons in the Park; he’s descended more than 160, including over 100 likely first descents. His latest adventure is an entirely self-supported, 56-day thru hike down river, which he is doing with Dave Nally and Chris Atwood.

“Roughly 3,500 people have climbed Mt. Everest; 250 people have done the triple crown, but fewer than a dozen people have thru hiked the Grand Canyon all the way through in this way,” Rudow explains. “The terrain is just too difficult.” According to Rudow, an absence of trails complicates navigation, especially on the north side of river. While the Colorado river runs 277 miles through Grand Canyon, the hiking routes are between 500- and 700-miles long depending on the route chosen. Rudow’s route will require regular class 3 to 5 scrambling to transition up and down thousands of vertical feet of the different cliff bands.

Sunset on the Esplanade sandstone on Yumtheska Mesa deep in the Grand Canyon backcountry. Photo by Rich Rudow.
Sunset on the Esplanade sandstone on Yumtheska Mesa deep in the Grand Canyon backcountry. Photo by Rich Rudow.

“The passage is really convoluted through the place,” Rudow says. “And there is no ‘guide.’ The determined hiker must put together route options from a variety of incomplete sources and scout unknown areas to determine safe passage. ” And this is something Rudow and his team have done. They found water sources on previous trips (some of which are difficult to access), planned bail out options, completely mapped the terrain over which they are traveling, and carefully planned out the food and gear they are carrying.

“The traverse of the western half of the Grand Canyon is a high route suspended thousands of feet off the river and thousands of feet below the rim,” Rudow explained. “We will never breach the rim once the hike starts.” And the terrain… it’s so complex and difficult that only experienced thru hikers versed in lightweight travel need apply.

Rudow arriving at the mouth of Havasu Canyon by lightweight packraft. Photo courtesy of Rich Rudow.
Rudow arriving at the mouth of Havasu Canyon by lightweight packraft. Photo courtesy of Rich Rudow.

“People who hike this terrain must have specific experience in the most remote parts of the Park,” Rudow said. “They must have totally honed their backpacking systems and gear over long periods of time to balance the crucial need for lightweight with the extreme durability required to survive the abrasive rock and desert environment.” And, he added, they absolutely must understand and plan for the food requirements. “Caloric requirements exceed 6000 calories per day!” Rudow said. “Most people can’t eat that much food, so a thru hike traverse under the rims of Grand Canyon is an exercise in controlled starvation, or perhaps the next diet fad!”

Sandwiched between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, Grand Canyon National Park consists of 1.2 million acres spanning 277 river miles from Lee’s Ferry on the east to Pearce Ferry on the west. Hundreds of tributary canyons make up the Grand Canyon, creating a complex web of terrain with 5,000 feet of vertical relief across a dozen major rock layers containing the last 1.8 billion years of the Earth’s history. “The scale is beyond human comprehension,” Rudow said. “Traveling over and through the canyon’s terrain is a three dimensional puzzle few have attempted to navigate.”

Hyperlite Mountain Gear CEO Mike St. Pierre will be joining Rudow and his team for two weeks, along with a National Geographic Film Crew, consisting of Pete McBride and Kevin Fedarko. Read Mike’s “Food Prep & Recipes for Ultralight Thru Hike Adventures”. McBride and Fedarko asked Rudow if they could accompany him for part of the adventure in order to raise awareness of the threats to the Grand Canyon. Fedarko is the author of the highly acclaimed book, “Emerald Mile,” and McBride is an award-winning writer, photographer and filmmaker. Learn more about the threats to the Grand Canyon in the sidebar below.

Threats to the Grand Canyon are many according to expert Rich Rudow.

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